One Flew Over Harvard Med School
by Fred Gardner, January 4, 2017
The internet cannot convey how big the New York Times played the story headlined "Beneficiary of Electroshock Therapy Emerges as its Leading Evangelist" in the January 1 print edition. The top half of the page was a color photo captioned "Kitty Dukakis and her husband Michael, a former governor of Massachusetts, last month with a therapy support group at their home in Brookline, Mass."
Kitty Dukakis is the smiling face of ECT ("Electroconvulsive Therapy"), but who is really pushing it? Reporter Kathleen Seelye informs us "Mrs. Dukakis receives her maintenance therapy at McLean Hospital in suburban Boston, one of the world's largest and most renowned psychiatric hospitals. McLean does about 10,000 such treatments a year, up from 2,000 treatments in 1999… Each patient generally receives eight to 20 treatments."
Seelye reports that ECT is much improved since the days of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." She writes, "In the old days, patients convulsed during therapy sessions, sometimes so violently that they broke their bones or teeth. Today, with anesthesia and muscle relaxants, such reactions are rare."
Now you can have kinder, gentler seizures.
“'ECT is the single most efficacious treatment that we have and the treatment of choice if you absolutely had to get someone out of a severe depression within a day or two,' said Steven D. Hollon, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University, who has studied the treatment of depression.
"But, he added, electroconvulsive therapy can potentially cause serious side effects, most notably long-term memory problems, some of which are temporary. Even patients whose depression goes into remission almost always need maintenance treatment, with ECT, antidepressants or both.
"A National Institute of Mental Health study conducted in 2014 and released this year found that new ECT techniques designed to better protect memory, in combination with antidepressants, fully relieved symptoms in 61 percent of severely depressed elderly patients; some were still well six months later. (Of the others, 28 percent dropped out and 10 percent did not improve.)
The Times ran a photo of Kitty Dukakis's bow-tie-wearing psychiatrist, Charles Welch, holding two big electrodes to his temples like "What, me worry?"
Seelye quotes Welch: "Depression is a chronic and recurring illness that requires good lifetime management." Real meaning: "Keep coming back to get zapped, everybody, I'm setting up trust funds for my grandchildren."
McLean Hospital —which is affiliated with Harvard Medical School— also does a lucrative business in treating people afflicted with "Cannabis Use Disorder." I wonder if the brilliant shrinks ever propose ECT for CUD?
Below the jump of the Times's paean to Electroconvulsion is a news story from the Associated Press headlined, "Massachusetts Delays Sales of Recreational Marijuana." A ballot initiative passed by voters in November legalized use for adults over 21 and would have permitted dispensaries to sell the herb in January 2018; but Republican Gov. Charlie Baker and some Democrats in the legislature claimed to need more time to "thoroughly prepare." So on December 27 they passed a bill pushing implementation back six months — "without a public hearing," the AP noted, "and without debate during informal sessions in both chambers. Only a handful of lawmakers were present."
Syngenta, the agrochemical giant, wants the honeybee die-off blamed on the varroa mite instead of on their pesticides. In 2012 an English bee expert named James Cresswell accepted funding from Syngenta (under heavy pressure from his employer, the University of Exeter). When his findings tended to exonerate the varroa mite, Syngenta leaned on him to revise his study. This low-key example is the hook provided by NY Times reporter Danny Hakim into a January 2 feature about the influence of corporate funding on scientific research.
"Scientists who cross agrochemical companies can find themselves at odds with the industry for years. One such scientist is Angelika Hilbeck, a researcher at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich. The industry has long since challenged her research, and she has been outspoken in challenging them back.
"Going back to the 1990s, her research has found that genetically modified corn — intended to kill bugs that eat the plant — could harm beneficial insects as well. Back then, Syngenta had not yet been formed, but she said one of its predecessor companies, Ciba-Geigy, tried to stifle her research by citing a confidentiality agreement signed by her employer then, a Swiss government research center called Agroscope.
"Confidentiality agreements have become routine. The United States Department of Agriculture turned over 43 confidentiality agreements reached with Syngenta, Bayer and Monsanto since the beginning of 2010 after a Freedom of Information Act request. Agroscope turned over an additional five with Swiss agrochemical companies.
"Many of the agreements highlight how regulators are often more like collaborators than watchdogs, exploring joint research and patent deals that they agree to keep secret. One agreement between the U.S.D.A. and Syngenta, which came with a five-year nondisclosure term, covered things including 'research and development activities,' 'manufacturing processes' and 'financial and marketing information related to crop protection and seed technologies.' In another agreement, a government scientist was barred even from disclosing sensitive information she heard at a symposium run by Monsanto.
"The Agriculture Department, in a statement, said that without such agreements and partnerships, 'many technological solutions would not make it to the public,' adding that research findings were released 'objectively without inappropriate influence from internal or external partners’."