Archive for Neuroscience/Mental Health


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).


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.

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.


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).

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 (for now, see our published critique of Spiegel).

Posted in: Cancer, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media

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The perils and pitfalls of “patient-driven” clinical research

Dying of cancer can be a horrible way to go, but as a cancer specialist I sometimes forget that there are diseases that are equally, if not more, horrible. One that always comes to mind is amyotropic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It is a motor neuron disease whose clinical course is characterized by progressive weakness, muscle atrophy and spasticity, with ultimate progression to respiratory muscles leading to difficulty breathing and speaking (dysarthria) and to the muscles controlling swallowing. The rate of clinical course is variable, often beginning with muscle twitching in an arm or a leg or slurring of speech. Ultimately, however, ALS progresses to the loss of ability to move, speak, eat, or breathe. The most common cause of death is from respiratory failure, usually within three to five years after diagnosis, although there is the occasional outlier with a less malignant form of the disease with a slower course of progression who can live a long time, such as Steven Hawking.

In other words, ALS is a lot like cancer in some ways. It is a progressive, fatal disease that usually kills within a few years at most. On the other hand, it is different from cancer in that, at least for many cancers we actually do have effective treatments that prolong life, in some cases indefinitely. In contrast the most effective treatment we currently have for ALS is a drug (riluzole) that is not particularly effective—it prolongs life by months—and can be best described as better than nothing, but not by a whole lot. So it is not surprising that ALS patients, like cancer patients, become desperate and willing to try anything. This is completely understandable, but sometimes this desperation leads to activities that are far more likely to do harm than good. I was reminded of this when I came across a post in the antivaccine propaganda blog, Age of Autism, referring to an article in The Scientist entitled Medical Mavericks. The fortuitous posting of this story, which was apparently designed to try to show that it’s not as crazy as critics have said to be treating autistic children with “Miracle Mineral Solution” (MMS) (which is a bleach) given that the introduction explicitly mentioned Kerri Rivera and the patient described in the article used sodium chlorite to treat his ALS, provided me the opening to discuss a group whose existence and advocacy brings up a complex tangle of issues that boil down to questions of how far patient autonomy should be allowed to go. I’m referring to a company, PatientsLikeMe, which describes itself thusly:

Posted in: Cancer, Clinical Trials, Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Steve Novella vs. Julian Whitaker on vaccines at FreedomFest

Steve Novella vs. Julian Whitaker on vaccines at FreedomFest

I’ve just returned from TAM, along with Steve Novella and Harriet Hall. While there, we joined up with Rachael Dunlop to do what has become a yearly feature of TAM, the Science-Based Medicine workshop, as well as a panel discussion on one of our favorite subjects, “integrative” medicine. Between it all, I did the usual TAM thing, meeting up with old friends, taking in some talks, and, of course, spending the evenings imbibing more alcohol than I probably should have so that I could look and feel my best for our morning sessions, particularly given my difficulty adapting to the time change. One thing I did was completely unexpected, something I learned about the night before our workshop when I happened to run into Evan Bernstein. He informed me of something that our fearless leader Steve Novella was going to do the next day right after our workshop. In a nutshell, Evan told me that Steve was going to debate an antivaccinationist. Evan didn’t know any details other than that Michael Shermer had arranged it and that Steve had been tapped at the last minute. Evan didn’t even know who the antivaccinationist was going to be or what the event was. Naturally, I was intrigued.

So, the next morning I asked Steve about it. I turns out that the event was FreedomFest, a right-wing/Libertarian confab that happened to be going on at the same time as TAM up the road a piece on the Strip at Bally’s. Steve didn’t know who the antivaccinationist was going to be either, which made me marvel at him. I don’t know that I’d have the confidence agree to walk into the lion’s den with less than a day’s notice not even knowing who my opponent is. Steve was more than happy to invite me along. Clearly, this was was an opportunity that I couldn’t resist. So we met up with Michael Shermer, and it was from him that I learned that Steve’s opponent was to be Dr. Julian Whitaker.

My eyes lit up.

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

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Liberation Procedure for Multiple Sclerosis

It has been very instructive, from a science-based medicine perspective, to watch the story of alleged chronic cerebrospinal venous insufficiency (CCSVI) and multiple sclerosis (MS) unfold over the last three years. In 2009 Dr. Paolo Zamboni, an Italian vascular surgeon, published a paper in which he claimed that 100% of MS patients he investigated showed signs of blockage in the veins that drain blood from the brain, a condition he named CCSVI. This paper sparked immediate controversy. This controversy has been in the news again recently with the making public of the results of an observational study of the liberation procedure to treat CCSVI.

Existing research over the last half century strongly indicate that MS is primarily a disease of immune dysfunction (an autoimmune disease), resulting in inflammation in the brain that causes damage, specifically to the myelin, the insulation around  nerve fibers that allows them to conduct signals efficiently.  Zamboni is suggesting that MS is primarily a vascular disease causing back pressure on the veins in the brain and iron deposition which secondarily results in inflammation. This would be a significant paradigm shift in MS. It would also not be the first time such a dramatic shift in MS science has been proposed but failed in replication.

The MS community did not give much credence to the notion of CCSVI, but despite this there has been an incredible amount of research on the idea over the last three years (a PubMed search on “CCSVI” gives 103 results). Most of the research has simply attempted to replicate Zamboni’s findings, with mixed but generally unimpressive results. No one has found the 100% results that Zamboni originally reported. The studies have found a range of venous insufficiency in MS patients, down to 0%, but many finding results in the range of 20-40%. However, patients with other neurological disease and healthy controls have also been found to have similar rates of venous insufficiency. Some studies have found a positive correlation with MS, others have not.


Posted in: Neuroscience/Mental Health

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Luc Montagnier and the Nobel Disease

Few awards in anything have the cachet and respect the Nobel Prizes in various disciplines possess. In my specialty, medicine, the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine is quite properly viewed as the height of achievement. In terms of prestige, particularly in the world of science, the Nobel Prize is without peer. To win the Nobel Prize in Medicine or another scientific field, a scientist must have made a discovery considered fundamentally important to the point that it changes the way we think about one aspect of science or medicine. Winning the Nobel Prize in a scientific field instantly elevates a scientist from whatever he or she was before to the upper echelons of world science.

So how, one might ask, is it that seemingly so frequently Nobel Laureates embrace crankery or pseudoscience in their later years? They call it the Nobel Disease, and, indeed, it’s a term listed in the Skeptics’ Dictionary (where the term is attributed to me based on this post about Linus Pauling from four years ago, but I can’t claim credit for coining the term; it existed before I wrote that post) and Rational Wiki, complete with examples. What inspired me to take on this topic, dusting off some old knowledge and writings, is that we apparently have a new victim of the Nobel Disease. Well, perhaps “new” is not the right word, but he is the most recent example. I’m referring to Luc Montagnier, who with Françoise Barré-Sinoussi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine for the discovery of HIV in 2008.

Unfortunately, it didn’t take Montagnier very long to devolve into crankery. Until 2009, to be precise. Since then, Montagnier has embraced concepts like DNA teleportation and ideas very much like homeopathy. And then, just last month, his journey to the dark side was complete. Yes, Luc Montagnier presented at the yearly quackfest I discussed last week, the one in which there was much enthusiasm among the attendees for a treatment that involves administering bleach enemas to autistic children. He presented at Autism One, a coup that caused much rejoicing in the antivaccine movement.


Posted in: Cancer, Neuroscience/Mental Health, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Bleaching away what ails you

I’ve been at this blogging thing for over seven years, over four of which I’ve been honored to be a part of this particular group blog dedicated to promoting science as a basis for rational medical therapies. For three or four years before that seven year period began, I had honed my chops on Usenet in a group known as (m.h.a.). So, although I haven’t been at this as long as Steve Novella, I’ve been at it plenty long, which led me to think I had seen just about everything when it comes to pseudoscience and quackery.

As usual whenever I think I’ve seen it all, I was wrong.

I’m referring to something that has been mentioned once before on this blog, namely something called “Miracle Mineral Solution” (MMS). I must admit that after a brief reaction of “WTF?” I basically forgot about it. I shouldn’t have; I should have looked into it in more detail at the time. Fortunately, being a blogger means never having to say you’re sorry (at least about not having caught a form of quackery the first time it made big news), and fortunately MMS was brought to my attention in the context of an area of quackery that I frequently blog about. You’ll see what I mean in a minute.

What happened is that MMS was brought to my attention again by a couple of readers and, not remembering it other than vaguely, I did what I always do when confronted with these situations. I Googled, and I found what I needed to know. Basically, MMS is 28% sodium chlorite in distilled water. In essence, MMS is equivalent to industrial strength bleach. Proponents recommend diluting MMS in either water or a food acid, such as lemon juice, which results in the formation of chlorine dioxide.

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

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