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Posts Tagged ‘scientific method’

I can’t decide which I like best – the database itself or the information-sharing. The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) is gathering information on what a normal kid’s brain looks like so they can share the information with people who are researching developmental disorders like autism.

NIMH described the latest release of data on their website today. They studied over 500 kids, from infants to young adults, using MRI brain scans, physical exams, psychological exams, and measurements of hormonal activity. The point was to catch each kid at different points in their life, get all of this information for that age, and wait a couple of years before doing it again to see what changed. The younger ones got tested more frequently because development occurs faster in the younger years.

The project, called The NIH Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) Study of Normal Brain Development, is looking at things like brain size, memory function, motor skills, language development, and general social skills.

Their focus in this study is only on kids with no health problems. This way, they can pass on the information to people who are trying to figure out why some kids don’t develop normally, who can then compare the “normal” scans and physiological data to that of those kids and study what’s different. Hopefully, we’ll all learn something soon about why the brain can sometimes go haywire in childhood, and whether there is anything we can do to keep it from happening.

If you’re wondering how they got the kids to lie still for the MRI, I read somewhere else that the younger ones are usually scanned while they are sleeping. Trust me – telling most two-year olds to lie down and be still while they’re awake is like asking most puppies to calm down when you come home. That research environment must have been a real trip.

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Here’s another encouraging bit of news:  mental health is getting more funding in the form of grant money from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).  The main requirement is that those funds be used for research projects that have the potential to make a difference in scientific advancement in under two years.

The National Institutes of Health (NIH), which bills itself as The Nation’s Medical Research Agency, really does sponsor a great deal of medical research, so feeding over $8 billion to the NIH was probably the best way to provide research funding to the most projects at once.  Autism research was one of the main target areas, along with opportunities for science educators and existing short-term research projects which were running out of funds.

Some of that money is going to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH).  On their web pages, I found a couple of interesting grant opportunities that I’d like to keep an eye on.

One priority area is developing new ways of evaluating the brain without actually cutting into it.  From what I understand, just about every other organ in the body can be biopsied and analyzed without significant damage to a person’s health.  I’ll bet there aren’t very many people who are willing to give up a chunk of their brain for the advancement of science, so this new technology (whatever it is) will be great.

They would also like to get a report card on the current system of “community re-entry programs” for prisoners in need of mental health services.  I have a hunch that they’ll find that it needs major help.  I know a guy who knows a guy who regularly steals something when he’s having a hard time coping just so he can go back to jail.  He thinks that the struggle to survive is easier there.  Most jails are now being seen as modern variations of the “funny farms”, so new information here could have an impact on quite a few areas.

The grant money will also target the nature of schizophrenia and other major mental disorders, the genetics of mental illness, how to improve services for racially and ethnically diverse populations, intervention strategies for youth and young adults, and how to develop low-risk drugs that might be better solutions for some of us, among other things.

The big news will have be the results of the “Grand Opportunities” grants.  The NIMH is going to give out money to anyone who comes up with research studies which will find out more about brain development (or which part of our brain went haywire at what point to impact our symptoms), which genes specifically affect the risk of mental illness, and – my personal favorite – “Neurodevelopmental Genomics:  Trajectories of Complex Phenotypes”.

In plain English, this means we could end up with a better understanding of how genetics, physical growth, environment, and behaviour all work together over time to make us who we are.  We could end up with a more accurate system of categorizing mental and emotional disorders, which in turn might make it easier to accurately diagnose and treat them.

Click here for the full story on what the National Institute of Mental Health is doing with their piece of the pie.  I’m really looking forward to the “How Are We Doing?” page on the federal government’s ARRA website to see how this all plays out.

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One of America’s fine doctors wrote a commentary last week entitled “PBS’s latest infomercial”, and posted it on Salon.com.  Mark Hyman, MD, did a show for PBS called “The UltraMind Solution”, and Robert Burton, MD, cited the scientific method as his reason for disapproval.  So, after seeing Dr. Burton’s commentary, Dr. Hyman decided to fire back with rebuttal.  Did anyone see that show?  How about the Salon conversation?

There was another show I watched on PBS called “Change Your Brain, Change Your Life”, with Dr. Daniel Amen, and it was sort of similar to “UltraMind” (well, they were similar to me, after having watched each PBS special exactly once).  Dr. Burton had something to say about that, too.  Both shows proposed that there are things we can change about the way we eat and live that can significantly affect our biochemistry.

Dr. Burton had a point, and so did some of the other viewers who wrote in and complained to PBS.  There are so many theories about good mental health floating around that I can see why he thinks the scientific method is getting pushed aside for whatever sounds good at the moment.  I don’t blame the doctors for feeling a little undermined.

If I could write to Dr. Burton, though, I would have to ask him to lighten up (for lack of a more scientific term).  He and the others have done a good thing by reminding people about the need for peer-reviewed controlled research studies.  The scientific method produces the most universally reliable information.  It does not produce the only good information.

Dr. Burton, I can’t believe that if it hasn’t been researched and proven true, then it must not be true and shouldn’t be seriously discussed.  There are so many potentially valid hypotheses that research has not had the time, the inclination, or the money to “prove” or “disprove” them.  Research couldn’t get to me in time to tell me that twelve years of lithium carbonate was going to take out my thyroid gland.  I never needed the scientific method to tell me that sugar was capable of acting like a drug in my system.  My guess is that there isn’t a controlled study in the world that can verify my hunch that the nature of what we currently think of as mental illness is about as individualized as our body chemistry, and that associating one specific category of mental or emotional disorder with one specific course of treatment is a little like categorizing snowflakes.

Like I said, Dr. Burton, it’s just a hunch.  I don’t have any scientific methods in my head.  I just live this every day.

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