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Placebo effects without deception? Well, not exactly…

In discussing “alternative” medicine it’s impossible not to discuss, at least briefly, placebo effects. Indeed, one of the most common complaints we at SBM voice about clinical trials of alternative medicine is the lack of adequate controls — meaning adequate controls for placebo and nonspecific effects. Just type “acupuncture” in the search box in the upper left hand corner of the blog masthead, and you’ll pull up a number of discussions of acupuncture clinical trials that SBM bloggers have written over the last three years. If you check some of these posts, you’ll find that in nearly every case we spend considerable time and effort discussing whether the placebo or sham control used was adequate, noting that, the better the sham controls, the less likely acupuncture studies are to have a positive result.

Some of the less clueless advocates of “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) seem to realize that much of what they do relies on placebo effects. As a result, they tend to argue that what they do is useful and good because it’s “harnessing the placebo effect” for therapeutic purpose. One problem that advocates of SBM (like those of us at SBM who have taken an interest in this topic) tend to have with this argument is that it has always been assumed that a good placebo requires on some level at least some deception of the patient by either saying or implying that he is receiving an active treatment or medicine of some kind. This, we have argued, is a major ethical problem in using placebos in patients, and advocates of placebo medicine appear to agree, because they frequently argue that placebo effects can be harnessed without deception. Indeed, just last week there was an example of this argument plastered all over multiple news outlets and blogs in the form of stories and posts with headlines and titles like:

Except for one, every one of these articles or blog posts discussing a new study in PLoS ONE that purports to have found that placebo effects can be elicited in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) without deception buys completely into that very thesis. For example, here is an example, taken from the Reuters story about this study:

Placebos can help patients feel better, even if they are fully aware they are taking a sugar pill, researchers reported on Wednesday on an unusual experiment aimed to better understand the “placebo effect.”

Nearly 60 percent of patients with irritable bowel syndrome reported they felt better after knowingly taking placebos twice a day, compared to 35 percent of patients who did not get any new treatment, they report in the Public Library of Science journal PLoS ONE.

“Not only did we make it absolutely clear that these pills had no active ingredient and were made from inert substances, but we actually had ‘placebo’ printed on the bottle,” Ted Kaptchuk of Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, who led the study, said in a statement.

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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Pharmaceuticals, Science and the Media

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Freeways, autism, and correlation versus causation

I have a love-hate relationship with epidemiology.

On the one hand, I love how epidemiology can look for correlations in huge sample sizes, sample sizes far larger than any that we could ever have access to in clinical trials, randomized or other. I love the ability of epidemiology to generate hypotheses that can be tested in the laboratory and then later in clinical trials. Also, let’s not forget that epidemiology is sometimes the only tool available to us that can answer some questions. Such questions generally involve hypotheses that can’t be tested in a randomized clinical trial because of either ethical concerns or others. A good example of this is the question of whether vaccines cause autism. For obvious ethical reasons, it’s not permissible to perform a randomized clinical trial in which one group of children is vaccinated and one is not, and then outcomes with respect to neurodevelopmental outcomes, such as autism and autism spectrum disorders, are tracked in the two groups. The ethical concern with such a study, of course, is the potential harm that would be likely to come to the unvaccinated control group, children who would be left unprotected against common and postentially deadly communicable diaseases.

On the other hand, epidemiology is one of the messiest of sciences, and epidemiological studies are among the most difficult in all of science to perform truly rigorously. The number of factors that can confound are truly amazing, and as a result, it’s very, very easy for an epidemiological study to detect apparent correlations that are either spurious or appear much stronger than the “true” correlation. There can be confounding factors beneath confounding factors wrapped in more confounding factors, the relationships among which are not always apparent. Not infrequently, a condition can appear to be correlated with, for instance, an environmental factor, but in reality that environmental factor and the condition both correlate with a third, unknown confounder. Worse, epidemiologists know that correlation does not necessarily equal causation, but the general public, for the most part, does not, which is why, when anti-vaccine activists, for instance, point out to a rising autism prevalence and then point out that autism prevalence started rising around the same time the vaccine schedule was expanded, to the average layperson the argument sounds compelling. As a result, the design of an epidemiological study is paramount in order to account for or minimize such factors. That’s why I always said I can’t be an epidemiologist. Even though I was very good at math in college, the statistics still made my brain hurt, and I don’t have the patience for the messiness of trying to account for all the possible confounding factors.

However, for all their strengths and flaws, epidemiological studies are an integral part of science-based medicine. They are used to identify predisposing factors to diseases and conditions, environmental contributors to disease, and adverse reactions to drugs, among many other useful pieces of data. That’s why, from time to time, I like to examine epidemiological studies, particularly if they’re epidemiological studies that are getting a lot of press.

The use and abuse of autism epidemiology studies

For instance, studies like this one described in a story in the Los Angeles Times on Friday entitled Proximity to freeways increases autism risk, study finds: More research is needed, but the report suggests air pollution could be a factor:
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Posted in: Epidemiology, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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Chronic Pain: A Disease in its Own Right

Melanie Thernstrom has written a superb book based on a historical, philosophical, and scientific review of pain: The Pain Chronicles: Cures, Myths, Mysteries, Prayers, Diaries, Brain Scans, Healing, and the Science of Suffering. Herself a victim of chronic pain, she brings a personal perspective to the subject and also includes informative vignettes of doctors and patients she encountered at the many pain clinics she visited in her investigations. She shows that medical treatment of pain is suboptimal because most doctors have not yet incorporated recent scientific discoveries into their thinking, discoveries indicating that chronic pain is a disease in its own right, a state of pathological pain sensitivity.

Chronic pain often outlives its original causes, worsens over time, and takes on a puzzling life of its own… there is increasing evidence that over time, untreated pain eventually rewrites the central nervous system, causing pathological changes to the brain and spinal cord, and that these in turn cause greater pain. Even more disturbingly, recent evidence suggests that prolonged pain actually damages parts of the brain, including those involved in cognition. (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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PTSD Breakthrough?: It’s Not Science Just Because Someone Says So

It infuriates me when someone misappropriates the word “science” to promote treatments that are not actually based on science. I have just read a book entitled The PTSD Breakthrough: The Revolutionary Science-Based Compass Reset Program by Dr. Frank Lawlis, a psychologist who is the chief content advisor for Dr Phil and The Doctors. There is very little science in the book and references are not provided. It amounts to an indiscriminate catalog of everything Dr. Lawlis can imagine that might help post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) patients.  (more…)

Posted in: Book & movie reviews, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Brain Balance

A member of Quackwatch’s Healthfraud discussion list recently reported from a health fair:

One booth was a bit of a mystery for me: Brain Balance. “Is your child struggling with ADHD, dyslexia, autism, Asperger’s, Tourette’s, or other related disorders?” A quick glance at their website makes it seem that they may be legitimate.

No, a quick glance at their website makes it seem that they are not legitimate, and a more detailed examination confirms that initial impression. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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The final nail in the mercury-autism hypothesis?

PROLOGUE: BAD LUCK AND BAD TIMING

Two and a half years ago, very early in the history of this blog, I wrote one of my usual logorrheic (although I prefer the word “comprehensive”) posts entitled Mercury in vaccines as a cause of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs): A failed hypothesis. In that post, I characterized the scientifically discredited notion that the mercury in the thimerosal preservative that used to be in several childhood vaccines was the cause of the “autism epidemic” as “one of the most pernicious medical myths of recent years.” And so it is. I like to characterize the notion that thimerosal-containing vaccines (TCVs) cause autism as the American version of the British myth, popularized by Andrew Wakefield and a sensationalistic British press, that the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism and “autistic enterocolitis.”

Both notions were based on confusing correlation with causation, aided and abetted by some truly bad science, and both notions have been painfully difficult to dislodge. Indeed, in the case of Wakefield, only now that Wakefield was stripped of his license to practice in the U.K. by its General Medical Council, leading to The Lancet finally doing what it should have done six years ago and retracting Wakefield’s 1998 study that sparked the MMR frenzy in the U.K. and arguably kickstarted the modern anti-vaccine movement, do I sense that journalists are finally “getting” that science does not support the idea that the MMR vaccine causes autism. Andrew Wakefield may be trying to fight back with his book Callous Disregard after his disgrace was complete, basking in the glow of admiration of die-hard anti-vaccine groups, but, for now, at least, Wakefield and his MMR fear mongering are yesterday’s news, and that’s a very good thing indeed–at least for as long as it lasts.

Perhaps it is the fall of Andy Wakefield that has led to an apparent resurgence of the concept that mercury in TCVs somehow causes autism, after having faded into the background after the CDC and AAP recommended that thimerosal be removed from all childhood vaccines in 1999 and the last TCV having expired towards the end of 2001. After all, if the hypothesis that TCVs cause autism had been correct, we should have expected to see a marked decrease in the incidence of autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) within about 5 years of 2002, given that the vast majority of cases of ASDs are diagnosed between the ages of 2 and 5. We have not, and, even though its adherents have kept moving the goalposts back regarding the date that we should start to see a leveling off and drop in the incidence of ASDs, starting with 2005, then 2007, and now, apparently, 2011 (which is only less than four months away, by the way), even Jenny McCarthy’s anti-vaccine organization originally founded by J.B. Handley and his wife, namely Generation Rescue, began demphasizing mercury in 2007, after having stated flatly on its website that autism is a “misdiagnosis for mercury poisoning” for so long. Since then, “too many, too soon” has been the favored propaganda talking point.

Of course, not every crank is ready to abandon the myth that TCVs cause autism. Indeed, tomorrow two mercury militia “heavy hitters” and bloggers for the anti-vaccine propaganda blog Age of Autism, Mark Blaxill and Dan Olmsted, will be releasing a book entitled Age of Autism: Mercury, Medicine, and a Manmade Epidemic. In anticipation, four weeks ago I actually e-mailed the publicist to send me a review copy of Age of Autism. I have yet to receive the book. I wonder why. Be that as it may, it amuses me that the official release of the release of the not-so-dynamic duo of the mercury militia’s book actually will one day after a study that is arguably the last nail in the coffin of the very dead hypothesis that TCVs cause autism was released. Either the great pharma conspiracy is far more conniving and effective than even J.B. Handley thinks, or Blaxill and Olmsted’s luck is just that bad. As I anticipate the conspiracy mongering posts about this bad timing aside, let’s just take a look at this last coffin nail, which is a study by Price et al that was released today in the journal Pediatrics entitled Prenatal and Infant Exposure to Thimerosal From Vaccines and Immunoglobulins and Risk of Autism.
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Venous Insufficiency in Multiple Sclerosis

There is an interesting controversy raging in the Multiple Sclerosis (MS) world that reflects many of the issues we discuss at science-based medicine. Dr. Paolo Zamboni, and Italian vascular surgeon, has now published a series of studies claiming that patients with clinically defined MS have various patterns of chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI). Further Dr. Zamboni believes CCSVI is a major cause of MS, not just a clinical side-consequence, and is exploring treatment with venous angioplasty or stenting.

The claims have captured the attention of MS patients, many of whom have a progressive course that is only partially treated by currently available medications. There are centers popping up, many abroad (such as India), providing the “liberation procedure” and anecdotes of miraculous cures and spreading over the internet. There is even a Facebook page dedicated to CCSVI, and you can read the anecdotes for yourself. Many profess dramatic improvement immediately following the procedure, which seems unlikely even if Zamboni’s hypothesis is correct.

Zamboni is also getting attention from neurologists and MS specialists, who remain skeptical because Zamboni’s claims run contrary to years of research and thousands of studies pointing to the current model of MS as an autoimmune disease.

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The price of opposing medical pseudoscience

EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is a followup to a post from two weeks ago entitled In which Dr. Gorski once again finds himself a target of the “pharma shill” gambit. If you haven’t read that post before, you might want to go back and read it now before proceeding with this post. Please also note the disclaimer.

I want to beg your indulgence this week, hoping that my history as a blogger here on SBM and then as managing editor allows me that. Today’s post will be a little different because last week was really, really, hectic. First and foremost, I was busy writing a preapplication for a Susan J. Komen Foundation grant for a deadline of last Friday. The Komen Foundation, it turns out, has changed its procedures this year so that the preapplication is now evaluated much more rigorously. It’s no longer looked at just to make sure that the proposed project matches the subject matter and criteria for the request for applications (RFA). This year, the preapplication actually matters! Moreover, it’s so long that writing it is practically like writing the entire grant, other than the budget. But I got it done, and it looks pretty good, if I do say so myself. None of that is any guarantee that Komen will invite us to submit a full application, but I’m hopeful because if it does we should have a good shot at the grant.

Then, this weekend I had to pivot on a dime and return to writing the R01 I had been working on with my collaborator. To make the July resubmission deadline, it has to be done, in the can, and submitted by this Friday. In any case, these are the reasons why this post is likely to be uncharacteristically personal in nature.

Oh, those reasons plus a little bit of character assassination launched at me on Monday by Jake Crosby over at the Age of Autism, entitled David Gorski’s Financial Pharma Ties: What He Didn’t Tell You.
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Posted in: Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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The genetics of autism

Autism and autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) actually represent a rather large continuum of conditions that range from very severe neurodevelopmental delay and abnormalities to the relatively mild. In severe cases, the child is nonverbal and displays a fairly well-characterized set of behaviors, including repetitive behaviors such as “stimming” (for example, hand flapping, making sounds, head rolling, and body rocking.), restricted behavior and focus, ritualistic behavior, and compulsive behaviors. In more mild cases, less severe compulsion, restriction of behavior and focus, and ritualistic behaviors do not necessarily preclude functioning independently in society, but such children and adults may have significant difficulties with social interactions and communication. Because ASDs represent a wide spectrum of neurodevelopmental disorders whose symptoms typically first manifest themselves to parents between the ages of two and three, the idea that vaccines cause autism and ASDs has been startlingly difficult to dislodge and has fueled an anti-vaccine movement, both here in the U.S. and in other developed nations, particularly the U.K. and Australia. This movement has been stubbornly resistant to multiple scientific studies that have failed to find any link between vaccines in autism or the other favorite bogeyman of the anti-vaccine movement, the mercury-containing thimerosal preservative that used to be in many childhood vaccines in the U.S. until the end of 2001. Add to that the rising apparent prevalence of ASDs, and, confusing correlation with causation, the anti-vaccine movement concludes that vaccines must be the reason for the “autism epidemic.”

In reality, autism and ASDs appear to be increasing in prevalence due to diagnostic substition, better screening, and the broadening of the diagnostic criteria that occurred in 1994. Autism prevalence does not appear to be rising, at least not dramatically, at all, as the prevalence of ASDs, when assessed carefully, appears to be similar in adults as it is in children. If the true prevalence rate of autism and ASDs has increased, it has not increased by very much. In reality autism appears to have a major and probably predominant genetic component, and several scientific studies over the last few years have linked autism with various genetic abnormalities. Not surprisingly, given the varied presentation and severity of ASDs, these studies have not managed to identify single genes that produce autism or ASDs with a high degree of penetrance (probability of causing the phenotype if the gene is present). Indeed, one can argue that the state of current evidence is that ASDs are due to multiple genes, perhaps dozens or hundreds. Again, this is not surprising given the heterogeneity of ASD severity, presentation, and symptoms.

One of the more surprising studies supporting a genetic basis for autism appeared to much fanfare in Nature last week. The study by Pinto et al, looks at the functional impact of global rare copy number variation in autism spectrum disorders. Its results are rather surprising in that the large team of investigators (studies of this type take a lot of people to carry out) found that it may be relatively uncommon copy number variations in various genes that lead to the phenotype of autism or ASDs.
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In which Dr. Gorski once again finds himself a target of the “pharma shill” gambit

EDITOR’S NOTICE: NOTE THE DISCLAIMER. Also note that there is a followup to this post entitled The price of opposing medical pseudoscience that is highly recommended after you read this post.

The “pharma shill gambit”: The quack’s favorite flavor of ad hominem argument

One of the very favorite and most commonly used tactics to attack criticism in the armamentarium of pseudoscientists, cranks, and quacks (not to mention politicians) is the ad hominem fallacy. In this fallacy, rather than addressing the actual evidence and science that demonstrate their favorite brand of woo to be nothing more than fairy dust, the idea is to preemptively attack and discredit the person. The ad hominem is not just insults or concluding that someone is ignorant because, well, they say ignorant things and make stupid arguments (in which case calling someone stupid or ignorant might just be drawing a valid, albeit impolitic, conclusion from observations of that person’s behavior), but rather arguing or insinuating that you shouldn’t accept someone’s arguments not because their arguments are weak but because they have this personal characteristic or that or belong to this group or that. Truly, the ad hominem is right up there with demanding public “debates” with skeptics as a favored defense strategy of cranks of all stripes.

Among the very favorite flavors of ad hominem attack used by quacks, cranks, and pseudoscientists is the fallacy of poisoning the well. This particular fallacy alludes to the medieval European myth that the Black Plague was caused by Jews poisoning town wells. Not surprisingly, this myth was used as a justification for pogroms and the persecution of the Jews. The idea is to poison how others view your opponent by preemptively attacking them. Well do I know this fallacy, having been at the receiving end of it many times! Basically, it involves invoking something bad or biased about a person’s situation or personality and then using a phrase something like, “Of course he (or she) would say that” to dismiss a person’s arguments, the implication being that the person receives such benefits from holding the position being attacked or has such a personality that he couldn’t argue otherwise regardless of the evidence. In my admittedly anecdotal experience, far and away the most common use of the ad hominem from quacks and pseudoscientists is what I once described as “the pharma shill gambit.” The idea behind this gambit when it comes to attacking those of us who promote science-based medicine is to tar one’s opponent as being a “shill” for big pharma or claiming that we have a conflict of interest so blatant that “of course we would say that.” In most cases, the bogey man is big pharma, in whose pockets we SBM bloggers are supposed to be safely (and profitably) ensconced, blogging away in our underwear for big bucks and, following the orders of our supposed paymasters, attacking anything that has even a whiff of being “alternative” or that “questions” the safety and/or efficacy of vaccines.

While I realize that there is such a thing as an “astroturf” campaign, in the vast majority of cases, the pharma shill gambit is nothing more than the variant of the ad hominem fallacy known as poisoning the well. I also realize that conflicts of interest (COIs) matter, particularly undisclosed COIs. Indeed, I wrote a rather lengthy post (I know, I know, do I write any other length of post?) about 8 months ago laying out my views regarding COIs in science-based medicine. The short version is that we all have COIs of some sort or another, be they financial, belief-based, or emotional, and more disclosure is usually better, to let the reader decide for himself. As far as COIs related to big pharma or finances, I think Mark Crislip put it quite well in his most recent Quackcast when he said that if a study is funded by big pharma, he decreases the strength of the evidence in his mind by a set amount. However, evidence is evidence, and, although it is reasonable to increase one’s level of skepticism if there is a major COI involving the authors, be it big pharma or otherwise, it is not reasonable to use that COI as the sole reason for rejecting its findings out of hand. That’s just an intellectually lazy excuse to dismiss the study, nothing more. Indeed, one prominent difference between a scientist and a pseudoscientist or quack is that in general scientists understand this and struggle to assign the correct degree of skepticism due to a COI when analyzing scientific studies, while quacks and pseudoscientists do not. It’s far easier for them just to put their fingers in their ears and scream “Conflict of interest! Conflict of interest!” and then use that to dismiss completely their opponent’s argument. It’s simple, neat, and it doesn’t require all that nasty thinking and weighing of evidence..
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