Search Results for "autism"

Mar 27 2014

When Does Autism Begin?

One common feature of unscientific belief systems is that they do not change in the face of new evidence. They tend to evolve like cultural beliefs or marketing campaigns, but do not appear to be affected by scientific evidence in any meaningful way.

One great example of this is the idea the autism is linked to vaccines (to be clear up front, it isn’t) This idea had a few important factors in its origin. The first was simply the existing anti-vaccine movement searching for anything to blame on vaccines. The second, and perhaps decisive, factor was the now discredited and withdrawn study by Andrew Wakefield linking autism to the MMR vaccine.

Even as the MMR claim was dying, the anti-vaccine community was moving onto the next target – mercury (specifically the preservative Thimerosal). This was the target of the book Evidence of Harm by David Kirby. This also created common cause between the anti-vaccine movement, and separate “mercury militia” blaming many modern ills on mercury, and some environmentalists (most prominently Robert Kennedy Jr.) who are keen to blame medical problems on any environmental exposure, including mercury and/or vaccines.

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Mar 07 2014

Health of Vaccinated vs Unvaccinated

One of the new realities of social media is that old news can be dredged up and spread around. In this way old memes can keep coming back to life like the Terminator, and we have to kill them over and over again.

The antivaccine crowd, for example, has their narrative of conspiracy and evil and their cherry-picked factoids to support their narrative. In their world vaccines don’t work and are all bad all the time, and only corporate evil and public malfeasance can support them. They scour the internet for anything to support their beliefs, and then splash it around as if it’s news.

In this case, they have resurrected a terrible survey from 1992. The survey was conducted in New Zealand by the Immunization Awareness Society. Unsurprisingly, when this anti-vaccine group surveyed their own anti-vaccine members, they found a higher incidence of disease among vaccinated children compared to unvaccinated children.

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Nov 07 2013

Early Detection of Autism

Part of the impetus for the fringe belief that vaccines are somehow causally related to the development of autism is that the signs of autism often become apparent at 2-3 years of age, after children have received many of their routine childhood vaccinations. (Average age at diagnosis is 3.1 years.) In an otherwise healthy child, the vaccines might be the only thing the parents can think of that could be a potential cause.

Signs of autism are not clinically noticeable prior to 6 months of age. From about 6-18 months the signs can be detected by careful clinical observation, but may be missed by parents. During this time parents may become slowly aware that their child is not developing as expected, and the creeping suspicion that something is not quite right often culminates in a diagnosis between age 2-3.

The phenomenon of temporal binding may then cause the parent’s memories to shift over time so that the temporal correlation between getting vaccines and signs of autism appearing become closer together. For some parents this can become a very powerful memory – my child was perfectly normal, then he received vaccines and started to show signs of autism.

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Jul 29 2013

Legal Courts And Science

Facebook is like a graveyard in a zombie movie, where old news items rise from the dead to have a second life. I am often asked about news items that are burning up Facebook, only to find that they are years old, but never-the-less they have to be addressed all over again. ]

One such item (actually a few items) is a 2012 news report about the Italian courts awarding money to the Bocca family a large reward because it concluded their 9-year-old son acquired autism from the MMR vaccine.

History here is a useful guide. The courts have historically often been out-of-step with the science, tending to err on the side of awarding compensation for possible harm. For example, until about the 1920s it was thought that physical trauma could cause cancer. Animal studies and epidemiological evidence, however, showed that there was no causal connection. Recall bias and increased surveillance were likely the cause of the apparent association.

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Jul 01 2013

Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation for Autism

A clinic known as the Brain Treatment Center (BTC) is offering what they call Magnetic Resonance Therapy, or MRT™, as a treatment for autism and other disorders, including sleep disorders, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s disease, emotional disorders, anxiety, addiction, and for athletic performance.

MRT (always be suspicious of a medical treatment that is trademarked) consists of transcranial magnetic stimulation along with other modalities:

…EEG, brain stimulation, Neurofeedback, EKG and other biometric techniques to provide a highly customized treatment personalized to how a patient’s brain takes in, processes, and communicates information.

I will discuss both the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) for autism, and the specific claims made by BTC, starting with the latter.

BTC

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May 23 2013

The Younger Dryas

Published by under General Science

I love raging scientific controversies. I am not talking about vaccines and autism, global warming, evolution, or homeopathy – these are not actual scientific controversies. They are political controversies intruding onto science.

I prefer nerdy scientific debates that have insignificant political implications. I like to see two groups of scientists arguing about the evidence over some narrow scientific question.  That way you get pure science without all the distortion and nonsense of politics and ideology. That is when you see how science really works.

Take for example the Younger Dryas. The last glacial maximum ended about 20,000 years ago. That glacial period was followed by interstadial (warm) periods and stadial (cold) periods. The term Dryas refers to the indicator genus (Dryas octopetali) which is a tundra flower that was much more widely distributed during cold periods. Its pollen in core samples is therefore a good indicator of an stadial period.

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May 21 2013

The Genetics of Mental Illness

Published by under Neuroscience

The new Diagnostics and Statistical Manual, DSM-V, is out. Not surprisingly, it has sparked some controversy. Psychiatry deniers are proclaiming that this is the collapse of the mental-illness fraud (I believe reports of the death of psychiatry are exaggerated).

What the DSM-V does represent, to some degree, is an attempt to advance psychiatry to the next stage of our understanding of illness. It seems that we are not quite ready for this step in psychiatry, but the effort is sincere and interesting.

For background, the DSM (now in the fifth edition) is essentially a list of official psychiatric diagnoses, based upon clinical criteria. For mental illness and disorders we mostly lack clear biological markers or pathology, and so we have had to make do with clinical descriptions – lists of signs and symptoms. This is very much a descriptive phase of scientific understanding.

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Apr 04 2013

Vaccines are Gay

It’s always amusing to see two pseudosciences combined into one greater pseudoscience – it’s like chocolate and peanut butter. It’s not uncommon because those who would embrace one pseudoscience are likely to follow the same flawed logic and process to accept others. My colleague David Gorski has termed this effect “crank magnetism.”

Take, for example, Gian Paolo Vanoli. He has been making international headlines recently because of his claim that vaccines cause homosexuality, which he insists is a disease. The story appears to have been first picked up in English by the Huffington Post – all other reports of this story I have found cite this article as their source.

Because of the date of this article (4/1) I wanted to make sure I had another source, but the only other sources are in Italian. The story does seem to check out – here is one article: Gian Paolo Vanoli: Cricket on the urine that has been around the world. 

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Dec 31 2012

Nutrigenomics – Personalized Pseudoscience

I wrote last week about the problem of stem-cell quackery throughout the world, mostly in poorly regulated countries but with the purpose of attracting international customers. Stem cells are real, and the science of developing medical applications of stem cells is both real and promising, but these stem cell clinics are making claims that are years or decades ahead of the science. They are capitalizing on stem cell hype as a marketing ploy to those who are more desperate than scientifically savvy.

I was asked to comment on yet another example of the same phenomenon – nutrigenomics. That’s a very impressive-sounding name, just like a real science, but as always the devil is in the details. The claim is that by analyzing one’s genes a personalized regimen of specific nutrients can be developed to help their gene’s function at optimal efficiency. One website that promises, “Genetics Based Integrative Medicine” contain this statement:

Nutrigenomics seeks to unravel these medical mysteries by providing personalized genetics-based treatment. Even so, it will take decades to confirm what we already understand; that replacing specific nutrients and/or chemicals in existing pathways allows more efficient gene expression, particularly with genetic vulnerabilities and mutations.

The money-quote is the phrase, “ it will take decades to confirm what we already understand.” This is the essence of pseudoscience – using science to confirm what one already “knows.” This has it backwards, of course. Science is not use to “confirm” but to determine if a hypothesis is true or not.

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Dec 27 2012

More Stem Cell Quackery

Stem cells are an exciting area of medical research. They are cells that have the ability to transform into different cell types, a property known as pluripotency. Some stem cells, such as embryonic stem cells, can turn into any cell type, which is called totipotency.

The hope is that researchers will develop the technology to harvest or create stem cells, manipulate their properties if necessary, transplant them into patients with specific diseases or damage, and coax the stem cells to fix, support, or replace the diseased or damaged cells. This is a potentially powerful treatment in theory, but is very tricky in practice. Researchers are still, in most cases, working out the basics of the technology – getting stem cells to survive and do what they want them to do, without growing into tumors or causing other problems. Researchers are making incremental advances, but are mostly in the test tube or animal research stage. For some indications they are making the first forays into preliminary human research.

Public awareness and interest in stem cell treatments, however, is way ahead of the reality. It takes years, perhaps decades, to innovate an entirely new treatment paradigm such as stem cell therapy. Unfortunately some unscrupulous clinics have decided to cash in on the premature hype by offering bogus stem cell treatment for serious illnesses. Most of these clinics are in countries with lax health care regulations and oversight, hoping to lure in wealthy and desperate foreigners. In fact, one of my first blog posts was about one such clinic in China.

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