There used to be a time when I dreaded Autism Awareness Month, which begins tomorrow. The reason was simple. Several years ago to perhaps as recently as three years ago, I could always count on a flurry of stories about autism towards the end of March and the beginning of April about autism. That in and of itself isn’t bad. Sometimes the stories were actually informative and useful. However, in variably there would be a flurry of truly aggravating stories in which the reporter, either through laziness, lack of ideas, or the desire to add some spice and controversy to his story, would cover the “vaccine angle.” Invariably, the reporter would either fall for the “false balance” fallacy, in which advocates of antivaccine pseudoscience like Barbara Loe Fisher, Jenny McCarthy, J. B. Handley, Dr. Jay Gordon, and others would be interviewed in the same story as though they expressed a viewpoint that was equally valid as that of real scientists like Paul Offit, representatives of the CDC, and the like. Even if the view that there is no good evidence that vaccines are associated with an increased risk of autism were forcefully expressed, the impression left behind would be that there was actually a scientific debate when there is not. Sometimes, antivaccine-sympathetic reporters would simply write antivaccine stories.
I could also count on the antivaccine movement to go out of its way to try to implicate vaccines as a cause of the “autism” epidemic, taking advantage of the increased media interest that exists every year around this time. Examples abound, such as five years ago when Generation Rescue issued its misinformation-laden “Fourteen Studies” website, to be followed by a propaganda tour by Jenny McCarthy and her then-boyfriend Jim Carrey visiting various media outlets to promote the antivaccine message.
Earlier this month, the typical media outlets were abuzz (“Childhood nightmares may point to looming health issues“) with the results of a newly published study linking early childhood nightmares and night terrors with future psychotic experiences. Expressing little in the way of skepticism, most reports simply regurgitated the University of Warwick press release. The research, published in the quite legitimate journal Sleep, is interesting but I’m not sure it tell us anything that we don’t already know. And it certainly doesn’t support any causal relationship between sleep disorders of any variety and “delusions, hallucinations, and thought interference”. But before we delve into the specifics of the paper, I believe a quick review of sleep, and sleep problems, in children is in order.
What is sleep?
To the outside observer, sleep appears as an altered level of consciousness where response to our environment and voluntary movements are noticeably decreased. But, with a certain degree of variability, the line between sleep and wakefulness is pretty thin. This distinguishes it from the increasing stimulation required to reverse other states of altered consciousness such as lethargy, obtundation, stupor and ultimately coma, which is not acutely reversible. I don’t plan on getting too technical, but there is obviously much more to sleep than that. Physiologically our metabolic demands drop a bit, and we enter a generalized anabolic or “growth” state during which a number of beneficial processes take place, predominantly, we think, involving the brain.
Sleep is a vital aspect of human life that has appears to have both physiological and psychological purpose, and is essentially universal in the animal kingdom. All you need to do is observe a cat for more than five minutes to see that we aren’t the only animal species that both needs and seemingly enjoys sleep. In fact, if you could talk to a nematode, it would likely go on for hours about how much it enjoys sleeping in on Sundays. Humans spend roughly a third of their lives asleep, but the percentage of each day devoted to sleep is significantly higher during infancy and early childhood.
We don’t know why the need to sleep became part of the blueprint for life so early on in our evolutionary history, and researchers certainly haven’t worked out all of the nuances of why humans and other animal species continue to be so dependent on it throughout the lifespan. It is likely that its purpose has broadened over time as species branched out into new environments. There are a number of leading hypotheses, however. And barring some amazing technological or medical advance, we appear to be stuck with sleep.
Depression affects approximately 10% of Americans. It can be fatal; I found estimates of suicide rates ranging from 2-15% of patients with major depression. When it doesn’t kill, it impairs functioning and can make life almost unbearably miserable. It is a frustrating condition because there is no lab test to diagnose it, no good explanation of its cause, and the treatments are far from ideal.
Jonathan Rottenberg is a psychologist and research scientist who began to study depression after his own recovery from a major depressive illness. He teaches psychology at the University of South Florida, where he is the director of the Mood and Emotion laboratory. He has launched the Come Out of the Dark campaign to start a better, richer national conversation about depression. In a new book The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic, he reviews insights from recent experiments and asks a number of difficult questions, such as why humans evolved to be subject to incapacitating depressions. He comes up with some startling hypotheses, including the idea that evolution favored depression because of its survival value and that depression is essentially a good thing. He offers his ideas as the basis of a paradigm shift. (more…)
The word “paradigm” is over misused and overused, diluting its utility. Thomas Kuhn coined the term in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions to refer to an overarching explanatory system in science. Scientists, according to Kuhn, work within a paradigm during periods of “normal science,” punctuated by occasional “paradigm shifts” when the old explanatory model no longer sufficed, and a radically new explanatory system was required. The term has since come into colloquial use to mean any scientific breakthrough, which marketers quickly overused to refer to just about any new product.
I am therefore cautious about using the term, but I think it is appropriate in this case. In medicine I would consider a new paradigm to be an entirely new approach to some forms of illness. Common treatment paradigms include nutrition, physical therapy, surgery, and pharmacology. A new paradigm is emerging in my field of neurology – directly affecting brain function through electromagnetic stimulation.
The brain is a chemical organ, with many receptors for specific neurotransmitters. This has allowed us to use a pharmacological approach in treating brain disorders – using drugs that are agonists (activators) or antagonists (blockers) of various neurotransmitter receptors, or that affect the production or inactivation of the neurotransmitters themselves. There are limits to this approach, however. First, neurotransmitters are not the only factor affecting brain function. The brain is also a biological organ like any other, and so all the normal physiological factors are in play. Further, there is only so much evolved specificity to the neurotransmitters and their receptors.
One of the goals of rigorous science is to disentangle various causes so we can establish exactly where the lines of cause and effect are. In medicine this allows us to then optimize the real causes (what aspect of treatments actually work) and eliminate anything unnecessary.
Eliminating the unnecessary is more than just about efficiency – every intervention in medicine has a potential risk, so this is also about risk reduction.
It often seems to me that the goal of “alternative” medicine is to blur the lines of cause and effect, to exploit non-specific effects in order to promote a useless but profitable ritual (acupuncture comes to mind).
I am daily annoyed by overhyped headlines reporting medical and other science news. I think news outlets and the public would be better served if they fired all their headline writers and let the authors and editors craft headlines that actually reflect the story. Of course, often the story is overhyped as well, so this would not be a panacea to annoying science reporting.
Take this headline from The Week (please): “This pill could give your brain the learning powers of a 7-year-old“. The article discusses a recent study (full article here) looking at the effects of a drug, valproic acid, on the ability of young adult male subjects to learn pitch. It might be a good exercise for regular SBM readers to take a look at the full article now and analyze the strengths and weaknesses of the study.
The study found that those subjects taking valproic acid, which is a drug used to treat seizures, migraines, and mood disorders, did slightly better overall in learning to identify the pitch of various tones. The main limitation of the study is that it is very small – 24 participants enrolled, 18 completed. Further, they did not establish a good baseline performance, as the subjects were practicing as they went along. (more…)
Recently you may have seen headlines like “Vitamin E slows decline in patients with mild Alzheimer’s” or “There’s still no cure for Alzheimer’s disease, but the latest hope for slowing its progression is already on drugstore shelves.” They were referring to an article in the January 1, 2014 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) announcing the results of the TEAM-AD VA Cooperative Randomized Trial of vitamin E and memantine (Namenda) for Alzheimer’s disease (AD).
The study attracted a lot of media attention. Most of the news reports I have seen were accurate and cautious, explaining the nuances of the study rather than suggesting that everyone should run out and buy vitamin E; but I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a lot of readers ignored the fine print and did just that. It would be interesting to track sales of vitamin E and see if there was a bump following the publicity.
We know of no treatment that will delay, prevent or cure Alzheimer’s disease, or that affects the underlying disease process. It’s a tragic, frustrating disease that takes away the very things that make us who we are: memory and personality. It is affecting more and more people as the numbers of elderly increase. Available prescription medications are only modestly effective in slowing functional decline and delaying the need for institutionalization. They are expensive, they don’t help everyone, and when they do help, they only help for a limited time. It is very exciting to think an inexpensive vitamin could help patients with mild to moderate AD, but we must resist the temptation to read too much into this study. (more…)
People in a vegetative state, usually as a result of brain trauma or anoxia (lack of oxygen) by definition have no signs of conscious awareness or activity. The definition, therefore, is based largely on the absence of evidence for consciousness.
Of course, arguments based upon the absence of evidence are only as compelling as the degree to which evidence has been properly searched for. In recent years technology has advanced to the point that our ability to detect the possible subtle signs of consciousness in those presumed to be vegetative has increased – mainly through functional MRI scans (fMRI) and electroencephalograms (EEGs).
There has been a steady stream of studies demonstrating that a small minority of patients thought to be vegetative actually display some signs of minimal consciousness. The latest such study was recently published in Neuroimage: Clinical by a research team from the University of Cambridge.
But let’s back up a bit first. Even prior to evaluating vegetative patients with fMRI and advanced EEG techniques, several studies showed that a detailed neurological exam specifically designed to detect the most subtle clinical signs of consciousness could find such signs in some patients who were diagnosed as being vegetative by more standard neurological exam. According to one study as many as 41% of patients diagnosed as vegetative were really minimally conscious, meaning they had subtle signs of consciousness, but still cannot wake up, converse, or act purposefully. (more…)
Augusto Odone is an Italian economist best known for his son, Lorenzo, after which Odone named the oil that he helped develop to treat his son’s neurological disease. Lorenzo’s oil was the subject of a 1992 movie starring Nick Nolte and Susan Sarandon, and of course what most people think they know about the story they learned from the Hollywood version.
This past week Augusto Odone died at the age of 80, prompting another round of media reporting about Lorenzo’s oil.
Probably because of the Hollywood movie, this story more than any other is an iconic example of the disconnect between the simple narratives the media love to tell (and we love to tell ourselves) and the more complex reality.
The basic facts of the story are not in dispute. Lorenzo Odone, son of Augusto and his wife, had a neurological disease known as X-linked adrenoleukodystrophy (X-ALD). This is a devastating genetic disease in males, with two basic forms. Childhood onset tends to progress rapidly and typically death occurs by age 10, although lifespan can be increased if an early bone marrow transplant is given. In adult onset, symptoms may not appear until adulthood, and then tends to progress more slowly, over decades. Some boys with the X-ALD gene do not develop clinical findings. Women are carriers, with partial protection from their second X chromosome. About half of female carriers become symptomatic, with the slower adult form of the disease.
A new study published in The Lancet provides the most definitive evidence to date that chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI), a hypothetical syndrome of narrowed veins draining the brain that some believe is the true cause of multiple sclerosis (MS), is not associated with MS.
In a science-based world, this study would be yet one more nail in the coffin of this failed hypothesis. But that’s not the world we live in.
CCSVI was first proposed in 2009 by Italian vascular surgeon, Dr. Paolo Zamboni – that multiple sclerosis (MS) is caused by chronic blockage of the veins that drain the brain. The current scientific consensus is that MS is a chronic autoimmune disease, and the pathology is caused by primary inflammation. Dr. Zamboni believes that the venous anomalies he has discovered are the primary cause and the inflammation is secondary. (more…)