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Archive for Neuroscience/Mental Health

Brain-Machine Interface

We spend a great deal of time in the pages of Science-Based Medicine taking down every form of pseudoscience in medicine. Of course, what we see as pseudoscience, proponents often see as emerging or cutting edge science. They are taking advantage of the fact that there is a great deal of legitimate emerging science, and they hope they can sneak past the gates by cloaking themselves in the trappings of real science (jargon, studies, their own journals, etc.). Emerging science, however, no matter how plausible and earnest, still has yet to prove itself (by definition), and has to go through the rigorous process of scientific evaluation to slowly gain acceptance. That process – sorting out what works from what doesn’t, the real from the fake – is where all the action is in SBM.

It is refreshing sometimes to talk about an emerging field that, while still experimental, is legitimate and has the potential to usher in a genuinely revolutionary treatment.

I have been following the research into brain-machine interfaces for some years, and reporting on many of the significant “baby steps” in the advance of this new technology. A recent study published in The Lancet represents another incremental and encouraging advance. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh implanted two strips of 96 electrodes into the motor cortex of a 52 year-old woman with tetraplegia. The electrodes are capable of detecting the firing of neurons in the motor cortex and transmitting those signals to an external processor that in turn controls a fairly sophisticated robotic arm. The arm is described as having seven degrees of freedom – three dimensions of translation, three dimensions of orientation, and one dimension of grasping.

After two days the subject was able to move the robotic arm with her thoughts alone. Over the course of the 13 week study she progressively gained control of the arm and eventually was able to feed herself with the arm. While this is still very far from a “cure” for paralysis or a restoration of full function, for someone who is tetraplegic (all four limbs are paralyzed) having any independent function is a huge improvement in quality of life.

So where are we with this technology?

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Journal of Clinical Oncology editorial: “Compelling” evidence acupuncture “may be” effective for cancer related fatigue

Journal of Clinical Oncology (JCO) is a high impact journal (JIF > 16)  that advertises itself as a “must read” for oncologists. Some cutting edge RCTs evaluating chemo and hormonal therapies have appeared there. But a past blog post gave dramatic examples of pseudoscience and plain nonsense to be found in JCO concerning psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and, increasingly, integrative medicine and even integrations of integrative medicine and PNI. The prestige of JCO has made it a major focus for efforts to secure respectability and third-party payments for CAM treatments by promoting their scientific status and effectiveness.

Once articles are published in JCO, authors can escape critical commentary by simply refusing to respond, taking advantage of an editorial policy that requires a response in order for critical commentaries to be published. An author’s refusal to respond means criticism cannot be published.

Some of the most outrageous incursions of woo science into JCO are accompanied by editorials that enjoy further relaxation of any editorial restraint  and peer review. Accompanying editorials are a form of privileged access publishing, often written by reviewers who have strongly recommended the article for publication, and having their own PNI and CAM studies to promote with citation in JCO.

Because of strict space limitations, controversial statements can simply be declared, rather than elaborated in arguments in which holes could be poked. A faux authority is created. Once claims make it into JCO, their sources are forgotten and only the appearance a “must read,” high impact journal is remembered. A shoddy form of scholarship becomes possible in which JCO can be cited for statements that would be recognized as ridiculous if accompanied by a citation of the origin in a CAM journal. And what readers track down and examine original sources for numbered citations, anyway?
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Posted in: Acupuncture, Cancer, Clinical Trials, Energy Medicine, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Traditional Chinese Medicine

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Ecstasy for PTSD: Not Ready for Prime Time

Hundreds of desperate combat veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are reportedly seeking experimental treatment with an illegal drug from a husband-wife team in South Carolina. The Bonhoefers recently published a study showing that adding MDMA (ecstasy, the party drug) to psychotherapy was effective in eliminating or greatly reducing the symptoms of refractory PTSD. It was widely covered in the media, for instance in this article in the NY Times. It was only a small preliminary study, and the treatment is not yet ready for prime time; but media reports have sparked enthusiasm not justified by the evidence. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Chiropractic “Research” on Tourette Syndrome: The Trouble with Case Reports…..

I can think of few conditions with clinical features more ideal for establishing a pattern of abuse at the hands of practitioners of so-called alternative medicine than Tourette syndrome. Tourette syndrome (TS), which first manifests itself in early childhood in the overwhelming majority of patients, is a neurological disorder with infamous motor and vocal manifestations and a troubled past. Historically the condition was blamed on everything from emotional disturbances to outright faking to demon possession. But over the past few decades it has increasingly been recognized as a primarily organic disorder caused by negative genetic and environmental influences on areas in the brain which control movement and behavior.

I have a particular interest in Tourette syndrome, not just because I am a pediatrician but because I was diagnosed with the disorder at the age of seven. I have been lucky in that my symptoms, after a few rocky years in middle school and early high school, have been fairly mild. It is obvious to most people that I have a movement disorder, but it has never impacted my ability to function in society and succeed in my chosen profession of pediatric medicine. In fact, I often think of my Tourette’s as a positive aspect of my life, believing that it helped shape who I am as a person. I feel that it has helped instill in me positive personality attributes that are beneficial in the practice of medicine, such as empathy and compassion.

Patients that would have been institutionalized a hundred years ago, or worse as you go farther back in time, are now treated based on scientific advances in neuroscience and pharmacology, typically very successfully — that is if they manage to avoid involvement with quacks and charlatans. A 2009 survey of TS patients, or parents of patients with TS, revealed that nearly two thirds partake in alternative therapies with no proven benefit.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Is There a Treatment for Tinnitus

There are several features of a symptom or illness that make it a convenient target for proponents of unconventional therapies. Subjective symptoms are more likely to be targeted than objective conditions – you don’t see many so-called “alternative” birth control treatments. Symptoms for which placebo effects alone are likely to produce the illusion of effectiveness are good targets for ineffective treatments. Symptoms that vary naturally over time also are good targets – patients are likely to seek treatment when their symptoms are maximal, which means spontaneous regression to the mean will provide an effective illusion of efficacy for any intervention.  Illnesses with a substantial psychological component (such as those that are worsened by emotional stress or that are emotional, such as anxiety) are likely to benefit from non-specific effects of the therapeutic interaction, rendering the treatment itself irrelevant.

Finally, any condition or symptom for which there is currently no effective treatment provides a market ripe for exploitation.

Tinnitus has many of these features. Tinnitus describes the subjective experience of spontaneous noise perceived in one or both ears, which can be a buzzing, hiss, tone, or ringing sound. The severity of the tinnitus, its loudness, can vary over time, but perhaps more importantly the degree to which the tinnitus is bothersome can vary considerably. The sound is distracting and can have a significant impact on quality of life. Those with tinnitus can ignore the sound at times (depending on its severity), can be distracted from the sound, and may even learn through cognitive therapy to become accustomed to it. Therefore we might expect that tinnitus is amenable to placebo effects.

Finally, there is no proven effective treatment for tinnitus, which means that those who suffer from tinnitus may be desperate for a treatment. Desperation is a commodity highly prized by snake-oil salesmen.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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A PANDAS Story

One of the skills I try to teach medical students on their journey to becoming experience clinicians is to consider and address the patient’s “narrative.” Patients have a certain understanding of their illness, its cause, and its role in their life. They make sense of their situation as best as they can, resulting in a story they tell themselves. This is how humans generally deal with the complexities of life.

There is a potential problem when the clinical narrative of the health care provider conflicts significantly with the illness narrative of the patient. Patients, for example, often feel that a highly specific diagnosis is necessary for optimal treatment of their condition. Until they are given such a diagnosis they feel they need to keep looking – for better diagnostic tests or different specialists (what I call the “Dr. House” narrative). The appropriate diagnostic and therapeutic algorithm for that patient, however, may not require a specific diagnosis, but rather eliminating certain diagnoses and then treating the probable category or clinical syndrome that remains. The clinical narrative, in other words, may be one of considering risks vs benefits with incomplete and imperfect knowledge.

Increasingly, it seems, the conflict of narratives is taking on a larger scale – not just between one doctor and one patient, but between the medical community and patient communities. Perhaps this is one manifestation of the new social media generation. Take, for example, a recent controversy over a patient diagnosed with PANDAS (pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections).

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Frightening Breast Cancer Patients with Bad Science

No Time to Waste: Avoidant Coping Style Scrambles Circadian Rhythms in Breast Cancer Patients, warned the headline of an article in Clinical Psychiatry News. The article went on to claim

Even in the earliest days following a diagnosis of breast cancer, maladaptive coping styles are associated with a disruption in circadian rhythms –which are proven in metastatic disease to be a prognostic indicator of mortality. The surprising finding… holds potentially profound implications for the timing and tailoring of psychosocial interventions in newly diagnosed patients.

And it invoked psychoneuroimmunology for an authoritative sounding warning to breast cancer patients:

The fact that circadian disruption was significant in a subset of patients a mean 19 [sic] days after diagnosis suggests that there may be no time to waste in identifying and treating potentially maladaptive coping responses that could impact not only their adjustment, but also their prognosis.

Women who are diagnosed with breast cancer, enroll yourself immediately in a stress reduction program or support group, if you want to stem the progression of your disease and prolong your life! If you have metastatic disease, maybe you can blame your “maladaptive coping,” your inept handling of the days and weeks immediately after your diagnosis. Such frightening messages to women who are vulnerable because they have just received their diagnosis should require high standards before being released. This article reeks of hype and distortion, starting with its emotional title, No Time to Waste and “Scrambles Circadian Rhythms,” continuing with claims of “profound implications for the timing of psychosocial interventions,” and ending with an exhortation to breast cancer patients that “early breast cancer patients certainly warrant paying closer attention to coping from Day 1.”

The issue is not just skewered science, because  the article contains information that is easily misunderstood without a proper context. Breast cancer patients are urged to take get psychosocial intervention under the threat that if they do not, they are missing an opportunity to control the progression of their disease. This is an example of the irresponsible nonsense that I have been complaining in the past two blogs. There is simply no evidence that psychological interventions can slow progression of cancer or extend life. Claims to the contrary serve to burden cancer patients with an unrealistic responsibility for the outcome of their medical condition. Patients who experience progression to a terminal condition are provided with an irrational sense that they are to blame because they did not take the right steps, namely avail themselves of effective psychological interventions. This article implies that breast cancer patients with an unfavorable course have brought it on themselves by getting too stressed out.

It’s not clear whether journalist Betsy Bates Freed, PsyD. actually interviewed the authors of the study on which the story is based. Media coverage often offers direct quotes that appear to have been obtained directly from authors when they actually come from the scientific article.  In this particular case, Freed provides a highly speculative direct quote that “circadian cycles regulate tumor growth” as if it came directly from the mouth of the lead author of the study. For the record, there is some evidence of an association between circadian rhythms and progression of metastatic breast cancer, but it is not clear that it is causal or  affects”regulation” or in what direction any causal arrows run. Importantly, such findings have not been replicated with early breast cancer patients.

Clinical Psychiatry News is not some dubious CAM website, but an Elsevier published monthly newspaper with an advisory editorial board with recognizable scientist and clinician psychiatrists. It has largely free web access because of pharmaceutical company support. One has to question what editorial control over content is exerted before releasing articles like No Time to Waste.
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Posted in: Cancer, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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The Power of Replication – Bems Psi Research

I love reading quotes by the likes of Karl Popper in the scientific literature. A recent replication of Bem’s infamous psi research, Feeling the Future, gives us this quote:

Popper (1959/2002) defined a scientifically true effect as that “which can be regularly reproduced by anyone who carries out the appropriate experiment in the way prescribed.”

The paper is the latest replication of Daryl Bem’s 2011 series of 9 experiments in which he claimed consistent evidence for a precognitive effect, or the ability of future events to influence the present. The studies were published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, a prestigious psychology journal. All of the studies followed a similar format, reversing the usually direction of standard psychology experiments to determine if future events can affect past performance.

In the 9th study, for example, subjects were given a list of words in sequence on a computer screen. They were then asked to recall as many of the words as possible. Following that they were given two practice sessions with half of the word chosen by the computer at random. The results were then analyzed to see if practicing the words improved the subject’s recall for those words in the past. Bem found that they did, with the largest effect size of any of the 9 studies.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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The “central dogma” of alternative/complementary/integrative medicine

There is something in molecular biology and genetics known as the “central dogma.” I must admit, I’ve always hated the use of the word “dogma” associated with science, but no less a luminary than Francis Crick first stated it in 1958, and it has been restated over the years in various ways. Perhaps my favorite version of the central dogma was succinctly stated by Marshall Nirenberg, who said, “DNA makes RNA makes protein,” which about sums up all of molecular biology in five words. Or at least it did until the last ten or twenty years, when we’ve been finding exceptions to this dogma.

I don’t want to dwell on the central dogma. As I’ve said, I loathe the use of the term “dogma” to describe anything in science, although a discussion of the central dogma and its exceptions might make for a decent post one day. What brought the central dogma to mind is a series of articles I saw recently in ONCOLOGY: Perspectives on Best Practices that let me to ponder the question: What is the “central dogma” of “alternative medicine”? I realize that alt-med is an unwieldy gmish of ideas that range from the semi-plausible but unproven to the completely ridiculous (i.e., homeopathy or reiki), but after reading these articles and thinking about it, I do believe that there is in actuality a “central dogma” of alternative medicine. I also believe that it is entirely appropriate to call it a “dogma” in this situation, because it is far more a matter of faith than it is of science. Moreover, the more that quackademic medicine infiltrates academic medicine, the more this “central dogma” has infiltrated academic medicine with it. Indeed, as you will see, when this central dogma is questioned, even by someone sympathetic to “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM; i.e., “complementing” medicine with quackery) or “integrative medicine” (i.e., the “integration” of pseudoscientific medicine with medicine).
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Posted in: Cancer, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and Medicine

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The Mind in Cancer: Low Quality Evidence from a High-Impact Journal

My science writing covers diverse topics but increasingly concerns two intertwined themes in cancer and psychology. First, I bring evidence to bear against an exaggerated role for psychological factors in cancer, as well as against claims that the cancer experience is a mental health issue for which many patients require specialty mental health interventions. Second, I explore unnoticed social and organizational influences and publishing practices, which limit evaluation of the best evidence for theories and practices claiming to be evidence based, especially those recommended (and even mandated) by professional organizations and accrediting bodies.

I benefit from a great set of international collaborators, and my colleagues and I have repeatedly  debunked claims that psychological interventions increase the survival time of cancer patients by improving their immune systems. Wally Sampson and Bernie Fox provided important inspiration for these efforts. A key source of such claims is the classic Lancet study by David Spiegel, which I will dissect in a later post for ScienceBasedMedicine.org (for now, see our published critique of Spiegel).
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Posted in: Cancer, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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