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What do you know, additives really do cause hyperactivity September 29, 2007

Posted by Johan in Abnormal Psychology, Developmental Psychology, Psychopharmacology.
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This post is about a very different E211.

A few months back, the menu from of a local Chinese takeaway caught my eye. Apart from the lengthy questionnaire, which customers could complete to receive £2 off (pretty smart way of gathering customer data for a non-chain takeaway), the menu also made numerous claims that all products were absolutely free of additives, including the ubiquitous Monosodium glutamate (MSG) and colourings. This is a good thing, the menu claimed, because additives cause ADHD in children.

My initial reaction was to silently promise myself never to order from that take-away, just as I wouldn’t buy my aspirin in a pharmacy that sells magnet bracelets (although this is a hard rule to follow in the UK, where homeopaths are funded by the NHS), or books from the Christian Science Reading Room. However, it turns out these guys weren’t far off the mark, as a recent study from The Lancet shows (by the way and for the record, this is apparently by no means the first study to report this).

McCann et al (2007) recruited two groups of kids (ages 4 and 8-9), who received two additive cocktails and placebo in different sequences, all disguised in juice. While the exact makeup of the mixes varied, both featured Sodium benzoate (aka, e211). For reference, the contents of one of these mixes was about equivalent to the food colouring present in 2 56-gram packets of sweet for the 3-year-olds, so the doses were not far outside of what a kid might consume on a daily basis.

Using a range of behavioural and peer-rating measures, McCan et al were able to show that on the whole, one of the mixes was associated with increased hyperactive behaviour in the three-year-olds, while both mixes were associated with increase hyperactive behaviour in the 8-9-year-olds. So keeping your kids away from food colouring may not be such a bad idea, after all.

I think this is a beautiful finding, because it’s just the sort of result that I would dismiss as spurious, had it been obtained by an association study, e.g., “hyperactive kids consume more additives than non-hyper kids” (a topic I touched upon recently). It is quite easy to suppose that, for instance, hyperactive kids like sweet, sugary foods with lots of additives better than others, but apparently that isn’t the whole story. This is a prime example of the power of the randomised, double-blind control trial in ruling out alternative accounts.

So either the Chinese takeaway is lucky enough that a belief they held for the wrong reason happens to be true, or someone on staff reads medical journals. I know where to get my Sichuan chicken next time, anyhow.

McCann, D., Barrett, A., Cooper, A., Crumpler, D., Dalen L., Grimshaw, K.,Kitchin E., Lok, K., Porteous, L., Prince E., Sonuga-Barke E., Warner, J.O., and Stevenson, J. (In Press – don’t you hate how medics always squeeze in half the department as authors? It’s almost as bad as the human genome project publications. Anyhow, back to the reference). Food additives and hyperactive behaviour in 3-year-old and 8/9-year-old children in the community: a randomised, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. The Lancet.


GlaxoSmithKline is having a bad week… January 29, 2007

Posted by Johan in Psychopharmacology, Rants.
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The headline at BBC is “Drug Company Hid Suicide Link“, which ranks somewhere close to “our CEO’s real last name is Mengele” in the hall of fame of bad news for pharmaceutical companies. In short, the story uncovered by BBC’s Panorama, which aired just minutes ago here in the UK, deals with a rather untidy web of deception and spin instigated by GlaxoSmithKline to promote their antidepressant Seroxat. While the drug was only FDA approved for use in adults, clinical trials showing potentially suicidal effects in teenage users were suppressed, or spun.

The unusual bit is that as part of a large lawsuit against GlaxoSmithKline, a large amount of documents have been made public, which was the basis of the Panorama documentary. Perhaps most disturbing from an academic standpoint, two rather reputable researchers in Psychiatry, Neal Ryan and Martin Keller, were exposed as having essentially rubber-stamped articles they hadn’t written, and then getting them published with themself as lead author. While no one has been under illusions about the shady nature of clinical trials and the incentives involved in coming to the “right” conclusions in that line of research, rarely has something like this been brought out into the open before.

Still, it’s a tricky business, treating depressed teenagers. It’s perhaps a fine line between a drug that causes someone to become suicidal, or merely fails to stop that person from going through with what they would have done anyway. The Panorama documentary occasionally swayed to the side of sad case studies, which makes for good TV, but poor evidence. It’s not exactly a surprise that bereaved mothers will look for a reason, any reason, or that teenagers on antidepressants will sometimes kill themselves.

To me, the most offensive part of the whole affair isn’t the spin by GlaxoSmithKline. They’re a business, that’s to be expexted. What bothers me is that some fairly reputable academics apparently rent out their names rather indiscriminately.

Drugs and Neurotransmitters January 29, 2007

Posted by Johan in Neuroscience, Psychopharmacology.
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Omnibrain has a post linking to a flash demo on the way various drugs affect neurotransmitter function in the brain: Mouse Party.

Yes, it features mice on drugs. Animated mice on drugs. It’s a little hard to believe that this was actually made at a University, but there you go. As someone who grew up in a time when science education equalled 20-year-old reel-to-reels made by Solfilm (anyone who went to primary school in Sweden will know what I’m talking about), this stuff is pretty impressive.

If you like Mouse Party, check out a more technical flash demo of neurotransmitter functioning and drug use.