Saturday, May 22, 2010

Connecting God and your brain not as easy as it sounds

WHY is it that in virtually every time period and place where human societies have existed, religion has followed?
In this disappointing entry into the atheist vs. believer debate, anthropologist Lionel Tiger and psychiatrist Michael McGuire, both accomplished, well-published elder statesmen in their fields, start with the observation that, given its ubiquity, religion must be a natural phenomenon.
To really understand religion, they argue, one needs to look at the brains in the heads of those who experience it.
You will find that life's stresses -- thwarted plans, boredom, navigating competitive and hierarchical social relationships, coming to terms with the deaths of loved ones and the impending death of the self -- take a neurophysiological toll.
The stress influences rates of production and depletion of neurotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, making us feel crummy.
And religion provides a remedy, or as they put it, it "brainsoothes."
Religious gatherings offer moments of calm, of solidarity with a familiar and welcoming group. Accepting a supernatural authority reduces anxieties over hierarchy.
Following dictates set out in authoritative texts eases the turmoil of messy moral decisions, with forgiveness offered for transgressions. And belief in an afterlife dampens the dread of the inevitable.
So how well do they make their case?
Much of what they write is uncontroversial to the point of banality. But there's a lingering artificiality in how they select for discussion people's experiences and feelings, not much in the way of empirical support, and a failure to address alternate interpretations.
In contrast to much-discussed books of recent years that were highly critical of religion (Harris, Dawkins, etc.), this one tries to turn down the heat by championing a more objective stance.
The authors profess admiration for the creative energy religion motivates. They also acknowledge that the religious mood has encouraged great fractiousness in human history, and has played (and still plays) a role in closing minds against ways of understanding life and universe supported by rich and comprehensive evidence.
But reading God's Brain is a lot like listening to an affable professor who's clearly enthused with his own speculative ideas, but prone to verbosity, repetition and wearing you down with mildly relevant anecdotes.
The book also turns out to be difficult to read, but not for the reasons you'd expect. Its discussion of technical topics like neurotransmitters and brain function is tame compared to what you'll find in many books and articles that cover similar territory.
We sometimes compliment a book by saying that "the sentences fly off the page." In this book, sentences frequently need to be pried off:
"It is necessary to be aware of the different gradations of colour in sacred costume and what their wearers mean to the ideas of religion's meaning."
A stray clunker that made it past an editor under time pressure? Try this then:
"The percentages of informal rules that are often large do not unambiguously and agreeably have their source in religion."
There are likely great insights to be gained by gazing at religion through a neurological lens, but more cogent books than this are needed to launch the notion further into the mainstream.
Winnipegger Neil Schipper has worked as an engineer and math and science teacher. He is vice-president of the Humanist Association of Manitoba.

Drug may work in melanoma tumors in brain

An experimental cancer drug showed early promise at helping patients with advanced melanoma that had spread to the brain, according to a summary of data from a mid-stage study.

Bristol-Myers Squibb's closely watched biotechnology drug ipilimumab, which enlists the help of the immune system to attack tumors, was found generally safe and showed signs that it was working on tumors in the brain, which are especially difficult to treat.

The study is the first to test ipilimumab in patients whose skin cancer had spread to the brain, and the findings, released in an abstract or brief summary, support its potential use in these patients, the researchers said.

The abstract was one of thousands of studies released on Thursday ahead of presentation at the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) next month in Chicago.

Ipilimumab is a monoclonal antibody, an engineered human immune system protein that boosts the body's immune response by interfering with another immune compound called CTLA-4, which acts as a sort of brake on immune system cells.

By temporarily removing this brake, the hope is to unleash the immune system to find and destroy the cancer.

Results of a late-stage study of the drug in melanoma patients will be detailed in a "late-breaker" session at ASCO's annual meeting in June.

In the phase 2 trial, researchers said four out of 51 patients with at least one brain lesion had a partial response to the drug, and in 5 out of 51 patients, both brain and other tumors in the body stabilized after 12 weeks of treatment.

The responses lasted from three to 12 months, and patients had no serious toxic side effects. Data from a second arm of the study is still being evaluated.

A separate study of the drug also showed signs it could work in people who first appeared not to respond to the drug.

Researchers reintroduced the drug to 32 patients who were initially treated as part of a study of 634 patients.

Eight of the 32 got ipilimumab alone, 23 got ipilimumab plus a vaccine called gp100, and one got the vaccine alone. All of the treatments appeared safe.

The team found that in patients whose cancer initially progressed while on ipilimumab, whose who were reintroduced to the drug had a disease control rate of 65 to 75 percent, compared to zero in the patient who got the vaccine only.

"These findings may have implications for the use of ipilimumab therapy in the long-term management of advanced melanoma," the researchers reported in the abstract.

Melanoma accounts for about 3 percent of skin cancer cases but causes most skin cancer deaths, and doctors have few effective treatments to offer once the disease has spread.

According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma accounted for more than 68,000 cases of skin cancer in 2009, and 8,650 deaths.

Major depression common after brain injury: study

Severe depression within the first year of a traumatic brain injury is common but treatment is not, Washington state researchers report.
The incidence of major depression among 559 people with traumatic brain injury was nearly eight times greater than would be expected in the general population, the researchers report in the May 19th issue of the JAMA/Journal of the American Medical Association.

While major depression during the first year was associated with a poorer quality of life and ability to function, “less than half of the people who were found to have major depression received any treatment during the first year,” Dr. Jesse R. Fann from the University of Washington School of Medicine in Seattle and one the study's principal investigators told Reuters Health.

An estimated three million Americans are living with a traumatic brain injury -- defined as a sudden violent blow to the head or penetrating wound that affects normal brain function. The most common cause is automobile accidents. Traumatic brain injury is also a “signature injury among wounded soldiers,” the investigators note.

Noting that treatment for traumatic brain injury normally focuses on the injury and its effect on a person's ability to think clearly, Fann and colleagues wanted to clarify how often severe depression develops after a major traumatic brain injury and if it affects recovery.

Of the 1,080 brain injury patients admitted to one trauma center in Seattle between June 2001 and March 2005, 559 agreed to participate in the study and were followed for 12 months. Study participants were mostly men injured in automobile accidents.

The researchers report that more than half of the participants (about 53 percent) were diagnosed with major depression at some point in the first year after their brain injury - a rate that is about 8 times greater than would be expected.

Not counting those that were depressed at the time they were injured, 233 of the remaining 471 participants (49 percent) experienced “new” major depression.

For a variety of reasons, the investigators say the rates of major depression after traumatic brain injury are probably “conservative” and underestimate the problem.

Major depression was associated with increased anxiety, poorer self-reported health and lower quality of life. The investigators urge making mental health services part of the normal care of patients with a traumatic brain injury. In the current study, only 44 percent of those with major depression received antidepressants or counseling.

Because major depression after traumatic brain injury “is an invisible disorder within an often invisible injury, aggressive efforts are needed” to educate doctors, promote detection and treat patients where warranted, they conclude.

Fann cautions against generalizing these study findings to traumatic brain injury suffered by soldiers on the battle field.

“These were civilian injuries; the findings, however, are consistent with military studies showing that head injuries, especially when there has been a loss on consciousness, do have a significantly higher rate of depression.”