psychiatry

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Researchers Say They Can Lift Depression In Mice By Activating Happy Memories

(katiebordner/Flickr)

(katiebordner/Flickr)

You know when you’re feeling really down, or worse, in the throes of depression, and there’s always that chirpy person who earnestly says: “Just try to focus on happy thoughts; think positive!” Well, it turns out, that unshakeable optimist may have a point.

MIT scientists report that they are able to “cure” the symptoms of depression — in mice — by artificially activating happy memories that were formed before the depression took hold.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, hint at a future in which depression might be treated by manipulating brain cells where memories are stored.

MIT graduate student Steve Ramirez, the lead author on the paper, explains that while the work is tantalizing, it’s a long way from any real-world application in people:

“We’re doing basic science that aims to figure out how the brain works and how it can produce memory,” Ramirez said in an email. “The more we know about how the brain works, the better equipped we are to figure out what happens when brain pieces break down to give rise to broken thoughts. In my opinion, we’re a technological revolution away from being able to do this in humans; everything that exists currently is too invasive and not targeted enough. That said, the underlying proof-of-principles are there, as we can do these kinds of manipulations in animals. The question is how we can do this in humans in an ethically responsible and clinically-relevant manner.”

Still, he says, researchers did not expect such clear results:

“The finding that stimulating positive memories over and over actually forces the brain to make new brain cells was surprising,” he wrote. “We did not expect to have such a clean result demonstrating that artificially activated positive memories correlates with an increase in the number of new brain cells that are made.” Continue reading

Differing Views On Antidepressants During Pregnancy

The question of taking antidepressants during pregnancy is extremely intimate and complicated. Research studies evaluating the risks and benefits are mixed. There are documented harms, like an elevated risk of pre-term birth. But there are also the documented harms of untreated depression. In other words, it’s a deeply personal health decision that requires judgement based on a body of data that offers no easy answers.

The latest on this fraught debate comes from Andrew Solomon who wrote a long piece published in last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, “The Secret Sadness,” with this basic message: “Pregnant women who are depressed often fear taking the medication they rely on. But not treating their depression can be just as dangerous.”

Solomon, whose own depression is well documented in his powerful book, “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” (The Times piece will be added as a new chapter in the book) begins the magazine article with an anecdote about Mary Guest, “a lively, accomplished 37-year-old woman” who “fell in love, became pregnant and married after a short courtship.”

Struggling with depression for much of her life, Mary took various antidepressant and anti-anxiety drugs, Solomon writes, but decided to discontinue the meds during pregnancy. But Mary’s mood and behavior “spiraled downward” so, “near the end of her fifth month of pregnancy, she finally, reluctantly, resumed taking an antidepressant,” he writes.

Then, at six-and-a-half months pregnant, and convinced that something was wrong with her fetus, Mary “went to the 16th floor of the building where her parents lived and jumped to her death.” Solomon quotes Mary’s mother saying: “We feel, rightly or wrongly, that if Mary had stayed on her medications, or even gone back on them sooner, it’s possible she would have survived.”

It’s an intense, moving story.

But Dr. Adam Urato, an assistant professor at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston and a maternal-fetal medicine physician at Tufts Medical Center and MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham, says he’s got an important story to tell too: that antidepressants can also cause harm. Urato writes and lectures on this topic frequently, and says he feels that Solomon’s piece didn’t offer the complete picture. (Here’s Urato’s full rebuttal to Solomon’s article on the website Mad In America, published by journalist Robert Whitaker.

Solomon quotes Urato in the Times story (in fact, some of the quotes come from a post Urato wrote for CommonHealth). But Urato says his views weren’t fully reflected. Here, edited are a few of Urato’s points:

1. Anecdotes Have Limitations

No one wants a pregnant woman to kill herself. An article in which pregnant women stop their medications and kill themselves while others continue on their meds and have happy outcomes is sure to push readers in an obvious direction. However, such anecdotes are limited.

For example, the author could have told stories of women who stayed on their medications, weren’t counseled regarding the risks, and had severely impaired babies. Continue reading

Dr. Mark Vonnegut: On Creativity, Being ‘Crazy’ And Getting Help

By Mark Vonnegut, M.D.
Guest Contributor

Being related to a famous person is somewhere between a cruel joke and a minor distraction. My father was immensely talented and worked very hard at his writing, but the degree of his success was a fantastically unlikely bit of luck. There are lots of talented, hard-working artists who don’t make it.

The important thing in overcoming mental illness, whether or not you have a famous last name, is to want things to be better — and being willing to get help to make that happen.

Dr. Mark Vonnegut (Courtesy)

Dr. Mark Vonnegut (Courtesy)

Both of my parents’ families advised them to stay away from one another, as mental illness was rumored to be in each other’s family. The rumors were true, but it wasn’t like anyone then or now comes with any guarantees. It makes us feel more alive to be able to see, listen to and read great art, partly because great art is often the result of great struggle. The idea that artists and “the mentally ill” have inner demons while the rest of us do not is part of what has made it — and continues to make it — so hard to come to terms with mental illness.

The reason the arts and craziness run in families is because crazy people who can sing and dance and paint pictures and write well do a much better job of convincing others to have babies with them than if they’re just plain crazy. Thus has it ever been.

In my career as a mental patient, I started with schizophrenia, worked my way up through manic depression, and have now settled at bipolar disorder. I can joke about it because I recovered sufficiently to get into and through medical school, internship and residency, and have had the enormous honor and privilege of being trusted by parents to help them and their children. I make no bones about it; I make mistakes just like everyone else, but am very proud of how well I do my job.

I’m also very aware of how easily I could have ended up otherwise — a suicide statistic or just another broken young man who never got well enough to have a life. Continue reading

The Upside Of Admission To The Psych Unit: A Doctor’s Inside View

By Helen M. Farrell, M.D.
Guest Contributor

I met J in the Emergency Department. Dark red blood was oozing out of self-inflicted deep lacerations to her forearms. The surgical team was consulted and the cuts were debrided, cleaned, stitched and neatly bandaged. J was patched up. But she was not healed. Her wounds ran deeper than a surgeon’s instruments could access.

Together, we had a thoughtful conversation that included a review of her suicidal thoughts, intermittent hallucinations and innermost feelings. These vacillated unpredictably between anger and worthlessness. I informed J that she was going to be admitted to the psychiatric unit for her safety and treatment.

“Locked up?!” These are typical words expressed by patients who learn that they are going to be admitted involuntarily to the psychiatric unit. When J heard this news, her own tear-stained face scrunched up in an expression of horror. After several minutes of pleading, she finally resigned herself to the plan.

A nurse came into the room and took J’s phone. She took her sweater, her belt and the laces from her shoes. J stripped down into a standard hospital gown. It is common for patients to make one last plea and many have told me that they fear the psychiatric unit is analogous to prison.

J is representative of the many patients whom I treat on a day-to-day basis. She is a composite of those actual people who suffer from serious mental illnesses ranging from psychotic and mood disorders to personality disorders that require hospital level care.

Not Your Mother’s Psych Ward
The days of psychiatrists wantonly locking up patients like J against their will are long gone. They have been replaced by a legal process called civil commitment that firmly puts patients’ rights first. Yes, J was being admitted against her will, but she would retain her power to make treatment decisions, summons legal counsel, and even have a hearing with a judge. These safeguards apply to patients like J who are mentally ill and at risk of harm to themselves or others as a direct result of mental illness.

We know about the extreme cases of mental illness — those who involuntarily get locked on a psychiatric unit. An estimated one-quarter of the United States population will suffer from mental illness. But what about those people whom we never hear about? Far too many people, victims of stigma, neglect treatment and suffer in the isolating silence of darkness. They are compelled to withdraw because of fear and shame.

Beyond Shock Therapy

Driving much of that stigma is the fantasy of what happens behind that infamous locked door. Images from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” fill people’s imaginations, as do fantasies of the “shock therapy” room, which many incorrectly think is a place of punishment and not treatment. Continue reading

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One Doc’s Oreos-And-Batman Perspective: TV Doesn’t (Necessarily) Make Kids Fat

(Donnie Ray Jones/Flickr)

(Donnie Ray Jones/Flickr)

By Steve Schlozman, MD

Here are three recent headlines that got me thinking about kids and fat:

“Watching one hour of TV per day increases risk for obesity by 50%”

“Watching TV for Just an Hour a Day Can Make Children Obese”

“Study makes surprising link between TV time and childhood obesity”

Oversimplifications? Um, yes. Each of these headlines greatly simplifies (dare I say, incorrectly simplifies) a critical social and health issue. Personally, I don’t think TV is the sole evil culprit here. It’s far more complicated.

The medical community has long known that the amount of TV that a child watches correlates with obesity. We can even make some leaps from these data towards implicating causality. Unless your little ones happen to be doing aerobic exercises while they tune in to their cartoons, it’s easy to see how passive watching can equal active weight gain.

However, be wary of oversimplification and especially of the “one-size-fits-all” policy statements that these headlines often generate. The study authors here do, in fact, suggest further limiting TV exposure based on the existing American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines for young children as a means of controlling the rate of obesity in this country. (Currently, the AAP recommends limiting screen time to one to two hours or less for children over the age of 2, and discouraging screen time altogether for those who are younger.)

So, here’s the big question: Is the recommendation that TV time be further limited an entirely appropriate conclusion?

Beyond The Headlines

The answer, like many answers to social policy questions, is both yes and no.

What we know for certain is that we can’t really discern from the headlines what we ought to do, though there is ample reason to believe that most American rarely go beyond the headlines. Thus, we run the risk of jumping to more draconian conclusions than might be appropriate simply because we don’t have or take sufficient time to examine the flood of information.

How do we guard against this leap to oversimplification?

Here are a few key questions:

•Was there a large and diverse population studied?

There have been solid links between lower socioeconomic groups and some ethnic minorities and increased television time, as well as between lower socioeconomic groups and obesity.

The causes for both of these issues are of course multi-factorial. Fatty foods and higher calorie foods are cheaper. TV can function as a babysitter in households where parents are busy working and living paycheck to paycheck. However, the study in the headlines above, conducted by the Department of Education in conjunction with physicians at the University of Virginia, was indeed both large and diverse.

Over 12,000 children starting kindergarten were enrolled in the investigation, and a year later follow-up data was available for more than 10,000 of these children. These data included height and weight, as well as statistical analyses to account for differences in race, gender and socioeconomic effects. In other words, the numbers here are sufficiently large and diverse for us to feel comfortable drawing at least preliminary conclusions.

Causality, Really?

But beware, always beware, of flashy headlines. A Google search yielded all of the headlines above with equal weight, and yet one of the headlines clearly implicates causality. “Watching TV for just an hour a day can make a child obese.” (My italics.)

However, this study does not in any way suggest causality. There are a number of potentially unrelated factors that also happen everyday that might be associated with obesity, but not function as a cause of obesity. These could include behaviors like longer baths to cool down. We don’t know until we do the study whether longer baths would be associated with obesity. In other words, always be wary of blanket statements of causality with regard to the complexity of human behavior.

•What about the ample availability of screen-based material on demand? Perhaps the fact that children can often watch both what they want and when they want it affects their activity patterns in negative ways. We could ponder the fact that TV content, even for kids, has arguably (though not in all spheres) gotten better and of higher quality. There is even evidence that TV watching can improve behavior among kids, and this evidence also comes from the American Academy of Pediatrics. Does that mean we ought to make a policy statement advocating that TV should be less compelling?

Confessing My Bias

Things get even messier when we take the necessary step of examining our own personal biases. In my case, that examination includes a shameless confession regarding the ways my own penchants might complicate my interpretation of these data. Continue reading

Outpouring On Beloved Prouty Garden Continues: Traumatized Kids Need It

The fountain in Prouty Garden at Boston Children’s Hospital (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The fountain in Prouty Garden at Boston Children’s Hospital (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

News this week that the Prouty Garden at Boston Children’s Hospital can be bulldozed continues to draw impassioned pleas to reconsider the garden’s fate. Here, Dr. Elliott B. Martin, Jr., a psychiatrist at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and Assistant Clinical Professor of Psychiatry Tufts University School of Medicine, adds his thoughts. (This is the second powerful letter we’ve received from defenders of the garden. We also welcome letters from the other side.)

I am writing in hopes of continuing the narrative around the fate of the Prouty Garden at Boston Children’s Hospital. I have been involved now for several months in the effort to save the therapeutic space, and the letter yesterday from Ms. Ellen Gilliam has inspired me to build upon her story, in hopes that others will add their own chapters.

I, too, have worked at Boston Children’s Hospital, as a physician, specifically as a psychiatrist. Until recently, the best kept secret at Children’s Hospital had been that there is in fact an inpatient psychiatric unit there. At any given time the hospital cares for some of the most grievously traumatized children you can imagine. These are kids, ranging from seven to seventeen years old, who have suffered ungodly physical and sexual abuse, at times since infancy. These are kids who have suffered from neglect, at times to near death. These are kids with profound depression, who have tried to commit suicide, very often many times over.

Therapeutic options in such cases are extremely limited, often amounting to time, containment, support, and most importantly, love. Many, if not most, of the physically ill children at the hospital at the very least know the love of their families. For the psychically wounded there is precious little love. As we would often observe on the inpatient unit, very few people sent get well cards to the psychically ill. The clowns never came there. The celebrities, on their visits to sick children, were carefully shuttled past the double-locked doors designed to be disinviting.

In this environment two therapeutic modalities stood out as having had immediately tangible, positive effects on these children. The first was the weekly visit from the therapy dog, and the second were the daily supervised excursions to the Prouty Garden. For kids otherwise confined day and night to a tiny, cordoned off piece of hospital property these fifteen to thirty minute trips were their only connection to the greater world, the ‘world outside’, as one horrifically abused seven year old boy once described it to me. To see these kids playing in the garden one might even mistake them for “normal’ kids. To see them interact with children in wheelchairs, with children wheeling IV poles, with children sentenced to die and whose parents had nowhere else to cry, one might think they were even more than normal, that they were, at least for a few minutes, special. Continue reading

Out Soon: First Official Consumer Guide To ‘The Bible Of Psychiatry’

The DSM-5, widely known as the "bible of psychiatry," is close to 1,000 pages and not exactly user-friendly. (Wikimedia Commons)

The DSM-5, widely known as the “bible of psychiatry,” is close to 1,000 pages and not exactly user-friendly. (Wikimedia Commons)

On average, says Dr. Paul Summergrad, the outgoing president of the American Psychiatric Association, he gets three or four calls a week that go something like this: “Hi, I’d love to chat — we haven’t talked in a while — but I’m calling about a personal problem — I’m worried.”

Almost always, Summergrad says, “It’s about a parent, an aunt, an uncle, a brother, a sister, a child — usually an adolescent or young adult who’s at the age of onset of these conditions, and they’re trying to figure out what to do.”

Summergrad, who’s also psychiatrist-in-chief at Tufts Medical Center, doesn’t mind a bit. “It’s actually the best job that I have, taking those calls,” he says. “That’s one of the most important things I ever do, because I’m trying to get people to the right sources of help.”

Now he has one more source to recommend: On May 1, the American Psychiatric Association is officially releasing its first-ever consumer guide to the DSM-5, the compendium of mental disorders that’s referred to in virtually every news story ever written about it — including this one, now — as “the bible of psychiatry.” The new consumer-oriented book is called “Understanding Mental Disorders: Your Guide To The DSM-5.”

The new consumer guide to the DSM-5 (Courtesy APA)

The new consumer guide to the DSM-5 (Courtesy APA)

The DSM-5 — DSM stands for Diagnostic and Statistical Manual — took more than a dozen years to develop and sparked controversies over some psychiatric disorders as it was compiled, drawing criticism both within the field and from without. But it was finally published in 2013, the latest version of the go-to reference on psychiatric diagnosis and treatment.

No one would call it user-friendly, though; it’s a thick tome of 991 pages in the paperback edition, and written for clinicians and researchers, not laypeople.

So the new consumer guide, Summergrad says, “is a way of trying to provide some help and guidance and understanding for either the individuals themselves, for their family members, or for other caregivers.”

It’s also intended for tables in the offices of primary care doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, he says, to explain diagnoses in language for laypeople.

As one of those laypeople myself, I felt a little confused. The consumer guide, like the DSM itself, is organized in categories of diagnoses: psychotic disorders, bipolar disorders, anxiety disorders, and more. Continue reading

Predicting The Next Mental Health Crisis: Sometimes We Just Can’t Know

Chris/flickr

Chris/flickr

By Steve Schlozman, M.D.

When tragedies hit, it is in our nature to ask why. The co-pilot in the horrific Germanwings crash had serious mental health problems, according to reports. How could no one have known how serious his challenges were? How could no one have predicted this terrible outcome?  On its surface this line of questioning seems even a bit ludicrous.  After all, even in the murky face of mental illness, the potentially deliberate and fatal nose-dive of a commercial aircraft seems impossible to imagine.  Nevertheless, this is exactly the question that we’re seeing over and over in the coverage of the crash.

How could we not have known?

The fact is, however, that this particular question glosses over a profoundly uncomfortable quandary that is by no means unique to psychiatry. For all of modern medicine, predictions are surprisingly fraught with difficulty.  For all of medicine’s miracles, for all of its technological wonders and advances, medicine remains a quintessentially human endeavor.  You might even argue that phrases like “medical miracle” are indeed part of the problem.  This more we grant medicine undue and mystical prowess, the more resistant we grow to the grueling trial and error that characterize everyday medical practice.  Doctors are wrong all the time.  That’s a fact.

Nevertheless, physicians are asked to prognosticate. That’s the verb form of “prognosis.” As patients and families, we look to our doctors daily for prognostic estimates.  (Emphasis on estimates.)  These estimates are really hypotheses necessarily based on incomplete data. Rare complications and twists of fate befuddle even the best.

For psychiatry this truth can be especially hard to swallow.  A neurologist might not be able to predict every migraine, but it is the rare migraine that results in tragedy.  Still, remember that psychiatrists cannot read minds. Like all physicians, psychiatrists will try their best to understand what is the cause of suffering.  And, as with all clinicians, psychiatrists will sometimes be right and sometimes not.  Medicine remains an art even as the science continues to improve.

The fact that someone suffers a psychiatric disorder, even a recurrent psychiatric disorder, is not remarkable when compared to the rest of medicine.  The same occurs with ulcers, asthma, allergies, orthopedic injuries, sinus infections and so forth. Most medical illnesses are chronic and many are intermittent. No medical professional can predict with absolute certainty when an episode is going to occur or how severe it may be. To be fair, physicians can and do identify triggers, but the intensity of a presumed reaction is outside anyone’s ability to predict.

And this is where society gets especially flummoxed. No one would argue that the art of medicine is infallible. No one would suggest that medical practice is right 100% of the time. But faced with tragedy, we are much more comfortable as a species pretending that our predictions are foolproof and that our mishaps are exceedingly rare.

Why can’t we always know? Medicine is post-modern. We cannot know because we can’t. Continue reading

The Medicated Woman: A Pill To Feel Better, Not Squelch Emotions

By Alicair Peltonen
Guest Contributor

I am a medicated woman. I take 50mg of Sertraline (the generic form of Zoloft) a day. I don’t take it to be more tolerable to my husband. I don’t take it because I’m embarrassed by my emotions. And I definitely don’t take it to quietly fit into a polite societal mold. I take an anti-depressant every day to quell my anxiety simply because it feels better. I feel better.

I grew up in a talk therapy household. My father began group therapy for anger management issues in 1984, when I was 10, breaking a cycle of rage and avoidance that tends to swallow people whole, particularly men. He would come home feeling calmer and then he would implore my sister and me to explore our feelings and talk about our problems. Begrudgingly at times, I learned to think analytically. And thankfully, I learned that asking for help is not only acceptable, it’s downright healthy.

I started seeing therapists here and there in my 20s and then regularly several months after my first daughter was born. Medication had never been suggested by any of my previous therapists but this time was different. I couldn’t shake the feelings of inadequacy, the certainty that my daughter didn’t like me and I was just a glorified dairy cow. Post-partum depression is a hell of a thing.

(Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

(Rachel Zimmerman/WBUR)

When my therapist suggested I see a psychiatrist to discuss the possibility of medication, I went home and cried for an hour. I felt ashamed, defeated, embarrassed, weak. Even though I had seen medication transform my father from a man who growled and dragged to one who laughed and hugged, it still stung to feel like I couldn’t pull myself together.

But, remembering my father’s bravery, I thought I should at least give it a try. If I didn’t like it, I could always stop taking it. The first pill was swallowed through tears. And each successive pill went down easier. For a full year, I could go days without yelling or wanting to break things and entire weeks without crying. And I felt better.

After a year, I decided to go off the medication. Things had been much better and I wanted to see if I could “go back to normal.” And things did go back to normal. But it turns out my normal wasn’t very comfortable.

There have been many discussions and articles recently asking if modern psychiatry is over-medicating women. A recent op-ed in the New York Times by psychiatrist Julie Holland suggested that many of the symptoms for which women are treated with antidepressants are natural and healthy. “We have been taught to apologize for our tears,” she writes, “to suppress our anger and to fear being called hysterical.”

Here’s the thing, though. Breaking down into uncontrollable tears because you stubbed your toe and it’s the straw that broke the stress-camel’s back doesn’t feel good. Continue reading

Toward A Less Invasive Mode Of Deep Brain Stimulation

Imagine this futuristic tableau: A severely depressed person walks into her doctor’s office, sits in a specially designed chair with a coil around her head, and with little more than an IV injection, undergoes deep brain stimulation to treat her deep, dark psychological illness.

Well, that’s not going to happen any time soon, but engineers at MIT are working on the building blocks that could make that fictional scenario a reality.

They’ve developed a method — a proof-of-concept, really — to stimulate brain tissue using external magnetic fields and injected magnetic nanoparticles that resemble small bits of rust. This technique allows for direct stimulation of neurons, which could someday be an effective treatment for a variety of neurological diseases, like Parkinson’s, and even further in the future, for severe, treatment-resistant psychiatric disorders like depression, without the need for highly invasive brain implants or external connections. The research is published in the journal Science.

(Allan Ajifo/Flickr)

(Allan Ajifo/Flickr)

Current treatments have been effective in reducing or eliminating tremors associated with Parkinson’s but involve major brain surgery to implant wires that are connected to an outside power source.

Polina Anikeeva, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at MIT, says the new research suggests a much less invasive possibility. I asked her to describe the research in an accessible way and here’s what she said:

First, I want to clearly say that we are still very far away from any clinical or even pre-clinical application, this is a first proof-of-concept study, looking at the possibility of using these materials to stimulate neurons deep in the brain.

What we’ve done is to give a simple injection of nanomaterials (iron oxide) that look like small bits of rust [but aren’t actually rust], deep into the brain. This allows us to deliver stimulus using a magnetic field, which is converted into heat by the little rust particules. Now we have a system where a magnetic field is applied from the outside and with a simple injection of the materials we can deliver the stimulas deep in the brain without the connectors and without the implants. We don’t have to be invasive in order to do the stimulation.

Continue reading

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