Showing posts with label Human Brain. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Human Brain. Show all posts

Saturday, July 27, 2019

The Agony of Not Knowing Why

I thought I would take a break from politics and healthcare to discuss this 29 minute documentary about these two parents with two special needs kids for whom doctors can find no definitive cause for their disability.  The documentary was moving to watch.  

While I was watching I was wishing that I had some special insight that the doctors might have missed.  The parents said that its hard hearing other people say "you were given this because you can handle it."  I was wondering how they respond to parents of other special needs kids who have similar struggles but they know more about their children's conditions because they have a diagnosis.  They know what to expect and they may know what caused their condition.  

I don't have any answers for them and it's best not to judge when you don't know.

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Friday, February 14, 2014

The David Roberts Family Fund

David Roberts, an old classmate and friend of mine from Connecticut, has been struggling with a potentially life threatening glioblastoma for a year.  A glioblastoma is a brain tumor of the glial cells which protect the neurons of the central nervous system.  His friends and family have set up a website to raise funds for his care and his family's financial security called The David Roberts Family Fund.

I must say that if we had a sensible system for financing healthcare in the US they would not have to go public to raise money for this purpose.  Health care is one of the leading causes of bankruptcy in the US.  The same procedure such as an MRI (in the clip and chart below) can cost at least double in the US what it does in other countries with sensible systems that set prices.  The Affordable Care Act (aka. Obamacare) has increased access to care but so far it has not controlled costs because it does not curtail the rampant profiteering in the system.  Below is the appeal that Dave's family makes on their website which is similar to many other families with high costs. I encourage you all to contribute.

Dear Family and Friends:

Our lives at any given moment can change for better or for worse.  One year ago, at the most unexpected moment in time, our lives changed for the worst.  David, our brother, our beloved Uncle D as he is affectionately called, was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme, Stage Four Brain Cancer.  A horrible disease with an even-more horrible name.  Although his life has been dramatically changed, David has not.  He has been a beacon of light to us all. His sense of humor and zest for life has never darkened.  In the face of over-whelming odds against success, he has soldiered on in the spirit we all know and love about him. David has shown us all what it means to truly live: to love deeply, to laugh loudly, and to be ever so present in this short fragile life.
In spite of potent treatments of radiation and chemotherapy, David’s cancerous tumors have returned with a vengeance.  As the disease progresses and a hope for a cure recedes, a new hope is being born through each of us. While those of us who know and love David can do little to stop his cancer, we CAN do much to relieve his anxiety for his family’s well-being.  From the moment of diagnosis, David’s unshakeable concern has been for his family and their future.  His wife Ada and his two young sons, Nicholas and Christopher, are the loves of his life. We want to assure David that Ada and the boys will be able to grow and be nurtured in their home, surrounded by the community he so loves and loves him in return. This is our promise to him. Please help us to encircle David and his family with your continued outpouring of love and your generosity of financial support.  
A “David Roberts Family Fund” has been established at Bridgehampton National Bank through The Island Gift of Life Foundation, a local 501c(3) charitable organization.  Your donations are tax deductible and will go directly to David and his family.  Credit Card donations can be made through our PAYPAL account. Check Donations can be made payable to The Island Gift of Life Foundation, with a memo “For David Roberts Family Fund” and mailed directly to: 
The Island Gift of Life
P.O. Box 532
Shelter Island Heights, New York  11965
From the bottom of our hearts, we thank you for your support.
Love, Jane Roberts Spotteck, Gina Kraus and The Roberts Family
“Lest we forget how fragile we are.”  Sting


An update from the David Roberts family fund website which speaks for itself.


On October 17, 2014, my brother David, affectionately known as Uncle D, passed away after a courageous journey with glioblastoma multiforme brain cancer. His journey in some ways was no different than the way he lived his life. He was slightly off-the-wall in the best way possible and was wildly himself in a world that tries to be everything but itself. He was so refre...shingly real! He loved music, knew how to rap any beat and would break into song and dance at the most unpredictable of moments. He made people laugh with his impersonations and accents and could light up any room with his creative energy. He was totally an awesome guy in the most unassuming of ways.

Seems strange, but cancer was not his enemy. He accepted his fate and learned more about the fragility and meaning of life or "truths" as he would call them. Despite his prognosis, he kept moving forward, "sempre avanti" and learned important lessons along the way about himself and his spirituality.

My family has been strong and his friends have been truly amazing! We all came together and enclosed his family in a circle of love and great faith. Together, we realized that giving love and accepting love deeply is what life is all about. It really is so very simple!
In his final days, my promise to David was that we will help his wife Ada and two young sons, Nicholas, 12 yrs. and Chris, 8 yrs. remain in their home in West Hartford where the community has been so caring and supportive. Not having life insurance was his only regret. I need your help to keep this promise. In lieu of flowers, we hope you will help to make this fund continue to grow. Our goal is to raise $50,000 more...I know we can...I know we can...I know we can!

A "David Roberts Family Fund" has been established at Bridgehampton National Bank through The Island Gift of Life Foundation, a local 501c(3) charitable organization. Your donations are tax deductible and will go directly to David and his family. Credit Card donations can be made through our PAYPAL account. Check Donations can be made payable to The Island Gift of Life Foundation, with a memo "For David Roberts Family Fund" and mailed directly to:

The Island Gift of Life
P.O. Box 532
Shelter Island Heights, New York 11965

With Blessed Gratitude,
Gina Kraus

"Lest we forget how fragile we are." Sting

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Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Modest Proposal to Curb Cognitive Deficits in the NFL and other High Contact Sports

Last Tuesday I watched the PBS Frontline/ESPN documentary on concussions in the NFL called League of Denial.  It detailed the struggles that Hall of Fame Center Mike Webster had after he played in Pittsburgh for 15 years and in Kansas City for one year.  I can't embed the documentary here there is a clip from a different documentary above.  It can be watched in it's entirety at their website here.  Webster ended up homeless and died of a heart attack in 2002 at age 50.  The autopsy showed plaques in his brain  and other NFL player like Terry Long and Junior Seau similar to that of dementia patients.

Frontline has been cataloging reported concussions in the NFL over the last two years and the positions with the most reported injuries are cornerback and wide receiver.  Since players are getting bigger, faster, and stronger while the brain is just as fragile, as I discussed in my post on concussions, the problem is a difficult one to deal with as fans like those hits.

One proposal I have is that sports with a high level of contact such as football, boxing, soccer, rugby, and hockey (all of these sports have players with deficits later in life) have mandatory retirement ages of around 35.  As we age it is harder for our brains to recover from injuries.  Webster and Seau played until almost 40. True the documentary did present cases of high school and college age players with cognitive deficits and plaques in their brains like Webster's and Seau's and not all players have these problems so this is not a cure all by any means.  All of the players would have to be monitored for deficits and other risk factors for the symptoms like Webster's and Seau's need to be identified.  Players such as Jim Otto often have other health problems long after their playing days are over.  

I am sure players (especially stars like Peyton Manning) and fans wont like the retirement idea because it may render the career records of players like Brett Farve, Jerry Rice, and Emmitt Smith untouchable.   I know that Farve and Rice played into their 40's and Smith played until 35 and do not seem to be having problems now but they may be having health problems now that they're not talking about.

The NFL may not like the idea at first but it would save them money in the long run in salaries. It would open up more opportunities for younger players.  In the lockout three years ago the players union successfully prevented the league from extending the season to 18 games so it can adapt.  


The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive

The authors of League of Denial appeared on The Colbert Report to discuss their book.  I had to dig on their site to find this interview.  Was Viacom pressured by the NFL not to put this clip on the main page for the episode?  The clip below was put on the main page.

The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive

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Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Get the Lead Out

A new survey by the Centers for disease control or CDC suggests that about 500,000 children in the US have low blood lead levels (defined as 5 micrograms per deciliter) from 2007-2010.  This shows an 8.6% decrease compared to the last survey period in 1999-2002.  The graph at the left shows that there are higher percentages among african americans, the poor, and those who live in housing built before 1950.  

Many buildings built before 1950 still have paint that is lead based and have plumbing with lead pipes.  These paints were phased out but it is very expensive to replace and it is better in the long run just to build new housing to replace the paint.  The paint can flake off and when ingested by children can cause intellectual or developmental disabilities (the now politically correct term for mental retardation) and or learning disabilities.  

In the lab (on animal studies) and in correlational studies no dosage level of lead has been found that is completely benign on the brain.  It has a negative effect on the blood brain barrier which protects it from other toxins and has many other negative effects on intelligence test scores and brain function.  

The negative effects of lead exposure were recognized by Greek physicians as early as the 2nd century BC.  There is a theory that it contributed to the decline of the Roman Empire though that is controversial.   It was used heavily in the industrial revolution and in gasoline in the 1920s.  A way to test the theory would be to measure residual lead levels in the remains (teeth, bones, and if lucky hair) of the Roman citizens relative to those in the surrounding Barbarian tribes which sacked the empire from AD 410-476.  If the levels were higher in the Roman citizens it would support the theory.

It was phased out starting in 1978 in the US but the effects are still felt with leaded gasoline getting into the atmosphere through auto emissions, then into rain water, and finally the soil where it can remain for many years.  Other countries do not have as strict regulation on lead as the US does now.  


Episode 7 of Cosmos is devoted to lead poisoning and it's history with scientist Clair Patterson being voiced by Richard Gere. I can only embed the whole episode here while Hulu makes it available.

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Friday, December 14, 2012

'The Secret' Gets the CSI w/o Dead Bodies Treatment

In 2006 Australian author Rhonda Byrne published a self improvement book which became an international best seller followed by a movie.  A friend suggested I read her book called The Secret.  I've had similar suggestions before from friends who want to improve my life who have all meant well. 

The book presents a pretty simple law of self improvement called the Law of Attraction which Byrne says has been suppressed for over 3,000 years and is only known by the wealthy 1% and great men throughout history such as "Plato, Newton, Carnegie, Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Einstein."  It says that believing that positive things will happen will make it happen for you with wealth, health, and relationships and believing negative things will happen will make the opposite happen.  It goes on to present that secret in DaVinci Code/Scientology fashion with lots of testimonials and graphics but little hard data to show how the law of attraction always works.  The experts in the film even say that "the anti-war movement creates more war."  Here is trailer for the film.  The author is seen very little in the film.

The book has it's critics such as Barbara Ehrenreich who discusses her own struggle with cancer and how not being positive all the time helps her.  The problem with relying on testimonial evidence alone is that it's always possible to find one contradicting your theory.  The film presents no evidence of how this secret was suppressed all these years.


A closer look at the historical figures presented in the film and book shows that few of then had full happy lives.  The one who comes closest is Plato and that is only because he lived thousands of years ago and we know so little about his relationships and what sort of man he was.  Ludwig van Beethoven had a miserable life with many relationship, money, and health problemsIsaac Newton was "not a pleasant man" as described by Stephen Hawking (he holds the same professorship that Newton did) who never married and took pleasure in crushing his rivals.  Andrew Carnegie may have been a good husband and father and did lots of charity work but he also ruthlessly crushed the Homestead Steel Strike and was negligent in the Johnstown Flood with crony Henry Clay Frick.  William Shakespeare is another about whom there is little known and some controversy so I will not address.  Albert Einstein like the others did excel at what they were good at but you would not want to be married to him.

There is always a risk of disaster and the chance of success.  You can take steps to minimize the risk and maximize the chance but can never eliminate either.  The passengers and crew on the Titanic had lots of positive energy and optimism but were oblivious to the risks that icebergs posed and we all know how that turned out (see my post Titanic Perspective if you don't for a review of this and Andrew Carnegie's role in the Johnstown Flood). I'm all for having success but at who's expense?  Solutions can be found to the world's porblems but by realistically thinking through the risks and chances.  It gives the secret as the reason for "the richest 1% controlling 96% of the world's wealth" when Ehrenreich and other social critics would give very different reasons.  The Secret has definitely made Rhonda Byrne very wealthy.

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Friday, March 18, 2011

ADHD, Genetics, and Causality: A Chicken-Egg Problem

The conventional view of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder has been to be caused by heredity, brain injury, or other birth exposures (see the CDC's fact page on ADHD for a full list and a description of the disorder).  Canadian physician Gabor Mate argues that it and a variety of other mental problems in childhood and adolescence is primarily caused by modern stressors placed on children as their brains develop. The primary thrust of his argument is given in the clip below on Democracy Now.

His view on ADHD is not the best known view which may or may not be the case in the future as prevailing views in science ebb and flow.  I asked the local director of CHADD (Children and Adults with Attention Deficit Disorder) first if she'd heard of Dr. Mate and what her reaction to his views were.  She said she was not and that her group favored the hereditary hypothesis and did not like to blame parents or society.  They prefer to build people up not tear people down.

Individuals who grew up in a chaotic household may find Dr. Mate's theories appealing.  He uses case studies and personal information from his life in his book Scattered: How ATTENTION DEFICIT DISORDER ORIGINATES and What You Can Do About It as a Jewish child in WWII Hungary and sites other studies to support his argument without going into their methodology,  A genetic link to ADHD has been established and, given this link, often parental stress can be found even in societies without these modern stressors.  Also modern societies have better tools to detect behavioral problems like ADHD which would explain the increased rate of diagnosis.  Finally as is the case on my post on autism (see Cause & Effect, Slip Slidin' Away ) it is difficult to do experiments on this disorder as it is unethical to do on people and there is no good animal model yet for ADHD.

For a more conventional explanation of the prevailing scientific view of ADHD from the documentary ADD & Loving It you can see the video in the link below.  Dr. Mate doesn't directly blame the parents but societal pressures that are put on the parents.


Where Are We in Understanding?

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Sunday, November 28, 2010


The human brain is a very fascinating yet very fragile thing. It floats in sea water inside your skull. It computes calculations more complex than a Cray super computer all powered by about 20 watts of electricity. By itself it has the consistency of jelly. To be able to handle it and study it's structure, it has to be treated with a chemical called formalin which makes it smell really bad.

Any bump on the head can cause injury to the brain. The skull and the cerebrospinal fluid can absorb the shock of most minor bumps and brain cells can reorganize connections that may be damaged. Where there are more serious hits on the head, it can bump against the skull and cause bruising. Depending on how often and how frequently it happens the damage can be temporary or permanent.

Wearing a helmet can absorb the force of a harder hit but no amount of covering is full proof. A hit on the head can send ripples through the brain similar to shaking a bowl of jello gelatin. Unlike the damage caused by a stroke or a tumor, it tends to be diffuse throughout the brain rather than to one specific area.

The psychological effects of concussions tend to be subtle and can be hard to recognize. In the past, the advice was just to take an aspirin and get over it. In recent decades neuopsychological testing has been able to identify these deficits and track them over time. They often include memory, reaction time, judgment, and movement in the short to long term. For a review of symptoms and treatment see this link at the Mayo Clinic.
This injury in sports is being recognized by the National Football League (NFL) as James Harrison of the Pittsburgh Steelers has been fined over $100,000 (while at the same time being paid millions for doing the very same thing) this year for hits that at worst in the past before would just draw a penalty. He may or may not be a scapegoat but at worst he is just one small facet of a much larger problem. In the NFL the players in general are bigger, faster, and stronger now than they were in the past. In the 1980s William "the refrigerator" Perry was considered a very large defensive lineman at 330 pounds (152 Kg) but now that is an average weight for his position. During that time the brain is just as fragile as it was in the past and helmets cannot adjust to new conditions. In it's drive for greater profits, the NFL is also considering making the season longer which would only make the problem worse.

The long term effects of repeated concussions can be serious. When one is younger the brain can recover from hits faster and more completely but each time it happens it gets harder to recover. Most famously Muhammad Ali kept boxing longer than he should have and now suffers from Parkinson's disease. Another sport associated with concussions is soccer (or football for my international readers) where the cumulative effects of headers over years leads to cognitive problems later in life.

The military is now recognizing the long term effects of concussions which are now becoming more common as bombs are becoming more powerful and prevalent.

Protective gear can only do so much to protect from the shock of a hit on the head. The best way to prevent concussions is to reduce the hits.


As the Pittsburgh Penguins prepare for the new season their star player, Sidney Crosby continues to have headaches from concussions he received playing last year which caused him to miss most of the season and all of the playoffs.  He continues to have headaches almost a year later and may affect his play again this year.  I know many fans are frustrated when they see Ben Roethlisberger returning from a concussion just two weeks after being hit but  no two brains are alike.  He can't risk putting his long term health in jeopardy.  There are more important things in life than hockey.