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It’s All in Your Head

I have never used those words to a patient or about a patient.  I have also never heard a colleague use any similar term to a patient. And yet on many occasions I have had patients ask me, “So you’re telling me it’s all in my head?”

The concept of what are now called psychogenic symptoms is a tricky one for various reasons. There is an unfortunate stigma attached to the notion that our brains can cause physical symptoms. Making the diagnosis is complex. Outcomes are variable and are hampered by the difficulty in communicating the diagnosis to patients. Psychogenic symptoms often mask underlying physiological disease. And the risks of both false positives and false negatives are high.

This complexity leads some to argue, in essence, that psychogenic symptoms do not exist at all – that the diagnosis is a cop out, a way to blame the patient for the failings of the physician. But this approach, ironically, is a cop out, because it seeks to white wash what is a real and complex disorder with an overly simplistic and moralistic approach.

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CFS: Viral vs somatization

On 10/08/09, the NIH and Science through press releases announced the following remarkable information:  Consortium of Researchers Discover Retroviral Link to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS.) From Science on line:

Scientists have discovered a potential retroviral link to chronic fatigue syndrome, known as CFS, a debilitating disease that affects millions of people in the United States. Researchers from the Whittemore Peterson Institute (WPI), located at the University of Nevada, Reno, the National Cancer Institute (NCI), part of the National Institutes of Health, and the Cleveland Clinic, report this finding online Oct. 8, 2009, issue of Science.

“We now have evidence that a retrovirus named XMRV is frequently present in the blood of patients with CFS. This discovery could be a major step in the discovery of vital treatment options for millions of patients,” said Judy Mikovits, Ph.D., director of research for WPI and leader of the team that discovered this association. Researchers cautioned however, that this finding shows there is an association between XMRV and CFS but does not prove that XMRV causes CFS.

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Posted in: History, Medical Academia, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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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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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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Chemical castration for autism: After three years, the mainstream media finally notices

We’ve written a lot about anti-vaccine zealotry on this blog, as Steve and I take a particular interest in this particular form of dangerous pseudoscience for a number of reasons. One reason, of course, is that the activities of antivaccine groups like Generation Rescue and its spokesmodel since 2007 (Jenny McCarthy, a frequent topic on this blog) have started to frighten parents about vaccines enough that vaccination rates are falling well below that required for herd immunity in some parts of the country. Indeed, McCarthy, at the behest of her handlers in Generation Rescue, serves up a regular “toxic” brew of misinformation and nonsense about vaccines, most recently in a video that was the subject of a post by Val Jones about her unbelievably pseudoscience-laden blather. Truly, it has to be seen to be believed. Meanwhile, Generation Rescue has sent McCarthy on a media propaganda tour for her latest antivaccine pro-quackery book and set up a misinformation-laden propaganda site called Fourteen Studies (blogged about by Steve Novella, Mark Crislip, and, of course, yours truly) in which they attack well-designed studies that have failed to confirm their pet idea that somehow, some way, vaccines must be the cause of autism. And, when their pseudoscience is criticized, the antivaccine movement has a tendency to launch vicious ad hominem attacks, as they recently did against Steve Novella and have done multiple times in the past against me.

However, there is one other consequence of the antivaccine movement, however, and it is at least as important as the public health implications of the potential dimunition of herd immunity caused by the fear mongering of groups like Generation Rescue. That consequence is the cottage industry of “biomedical” treatments to which desperate parents subject their children. Gluten-free diets, chelation therapy (which has caused deaths), hyperbaric oxygen chambers (a recent story described a child getting severely burned when one of these caught fire), autistic children have been subjected to it all. But of all the biomedical woo to which autistic children have been subjected, one form of woo stands out as being particularly heinous. Indeed, I agree with our fearless leader Steve in characterizing it as an “atrocity.”

I’m referring to Mark and David Geier’s favored “treatment” for autistic children, namely a drug called Lupron.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Health Fraud, Medical Ethics, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Welcome back, my friends, to the show that never ends: The Jenny and Jim antivaccine propaganda tour has begun


As hard as it is to believe, 2009 started out very promising from the perspective of actually countering the misinformation of the antivaccine movement. Antivaccine hero Andrew Wakefield, who with the help of the credulous and sensationalistic media started the entire MMR-autism scare in the U.K. a decade ago, was revealed as not just having been in the pocket of trial lawyers suing vaccine manufacturers and having been an incompetent scientist but as a scientific fraud, thanks to the investigative tenacity of Brian Deer. Thanks to Wakfield, the measles, once declared conquered in the U.K. in the mid-1990s, has come roaring back to the point where it has been declared endemic again by the ealth Protection Agency (HPA), the public health body of England and Wales. This was rapidly followed by the rejection by the Special Masters of the Vaccine Court of the claims of all the test cases in the Autism Omnibus case. It was a one-two body blow to the antivaccine movement.

Unfortunately, the antivaccine movement is nothing if not resilient. After all, the science has consistently been against each of its favorite claims, namely that the mercury in the thimerosal used as a preservative in vaccines or that the MMR vaccine causes autism. They simply move the goalposts and pivoted effortlessly to much harder to falsify ideas, such as blaming “toxins” in vaccines or proclaiming that our current vaccine schedule is “too many too soon.” After scientific setback after scientific setback that have revealed the antivaccine movement to be nothing more than the 2009 equivalent of creationists or the flat Earth movement, why would it matter to them that Andrew Wakefield has been thoroughly discredited and their signature legal action, the Autism Omnibus, has gone donw in flames? It doesn’t. Certainly it didn’t stop David Kirby from duping Keith Olbermann into chastising Brian Deer for nonexistent conflicts of interest; a group proclaiming loudly “We Support Dr. Andrew Wakefield” with a petition; David Kirby, Generation Rescue, and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. from trying to distract attention from the defeat of the antivaccine movement in the Autism Omnibus ruling; or Andrew Wakefield himself from “complaining” to a press board about Brian Deer’s alleged misbehavior and errors. After all, science doesn’t matter to the antivaccine movement.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Involuntary Treatment – Civil Rights or Civil Wrongs?

In the 1950s, 558,000 people were in mental institutions in the U.S. Many were there against their will and were being warehoused or treated badly. Deinstitutionalization was intended to restore their civil rights and improve their lot. Did it? By 2006, there were only 40,000 people in institutions. What happened to the other 518,000?

Some of them are living in the community with supportive family members, taking their medications, and contributing to society. Some of them have been ghettoized in halfway houses or group homes in crime-ridden and run-down neighborhoods. Some of them are homeless, living on the streets and eating out of garbage cans. Some of them are in jail. Some of them have killed family members or have killed multiple people in “rampage” murders provoked by their psychotic delusions.

Accurate numbers are difficult to obtain. By some estimates, as many as 30-50% of the homeless (and even more of the hard-core homeless) and as many as 40-50% of the jail population are mentally ill. There are more mentally ill people in jails than in hospitals. The mentally ill are more likely to be victims of violence and rape and are more likely to be shot by the police in “justifiable homicide” incidents.

Mentally ill people who are adequately treated are no more violent than the non-mentally ill, but a disproportionate number of murders are committed by the mentally ill. The risk of violence increases with past history of violence, substance abuse, anosognosia with medication noncompliance, antisocial personality disorder, paranoid symptoms, and male sex. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation

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Train Your Brain

I’m a big fan of video games, puzzles, and brain teasers. So the notion that so-called “brain training” games can help improve mental function and stave off dementia has some appeal to me. It also makes a certain amount of sense – exercise your brain and its function will improve.

And yet, as a skeptic, I have always been bothered by the specific claims made by marketers of games, websites, devices and programs. The formula is probably familiar to you, a specifically designed program is optimized to stimulate brain function, improve integration of information, and improve global function.

The website promotion for Brain Age, for example, claims:

Everyone knows you can prevent muscle loss with exercise, and use such activities to improve your body over time. And the same could be said for your brain. The design of Brain Age is based on the premise that cognitive exercise can improve blood flow to the brain. All it takes is as little as a few minutes of play time a day. For everyone who spends all their play time at the gym working out the major muscle groups, don’t forget – your brain is like a muscle, too. And it craves exercise.

The blood flow argument is pure hand-waving. The muscle analogy is perhaps more apt than intended – do muscles respond to a specific exercise or to any exercise?

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Psychiatry-Bashing

Psychiatry is arguably the least science-based of the medical specialties. Because of that, it comes in for a lot of criticism. Much of the criticism is justified, but some critics make the mistake of dismissing even the possibility that psychiatry could be scientific. They throw the baby out with the bathwater. I agree that psychiatry has a lot of very dirty bathwater, but there is also a very healthy baby in there that should be kept, cherished, nourished, and helped to grow – scientifically.

Common criticisms in the media

  • We are over-medicating our children, producing a generation of drugged zombies.
  • We are using medication indiscriminately for people who don’t fit the diagnosis (i.e. antidepressants for people who only have normal mood fluctuations and life problems).
  • Antidepressants lead to violence and suicide.
  • Psychotropic medications all have terrible side effects.
  • Antidepressants are no better than placebo.
  • Psychotherapies are no better than talking to a friend.
  • Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a barbaric, damaging assault with no redeeming value.
  • And we all remember how Tom Cruise attacked Brooke Shields on the issue of postpartum depression.

Thomas Szasz: Mental Illness is a Myth

Thomas Szasz goes even further: he rejects the whole concept of mental illness and considers it a plot to interfere with people’s human rights. He says:

  • Psychiatric diagnoses are not valid because they are based on symptoms rather than on objective tests. (Steve Novella has pointed out that there are other well-established diagnoses like migraine that cannot be verified by any objective tests.)
  • Mental illness is a myth: unusual behavior does not constitute a disease.
  • Psychiatric diagnoses are an arbitrary construct of society to facilitate control of individuals whose behavior does not conform.
  • Involuntary commitment is never justified even for the protection of the patient: patients always have the right to refuse treatment even if that means they will die. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine, Science and the Media

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The Alleged Autism Epidemic

It is without controversy that the number of autism diagnoses being made is on the rise. In 1991 there were about 6 cases per 10,000 births, and in 2001 there were about 42. This number continues to rise at about the same rate.

The cause of this rise, however, is very controversial. There are basically two schools of thought: 1 – that true autism rates are on the rise, and 2 – that the measured rise is an artifact of increased surveillance and a broadening of the definition. I wrote previously about this very controversy, in which I concluded that the expanded diagnosis hypothesis is much better supported by the evidence.

Now, a new study published last week in the journal Epidemiology is being presented by proponents of the epidemic hypothesis as support for their view. A closer look, however, reveals that this study does not support the epidemic hypothesis and adds little to the overall literature on this question.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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