How to Fight the Trump Agenda, Part 1

resist-trump1Happy President’s Day!

At least it should be…

Sadly, the history of the Office has already been cheapened by the antics of one Donald J. Trump (and the white supremacists that whisper in his ear). As expected, the Trump White House is already embroiled in turmoil and scandal. But don’t think that he’ll being getting impeached anytime soon. Our Democracy is a fragile thing and on today, I hope we all reflect on the need to be as vigilant and as engaged as ever if the authoritarian Trump agenda is to be thwarted.

Though a common line of thinking I get from people, there’s nothing I can I do so why should I care?

True, there’s nothing you can do to prevent Trump from signing an Executive Order but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing you can do. It’s important to remember we’re still in a country that operates under the rule of law, whether Trump likes it or not (the judicial actions against Trump’s Muslim Ban should be proof of this).  The President is powerful but limited in his powers. Congress still makes the laws.

And that’s where “We the People” come in. We can engage with government both at the local and Federal level. Remember, the First Amendment to the Constitution states:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

You’re probably familiar with most parts of this but people always forget about that last bit. You have a RIGHT to hold your Member(s) of Congress (MoC) accountable! People say they have no voice…actually you do! But this voice is most effective when many, many other voices are joined together. Ultimately a MoC only has their job because of PEOPLE’S VOTES. If they get enough complaints from people and fear they might lose re-election, I guarantee they will listen!

This is exactly what happened with the Tea Party. A group of angry and extremely vocal conservatives hammered their representatives often and in a coordinated way in order to affect changes in their MoC’s positions and votes. We as rational-minded folks opposed to Trump’s Authoritarian agenda of hate can accomplish something if we borrow from the Tea Party playbook. But unlike the Tea Party, we don’t have to resort to intimidation, physical threats, and lies. The Facts are on our side so let’s use them!

I know it seems like your voice and your vote doesn’t matter but trust me, YOU ARE WRONG! Congress only exists because of VOTES and VOTES = PEOPLE! A representative or senator will change their vote if there are ENOUGH PEOPLE TO CONVINCE THEM TO!

I admit, I’m new to this type of action but thankfully there are so many committed and intelligent activists out there. It’s good to remember that we live in a country with such dedication and political engagement (at least some of us). Nothing compiled here I created myself but thanks to the hard work of many others, I am happy to share their accomplishments (I’ll also be re-posting updates and expansions to this in the future).

Some of the Actions you as an individual can take:

  1. Call your Congressperson or Senator
  2. Voice your opinion at a Town Hall
  3. Join a March or Protest
  4. Huddle with other like-minded folks and figure out how to coordinate actions/protests together.
  5. Write an op-ed, letter to your MoC, or take to Social Media.

I’ll discuss some of these other options in future blog posts for now I’ll focus on one of the easier and more effective ones: Call you MoC! As I stated above, the Constitution guarantees your right to call and visit your Congressperson and Senator!

Here’s a fact sheet with tips/tricks on:

How to Effectively Call Congress

A colleague, Reba Bandyopadhyay, compiled this amazing list of tips.

Just to reiterate some of the main points from Reba’s tip sheet:

  • Know if your issue is handled at the Local, State, or Federal level.

You’ll get more bang-for-your-buck if the person you’re calling actually deals with your issue. Your state representative is likely to have more of an impact on issues specific to your state than your senator. (the exception to this is simply to register an ideological position on an issue).

  • Important: only call a MoC from your district or state!

If your MoC doesn’t have to worry about your vote, then he/she won’t care about your opinion.

  • You’ll probably be speaking to a staffer and not the actual representative.

The call will be very brief, probably no more than a minute. It’s OK to use a script but not necessary. Congressional offices are busy so be polite and be concise!

  • First, state your name, what you do, and where you live.
  • Have a specific “ask”. For example, please vote yes/no on bill X or please vote no on the confirmation of person Y.
  • You don’t need to be an expert on the piece of legislation that you are calling about.

Don’t worry about being quizzed about your position. The point of the call is for     them to list to you!

  • Don’t be intimidated if your MoC has a different position than you.

In fact, that’s the point: make your voice heard!

  • Calls don’t have to be negative. If your MoC, is doing a great job and voting the right way, let them know it!

A MoC can use support from their constituents to help make the case to their colleagues as well!

Of course, as I stated above, a single call probably won’t do anything but 1,000’s might. Below are some other resources you can use to find activist groups in your area, get more info on actions you can take, and even get suggestions for specific actions to take and when to take them.

The Indivisible Guide

This thing is pretty incredible. This guide was compiled by former Congressional staffers and provides realistic strategies for opposing the Trump agenda. Kudos to these folks for compiling this awesome and concise document! I highly recommend reading, internalizing, and distributing! Those also send out “Calls to Action” to keep people working together and on task.

The Women’s March: 10 Actions/100 Days

Regardless of whether you marched or not, the Women’s March official website makes it easy to get involved with 10 actions in 100 days. Join local groups and get involved with other like-minded activists!

The 65

This site is similar to Indivisible and The Women’s March in that is provides a calendar with weekly actions you can take. Great way to have important issues highlighted and good way to stay motivated. But also do your own research and support the issues that matter most to you!

This comic offers some tips for those with social anxiety or just nervous about cold calling their MoC.

Ok, get to it! Stay tuned for other tips sheets for resisting the Orange Man.

5 Facts on the Opioid Epidemic: National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week

Spilled prescription medication --- Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis
Spilled prescription medication — Image by © Mark Weiss/Corbis

Well, I’m a little late to the punch on this one but National Drug and Alcohol Facts week has been going and ends tonight. This public awareness campaign is now in it’s seventh year and is all about shattering the myths about addiction.ndafw_logoI might as well throw my belated hat in the ring and share 5 facts about the opioid epidemic.

Fact #1: The opioid epidemic in the U.S. has hit all demographic groups, regardless of race, gender, age, location, or socioeconomic status.

Fact #2: Prescription opioid pain medications like oxycodone can be just as addictive as heroin, even if taken as prescribed.

Fact #3: There is no scientific evidence that prescription opioids are effective at managing chronic pain; they are extremely effect for short-term, acute pain.

Naloxone_(1)Fact #4: Naloxone is a drug that counters the effects of opioids and can immediately reverse an overdose; you cannot get addicted to naloxone.

Fact #5: Buprenorphine and methadone are opioids that can help a person to fight their heroin addiction by satisfying their craving for the drug.

To learn more, here’s a short “Best of” from Dr. Simon Says Science on the Opioid Epidemic. Check out the posts below for oodles of info on opioids.

  1. What is naloxone? Should it be available over the counter?
  2. The CDC Fights Back Against the Opioid Epidemic
  3. Is Methadone an Effective Treatment for Heroin Addiction? YES!
  4. Morphine and Oxycodone Affect the Brain Differently
  5. Important: CDC Releases Report on Heroin Epidemic
  6. Methadone Maintenance Therapy Works-End of Story
  7. Paper Review-Initiation into Injection Drug Use and Prescription Opioids
  8. New Review Paper-The Prescription Opioid and Heroin Epidemic

 

The Science of Sexual Orientation

(from psychologicalscience.org)
(from psychologicalscience.org)

Happy New Year!

I figure I’ll kick things off with something a little different than my usual science of addiction posts.

My new job deals with supporting LGBT rights in the developing world and there’s a lot of work be done! In fact, as of June 2016, 77 countries or territories criminalize homosexuality and 13 countries or territories penalize homosexual behavior by death. But why is this? Why is someone who is attracted to and has sex with someone of the same sex so controversial in so much of the world? Well..I’m not about to begin to answer that question because I’ll be writing all week (hint, hint: religion is a huge factor).

Instead, I’ll present some of the key findings from a relatively new (April 2016) review article about the science of sexual orientation by JM Bailey and colleagues in the journal Psychological Science in the Public Interest. This is by far one of the most comprehensive and most even handed review articles written on the subject. The authors take an extremely academic approach because let’s face, the science surrounding sexual orientation has been used and abused by both pro- and anti- gay rights folks. (note: this article does not really discuss with transgenderism or gender identity issues)

This article is too long to go into all the details so instead I’m just going to present the main highlights that I prepared for a research report a few months back. Enjoy!

Download the article here. It’s Open Access!

jm-bailey-et-al-2016

Brief Summary:

Political controversies pertaining to the acceptance of non-heterosexual (lesbian, gay, bisexual) orientation often overlap with controversies surrounding the science of sexual orientation. In an attempt to clarify the erroneous use of scientific information from both sides of the debate, this article 1) provides a comprehensive review of the current science of sexual orientation, and 2) considers the relevance of scientific findings to political discussions on sexual orientation.

Top Takeaways from the Review:

  • The scientific evidence strongly supports non-social versus social causes of sexual orientation.
  • The science of sexual orientation is often poorly used in political debates but scientific evidence can be relevant to specific, limited number of issues that may have political consequences.
(wikimedia.org)
(wikimedia.org)

The scientific evidence strongly supports non-social versus social causes of sexual orientation (nature vs nurture).

Prevalence of non-heterosexual orientation (analysis of 9 large studies): 5% of U.S. adults.

Summary of the major, scientifically well-founded findings supporting non-social causes:

  • Gender non-conformity during childhood (before the onset of sexual attraction) strongly correlates with non-heterosexuality as an adult.
  • Occurrence of same-sex behavior has been documented in hundreds of species and regular occurrence of such behavior in a few species (mostly primates, sheep).
  • Reported differences in the structure of a specific brain region (SDN-POA) between heterosexual and homosexual men.
  • Hormone-induced changes in the SDN-POA during development in animal studies and subsequent altered adult sexual behavior (the organizational hypothesis).
  • Reports of males reared as females but who exhibit heterosexual attractions as adults.
  • Twin studies suggest only moderate genetic/heritable influence on sexual orientation.
  • Several reports identify a region on the X chromosome associated with homosexuality.
  • The most consistent finding is that homosexual men tend to have a greater number of biological older brothers than heterosexual men. (fraternal-birth-order effect)

The science of sexual orientation is often poorly used in political debates, but scientific evidence can be relevant to a specific, limited number of issues that may have political consequences.

The question of whether sexual orientation is a “choice” is logically and semantically confusing and cannot be scientifically proven. It should not be included in political discussions.

Examples of scientifically reasonable questions include:

  • Is sexual orientation determined by non-social (genetic/hormonal/etc.) or social causes? (nature vs nurture)
  • Is sexual orientation primarily determined by genetics or environment?

Specific cases in which scientific evidence can be used to inform political decisions:

  • The belief that homosexual people recruit others to homosexuality (recruitment hypothesis). This type of belief was espoused by by President Museveni of Uganda in 2014 and was used to justify Uganda’s notorious anti-homosexuality bill (since repealed).
    • No studies exist that provide any type of evidence in support of this hypothesis.
  • Proponents of conversion/reparative “therapies” argue that sexual orientation can be changed through conditioning and reinforcement.  Gov. and VP-elect Mike Pence  allegedly supported these types of bogus “therapies” in Indiana.
    • Studies reporting successful “conversion” suffer from methodological errors such as selection bias and/or unreliable self-report data and are therefore scientifically unfounded.
    • No evidence exists that a person’s sexual orientation can be changed at will.

 

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) Calls for an End to the “War on Drugs”

war-on-drugs-no

A recent editorial in the British Medial Journal (the BMJ) has called for an end to the “War on Drugs”, which costs about $100 Billion/year and has failed to prevent both drug use and drug proliferation.

The article points out how the “War on Drugs”, the term used to collectively describe the laws penalizing drug use, has had a wide-range of negative effects. For example, the US has the highest incarceration rate in the world and about half of those arrests are due to drug-related arrests.

The health effects have been drastic as well. Stigma against opioid replacement therapies like methadone has resulted in increased deaths due to opioid overdose in countries that limit access. Stigma and discrimination against addicts, as well of fear of punishment for for usage, often leads away from health care services to unsafe drug-use practices that can spread HIV and Hepatitis C, and other unintended poor-health outcomes.

Importantly, the editors call for rational, evidence-based, drug-specific approach to regulation and strong involvement of  the scientific and medical communities. Obviously, the risks of something like marijuana are much lower than for heroin but how will drug policy reflect this? Research is required to support any efforts in order to identify the best practices and strategies.

The editors point out that a recent article in the Lancet “concluded that governments should decriminalise minor drug offences, strengthen health and social sector approaches, move cautiously towards regulated drug markets where possible, and scientifically evaluate the outcomes to build pragmatic and rational policy.”

Above all, a change in drug policy must benefit human health and there will be no “one size fits all” approach. The road ahead is difficult but one thing is certain, the road that led us here is a dead end. The “War on Drugs” has failed; the call now is to develop a national and international drug policy that won’t.

The Fall

black-box

I always thought that I lived in a good country. Sure, America was never perfect but it was far from a horrible place to live. I thought people, for the most part, were generally decent. We may not always agree on the best course for the country, but respect for each other opinions and an open and honest discussion could always led to a compromise for the greater good. I thought people respected values like wisdom, knowledge, tolerance, decency, civility, inclusion, open-mindedness, desire to learn and improve ourselves and our country,  and a willingness to keep moving forward—hope—even in tough times, a common-belief that things only get better with time, that we are all working together towards a greater goal, a more perfect union.

After last night, I now know that none of those things are true.

It never once occurred to me that a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, bigoted, petulant, arrogant, chauvinistic, narcissistic, ill-tempered monster could even be running for the presidency, never mind have the remotest chance of winning it. How can this have happened? How is it that there are this many desperate, narrow-minded morons in this country? How can the people of this country have completely abandoned truth for racism and vague promises? I understand fear, I understand the sense of a loss of control over the present, I understand the sense of being left behind, but to abandon even the most basic commonsense, the most basic of our core values? That is something I do not understand.

I don’t know what’s going to happen next. No one does because this demagogue, this proto-tyrant, never actually spoke about policy. All we can do now is wait. But I am not hopeful. I am fearful.

Yesterday, I saw America abandon reason for conspiracy theories and emotionalism. Desperation has overcome the American tradition of tolerance and social progression. Independent thought and an embrace of the truth are dead.

Fear has Trumped hope.

It’s raining in DC today, as if the city itself is weeping in anticipation of the coming terror. I weep along with. I weep for the Fall of American Greatness.

The NIH Announces a Commitment to Research on LGBT Health

lgbt-med

Every person has a right to live a healthy life. One part of that vision is equal access to health care for all. But unsurprisingly, not everyone have the same ability to receive health care due to things like socioeconomic status, race, gender, or even sexual orientation. Indeed, LGBT people often have less access to health care than their non-LGBT counterparts, most often due to discrimination and stigma [1].

The Director of the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), announced “the formal designation of sexual and gender minorities (SGMs) as a health disparity population for NIH research.” Read the full announcement here.

What does this mean? That the NIH is officially recognizing that LGBT people have less access to health care and that improved research on LGBT-specific (defined here broadly as sexual and gender minorities) health issues is essential to improved health care.

The long-overdue announcement was supported by an important report released by the non-partisan National Academies of Science (NAS) in 2011. The report identified gaps in the research on the health of LGBT persons and made recommendations for improving this research that could benefit not just LGBT people, but the health care system overall.

LGBT individuals have unique health challenges that many doctors do not understand or address. For example, certain types of cancer seem to be more prevalent among gay men compared to straight men, which means different cancer screenings would be important for gay men [2].

The new designation by NIMHD will hopefully increase research and knowledge about the health challenges of LGBT people and will hopefully result in improved health care for all people, regardless of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

Selected References

  1. Hatzenbuehler ML, Bellatorre A, Lee Y, Finch BK, Muennig P, Fiscella K. Structural stigma and all-cause mortality in sexual minority populations. Social science & medicine. 2014;103:33-41. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.06.005.
  2. Quinn GP, Sanchez JA, Sutton SK, Vadaparampil ST, Nguyen GT, Green BL, et al. Cancer and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender/transsexual, and queer/questioning (LGBTQ) populations. CA: a cancer journal for clinicians. 2015;65(5):384-400. doi: 10.3322/caac.21288.

Rapping About Replication

science-scienceLast year, a paper came out in the journal Science that made waves in the scientific community and the public at large (it was even voted the #5 most publicly cited paper of 2015 by Altmetric).

replication-study

So why am I writing about a paper over a year old and one that has already received plenty of public attention? Well, because this paper is a huge deal. Why you may ask? One of the most important words in the entire scientific enterprise: Replication.

In brief, this study was done by the Open Science Collaboration (OSC), a massive consortium of hundreds of researchers. The OSC team attempted to replicate 100 research papers in the experimental psychology field. The scientists decided which studies were to be included in the analysis, shared methods and tools, and agreed on criteria for how they would critically evaluate the studies (in some cases, the original authors provided the original test materials).

Unfortunately, the results were not good. The authors found that 2/3 of the original findings could not be replicated with any degree of statistical confidence. When taken as group, the effect sizes of the 100 replication studies compared to the originals were only about half as a great. In other words, more than half of the 100 papers could not be replicated.

But what does this mean and why is it a big deal?

Science is all about uncovering “how stuff works” but at a far more fundamental level, what science really is, is a method or system to figure out “how stuff works” and “what causes what” and uncovering the underlying principles of nature, etc.

And how does a scientist know that why they discovered about how this or that works is actually real? Well, one way is for other scientists to run the same experiment. If they get the same result, then it’s a pretty good chance then the discovery is “real”.

One of the biggest challenges the scientific research field has been grappling with is this issue of replication and ability to replicate other people’s work. If what people are reporting in papers is real, then why are so many findings so difficult to replicate?

There’s about a million ways to answer that question but the simplest answer is that doing science is really, really hard. Even if you think you designed the perfect experiment, collected the best data you could, and analyzed it the best way you know how, you might have gotten something wrong. You might have forgotten to control for a variable that you never thought of or even more mundanely, you forgot to report some crucial detail that other scientists need to know but you have taken for granted.

The failure to replicate is NOT about making up results (though a few bad apples have done that) is about not having time and money to thoroughly consider the results of the field. Science has a way of weeding out ideas that just don’t hold water but it requires other scientists to delve into the work of their colleagues and try to expand on their initial colleagues.

And just to be clear, there’s plenty of outstanding work being done that has been replicated and is scientifically solid.

Regardless, scientists need to resolve how to solve this problem with replication.

As bad as it is can be in biology, it’s a whole lot worse for a “soft science” like psychology. Many psychological studies have either been discredited or shown to be outright frauds (one of the more sensational stories involved years of forged data by the psychologist Diederik Stapel).

Thankfully, the field as a whole is trying to acknowledge their past failings and improving the integrity of their discipline. It would be a huge step forward for other fields, such as in the biomedical research field, to also take on such an endeavor.

And in the end, this is why this paper is so ground breaking and worth talking about (again). The field acknowledged they had a problem, did a systematic analysis of all available studies, and tried to replicate which ones are good and which are bad.

But there’s one more layer to this too. There’s also no incentive to replicate findings either. The pressure to publish only “sexy” results and get the big research grant almost prohibits scientists from trying to replicate each others work.

As someone who has spent that last 10+ years in academic research labs, I’ve heard the concerns from friends and colleagues about how quickly they need to publish their results out of fear of being “scooped” by a competing lab working on the same topic. And I and anyone in the academic research knows the the near constant anxiety about how to come up with new exciting ideas for the big grant that your entire livelihood is dependent upon (maybe a little over-dramatic but seriously, only a little).

If a scientist is under pressure to publish a new finding as quickly as possible, sometimes mistakes are made or a critical control was overlooked on accident. One facet of the replication crisis may be this competitive drive between labs. In business, competing tech companies are pressured to release a product that may be cheaper or more appealing to the public. However, competition has the exact opposite effect in scientific research. Increased competition may actually hurt scientists. And of course, the root cause of competition to publish is competition for a limited pool of grant money, without which there would be no basic research at all.

The replication study is an important milestone and idealizes the self-correcting tradition of the scientific enterprise in general. Scientists are supposed to be the most critical of their own work and the community should be able to recognize if an initially exciting finding cannot be replicated.

With increased funding and reduced pressure to publish only “sexy” results in top-tier journals, perhaps the scientific community will turn away from competition and prestige and return to the spirit of openness, sharing, and collaboration. Maybe then the failure to replicate will become unable to be replicated.

Update: Changes to site, Cocaine review article

Good-bye NYC! (Photo © Derek Simon 2015)
Good-bye NYC!
(Photo © Derek Simon 2015)

Change is coming!

After a several month hiatus, I’m happy to be posting again!

I wanted to announce that I recently switched fields from basic neuroscience research to a fellowship position in the LGBTI Office at the US Agency for International Development (USAID)!

This means good-bye NYC and hello Washington DC! It also means that the scope, style, and range of topics I’ll write about will greatly expand beyond just drug addiction. I’m still figuring out those details….

But in the mean time:

Cocaine Addiction Review Article

About two years ago I wrote a review article for a new academic book about addiction. Finally, the book and the article have been published!

The book is Neuropathology of Drug Addictions and Substance Misuse. My article appears in Volume 2.

Feel free to download a pdf of my article for free!

PDF of Cocaine Review Article.

I first present an overview of the pathology and neurobiology of cocaine addiction and then discuss some of the research findings about changes that occur in the brain because of cocaine addiction.

A summary of key points discussed in the article:

  • Cocaine is a widely abused drug that has significant economic, medical, and social costs and no effective pharmacotherapeu­tic treatments.
  • Cocaine addiction progresses from initial use to repetitive cycles of heavy, short-term use (“binge” use), abstinence, and relapse.
  • Unlike other drugs of abuse (which only primarily affect DA release), cocaine’s mechanism of action consists of blocking the reuptake of all monoamine neurotransmitters (DA, 5HT, and NE) by antagonizing the monoamine transporters (DAT, SERT, and NET) thus leading to an accumulation of these neu­rotransmitters in the synapse of the mesolimbic reward path­way and other regions of the brain.
  • Genetic and environmental factors contribute to the suscepti­bility of an individual to becoming addicted to cocaine, and based on twin studies, it has been estimated that genetics may account for 30–60%, and as high as 78% of this susceptibility.
  • Acute cocaine use activates the HPA axis while chronic cocaine use sensitizes the HPA axis and blunts the stress response, which contributes to relapse behavior.
  • Accurate behavioral models used to study cocaine addiction, such as self-administration and the “binge” model, are useful because they attempt to recapitulate the human disease.
  • Cocaine use results in upregulation of dynorphin mRNA and protein and subsequent elevation of KOPR/dynorphin tone in the VTA/CPu/NAc circuit in virtually every behavioral model tested.
  • Modulation of the KOPR/dynorphin system may represent a viable pharmacotherapeutic target for treatment of cocaine addiction.

The Consequences of Childhood Abuse Last Until Adulthood: What are the Implications for Society?

(© Derek Simon 2015)
(© Derek Simon 2015)

One of the great questions in the addiction field is why do some people become full-blown addicts while other people can use drugs occasionally without progressing to anything more serious? One part the answer definitely has to do with the drug itself. For example, heroin causes a more intensely pleasurable high than cocaine and people that try heroin are more likely to become addicted to it than cocaine. But that’s not the whole story.

I’ve written previously about how a negative, stressful environment can have long-lasting negative impacts on the development of a child’s brain (also known as early-life stress of ELS). ELS such as childhood abuse (physical or sexual) and neglect can increase the risk for a whole host of problems as an adult such as depression, bipolar disorder, PTSD, and of course drug and alcohol abuse. There’s even a risk for more physical ailments like obesity, migraines, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and more.

Childhood abuse/neglect = psychological and physical problems as an adult.

Attitudes towards childhood development have certainly changed! Child coal miners ca. 1911 (wikipedia.org).
Attitudes towards childhood development have certainly changed! Child coal miners ca. 1911 (wikipedia.org).

This idea doesn’t sound too controversial but believe it or not, the idea that a bad or stressful situation as a child would do anything to you as an adult was laughed away as not possible. It’s only within the last decade or so that a wealth of research has supported this idea that ELS can physically change the brain and that these changes can last through the abused child’s entire life.

This recent review paper (published in the journal Neuron) is an excellent, albeit technical, summary of dozens research papers done on this subject and the underlying biology behind their findings.

Paradise lost childhood abuse review 2016 title

I especially love the quotes the author included at the beginning of the article:

Paradise lost childhood abuse review 2016 quotes

And even more recently, yet another research paper has come out that highlights how important childhood is for the development of the brain and how a stressful childhood environment can impact the function of a person as an adult.

Childhood abuse paper 2016

This most recent report, published in the journal Neuropscyhopharmacology concludes that early childhood abuse affects male and females differently. That is to say that the physical changes that occur in the brain are distinct for men and women who were abused as children.

Studies like this one are done by examining the brains of adults who were abused as kids and then comparing the activity or structure of different parts of the brain to the brains of adults who were not abused. The general technique of examining the structure or activity of the brain in a living human being is called neuroimaging and includes a range of techniques such as MRI, PET, fMRI, and others. (I’ve written about some of these techniques before. In fact, the development of better methods to image the brain is a huge are of research in the neuroscience field).

However, this study did not examine behavioral differences in the subjects, but as I said above, a great number of many other studies have looked at the psychological consequences of ELS. But this paper is really primarily interested in the gender differences in the brains of adults that have been abused as kids.

*Note: the following discussion is entirely my own and is not mentioned or alluded to by the author’s of this study at all.

This work—and the many studies that preceded it—has important implications because as a society, we have to realize that part of our personality/intelligence/character/etc. is determined by our genetics while the other part totally depends on the environment we are born into. I don’t want to extrapolate too much but the idea that childhood abuse can increase the risk of psychological problems as an adult also supports the broader notion that a great deal of a person’s success is determined by entirely random circumstances.

The_ACE_Pyramid
The Adverse Consequences Pyramid perfectly illustrates how ELS/abuse/neglect (the bottom of the pyramid) leads to much greater problems in later life. (wikimedia.org).

The science shows that a child born into a household rife with abuse will have more chance of suffering from a psychological problem (such as addiction) as an adult than someone who was born into a more stable life. The psychological problem could hurt that person’s ability to study in school or to hold down a job. And the tragic irony, of course, is that no child gets to choose the conditions under which they are born. A child, born completely without a choice of any kind over whether or not he or she will be abused, can still suffer the consequences of it (and blame for it) as an adult.

As a society, we often always blame a person’s failures as brought on by his or her own personal failings, but what if a person’s childhood plays an important role in why that person might have failed? How, as a society, do we incorporate this information into the idea of ourselves as having complete control over our minds and our destinies, when we very clearly do not? As an adult, how much of a person’s personality is really “their own problem” when research like this clearly show that ELS impacts a person well after the abuse has ended?

If the environment a child is born into has a tangible, physical effect on how the brain functions as an adult, than this problem is more than a social or an economic one: this is a matter of public health. Studies that support findings such as these provide empirical significance for public policy and public services for child care such as universal pre-K, increased availability of daycare, health insurance/medical access for children, increased and equitable funding for all public schools regardless of the economic situation of the district that school happens to be located in, etc.

One of our goals as a society (if indeed we believe ourselves to be a functioning society…the success of Donald Trump’s candidacy raises some serious doubts…but I digress) is the improvement of the lives of ALL of our citizens and securing the prosperity of the society for future generations. Reducing childhood poverty and abuse quite literally could help secure the future generations themselves and improve the ability of any child to grow up to become a successful and productive adult.

Public programs are essential because the unfortunate reality for many people born into poverty is that they must work all the time at low paying jobs in order to simply survive and may not be able to give their children all the advantages of a wealthier family. And this is where government and public policy step in, to correct the imbalances and unfairness inherent to the randomness of life and level the playing field for all peoples. Of course, the specific programs and policies to reduce childhood poverty and abuse would need to be evaluated empirically themselves to guarantee an important improvement in development of the brain and health of the child when he/she grows up.

And this is the real power of neuroscience and basic scientific research papers like this one. Research into how our brains operate in real-life situations reveal a side of our minds and our personalities that we never may have considered before and the huge implications this can have for society. The brain is a complex machine and just like other machines it can be broken.

Of course, we shouldn’t extrapolate too much and say that, for example, a drug addict who was abused as a child is not responsible for anything they’ve ever done in between. But is important to recognize all the mitigating factors at play in a person’s success and simply dismiss someone’s problems as “their own personal responsibility.” As a neuroscientist, I might argue that that phrase and the issues behind it are way more nuanced than the how certain politicians like to use it.

Special endnote Due to some recent shifts in my career, Dr. Simon Says Science will be expanding the content that I write about. Addiction and neuroscience will still be prominently featured but I plan to delve into a variety of other topics that I find interesting and sharing opinions that I think are important. I hope you will enjoy the changes! Thanks very much!

 

Tragedy in Orlando: A Call to End Gun Violence, Terror, and Homophobia.

Orlando imagePulse

Once again an American citizen (not an immigrant or refugee of any kind) has mass murdered other American citizens using a legally purchased weapon, a weapon that exists for no other reason than to be used to kill as many people as possible. The attack in Orlando is a confluence of so many problems in the US and world today: gun violence, homophobia, racism, religious extremism and Islamist terrorism. Sadly, there will be a portion of this country that won’t really care about these attacks because 1) they specifically targeted gay people and 2) minority men were primarily killed in the attacks. Narcissistic demagogues like Donald Trump will use the attacks to expand his racist rhetoric and hate speech in order to galvanize the furor of his supporters—he’ll profiteer from the loss of human life to boost his poll numbers (by the way, Trump was endorsed by the NRA so don’t expect any comments on gun control).

I could spend my time talking about how attacks like these are only possible because of the ease in which guns can be purchased in the United States but why? Supporters of stricter gun control already know these arguments while the people that need to hear them never will. But there’s another issue here.

The massacre in Orlando brought to national attention something that is common but unknown by many. Gay people are the victims of violence, hate and terror all over the world. Terrorist groups such as ISIS specifically target gay people and murder them in horrific ways. But it’s not just the Islamist philosophy that promotes homophobia. The silent victimization of gay people is promoted by religious extremism in all its forms. I’ll even go one step further and make the claim that homophobia’s ONLY proponent is archaic religious beliefs. All adult humans beings have a capacity for love and all adult human beings should be allowed to express their love however way they want without fear of reprisal or intimidation from bigots.

In this Pride month is important to remember the progress that has been made but the shadows of the past follow us no matter how far forward we march. The Nazi’s used the pink triangle to mark gay men in the same way the Star of David was used to mark Jews. That symbol has been reclaimed as reminder of how the horror of the past can motivate strength in the present.

Stay united in support for the victims of the Orlando attacks. Mourn their loss and celebrate their lives. But be angry too. Use that anger to fight for an end to gun violence, an end to Islamist and religious extremism, an end to homophobia and persecution of LGBT people around the world.