Posts tagged: health
Vaughan Bell on the shift from psychiatric drugs that act on one specific neurotransmitter in favor of a “circuit” driven model of treating mental and neurological disorders:
In its place is a science focused on understanding the brain as a series of networks, each of which supports a different aspect of our experience and behaviour. By this analysis, the brain is a bit like a city: you can’t make sense of the bigger picture without knowing how everything interacts. Relatively few residents of Belfast who live in the Shankill spend their money in the Falls Road and this tells us much more about the city – as these are the key loyalist and republican areas – than knowing that the average income of each area is much the same. Similarly, knowing that key brain areas interact differently when someone gets depressed tells us something important that a measure of average brain activity would miss. […]
Perhaps more surprising for some is the explosion in deep brain stimulation procedures, where electrodes are implanted in the brains of patients to alter electronically the activity in specific neural circuits. Medtronic, just one of the manufacturers of these devices, claims that its stimulators have been used in more than 100,000 patients. Most of these involve well-tested and validated treatments for Parkinson’s disease, but increasingly they are being trialled for a wider range of problems. Recent studies have examined direct brain stimulation for treating pain, epilepsy, eating disorders, addiction, controlling aggression, enhancing memory and for intervening in a range of other behavioural problems.
A recent paper published in the Journal of Medical Ethics warns of the dangers of DIY transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS). The National Post reports:
Those risks include reversing the polarity of the electrodes to cause impairment instead of benefit, and triggering potentially long-lasting and negative changes to the brain’s biology, the researchers argue in the Journal of Medical Ethics. […]
In fact, Health Canada considers tDCS machines to be class-three devices — on a scale of risk ranging from one to four — and has yet to approve any for treating psychological illness – though they are licensed for pain and insomnia therapy, said Leslie Meerburg, a department spokeswoman. […]
One subtle but troubling risk could lie in the ability of the devices to change behaviour, with research by Prof. Fecteau and colleagues suggesting tDCS can actually make people better liars, or less empathetic, both qualities that could encourage unscrupulous conduct.
Amusingly, after citing a researcher who says tDCS could make people better liars and less empathetic, the Post quotes someone selling a home tDCS rig saying that it is “very safe.” But, despite the somewhat sordid tone of the story, the actual paper Medical Ethics paper does say that tDCS is “relatively safe.” You can find the full paper here.
I’ve linked to research before casting doubt on the efficacy of “brain training” games and software (other than double n-back). But some new research reported by the MIT Technology Review is more promising:
Cancer survivors sometimes suffer from a condition known as “chemo fog”—a cognitive impairment caused by repeated chemotherapy. A study hints at a controversial idea: that brain-training software might help lift this cognitive cloud.
Various studies have concluded that cognitive training can improve brain function in both healthy people and those with medical conditions, but the broader applicability of these results remains controversial in the field.
In a study published in the journal Clinical Breast Cancer, investigators report that those who used a brain-training program for 12 weeks were more cognitively flexible, more verbally fluent, and faster-thinking than survivors who did not train. […]
“This is a well-done study—they had not just one transfer test but several,” says Hambrick, who notes that many studies of cognitive training depend on a single test to measure results. “But an issue is the lack of activity within the control group.” Better would be to have the control group do another demanding cognitive task in lieu of Lumosity training—something analogous to a placebo, he says: “The issue is that maybe the improvement in the group that did the cognitive training doesn’t reflect enhancement of basic cognitive processes per se, but could be a motivational phenomenon.”
See also: Dual N-Back FAQ
The New York Times owns up to contributing to the crack baby scare:
This week’s Retro Report video on “crack babies” (infants born to addicted mothers) lays out how limited scientific studies in the 1980s led to predictions that a generation of children would be damaged for life. Those predictions turned out to be wrong. This supposed epidemic — one television reporter talks of a 500 percent increase in damaged babies — was kicked off by a study of just 23 infants that the lead researcher now says was blown out of proportion. And the shocking symptoms — like tremors and low birth weight — are not particular to cocaine-exposed babies, pediatric researchers say; they can be seen in many premature newborns.
The worrisome extrapolations made by researchers — including the one who first published disturbing findings about prenatal cocaine use — were only part of the problem. Major newspapers and magazines, including Rolling Stone, Newsweek, The Washington Post and The New York Times, ran articles and columns that went beyond the research. Network TV stars of that era, including Tom Brokaw, Peter Jennings and Dan Rather, also bear responsibility for broadcasting uncritical reports.
I wrote for Wired:
Inside most companies, the typical health and wellness program includes regular blood pressure checks, a list of fresh foods for the office fridge, and some sort of exercise guru who shows up every so often to tell people they should work out more. If you’re lucky, you might even get some coupons designed to encourage healthier eating — and cut company insurance costs.
But at Citizen — a Portland, Oregon company that designs mobile technology — things are a little different. Employees at the company are now uploading data on how much they exercise, what they eat, and how much they sleep to a central server, as part of an effort to determine whether healthy employees are actually happier and more productive. The ultimate aim is to explicitly show employees how they can improve their work through better personal habits.
This system is called C3PO, short for “Citizen Evolutionary Process Organism.”
“We didn’t think we’d stick with a normal corporate health and wellness program,” says Quinn Simpson, who helped develop the system. “We’re already data visualizers. We already do quantified self.”
Kickstarted by Wired’s Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, the quantified self movement aims to glean more insight into our general well-being through statistics. Typically, this is a personal undertaking, but the same ideas are now moving into the business world. Chris Dancy, a director in the office of the chief technology officer at BMC Software, tracks his life in an effort to prove his worth to employers, and now Citizen is taking things even further.
I think it would be pretty interesting to participate in something like this, but like many others I worry about what it would be like if there were either mandated or if there was just social pressure to participate. At the moment the Citizen folks are doing this mostly for fun, and as I should have made clear in the article, the only data they have is what you share. You could put completely false information into RunKeeper or a diet tracker.
But at companies like Whole Foods, which offers its employees discounts for having a lower body mass index, things can get Orwellian quick.
A couple years ago Inhuman Experiment did a run down of cases of humans hibernation, from Russian peasants to trapped skiers:
During the same TED Talk, he mentions experiments showing that if you reduce the oxygen content in the air slightly, roundworms die, and if you reduce it a lot – down to 10 ppm – they stop moving and appear dead but are in fact alive in a state of suspended animation. Unlike their animated and lively friends, these suspended roundworms can be put into cold temperatures without harm.
Exposing an organism to hydrogen sulfide is another way to achieve the same effect as reducing the oxygen content of a container or a room. By binding at the same cell site as oxygen, hydrogen sulfide reduces the need for oxygen, depressing metabolism. Roth theorizes that perhaps hydrogen sulfide production was increased in Bågenholm’s own body when she fell under the ice, thus preventing her from dying from the cold.
The first practical application of this technique is surgery, which requires mild hypothermia to prevent harming patients. Even with a small amount of injectable hydrogen sulfide, which Roth’s company has developed, the results are apparently better than with a traditional approach. Safety studies are already done, and human trials are underway.
While this is undoubtedly a great medical breakthrough, I can’t help but think of other possible applications. What Roth has done is deanimate a mouse by reducing its metabolism and then bring it back to life unharmed. If the human trials are succesful, could this mean hydrogen sulfide might be used even outside surgery? Are we talking about a potential lightweight version of cryonics?
Atossa Araxia Abrahamian on Paleofantasy by Marlene Zuk and the assumptions of the paleo lifestyle set, noting that it has become a popular diet amongst libertarians:
Charges of hypocrisy, however amusing, are facile. Paleo is an improvement on a diet of processed, sugary junk. It’s not the first diet to banish starches, and it certainly won’t be the last. In fact, by any other name, the Paleo diet would be just that — a diet.
But more substantial problems lurk in the reasoning behind Paleo principles. By assuming that all that was once natural is now good, militant Paleo leans on biological determinism to back up its theories. While it may not advocate for a complete reversion to cave-dwelling, it accepts that we evolved in a certain way to do certain things and not others, and that advances in technology, civilization, and culture can do little to change that. This logic, however seductive, is incomplete. You can’t get an ought from a was. […]
Incomplete or flawed interpretations of our biology have long been used to marginalize women, racial groups, even entire civilizations, and nutrition may well become the next variant in this pattern of discrimination. If rice isn’t “natural,” does that make those entire continents with highly developed cultures who eat it “un-natural”? Doesn’t agriculture, however flawed it may be in certain societies, support billions of people? Let’s not forget that for centuries women were considered ineligible to participate in most professions, sports, and diversions on the basis of their supposed female “nature.” Are modern bread-eaters somehow less human than those carrying out “primal” urges by sprinting, lifting, and eating meat?
These troubling questions are probably not the point of an apparently well-meaning lifestyle program. Many adopters of the Paleo diet do so for no reason other than weight loss, or vanity, or ailments caused by certain foods; others are simply curious about how so-called “ancestral” nutrition will affect them, or how certain types of foods affect their bodies. If their giddy testimonials are to be believed, the Paleo diet can cure everything from diabetes to anxiety attacks, which sounds wonderful. Still, the social and political implications of Paleo reasoning ought to be more closely examined, especially as the lifestyle gains adherents.
Full Story: Natural’s Not In It
I found this interesting because I normally come down in favor of western medicines and treatments:
In the case of the diabetes epidemic, I really paid attention to the narrative of the disease as dictated by Western biomedicine and, in contrast, indigenous peoples of Western North America. And I learned that they are operating on very different narratives. Western biomedicine says diabetes is caused by Indian genes, poor diet & lifestyle, etc. To many tribal people, this is a very doom and gloom story–if diabetes is caused by bad genes, what can you do about it? It’s disempowering. It also shames and blames Indian identity. Not surprisingly, many medical interventions, like getting diagnosed and treated, are traumatic in their own way. Getting one’s blood drawn and scrutinized for glucose levels, for example, reminds many of having their blood scrutinized for tribal enrollment. It can be felt as another face of social control.
Many tribal people, in contrast, understand the diabetes epidemic as an expression of the generational trauma they’ve experienced. Things like European epidemics, Indian boarding schools, nutritional trauma, environmental degradation, and reservation life were really hard hits to Salish life and culture. And these wounds span generations. And this is cited as the cause of the diabetes epidemic in tribal communities. So in this sense, there is definite spiritual and cultural dimension in diabetes etiology with Salish people.
So you have these 2 ways of looking at diabetes: one focuses on genes & diet, the other addressing cultural wounds. So when you build a diabetes program based in a biomedical understanding and try to implement it in a community that sees generational trauma as the primary cause, the program will fail. However, if you create a tribal diabetes program based in their cultural understandings, then you can get somewhere. So that was the big lesson: know the mental models of who you’re working with, and meet the people where they are. Not where you are.
The whole thing is worth a read.
Another one from John Timmer at Ars:
Despite the amazing benefits, immunization rates have been falling, driven by a fear that vaccines cause health problems such as autism. The autism risk has been both thoroughly debunked and the paper that originally suggested it turned out to be the product of an unethical, financially motivated individual. Despite this debunking, surveys show that a quarter of US parents think that vaccines can trigger autism, and rates of vaccination have continued to fall in many states. A new study looks at incoming kindergartners in California, and finds that the lack of vaccination is threatening herd immunity in some schools, and that some measures of risk have doubled in just three years. […]
Herd immunity occurs when a few unvaccinated children are protected by the fact that almost everyone around is vaccinated and therefore cannot infect them. It’s important for those for whom vaccines have not worked, those who have immune problems, or those who cannot be vaccinated due to specific health risks. But it requires very high rates of vaccination, typically 80-90 percent. And, in California, it’s at risk of breaking down. “The number of kindergartners attending schools in which there were more than 20 exempted kindergartners almost doubled (from 1937 in 2008 to 3675 in 2010),” the authors note.
Josh Ellis, aka Red State Soundsystem, went to the so-called murder capital of the world, Juarez, Mexico, to get his teeth fixed and lived to tell about it:
The dentist is a taciturn son of a bitch who doesn’t speak much English and he has a device in his hand that looks, in my peripheral vision, like a steel bar with a sharp screw on one side and a thumb dial on the other. He’s going to screw this thing into my ruined back molar like a drywall anchor and rip the tooth out of my skull.
He jabs in another long, sharp needle full of anesthetic. After two and a half hours in the chair — during which time an oral surgeon has removed my upper wisdom teeth by sawing them into pieces and pulling them out through my gum — my face is pretty much numb from my cheekbones to my Adam’s apple. But I still feel the jab, which worries me.
It worries me a lot more, a second later, when he puts his little drywall anchor to the top of my tooth and begins screwing it in. My head is filled with white-hot agony. I yelp and he pulls back. “What?” he says in English. “Pain?”
“Fuck! Yes, there’s pain, Jesus fucking Christ, goddamnit,” I snarl.
So he hits me with the needle again and tries the screw: it still hurts as bad as before, and I scream again. But after those two and a half hours, I just want this over with. “Fuck it, man,” I mutter through lips that feel like they’re constructed of inner-tubes. “Let’s do this thing.”
Of course, what neither of us knows yet is that the dentist is pushing the needle straight into an infected part of my gum, and the infection is immediately soaking up the anesthetic. He might as well be injecting me with sugar water.
Oblivious, he bores in. And that’s when I start screaming for real.
See also: see my interview with him My interview with Josh about his music.