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Archive for Neuroscience/Mental Health

Detecting Consciousness in the Vegetative

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…)

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Lorenzo’s Oil

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.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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The End for CCSVI

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 background

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…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Quantum Neurology

As the resident neurologist on SBM, my ears always prick up when I come across a new neurology-based scam, and my colleagues often send such items my way. In addition the word “quantum” has become a standard marketing term of alt. med quackery. So how could I resist taking a bite out of “quantum neurology”?

One might think (if one were a completely naïve rube) that those claiming to practice quantum neurology have, through diligent research, discovered how certain quantum principles apply to nervous system function and disease, leading to new treatment modalities. On the other hand, a more savvy consumer of such health claims (such as regular readers of SBM) would likely suspect that quantum neurology will turn out to be the same-old mix of nonsense and snake oil in a shiny new package.

Let’s have a look.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Sharyl Attkisson and CBS News: An epic fail in reporting on the murder of autistic teen Alex Spourdalakis

An antivaccine reporter strikes again

The damaged done by the antivaccine movement is primarily in how it frightens parents out of vaccinating using classic denialist tactics of spreading fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD). Indeed, as has been pointed out many times before, antivaccinationists are often proud of their success in discouraging parents from vaccinating, with one leader of the antivaccine movement even going so far as to characterize his antivaccine “community, held together with duct tape and bailing wire,” as being in the “early to middle stages of bringing the U.S. vaccine program to its knees.” Meanwhile, just last week Anne Dachel, “media editor” for the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism, gloated about basically the same thing, how although overall vaccination rates remain high, vaccine exemption rates are up in many areas of the country and how her movement has provided plenty of information to “scare [parents] out of vaccinating.”

And it is the very same antivaccine propaganda blog, Age of Autism, that is promoting a different, more insidious message, specifically how the brutal murder of an autistic teen nearly three months ago “illumines the autism nightmare.” What do I mean by “insidious message”? It’s the hijacking of the autism advocacy movement, which tries to advocate for more services for autistic children and adults and more awareness and understanding of autism, by the antivaccine message that autistic people are somehow “damaged,” be it by vaccines or unnamed “toxins,” that the “real child” has been “stolen” by autism, and that any manner of biomedical quackery to “recover” autistics is justified by the horror of autism. Although Attkisson, the reporter for the story discussed below, never specifically mentions vaccines, if you know the background of the case, that message is quite obvious and not very far under the surface of her report on the murder of Alex Spourdalakis:

Not surprisingly, this story was reported by Sharyl Attkisson, who is CBS News’ resident antivaccine reporter. I’ve known her to promote antivaccine views in a manner that gave Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. a run for his money as far back as 2007. Since then, she’s smeared Paul Offit as a “pharma shill,” very likely fed information to someone at AoA to help them portray Lisa Randall at Voices for Vaccines as an “industry group,” done a puff piece about antivaccine physician and hero to the antivaccine movement Andrew Wakefield, and misreported the significance of the Hannah Poling case (which was really just the rebranding of autism). Most recently, Attkisson promoted a truly execrable “review article” summarizing the evidence relating vaccines to autism. The review article, by Helen Ratajczak, cited lots of pseudoscience from antivaccine literature in the service of supporting a truly dumb hypothesis, namely that DNA from vaccines could recombine in the brains of children to result in autism. Attkisson was quite smitten with the idea. As you might imagine, I was not. Along the way, Attkisson also indulged in promoting breast cancer misinformation. No wonder she is the perfect reporter to do this story promoting the viewpoint that autism is so horrible and the system provides so little help that we should understand why a mother like Alex’s might become so desperate that she would poison her son and then, when that failed to kill him, try to slash his wrist, and then, when that failed, stab him in the heart with a kitchen knife.
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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Preventing autism? Not so fast, Dr. Mumper…

Dug the Dog strikes again, as he did three weeks ago. I had a couple of ideas for a post this week, but none of them were time-sensitive or timely. Then, over the weekend, I saw a post on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism by Dan “Where are the Autistic Amish” Olmsted entitled Weekly Wrap: Another Medical Practice with a Sane Vaccine Schedule – and No Autism. Given the tendency towards a—shall we say?—lack of accuracy of Olmsted’s previous reporting, it’s no surprise that he’d latch on to this study. I’m also seeing it appear around other antivaccine websites. I had gotten wind of it late last week, a few of my readers having sent it to me but hadn’t decided yet whether to blog about it. Then it appeared on AoA. Thanks, Dan.

So let’s see how this study is being spun by the antivaccine movement:

When we at Age of Autism talk about ending the epidemic, the “to do” list seems almost overwhelming – funding a vax-unvaxed study, getting mercury out of flu shots, proving the HepB shot is nuts, wresting control of the agenda from pharma, fixing Vaccine Court (this time in the good sense of “fix”), establishing that biomedical treatments help kids recover, and on and on.

But there’s a shortcut to all this, and it goes straight through pediatricians’ offices. The evidence is growing that where a sane alternative to the CDC’s bloated vaccine schedule is offered, and other reasonable changes adopted, autism is either non-existent or so infrequent that it doesn’t constitute an epidemic at all.

The latest example comes from Lynchburg, Va., and the pediatric practice of Dr. Elizabeth Mumper. She noticed a frightening rise in autism in the 1990s. Concerned that vaccines and other medical interventions might be playing a role – concerned in other words that SHE was playing a role — Mumper changed course.

Fewer vaccines. Fewer antibiotics. No Tylenol. Breast-feeding. Probiotics. Good, pesticide free diets.

Since then, hundreds more children have been seen in her practice, Advocates For Children. But no more autism.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health, Vaccines

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Conscious Discipline – More Dubious Neuroscience

conscious disciplineI did not coordinate my topic for today with Harriet’s excellent review yesterday of Satel and Lilienfeld’s excellent book; the timing is just fortuitous. Harriet discussed popular abuses of neuroscience, which often amount to an oversimplification and hyperreductionism of a complex area of study. I was recently asked to comment on a claim that I feel falls squarely into this realm – so-called conscious discipline.

From the conscious discipline website:

It surpasses behavioral approaches that teach specific behaviors, and offers a neurodevelopmental model of the brain…

The Conscious Discipline Brain State Model becomes a frame for us to understand the internal brain-body states that are most likely to produce certain behaviors in children and in ourselves. With this awareness, we learn to consciously manage our own thoughts and emotions so we can help children learn to do the same.

They even offer a helpful picture of the brain to illustrate their model (above).

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Brainwashed: Neuroscience and Its Perversions

Sally Satel and Scott Lilienfeld have written a new book, Brainwashed: The Seductive Appeal of Mindless Neuroscience. Its purpose is not to critique neuroscience, but to expose and protest its mindless oversimplification, interpretive license, and premature application in the legal, commercial, clinical, and philosophical domains.

The brain is a wondrous thing: “…the three pound universe between our ears has more connections than there are stars in the Milky Way.” Trying to understand how it works and how it generates conscious awareness and subjective feelings is a daunting task. Neuroimaging is one of the tools we are using to study it. Unfortunately, people get so enthusiastic about its possibilities that they are constantly tempted to read more into the images than is really there. This has given rise to a new phrenology that interprets our mental characteristics with pretty colored pictures. We are easily impressed by pictures; after all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Brain imaging can’t show us what is going on in the mind of the person. It shows areas that have increased oxygen consumption. A spot lights up when a person thinks or acts, but that doesn’t tell us much. Single blobs that light up in the brain have been interpreted as centers for things like love, rewards, hate, and belief in God. This is sometimes referred to as “blobology.” They found an area in one person that lit up when he thought about an actress he loved. That area was thought to be a “reward” center. But it also lit up when he thought of Ahmadinejad! So they did some fancy footwork and rationalized that he believed that the Jewish people would endure and therefore he derived pleasure from the idea that Ahmadinejad would fail. That’s pretty far-fetched. Occam’s razor would suggest that maybe the area that lit up was reacting not to pleasure, but to something else. People tend to read what they want to see into ambiguous patterns like a Rorschach test. Mental functions are rarely limited to a single spot in the brain; multiple areas are involved and interconnected. Researchers are increasingly moving away from blobology and towards pattern analysis where they look at the patterns of activation across the entire brain. (more…)

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

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Autism and Induced Labor

A recently published epidemiological study in JAMA Pediatrics looked at the association between induction and enhancement of labor and the risk of autism. The researchers found a positive association, especially with males. The study has been variously reported in the popular press with causal interpretations not justified by the data.

The study itself is very robust – the authors looked at 625,042 live births, including 5,500 children with a diagnosis of autism. They found:

Compared with children born to mothers who received neither labor induction nor augmentation, children born to mothers who were induced and augmented, induced only, or augmented only experienced increased odds of autism after controlling for potential confounders related to socioeconomic status, maternal health, pregnancy-related events and conditions, and birth year. The observed associations between labor induction/augmentation were particularly pronounced in male children.

Although this is a large study, it is one study, and so the correlation needs to be independently confirmed. But if we assume the correlation is accurate, the next question is – what is the arrow of causation? Observational studies can only indicate an association. By themselves they cannot prove causation, although multiple observational studies may be able to triangulate to the most likely causal interpretation. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Obstetrics & gynecology, Vaccines

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Prenatal Mercury and Autism

Mercury in unequivocally a neurotoxin. It is especially damaging to the developing brain. But it’s the dose that makes the toxin, and so a low enough exposure even to something known to be potentially harmful may not be. Further, the body has mechanisms for dealing with toxins, and toxins in the body may not be reaching the cells they can potentially damage in significant amounts. Therefore if we want to know if a potential toxin is actually causing any harm to people we need to do some type of epidemiological study – correlating exposure to possible adverse outcomes. All the studies in petri dishes and with cell cultures just won’t answer the question of harm.

The question of whether or not mercury in vaccines has caused neurological harm, specifically autism, has been largely answered. Numerous studies have shown no association between the amount of mercury exposure from vaccines and the risk of developing autism. A separate mercury-related question, however, is whether or not there is any risk of harm from mercury exposure from seafood. Mercury is methylated by bacteria into methymercury, and through them gets into the food chain in the oceans. Fish that eat other fish then concentrate the mercury in their tissues, and so predatory fish and sea mammals tend to have high concentrations of methymercury.

This has led to some precautionary recommendations, including that pregnant women should not eat tuna or other fish with high mercury levels. This makes sense, but what is the actual risk? The precautionary principle can also cut both ways. Fish contain many high-quality nutrients important for a developing brain, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids. Removing this food source from the diet of pregnant women may have unintended negative consequences.

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