Three recent stories lead me to my opening topic for the year: The value of open-mindedness. This characteristic — a state of receptiveness to new ideas — affects how we perceive and process information. It’s a quality I look for in my doctors, and which I admire especially in older people.
Piece #1 — On the brain’s maturity, flexibility and “cognitive fitness”
For the first piece, I’ll note a Dec 31 op-ed piece that appeared in the New York Times: This Year, Change Your Mind, by Dr. Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author. In this thoughtful essay, he considers the adult brain’s “mysterious and extraordinary” power to adapt and grow: “I have seen hundreds of patients with various deficits — strokes, Parkinson’s and even dementia — learn to do things in new ways, whether consciously or unconsciously, to work around those deficits.”
With appropriate and very-real respect, I question Sacks’ objectivity on this subject — he’s referred some of the most outstanding (i.e. exceptional) neurological cases in the world. And so it may be that his careful reports are perfectly valid but not representative; for most of us, the adult brain’s capacity to establish new circuitry for language learning or music appreciation may be limited. What his stories do show is that unimaginably strange things happen in our brains, at least occasionally. And maybe we should just accept that and take notes (as he does so carefully), and keep an open mind. Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at Medical Lessons*
Flashbacks are vivid, recurring, intrusive, and unwanted mental images of a past traumatic experience. They are a sine qua non of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although drugs and cognitive behavioral interventions are available to treat PTSD, clinicians would prefer to utilize some sort of early intervention to prevent flashbacks from developing in the first place.
Well, researchers at Oxford University appear to have found one. Remarkably, all it takes is playing Tetris. Yes, Tetris!
The team responsible for the discovery was led by Emily Holmes. The writeup appears in the November issue of PLoS ONE. Holmes and colleagues had reasoned that the human brain has a limited capacity to process memories, and that memory consolidation following a traumatic experience is typically complete within six hours after the event. Holmes’ team also knew that playing Tetris involved the same kind of mental processing as that involved with flashback formation. So they figured if they had people play Tetris during that six-hour window after the traumatic event, it might interfere with memory consolidation of the traumatic experience. That, in turn, would reduce or eliminate the flashbacks. The idea worked like a charm. Read more »
*This blog post was originally published at Pizaazz*
Placebos helped ease symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) even when patients knew that was what they were taking, a new study reports.
Researchers randomly assigned 80 patients with IBS to receive placebo pills (openly labeled as such) or no treatment over a three-week period. Patients taking placebos had significantly higher mean scores on the IBS Global Improvement Scale at 11 and 21 days, and also reported significant improvements in symptom severity and relief. The results of the study, which was funded by the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, were published online Dec. 22 by PLoS ONE.
Anthony Lembo, M.D., a study coauthor, said in a press release that he didn’t expect the placebo to work. “I felt awkward asking patients to literally take a placebo. But to my surprise, it seemed to work for many of them,” he said.
Ted Kaptchuk, O.M.D., the study’s lead author, told the LA Times that a larger study needs to be done to confirm the findings, and said that he didn’t believe such effects would be possible “without a positive doctor-patient relationship.”
ACP Internist looked at placebos’ place in clinical practice in a 2009 article. (PLoS ONE, Public Library of Science, LA Times, ACP Internist)
*This blog post was originally published at ACP Internist*