All in Our Heads
Well, mental disorders probably are mostly in our heads, or at least our brains (and genes), but I keep seeing news features that “offer hope” for new diagnostic tools and treatments that “may someday” alleviate the suffering.
Here’s an example from the University of Pennsylvania:
Many factors, both genetic and environmental, have been blamed for increasing the risk of a diagnosis of schizophrenia. Some, such as a family history of schizophrenia, are widely accepted. Others, such as infection with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite transmitted by soil, undercooked meat and cat feces, are still viewed with skepticism. A new study used epidemiological modeling methods to determine the proportion of schizophrenia cases that may be attributable to T. gondii infection. The work suggests that about one-fifth of cases may involve the parasite.
Great. I am sure that schizophrenics will be comforted by the thought that their problems are caused by brain parasites and cat poop.
I noticed that the study showed that only 20 percent of schizophrenia “may” involve the parasite. What about the other 80 percent? Are those cases caused by some other parasite? And how will the parasites be detected? Blood test? Brain biopsy? Could be a world of horrors there for the already mentally unstable. And, perhaps most important, will real-world results back up the computer simulations?
Schizophrenia is far from the only illness being studied. Bipolar disorder and our old pal depression come in for their share of lab work too. USA Today recently reported on a procedure that might help with depression:
The treatment — transcranial magnetic stimulation — was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in 2008 for the treatment of patients with medication-resistant depression.
Magnets generate a directed, pulsed magnetic field — similar to an MRI in strength — to the prefrontal cortex, the front part of the brain behind the forehead. The magnetic fields induce small electrical currents, which encourage a mood-lifting chemical reaction in the brain.
The treatment is daily, for four to six weeks. If the patient improves enough, the treatment is then provided as a periodic booster.
Never mind that it’s entirely subjective when a patient has improved “enough” or even shows anything other than a placebo effect. And never mind the effects of having 42 MRI-strength treatments in a row.
Apparently scientists and insurance companies are battling it out on the money front (there’s a surprise).
Plus, as always, there are nay-sayers:
The National Institute of Mental Health describes the treatment as effective for some patients, but notes that studies of its efficacy have been “mixed.” The American Psychiatric Association’s guidelines for depression treatment states the procedure conveys “relatively small to moderate benefits.”
To the desperate, any potential “cure” or even palliative treatment eventually seems worth a try. I should know. I came that close (imagine several millimeters here) to having a go at electro-convulsive therapy (ECT). Formerly know as shock treatment.
The thing is, you only hear about theories that “might” be correct and treatments that “may” help. Studies are hardly ever published that say, “You know that treatment we said was going to relieve the suffering of millions? Turns out, not so much.” If the general public even gets to see the negative results, they may still cling to the hope offered by the earlier reports.
Just look at the anti-vaxxers. It has been repeatedly proved that childhood vaccines do not cause autism. The experiment that reported that finding was a fraud and the author (Andrew Wakefield) has been discredited – investigated and found guilty of “four counts of dishonesty and 12 involving the abuse of developmentally challenged children.” Basically, he’s been kicked out of medicine altogether and given the Lifetime Achievement in Quackery award by the Good Thinking Society. (I’m not making that up.)
And yet epidemics of measles and other deadly diseases continue to rise as parents yield to fear and refuse to have their children vaccinated.
I’m not trying to say that a parasite doesn’t cause some cases of schizophrenia or that magnetic therapy will never relieve anyone’s depression.
I’m just saying that if those theories are proved false, we’ll likely never hear about it from the popular press.