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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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Ken Burns Presents Cancer

Note: I wrote two posts today to alert readers to two upcoming television events in time for them to plan their viewing. See the second post for an announcement about a film on scientology, along with an article about Scientology’s War on Medicine that I wrote for Skeptic magazine.

Ken Burns

Filmmaker Ken Burns

Ken Burns has made a lot of outstanding films. His The Civil War has been listed as second only to Nanook of the North as the most influential documentary of all time. I was delighted to learn that he had applied his exceptional skills to a topic that is very important to us on the Science-Based medicine blog, cancer. His film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.

I reviewed Mukherjee’s book in 2010. He is an oncologist and cancer researcher and also a superb writer. I characterized his book as:

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 and how it developed, how we learned to randomize, do controlled trials, get informed consent, use statistics appropriately, and how science can go wrong.

I continue to think it is the best book ever written on cancer.

The film interviews Mukherjee and many of the researchers and patients whose stories appear in the book. If you haven’t read the book, it will give you an idea what it’s about. If you have read the book, you will enjoy it even more as you meet the people you have read about. It covers the history of cancer as well as the most recent scientific developments and is very optimistic about the future.

The movie is scheduled to premiere March 30 – April 1 at 9 PM EST on PBS, in 3 parts with a total duration of 6 hours. You can watch the trailer online. The producers sent me a press preview 1-hour highlight reel and I was very impressed. I can’t wait to watch the whole thing. I hope you will be able to watch it too.

Posted in: Announcements, Book & movie reviews, Cancer

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Scientology’s War on Medicine

Note: The film Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief will be available on HBO starting March 29th. I haven’t seen it yet, but apparently it profiles former members who reveal details that have elicited a very angry response from the Church of Scientology. I thought I would use the occasion to reprint a SkepDoc column that originally appeared in Skeptic magazine (Volume 18: Number 3) titled “Scientology’s War on Medicine.”

Scientology has openly declared war on psychiatry and is ambivalent if not openly hostile towards the rest of medicine. Its “mind over matter” philosophy promises that attaining the “Clear” state will eliminate illness.

Recently there has been a spate of exposés of Scientology, ably reviewed by Jim Lippard on eSkeptic. They offer some shocking revelations. Defectors from Scientology have described kidnappings, deliberate lying, unnecessary deaths, human trafficking, thought control (“brainwashing”), coercion, violations of labor standards, violations of human and civil rights, and other crimes. Scientology has been protected from prosecution by its designation as a religion and its vast wealth and influence; but if even a fraction of these accusations are true, Scientology has much to answer for.

Initially people are attracted to Scientology because it provides answers. Your problems are due to past experiences holding you back. Scientology can help you deal with those problems and the upper levels will reveal the secret of life itself.

Mark VIII E-Meter, from the Wikimedia Commons

Mark VIII E-Meter, from the Wikimedia Commons by Colliric

Members are audited with an E-Meter (similar to a lie detector) and one-on-one attention. The auditing process is similar to psychotherapy in that it encourages people to think about their problems and work to overcome them. In Scientology, ideas are not immaterial: they have weight and solidity. The E-Meter locates and discharges mental masses that are blocking the free flow of energy. Memories are blamed and traced back in time even into past lives. Patients keep repeating the details of the experience until they are drained of any emotional charge. Once the painful experiences and associations are drained off, there are astonishing results: asthma, headaches, arthritis, menstrual cramps, astigmatism, and ulcers simply disappear. The reactive mind is replaced by the rational mind. In one case a boy’s IQ supposedly rose from 83 to 212. (more…)

Posted in: Announcements, Book & movie reviews, Religion

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On the “right” to challenge a medical or scientific consensus

Jenny McCarthy flaunting her "expertise" at the antivaccine "Green Our Vaccines" rally in Washington, DC in 2008

Jenny McCarthy flaunting her “expertise” at the antivaccine “Green Our Vaccines” rally in Washington, DC in 2008

The major theme of the Science-Based Medicine blog is that the application of good science to medicine is the best way to maintain and improve the quality of patient care. Consequently, we spend considerable time dissecting medical treatments based on pseudoscience, bad science, and no science, and trying to prevent their contaminating existing medicine with unscientific claims and treatments. Often these claims and treatments are represented as “challenging” the scientific consensus and end up being presented in the media—or, sadly, sometimes even in the scientific literature—as valid alternatives to existing medicine. Think homeopathy. Think antivaccine views. Think various alternative cancer treatments. When such pseudoscientific medicine is criticized, frequently the reaction from its proponents is to attack “consensus science.” Indeed, I’ve argued that one red flag identifying a crank or a quack is a hostility towards the very concept of a scientific consensus.

Indeed, I even cited as an example of this attitude a Tweet by Jane Orient, MD, executive director of the American Association of Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). This is an organization of physicians that values “mavericky-ness” above all else, in the process rejecting the scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective and do not cause autism or sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), that HIV causes AIDS, and that abortion doesn’t cause breast cancer, to name a few. Along the way the AAPS embraces some seriously wacky far right wing viewpoints such as that Medicare is unconstitutional and that doctors should not be bound by evidence-based practice guidelines because they are an affront to the primacy of the doctor-patient relationship and—or so it seems to me—the “freedom” of a doctor to do pretty much damned well anything he pleases to treat a patient.
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Posted in: Critical Thinking, Science and the Media, Vaccines

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Lyme: Two Worlds Compared and Contrasted

The Lyme tick

The western black-legged tick, carrier of the Borrelia burgdorferi bacteria which causes Lyme disease.

The practice of infectious disease (ID) is both easy and difficult. If you read my ID blog on Medscape you are aware of my trials and tribulations in diagnosing and treating infections.

ID is easy since, at least in theory, diseases have patterns and an infecting organism has a predictable epidemiology and life cycle. So if you can recognize the pattern and relate it to the life cycle and exposure history, you can often make a diagnosis before the cultures come back.

My favorite story is the time I was asked to see a young girl with endocarditis. The history was she had a week of fevers, headache and myalgia that went away for five days, returned for a week, went away for five days and returned yet again.

So I asked her “How was your vacation at Black Butte?”

The look of astonishment on her face as she asked how I knew she had been to Black Butte was so satisfying. (more…)

Posted in: Legal, Naturopathy, Politics and Regulation, Public Health, Science and Medicine

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The DC as PCP? Drug Wars Resume

Coming soon, to a chiropractor's office near you?

Coming soon, to a chiropractor’s office near you?

Chiropractors are once again engaged in intra-fraternal warfare over the chiropractic scope of practice, a saga we’ve chronicled before on SBM. (See the references at end of this post.) Every time it looks like the warring factions have buried their differences, they come rising to the surface like zombies.

The International Chiropractors Association (ICA), representing the “straight” faction, wants chiropractic to continue as a drugless profession. They are happy to detect and correct subluxations, thereby removing “nerve interference” and “allowing the body to heal itself” in the tradition of Daniel David Palmer. But the American Chiropractic Association (ACA) has bigger fish to fry.

This time, the ICA is upset that the ACA House of Delegates up and decided to establish a “College of Pharmacology and Toxicology,” which would operate under the auspices of the ACA Council on Diagnosis and Internal Disorders. The ACA’s announcement of the “College” is rather vague on details:

The purpose of the College is to further educate the chiropractic profession on clinical matters related to the widespread use of both prescription and over-the-counter medications and nutritional supplements.

I e-mailed the ACA several days ago asking for more information but have yet to receive a reply.

The ICA sees this move as yet another attempt by:

forces at work within some organizations actively promoting incorporating drugs into the chiropractic scope of practice.

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Posted in: Chiropractic, Herbs & Supplements, Humor, Legal, Nutrition, Pharmaceuticals, Politics and Regulation

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Making One’s Own Reality – Food Babe Edition

Vani Hari, aka the "Food Babe".

Vani Hari, the “Food Babe”.

The default mode of human activity is to construct our own internal model of reality based upon our desires, biases, flawed perceptions, memories, and reasoning, and received narratives from the culture in which we live. That model of reality is then reinforced by confirmation bias and jealously defended.

But we also have the capacity to transcend this pathway of least resistance. Philosophy is the discipline of thinking carefully and systematically about ideas to see if they at least are internally consistent. Science is the discipline of systematically and carefully comparing our internal models of reality against objective reality, and then changing those models to suit the evidence.

Everyone engages in a combination of bias, superstition, logic, and evidence-based reason to varying degrees – the question is, to what degree? The goal of science-based medicine is to increase the proportion of science and reason in the mix with respect to the practice of medicine and public health.

There are many forces at work in society, however, that explicitly oppose the role of science because, in my opinion, they find it inconvenient to their internal model of reality or whatever narrative they are selling.

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Posted in: Science and Medicine

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A brief bit of shameless self-promotion…The Prince of Wales edition

PrinceCharles-590x350

In an effort to expand the Gorski empire almost to the level of the Crislip empire and to try to make it to somewhere within two or three orders of magnitude of the Novella empire, I’ve published an article on Slate.com about Prince Charles’ visit to our fine country entitled “Prince of Pseudoscience“. Consider this the mandatory shameless self-promotion that all SBM bloggers take advantage of from time to time to publicize their activities elsewhere.

Enjoy! (I hope.)

I’m told that Dana Ullman has made an appearance in the comments. I might have to head on over after work tonight…

Posted in: Announcements, Homeopathy, Politics and Regulation, Science and the Media

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Shred360: The Weight Loss Product with the Stupidest Hype Ever

There was a half-page ad in my local paper, thinly disguised as a “Special Report” by a Health and Fitness Editor, for a new fat-melting pill that “could put diet industry out of business by 2016.” I have seen a lot of ridiculous ads for weight loss products, but this one takes the cake. It’s arguably even worse than the one that proclaimed “we couldn’t say it in print if it wasn’t true” and then proceeded to say things in print that weren’t true.

It’s called Shred360. Here are some of the claims:

  • It shook up the fitness industry because it DOUBLES your fat-burning potential.
  • It allows anyone to LOSE INTENSE AMOUNTS OF FAT without grueling workouts or tasteless diet foods.
  • It breaks your fat cells apart and disintegrates them, even while you sleep.
  • Speeds your metabolism by 43%.
  • It vaporizes fat without effort.
  • Its proprietary blend of 16 potent ingredients is scientifically proven.
  • Burns stored fat through thermogenesis and lipolysis.
  • Increases energy and mental clarity almost immediately – guaranteed.
  • Fools your body into feeling full: the ultimate appetite suppressant.
  • Unconditionally guaranteed to make every surplus bit of your unwanted fat disappear effortlessly.
  • Analysts think it will put Jenny Craig and Weight Watchers out of business by 2018 (which doesn’t even make sense if it has already put the entire diet industry out of business by 2016).
  • You can eat like a normal person, skip the gym, and lose the fat you want while you sleep.
  • Produced under highly controlled environmental conditions in small batches, so supplies are very limited.
  • Free samples available for 100 customers – don’t wait to call.
A screenshot from the Shred360 product website. Lots of claims!

A screenshot from the Shred360 product website. Lots of claims!

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Posted in: Herbs & Supplements

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Medical marijuana as the new herbalism, part 3: A “cannabis cures cancer” testimonial

Medical marijuana as the new herbalism, part 3: A “cannabis cures cancer” testimonial

It’s been a while since I discussed medical marijuana, even though it’s a topic I’ve been meaning to come back to since I first dubbed medical marijuana to be the equivalent of herbalism and discussed how the potential of cannabinoids to treat cancer has been, thus far, unimpressive, with relatively modest antitumor effects. The reason I refer to medical marijuana as the “new herbalism” is because the arguments made in favor of medical marijuana are very much like arguments for herbalism, including arguments that using the natural plant is superior to using specific purified cannabinoids, appeals to how “natural” marijuana is, and claims of incredible effectiveness against all manner of diseases, including deadly diseases like cancer, based on anecdotes and testimonials. Now, as I pointed out before, not only am I not opposed to the legalization and regulation of marijuana for recreational use, even though I’ve never tried it myself, but I support it. What I do not support are claims for medical effects that are not backed up with good scientific evidence, and for medical marijuana most claims fall into that category. That’s why I tend to view medical marijuana as a backdoor way to get marijuana legalized. Personally I’d rather advocates of marijuana legalization drop the charade, argue for legalization, and stop with the medical nonsense.

The last time around, I discussed the evidence supporting claims that “cannabis cures cancer” and found them to be wanting based on science. I didn’t however, discuss the “cannabis cures cancer” testimonial machine that drives the claim that marijuana is useful for treating cancer; at least, I only touched on it by discussing briefly Rick Simpson, who claims that his hash oil cures approximately 70% of patients with terminal cancer and a published anecdote in which it was claimed that hemp oil was effective in treating acute lymphoblastic leukemia. (It wasn’t. At least, the evidence presented was not convincing.) Since then, I’ve wanted to revisit the topic of “cannabis cures cancer” testimonials, and, for whatever reason, now seems like a good time to do it.
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Posted in: Cancer, Herbs & Supplements

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