I didn’t intend to review Jon Palfreman’s book Brain Storms: The Race to Unlock the Mysteries of Parkinson’s Disease, but after reading it I decided it was too good not to share. Palfreman is an award-winning science journalist who has Parkinson’s himself. He has done a bang-up job of describing Parkinson’s disease, its impact on patients, and how science is working to understand and treat it.
Parkinson first described the disease in 1817. It is characterized by shaking, rigidity, slowness of movement, and difficulty with walking. There is a decrease in dopamine in the basal ganglia in the brain. One million Americans have Parkinson’s disease. The incidence increases with age; by age 80 one in fifty people are affected.
Some very strange phenomena have been observed. Parkinson’s disease is less common among smokers and coffee drinkers. When a patient becomes frozen and unable to take the next step, if you draw a line on the floor they will step over the line and walk on. Patients who can’t walk can run, ride a bike, or ice-skate. Some patients appear to have strong responses to placebos, with reversal of symptoms for long periods. Exposure to vibration seems to decrease symptoms; in the late 1800s patients were treated with vibrating chairs until controlled studies showed they didn’t work. (more…)
This doctor (Ben Carson) believes “glyconutrients” cured his prostate cancer. Researchers in the field of glycobiology think he is wrong. They don’t even accept the term “glyconutrients.”
It has been a long time since I first became aware of Mannatech, the multilevel marketing company that sells “glyconutrient” dietary supplements. After its claims were debunked and it lost a court case, it had dropped off my radar; but last month it came roaring back in the form of an email from a reader in South Africa. He said his in-laws had recently become Mannatech Sales Associates. Although the company can’t legally claim that their products cure any ailments, they continue to imply that their products give your body the tools it needs to cure itself. Company representatives and other advocates continue to claim in seminars and on the Internet that Ambrotose helps with a variety of conditions including MS, AIDS, cancer, lupus, colitis, diabetes, fibromyalgia, cystic fibrosis, ADHD, neuralgia, wound healing, and much more. There are even claims that it “cures” Down syndrome and even changes its characteristic facial features. My correspondent had done his own research and had concluded that Mannatech was marketing modern day snake oil with outrageous claims. But he was shocked that there was so little impartial information available about “glyconutrients.”
He is right: much of the available information about “glyconutrients” is from people who are trying to sell products; there isn’t much unbiased information available. Science-Based Medicine has not previously addressed “glyconutrients” or Mannatech except when Dr. Gorski recently wrote about presidential candidate Ben Carson, MD, shilling for Mannatech and claiming that Mannatech products had cured his prostate cancer. Let’s take a closer look at the science behind the claims for “glyconutrients.” (more…)
We want the veterinarians who care for our animals to continue their education and keep up to date by learning about new developments in science. A new proposal for veterinary continuing education would encourage them to learn to use questionable treatments based on pseudoscience and fantasy.
My friend Carmen Czachor is a science-based veterinarian practicing in Port Angeles, Washington. She has alerted me to a disturbing development that she fears will “put veterinary medicine back in the dark ages.” The Washington State Department of Health is contemplating a rule change in the regulations requiring continuing education for veterinarians. Current requirements are for 30 hours of continuing education every 3 years; the only restriction is that no more than 10 hours can be earned in practice management courses. The Veterinary Board of Governors had observed an increase in the volume of continuing education courses related to CAVM (complementary and alternative veterinary medicine) and they wanted to provide some guidance. They explain:
The board originally proposed a ten hour limit on the number of veterinary CAVM CE hours that can be earned in any three year reporting period. After stakeholder feedback from multiple veterinary practitioners who practice solely in CAVM, the board decided to revisit the proposal. The board now proposes to establish a twenty hour limit on CAVM continuing education and add a ten hour minimum requirement for conventional medicine. The board finds that doing so would not result in a reduction in the quality of care provided and supports the consumer’s choices about what kind of care they seek.
Note: “stakeholder feedback from multiple veterinary practitioners who practice solely in CAVM.” I find this alarming. Veterinarians are licensed to practice veterinary medicine, not CAVM. Alternative medicine is called “alternative” because it is not supported by the kind of evidence that would earn it a place in conventional medicine. What does it mean that veterinarians are “practicing solely in CAVM”? Does that mean they have abandoned the conventional veterinary medicine that they were licensed to practice?
And how on earth did they determine that the proposal “would not result in a reduction in the quality of care provided”? They just made that up because they wanted to believe it and because they believe alternative medicine constitutes quality care. (more…)
A brand-new newborn. According to BFHI rules, he must maintain continuous skin contact with Mom and start breastfeeding within the first half hour.
“Breast is best,” but current efforts to increase the rate of breastfeeding may be misguided. A recent article in JAMA Pediatrics by pediatricians Joel Bass, Tina Gartley, and Ronald Kleinman is titled “Unintended Consequences of Current Breastfeeding Initiatives.” They criticize the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI), saying “there is now emerging evidence that full compliance…may inadvertently be promoting potentially hazardous practices and/or having counterproductive outcomes.”
The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative was launched by WHO and UNICEF in 1991 and has been adopted in 152 countries. In the US it has been promoted as the standard of care by government agencies like the CDC and the Joint Commission, and has been implemented by a growing number of hospitals. The criteria for a hospital’s Baby Friendly accreditation include:
- Have a written breastfeeding policy that is routinely communicated to all health care staff.
- Train all health care staff in skills necessary to implement this policy.
- Inform all pregnant women about the benefits and management of breastfeeding.
- Help mothers initiate breastfeeding within one half-hour of birth.
- Show mothers how to breastfeed and maintain lactation, even if they should be separated from their infants.
- Give newborn infants no food or drink other than breastmilk, not even sips of water, unless medically indicated.
- Practice rooming in – that is, allow mothers and infants to remain together 24 hours a day.
- Encourage breastfeeding on demand.
- Give no artificial teats or pacifiers (also called dummies or soothers) to breastfeeding infants
- Foster the establishment of breastfeeding support groups and refer mothers to them on discharge from the hospital or clinic.
Genetic variants may provide information you’d rather ignore
The complete sequencing of the human genome by the Human Genome Project was a remarkable accomplishment and a cause for celebration. Several companies including 23andMe, Navigenics, and deCODE have capitalized on that scientific achievement by offering genomic testing directly to the public. They promise more than they can deliver, and consumers don’t understand the limitations of the test results. The subject has been covered in several SBM articles.
One of the expected benefits of genomic testing is that if people knew they were at high risk of a disease, they would take preventive steps to reduce their risk. That seems plausible; but a recent study, a systematic review in the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) calls that assumption into question. It found that communicating DNA-based disease risk estimates did not increase risk-reducing health behaviors or motivation to engage in such behaviors.
The publisher recently sent me a review copy of Quackery: The 20 Million Dollar Duck, by Tony Robertson. My first thought was “Do we really need another book on this subject? Don’t I know all this stuff already?” I was very pleasantly surprised. Robertson has ferreted out an impressive array of facts and details that I wasn’t aware of; and yes, we need as many good books on the subject as we can get. Each author has a somewhat different approach that may appeal to a different audience. Robertson’s book is a worthy addition to the canon. He is a retired gynecologist who practiced, taught, and still lives in Zimbabwe. He is a critical thinker who understands and promotes science-based medicine, and he brings a unique perspective, especially on subjects related to his specialty. The book is not just about charlatans, it’s about non-science-based practices wherever they are found, including in mainstream medicine and in Robertson’s own field of obstetrics and gynecology.
I expected to like the book after I read the Dedication “To those who appreciate the truth fairy rather than the toothed one” and the Acknowledgements: “To my teachers and mentors who encouraged me to think, always to question and only to accept where there is good evidence.” That could serve as a motto for all skeptics, scientists, and critical thinkers to live by: Think, question, and only accept where there is good evidence. (more…)
Prevention has long been a priority of conventional medicine
One of the common criticisms we hear from alternative and integrative medicine proponents is that doctors don’t do anything to prevent illnesses and have no interest in prevention. They claim that doctors are only trained to hand out pills to treat existing illnesses. Sometimes they even accuse them of deliberately covering up cures and wanting to perpetuate illnesses like cancer so they can make more money by treating patients. Nothing could be more absurd. Every reputable doctor would rather prevent illnesses than treat them. In his book Heart 411, cardiologist Steven Nissen even said he would be glad to see his specialty become obsolete: “Don’t worry about us; we will gladly hang up our scalpel and stethoscope if we can find a better way to lead you to a heart-healthy life.”
Doctors own prevention. They invented it, from vaccines to clean water to preventive screening tests. Mainstream medicine was responsible for the greatest preventive achievement in history: the smallpox vaccine campaign succeeded in preventing anyone from ever getting smallpox again. I defy you to comb through historical records and find any doctor who ever said “Let’s stop vaccinating for smallpox so we can make more money treating its victims.”
Prevention is one of the six fundamental principles of naturopathy. Alternative practitioners pride themselves on prevention, but they don’t actually do a very good job of it. In fact, there is evidence that their patients are less likely to get immunizations and some of the standard preventive screening tests recommended by the USPSTF. Instead of rigorously implementing evidence-based preventive strategies, they tend to offer other speculative, untested recommendations.
Statistics is hard, often counterintuitive, and burdened with esoteric mathematical equations. Statistics classes can be boring and demanding; students might be tempted to call it “Sadistics.” Good statistics are essential to good research; unfortunately many scientists and even some statisticians are doing statistics wrong. Statistician Alex Reinhart has written a helpful book, Statistics Done Wrong: The Woefully Complete Guide, that every researcher and everyone who reads research would benefit from reading. The book contains a few graphs but is blissfully equation-free. It doesn’t teach how to calculate anything; it explains blunders in recent research and how to avoid them.
Inadequate education and self-deception
Most of us have little or no formal education in statistics and have picked up some knowledge in a haphazard fashion as we went along. Reinhart offers some discouraging facts. He says a doctor who takes one introductory statistics course would only be able to understand about a fifth of the articles in The New England Journal of Medicine. On a test of statistical methods commonly used in medicine, medical residents averaged less than 50% correct, medical school faculty averaged less than 75% correct, and even the experts who designed the study goofed: one question offered only a choice of four incorrect definitions.
There are plenty of examples of people deliberately lying with statistics, but that’s not what this book is about. It is about researchers who have fooled themselves by making errors they didn’t realize they were making. He cites Hanlon’s razor: “never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by incompetence.” He says even conclusions based on properly done statistics can’t always be trusted, because it is trivially easy to “torture the data until it confesses.” (more…)
Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Some psychotherapists do too.
I recently got an e-mail from a PR firm about an “internationally certified regression therapist,” Ann Barham, who has written a book and who claims to help patients to “heal enduring challenges, release unhealthy patterns and beliefs, and find their way to more happiness and success.” They offered me the opportunity to review her book and/or interview her; I declined, but I was interested in learning more about past life regression therapy, so I elected to “interview Dr. Google” instead.
In past life regression therapy, therapists use hypnosis, leading questions, and strong suggestions to encourage patients to imagine that reincarnation is real and to imagine their past lives. Events and people from past lives are blamed for symptoms and problems in the patient’s current life. Finding a past life cause for current problems supposedly helps patients deal with them. The technique is also used in healthy people to promote spiritual advancement and self-understanding. There is no such thing as reincarnation, and the memories of past lives are nothing but fantasy. (more…)
A superb writer, Siddhartha Mukherjee’s books are easier to read than his name is to spell
Six years ago I reviewed Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. It was hands-down one of the best books I have ever read on a medical topic. Now he’s done it again. His new book is titled The Gene: An Intimate History.
Mukherjee is a superb writer. Much of what I said about his first book applies equally to his second, so I will quote myself:
It is a unique combination of insightful history, cutting edge science reporting, and vivid stories about the individuals involved: the scientists, the activists, the doctors, and the patients. It is also the story of science itself: how the scientific method works…
Beautifully written and informative
Reads like a detective story with an exciting plot.
He links this second book to his first by pointing out that cancer is an ultimate perversion of genetics, and that studying cancer means also studying its obverse: normalcy. He gives the subject a human face by interspersing anecdotes from his own family’s struggles with mental illness and its connection to inherited genes. He sets out to tell the story of the birth, growth, and future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the gene. He says it is one of three destabilizing ideas that have transformed science: the concept that irreducible units underlie matter (the atom), digitized information (the byte or bit), and biological information (the gene). He explains how the consequences of these ideas have transformed our thinking, our language, our culture, politics, and society. (more…)