Alternative Mental Health News, No. 66

Editor’s note

As the world now knows, on April 16, 2007, student Cho Seung-Hui, the son of Korean immigrants, opened fire on the Virginia Tech campus in a mad rage and took the lives of 32 people, then himself. In the following days, massive media interest questioned what could have prompted the slaughter.

For us here at Safe Harbor, one of our first thoughts was, of course,
“Was he on psychiatric medication?” And, yes, from interviews published since the incident, it seems certain he was.

The good news is that the press were quick to ask this question early in the game. The bad news is that they had to ask it at all. And we had to ask ourselves, “How many more times will drug-induced mass killings have to occur before our society sees this for what it is?”

Right now the general public has a vague awareness that antidepressants and perhaps some other psychiatric drugs might cause a rare effect of suicidal or homicidal impulses. But right now this is all sort of fuzzy noise in the public consciousness. Very few connect this with the drama that unfolded at Columbine and so many other murder sprees in which we know the killer was on medication. Few live in dread, knowing this will happen again because the medications remain on the market.

But those in the pharmaceutical industry and the FDA are acutely aware of the matter. They know unquestionably that these drugs can obliterate a person’s conscience and bring him to kill. How many more slayings of innocents are needed before someone who can DO something about it steps forward and brings a halt to this insanity?

While it is understood that millions are dependent on these medications, does this justify the continued slaughter of decent people? While medications may be actually needed in a minority of cases, the fact is that many alternatives exist for most people. Of course, this would cost pharmaceutical companies billions in profits.

As the old Bob Dylan song asks: “How many deaths will it take till we know that too many people have died?”

Lead and Selenium Affect Cognitive Skills in Elderly

Two studies reported in the January 2007 issue of the journal Epidemiology showed correlations between blood levels of lead and selenium and cognitive ability in the elderly.

One study, carried out by Dr. Marc G. Weisskopf of the Harvard School of Public Health and colleagues, looked at the effects of cumulative lead levels in more than a thousand elderly men over a nine-year period. None of the subjects had high occupational lead exposure.  Bone and blood were tested for lead levels.

Results showed that elderly men with the highest lead levels in their blood and bone had the worst scores on cognitive tests and worse deterioration over time. As blood lead levels went up, their vocabulary scores went down—as did performance and reaction time scores on tests of visual/special and visual motor tests.

A second report on research carried out in France examined the relationship of selenium to cognitive ability. Selenium is an antioxidant and researchers theorized that since oxidative stress contributes to poor cognitive function, low selenium may be directly linked to declining mental skills. Led by researcher N. Tasnime Akbaraly, who in past research has demonstrated a connection between low selenium levels and higher mortality rates, the team began with 1389 subjects between the ages of 60 and 71 and studied them over a nine-year period.

The team concluded: “Among subjects who had a decrease in their plasma selenium levels, the greater the decrease in plasma selenium, the higher the probability of cognitive decline. Among subjects who had an increase in their plasma selenium levels, cognitive decline was greater in subjects with the smallest selenium increase. There was no association between short-term (2-year) selenium change and cognitive changes.”


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Inhaled Anesthetics May Contribute to Alzheimer’s Disease

Amyloids are insoluble fibrous protein aggregations. A hallmark of Alzheimer’s Disease is the progressive spread of amyloid plaques in the brain.

Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine have discovered that common inhaled anesthetics increase the number of amyloid plaques in the brains of animals. This could accelerate the onset of neurodegenerative processes such as those found in Alzheimer’s.

Roderic Eckenhoff, MD, Vice Chair of Research in the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Anesthesia and Critical Care, and his co-authors, reported their findings in the March 7, 2007, online edition of Neurobiology of Aging.

About 60 million people worldwide are given inhaled anesthetics each year. The drugs are known to cause “post-operative cognitive decline” in many cases, which can last for days, weeks or years.

The researchers focused on the anesthetic halothane and its effects on the brains of mice. “This animal study data suggests that we have to at least consider the possibility that anesthetics accelerate certain neurodegenerative disorders,” said Eckenhoff. “In the field of Alzheimer’s research, most effort is focused on delaying, not curing the disease. A delay in the onset of Alzheimer’s disease of only three to five years would be considered a success. Therefore, if commonly used drugs, like anesthetics, are accelerating this disorder, even by a few years, then a similar success might follow even small changes in the care of the operative patient.”

Essential Fats Improve ADHD Symptoms

More research has now confirmed previous studies that showed that supplementing with polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFA) improves ADHD symptoms.

Researchers studied 132 Australian children, aged 7-12, who scored high on ADHD symptom testing. Those put on omega-3 (fish oil) and omega-6 (primrose oil) supplements showed significant improvement after 15 weeks, according to parental reports, than those on placebo. Improvement continued the following 15 weeks. When the placebo group was put on the supplements, they, too, showed the same level of improvement.

Researchers concluded: “Significant medium to strong positive treatment effects were found on parent ratings of core ADHD symptoms.”

The study was reported in the April 2007 issue of the Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics.

Bacteria in Dirt May Boost Mood as Well as Antidepressants

UK scientists reporting in the journal Neuroscience (posted online March 28, 2007) claim that exposure to a friendly soil bacteria, Mycobacterium vaccae, could improve mood as effectively as antidepressants by boosting the immune system.

Researchers exposed mice to the bacteria and tested the animals with the “forced swim” test commonly used in testing antidepressant drugs. This exercise measures mood levels by how long the mice swim before giving up. The study found that the exposed mice paddled much longer than a control group.

“You could say the [bacteria-exposed] mice had a more active coping style,” said study leader Chris Lowry of the University of Bristol in England.

The study’s findings are similar to those of previous research which showed that human cancer patients treated with the bacteria reported significant increases in their quality of life.

“These studies help us understand how the body communicates with the brain and why a healthy immune system is important for maintaining mental health,” Lowry said. “They also leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt.”

Antidepressants Don’t Help Bipolar Patients

Although antidepressants have been widely prescribed in 50-70% of patients for the depression phase of bipolar symptoms, a new study finds they are not generally effective.

“It is clear from this data,” said Dr. Thomas R. Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, “that antidepressants are not the answer.”

In the study, 366 patients at 22 academic centers in the U.S. were randomly assigned to receive one of two antidepressants or a placebo for 26 weeks, in addition to mood stabilizing medication they were receiving. Patients also received psychological and social therapy.

Of the 179 participants who received an antidepressant in addition to a mood stabilizer, 23.5% achieved a “durable recovery,” defined as an eight-week period marked by no more than two depressive or two manic symptoms. In the placebo group, 27.3% of patients achieved a “durable recovery.”

The study was reported in the New England Journal of Medicine. The lead author was Dr. Gary Sachs, director of the bipolar clinic at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Healthy Habits Lower Depression, Anxiety Risk

The site reports on a study led by Coen H. van Gool, Department of Health Care Studies, of Universiteit Maastricht, supporting the age-old notion that proper diet and exercise can affect mood.

The study looked at more than 1,100 adults and found that those who reported excessive alcohol use (an average of three or more drinks daily) at the beginning of the study were more likely to suffer from depression six years later, as were those who were overweight at the beginning of the study. And those who reported exercising for more than 30 minutes daily at the beginning of the study period were less likely to be depressed six years later.

In a related study reported in the April 15, 2007, issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, UK scientists found that men who partook in intense exercise in their non-work hours had lower depression and anxiety scores than a control group five years later. This did not hold true for men who performed intense physical labor at work.

The research looked at over 1100 Welsh men who reported their exercise habits and then, at three different times over ten years, reported on their depression and anxiety levels.

Researchers postulated that the improvements were due to exercise-induced mood-enhancing brain chemistry and the self-esteem benefits of being in good physical condition.