07 June 2010

Daily Digest, 07.06.2010

I'm posting today's digest a little earlier than usual, because I'm going out with friends this evening! Yes, it happens sometimes, even to a crusty hermit like me.

Today: Report of the Physicians for Human Rights on evidence for illegal experimentation on the effects of torture by the CIA; Prozac and neuroplasticity; bad science writing; the efficacy of acupuncture; life on Titan?; more on Laurie Anderson's concert for dogs

Xeni Jardin at Boing Boing has posted a long interview with Dr. Scott Allen, Medical Advisor to Physicians for Human Rights, which today released its report presenting evidence that "the Bush administration conducted 'illegal and unethical experimentation and research' on detainees' response to torture while in CIA custody." Read it. The post contains a link to the full PHR report.  Truth and accountability are fundamental to the health of an open democratic society.  The health of the U.S. has been declining lately.

Deric Bownds' Mindblog points to a new study showing that Prozac seems (in rats, at any rate) to induce a "dematuration of hippocampus dentate gyrus cells that reinstates synaptic plasticity." In other words, Prozac (and one would suspect other SSRIs) may increase neuroplasticity in the hippocampus. (This is not the first study to suggest such an effect, and I will attempt to put together a longer post on this topic at some point in the future.)  As a former user of Prozac and a current user of Paxil, this certainly accords with my vivid subjective experience that the medications were, among other things, making me smarter, or at least improving my memory. For a period earlier on during my treatment with Paxil (roughly 2006-7) I had the very distinct subjective impression (rather odd and unexpected) that my brain was "growing." There are many possible explanations for that, of course, but interesting and suggestive nonetheless in the context of the present study.

The article, "Reversal of hippocampal neuronal maturation by serotonergic antidepressants" is in PNAS. The abstract is here. The article is behind a paywall, and costs $10.00 for 48-hour access.

Mark Liberman at Language Log has an entertaining post about an egregious example of bad science writing at the Observer. No, in fact there is no evidence that having children pop fish oil pills makes them smarter. So perhaps we should feed them Prozac?  (Joke alert!)

An excellent short review at Body in Mind of recent research on the efficacy of acupuncture in the treatment of pain, with links to nine recent research articles. I haven't followed these links, but does anyone want to take bets on how many paywalls I'd run into?

The scientific news on acupuncture is not good. As the post at Body in Mind succinctly summarizes: "Proving a negative is difficult but the weight of evidence strongly points in the direction that any clinical efficacy of acupuncture is due to the placebo effect."

I have no axe to grind against acupuncture or alternative medicine in this blog; quite the reverse, in fact. Many of my friends swear by acupuncture, I've tried it myself, and I know at least two acupuncturists. I am currently studying chi gong, which draws on the same body of traditional Chinese medical theory—although, with my teacher, at least, it also draws on a deep knowledge of human anatomy and movement, and one can, if one is so inclined, ignore the Chinese medical theory, or—as I tend to do—treat it as a useful tradition of techniques for mental imagery.  But I think it is essential to face up to the science.

Life on Titan? Well, nobody knows. But there's some sort of weird chemical reaction going on down there, and some sort of metabolism might be a possible explanation. Read about it at 80beats, with more at Knight Science Journalism Tracker.

So just how did Laurie Anderson's concert for dogs turn out, anyway?  The AP reports. It was noisy.
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