Is the US over-diagnosing bipolar disorder in children?

New Scientist has an open-access article on the increasing tendency for atypical American children to be diagnosed with ‘juvenile bipolar disorder’.

Children are being increasingly diagnosed with bipolar disorder in the US, despite the fact that there is limited evidence for its validity and disagreement about its symptoms.

As we reported in a previous Mind Hacks article, mental disorder presents differently in children (for reasons that are not well understood) and diagnosis is fraught with difficulties.

Not least because children often are not able to report their thoughts and emotions adequately, and many different forms of distress get expressed as ‘misbehaviour’, making it hard to distinguish between different causes.

One of the other effects of the increasing number of children diagnosed with bipolar, is that an increasing number are being medicated with drugs that have barely been tested in anyone other than adults.

This is despite the fact that parenting programmes, such as the Webster-Stratton ‘Incredible Years‘ programme, are known to be effective ways of improving behaviour.

Advocates for the disorder argue that it has been previously unrecognised and only now is it being properly diagnosed, and that it causes serious distress and impairment in affected children and their families.

The NewSci article looks at some of the trends in diagnosis and treatment, and speaks to child mental health researchers on both sides of the fence.

Link to NewSci article ‘Bipolar children – is the US overdiagnosing?’.

The benefits of persistence

Philip Dawdy is an investigative journalist who runs the Furious Seasons blog and he’s been on Eli Lilly’s case for some time.

He’s been following the ongoing legal proceedings over whether the drug company obscured information about the side effects of antipsychotic drug Zyprexa, and has been posting some seemingly incriminating documents online that have probably made the company quite uncomfortable.

His work has just got him a mental health award that was voted for by mental health professionals and service users.

It was created by a corporate sponsor who fund the award but get no say in who receives the honour. The name of the sponsor? Eli Lilly.

I love the smell of irony in the morning.

Link to Furious Seasons on forthcoming award.

How doctors think, but psychiatrists still a mystery

Dr Jerome Groopman has written a book on the psychology of medical decision making called How Doctors Think but interestingly, he specifically excludes psychiatrists, as he says their thought processes are too complicated to understand.

Groopman talks about his book on the NPR radio programme Fresh Air, which also has the introduction of his book available online.

The end of the introduction is telling:

I quickly realized that trying to assess how psychiatrists think was beyond my abilities. Therapy of mental illness is a huge field unto itself that encompasses various schools of thought and theories of mind. For that reason, I do not delve into psychiatry in this book.

Among the medical profession psychiatry is one of the more poorly paid and less respected specialities, possibly because traditionally ‘dangerous’ medical interventions (such as surgery) are limited, and it often involves dealing with disturbed and difficult patients – which makes it seem less glamorous to the public.

You’ll notice this at election time. Politicians are quite happy to stand next to grateful working folk who’ve just had a life threatening tumour removed, but are strangely reluctant to stand next to oddly behaving unemployed people who’ve just been saved from suicide.

This lack of status belies the fact that psychiatrists deal with the most complex conceptual problems.

There is very little discussion about the philosophy of cardiology because we tend to understand disordered hearts on a limited number of levels.

In contrast, the philosophy of psychiatry is a huge area, because understanding the disordered mind involves drawing together a number of different levels and approaches in the context of one person’s life and experience.

Psychology, neuroscience, sociology, physiology, philosophy, ethics and law are all needed for even the most simple of consultations. And this is just for starters.

This is not to say that other types of medicine are straightforward, but they certainly deal with fewer philosophical difficulties on a day-to-day basis.

This leads to uncertainty and doctors generally hate not knowing what’s happening as it’s often considered a sign of failure.

Psychiatrists, good ones at least, will spend a lot more time saying they don’t know than other doctors. They handle a lot more uncertainty, and this is what makes some physicians uncomfortable.

The fact that someone could write a book on the thought processes of physicians but won’t even attempt to start on the mental life of psychiatrists is, I think, a very sincere compliment.

Link to NPR Fresh Air on ‘How Doctors Think’.

2007-05-18 Spike activity

Quick links from the past week in mind and brain news:

Discover magazine interview Marc Hauser about the psychology of moral reasoning.

Mixing Memory picks up on an article tracking the history of the concept of mind.

The Guardian has an opinion piece by an NHS psychologist arguing that psychosis is over-medicalised.

ABC Radio National’s discussion programme Ockham’s Razor takes an in-depth look at auditory processing deficits.

The Neurophilosopher investigates the curious case of the anarchist’s pickled brain.

BBC News reports on research suggesting women have lower sex drives in secure relationships.

People with levels of testosterone are more likely to feel rewarded by other people’s anger, reports Science Daily.

What is a neural network and how does its operation differ from that of a digital computer? Scientific American ‘asks the expert’.

The sight of the female body is more rewarding for men, than the sight of the male body is for women, according to research reported in The Telegraph.

Madam Fathom looks at the increasing cross over between neuroscience and economics.

Sarin gas may have affected brains of US soldiers, according to The New York Times.

More cool visual illusions from Cognitive Daily.

BBC News notes that antidepressant use in the UK rose 6% during the last year.

Quinn Norton has her sixth sense removed

Reporter Quinn Norton, who had a magnet implanted into her finger to allow her to ‘feel’ magnetic fields has finally had it removed – returning her to the normal world of the ‘five senses’.

We reported on the operation last year, and Norton wrote up her experiences in an extended Wired article that also looked at the role of body modification in extending the human sense range.

Norton notes that even though she glad she’s had the magnet removed (it wasn’t without problems – it broke up in her body and got infected) she still misses the extra sense:

In the background of all this are the questions the magnet led me to, the ones that make the magnet look pedestrian. Human augmentation and even advanced treatment really begin to erode at what we think humans are, in society, in the justice system, in medicine itself. What are we going to become inevitably is also the question of who we are now, and beginning to ask the former brings home how little we know about the later.

I’m excited and scared to be trying to find out. I miss my magnet, but I knew it wasn’t well understood when I started. I’m glad I know what a spinning drive and a ringing telephone wire feel like. I’m sad I can’t feel them anymore.

Link to Quinn Norton on losing her sixth sense.
Link to Wired article on magnet implant.

Rare risks and irrational responses

Security guru Bruce Schneier has written an insightful article for Wired about rational precautions for rare risks, and why the typical response after a rare catastrophe is usually psychologically satisfying but practically irrelevant.

He writes the article in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, which have caused a number of bizarre responses by people worried about whether it might happen again (banning fake guns in theatrical productions, for example).

Trying to reduce the risk from the rare people who are both violent and mentally disturbed is often the responsibility of forensic psychologists and psychiatrists.

Interestingly, they don’t spend their whole time thinking ‘how can we stop this person murdering someone’, as although this is the sort of thing that hits the headlines, it’s actually incredibly rare.

People who have already murdered someone are generally locked away and don’t pose much of a risk, but for someone who has never murdered anyone or never attempted to, predicting whether they will can be very difficult.

In fact, it’s difficult to gather data to determine whether your predictions are accurate or not.

Imagine you have a risk assessment that predicts that a person is highly likely to murder someone.

To best evaluate your prediction, you’d want to wait and see if it turns out to be true, but in these circumstances, you can’t. You have to intervene.

Once you’ve intervened, you don’t know whether your prediction was true or not.

Forensic mental health professions spend a lot of time thinking, as Schneier recommends, ‘have we done everything that is feasible to reduce the risk to the public based on what we know about the most common risks’.

In other words, they focus on the principle of maximising safety, rather spending all their time and energy on highly unlikely events that may be impossible to predict.

As they tend to be so frequently in touch with the legal system, their second line of thinking tends to be ‘if the extremely unlikely does occur, will we be seen to have done everything that was required by the courts’, because at the end of the day, the law is the final say on what is acceptable when predicting the unpredictable.

Link to ‘Virginia Tech Lesson: Rare Risks Breed Irrational Responses’.
Link to information on forensic psychology.
Link to online book on forensic psychiatry from the Royal College of Psychiatrists.

BBC Case Notes special on multiple sclerosis

BBC Radio 4’s weekly medical programme Case Notes just had a special on multiple sclerosis. The programme looks at what we know about the brain disorder and investigates the controversial use of cannabis as a treatment.

Some neurons in the brain have extended sections called axons that allow the neuron to transmit signals over distance.

The signals travel down the axon as electrical pulses, and as with electrical wires in the house, the signalling is more efficient when it is insulated from the outside world.

Axons are insulated by a layer of fatty covering called myelin.

In MS, the myelin starts to degrade and the neurons are eventually unable to send signals, becoming useless and withering.

It is not clear why this happens, but it might be because a problem with the immune system means the body starts attacking and destroying the myelin.

The destruction of myelin in the brain is not evenly spread out and doesn’t continue at a steady rate, meaning that people with the disorder may have difficulties with a whole variety of different brain functions.

This pattern might differ from person to person, and might progress at a different rate.

Movement, memory, attention, mood, perception and speech can all be affected (to name but a few), and the person is at a much higher risk for mental illness as a result.

Currently, there is no cure for MS but several treatments are known to slow the disorder or help with the symptoms.

These can include drugs that regulate the immune system and steroids to limit the damage.

However, many patients report that cannabis significantly helps with the symptoms.

While cannabis treatment is illegal in most countries, researchers are trying to understand what is it about cannabis that helps, and are working on developing medications based on cannabinoids.

The programme looks at these treatments, as well as looking at the science of MS, and how is it managed by the clinical team.

Link to Case Notes special on MS.

Visual illusions competition winners announced

OmniBrain has alerted me to the fact that the winners of the 2007 Visual Illusion contest have been announced, with all of the top ten entries viewable online.

Most of the entries are animated and range from the striking to the subtle.

My favourite is the one pictured, simple but effective, which you really need to see in action to get the full effect.

There’s many more at the link below, most with psychological explanations of how they work.

Link to top 10 winners.

Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness wins science book prize

As an update to an earlier story, psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness has been announced as the winner of The Royal Society Prize for Science Books.

The book is a hugely entertaining look at the science of happiness, covering everything from brain science to decision making experiments using sandwiches.

It’s perhaps most interesting for presenting research on how bad we are at predicting how happy our choices will make us, and how future events will impact our sense of well-being.

One useful recent additon to the book’s website is a brief study guide for lecturers wanting to use the book, as Gilbert does, for teaching students.

Link to announcement from The Royal Society.
Link to coverage from BBC News.
Link to book website.
Link to Daniel Gilbert’s lab homepage.

Happy Birthday Prozac

Prozac is twenty and The Observer celebrates with an article noting 20 things you may not know about the drug that was supposed to make us ‘better than well’.

Prozac is the brand name for the drug fluoxetine and was so successful that it has become a by-word for antidepressants and psychiatric drug treatment.

Its popularity was partly due to it being a safer alternative to the older tricyclic antidepressants, such as amitriptyline, and the addictive benzodiazepine drugs used to treat anxiety, such as Vallium.

Also, it came at a time when depression was becoming destigmatised and more widely recognised. Helped in no small part, of course, by Eli Lilly heavily funding a number ‘public education’ campaigns and depression support groups.

During the 1990s Prozac was truly considered a wonder drug.

Psychiatrist Peter Kramer’s 1994 book Listening to Prozac (ISBN 0140266712) had case studies of people who’s marriages were saved, porn addiction was cured (!) and generally became better, more thoughtful people after taking the drug.

Notably, several of the case studies were not people who were clinically depressed. Kramer wondered whether we would take such drugs to improve on normality rather than to treat pathology, and coined the term ‘cosmetic pharmacology’ for the former.

As the 90s drew to a close, clouds started to form and the sunshine started to fade.

The storm broke in 1998 as court cases focused on the negative effects of Prozac and related drugs and an influential paper was published suggesting the drug wasn’t as effective as it was thought.

Drug company Smithkline was sued by the family of a man who killed himself and his family after taking the related drug paroxetine, also known as Paxil or Seroxat.

The court case involve psychiatrist Dr David Healy who had been investigating the possible role of Prozac in stirring up suicidal thoughts in some depressed patients.

Healy discovered that Eli Lilly had obscured the adverse effects of Prozac from their pre-release drug trials and was subsequently subjected to a dirty tricks campaign by the company.

This became a legal case in itself and he eventually settled for what are thought to be significant out-of-court damages.

Furthermore, an influential paper published by Irving Kirsh and Guy Sapirstein (wittily titled ‘Listening to Prozac but hearing placebo’), analysed a series of antidepressant drug trials and reported that only 25% of the improvement in the patients was due to the drug, the rest, the data suggested, was placebo effect.

Researchers started to challenge the virtually evidence free message that ‘low serotonin causes depression’ on which the marketing campaigns for SSRI drugs relied.

More recently, worries have emerged about Prozac and related drugs increasing suicidal thoughts in some children (again with allegations about drug companies burying negative findings), with antidepressants now carrying a warning on the box to alert doctors and clinicians.

The pendulum has swung back a little since then, with recent studies indicating that while some children will have an increase in suicidal thinking, they are a small minority and, generally, the benefits outweigh the risks in most children.

Current evidence suggests that Prozac is an effective treatment for depression, although it’s not without side-effects and, on balance, is about as effective as most other antidepressants.

Prozac is a useful treatment for depression and anxiety, but is no longer the ‘wonder drug’ it once was – and we’re probably all better off for having a more balanced view.

The Observer article is a guide to the drug and its wide-ranging impact on society, covering everything from its neurochenical effects to its influence on the music scene.

Link to Observer article ‘Eternal sunshine’ (via Furious Seasons).

Staying awake record attempt live on the web

Tony Wright is aiming to beat the world record for staying awake, and you can watch him on a webcam. The record is currently held by Randy Gardner who managed 11 days without sleep.

A previous record was famously claimed by Radio DJ Peter Tripp who stayed awake for 8 days, but used methylphenidate (Ritalin) to help him fight off sleep.

Methylphenidate is a form of amphetamine and it’s known to increase the risk of psychosis in some people. Sleep deprivation is also linked to psychosis.

Needless to say, Tripp was quite psychotic by the end of his ‘wakeathon’ with hallucinations and paranoid delusions.

As it wasn’t widely known that Tripp had taken stimulants, it was assumed that sleep deprivation led to madness.

This is why Gardner suggested at the final press conference that he was perfectly fine, announcing that “I wanted to prove that bad things didn’t happen if you went without sleep”.

Contrary to Gardner’s claims, it was obvious that the lack of sleep was causing cognitive difficulties, as well as temporary delusions and hallucinations, although not to the same extent as Tripp suffered.

We know now that sleep deprivation causes significant mood problems, reality distortion and profound cognitive difficulties.

So, if you’re watching the webcam you might see some rather unusual behaviour, as Tony Wright is likely to be experiencing some very odd things as time goes on.

Link to Tony Wright’s record attempt webpage (via MeFi).
Link to live webcam.

Hume on the perversions of John Locke

18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume makes a dig at John Locke in the footnote to one of his most famous books – A Treatise of Human Nature.

Hume wrote that completing the Treatise, at the age of 26, affected his mental health, causing ‘philosophical melancholy and delirium’.

Footnote 1. I here make use of these terms, impression and idea, in a sense different from what is usual, and I hope this liberty will be allowed me. Perhaps I rather restore the word, idea, to its original sense, from which Mr LOCKE had perverted it, in making it stand for all our perceptions.

Link to Wikipedia page on David Hume.
Link to online copy of A Treatise of Human Nature.

How the Mind Works: The video lectures

The Technology, Entertainment, Design conference has strayed from its original focus and now hosts a wide-ranging set of talks, including a number on ‘How the Mind Works‘, all of which are available online as streamed video.

I’m always a bit suspicious of anything in psychology with grand titles like this.

I remember smiling to myself when I started reading Steven Pinker’s (actually very good) book of the same name, where he wrote in the first few pages that the book won’t actually tell you how the mind works, but will just help explain what we’ve worked out already.

I thought it would be better called ‘What I Think About What We Know About How the Mind Works So Far’, but I suspect the publisher’s would have objected.

The joke goes that Daniel Dennett’s equally as grandly titled book ‘Consciousness Explained’ should really be called ‘Consciousness Explained Away’, as he argues that their is no such thing as qualia and no hard problem to solve, two of the main issues thought to be key in consciousness research.

If you want to know more about Dennett’s views on consciousness, you can have a look at his TED lecture.

The other talks are fascinating and diverse. Helen Fisher talks about the psychology and biology of love, Daniel Gilbert talks about happiness and why we are so bad at understanding it, Ray Kurzweil talk about how we’re shortly all to become super evolved drug-enhanced semi-robots.

There’s plenty of other talks as well, so see what catches your interest. None of them will tell you how the mind works, but they’ll tell you some of what we know so far.

Link to videos of TED mind, brain and society talks.

Minds and computers

ABC Radio National’s The Philosopher’s Zone just had an excellent edition on artificial intelligence and whether a computer could ever simulate the mind.

The guest on the show is philosopher Matt Carter, who’s also just written a book on the subject called Minds and Computers (ISBN 0748620990).

For half an hour, the programme is a remarkably comprehensive guide to some of the key issues in the philosophy of artificial intelligence and computational models of mind.

Alan Saunders: Is it an interesting question because we think that perhaps we could develop computers that are like us in some intellectual respect and to whose rights we will perhaps have to give recognition? Or is it because we think that the computational model will tell us something about our own minds?

Matt Carter: It’s an excellent question, and I think the answer is both. There’s a sense in which we really hope to understand our own minds better through this kind of computational understanding, and certainly the computational theory of mind is currently by far the most dominant theory in the philosophy of mind and the culture of sciences broadly. But there are also a number of people working on strong artificial intelligence projects, and the ultimate goal of those projects is to produce man-made artifacts that have minds in precisely the same sense, or some very similar sense, in which we take ourselves to have minds.

Link to Philosopher’s Zone on ‘Minds and Computers’.

Neuropsychoanalysis: Freud and the brain

Bookslut has an in-depth interview with neuropsychologist Dr Mark Solms, one of the pioneers of neuropsychoanalysis, the field that attempts to test, extend and integrate Freudian ideas with modern neuroscience.

Twenty years ago, Freud’s ideas were considered virtually obsolete by mainstream cognitive scientists, but some recent findings have suggested a neurocognitive basis for some key Freudian ideas.

For example, a 2001 paper by Anderson and Green suggested that people can effectively suppress unwanted memories from consciousness and that the executive system (considered a key control function of the frontal lobes) may be responsible.

More recently, a study of brain injured patients who confabulate (produce false or unlikely memories without intending to deceive) have reported that the false memories are more likely to be positive and emotionally uplifting, suggesting a level of wish fulfilment.

In the interview, Solms discusses the future of neuropsychoanalysis, addresses some of the criticisms, and talks about his new translation of Freud’s complete works.

Link to Mark Solms interview.
Link to Wikipedia page on neuropsychoanalysis.