Archive for February, 2010

Feb 15 2010

Dr. Laureys Admits Facilitated Communication Failure

Published by under Neuroscience

I have been covering the story of Dr. Steven Laureys, a Belgium neurologist whose research involves disorders of consciousness, and his most famous patient, Rom Houben. Houben is a 46 year old man who is the victim of a car accident at the age of 23. For the latter half of his life he has been in an apparent persistent vegetative state -except recently it was discovered that he has more brain activity (almost normal) than expected.

So Dr. Laureys attempted to establish communication with Houben as if Houben were in a locked in state – someone who is conscious but paralyzed. All they could get Houben to move was his foot to depress a pedal, and that could theoretically be used to answer yes/no questions. But Houben has too much spasticity and he could not lift his foot off the pedal.

This is where the story gets interesting, and where it became an international controversy. Enter Linda Wouters – a speech therapist who uses facilitated communication (FC). She claimed that after months of training she could communicate with Houbens by sensing the subtle movements of his right hand, which he could use to direct her across a computer screen keyboard.

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Feb 12 2010

A Darwin Day Celebration

Today is Darwin Day – the anniversary of the birthday of Charles Darwin on February 12, 1809. The Darwin Day Foundation is promoting Darwin Day as an international holiday, celebrating science and humanity. It is more than just a celebration of one great scientist – it is a recognition of the power of science as a human institution. It is also about defending science from anti-scientific goons who would seek to undermine or destroy it in order to protect their world view.

I decided to do my part by picking a random anti-evolution post and dissecting it – always a good time. As usual, the DiscoTute’s propaganda blog presents an embarrassment of riches for any hungry skeptic.

At the top of page is a post by Casey Luskin, who seems intent on refighting the Dover vs Kitzmiller trial in which intelligent design (ID) theory was soundly trounced and properly tagged as a religious belief, not science. Luskin, it seems, just cannot accept this defeat and so obsessively goes over it again and again, rehashing arguments that have been discredited years ago.

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Feb 11 2010

Spirituality in the Brain

Published by under Neuroscience

A recent study looks at the effect of brain surgery to remove tumors on feelings of self-transcendence. The authors found, after looking at 88 patients, that those who had tumors removed from the inferior parietal lobe or the right angular gyrus, but not the frontal lobes, reported increases in thoughts and feelings that might be interpreted as signs of self-transcendence.

This of course raises the thorny issue of the relationship between religious belief and brain function – although the authors are careful to distinguish religion from spirituality. The study used questions to assess the subjects’ feelings of oneness with nature, ability to lose themselves in the moment (feel disconnected from time and space), and belief in a higher power. Those subjects with tumors removed in the areas mentioned experienced immediate increases in these phenomena, while those with tumors removed from other regions of the brain did not.

These kinds of findings are not new. Neuroscientists have previously identified brain regions that are responsible for making us feel as if we are in our bodies and that we are separate from the universe around us. If you disrupt these brain centers that will result in a sensation of floating outside one’s body, or perhaps a sensation of being one with nature, or the universe, or some higher power.

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Feb 10 2010

GM Crop Hubbub in India

Published by under General

Much like global warming, recycling, and organic farming – genetically modified or GM foods is a scientific controversy where there is significant disagreement within the skeptical movement. People who are generally science and reason-based find it difficult to completely wrap their heads around the complex information and come to a confident conclusion. Or they find it challenging to find objective sources of information that are not filtered through political bias. Or they find it difficult to figure out what the scientific consensus is, because the experts seems to be divided.

As a result ask a room full of skeptics (all of whom agree on UFOs, bigfoot, homeopathy, and free energy) what they think about any of these topics and they are likely to give an opinion that is in line with their political ideology. Where confusion reigns, opinion is king.

This is where critical thinking skills are really put to the test – put aside ideological bias, dig through the misinformation and spin, identify the relevant issues, and try to come to a balanced assessment. And sometimes you just have to say – “I don’t know.”

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Feb 09 2010

NeuroLogica Is Back

Published by under General

Many readers noticed that we were down for a few days. What happened was that I was given a very kind mention in an article in the LA Times (along with some of my fellow skeptical bloggers). This had the very nice effect of sending a pulse of traffic to my blog.

However, this traffic exceeded the limits of my host, HostPapa, for simultaneous users. HostPapa responded by (without warning) permanently suspending my account, and putting up a friendly notice for all to see, making it seem like I haven’t been paying my bills. Now that’s customer service.

I noticed right away and contacted HostPapa, but this was over the weekend and they were less than responsive. Eventually they simply refused to turn my account back on, even temporarily, and simply said that I was permanently banished. That was their way of punishing me for increasing my blog traffic. It certainly seems as if they did their best to turn what is ordinarily a boon to a blog into a disaster – thanks HostPapa.

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Feb 05 2010

Desiree Jennings – The Plot Thickens

As promised, I watched the Inside Edition segment last night following up on the Desiree Jennings case. If you remember, she is the 25 year old woman who claimed to have a neurological disorder called dystonia following a seasonal flu vaccine. Her story never added up, and the video of her disorder that was made public (and disseminated, of course, on YouTube) did not show dystonia. Every neurologist who viewed the video and commented publicly, including me, were of the opinion that her symptoms were psychogenic.

The question at hand is whether or not she has a neurological disorder and whether it can plausibly be connected to the flu vaccine. I have made a strong case that her symptoms are not neurological but psychological (and to be clear, neither I nor any physician commenting on her case has accused her of lying or hoaxing her symptoms). Despite this, the anti-vaccine movement was quick to jump on the case and exploit Ms. Jennings for their own propaganda purposes. They were also quick to criticize me and others for commenting on her case, and in fact they grossly distorted the opinions we expressed.

Ms. Jennings eventually found her way to Dr. Buttar, who has been criticized by the North Carolina Medical Board for charging patients exorbitant fees for unproven and ineffective treatments. These complaints are still under investigation. Buttar diagnosed Ms. Jennings with both a viral encephalitis and mercury toxicity – when it would be impossible for her to have been exposed to both mercury and a live virus from the same vaccine. He treated her with chelation therapy and a few stints in the hyperbaric chamber, and then claimed a dramatic cure. In fact, I predicted this would happen and further predicted that an improvement in her symptoms that was too quick for any biological cause would confirm the diagnosis of a psychogenic disorder.

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Feb 04 2010

Desiree Jennings Follow UP

Published by under Skepticism

I was recently interviewed by Inside Edition for a follow up story on Desiree Jennings – the young woman who alleged to have dystonia as a reaction to the flu vaccine. (See here for my original post, and there are a few follow ups shortly after.)

Inside Edition initially broke the story nationally, and did not do a very good job  – they basically accepted the story at face value and did not consult appropriate experts to give proper context to the story.

Well, it seems that they are now willing to do a follow up report and even try to correct their prior reporting. The show in which I am interviewed will air tonight on Inside Edition. I am always interested to see how these shows turn out – it is almost impossible to tell from the interview itself. Typically a very small percentage of the on-camera interview is used and anything can happen in the editing room. But hopefully they will do justice to the story.

I can tell you, there have been some interesting developments they will reveal on the show (which I cannot discuss until after it airs). I will write a follow up tomorrow after I see the show.

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Feb 04 2010

More on fMRIs and the Comatose

Published by under Neuroscience

Dealing with patients in a coma is challenging in multiple levels. We are challenged to evaluate the degree of damage, or conversely the degree of neurological function that remains. We are challenged to give the family or caregiver an accurate prognosis. And we are challenged with dealing with the ethical and emotional issues that surround such cases. All of these challenges would be helped by improving our ability to accurately assess such patients – and fortunately we are making some progress in this area.

I have previously discussed research in which a woman in an apparently vegetative state was evaluated with functional MRI scanning (fMRI) and found to be able to change her brain activity when asked to imagine herself performing two distinct tasks. This study showed, at least in this one case, that a patient with no outward signs of consciousness (and therefore in what we call a persistent vegetative state or PVS) might still retain some hidden consciousness (and therefore really be in what we call a minimally conscious state or MCS).

Further, Dr. Steven Laureys and colleagues have been demonstrating that up to 40% of patients who are diagnosed as being in PVS by standard neurological exam demonstrate signs of minimal consciousness on a more rigorous exam better designed to detect subtle and intermittent signs of consciousness. They recommend this exam be used routinely to assess comatose patients, which is reasonable.

You may remember Dr. Laureys from the Rom Houben case – which was tainted by the introduction of bogus facilitated communication. As I have said – that case is an unfortunate distraction from the real research that is going on by Dr. Laureys and others. But it has successfully distracted and confused the media and by extension much of the public.

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Feb 03 2010

Biophysical250 – Neurotics-R-Us

I was recently asked my opinion about the Biophysical250 – a series of 250 blood tests offered by a commercial lab for the out-of-pocket cost of $3,400. My skeptical alarms immediately began ringing – I am familiar with the commercial labs promising diagnostic tests directly to the public – generally not a good idea.

I checked out their website, which set off more alarms. The first thing you see, in the upper left corner, is this:

Would you like to get back the vibrancy and passion you enjoyed when you were younger? Are there things you would like to be doing at work or with your family and friends that you don’t have the energy to accomplish?

Umm…yes, please. Probably like every 45 year old, I would love to feel like I did when I was 25 (although honestly I am pretty healthy, except for hypertension, some occasional lower back pain, and I probably have a small rotator cuff tear in my right shoulder).  Will these blood tests fix all that, repair 20 years of wear and tear and rejuvenate my cells? Oh!…darn.

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Feb 02 2010

6.022137 × 10^23

6.022137 × 10^23 – that’s Avogadro’s number. It’s the number of atoms or molecules of a substance in a number of grams of that substance equal to its atomic mass. So 1 gram of elemental hydrogen or 12 grams of carbon12 will have Avogadro’s number of atoms. This amount is also called a mole – so a mole of anything has Avogadro’s number of elementary particles – a mole of water has Avogadro’s number of water molecules.

Amedeo Avogadro first came up with the concept in 1811. In 1895 the number was first estimated by Josef Loschmidt, and when referring to the mass of an ideal gas is called the Loschmidt constant, but the number itself in 1909 was named in honor of Avogadro.

Samuel Hahnemann invented the principles of homeopathy (he “discovered” nothing, it turns out) in the 1790s and published his first article on the topic in 1796. So you see – Hahnemann could not have known about Avogadro’s number, in principle or in name, at least when he invented homeopathy. He died in 1843, long after the scientific community knew that his “law of infinitesimals” was rubbish.

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