Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Harry Magnet Mentioned in Podcast

My harrymagnet.com website has been up for over 5 years, but there have been very few external web references to it. I was pleased to find today a Mysterious Universe podcast from June 19 that mentions me. The entire podcast is over an hour in duration. The discussion turns to animal magnetoreception at 14:30. The narrators then discuss Robin Baker's human experiments at 17:35. They discuss me beginning at 20:00, ending at 24:15. The discussion is partly humorous, partly serious, but I think they give a pretty good brief summary of my ideas.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Adult ADHD Drug Use Skyrockets

A recent article reported that American adults now exceed children in ADHD drug prescriptions. In 2007, adults accounted for 39% of 37 million total ADHD drug prescriptions. In 2014, adults accounted for 53% of 63 million total ADHD drug prescriptions. Note that the total number of yearly ADHD drug prescriptions to both children and adults increased by 70% (from 37 million to 63 million) during this 7 year time period.

Why are so many adults taking ADHD drugs? While the official line from the psychiatry establishment is that previously undiagnosed adults are finally coming forward to doctors and getting diagnosed with ADHD, a New York Times article from a few months ago tells a different story. Many adults are obtaining ADHD drugs (legally via prescription or illegally from friends or dealers) not because they are ill, but because they want to perform better at work. They want to be able to get by with 4 hours or less of sleep per night. They want to knock out PowerPoint presentations to keep up with the competition.

The article opens with an example of Elizabeth, “a Long Island native in her late 20s”, who purchased Adderall from a drug dealer to do an all-nighter to complete a PowerPoint presentation. She was doing this presentation for investors in her health-technology start-up company. Why did Elizabeth feel compelled to purchase Adderall from a drug dealer, given the risks inherent in illegal drug sales, along with the risks of amphetamine use, such as anxiety, addiction, and hallucinations? According to Elizabeth, “not to take Adderall while competitors did would be like playing tennis with a wood racket.” Elizabeth also tried the legal route to obtain amphetamine, going to a psychiatrist and complaining that she could not concentrate on work. In 10 minutes, she received a diagnosis of ADHD and a prescription for Adderall. The article isn’t clear why she got Adderall from (illegal) drug dealers in addition to the (legal psychiatric) dealers. Perhaps her doctor wouldn’t prescribe enough Adderall for her to knock out all those PowerPoints.

I play tennis. I wouldn’t want to try to play with a wooden racket. But I don’t see how my playing with a modern racket is anyway comparable to popping Adderall to stay awake and focused. Modern tennis rackets don’t have any side effects. They’re not addictive. They don’t alter brain chemistry.

The article mentions the darker side of stimulant use. A young woman became hooked on Adderall while in college, getting the drug from classmates for $5 or $10 a pill. She began taking more Adderall while working after college. Becoming too wired to relax or sleep, she tried taking Xanax to calm down. After experimenting with alcohol, cigarettes, and other prescription drugs to try to stabilize her intense mood swings, she ended up in a treatment center.

Many times a brief chat with a doctor is all that’s needed to get an ADHD diagnosis and Adderall, Vyvanse, Concerta, or Ritalin prescription. A Houston lawyer increased his dosage from 20 mg of Adderall to 100 mg, twice the highest FDA recommended dose, by getting prescriptions from multiple doctors, a felony in Texas. His bosses and clients were thrilled with his productivity. This lawyer soon realized that there were negative consequences to his drug use: rapid heartbeat, sweating, acute anxiety, and sleep deprivation. His wife divorced him, he lost his job, and he spent six weeks at a drug treatment center.

In a Room for Debate follow-up article, three “experts” try to convince us that this use of ADHD drugs for workplace performance enhancement is a new trend of modern life. Titles such as “This Is the Probable Future”, “Equalizers in a Stressful World, If Used Properly”, and “A Symptom of Modern Life” suggest that we are facing something that represents a viable way to cope with the stress and demands of the contemporary workplace. According Julian Savulescu of Oxford University, “Ritalin and other stimulants improve impulse control,” and impulse control is one of the most important determinants of success in life.

Ritalin and other stimulants improve impulse control? Huh? They are highly addictive drugs. Taking an addictive drug for whatever reason, to get high, or to perform better at work, or to pull an all-nighter, is not an example of impulse control, but the opposite—a surrender of one’s long-term best interest to short-term gain (feeling high and energetic). That’s what the supposed experts in our society are advising us to do, but it doesn’t make it right.

These articles suggest that ADHD drug use is some new trend to cope with the twenty-first century workplace. This is inaccurate. ADHD drugs like amphetamines are nothing new. The amphetamine Benzedrine dates from the 1930’s, decades before first generation antidepressants and antipsychotics were introduced. The young people like Elizabeth who feel compelled to take amphetamines to perform better at work are making the same mistakes that many of their parents’ and grandparents’ generations made. Doctors who prescribe stimulant drugs today are making the same mistakes that doctors made decades ago, only for different reasons. While doctors in the mid-twentieth century prescribed amphetamine for people to lose weight, or treat mild depression or psychosomatic ailments, without knowing the adverse effects, doctors today cannot be ignorant about the abuse potential of these drugs. That’s the reason that they are Schedule II controlled substances in the U.S. The different today is that the alliance between Big Pharma and Psychiatry has fooled people and doctors into thinking that many children and adults have a disorder called ADHD that can be treated with stimulant drugs. They “prove” their case for the efficacy of the drugs based on short-term studies. There’s no question that the drugs improve short-term attention. The problem is long-term functioning. Since Pharma doesn’t need to prove long-term efficacy for drug approval, and Pharma provides most of the funding for studies, we know little scientifically about long-term efficacy.

My father was a habitual user of amphetamines for about 40 years. When he started with them as a young man for weight loss, little was known about their adverse effects. Although the pills may have helped him lose weight and perform better at work, he paid the price when he got older. He developed chronic severe depression and anxiety beginning in his fifties. He had a major depressive episode leading to a suicide attempt that landed him in a treatment center. After he was weaned off amphetamine and put on "safer" drugs like antidepressants and antipsychotics, he couldn't function at work and was forced to retire from a career he loved in his early sixties.

I have suffered from problems with attention as an adult. I briefly tried Ritalin after I convinced my psychiatrist to diagnose me with ADD, and found that the drug did improve my focus when studying difficult scientific subjects in school. I didn’t like the emotional-numbing and social withdrawal effects, however, and stopped taking this drug. Later I found alternative ways to improve focus, including meditation / guided imagery exercises, and behavioral changes based on my human magnetoreception hypothesis. Although what I’m doing may not work for everyone, I think doctors and scientists need to be open to alternative ways to control attention deficit / hyperactive symptoms. Mass-prescribing amphetamines and other stimulants is an old idea that is getting new traction due to the adult ADHD diagnosis fad.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Good Introduction to the Science of Magnetoreception

I recently came across an article published in 2013 in The Scientist magazine that is the best short introduction to magnetoreception for non-experts that I've read. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, "magnetoreception" is animal perception of the geomagnetic field that is used for orientation and navigation. There are a number of review articles on magnetoreception published in scientific journals, but these can be hard to follow for people who aren't scientists working in this biological subfield. This article in The Scientist magazine provides a clear summary of the scientific facts, the historical context, and biographical sketches about scientists working in the field. Some highlights include:
  • The pioneering discoveries of German zoologists Wolfgang Wiltschko and his wife Roswitha in the late 1960’s and 1970’s. They found that the seasonal migratory direction of caged European Robins can be changed to the opposite direction by reversing the inclination of the artificial magnetic field in the cage. They discovered that migratory birds have an “inclination compass”, in which birds can sense the inclination of the magnetic field lines and adjust their course based on whether they are moving toward the magnetic pole or equator.
  • The theoretical work of Klaus Schulten and Thorsten Ritz on the radical-pair mechanism for magnetoreception. This theory argues that the inclination compass that the Wiltschkos discovered via behavioral experiments with birds is located in the retina of a bird’s eye. Radical-pair reactions in the photoreceptor protein cryptochrome can be affected by the direction of the geomagnetic field, providing a bird with a way to sense magnetic field inclination. In the past 10 to 15 years, researchers have obtained circumstantial evidence for this theory, including the disruptive effects of high-frequency (MHz) radio waves, the discovery of long-lived radical pairs in bird cryptochrome, the discovery of cryptochrome in all UV/violet cones in retinas of European robins and chickens, and genetic knock-out experiments involving Drosophila flies.
  • American neurobiologist Ken Lohmann’s discovery of sea turtles’ inner GPS abilities. Animals can use the geomagnetic field inclination and intensity as magnetic “signposts” that provide positional information. In groundbreaking experiments, Lohmann and associates found that juvenile green turtles will swim south in a cage that has an artificial magnetic field with inclination and intensity representing a northern location (from their home), and swim north if the artificial magnetic inclination and intensity represent a southern location. Since inclination and intensity vary primarily in a north-south direction (from the magnetic equator to the pole), it’s reasonable that animals can use these parameters as a basis for a north-south map. What was surprising was an experiment with caged loggerhead turtles in which they were able to recognize the inclination and intensity magnetic signatures on the eastern and western ends of the North Atlantic ocean. The turtles adjusted their headings to that corresponding to remaining in the warm water gyre, something that they would need to do in nature to survive the long migration across the Atlantic ocean. This was first evidence that animals can encode longitudinal information as well as latitudinal by means of perception of magnetic parameters.
  • Le-Qing Wu and David Dickman’s recent discovery of neurons in a pigeon’s vestibular nuclei that respond to information about a bird’s magnetic surroundings. The scientists at Baylor College of Medicine, using electrophysiological single-cell recordings, identified 53 different neurons whose firing patterns are affected by magnetic stimuli. Each neuron is finely tuned to a magnetic field coming from one particular direction, with magnetic field intensity roughly equivalent to that of the geomagnetic field.
  • The search for the magnetite-based magnetoreceptor in animals. Impetus for this came from the discovery of magnetotactic bacteria in the 1970’s, which possess organelles called magnetosomes containing chains of magnetite crystals. Behavioral studies of birds have indicated that magnetic sensing may occur via the ophthalmic branch of the trigeminal nerve, which extends to the beak. This type of magnetic sensing is independent of the radical pair-based mechanism in the retina, and may be based on magnetite. Although researchers have tried for years, so far there hasn’t been conclusive proof of intracellular magnetite within neurons in animals. Wu & Dickman's electrophysiological studies of pigeons indicate that magnetite-based magnetoreceptors may be found in the inner ear.
  • Excellent diagrams explaining the hypothetical magnetite-based and retinal-based magnetoreception processes.
  • Scientific journal references to allow the reader to study magnetoreception further.
  • In concluding remarks, the author states that “there are several hypotheses supported by strong, albeit not yet conclusive, data.” Momentum seems to be building, although compared to more mainstream bioscience research, resources put into the study of magnetoreception are miniscule. According to one of the magnetoreception researchers, German geophysicist Michael Winklhofer, “It’s really tough work, but it’s also exciting, because everybody wants to be the first to demonstrate how this extra sense works.”

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Death Penalty Case Against Aurora Movie Theater Shooter a Waste of Taxpayer Dollars

James E. Holmes, age 27, is the only suspect in the 2012 Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting, which resulted in the deaths of 12 people, along with injuries to 70. In a midnight screening of the film The Dark Night Rises, Holmes allegedly shot at the audience with a semi-automatic rifle, tactical shotgun, and handgun. The New York Times reported that his trial is set to begin soon, 2 ½ years after the shooting. 9000 people in Arapahoe County have been issued juror summons for the trial, which is 2% of the population. Jury selection alone could take months, with the trial expected to last 6 to 8 months.

The reason for the delayed and lengthy trial is that prosecutors rejected Holmes’ guilty plea, which would have meant life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. District Attorney George Brauchler seeks the death penalty, which has forced Holmes’ lawyers to plead not guilty by reason of insanity. Is the prosecution correct to seek the death penalty?

There is no evidence that Holmes was part of a terrorist group. He was a PhD student in neuroscience at the University of Colorado until about a month before the shooting. He dropped out of the program after doing poorly on an oral exam. Obviously an intelligent person, Holmes also had psychiatric problems. Although the details of his problems haven’t been fully made public yet, one of his psychiatrists reported to the campus police a month before the shooting that he made homicidal statements. It’s a reasonable assumption that his psychiatric problems interfered with his academic performance and forced him to drop out of school. Considering the bizarre, destructive, and irrational action he took at the movie theater, only a highly disturbed individual could have perpetrated this shooting.

Colorado has only executed one person since 1977, the last one being 17 years ago. The death penalty in Colorado, like in the rest of the country, isn't a deterrent. Only swift and certain punishment is an effective deterrent, and the death penalty is anything but swift and certain. Even if the death penalty was delivered like in the old days, in a reasonable time frame with reasonable certainty of death, it’s unlikely that this would have deterred someone in Holmes’ state of mind. Typically these mass homicides by disturbed individuals are murder-suicides. (Remember another Colorado tragedy, the Columbine school shootings?). There is no way that any (earthly) punishment would deter this type of crime.

The only way to prevent tragedies like this from happening is to prevent mentally ill people from purchasing firearms. As I blogged about in 2013, guns and mentally ill people go together like North Korea and nuclear weapons. I made a policy recommendation back then that has not yet been implemented: “Gun sales and ownership should be banned for anyone who has been treated for a psychiatric disorder—I mean anyone treated at any time in their life.” People with serious mental illness should not have access to firearms. The biggest threat is that they will harm themselves. In the U.S. in 2010, over 38,000 people committed suicide, with more than half using firearms. About 85% of suicide attempts with firearms are successful.

Holmes didn’t commit suicide, but he did legally purchase firearms that were used to murder 12 people. He was in psychiatric treatment. If my policy recommendation had been put into place, he would not have been able to legally purchase these firearms. If he went to the movie theater with a knife in hand, he could have easily been wrestled to the ground before doing much damage. Knowing this, I doubt that Holmes would have even tried it without a firearm.

The NRA has pretty much prevented any kind of gun control at all in the U.S. in recent years. Probably many NRA members would love to see Holmes executed, saying “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” In the case of the Aurora movie theater shooting, a person using a gun killed 12 people. If that person didn't have a gun, he wouldn't have killed that many people. He probably wouldn't have killed anyone at all.

Because of his mental illness, even if convicted Holmes most like won’t be executed. The state is wasting time, money, and resources pursuing the death penalty. They’ll waste more time, money, and resources on handling endless appeals. The average time between sentencing and execution in the U.S. is about 16 years. Even if somehow Holmes exhausts his appeals and is executed, the death penalty will not deter anyone from doing what Holmes allegedly did. To prevent tragedies like this from happening in the future, better gun control is needed.