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Archive for Neuroscience/Mental Health

Antidepressants and Autism

Pregnant-woman-1-4-12-21A new study looking at the correlation of antidepressant use during pregnancy and the development of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) has been making headlines. While the results are likely significant, they are not as worrisome as the headlines may suggest.

The study: strengths and weaknesses

Overall the study design is solid. They followed 145,456 singleton full-term infants for a total of 904,035.50 person-years of follow-up. That is the strongest aspect of the study, its power. Typically when you capture large numbers you have to trade-off detail of information. As Lincoln might have said, you can capture a lot of information about a small number of people, or a small amount of information about a large number of people, but it is difficult to capture a lot of information about a large number of people.

The use of databases, especially in socialized countries, does help. In this case they used the ongoing population-based cohort, the Québec Pregnancy/Children Cohort. One compromise, however, is that they followed whether or not the mother filled a prescription for an anti-depressant. They did not capture whether or not the mother actually took the medication.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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“Electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “wifi allergies”: Bogus diagnoses with tragic real world consequences

Is there such a thing as an "allergy to wifi"? Lots of people claim there is; science, not so much.

Is there such a thing as an “allergy to wifi”? Lots of people claim there is; science, not so much.

I debated about writing about this topic, given that I just wrote about it last week on my not-so-super-secret other blog. However, as I thought about it during the weekend, I realized that the tragic story that so saddened and disturbed me to prod me to discuss so-called “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” or “electro-hypersensitivity” (EHS) was so horrific that a more detailed, SBM-level discussion was indicated, particularly in light of a similar case electromagnetic hypersensitivity that didn’t end so tragically discussed by Harriet Hall in September. I’m referring, of course, to the case of Jenny Fry, a British teen who hanged herself in June and whose mother has been claiming that her “allergy to wifi” was what drove her to suicide. So, while there will be some overlap with my previous discussion, I will try to step back and take a broader view of the evidence regarding the fake diagnosis of EHS, interspersed with examples (hopefully) illustrating my point. Think of this as the post I wished I had written the first time around but, due to time constraints, couldn’t.

Bogus science and lawsuits over EHS

By way of background, it’s worth briefly revisiting the case that Harriet discussed. Indeed, if you Google “lawsuit” and “electromagnetic hypersensitivity” and “wifi” the first two pages of results consist mostly of articles discussing it. That’s probably because this is just the latest lawsuit that made the news. It happened in Massachusetts, where the parents of a 12-year-old boy (designated “G” in court records) who was attending Fay School in Massachusetts alleged that the school violated his rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act by failing to make accommodations to protect G from electromagnetic radiation from the school’s wifi routers. From the complaint’s summary statement:
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Posted in: Basic Science, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Public Health

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Is Addiction a Disease? Yes and No

Yes, it's a disease

Yes, it’s a disease

No, it's a habit

No, it’s a habit


Addiction is a puzzling phenomenon. Why do addicts persist in self-destructive behavior even after it has lost them their jobs, their family, their health, and their self-respect? Do they have any control over their behavior? If so, why don’t they control it? If not, why not? Two recent books shed light on these questions: The Biology of Desire: Why Addiction Is Not a Disease, by Marc Lewis, and The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig.

Lewis is a neuroscientist and former addict; Heilig is a physician and addiction researcher. Lewis is convinced that addiction is not a disease, but a habit created by the neural circuitry of desire in the course of its normal functioning. Heilig is convinced that addiction is a chronic disease like diabetes that can’t be cured but that must be managed by lifelong treatment.

While they disagree about whether addiction is a disease, they actually agree about almost everything else. They agree that we should reject the stigma of addiction as a kind of moral failing. They reject the hypotheses that addiction is a matter of choice or self-medication. They think current diagnostic labels are inadequate. They both try to integrate two levels of information: the case histories of addicts and the scientific knowledge from research. They are both skeptical of AA and of conventional rehab programs. They both support evidence-based treatments. They both think addicts are not all alike and that individual addicts will respond better to individualized approaches. (more…)

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

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Exercise and Memory

exercise-brainThere is no escaping the evidence that regular moderate exercise is associated with a host of medical benefits. Among those benefits are perhaps improved memory and cognition, and questionably a decreased risk of developing dementia.

The latest study to show this correlation involved younger and older adults who wore a step-monitor. The number of steps they took during the study interval was then correlated with their performance on neuropsychological testing. The researchers found that for the older adults, but not younger adults, more physical activity correlated with better overall cognitive performance, but especially for face-name recognition.

This is a small study, with 60 subjects total. Also, the study is correlational only. It is possible that healthier older adults are both more physically active and cognitively nimble, because of underlying biological fitness. More cognitively active older adults may also be more physically active – the lines of cause and effect are plausible in multiple ways. (more…)

Posted in: Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Whole Body Vibration Therapy

WBVTWhen skeptics hear the term “vibration” a red flag goes up, because that is a common term used in pseudoscientific jargon. Vibrations are often used to refer vaguely to energy or some physical or even spiritual property that cannot be detected, and is used in a hand-waving manner to explain extraordinary claims.

Vibrations, however, are also a real thing, referring to physical oscillations. Whole body vibration therapy (WBVT) refers to these legitimate physical vibrations. It is being offered as a treatment for balance, back pain, neurological disorders, and also simple fitness. Does it actually work, however, for the indications claimed?

What is WBVT?

WBVT is considered a passive exercise modality, in which something is being done to the person, rather than the person actively engaging in an activity, such as walking, weight lifting, or swimming. With WBVT users lay, sit, or stand on a platform that vibrates rapidly in one or more directions. The idea is that the rapid vibrations force the muscles of the body to contract in reaction, providing a form of exercise.

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Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Donald Trump and the dangerous vaccine politics of the 2016 Presidential race

Republican candidates Ben Carson and Donald Trump during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015,

Republican candidates Ben Carson and Donald Trump during the CNN Republican presidential debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum on Wednesday, Sept. 16, 2015

I’ve been writing about vaccines and the antivaccine movement since the turn of the millennium, first in discussion forums on Usenet, then, beginning in 2004, on my first blog (a.k.a. the still existing not-so-super-secret other blog), and finally right here on Science-Based Medicine (SBM) since 2008. Vaccines are one of the most important, if not the most important, topics on a blog like this because (1) arguably no medical intervention has prevented more deaths and suffering throughout history than vaccines; (2) few medical interventions are as safe and effective as vaccines; and (3) there is a vocal and sometimes effective contingent of people who don’t believe (1) and (2), blaming vaccines for all sorts of diseases and conditions to which science, despite many years of study, has failed to link them. The most prominent condition falsely linked to vaccines is, of course, autism, but over the years I’ve written about a host of others, including sudden infant death syndrome, shaken baby syndrome, autoimmune diseases, and even cancer. In a similar vein, antivaccine activists will try to claim that vaccines are loaded with “toxins” or even tainted with fetal “parts” or cells because some vaccines’ manufacturing process involves growing virus in two cell lines that were derived from aborted fetuses many decades ago. Even the Catholic Church doesn’t say that Catholics shouldn’t use these vaccines, but that doesn’t prevent some antivaccine groups from portraying vaccines as virtually being made by scientists cackling evilly as they grind up aborted fetuses to make vaccines. (I exaggerate, but not by much.)

On a strictly scientific, medical level, antivaccine claims such as the ones described above are fringe, crank viewpoints. There is no serious scientific support for any of them and lots of scientific evidence against them, particularly the most persistent myth, namely that vaccines cause autism. It also used to be the case that, politically, antivaccine views tended to be those of the fringe. Unfortunately, in the current election cycle, those fringe views seem to be coming to the fore among prominent candidates for the Republican Presidential nomination. This was most evident at the second Republican Presidential debate last week, where Donald Trump spewed antivaccine tropes and neither of the two physicians also running for the Republican nomination mounted a vigorous defense of vaccines. Even candidates who have previously issued strong statements defending vaccines (Senator Marco Rubio and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal) remained silent.

(Video of the exchange can be found here.)

How did we get to this point? And why is it that antivaccine views, which in the past were stereotypically associated with crunchy lefties in the mind of the public, seem now to have found another comfortable home among small government conservatives, including the man who currently appears to be the frontrunner for the Republican nomination? In the days that followed the debate, there have been many discussions of Donald Trump’s antivaccine views, but none that take the long view. All seem to flow from the idea that it’s mainly just Donald Trump and his wacky views, rather than Trump being part of a more widespread phenomenon. I’ve frequently said that antivaccine beliefs tend to be the pseudoscience that knows no political boundaries, occurring with roughly equal frequency on the left and the right. However, it’s virtually inarguable that right now, in 2015, the loudest political voices expressing antivaccine views (or at least antivaccine-sympathetic views) are in the Republican Party. Yes, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is back in a big way, partying like it’s 1999 with Bill Maher over thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism, but neither he nor Bill Maher holds public office or is currently running for office. The über-liberal website The Huffington Post might have been promoting antivaccine propaganda since its inception, but its writers are not running for office, either, and of late it seems to be much less antivaccine than before. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health, Politics and Regulation, Vaccines

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Seneff Claims GMOs Cause Concussions

Concussion small
You read that headline correctly.

Stephanie Seneff first came to skeptical attention when she published a study claiming that vaccines were linked to autism. She trolled through the VAERS database and, as David Gorski noted, “tortured the data until it confessed.” Last year she published a paper in which she claimed glyphosate caused autism, claims which I addressed almost a year ago. Gorski also deconstructed this paper, noting, “In fact, if you look at the slides for Seneff’s talks (e.g., this one, available at her MIT web page), you’ll find a tour de force of confusing correlation with causation…”

Seneff is a computer scientist who apparently is anti-vaccine and anti-GMO. In a stunning example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, she feels she can take her computer expertise and export it to biology. She nicely demonstrates that expertise is not so easily transferable.

From autism to concussions

Last year she also published a paper, which escaped my attention until it was recently pointed out to me, claiming that glyphosate, GMOs, and other modern lifestyle factors are responsible for the recent increase in concussions. Her co-author on the paper is Wendy Morely, who is a “Registered Holistic Nutritionist” specializing in the nutrition of concussion. Neither author has any neuroscience background.

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Posted in: Genetically modified organisms (GMOs), Herbs & Supplements, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Frontal Lobotomy: Zombies Created by One of Medicine’s Greatest Mistakes

White_Matter-cover_243_400_80

It’s not clear who first quipped “I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy,” but it’s not just a joke. Almost anything would be preferable to a frontal lobotomy. It was a barbarous procedure with catastrophic consequences, and yet it was once widely accepted and even earned a Portuguese doctor a Nobel Prize. In the annals of medical history, it stands out as one of medicine’s biggest mistakes and an example of how disastrously things can go wrong when a treatment is put into widespread use before it has been adequately tested.

A new book by Janet Sternburg, White Matter: A Memoir of Family and Medicine, puts a human face on the suffering of mentally ill patients and their families, and helps us understand why they agreed to lobotomies. It is the affecting story of how her relatives made the difficult but misinformed decision to lobotomize two of her mother’s five siblings, one for schizophrenia and the other for depression, and the consequences of that decision.
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Posted in: Book & movie reviews, History, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Helping the Paralyzed Walk


One of our primary goals at SBM is to advocate for high standards of science in medicine. This means that we spend a lot of our time discussing claims and practices that fall short of this standard. This is very useful – exploring exactly why a claim falls short is a great way to understand what the standard should be and why.

An unfortunate consequence of this approach, however, is that many of our articles tend to be negative. We focus on what doesn’t work, on what needs to be fixed, and on why people fail.

But there is a positive side to the story as well that we should not neglect – science is powerful and it works. That is why we are such enthusiastic advocates of science in medicine and why it is so important to get it right. We shy away from overhyping scientific advances in medicine, because the mainstream media does that so well, but every now and then it’s good to acknowledge awesome medical and scientific advances. (more…)

Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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“Hands On Learning Solutions”: Untested Solutions for Problems That May Not Even Exist

Get started...for as little as $14,000!

Get started…for as little as $14,000!

Hands On Learning Solutions, a business in Gig Harbor, Washington, evaluates and treats children for learning disabilities and claims to identify the underlying causes and help eliminate the symptoms. Much of what they do is questionable, and at least one of their methods is clearly bogus. Their program is reminiscent of the Brain Balance program that I wrote about in 2010. I’ll describe one child’s encounter with Hands On Learning Solutions and let you decide for yourself whether it sounds like a legitimate, helpful service.

Billy (not his real name) is an 11-year-old boy who is in the fifth grade at a Catholic school. He didn’t learn to talk until age 3, but he got speech therapy and is currently doing well in school, with a GPA of 86%. On his last report card, the section on “Successful Learner” rated him above average on working cooperatively with others, and satisfactory in all other categories, such as organizational skills, using time well, listening attentively, following directions, and completing work on time. His mother took him to Hands On Learning Solutions on the recommendation of a friend. On the intake questionnaire she expressed concerns about his written/oral expression, organization, study skills, attention focus, and motivation/behavior. She did not check the boxes for concerns about reading, spelling, comprehension, letter reversals, graphomotor skills, math, memory, poor grades, or slow work. (more…)

Posted in: Diagnostic tests & procedures, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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