Category Archives: medicine

Neurological disease: a complicated beast

Earlier today I was doing a little Googling looking for information that I plan to use for a thesis project when I came across a blog about the science of Parkinson’s Disease. At first I was really excited since I rarely see blogs about the science of specific diseases and I feel those are very much needed in today’s serious state of scientific misinformation. After the initial surprise of its existence, I actually made the mistake of reading the blog. I was not only disappointed, but saddened as well.

My disappointment was less about the apparent state of research and more about how research (and researchers) is presented to patients and their families. How and why biological research is conducted is largely a mystery to the vast majority of even the most educated people. What disappointed and distressed me most was how research was perceived by this patient. It was of the “why aren’t you doing this?” mentality that I find is quite pervasive in online patient communities of all diseases I’ve come across. This idea that we researchers are not really interested in certain questions about disease progression and pathology are partially correct but largely misguided, and often perpetuated by the perceived lack of progress in curing the disease in question.

It is true that scientists often halt seemingly promising lines of research much to the dismay of patients suffering from a debilitating disease, but it is not because we do not care. Instead, we do it because it makes sense scientifically and financially. If it doesn’t seem to be a fruitful endeavor then there is no point to keep wasting very valuable time and money pursuing it. There is also a simple reason we do not let patients dictate our research direction: they do not understand the science behind their disease. This is not an insult, but a simple fact. These are very complicated matters that take years of training in order to just begin to understand, and to expect a patient with little knowledge of biology to truly understand the research is unreasonable. That is why we don’t expect them to understand the underlying pathophysiology of their disease. However, patients oftentimes feel they understand more than they do (a little bit of knowledge…) due to their intimate knowledge of their disease. I cannot blame them, but I do wish they would have a little humility and acknowledge that there are plenty of professionals out there who have studied their disease for years in order to understand and, hopefully one day, conquer it.

Though most of us scientists got into research due to simple human curiosity it does not mean we don’t care about the real world implications of our work. We’re working hard not just for ourselves, but also because we know it makes a difference not only in the lives of patients, but also other scientists, and humanity at large.

Overall, I wish the author of the above blog the best in his/her treatment and that this post may help explain a bit of why we do what we do, but I also wish that some of the opinions of the author are changed for the better.



Filed under animal research, biology, cancer, disease, evolution, grad school, huntington's, medicine, morality, neurobiology, parkinson's


Look, I know that all kinds of people are up in arms about this autism “epidemic,” but few of these idiots have actually been thinking rationally.  I came across this idiot over in the comments at this post from a great blog I regularly frequent.

I try to understand these people.  I really do.  But when they start invoking Godwin’s law and just start spouting crazy I can no longer take them seriously.  These people seem to be completely devoted to the fact that their son/daughter cannot be developmentally delayed due to anything other than vaccines, environmental “toxins,” or some other bullshit excuse.  I’m not saying that those things may not play a role in their development, but to blame those things, and ONLY those things, with little to no empirical evidence is irresponsible at best.  Development is a fickle beast affected by many things, but genetics plays the largest role.  In fact, most teratogens have a relatively narrow window during which they have the terrible effects of which you hear.

Essentially what this comes down to is what you are willing to believe based on the evidence.  Using the best evidence we have (and it’s damn good evidence) vaccines don’t cause autism.  I’m far from an expert, but being in neurobiology for as long as I have I do know human cognition and other basic medical principles very well.  Here is my take on this.

What is currently known as autism (or ASD) is a wide range of relatively mild to severe cognitive disorders that have been common in humans for centuries.  The reason for the wide range in autism disorders is due to our relative lack of knowledge about the origins of the disorder and our current need to classify anything and everything that isn’t “normal” as a disorder (don’t get me started on the fucked up reasons why), so we just lump them all into the super-diagnosis of what the DSMIV (and soon to be V) calls ASD.  There hasn’t been an increase in the number of people with autism, but there has been an exponential growth in the awareness AND diagnosis of autism, making the overall numbers appear to be skyrocketing when in fact they have probably been pretty stable for the past few decades at least.  Those kids you used to make fun of for being weird back in the ’70s and ’80s?   Yeah, they’re now diagnosed with mild autism or Aspergers.  Does that mean that the number actually rose?  No, it doesn’t, we’re just changing what it’s called.

Do I have any fool-proof evidence of this?  No, I do not, and I don’t pretend to (unlike those anti-vax freaks).  I’m using personal observation and common sense to piece together information that doesn’t appear to make a whole lot of sense otherwise.  For instance, if mercury poisoning is what was causing so many autism cases then why did the numbers continue to grow even after taking thimerosal out of the most prevelent vaccines?  Oh wait, you’ll just blame it on the other “toxins” in the vaccines.  Sorry, I forgot that logic doesn’t play a part in your thought process.  I shouldn’t be surprised though considering nearly all of you “vaccine caused my baby’s autism!” people lack even the most basic understanding of biological principles and yet still talk like you know something.

My advice: shut the fuck up, love your child for what he/she is, and do your very best to raise him/her regardless of the circumstances.

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Filed under Biology and Evolution, crazy, just sad, medicine, pet peeve


I’m fairly well versed in biology, and what I don’t know I can look up and not be confused by the jargon.  So, I have a question to anyone reading this: any questions you have about anything biology (or general science) related that you would like answered by a scientist?

Something you read in the news or a magazine about recent biological advances sound fishy and want to get the to bottom of it?  Ask me.

Hear your dad spout some craziness about one of his “theories” and wonder if it has a grain of truth?  Ask me.

Ever wonder why you have a blind spot in your eye?  Ask me.  (hint: if there’s a god, he’s retarded)

Wonder why researchers still have to kill tens of thousands of animals a year in order to do necessary research?  Ask me.

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Filed under animal research, medicine, morality

Science: it does more than you think

One of the main questions I get about doing biological research is: so what do you actually do?  If my answer isn’t “I’m trying to cure Parkinson’s/cancer/some other disease!” I tend to get one of two responses.
1. Why aren’t you trying to cure (insert disease)?
2. (blank stare)

I don’t blame people for not understanding why I do what I do.  Considering billions of taxpayer money is spent every year on basic research I can see why the general public wants to see tangible results in the form of new drugs and therapies that can help people with debilitating, and often lethal, diseases.  This is why I do everything I can to inform anyone who is willing to listen about the joys and benefits of basic research.

I’m going to gloss over a lot of details, but you have essentially two kinds of research: applied and basic.  Applied research is a program where a finding (lets say a new class of antibiotic) is used to find a direct application that can benefit people.   In the antibiotic instance it would involve first using the new antibiotic on cultured bacteria alongside standard treatments.  Then you move on to animal models and, if it all works out, to clinical studies in humans.

Basic research is, well, for lack of a better term, more basic.  I know you can’t define something by using the very word you are defining, so let me expound on this a little bit.  All basic research is goal oriented in a sense, but the overall goal is much more open ended than that of applied research.  We basic researchers try to figure stuff out just for the sake of figuring it out.  Yes, it may have a practical application down the road that we’re kind of, slightly, interested in but the main goal is to expand humanity’s knowledge base so that even more discoveries can be made.  The key to basic research that everyone should understand is this: no one knows what piece of knowledge is going to lead to useful, practical applications.  Just because we’re scientists doesn’t mean we can see the future.  We make educated guesses based on what we currently know to try and narrow down future possibilities (and we’ve become quite good at that), but we’re far from perfect.

One of the best examples I have ever seen of a basic research finding having profound real-world implications is the discovery of a simple little protein called ubiquitin.  I heard the story of it’s discovery when I attended a lecture by Nobel laureate Aaron Ciechanover (yes, I had to mention that) and it was essentially this: scientists didn’t know anything about the possible breakdown of proteins in the body at the time, so Aaron and a few others decided to look into it.  There were plenty of theories about what was happening to these proteins, but no one had any solid answers.  Turns out, the protein ubiquitin is critical to the specified destruction of proteins, and when this system gets fucked up, you get fucked up.  However, now that we know what the system does and (mostly) how it works we can now look for drugs to target particular aspects of this system to cure diseases!  Exciting, I know!  But, if the basic research hadn’t been done we would instead be blindly looking for drugs, and even if one were found we wouldn’t understand how it works or interacts with other parts of a system.

These discoveries happen all the time.  Occasionally they directly help humanity, but I would argue that in all instances they, at the very least, indirectly help.

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Filed under animal research, medicine

Natural substances/products and a common claim

Don’t fall for nonsense, just because a product is found in nature does not mean it is good for you or is any better than man-made substances.  When people mention that something is “natural” in order to make you more interested in it they conveniently want you to forget that there are a lot of natural substances that are potent enough to kill you hundreds of times over.

Also, remember that the danger is in the dose.  Normally toxic substances can be harmless in small amounts and typically safe substances can be very toxic in large doses.  We put toxic substances into our bodies every day and most people will never see the effects of them because they are in such small doses.  This whole concept is why the EPA and other agencies can post acceptably safe levels of things such as mercury, arsenic, dioxins, etc.  A “natural” product doesn’t necessarily have safe levels of ingredients

And while I’m on the subject, if you ever see a product that claims to “boost your immune system” run away from that product.  What the hell does that statement even mean?  First, the company that is promoting their product would have to show that it somehow modulates some part of the human immune system (increasing T-cells?).  They would then have to show that the modulation their product induces actually has the desired effect on whatever problem/disease it is trying to alleviate/cure (because you can’t just assume that an increase in something in the immune system is actually going to change the immune system – a bit counter-intuitive, but that’s how science works).

Personally, I stick to well-known, tried-and-true drugs, and I think you should too.

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Filed under cancer, crazy, just sad, medicine, pet peeve

A much needed response

My last post brought about a very important comment from Sarah about some mothers she has met. I was just simply going to comment on what she said, but then I saw the front page of the Chicago Tribune today and saw this and my blood began to boil and I decided that I had to post about vaccines, autism, and pseudoscience.

First, let me say that while I’m somewhat knowledgeable about the subject I am far from an expert. However, there are plenty of excellent resources for science-based autism and vaccine research right here on the interwebz. I’ll give a very quick overview of what lead to all of this craziness.

-Vaccines have effectively eradicated (at least in the first world) smallpox, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, diphtheria, and many other diseases. The development of vaccines is easily one of the greatest medical advances in human history. Seriously, it’s right up there with cleanliness and antibiotics.

-Some vaccines contained a mercury-containing preservative (thermiosal). When autism started getting huge about a decade ago people started blaming vaccines because a few quacks were being very vocal about their hypothesis that it is the mercury in the vaccines that is causing all these cases of autism.

-Looking for any explanation as to why their children were sick, parents all over England and the US began making the false connection between their child’s autism and vaccinations.

-To stem fears the mercury-containing preservative (which is harmless in the dosage received during vaccination) was removed from the majority of vaccines and is now only found in trace amounts in a small number of them such as the flu vaccine. Lo and behold, autism numbers didn’t drop. INSTEAD, THEY HAVE BEEN CLIMBING!

-Anti-vaxers (as we call them) refuse to believe the evidence before them and still believe vaccines to be the root cause of the autism epidemic.

So, with that said here’s my take on this whole debacle. It’s human nature to want answers. Unfortunately, science takes a long time and hasn’t come up with an answer to autism yet, so people whose worlds have been turned upside down because of the disorder look to people who say they know the answer and, due to a lack of other options, listen to them and believe what they say (also, because many times the very same people have “cures” for autism)

What makes this problem all the more difficult is autism itself. What we call autism is in fact a sort of catch-all group of early onset developmental delays. Though we don’t like to admit it diagnoses can become “trendy” (remember ADHD?) and it seems now that if a child shows any signs of a developmental delay s/he is automatically labeled as autistic. This is not a new disorder, it is a new label. There have been and always will be kids with such delays, but while they simply may have been called “slow,” “retarded,” “weird,” or whatever back in the day we have an actual medical diagnosis for them now. And just like any other disease, the more people who know about it, the more people will see it.

The most important thing to know is this: autism is not developmental stasis, it is a developmental delay. Unfortunately, these delays become apparent around the time children should be getting their first shots. See the problem here? People have a very very hard time distinguishing between correlation and causation. Just because something two things happen around the same time does not mean one caused the other, but for some reason a lot of people can’t seem to wrap their head around that fact. All they know is that little Jimmy got his vaccines and then developed autism.

What they don’t know is the damage they are doing. First, they are weakening the herd immunity and becoming serious threats to the overall health of our nation by refusing to vaccinate their children and spreading their ridiculous health claims. Second, they are pulling funding away from real autism research by focusing on stuff that has already been studied time and time again and found to be false. Lastly, they are further eroding confidence in our medical system. Our fucking incredible medical system. God I’m pissed.

Oh, and Oprah can go fuck herself for getting Jenny McCarthy a pedestal to spew her ridiculous and dangerous nonsense. Fuck them both.

Alright, now I’m pissed, so I’m going to stop writing.

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Filed under crazy, just sad, medicine, morality, Those Other Sciences

Wandering through medicine

I had this whole long post about the complications of medicine, but in the end decided I could sum up a very long post with a few simple lines.

1. You don’t know more than your doctor. No matter how good you are at Google searches YOU DON’T HAVE A MEDICAL DEGREE.

2. If there are legitimate, science-based, treatments then use them in place of alternative treatments. They’re alternative because they don’t work. You know what they call alternative treatments that do work? Medicine.

3. Your doctor really does want to help you no matter what anyone else may tell you.

4. Your doctor is not omniscient or infallible, but s/he is the best bet you have at staying healthy.

5. Like I’ve said before, modern medicine has become so good that we have begun to expect too much from it. Do we expect a single person (or even two or three) to know how the entire space shuttle works and be able to fix it at the drop of a hat? Then why do we expect a single person or even a small group of very intelligent people to figure out everything wrong with something significantly more complicated like the human body? It doesn’t make sense.

6. Medicine is harder than you know, so leave it to the experts.


Filed under grad school, just sad, medicine, pet peeve, Those Other Sciences