Thursday, February 26, 2015

Why debunked autism treatment fads persist

The emotional appeal of facilitated communication is "very powerful and understandable," says psychologist Scott Lilienfeld. "The problem is, it doesn't work."

By Carol Clark

The communication struggles of children with autism spectrum disorder can drive parents and educators to try anything to understand their thoughts, needs and wants. Unfortunately, specialists in psychology and communication disorders do not always communicate the latest science so well.

These factors make the autism community especially vulnerable to interventions and “therapies” that have been thoroughly discredited, says Scott Lilienfeld, a psychologist at Emory University.

“Hope is a great thing, I’m a strong believer in it,” Lilienfeld says. “But the false hope buoyed by discredited therapies can be cruel, and it may prevent people from trying an intervention that actually could deliver benefits.”

Lilienfeld is lead author of a commentary, “The persistence of fad interventions in the face of negative scientific evidence: Facilitated communication for autism as a case example,” recently published by the journal Evidence-Based Communication Assessment and Intervention. Co-authors of the commentary are Julia Marshall (also from Emory) and psychologists James Todd (from Eastern Michigan University), and Howard Shane (director of the Autism Language Program at Boston Children’s Hospital).

The authors describe a litany of treatments for autism that have been attempted with little or no success over the years, including gluten- and casein-free diets, antifungal interventions, chelation therapy, magnetic shoe inserts, hyperbaric oxygen sessions, weighted vests, bleach enemas, sheep-stem-cell injections and many more.

As a case study, however, the article focuses on one intervention in particular: Facilitated Communication, or FC.

FC purports to allow previously nonverbal individuals with autism and related disorders to type by using a keyboard or letter pad. A facilitator offers support to the individual’s arms, allowing him or her to type words and complete sentences.

Soon after its introduction into the United States in the early 1990s, however, FC was convincingly debunked. Studies overwhelmingly demonstrated that facilitators were unconsciously guiding the hands of individuals with autism toward the desired letters, much as individuals using a Ouija board unknowingly guide the planchette to certain numbers and letters.

“The emotional appeal of FC is very powerful and understandable,” Lilienfeld says. “And no doubt the overwhelming majority of people who use FC are sincere and well-meaning. The problem is, it doesn’t work.”

In some cases, the authors note, FC has resurfaced with minor variations in the technique and a new name, such as “rapid prompting,” or “supported typing.”

By reviewing published surveys of practitioner use and canvassing the popular and academic literatures, Lilienfeld and his co-authors show that FC continues to be widely used and widely disseminated in much of the autism community despite its scientific refutation. They examine a number of potential reasons for the surprising persistence of FC and other autism fads. They note that the inherent difficulties in treating autism may give rise to an understandable desire for quick fixes of many kinds.

Lilienfeld and his colleagues underscore the pressing need for experts in the autism field to better educate the public about not only what works for the condition, but what does not.

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Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Poison power: From Cleopatra to Cyclops

Why did Cleopatra choose to be bitten by a poisonous snake when she had access to any number of plant poisons to commit suicide?

In the video above, Emory ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave explains how the Egyptian queen experimented before picking her poison. She also describes how the myth of Cyclops may have originated from the effects of a medicinal herb.

Poison has shaped history, myth and medicine in myriad ways. Over time, people have discovered ingenious ways to transform and make use of plant poisons for use in agriculture, fishing, hunting and medicine. Learn more about how poison plants are used in medicine in the video below.

Quave, an expert in the interactions of people and plants, and an assistant professor of dermatology in Emory’s School of Medicine, will give a special lecture at the Fernbank Museum on Sunday, March 1, at 4 pm. Her talk, “Deadly Cures: Medical Discoveries from Poisonous Plants,” is presented in conjunction with the museum’s special exhibition “The Power of Poison.” Although the lecture event is free, space is filling up fast and advance reservations are required by calling 404-929-6400.

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Thursday, February 19, 2015

Fossil tracks mark student's passage into New World of discovery

“Wherever you go, you should always pay close attention to your environment because you never know when you could come across something really cool," says Emory graduate Meredith Whitten, shown basking in the winter sun of the Bahamas.

By Carol Clark

Nobody knew better than Christopher Columbus that knowledge and experience, guided by luck and the right conditions, are key to making a discovery – even an accidental one. On October 12, 1492, he found what he thought was a shore of the Indies, but was actually an island in the Bahamas that he christened San Salvador.

During the winter break of 2013, Emory senior Meredith Whitten was on San Salvador for a study abroad trip, part of an environmental sciences class called “Modern and Ancient Tropical Environments.” Whitten had already visited the island when she took the course as a sophomore, and she was returning as a teaching assistant.

“It’s a great course because you get to go back into the past by looking at the rocks,” Whitten says. “It’s cool to see how the Earth has changed and also stayed the same.”

“She brought a lot of knowledge and experience to the group,” adds Anthony Martin, the professor who developed and teaches the course. Martin is a paleontologist who specializes in trace fossils: Tracks, burrows and other signs of ancient life.

“We go around the entire island in a big, open-bed truck,” Martin says of the field portion of the class. “We stop at known fossil sites, and at interesting modern environments to imagine what they might have looked like in prehistoric times. I call it ‘The Magical Mystery Tour.’”

Whitten stands by the fossil track site, the pale patch of rock next to her feet.

On December 30 of 2013, that tour stopped at a shoreline site where Martin noticed an outcrop of red rock. “I wanted to explain to the students about palesols,” Martin says. That paleosol, or fossilized soil, originated as dust from the Sahara desert. Not unlike Columbus, that dust was carried across the Atlantic by trade winds and deposited on San Salvador. “Some of that dust had iron minerals that got oxidized and, like the red socks in your wash, colored the sediment,” Martin says.

While he was explaining all this to the students, Whitten was looking at a patch of white rock being lapped by the ocean. “I could tell that the rock was recently exposed because it was so white and hadn’t been weathered,” Whitten says. “There must have been some storm surge that had recently broken off the top layer.”

A wave had just splashed the rock, darkening its features. And it was late afternoon, so the light slanted at just the right angle to make details in the rock’s surface pop out. Still, only someone who knew what to look for could have noticed the faint impressions.

“I saw the shapes and called Dr. Martin to come over, I thought I’d found fossilized bird tracks,” Whitten recalls. “I was sort of surprised when he looked at them and agreed. It was very cool and exciting for both of us.”

It took knowledge, experience and a careful eye to spot the faint impression of a partial bird track.

The field class turned into a real-life lesson in how to document a fossil find.

Whitten and Martin are co-authors of a paper on the two partial bird tracks, to be published in March by the journal Geologica Acta. The avian footprints are the first known vertebrate trace fossils on San Salvador, and only the second example from the Bahamas. They date back about 120,000 years, to the Pleistocene Epoch, and match the size and form of tracks made by modern-day gulls.

“Fossilized tracks like these give us a better idea of what previous environments were like,” Whitten explains. She notes that it’s likely shorebirds were walking around the upper part of a beach, near the dunes, when the tracks got cemented in carbonate sand, buried and preserved. “Understanding past coastal environments, and how sea levels have changed, could give us insights into what may be occurring as we look ahead at climate change.”

After graduating from Emory last May, Whitten decided to take time off as a dive instructor in the Bahamas before entering graduate school with the aim of a career in managing fishery policy.

“It was so fun to have a day in the field turn into so much more,” Whitten says of her experience in the Emory class. “Wherever you go, you should always pay close attention to your environment because you never know when you could come across something really cool.”

Columbus couldn’t have said it better.

Photos courtesy Meredith Whitten

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Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Using space satellites to track disease risks

Satellite data can map waterways harboring snails that spread disease, and pinpoint where these snails are likely to intersect with people.

BBC Science Correspondent Jonathan Amos wrote about a session of the recent annual meeting of the AAAS on the use of satellites to track infectious diseases, such as those spread by water snails. Below is an excerpt of his article:

"It is not possible, of course, to see individual snails from orbit, but specialists will have a very good idea of where these creatures prefer to be and the conditions under which they will thrive. And so it is with the watersnails that carry the larvae of the worms that spread schistosomiasis through human populations in Africa.

"In Kenya, scientists are making satellite maps of all the watercourses where these snail carriers are likely to reside, and plotting how they will move across the landscape. This information is then compared with satellite data on where people live on that landscape.

"The combination of the two maps shows the highest risk locations - the places health programs should be concentrated.

"Uriel Kitron from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, conducted the schistosomiasis work in Kenya. 'One of the big challenges that all public health agencies have - and that's true you know in the UK, in the US or in Kenya - is limited resources. If we can help them target the resources in space and time, that is a huge service we can do.'"

Read the whole article at BBC News.

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The hunt for alien life forms, on Earth and beyond

Thermophiles, a type of extremophile, produce some of the bright colors of grand Prismatic Springs in Yellowstone National Park. Extremophiles may provide clues about how life formed in the extreme environmental conditions of early Earth. (Photo by Jim Peaco, National Park Service.)

Emily Conover attended the session at the recent annual meeting of the AAAS on "Searching for Alternative Chemistries of Life," co-organized by Emory chemist David Lynn. She wrote about the session's panel discussion for Science Magazine. Below is an excerpt from her article:

"Rather than searching for new forms of life on Earth or in the stars, other scientists study the question from the bottom up, looking for possible precursors of life. Chemist David Lynn of Emory University in Atlanta points out that misfolded proteins—like the those implicated in neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's—show some similarities to life, namely that they can generate diversity in the different ways that they fold, and can undergo chemical evolution, in which those folded proteins are selected not genetically, but chemically. Such precursors could form complex chemical networks, which might be the foundation of radically different life elsewhere in the universe."

Read the whole article in Science.

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