Archive for Neuroscience/Mental Health

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).


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 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.


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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Low Dose Aspirin for Primary Prevention


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.


Posted in: Chiropractic, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Blaming breast cancer on autism

From the Wikimedia Commons, originally posted by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos (link)

From the Wikimedia Commons, originally posted by Flickr user Alex E. Proimos (link)

Gayle DeLong has been diagnosed with what she refers to as “autism-induced breast cancer”. She’s even given it an abbreviation, AIBC. Unfortunately, as you might be able to tell by the name she’s given her breast cancer, she is also showing signs of falling into the same errors in thinking with respect to her breast cancer as she clearly has with respect to autism. As a breast cancer surgeon, regardless of my personal opinion of DeLong’s anti-vaccine beliefs, I can only hope that she comes to her senses and undergoes science-based treatment, but I fear she will not, as you will see. Her brief post announcing her diagnosis and blaming it on autism, however, does provide what I like to call a “teachable moment” about cancer.

We’ve met DeLong before on this blog. For instance, she published an execrably bad study that—of course!—tried to link vaccine to autism and failed miserably, despite doing some amazing contortions of analysis, combining diagnoses willy-nilly, all in the service of the discredited vaccine-autism hypothesis. As I said at the time, it just goes to show that someone who is an associate professor of economics and finance shouldn’t be doing epidemiological research. As I also described at the time, if the sorts of analytical techniques she used in her study are acceptable in the world of economics and finance, no wonder our economy has been so screwed up for so long. Another time, DeLong wrote a broadside against the regulatory machinery that oversees vaccine development and safety that was full of the usual antivaccine misinformation, tropes, and pseudoscience and hugely exaggerated perceived “conflicts of interest” among the various parties.

Posted in: Cancer, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Vaccines

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False Memory Syndrome Alive and Well

The Courage to Heal, the source of many beliefs about false memory syndrome

The Courage to Heal, the source of many beliefs about false memory syndrome

It is disheartening that we have to return to pseudosciences that have been debunked decades ago, because they continue to linger despite being eviscerated by scientific scrutiny. Belief systems and myths have incredible cultural inertia, and they are difficult to eradicate completely. That is why belief in astrology, while in the minority, persists.

Professions, however, should be different. A healing profession should be held to a certain minimum standard of care, and that standard should be based upon something real, which means that scientific evidence needs to be brought to bear. Professionals are not excused for persisting in false beliefs that have long been discredited.

The 1980s saw the peak of an idea that was never based on science, the notion that people can suppress memories of traumatic events, and those repressed memories can manifest as seemingly unconnected mental health issues, such as anxiety or eating disorders. The idea was popularized mostly by the book The Courage to Heal (the 20th anniversary edition was published in 2008), in which the authors took the position that clients, especially women, who have any problem should be encouraged to recover memories of abuse, and if such memories can be dredged up, they are real.


Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Mirror Neurons and the Pitfalls of Brain Research

myth of mirror neurons

[Ed. Note: I realize that I normally post on Monday, but thanks to an R21 grant deadline tomorrow, I will not be able to post new material today (although you might have noticed some “familiar” material posted yesterday.) Harriet has graciously agreed to cover for me today, and we have a special guest post for you tomorrow. Fear not. I’ll soon be back. Trying to get the lab funded takes momentary precedence.]

In his new book The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition , Gregory Hickok, a professor of cognitive science, challenges current conceptions about mirror neurons. He shows how a complex mythology arose and why it is unwarranted, how experimental results were misinterpreted and disconfirming evidence ignored, and how other interpretations might lead to better insights about how the brain works.

I couldn’t say it any better than Steven Pinker did on the jacket blurb:

Every now and again an idea from science escapes from the lab and takes on a life of its own as an explanation for all mysteries, a validation of our deepest yearnings, and irresistible bait for journalists and humanities scholars…Hickok puts an end to this monkey business by showing that mirror neurons do not, in fact, explain language, empathy, society, and world peace. But this is not a negative exposé—the reader of this book will learn a great deal of the contemporary sciences of language, mind, and brain, and will find that the reality is more exciting than the mythology. (more…)

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