Do some science! A v quick survey on genetics of mental health

For research she’s doing about public attitudes on genetics and mental health, science writer Virginia Hughes is trying to get people to take a very short survey (I just took it; takes about 30 seconds) on that subject. Do mental health issues rise from genes, environment, or both? Would you get a child tested for a gene said to confer a certain level of risk for, say, autism? Questions like that. She’ll use the results to inform her writing and her participation in a panel on ethical questions about the genomics of psych conditions at an upcoming conference at Cold Spring Harbor.
It’s quick, interesting, and will make your voice heard, in a tiny way, at Cold Spring Harbor. So help out Hughes and science and go take the survey! Tell her I sent you.
Survey results will be posted here next week, after the conference. You can also keep track at Ginny’s website.

Old brains, depressed brains, new viruses, returning salmon, and never ever healthcare reform

From my wanderings. We’ll start with the happy stuff
Salmon return to Paris! (photo: Charles Bremner, deep in Paris)

Mind Hacks tours some really old brains.
Zuska speaks wisely of health care reform.
The Guardian serves up some glass viruses (smallpox is pictured above).
Neuroskeptic covers a paper that is both encouraging, in its finding that EEG seems to predict antidepressant response, and infuriating, in that it withholds the information anyone else would need to replicate it. NOT GOOD.
The Wall Street Journal checks out cool tools to track the flu.

Creationists v empiricists! Reefs! Family drama! My bloggingheads talk with Greg Laden just posted a conversation Greg Laden and I had about the second-biggest scientific controversy of Darwin’s time, and of Darwin’s life: the argument over how coral reefs form. The coral reef argument was fascinating in its own right, both scientifically and dramatically — for here a very capable andn conscientious scientist, Alexander Agassiz, struggled to reconcile both two views of science and the legacies of the two scientific giants of the age, one of whom was his father.
His story — and the tumultuous 19th-century struggle to define science and empiricism — is the subject of my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral . Greg and I here cover some of the same ground the book covers.
You might also check out the long review of Reef Madness that Greg posted a couple days ago.
On the multimedia side, though, you can view the whole talk (or selected sections) at Bloggingheads, or, for starters, sample some short clips I’ve created below:
Here’s one on what the incredible overlap between the reef and species arguments:

Another clip I built, about a minute long, describes what makes Alexander Agassiz’s particular story so important and intriguing.
Don’t let the photo on me in the freeze frame scare you. They managed to freeze a frame where I look like I’m angry, but was probably just getting ready to sneeze. It was a quite amiable conversation. And if you watch it, or read the book, you’ll know of the biggest, weirdest, longest, and most confounding scientific controversy of the 19th-century, or of Darwin’s life and career, for that matter. And isnt’ that something you should know?
Many thanks to Greg Laden for proposing this conversation.

Morning dip: reading, writing, merit pay, musical spouses, swine flu, and fire towers


photo: U.S. Forest Service

Notables of the day:
John Hawks ponders the (bad) art of citing papers you’ve never read.
Clive Thompson ponders the new literacy spawned of engagement with many keyboards.
A poll on public education shows how much opinion depends on framing, context — and who else thinks an idea is good. In this case, people liked the idea of merit pay more if told Obama likes it.
Mind Hacks works the placebo circuit.
And Effect Measure weighs in on the weird contrasts and (limited) parallels between swine flu and avian flu.
And for fun, fire lookout towers, from BLDGBLOG. You can climb one. You can adopt one.

How Pfizer’s $2.3B criminal settlement proves Obama wants to ‘federalize’ healthcare

You can’t make this stuff up. As PharmaGossip (among others, including the Times) reportst, a drug company pays $2.3 billion in fines to settle charges of unprecedented seriousness about practices that directly put patients at risk, and that came out of a four-year federal investigation. And some yahoo right-winger asserts this fine — years in the works, unprecedented in scope, settling allegations rising from an investigation that started during the Bush Administration — is really part of Obama’s effort to “federalize” medicine and cut costs.
Here’s the video of the DOJ’s press conference announcing the fine:

Among the terms was a guilty plea to a felony violation for “misbranding Bextra with the intetn to defraud or mislead” and for illegally promoting Bextra, an anti-inflammatory drug, as well as an antibiotic, an antipsychotic, and an anti-epileptic drug. The criminal part of the fine, $1.1 billion, is the biggest criminal settlement ever. This is a massive fine, long in the works, to settle extremely serious allegations. But in a rather incredible column, the Examiner’s “Economic Policy Examiner,” James McConnell, today opined that no harm was done, and that this massive fine is really part of Obama’s attempt to federalize health care and exert cost control.

Continue reading →

Morning Dip – Depression doubles; swine flu packs for a move north

On the radar of late:
Neuroskeptic ponders reports that antidepressant use in the U.S. has doubled in the last decade. As he notes, perhaps the most troubling thing finding in the study is that

the number of Americans using an antipsychotic as well as an antidepressant increased by a factor of more than 3. This is, frankly, extremely troubling, since antipsychotics are by far the worst psychiatric drugs in terms of side effects. There is evidence that some antipsychotics can be of use in depression as an add-on to antidepressants, but there is better evidence for other alternatives, such as lithium.

And he comes up with a sensible conclusion I much agree with:

But here’s my personal take: the main reason why people are taking more antidepressants is that the popular concept of “depression” has become more broad. People have become more willing to label their experiences as “depression” and seek medical treatment. The notion that mental illness is extremely common – the one in four meme – is one aspect of this.

Ditto with PTSD.
Harold Varmus, of the White House, and the CDC argue over Varmus’s report that the swine flu might kill 90,000 Americans this winter. Dana Blankenhorn, The Awl, and Effect Measure ponder.
The sharpness of the reaction against Varmus’s pessimism is a bit strange, given that WHO’s chief says this flu “travels at an unbelievable, almost unheard of speed.” Most who die, WHO director Chan notes, have underlying health problems. But in this case “most” means 60% — which “means that 40% of the fatalities concern young adults — in good health — who die of a viral fever in five to seven days.”
Don’t much like the sound of that.
And Helen Branswell has a nice piece on how the war against H1N1 (swine flu) is likely to be fought in intensive care units.

Reef sightings

I was pleased to see my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral written up in a couple of venues recently. Over at The Primate Diaries, Eric Michael Johnson, who does on history and philosophy of science, looks at the “terrific argument” that the book follows — an argument simultaneously about how coral reefs form, how to do science, and (a third layer out), creationism versus empiricism. A nice write-up — you can’t go wrong starting a piece about the creationism-empiricism debate (among other things) with an atomic blast.
The book is also mentioned in a more wide-ranging interview of myself at The Reef Tank, a site that covers all things coral, and often runs interviews with scientists, writers, and others interested in reefs. We talked about Reef Madness as well as The Great Gulf, my book on the collapse of the New England fishery (and how to count fish). Among other treasures: This photo of me with a goosefish, taken while I was collecting survey data on a research cruise aboard NOAA’s R/V Albatross IV, a decade ago this November.