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New Year’s Resolutions: How To Keep Them Alive

(anomalily/Compfight)

(anomalily/Compfight)

By Jessica Alpert

You know the drill. Lose weight. Save more money. Keep in better touch. Or as one of my Facebook friends recently announced “make a new piece of clothing every month.”

I hate the gym in January since it’s crowded to the gills with exercise hopefuls.  By February, the regulars reign again and the wait for the treadmill is nonexistent.

A study published in the Journal of Clinical Psychology from researchers at the University of Scranton found that 45 percent of us made New Year’s Resolutions in 2014–and almost 90 percent of us failed at keeping them.

Maybe not a huge surprise but what can we do to maintain those good intentions?

Dr. Philip Levendusky, Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Psychology Department at McLean Hospital, recently shared some tips.

First, is change even necessary?  Do you already work out three days a week and now you’re promising to do six? It’s a worthwhile goal but acknowledge what you already do. “We don’t always have to be striving for perfection or feel like we’re a work in progress,” Levendusky writes.

Next, remember that small changes can make a big impact.  Do you want to be a better partner? Instead of creating a list of 10 promises, start with something actionable and attainable–like being a better listener during dinner.  According to Levendusky, “building goals that can have an immediate and positive response,” may actually help keep you on track beyond the month of January.

Continue reading

Mystery Author Cornwell Funds $500K Brain Research On Medical Pot At McLean

The administration building at McLean Hospital (Wikimedia Commons)

The administration building at McLean Hospital (Wikimedia Commons)

This just in from McLean Hospital, the Harvard-affiliated psychiatric hospital known as a major center for research on mental health:

Belmont, Mass. – Thanks to a $500,000 gift from international best-selling author and mental health advocate Patricia Cornwell, McLean Hospital and Harvard Medical School researchers will launch a landmark new program that will more fully explore the potential impact of medical marijuana on cognition, brain structure and function. This first-of-its-kind program, known as the Marijuana Investigations for Neuroscientific Discovery (MIND) Program, will also gauge study participants’ perceptions of their own quality of life as it relates to medical marijuana treatment.

“We are seeing the country’s view on marijuana shift dramatically and now is the time to allow science to inform our policies and our decisions,” said Cornwell, who is a member of McLean Hospital’s National Council and was presented with the hospital’s highest honor in 2012 for her mental health advocacy. “The MIND Program has the potential to revolutionize what we know about medical marijuana and what we think we know.” Continue reading

Start-Up Develops McLean Anti-Depression Device


Don’t you love those classic science stories of stumbling into discovery? Like penicillin saving millions of lives because Alexander Fleming left dirty dishes out when he went off on summer vacation and they got moldy? That kind of thing?

Today brings news of a development in a local stumbling-onto-science story: The discovery a decade ago at McLean Hospital that certain brain scans had the power to lift the moods of patients with bipolar disorder.

I wrote about it for the Globe in 2004, when McLean announced the discovery. Darn, it’s annoying when you can’t read your own stories without paying an archive fee. Here’s my lead: McLean Hospital researchers have stumbled upon a possible new treatment for depression, finding that performing a novel type of brain scan on bipolar patients can quickly and significantly lift a patient’s mood, apparently because the scanner’s unusual magnetic fields affect the electrical workings of their brains.

Now, the excellent site Xconomy reports in the Globe here:

Last week, the company Tal Medical started up in Boston with the goal of developing a new approach to treating depression, inspired by a magnetic field found in some MRI machines.

The treatment, developed at McLean Hospital in Belmont, was promising enough to win backing from PureTech Ventures of Boston and to attract talent like Steven Paul, a former Eli Lilly executive who will be chief scientific officer.

PureTech and individuals invested $800,000, says Daphne Zohar, PureTech’s managing partner.

The full Xconomy report is here, including:

Tal, which means “rhythm” in Hindi, was born from an accidental discovery. Ten years ago, McLean was participating in a study of patients with bipolar disorder that involved imaging their brains with MRI machines. “The person doing the study noticed the patients were looking at her in the eye—they weren’t looking at their shoes—and they were being more interactive when they came out of the machine,” Bermingham says. The bottom line, he says, was their moods were greatly improved after just a short time in the MRI machine. “This happened again and again.”

Mother’s Loving Care For Dying Daughter Included Psychedelic Drugs


When her beloved 33-year-old daughter was dying of cancer in excruciating pain, Marilyn Howell did everything she could to help her. She nursed her; she explored every possible treatment option with her; and when all hope was gone, she crossed the line of legality and got her psychedelic drugs.

The drugs helped. As Marilyn describes in her new book, “Honor Thy Daughter,” her daughter Mara’s carefully supervised sessions with Ecstasy allowed her “one more experience without pain, one more chance to love life.” Psychedelic therapy — Ecstasy, LSD, mushrooms, added to marijuana — also seemed to help Mara reach acceptance of her own impending death.

When Marilyn first went public with her story in The Boston Globe in 2006, the year after Mara died, in an article headlined “A Good Death,” she was still teaching in the Brookline schools and decided to remain anonymous.

But now she has retired, and is open about her identity in order to help spread her message. Listen here to her recent appearance on WBUR’s Radio Boston.

Author Marilyn Howell

“One of the things I want people to know is that you don’t have to choose between being in pain or being asleep” near death, she said. And, “I want them to know that research is starting up again and the most difficult challenge for researchers is getting subjects. The study I tried to sign my daughter up for five years ago closed up. There’s so much bias and prejudice among regular doctors — but it’s beginning to shift.”

Indeed, a trickle of research has gone on for years, including at Harvard’s McLean Hospital in Belmont, which has been running a small study on MDMA — Ecstasy — in end-stage cancer patients.

The splashiest recent finding came out last year, when a South Carolina psychiatrist reported in The Journal of Psychopharmacology that in a small but carefully run study of people with treatment-resistant Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, MDMA had brought dramatic improvement.

The research remains controversial. Federal drug-control authorities caution that findings of beneficial effects from drugs like Ecstasy — which is famous for its use during all-night raves and is known to be potentially addictive and bad for the brain — could encourage broader abuse.

And though psychedelic drugs have a long and fascinating history of experimental use by therapists, they also became somewhat tainted by association with the wild Timothy Leary “Tune in, turn on, drop out” gang of the 1960s.

These days, however, a new factor may help psychedelic research regain favor: In recent years, support for the medicinal use of marijuana has spread widely, to the point that it’s now legal in 16 states. The stories that tended to circulate a few years ago, of loving relatives who scored pot to bake magic brownies for their otherwise straight-as-an-arrow elders with cancer-related nausea, now seem almost quaint.

Is it such a leap to Ecstasy? When I spoke to Marilyn Howell, I complained to her that she had raised the bar for people who love dying patients. Continue reading

The Bin Laden Photos: A Demand For Visual Proof

Update: White House Says It Won’t Release Bin Laden Death Photos

A neighbor stopped by earlier today and asked me if I believed Bin Laden was dead.

Of course, I said. Yes.

She said: “I don’t believe it. I want to see pictures.”

Then I went on line and saw this Boston Globe survey that found more than 65 percent of respondents said, “it is critical to see visual evidence of his death” compared to 34.5 percent who preferred no photos, which would likely be “gruesome and offensive.”

A survey shows most people want to see the Bin Laden death photos

NPR reports that the U.S. is now considering whether to release the death photos of Bin Laden. They quote John Brennan, the president’s top adviser on homeland security, who said the government may indeed go public with the pictures, which show Bin Laden with “a kill shot above his left eye.” But, Brennan added: “There is not a question at this point, I think, in anybody’s mind that bin Laden is dead.”

Well that’s clearly not true, if my neighbor is any indication.

A subset of people do need visual proof, and will only feel closure when they get it, says McLean Hospital psychologist Jennifer Taylor, a New Yorker who served as a volunteer providing emotional support to survivors at Ground Zero for several months after the 9/11 attacks. But for others, she said, no amount of physical evidence or visual proof will ever be enough.

“Think of all the people who didn’t believe Kennedy was dead,” Taylor said. “Its very easy to come up with a conspiracy theory, and for those people, no level of proof would be acceptable. They could have been in the room in Pakistan, and seen him get killed, and they’d still say, “How do I know it was Bin Laden?”

Beyond the conspiracy buffs, Taylor says, the reality of modern life is that “once the government says there are pictures or there’s video, people will demand to see it.”

And it’s not necessarily a sign of deep distrust of government, she says. It’s more a yearning for transparency, the feeling that: “if you have it, why can’t we see it?”

What do you think? Does the government have an obligation to release the photos? Would it change your feelings about the demise of Bin Laden? Or do we not need any more gruesome images in the news?

Marathon Morning: Running For Schizophrenia As Federal Funds Dwindle

Dr. Robert Laitman forgot to wear his special marathon watch this morning. But that, he says, is just another reflection of how this, his thirteenth Boston Marathon, is different: This year, what matters is not his time, but the money he hopes to raise for a schizophrenia genetics lab at McLean Hospital, to help fill gaping gaps in its research budget as federal funds dry up. Rob is running as part of “Team Daniel,” named for his son, Daniel, who has schizophrenia. The broader story: Federal budget cuts imperil critical research, including on schizophrenia, which affects 1% of the population. In case you missed our full post on Friday, please read it here.

Running To Support Schizophrenia Research As Federal Funds Dry Up

Team Daniel: Dr. Robert Laitman, second from left, and his son, Daniel, in glasses, at a recent half-marathon. Flanking them are Daniel's cousin Joey and sister Hannah.

When Dr. Robert Laitman lopes by in Monday’s Boston Marathon, the guy in bib #6149, you could see him as just another runner with a cause, a father hoping to help his schizophrenic son. He’ll be raising money for the schizophrenia genetics work at McLean Hospital’s Psychology Research Lab, in hopes it will help his son, Daniel, and many others.

But you could also see Rob Laitman’s 26.2 miles as reflecting something far broader: the federal funding crunch that is hurting even some of the best-established laboratories across the nation.

Massachusetts, with its august academic institutions, has long received more National Institutes of Health money for biomedical research than any other state. And Harvard’s McLean Hospital is a psychiatric research powerhouse. Its program totals about $40 million a year, three-quarters of it from federal grants. That’s more than any other private psychiatric hospital in the world.

But no one is immune. Consider Rob Laitman’s marathon fundraising letter. It begins:

“I am writing to ask you to help a very dear friend and colleague. Apparently after 20 years of being funded, Deborah Levy’s last grant application for her lab was not accepted. She is presently trying to find funding from other avenues and is also reapplying to the NIH. Deborah does critical work in basic schizophrenia genetics. She has been making continuous headway and in fact just contributed to a seminal article that was published in Nature. As director of the Psychology Research Laboratory at McLean Hospital, (Harvard’s Psychiatric Division), she has been universally loved and respected.”

The Psychology Research Lab has been funded since 1978, largely by federal grants as well as private grants and McLean money. It has gathered a priceless pool of families with multiple members who have schizophrenia or other mental illnesses, and has helped pioneer efforts to find important risk genes.

But in this funding climate, there are no guarantees. I asked Dr. Thomas Lehner, director of the Office of Genomics Research Coordination at the National Institute of Mental Health, about the lab’s plight. He could not comment directly on any specific grant, but said, “That’s not the only outstanding lab that finds itself in that position, and it’s unfortunate.”

I asked what he was hearing from labs around the country. “I hear a lot of pain,” he said, “and a lot of concern that good science is just not being funded. I hear that labs are closing. I hear that budgets are insufficient. That has always been a concern, but it’s more pronounced now. And I share the pain of the investigators.”

The news could be even worse, of course. Some in Congress had proposed slashing the National Institutes of Health’s budget by $1.6 billion this year, but the latest budget deal cuts it by only about $300 million. Still, those cuts come on the heels of years of flat or declining budgets. Thomas Insel, chief of the National Institute of Mental Health, wrote on his blog last month that to scientists, these tight times “may feel like a funding desert.”

Please indulge me in a brief rant. Continue reading

Stoners Dumber If They Start On Pot Younger, Small Study Finds


Or as Harvard’s McLean Hospital puts it, marijuana users show greater cognitive deficits if they start smoking at a younger age. McLean researcher Staci A. Gruber is presenting those findings today at the huge Society for Neuroscience annual meeting in San Diego — and she’ll be featured today on Radio Boston’s 3 p.m. show. (Call in! If you can focus long enough to remember your question, that is…)

Dr. Gruber and her team found that on tests of “executive function” — higher-order brain skills that include planning and carrying out mental tasks — pot-users who started smoking before age 16 made twice as many mistakes as those who started later.

They also found that users who started younger tended to smoke far more than the later starters — three times as much pot, and twice as often — and that their brains “lit up” differently in the scanner, suggesting significant neural change.

This from McLean:

“We have to be clear about getting the message out that marijuana isn’t really a benign substance,” [Dr. Gruber] said. “It has a direct effect on executive function. The earlier you begin using it, and the more you use of it, the more significant that effect.”

The study included 33 chronic marijuana smokers and 26 control subjects who did not smoke marijuana. They were given a battery of neurocognitive tests assessing executive function, including the Wisconsin Card Sorting Test, which involves sorting different cards based on a set of rules given. During the test, the rules are changed without warning and subjects must adjust their responses to the new rules. Continue reading