Archive for the ‘Mental Health’ Category
Imagine a world without fear. It might be empowering to go about your daily life uninhibited by everyday distresses. You could cross highways with confidence, take on all kinds of daredevilry and watch horror flicks without flinching. Yet consider the prospect a little more deeply, and the possibilities become darker, even deadly. Our fears, after all, can protect us.
The basic aversion that a mouse has for a cat, for instance, keeps the rodent out of death’s jaws. But unfortunately for mice everywhere, there is a second enemy with which to contend, one that may prevent them from experiencing that fear in the first place. A unicellular organism (a protozoan), Toxoplasma gondii, can override a rodent’s most basic survival instincts. The result is a rodent that does not race away from a cat but is instead strangely attracted to it.
Toxoplasma‘s reach extends far beyond the world of cat and mouse. It may have a special relationship with rodent and feline hosts, but this parasite also infects the brains of billions of animals on land, at sea and in the air. Humans are no exception. Worldwide, scientists estimate that as many as three billion people may be carrying Toxoplasma. In the U.S., there is a one-in-five chance that Toxoplasma parasites are lodged in your neural circuits, and infection rates are as high as 95 percent in other countries.
For most people, this infection appears asymptomatic, but recent evidence shows that Toxoplasma actively remodels the molecular landscape of mammalian brain cells. Now some researchers have begun to speculate that this tiny single-celled organism may be tweaking human health and personalities in stealthy, subtle ways.
What the cat dragged in
Researchers first discovered T. gondii in 1908, and by the end of the 20th century they had a good grasp on how people could pick up this parasite. The story starts with cats: for reasons that scientists have yet to unravel, Toxoplasma can sexually reproduce only in the feline gut. The parasite breeds within its feline host and is released from the feline’s tail end. Cats are such obsessive groomers that it is rarely found in their fur. Instead people can become infected from kitty litter or by ingesting it in contaminated water or food.
Within a new host the parasite begins dividing asexually and spreading throughout the host’s body. During this initial stage of the infection, Toxoplasma can cause the disease toxoplasmosis in immunocompromised or otherwise susceptible hosts, leading to extensive tissue damage. Pregnant women are particularly at risk. If a woman is infected with Toxoplasma for the first time during pregnancy, the parasite may invade the developing fetus, cutting through tissues and organs as it spreads from cell to cell. Infection early in pregnancy can result in miscarriage or birth defects.
In otherwise healthy individuals, however, the only symptoms during this period are brief, flulike discomforts such as chills, fever and body ache. Within days the immune system gets the parasite under control, and Toxoplasma retreats into a dormant state. It conceals itself within a hardened wall in the host’s cells, a structure called a tissue cyst.
This stage of the infection has no other discernible symptoms, but individuals with dormant infections who develop compromised immune systems—because of AIDS, an organ transplant or chemotherapy—may experience severe complications. With the body’s defense systems weakened, Toxoplasma can reactivate and grow uncontrollably.
Once infected, a person will remain a carrier for life. Our immune system is apparently incapable of eliminating the tissue cysts, nor can any known drug. Nevertheless, the infection, detectable with a blood test, has long been viewed as relatively benign. After all, many people carry this parasite with no obvious ill effects. Only recently have scientists begun reexamining this belief.
Eat me, Mr. Kitty
In the 1980s researchers noticed unusual behaviors in Toxoplasma-infected mice. The rodents became hyperactive and groomed less. In 1994 epidemiologist Joanne Webster, then at the University of Oxford, observed that rats harboring tissue cysts behaved differently from their uninfected counterparts. Instead of fleeing from cats, the infected rodents moved toward them—making them easier prey.
Webster suspected that this “fatal feline attraction,” as she called it, was a crafty way for the parasite to get back into a cat’s belly to complete the sexual stage of its life cycle. In the years to follow, this idea gained ground: a large body of work now shows that the parasite can indeed manipulate rodents’ behavior by altering neural activity and gene expression.
Several well-controlled experiments have shown that although uninfected rodents avoid areas that have been infused with cat stench, infected rodents do not seem to mind. Even more bizarre, in 2011 neuroendocrinologist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, molecular biologist Ajai Vyas of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and their colleagues found that—at least in terms of neural activity—infected rats appeared to be sexually attracted to cat scent.
In the mammalian brain, the “defensive” and “reproductive” neuronal pathways run in parallel. These pathways start at the olfactory bulb, involved in odor detection, and ter-minate at the limbic system, an area critical to basic reactions such as fear and arousal. Their proximity may partially explain how the parasite manipulates rodent behavior. . .
Fascinating article by James Krupa in Orion magazine:
i’m often asked what I do for a living. My answer, that I am a professor at the University of Kentucky, inevitably prompts a second question: “What do you teach?” Responding to such a question should be easy and invite polite conversation, but I usually brace for a negative reaction. At least half the time the person flinches with disapproval when I answer “evolution,” and often the conversation simply terminates once the “e-word” has been spoken. Occasionally, someone will retort: “But there is no evidence for evolution.” Or insist: “It’s just a theory, so why teach it?”
At this point I should walk away, but the educator in me can’t. I generally take the bait, explaining that evolution is an established fact and the foundation of all biology. If in a feisty mood, I’ll leave them with this caution: the fewer who understand evolution, the more who will die. Sometimes, when a person is still keen to prove me wrong, I’m more than happy to share with him an avalanche of evidence demonstrating I’m not.
Some colleagues ask why I bother, as if I’m the one who’s the provocateur. I remind them that evolution is the foundation of our science, and we simply can’t shy away from explaining it. We don’t avoid using the “g-word” when talking about gravitational theory, nor do we avoid the “c-word” when talking about cell theory. So why avoid talking about evolution, let alone defending it? After all, as a biologist, the mission of advancing evolution education is the most important aspect of my job.
TO TEACH EVOLUTION at the University of Kentucky is to teach at an institution steeped in the history of defending evolution education. The first effort to pass an anti-evolution law (led by William Jennings Bryan) happened in Kentucky in 1921. It proposed making the teaching of evolution illegal. The university’s president at that time, Frank McVey, saw this bill as a threat to academic freedom. Three faculty members—William Funkhouser, a zoologist; Arthur Miller, a geologist who taught evolution; and Glanville Terrell, a philosopher—joined McVey in the battle to prevent the bill from becoming law. They put their jobs on the line. Through their efforts, the anti-evolution bill was defeated by a forty-two to forty-one vote in the state legislature. Consequently, the movement turned its attention toward Tennessee.
John Thomas Scopes was a student at the University of Kentucky then and watched the efforts of his three favorite teachers and President McVey. The reason the “Scopes Monkey Trial” occurred several years later in Dayton, Tennessee—where Scopes was a substitute teacher and volunteered to be prosecuted—was in good part due to the influence of his mentors, particularly Funkhouser. As Scopes writes in his memoir, Center of the Storm: “Teachers rather than subject matter rekindled my interest in science. Dr. Funkhouser . . . was a man without airs [who] taught zoology so flawlessly that there was no need to cram for the final examination; at the end of the term there was a thorough, fundamental grasp of the subject in bold relief in the student’s mind, where Funkhouser had left it.”
I was originally reluctant to take my job at the university when offered it twenty years ago. It required teaching three sections of non-majors biology classes, with three hundred students per section, and as many as eighteen hundred students each year. I wasn’t particularly keen on lecturing to an auditorium of students whose interest in biology was questionable given that the class was a freshman requirement.
Then I heard an interview with the renowned evolutionary biologist E. O. Wilson in which he addressed why, as a senior professor—and one of the most famous biologists in the world—he continued to teach non-majors biology at Harvard. Wilson explained that non-majors biology is the most important science class that one could teach. He felt many of the future leaders of this nation would take the class, and that this was the last chance to convey to them an appreciation for biology and science. Moved by Wilson’s words, and with the knowledge that William Funkhouser once held the job I was now contemplating, I accepted the position. The need to do well was unnerving, however, considering that if I failed as a teacher, a future Scopes might leave my class uninspired.
I realized early on that many instructors teach introductory biology classes incorrectly. Too often evolution is the last section to be taught, an autonomous unit at the end of the semester. I quickly came to the conclusion that, since evolution is the foundation upon which all biology rests, it should be taught at the beginning of a course, and as a recurring theme throughout the semester. As the renowned geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky said: “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.” In other words, how else can we explain why the DNA of chimps and humans is nearly 99 percent identical, and that the blood and muscle proteins of chimps and humans are nearly identical as well? Why are these same proteins slightly less similar to gorillas and orangutans, while much less similar to goldfish? Only evolution can shed light on these questions: we humans are great apes; we and the other great apes (gibbons, chimps, gorillas, bonobos, and orangutans) all evolved from a common ancestor.
Soon, every topic and lecture in my class was built on an evolutionary foundation and explained from an evolutionary perspective. My basic biology for non-majors became evolution for non-majors. It didn’t take long before I started to hear from a vocal minority of students who strongly objected: “I am very offended by your lectures on evolution! Those who believe in creation are not ignorant of science! You had no right to try and force evolution on us. Your job was to teach it as a theory and not as a fact that all smart people believe in!!” And: “Evolution is not a proven fact. It should not be taught as if it is. It cannot be observed in any quantitative form and, therefore, isn’t really science.”
We live in a nation where public acceptance of evolution is the second lowest of thirty-four developed countries, just ahead of Turkey. Roughly half of Americans reject some aspect of evolution, believe the earth is less than ten thousand years old, and that humans coexisted with dinosaurs. Where I live, many believe evolution to be synonymous with atheism, and there are those who strongly feel I am teaching heresy to thousands of students. A local pastor, whom I’ve never met, wrote an article in The University Christian complaining that, not only was I teaching evolution and ignoring creationism, I was teaching it as a non-Christian, alternative religion.
There are students who enroll in my courses and already accept evolution. Although not yet particularly knowledgeable on the subject, they are eager to learn more. Then there are the students whose minds are already sealed shut to the possibility that evolution exists, but need to take my class to fulfill a college requirement. And then there are the students who have no opinion one way or the other but are open-minded. These are the students I most hope to reach by presenting them with convincing and overwhelming evidence without offending or alienating them.
Some students take offense very easily. . .
And Phil Plait in Slate offers some answers to questions asked by creationists:
After writing yesterday about the now-famous/infamous debate between Bill Nye and Ken Ham, I don’t want to make this blog all creationism all the time, but indulge me this one more time, if you will. On BuzzFeed, there is a clever listicle that is a collection of 22 photos showing creationists holding up questions they have for people who “believe” in evolution.
These questions are fairly typically asked when evolution is questioned by creationists. Some are philosophical, and fun to think about, while others show a profound misunderstanding of how science works, and specifically what evolution is. I have found that most creationists who attack evolution have been taught about it by other creationists, so they really don’t understand what it is or how it works, instead they have a straw-man idea of it.
Because of this, it’s worth exploring and answering the questions presented. Some could be simply answered yes or no, but I’m all about going a bit deeper. With 22 questions I won’t go too deep, but if you have these questions yourself, or have been asked them, I hope this helps.
I’ll repeat the question below, and give my answers.
1) “Bill Nye, are you influencing the minds of children in a positive way?”
I’m not Bill, but I’d say yes, he is. More than just giving them facts to memorize, he is showing them how science works. Not only that, his clear love and enthusiasm for science is infectious, and that to me is his greatest gift.
2) “Are you scared of a Divine Creator?”
No. In fact, if there is a Judeo-Christian god, that would have fascinating implications for much of what we scientists study, and would be a rich vein to mine. Perhaps a more pertinent question is, “Are you scared there might not be a Divine Creator?” There is more room for a god in science than there is for no god in religious faith.
3) “Is it completely illogical that the Earth was created mature? i.e. trees created with rings … Adam created as an adult ….”
It might be internally consistent, even logical, but a bit of a stretch. After all, we can posit that God created the Universe last Thursday, looking exactly as it is, with all evidence pointing to it being old and your memories implanted such that you think you’re older than a mere few days. Consistent, sure, but plausible? Not really.
4) “Does not the second law of thermodynamics disprove evolution?” . . .
Given the profound psychological harm pedophiles wreak on children, there really should be some serious punishment handed out. Nico Hines reports at The Daily Beast:
A newspaper editor was handed startling evidence that Britain’s top law enforcement official knew there was a VIP pedophile network in Westminster, at the heart of the British government. What happened next in the summer of 1984 helps to explain how shocking allegations of rape and murder against some of the country’s most powerful men went unchecked for decades.
Less than 24 hours after starting to inquire about the dossier presented to him by a senior Labour Party politician, the editor was confronted in his office by a furious member of parliament who threatened him and demanded the documents. “He was frothing at the mouth and really shouting and spitting in my face,” Don Hale told The Daily Beast. “He was straight at me like a raging lion; he was ready to knock me through the wall.”
Despite the MP’s explosive intervention, Hale refused to hand over the papers which appeared to show that Leon Brittan, Margaret Thatcher’s Home Secretary, was fully aware of a pedophile network that included top politicians.
The editor’s resistance was futile; the following morning, police officers from the counter-terror and intelligence unit known as Special Branch burst into the newspaper office, seized the material and threatened to have Hale arrested if he ever reported what had been found.
More than 30 years later, an inquiry into allegations of child sex abuse rings, murder, and cover-ups has been launched by the British government after Scotland Yard detectives said they believed statements by victims who claimed they were systematically abused as young boys at sex abuse parties attended by judges, politicians, intelligence officers, and staff at the royal palaces.
In 1983, a controversial MP, Geoffrey Dickens, had made a series of incendiary claims about active pedophiles in the corridors of power. He handed a file containing the names of alleged perpetrators to Leon Brittan; publicly the authorities shrugged off the claims and no trial or prosecution would follow. The dossier mysteriously disappeared.
Decades later, Brittan claimed he had simply handed the papers to his subordinates to investigate and heard no more about it. Last year, he was forced to clarify his statement when it emerged that he had later written to Dickens to say the initial investigation had been deemed “worth pursuing” by investigators.
It is now claimed that confidential Home Office papers collated by Baroness Castle of Blackburn and passed to Don Hale, editor of her local newspaper, the Bury Messenger, claimed that Brittan had played an active role in overseeing the investigation into the pedophile network. “Leon Brittan was mentioned in everything you picked up, his fingerprints were over everything, he was the instigator,” Hale said. “He really had his finger on the pulse, he wanted to know everything about it; all the documents were cc’d back to Leon Brittan or it was an instruction directly from Leon Brittan.”
Brittan, a protégé of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, had been promoted to Home Secretary at the age of 43, making him the youngest person to preside over Britain’s domestic law enforcement and national security apparatus since Winston Churchill before the First World War.
Brittan, who died in January, has been accused of raping a woman and sexually abusing boys. He denied the allegations and was never charged, although police investigations have continued after his death. . .
Fascinating post by Kevin Drum at Mother Jones.
Here’s a fascinating little anecdote about lead and crime from a recent paper by Rick Nevin. It shouldn’t be taken as proof of anything, but it’s certainly an intriguing little historical tidbit about the association between lead exposure and increases in crime rates.
Here’s the background. Homicides increased dramatically between 1900-11, but most of that appears to be the result of increased rural homicides, not urban homicides. If lead exposure is part of the reason, it would mean that rural areas were exposed to increasing levels of lead about 20 years earlier, around 1880 or so. But why? Nevin suggests that the answer to this question starts with another question: Why are barns red? . . .
Contrary to the headline of this article, by Pam Martens in Wall Street on Parade, I do not believe Giulani is a hypocrite. I think he is simply stupid. The article begins:
Let’s hope this latest rant by former New York City Mayor, Rudy Giuliani, ends once and for all that preposterous moniker of “America’s Mayor” that he claimed solely because of 9/11.
While Mayor, Giuliani was sued 30 times by the New York Civil Liberties Union. It won 27 of the lawsuits. Many of the cases involved Giuliani’s assault on free speech and other First Amendment abuses under what truly makes America unique: its Bill of Rights.
In case there is still someone on the planet who hasn’t yet heard the rant, on Wednesday night Giuliani told about 60 guests at a right-wing dinner at Manhattan’s 21 Club that: “I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the President loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”
The rant was reported Wednesday night by Politico’s Darren Samuelsohn. According toPolitico’s Dylan Byers, the dinner guests included Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker; John Stossel and Maria Bartiromo of Fox Business Network; CNBC’s Larry Kudlow; James Freeman of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page; and Stephen Moore, a former member of the Journal’s editorial board who is now Chief Economist at the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Wall Street On Parade has previously raised questions about Stossel, Kudlow and Moore’s ties to right-wing front groups and Maria Bartiromo’s involvement with Citigroup while she was at CNBC.
This is what the New York Civil Liberties Union had to say about the Giuliani era in its 60th Anniversary Annual Report: . . .
Giulani may be more than stupid. There seems to be some active mental imbalance at work. Narcissistic Personality Disorder, for example.
Kevin Drum points out a report that includes a section linking crime to environmental lead:
The Brennan Center has released a lengthy report examining the reasons for the big crime decline of the 90s and aughts, and one section highlights the work of Jessica Reyes and others linking crime levels to gasoline lead emissions:
Reyes, and other researchers, have found that lead is connected to aggressive behavior and behavioral problems because it affects brain development of children….Reyes found that the decrease in lead caused a remarkable 56 percent of the decrease in violent crime in the 1990s….This theory had been previously suggested by another economist, Rick Nevin, in 1999. He illustrated a similarity in the trends between violent crime and gasoline lead 23 years prior.
….In December 2013, an NAS roundtable discussed the lead theory. There was an extended discussion in which most participants seemed to concur that the 56 percent drop in crime attributed to lead by Reyes was likely too large.Most experts seem to believe that lead played some role, but maybe not as high as the finding presented by Reyes. More research is needed to establish lead’s precise role in the crime decline.
….The authors do not draw a conclusion on this theory because they could not secure complete state-by-state data on this variable level for 1980 to 2013, as needed for the regression….Based on current research and expert reactions, it is possible that lead played some role in the 1990s drop in violent crime but perhaps not as large as that found by Reyes. Further, lead’s effect on the crime drop likely waned in the 2000s.
Now, you might think I’d be annoyed that lead was the 13th out of 13 theories they looked at, and that they downplayed the likelihood of a significant role for lead. In fact, I’m thrilled. This is one of the first reports I’ve seen that gives lead a substantial section of its own, and the authors clearly take the idea seriously. The fact that they want more research before committing themselves further is perfectly reasonable. It’s a new theory that needs more research from people not already committed to it one way or the other.
A couple of notes, though. . .
Darcy Lockman writes in the NY Times:
The phone call came two billing cycles after Ben and I had increased his session frequency to twice a week. A woman identifying herself as “an independently licensed care advocate” with a large insurance company left a message asking me to call back. My neck tightened. No psychologist wants to hear from an insurer. Like some ne’er-do-well relative, insurers call only when they want money — or rather, when they want to keep money they’d once promised to disburse.
With Ben’s approval, I called back. The problem turned out to be the addition of the second session. I explained that Ben had become suicidal in the aftermath of his father’s death. He had recently purchased bullets, though so far he owned no gun.
“Well, how much longer will you need to see him twice a week?” the woman asked.
Ben had a long history of abuse at his father’s hands. Though his father’s death had brought on this bout of suicidal ideation — the first he’d had in the year we’d been working together — Ben had been considering killing himself off and on since getting sober 10 years back. He needed extra support now, certainly, but realistically I didn’t see this changing for some time.
My response was measured: “He has a history of trauma and addiction. It’s hard to say how long.”
“We don’t really pay for that,” the woman said. “Twice a week is only for a crisis.”
I told her that her statement was in violation of the mental health parity laws, which prohibit outright session limitations, and she told me she’d be passing me along to the next level of investigation: the peer review. The peer reviewer would be the one to decide whether two sessions were really necessary. He’d be in touch.
In the meantime, I revisited the issue with Ben. Sharing the particulars of a treatment with a third party requires consent. Like many survivors of childhood abuse, Ben felt deep shame about his past, and though I’d offer as few details as possible to the peer reviewer, Ben could choose to forgo reimbursement to protect his privacy. He told me to proceed.
If Ben was worried about his insurer knowing too much, he needn’t have been. The peer reviewer, when I spoke with him by phone, seemed less interested in hearing about Ben than in finding a sanctioned justification for cutting off reimbursement. Denial of treatment is allowed under a handful of conditions, and the reviewer moved down a list of them: I should have referred Ben out for something more cost effective (he suggested electroshock therapy); I should have been measuring Ben’s progress quantitatively in order to determine when to discharge him (by asking him, for example, to rate his depression on a scale of 1 to 10).
Finally, the reviewer implied that it was Ben himself who was the problem. After all, hadn’t Ben decided against a medication consultation despite my suggestion of it? “He’s noncompliant,” the reviewer declared, triumphant. With this he seemed to be offering me an out: Let’s attack him and then we can spare you. I thought of Ben’s mother, who never took a stand against her husband’s abuse of their son.
I clarified to the reviewer that I’d never insisted Ben go on medication; Ben had not defied me. Thwarted, the reviewer went back to his list: I’d given Ben the wrong diagnosis; he wasn’t making any progress; if I really thought he needed two sessions a week, then why wasn’t he in the hospital, and if he didn’t need to be in the hospital, then why were we doing two sessions a week?
I got off the phone knowing I’d lost a contest rigged from the start. . .