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Archive for July, 2009

Minimally Conscious vs Persistent Vegetative State

ResearchBlogging.orgA new study suggests that it may not be uncommon for patients who are in a minimally conscious state to be misdiagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state. The study underscores the necessity of using standardized and objective diagnostic criteria in diagnosing coma. However, it also leaves some important questions unanswered.

As background it is essential to understand a bit about consciousness and coma, for not all comas are created equally. In order to be conscious a person requires at least one hemisphere of the brain be mostly functioning and they require a functioning brainstem. The cortical hemispheres contain the gray matter – that part of the brain that thinks. So it makes sense that a certain minimal amount of gray matter is necessary to generate consciousness. As gray matter is damaged or inhibited from functioning one’s level of consciousness decreases until it descends beyond that fuzzy boundary into unconsciousness. When such unconsciousness is persistent we call that coma.

But interestingly the cortex by itself cannot generate consciousness. It requires constant prodding by a diffuse region in the brainstem (that primitive part at the base of the brain that connects the brain and the spinal cord) called the brainstem activating system. This region sends a constant barrage of electrical signals through the thalamus (the relay center of the brain) and then onto the cortex. Without this constant stimulation the cortex will lapse into sleep and coma.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Is Tylenol Safe?

Tylenol (acetaminophen, also known as paracetamol outside the US) has been in the news recently. Most of the stories I’ve seen have been accurate, but I’ve run across a couple of people who misunderstood what they read. I thought I’d try to put the record straight.

An FDA advisory panel has recommended reducing the maximum allowed single dose from 1000 mg to 650 mg in over-the-counter acetaminophen products. The 1000 mg dose would be available by prescription only. They also recommended eliminating painkillers like Percocet and Vicodin that contain a combination of a narcotic and acetaminophen. They did not recommend removing acetaminophen from over-the-counter cold remedies, cough medicines and similar products that combine acetaminophen with other drugs. Advisory panel recommendations are not binding, but the FDA usually follows them.

Some people got the impression that the FDA had just discovered that acetaminophen can be dangerous. No, we always knew that. The danger is when you take too much: it can damage the liver. The “new” information is just that acetaminophen overdose is now the leading cause of liver damage, causing an estimated 1600 cases of liver failure each year. (more…)

Posted in: Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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DSHEA: a travesty of a mockery of a sham

In 1994, Congress enacted the Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act (DSHEA). This act allows for the marketing and sales of “dietary supplements” with little or no regulation. This act is the work of folks like Tom Harkin (who took large contributions from Herbalife) and Orrin Hatch, whose state of Utah is home to many supplement companies.

DSHEA has a couple of very important consequences (aside from filling the pockets of supplement makers). (more…)

Posted in: Health Fraud, Herbs & Supplements, Politics and Regulation, Science and Medicine

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Are one in three breast cancers really overdiagnosed and overtreated?

ResearchBlogging.orgScreening for disease is a real pain. I was reminded of this by the publication of a study in BMJ the very day of the Science-Based Medicine Conference a week and a half ago. Unfortunately, between The Amaz!ng Meeting and other activities, I was too busy to give this study the attention it deserved last Monday. Given the media coverage of the study, which in essence tried to paint mammography screening for breast cancer as being either useless or doing more harm than good, I thought it was imperative for me still to write about it. Better late than never, and I was further prodded by an article that was published late last week in the New York Times about screening for cancer.

If there’s one aspect of medicine that causes more confusion among the public and even among physicians, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with one more contentious than screening for disease, be it cancer, heart disease, or whatever. The reason is that any screening test is by definition looking for disease in an asymptomatic population, which is very different from looking for a cause of a patient’s symptoms. In the latter case, the patient is already being troubled by something that is bothering him. There may or may not be a cause in the form of a disease or syndrome that is responsible for the symptoms, but the very existence of the symptoms clues the physician in that there may be something going on that requires treatment. The doctor can then narrow down range of possibilities for what may be the cause of the patient’s symptoms by taking a careful history and physical examination (which will by themselves most often lead to the diagnosis). Diagnostic tests, be they blood tests, X-rays, or other tests, then tend to be more confirmatory of the suspected diagnosis than the main evidence supporting a diagnosis.
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Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Public Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The Marshall Protocol

Revised 7/23/9 to correct an error.

While there are many taxonomies of alternative medicines, one thing almost all alternative therapies have in common is they are originally the de novo discovery of one lone individual. Working outside of the mainstream, they are the gadflies who see farther because those around them are midgets.

  • Hanneman conceives of homeopathy, the treatment of all disease.
  • Palmer conceives the cause of all disease and its treatment in chiropractic
  • Mikao Usui, while having a mid-life crisis, conceives Reiki.

Virgin births all. These pioneers boldly go where no man has gone before.

Others have been less acclaimed after seeking out new life. An example is Virginia Livingston, MD, the discoverer of the cause of all cancer (1). She discovered a bacterium, the cause of cancer, she called Progenitor cryptocides, which, unfortunately only she could grow. Her therapies include an autogenous ‘vaccine” made from your own urine, which will probably preclude widespread use even in alternative therapies circles. I wonder if Jenny would object to vaccines if there were naturally derived from the patients urine?

Discovering a new form of pathogenic microbiology that no one else can see or grow is not uncommon, since people seem to be unable to recognise artifact on slides, be it Oscillococcinum being seen by Joseph Roy 200 years ago or Virginia Livingston in the 1960s. Sometimes I regret the discovery of H. pylori as a cause of gastritis as it gives the alternative microbiologists a medical Galileo to point at. H. pylori is used as an example, erroneously, of a bacteria causing disease that was laughed at by the medical establishment (Parenthetically, as my flawed memory has it, while I was an Infectious Disease Fellow the data for H. pylori came trickling in. I remember discussing the papers with one of my attendings who was an expert in GI infections. We all thought it was an interesting hypothesis and waited further data with interest. I cannot remember anyone dismissing the idea out of hand with derisive laughter. But then, I remain convinced that infections are the cause of all disease, at least the diseases that matter).

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Posted in: General, Herbs & Supplements

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Woosceptibility: A Brief Interview With James Randi

James Randi, perhaps better known as “The Amazing Randi” has spent most of his life performing magic shows. In 1996 he created the James Randi Educational Foundation (JREF) designed to expose the fraudulent claims made by psychics, faith healers, and snake oil salesmen. The ultimate goal of the JREF is to create a new generation of critical thinkers – people who will not be hoodwinked by the aforementioned hucksters.I had the good fortune of interviewing Mr. Randi briefly at the recent conference known as “The Amazing Meeting.” I was eager to pick his brain about human behavior and magical thinking. This is what I learned…

Randi identified certain groups of people who seem to be more susceptible to magical thinking and/or belief in the paranormal. According to him, the top two are:

1. News reporters. Although at first I wasn’t sure if Randi meant that reporters like a good story versus they believe a good story – he told me that in his experience, they were some of the most gullible people on earth. In fact, they were more interested in implausible stories than true ones – and Randi said that the more fantastical his explanation for phenomena, the more likely they were to believe it and write about it.

2. Academics. This surprised me since I assumed that this group would actually be less susceptible. Randi suggested that they are more likely to be taken in because they are single-minded about phenomena. They are over confident in their ability to understand how things work, and when something cannot be explained in their framework, they’re willing to attribute it to the paranormal.

Who are the least susceptible? Children. Why? Because they are simple thinkers, and harder to distract. The art of magic is in distraction of the sophisticated mind. Children tend to be very concrete, so they don’t expect things to happen with hand-waving and flourishes. They keep their eye on the coin (or other item being transferred from hand to hand), and are more likely to know where it is at all times.

To wrap up our short interview, I asked Randi if he could explain why people believe in magic, fantasy, and the paranormal? He responded plainly:

Ultimately it’s not about intelligence or lack thereof. It’s about people not wanting to accept that life is random, suffering is inevitable, and there is no good reason for bad things happening.

What do you make of Randi’s observations?

Posted in: Faith Healing & Spirituality, Health Fraud, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Report from the SBM Conference

On July 9th we held our first Science Based Medicine conference in Las Vegas. The event was definitely a success – we filled our room to capacity (150 attendees) and almost everyone stayed until the end. It also appeared that most attendees were actually awake, a rarity for a full-day medical conference. The Q&A session at the end was lively and interesting.

Kimball Atwood and I covered the history of science-based medicine and explored the differences between EBM and SBM. David Gorski discussed cancer quackery, including specific cases to illustrate the potential harm of pursuing worthless therapies for serious diseases. Harriet Hall gave us an overview of the the pseudoscience endemic in chiropractic. Mark Crislip discussed the chronic Lyme disease controversy. And Val Jones discussed health information online.

Based upon the feedback from those attending the conference, as well as the general enthusiasm, it seems that there is a hunger for this type of information. The audience was split about even between health care professionals and interested lay public. Many people asked if we plan on giving the conference again, and the answer is definitely yes. We have no plans set as of yet, and will certainly announce any future conferences here.

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Posted in: General

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Birth Day

So many of the posts on this blog are critical and deal with examples of poor science or other problems. I’d like to offer a breath of fresh air in the form of a book by Mark Sloan, MD: Birth Day: A Pediatrician Explores the Science, the History, and the Wonder of Childbirth.

It is a very positive book. Sloan has attended over 3000 deliveries but he has not lost his sense of wonder. He tells us what life is like in the womb – how much the fetus can see and hear – and smell! He explains the labor process. He explains how a fetus has to rapidly adapt to life outside the womb with a number of physiologic changes. He reflects the joy of bringing a new life into a family, and the experience of becoming a father. He delves into the history of childbirth, with fascinating anecdotes about “salting” newborns, Queen Victoria’s influence on obstetric analgesia, and the attempt to keep forceps a proprietary secret of one family.

He shows the many contributions science has made to childbirth, some of the mistakes it made along the way, and how it corrected those mistakes. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews

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The clinician-scientist: Wearing two hats

About a week ago, Tim Kreider wrote an excellent post about the differences between medical school training and scientific training. As the only other denizen of Science-Based Medicine who has experienced both worlds, that of a PhD and that of an MD, and as the one who two decades further along the path than Tim (give or take a couple of years), his musings reminded me of similar musings I’ve had over the years, as well as emphasizing yet again something I’ve said time and time again: Most physicians are not scientists. They are not trained like scientists; they are trained to apply scientific knowledge to the care of their patients. That’s what science-based medicine is, after all, applying science to the care of patients. Not dogma. Not tradition. Not knowledge of antiquity. Science.

Leave dogma, tradition, and “ancient knowledge” to practitioners of “alternative medicine.” That’s where they all belong. Whether you want to call it “alternative medicine,” “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM), or “integrative” medicine (IM), it rarely changes and almost never abandons therapies that science finds to be no better than placebo, whereas scientific medicine is, as it should be, ever changing, ever improving. I’ll grant you that the process is often messy. There are often false starts and blind alleys, and physicians are all too often reluctant to change their practices in response to the latest scientific findings. We sometimes even joke that for some practices, it takes the supplanting of one generation of physicians with a new generation to get rid of some practices. But change does come when the science and evidence are there. Indeed, for example, in response to evidence that a bacterium, H. pylori, causes duodenal ulcers, medical practice changed in a mere decade, which is about as fast as anyone could do the science and clinical trials to show the validity of the new concept. Although CAM practitioners like to hold up the example of Barry Marshall and Robin Warren, the researchers who discovered that H. pylori causes most duodenal ulcers, as an example of how researchers with radical ideas are ostracized, but that story is largely a myth, as our very own Kim Atwood showed.

The application of science to medicine is a difficult thing. It takes basic scientists and clinicians, but the two of them exist in different worlds. Or so it often seems. That’s why some individuals seek to straddle both worlds. Tim is one such person. So am I. Unfortunately, most people don’t understand what we do very well. We wear two hats. In my case, I’m a surgeon, and I’m a scientist. In Tim’s case, he’s a scientist and a physician, but he doesn’t yet know what kind of physician he will end up being. At the risk of sounding somewhat arrogant, I believe that we, and others like us, represent an important element in bridging the gap between basic science and clinical science, in, essentially, building a more science-based medicine.
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Posted in: Basic Science, Clinical Trials, Medical Academia

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