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Archive for Neuroscience/Mental Health

The PIED Piper of Nootropics

4016241122_a5b15e1356_z 75Nootropics are an emerging class of drugs that are designed to enhance cognitive function. They are part of a broader category of drugs known as performance and image enhancing drugs (PIED) which are used for enhancement of memory and cognition, sexual performance, athletic performance or musculature (also called “lifestyle” drugs).

It will probably come as no surprise to regular readers of SBM that nootropics and PIED are being abused and hyped without adequate evidence. One of the primary problems is that they are sold as supplements or as drugs, often over the internet without adequate regulation. One simple fix is to properly classify these drugs as drugs, and to properly regulate them as drugs.

Many of the cognition-enhancing “supplements” on the market make all the usual claims about “natural” enhancement – meanwhile they predictably contain just vitamins, herbs which have not been shown effective, perhaps nootropics (see below), and often a stimulant, like caffeine. The only drug in the mix which is likely to have a noticeable effect by the user is the stimulant.

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A journey to alternative and integrative medicine apostasy

Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875

Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage, 1875

I’ve been blogging for over a decade now, a fact that I find really hard to believe looking back on it right now. I’ve told the story before, but it’s worth briefly recounting again because doing so will explain why the story I’m about to discuss caught my attention. My “gateway drug,” if you will, into skepticism was discovering Holocaust denial in the late 1990s on Usenet, a vast and sprawling conglomeration of thousands of discussion forums that began to fade away at the turn of the century with the rise of web-based forums and Google providing an interface to it to make it Google Groups. The forum where I first discovered Holocaust denial and learned to combat it, alt.revisionism, still exists, but long ago degenerated into a cesspool of racism, spam, and trolling. A couple of years later, around 2000 or so, I discovered quackery and the antivaccine movement, thanks to a Usenet newsgroup known as misc.health.alternative, which is where I honed my early skills applying science to medical claims. It’s also where I first encountered Peter Moran, a regular commenter here who greatly inspired me back then with his full-throated criticism of cancer quackery and his website that taught me reasons why cancer quackery could appear to work even when it did nothing to impact the progression of the cancer.

In December 2004, intrigued by all the news stories about blogging and having discovered a number of good blogs, I decided on one dark, gray Saturday afternoon to dip my toe in the blogosphere. On the spur of the moment I created the first iteration of my not-so-super-secret other blog on—what else?—Blogger. Much to my own amazement, over the course of a year I got my little hobby noticed, to the point where I was invited to join a blog collective; by late 2007 I had become prominent enough to be invited by Steve Novella to join this very blog at its founding, where I have remained for seven years, with no plans to move on any time soon. During my early days, though, there was one person who also inspired me, helping me to learn about the pseudoscience that undergirds the antivaccine movement and, in particular, the quackery making up what is known these days as the “autism biomed” movement. His name is James Laidler, and he was one of the ones who introduced me to this topic which I’ve written about many times both at my not-so-super-secret other blog and, of course, right here on SBM. In doing so, over the years I’ve catalogued why “autism biomed” seems compelling to many parents with children with autism, how antivaccine groups use fake “medical conferences” to sell autism biomed by giving a patina of medical respectability to rank quackery like bleach enemas, and providing a place where those selling unscientific treatments can find willing customers and where disreputable discredited “scientists” like Andrew Wakefield and Mark Geier can find adoring fans who believe their quackery.

I bring this up because last week WIRED published an excellent article about Jim Laidler, “An Alternative-Medicine Believer’s Journey Back to Science.” Appropriately enough, it’s by Alan Levinovitz, an assistant professor of religion at James Madison University. I say “appropriately enough” because, as has been noted here on a number of occasions, there are many religion-like aspects to alternative medicine in general but to the autism biomed movement in particular. Indeed, the two are often tied together, with the motivation for some alt-med being explicitly religious and belief in alt-med sharing some major characteristics with religion, particularly belief in miracles against evidence, charismatic leaders (like Andrew Wakefield) who can do no wrong, and mutually-supportive communities of believers who reinforce each others’ beliefs and ward off skepticism. Add to that the magical thinking, and it’s not for nothing that I’ve referred to the central dogma of alternative medicine as being that wishing makes it so. Indeed, it’s for good reason that I frequently point out that most “energy medicine” (particularly reiki) is basically faith healing that substitutes Eastern mysticism for Judeo-Christian religious beliefs.

In Levinovitz’s profile of Jim Laidler, we see a lot of this, and I learned some details that I didn’t know about Laidler before. Levinovitz also grasps the religion-like nature of alt-med by starting the article bluntly saying:

Jim and Louise Laidler lost their faith on a trip to Disneyland in 2002, while having breakfast in Goofy’s Kitchen.

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

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Stem cells versus Gordie Howe’s stroke, part 3

Gordie Howe in his Red Wings days.

Gordie Howe in his Red Wings days.

Here I am in Philadelphia attending the 2015 American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) meeting to imbibe the latest basic and translational science about oncology. So what am I doing in my non-conference time? I’m holed up in my hotel room near Rittenhouse Square writing a DoD Grant and this post. Fortunately, I am nearly done with the grant, with nothing I can do until I receive one last letter of support from a person who, as much as he’s my bud, is incredibly annoying and always makes me sit on pins and needles waiting for his letter of support. (Those of you who’ve applied for a lot of grants know what I mean.) Then tomorrow I will have to assemble the PDF package to get to my grants office two days before the deadline, which is pushing it to make sure they get it uploaded to Grants.gov in time. Fun times.

With the Stanley Cup playoffs just getting underway (complete with the ugly faux “Stanley Cup” made out of garbage cans our next door neighbor’s son puts on his lawn every year, bathed in red light for the Red Wings), it’s also the perfect time to revisit a story I’ve written about a couple of times before right here on this very blog. I’m referring (this time) to the story of hockey legend Gordie Howe and news stories of his “miraculous” recovery from a serious stroke suffered back in October due to treatment at a stem cell clinic in Tijuana back in December. Of course, when I looked into it, there were a lot of holes in the story and clearly a lot of hype on the part of several parties: Howe’s son Murray Howe, whose love for his father apparently blinded him to some rather obvious issues with the care that his father was receiving and whether it was responsible for his recovery; Stemedica, the American stem cell company based in San Diego that sells its stem cells to a dubious Mexican stem cell company, Novastem, for use outside its U.S. clinical trials; and, of course, the credulous sports media, led by that most credulous of the credulous (with respect to Gordie Howe), Keith Olbermann, who was none too pleased with a certain not-so-pseudonymous “friend” of SBM and completely embarrassed himself in the process of attacking anyone who questioned whether stem cells caused Howe’s recovery. The whole story did have one salutary effect, though. It introduced me to a real stem cell scientist, Paul Knoepfler, who did a guest post for us.

It’s been a couple of months since I last paid attention to what was going on with Gordie Howe’s recovery. Fortunately, our very own Scott Gavura tweaked me by sending me a story by Avis Favaro and Elizabeth St. Philip that appeared over the weekend in the Toronto Star, entitled “A closer look at the startling recovery of Gordie Howe.” Accompanying the story is a broadcast on CTV’s W5 entitled “Gordie’s Comeback”. (See part 1, part 2, part 3.) Also accompanying all of this is a press release discussing how a Canadian stem cell researcher visited Novastem and left unimpressed.
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Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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Psychology and Psychotherapy: How Much Is Evidence-Based?

psychology gone wrong
Despite all those Polish jokes, Poland has its share of good scientists and critical thinkers. A superb new book illustrates that fact in spades:

Psychology Gone Wrong: The Dark Side of Science and Therapy, by Tomasz Witkowski and Maciej Zatonski, Witkowski is a psychologist, science writer, and founder of the Polish Skeptics Club; Zatonski is a surgeon and researcher known for debunking unscientific therapies and claims in clinical medicine. Together, they turn a spotlight on research and treatment in the field of psychology. They uncover distressing flaws, show that many commonly accepted psychological principles are based on myths, argue that psychotherapy is a business and a kind of prostitution rather than an effective evidence-based medical treatment, and question whether psychotherapy should even exist, since in most cases it offers no advantage over talking to a friend about one’s problems, and in some cases can cause harm. (more…)

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

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What Is Brain Death?

Of course, any story illustrating the issues surrounding brain death is going to be a sad and tragic tale. In December of 2013, Jahi McMath suffered bleeding complications following a tonsillectomy and tissue removal for sleep apnea. This resulted in a cardiac arrest with an apparent prolonged period of lack of blood flow to the brain. While her heart function was brought back, Jahi suffered severe brain anoxia (damage due to lack of oxygen) and was declared brain dead on December 12, 2013.

Jahi’s tragic story is not over, however, because her family refused to accept the diagnosis of brain death. They took legal action to keep the hospital from pulling life support, and eventually worked out a compromise where the family was able to remove Jahi to their own care. At present Jahi is apparently being cared for in an apartment in New Jersey, on a ventilator and fed through a feeding tube.

There is often some confusion as to what brain death actually is. The term is unfortunately often used to refer to a persistent vegetative state or other severe impairment of consciousness, but this is not accurate. Brain death refers to a complete lack of function of the brain, including basic reflexes in the brain stem. There is a specific protocol for declaring a person brain dead, requiring detailed examination by at least two attending physicians to document the complete absence of any brain function. If the slightest pupillary reflex is present, then the patient cannot be declared brain dead. The criteria also include provisions that there are no medications in the person’s system that can suppress neurological function and their core body temperature is sufficiently high (being too cold can also suppress neurological function).

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Mind Over Matter: The Brain’s Way of Healing

The Brain's Way of HealingIn 2008 I wrote about neuroplasticity as presented in Norman Doidge’s book The Brain That Changes Itself. I urge you to click on the link and read what I wrote there before you continue. The science is fascinating. The brain is far more malleable than we once thought. Areas of the cortex devoted to a sensory input shrink when that input is lost. Neurons from other parts of the brain can be co-opted to take over lost functions. Learning a new skill actually changes the structure and function of the brain: the areas of the cortex devoted to that skill enlarge as the new skill is practiced and perfected.

This is exciting stuff, with potential therapeutic applications in chronic pain, brain damage, and chronic illness. When I reviewed that book, I said I thought Doidge was a bit overenthusiastic; and now he has written a follow-up book that is even more overenthusiastic. In The Brain’s Way of Healing: Stories of Remarkable Recoveries from the Frontiers of Neuroplasticity, he slips into unscientific speculations and relies on anecdotes about patients who have allegedly benefited from practical applications of brain plasticity science. The title is accurate: these are stories, not scientific studies. I continue to find the subject fascinating and to believe that neuroplasticity offers a lot of potential for human healing, but I don’t believe we have learned much about practical ways to accomplish that. Doidge’s book goes beyond the science. (more…)

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

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How Not to Treat Migraine

Image credit: Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

Image credit: Wellcome Images, Wellcome Library, London, via Wikimedia Commons.

Last week I gave a quick overview of standard treatment options for migraine, a severe form of recurrent headaches. As promised, this week I will address some common treatments for migraine that I don’t think are supported by the evidence.

Acupuncture

Acupuncture is the CAM modality that, it seems to me, has infiltrated the furthest into mainstream medicine, including for the treatment of migraine. In fact the The American Headache Society includes acupuncture on its list of recommended treatments. The reason for this is that acupuncture proponents have been able to change the rules of clinical research so that essentially negative or worthless studies of acupuncture are presented as positive.

I reviewed the evidence for acupuncture and migraine previously, demonstrating the multiple problems with the acupuncture literature in general, and specifically acupuncture in migraines. Most studies suffer from at least one fatal flaw: they are not properly blinded, they do not include a control, they mix acupuncture with non-acupuncture variables (mostly including electrical stimulation in the treatment group), comparison groups are not adequately treated, they make multiple comparisons to maximize chance outcomes, or they are simply too small making them susceptible to all the usual problems of bias in research.

What we don’t see is a consistent and clinically-relevant effect in properly-controlled double-blind trials where the variables of acupuncture are isolated.

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Posted in: Acupuncture, Chiropractic, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Treating Migraines

I am a headache specialist and so I receive many questions, through SBM, NeuroLogica or listeners of the Skeptic’s Guide to the Universe, about how to best treat headaches, or about a specific, often unusual, treatment. Migraines and severe headaches are very common. According to the latest statistics:

14.2% of US adults 18 or older reported having migraine or severe headache in the previous 3 months in the 2012 NHIS. The overall age-adjusted 3-month prevalence of migraine in females was 19.1% and in males 9.0%, but varied substantially depending on age. The prevalence of migraine was highest in females 18-44, where the 3-month prevalence of migraine or severe headache was 23.5%.

That means about 28 million Americans suffer from migraines. Percentages do vary from continent to continent, but not dramatically. Migraine, therefore, is a huge burden. Headaches can be debilitating when severe, and so also are a major source of lost productivity.

This will be a two-part series reviewing some of the options for treating migraines, focusing on science-based treatments in part I, and non-science-based treatments in part II. None of this is intended to give specific medical advice for any individual. If you have severe headaches you should consult your physician. I will simply be reviewing the evidence for various options, focusing on migraine specifically.

Caffeine, a common trigger for migraines and headaches

Caffeine, a common trigger for migraines and headaches

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Low Dose Aspirin for Primary Prevention

600px-Aspirine_macro_shot

From the Wikimedia Commons.

A new study published in JAMA sheds further light on a controversial question – whether or not to prescribe low-dose aspirin (81-100mg) for the primary prevention of vascular disease (strokes and heart attacks).

Primary prevention means preventing a negative medical outcome prior to the onset of disease, in this case preventing the first heart attack or stroke. Secondary prevention refers to treatments given to patients who have already had their first heart attack or stroke in order to reduce the risk of subsequent events.

The evidence strongly supports the efficacy of aspirin for the secondary prevention of both heart attacks and strokes. Aspirin has two effects which likely contribute to this protective effect. First, aspirin is an anti-platelet agent – it reduces the stickiness of platelets, which are cell fragments in the blood that clump together to stop bleeding. They can also clump together around an ulcerated cholesterol plaque on an artery, forming a thrombus, resulting in blockage or embolus (the clot traveling downstream) and causing either a heart attack or stroke.

Other anti-platelet agents, such as clopidogrel, are also effective in preventing stroke and heart attack.

Of course, platelets exist for a reason, and blocking their action increases the risk of bleeding or can make bleeding worse when it occurs. Therefore determining the optimal dose and target population are important to maximize the benefit of aspirin or other anti-platelet agent while minimizing the bleeding risk. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health

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Stroke Death from Chiropractic Neck Manipulation

vertebral dissectionCase reports are perhaps the weakest form of medical evidence. They are essentially well-documented anecdotes. They do serve a useful purpose, however. They can illuminate possible correlations, the natural course of illness and treatment, and serve as cautionary tales regarding possible mistakes, risks and complications. I say “possible” because they are useful mainly for generating hypotheses and not testing or confirming hypotheses.

Dramatic case reports, however, with objective outcomes, like death, can be very useful by themselves in pointing out a potential risk that should be avoided. For example, case reports of objective and severe adverse outcomes are often used as sufficient evidence for pulling approved drugs off the market, or at least adding black box warnings.

The chiropractic community, it seems, does not respond in a similar way to dramatic adverse events that suggest possible risk from chiropractic manipulation. A recent and unfortunate case raises once again the specter of stroke following chiropractic neck manipulation. Jeremy Youngblood was 30 years old, completely healthy, and saw his chiropractic for some neck pain. According to news reports, Jeremy suffered a stroke in his chiropractor’s office while being treated with neck manipulation for the neck pain. According to reports the chiropractor did not call 911, but instead called Jeremy’s father who had to come and pick him up and then bring him to the ER. Jeremy suffered from a major stroke and later died.

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