media and anecdotes vs. science and critical thinking

June 24, 2007

Yesterday I went to the Chattanooga aquarium almost all day, and it was awesome. When I got home I was too tired to think straight, and briefly posted something on psych meds and creativity that was inaccurate – oops. It may make another appearance later on. In the meantime, here’s something more off-the-cuff.

First, the media and anecdotes:

People with serious mental illness have problems using glucose efficiently in the brain

Okay, I find this completely fascinating and intuitively plausible. When I was around twelve – the first time I remember having mood problems, although probably not the first time I started having them – I started eating sugar excessively. Not just at dessert, but during the day. I’d take powdered sugar from the cabinet and put it in a tupperware and hide it in a drawer in my room and eat it straight. Among other things. I felt awful about it, but just stopping never seemed to work, even though I tried frequently. (If you can get addicted to video games, why not a substance that has immediate lifting effects on mood and energy, followed by a crash?)

When I was seventeen and working in a bookstore, I ran into a book with the badly-chosen title “Potatoes Not Prozac” which argued that sugar could be addictive, that it was related to alcoholism (I have alcoholism running on both sides of my extended family, and there’s a plausible evolutionary argument related to this I’ll share some other time), and that you could go off of it and get a drastic improvement in mental and physical health through a diet that can be summed up as sufficient protein and whole grains (similar to what later became very popular as the South Beach diet). This worked very well for me; it was like suddenly getting a stable personality, and was very similar to the first time I went on an antidepressant. Neither of those effects lasted, but they were amazing and gave me hope that life didn’t have to be the way it was most of the time.

Interestingly enough, when I’m stable on medication I can have a relationship with sugar that’s about what regular people have – it’s nice sometimes but I can drop it without a problem (unless I start eating dessert more than occasionally; I still have to watch for that).

Further anecdotal information: When I mention to psychiatrists that sugar affects my mood, they’re never surprised, although I don’t think any psychiatrist has ever suggested this as a factor up front. It’s pretty common in the patient literature, though.

So that’s the media and the anecdotes. Here’s some stuff to notice about the article (and the anecdotes):

1. There’s no mention of a published article. If it had been published, that would have almost certainly have been mentioned. That strongly suggests that this research has not been peer reviewed. (The list of articles on the lab’s website does not appear to refer to the research mentioned in the article. There’s something about glutamatergic dysfunction in schizophrenia that may be a precursor to this work.)

2. This is the only reference to that research I can find on google news or on google. I don’t have a way to cross-check the accuracy of the reporter’s take on what’s going on (I’ve seen enough errors in science reporting that I don’t want to trust an individual article, and this one appears to confuse “inefficient glucose processing” with “not enough glucose” and “lack of sugar” with “not enough glucose in the brain”).

3. I’m telling this anecdote where I’m linking my own personal screwed-up relationship with sugar to this brain glutamate thing, but I’m not sure they’re even related. I’m not sure what the relationship between ingested sugar and glucose in the brain is, but I doubt it’s all that straightforward, and anyway the article is suggesting it’s lack of sugar that’s the problem, right? And I actually felt better when I stopped, even though there was probably a reason I was eating it to begin with. (I’m pretty sure the “lack of sugar” thing doesn’t actually mean “go eat more sugar, it’ll make you feel better”, though, even if it’s possible to take that away from the article.)

4. Anecdotes aren’t data. Lots of anecdotes collected in a careful, systematic way using random sampling are data, but my telling you this stuff off the cuff isn’t data. I could be wrong about a connection between my craving sugar and my mood problems. I’ve been flat-out wrong about myself before – I thought some major issues I have following lectures and other extended verbal information would turn out to be due to an auditory processing problem, but they turned out to be due to ADD and disappeared with stimulants. (This is what we have highly trained medical professionals for – to save us from some of our best guesses.)

So what does this mean? Well, it doesn’t mean the researcher’s conclusions are incorrect. The article has some problems, like the “lack of sugar” bit giving the false impression that not getting enough sugar in diet = lack of glucose in brain, and that in turn giving the impression that the problem is lack of glucose in the brain when the research appears to implicate inefficient glucose processing.
But it doesn’t mean they’ve hit the status of widely accepted fact. It’s more of a back pocket kind of finding – very interesting, tuck it away, pull it out again later when you hear more – like another article mentioning a publication (or a publication itself), or another researcher’s work.