Archive for March, 2010

Mar 16 2010

Autism Omnibus Hearings – Part II

I love a good sequel. Aliens, of course, was the best sequel ever – that rare event when the sequel is actually better than the original movie (of course, the series went down hill from there, like Star Trek it peaked with the second movie).

Last year we heard the results of the Autism Omnibus – a special court with three special masters set up to resolve about 5,000 cases before the vaccine court claiming that autism resulted from vaccines – either the MMR vaccine or thimerosal (a mercury-based preservative in some vaccines, but removed from most by 2002). In the US there is a Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) which bypasses the regular courts and awards compensation to those injured by vaccines, paid for by a small tax on each dose of vaccine given. The purpose is to rapidly compensate those who might have been injured (the threshold for evidence is quite low) and to encourage pharmaceutical companies to manufacture vaccines (the threat of suit would make it not viable otherwise).

Over 2008 the Autism Omnibus heard three cases that were presented as the test cases (presumably the best cases they could come up with) for the theory that the  MMR vaccine (with or without thimerosal from other vaccines – MMR never had thimerosal) caused or contributed to autism in some individuals. They ruled against all three cases, stating in very strong terms that there is no evidence to back up the claims of a link between MMR and autism. Judge Hasting wrote of one case – Cedillo:

Considering all of the evidence, I found that the petitioners have failed to demonstrate that thimerosal-containing vaccines can contribute to causing immune dysfunction, or that the MMR vaccine can contribute to causing either autism or gastrointestinal dysfunction. I further conclude that while Michelle Cedillo has tragically suffered from autism and other severe conditions, the petitioners have also failed to demonstrate that her vaccinations played any role at all in causing those problems.

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Mar 15 2010

The Texas Textbook Hubbub

Published by under Education

Texas is becoming a recurring spectacle of the triumph of anti-intellectualism and ignorance over science and reason. The substance of this spectacle is the Texas Board of Education (BoE) and the standards for public school textbooks. This is a local triumph, but it has widespread implications, as Texas is a major purchaser of textbooks, and so the industry generally caters to the Texas standards.

Last year our attention was drawn to the Texas BoE over the science standards, with particular attention to evolution. One member in particular, Don McLeroy (who was chairman but was removed) entertained (by which I mean frightened) us with phrases such as “someone has to stand up to those experts.” The particular controversy was over whether or not to insert language into the standards that opens the door for teachers to “question evolution,” meaning to insert creationist propaganda as science.

The new language that was put in includes that students must “analyze, evaluate, and critique scientific explanations” based in part on “examining all sides of scientific evidence of those scientific experiments.” Language was also put in to specifically question the age of the universe, the nature of stasis and change in the fossil record, and the complexity of the cell and information in DNA.

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Mar 12 2010

Memory and the Hippocampus

Published by under Neuroscience

Neuroscientists are making steady progress in mapping the brain using fMRI and other new techniques. Researchers at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) have been publishing a steady stream of interesting results.

It has been known for some time that the hippocampus, a small structure in the medial temporal lobe, is important for learning and memory. The structure gets its name from the seahorse, because it looks curled up like the tail of a seahorse. Many details of the anatomy and function of the hippocampus remain to be explored, and the new technology is providing a useful window.

Recently it was discovered that the hippocampus contains what are called place cells – neurons that are activated according to our location in three-dimensional space. These neurons, in essence, process information relating to our location. However, it was not known whether or not these cells are laid out in the hippocampus in a predictable pattern, or if they are essentially random from person to person.

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Mar 11 2010

Acupuncture Does Not Work for IVF

Acupuncture is a so-called complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) modality I frequently tackle because it often provides excellent  teaching points on the relationship between science and the practice of medicine. My reading of the literature is that acupuncture is highly implausible and the evidence does not support its efficacy for any indication.

And yet it is one of the more popular CAM modalities (although still a small phenomenon – only 6% of Americans have ever used it), especially in its penetration of hospitals and academia. There is a great deal of misinformation out there about acupuncture, and this seems to garner the most attention from naive physicians.

In vitro fertilization (IVF) is one of the applications of acupuncture that has been most touted by proponents. The evidence for any positive effect from acupuncture for IVF, however, has been consistent with no effect. By this I mean that there are poor quality studies with mixed results, but trending positive (as poor quality studies tend to do), especially in China and other nations culturally predisposed to acupuncture, but the better designed studies tend to be negative.

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Mar 10 2010

Magnesium for Migraine

I received the following question from an SGU listener:

Recently when I visited a neurologists with my daughter to seek help for her migraines the doctor prescribed something that caught me off guard and in my research since the visit I still have not convinced myself of the validity. The doctor told my daughter she should start taking magnesium supplements. The doctor told her this would serve as a natural muscle relaxant.
I have been listening to your podcast for about 6 months now and enjoy it very much. I enjoy the entire crew and would really like your team’s take on the Migraine and Magnesium relation.

This is an excellent question, and reinforces the notion that science-based medicine is not about a list of acceptable beliefs or modalities – it is about method. There is nothing inherently implausible or unscientific about using vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients to address diseases or symptoms. All that matters is the science.

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Mar 09 2010

H1N1 Update

It seems as if the wave of H1N1 pandemic flu has passed, so it is a good time to get up to date on the status of the pandemic. For background, the H1N1 is a strain of influenza A  that cropped up about a year ago. It was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization (WHO) last Summer.

The pandemic spawned a number of controversies. The last H1N1 outbreak, called the “swine flu” (a bit of a misnomer) was in 1976. The vaccine for that strain caused Guillaine Barre Syndrome (GBS) in about 1 in 100,000 people vaccinated. Therefore with the roll out of the new H1N1 vaccine there were cries from the usual assortment of anti-vaccine and other cranks that the vaccine would cause GBS, even though the last 30 years of seasonal flu vaccine has not caused any such outbreaks (at worst the seasonal flu vaccine causes an extra one case of GBS per million doses, but even this is questionable).

There were also accusations that the flu pandemic was a scam created by Big Pharma to sell vaccines, and the real conspiracy nuts claimed that the vaccine was in fact designed to infect and kill people.

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Mar 08 2010

Another Energy Scam

Published by under General Science

A Utah company, Manna of Utah, is planning on building a plant in Odessa MO that will, among other things, build generators for home use. I wrote recently about another home generator company, Bloom Box, cautioning against accepting corporate hype at face value. Bloom Box appears to be a legitimate generator, surrounded by some misleading hype. But the generators promised by Manna of Utah seem to take the company name seriously, promising energy from heaven.

The generator they plan to build was designed and patented by another company, Maglev Energy, Inc. They claim to be able to generate electricity with magnets. Here is their description of their technology:

A running prototype using a new way to control attract – repel forces generated by permanent and electromagnet interactions.  Our unique configuration and intellectual property manipulates these forces to apply its product towards useful work. With chip technology, laser measuring devices, and MagLev Energy, Inc. (MEI) developed proprietary algorithms, this prototype produces clean, renewable, and better power conversion ratios than fossil fuels.

Most skeptics should instantly recognize this description as an utter scam – we are in Dennis Lee and Orbo territory here. You simply cannot generate free energy by cleverly interacting magnets. This seems to be the perpetual free-energy deception – whether self-deception or conscious fraud.

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Mar 05 2010

Reaching Scientific Consensus – On Dinosaurs

Published by under Evolution

Controversies in science are fun, and the spectacle of such controversies being worked out by competing groups of scientists is a wonderful way to learn about the process of science. But as science progresses, we hope to occasionally resolve controversies and come to a reasonable consensus.

One such controversy that I have been following is the question over what killed the dinosaurs, and much of other life on earth, 65 million years ago. The two leading contenders were an asteroid impact at the Chicxulub crater near Mexico, and volcanic eruptions at the Deccan trap in India. Now a new review of the literature has resulted in a solid consensus supporting the asteroid theory.

Actually, the consensus is somewhat of an anti-climax in that this consensus has been slowly building for years. In recent years the vast majority of scientists already agreed on the impact theory, with just a handful of holdouts rooting for the volcano alternative. So this latest report is no surprise.

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Mar 04 2010

Treating Migraine with Magnetic Stimulation

Since the discovery of magnetism, using magnets and magnetic fields has been a popular subject for quacks and charlatans – starting with Anton Mesmer and his “animal magnetism.” Recently there has been a resurgence of dubious magnetic devices for arthritis, pain, injuries, and other uses.

But today I am writing about the legitimate science of using magnetic stimulation for therapeutic effects. The brain is both a biochemical organ and an electromagnetic organ. Until recently our attempts at altering the physiology and function of the brain have focused on pharmacology – mainly either increasing or decreasing the action of specific neurotransmitters. This is an effective paradigm for seizures, preventing migraines, and treating pain. It has also been the approach for treating psychiatric disorders, with clear effects for psychotic symptoms, like those caused by schizophrenia, and also anxiety, eating disorders and severe depression. The effectiveness of pharmacological treatments for some psychiatric indications, however, remains marginal and controversial, for example for mild to moderate depression.

Because the brain is also an organ that interacts with the environment, there are also several specialties dedicated to addressing psychological concerns with environmental treatments – cognitive behavioral therapy, for example.

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Mar 03 2010

Acupuncture for Depression

One of the basic principles of science-based medicine is that a single study rarely tells us much about any complex topic. Reliable conclusions are derived from an assessment of basic science (i.e prior probability or plausibility) and a pattern of effects across multiple clinical trials. However the mainstream media generally report each study as if it is a breakthrough or the definitive answer to the question at hand. If the many e-mails I receive asking me about such studies are representative, the general public takes a similar approach, perhaps due in part to the media coverage.

I generally do not plan to report on each study that comes out as that would be an endless and ultimately pointless exercise. But occasionally focusing on a specific study is educational, especially if that study is garnering a significant amount of media attention. And so I turn my attention this week to a recent study looking at acupuncture in major depression during pregnancy. The study concludes:

The short acupuncture protocol demonstrated symptom reduction and a response rate comparable to those observed in standard depression treatments of similar length and could be a viable treatment option for depression during pregnancy.

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