Doing Life Together

childIf you have a chance to listen to Geneticist Wendy Chung’s TED talk on autism, do so. She briefly summarizes where we are on better understanding the Autism Spectrum Disorders. Here are a few of her points:

1) Autism is a spectrum disorder which means it looks different in different children. There is a wide range of symptoms and functioning.

2) Better awareness of the disorder and symptoms  and a wider definition of the disorder have led to more diagnoses. This may explain why the rate of 1 in 88 is higher than previous decades.

3) While we are still unclear as to why some children develop autism, we are clear that vaccines DO NOT cause autism. The original study associating vaccines has been pulled by the Lancet because it was fraudulent and the author has lost his medical license. Furthermore, the ingredient in the vaccines thought to be the culprit was removed from the vaccines in 1992 and the rate of autism has not decreased.

4) A few associated factors are paternal advanced age, exposure to certain agents during pregnancy and genetics.

5) Genetics play a role but the role varies. In some children, there is no family history of autism. Thus a gene or combination of genes are mutated or changed creating the condition with no passed down genetics. In others, there may be a genetic link.

6) The disorder can result from a single gene or a combination of genes. In fact, there can be 200-400 genes that form certain combinations. This is why we see such variety of symptoms.

7) One new direction is to identify specific genes in order to target specific drugs as potential treatment; other areas of development are the use of educational strategies and technology to train the brain.

8) Families can join the Interactive Autism Network in order to help clinicians and researchers better understand autism spectrum disorder.

9) Despite the progress on identifying genetic markers, we still do not know a lot.

10) The 4 to 1 ratio of male to female is still not understood. Early identification is key. Strategies such as looking at infants biomarkers that put them at risk, e.g., not socially connecting and tracking with eye movements, are being developed.


tanI’ ve written several articles on the dangers of tanning to the skin, but now we may have additional concerns when it comes to mental health, especially the mental health of our teens.

The teenage years are marked with insecurity and a desire to fit in and be noticed. When it comes to appearance, teens are under major pressure to have the perfect body. Those who don’t feel they measure up often struggle with depression. Tanning is one way to try and boost appearance and mood despite the possible dangers to the skin. So one group of researchers decided to study teens and frequent tanning to see if there was a correlation between tanning and mood.

The conclusion of the study conducted on several high school students who excessively tan was that excessive indoor tanning habits are associated with depression and suicide attempts among teens.

Excessive tanning was defined as 40 or more sessions in a 12 month period. Specifically, the study noted that students who excessively tanned had more depressive symptoms and were more at risk for suicide attempt and ideations according to researchers at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) in Little Rock. In other words, frequent tanning could be a marker of depression.

The investigators of the study felt that because of the increased risk of depression and suicide attempt, depression screenings could be helpful for students who excessively tan.  However, screening kids then needs to be followed up with treatment.

So parents pay attention to your teen’s tanning behavior. Frequent tanning could be used as a way to improve mood or appearance, but may indicate depression. And suicide is the leading cause of death among teens.



soldier 1Memorial day is supposed to honor men and women who died in all wars. This is why many of us visit the graves of our fallen loved ones and fly the American flag at half-staff until noon. Others march in parades, visit monuments and pray.

And while many of us have lost loved ones in the service of our country, there is another war going on within that is taking our soldiers lives as well. It’s war against hopelessness and depression. According to NBC news correspondent Bill Briggs, in 2012 more soldiers took their lives by suicide than died in combat. Last year, the New York Times posted an article about the “baffling” rates of suicide in the U.S. military.

Since 2002 the suicide rate among soldiers has risen dramatically. The U.S. Army Public Health Command reported that from 2004-2008, the suicide rate of active duty military increased by 80%! Last year, the AP reported that the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said it took an average of 4 years to fully provide the mental health benefits owed veterans. It also noted that is often took weeks for a suicidal veterans to get a first appointment. Obviously, suicidal people can’t wait weeks to be seen for help. Additionally, the report mentioned the flood of post traumatic stress disorder that were handled with “unchecked incompetence.”

So why are we seeing this rise in suicide?

1) Suicide is still a stigma in the military where you are not supposed to be weak. The message is suck it up and do your job.

2) A report by the Pentagon on suicide noted that half the troops who killed themselves in 2011 had a failed intimate relationship and about a quarter experienced substance abuse.

3) During war, recruitment changes. You tend to get those who really want to fight or those who are desperate for a job. The two groups are very different with the latter being more at risk.

4) With constant war, recruitment standards are lowered because you need more people, thus, you get a more at risk population. A new study (JAMA Psychiatry) showed that almost 1 in 5 soldiers had a mental illness like depression, panic or ADHD before they joined the military. The question is how did these recruits get past the screening?

5) Another JAMA study found those with multiple concussions were more likely to report suicidal thoughts.

6) The strain of war takes a toll, especially when there are extended tours.

7) Rapid deployment and exposure to combat act like a catalyst to worsen existing problems.

8) Untreated Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI) and PTSD are risk factors.

9) Delay in services and treament. The federal government does not have a handle on how to deliver prompt and efficient services.

10) Officers are busy and do not always pay attention to their soldiers, especially first-termers. Thus, the signs of suicide can go unnoticed.

The military has initiated suicide prevention programs. Soldiers are taught to “Ask, Care and Escort” anyone who talks about suicide. The idea is to get those at risk to a provider and not leave them alone. There is also a prevention lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK.

We have to do better when it comes to the care of our soldiers. They risk their lives for us. We need to be there to help when they need us.


love addictedSome of you remember singer Robert Palmer’s well-known music video, Addicted to Love. The chorus repeats the line, “Might as well face it, you’re addicted to love.”

What if Palmer was on to something here? Can people be addicted to love?

Psychiatrist Vineeth John at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, thinks this could be possible.

He and his colleagues are studying  neurobiological love to see if love could indeed be addictive. They defined love addiction as “a pattern of maladaptive behaviors and intense interest toward 1 or even more romantic partners at the detriment of other interests and resulting in a lack of control and significant impact on functionality.” In other words, love addiction would be harmful, destructive or dangerous to a person and cause much distress.

In the study, Dr. John noted that the same parts of the brain associated with substance abuse were activated when a study participant was shown a picture of his/her love. The neural circuits associated with attachment and addiction disorders were shared.

Because of the neurobiology involved, Dr. John wonders if this reflects attachment problems. He speculates that love addiction could be a form of attachment disorder that goes beyond the average person falling in love. Specially, love addiction might come in to play when a person can’t get over a broken relationship  or stays in a relationship despite danger.

Most of us can think of someone like this–a person who just can’t let go of a relationship that is not healthy.

Dr. John believes that people who might become love addicted have these qualities:

1) They have an immature concept of love.

2) They have high levels of impulsivity and anxiety.

3) They are in a maladaptive social environment.

4) They have an anxious-ambivalent attachment style.

5) They experience structural affective dependence.

Love addiction is only in the process of being studied. It is not a mental disorder or a condition psychiatrists treat with medications. It is one of those conditions that we see with people who can’t seem to let go of an unhealthy relationship and move forward with life.

In those cases, maybe he or she is addicted love!