06/27/17

More Equal Therapies than Others, Part 1

© Allan Swart | 123rf.com

In the classic novella, Animal Farm, by George Orwell, the animals of Manor Farm revolted and drove the drunken and irresponsible farmer Mr. Jones from the farm. They renamed it “Animal Farm” and adopted the Seven Commandments of Animalism, the most important of which was the seventh: “All animals are equal.” Eventually the pigs cemented their role as the leaders of Animal Farm, and this commandment was modified to say: “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”  Barry Duncan adroitly applied this example of double-speak in his discussion of those who apply the medical model of “diagnosis plus prescriptive treatment equals symptom amelioration” to declare that some psychotherapies were more equal than others.

Two other articles, “The Dodo Bird Effect” and “Another Brick in the Wall” explored Duncan’s argument for the power of common factors in psychotherapy and the dodo bird effect, an alternate way of understanding the process of therapeutic change from the dominant medical model of therapeutic change described above. He developed this position in: “The Legacy of Saul Rosenzweig: The Profundity of the Dodo Bird” and a book he coauthored: The Heart & Soul of Change.” Here I want to explore how the Orwellian sense that some therapies are more or less equal than others runs wild in addiction treatment.

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) defined addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease” because drugs changed the brain—its structure and how it worked. Here is a short YouTube video of the Director of NIDA, Nora Volkow, discussing this view of addiction. This definition was purely a physiological, biomedical understanding of addiction. Philosophically, it also seems Volkow assumed there is no mind; that human traits like “free will” were products of the biology of the brain. Note where she said “free will” was a product of the biology of the brain.

As in medical practice, addiction treatments are quantified according to an evidence-base of effectiveness. Here, the buzzword is “evidence-based treatment.” NIDA has a listing of  “Evidence-Based Approaches to Drug Addiction Treatment,” which it categorized as “Pharmacotherapies” and “Behavioral Therapies.” The NIDA introduction said the section “presents examples of treatment approaches and components that have an evidence base supporting their use.” One of the behavioral therapies NIDA listed as “effective in addressing substance abuse,” was “12-Step Facilitation Therapy” (TSF).

This 12-Step-based treatment approach was developed by Joseph Nowinski, a clinical psychologist as part of the Project MATCH study into the effectiveness of three different perspectives on how to treat alcohol use disorders (then described as alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence in the DSM, the psychiatric Diagnostic and Statistical Manual). In his book, If You Work It, It Works!, Nowinski said many academic researchers were highly skeptical that TSF would work at all, as A.A. and the Twelve Step approach was poorly understood. “Many academic researchers inclined to think of it more as a cult or quasi-religion than a serious programmatic approach to recovery from addiction.”

The two other interventions, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and Motivational Enhancement Therapy (MET) had been extensively studied. But Twelve-Step interventions had not been the subject of significant, rigorous research. So Nowinski developed TSF, a psychosocial treatment manual based on engaging the individual in 12 Step support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.).

In 1997 published results from the MATCH Research Group showed that all three interventions (CBT, MET and TSF) were effective in reducing drinking and increasing abstinence after treatment. One year after completing treatment those who were in the outpatient section of MATCH were sober over 80% of the time. And TSF was found to be equally effective for individuals who had been diagnosed as an alcohol abuser rather than as alcohol dependent.

These findings were so unexpected that some long-standing critics of AA and its Twelve Step program went so far as to question whether the MATCH data were somehow falsified. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. The reality, rather, was what some skeptics could not abide: the idea that the Twelve Step approach works.

Nowinski said his goal in writing If You Work It, It Works was to make information on the effectiveness of Twelve Step recovery, now documented in academic journals, available to the general public. His goal was “to stand for the Twelve Step model in the face of long-standing and unchallenged criticism and skepticism, much of which is not based in fact.” Equally important, he hoped that people on the fence about going to an A.A. meeting “will benefit from learning about the science (as opposed to the myths) of Twelve Step recovery.”

Nowinski referred to a long-standing bias against the Twelve Step approach to recovery. He said it was regularly portrayed as a quasi-religious approach, and then rejected because it is not a structured treatment approach. Therefore it lacked a clear demonstration of its scientific, evidence-based effectiveness. If an addiction treatment approach, like TSF, used the 12 Steps or actively encouraged clients to participate in 12 Step groups like Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) or Narcotics Anonymous (N.A.), it was often judged to be “a less equal treatment” than others. An article by Laurel Sindewald for The Fix, “AA Is not Evidence-Based Treatment,” illustrates this bias.

The author said she had previously done a literature review that found insufficient evidence to support the use of 12-step groups as treatment, so she was surprised the Surgeon General included TSF as an evidence-based behavioral treatment for addiction in Facing Addiction in America. She admitted to a personal bias, which apparently was against the spirituality of 12-step groups and what she referred to as “12-step philosophy.” It seems that since TSF encouraged participation in 12-Step self-help groups, it was suspect as a “less equal” treatment approach, because it retained “ the spiritual emphasis of 12-step philosophy.” However, she would “set aside her bias” in her assessment of TSF, in order to give it a scientific, objective assessment. But that does not seem to have been the case.

Sindewald noted where the Surgeon General’s Report classified TSF as a “professional behavioral treatment,” but then immediately asked: “How could a professional medical treatment be based on a definition of addiction as a spiritual disease?” She stated (without any supportive citation) that Twelve-Step philosophy stipulated that addiction was a spiritual disease born of defects of character; and that 12-step groups were the only cure. She later compared Twelve-Step literature to religious literature like the Bible and the Qur’an and contrasted Twelve-Step philosophy with medical science. She gave an extended quote from the A.A. “Big Book” of Alcoholics Anonymous, which she said represented Twelve-Step philosophy saying it can never be wrong. Her bias against spiritual/religious philosophy was all through her critique.

The AA pamphlet “How AA Members Cooperate with Professionals,” stated that A.A. is not in competition with anyone. “Our ability to help other alcoholics is not based on scientific or professional expertise.” Unpacking principles articulated in AA’s Twelve Traditions, the pamphlet also said: “A.A. is not allied with any sect, denomination, politics, organization or institution; does not wish to engage in any controversy; neither endorses nor opposes any causes.” In his essay on Tradition Six in Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, Bill W. gave a brief history of early A.A.including attempts to institute A.A. hospitals and get involved in education. He noted where these activities raised confusion. “Did A.A. fix drunks or was it an educational project? Was A.A. spiritual or was it medical? Was it a reform movement?”

These adventures implanted a deep-rooted conviction that in no circumstances could we endorse any related enterprise, no matter how good. We of Alcoholics Anonymous could not be all things to all men, nor should we try.

In the same chapter of the A.A. Big Book, which Sindewald cited and linked, “How It Works,” there is a discussion of resentment being the “number one” offender, destroying more alcoholics than anything else. “From it stem all forms of spiritual disease, for we have been not only mentally and physically ill, we have been spiritually sick. When the spiritual malady is overcome, we straighten out mentally and physically.” So there is an understanding of alcoholism as a spiritual, mental and physical illness/disease.

Also in that chapter you will find the 12 Steps described as a suggested program of recovery. “The principles we have set down are guides to progress. We claim spiritual progress rather than spiritual progression.” So it seems that AA does not present itself as the only cure; nor does it describe alcoholism merely as “a spiritual disease born of defects of character.”

A clear distinction by the author between TSF, A.A., and rehab programs using the 12-Steps isn’t maintained in her critique. In her article for The Fix, she said she used “12-step approaches” to refer to all 12-step self help groups, all 12-step-based rehab programs and TSF. However, in another article she wrote previously for Handshake Media (linked as her literature review), she said: “TSF is distinct from AA and other 12-step support groups.” Yet in her conclusion for “AA Is not Evidence-Based Treatment” Sindewald said “after exhaustive research” she could assert with confidence that 12-step approaches—including TSF—were not evidence-based treatments. She called for the reallocation of funds away from these approaches to those “that can be studied rigorously and without such crippling methodological limitations.”

With regard to A.A .and other 12 Step groups, she was right when she said they were not treatment approaches to addiction recovery. A.A. is not developed as a treatment approach and doesn’t claim to be a treatment approach. The A.A. website said: “Alcoholics Anonymous is an international fellowship of men and women who have had a drinking problem.” It is also self consciously nonprofessional, stating in Tradition Eight, “Alcoholics Anonymous should remain nonprofessional.” As fellowship organizations, A.A. and other 12-Step self-help groups are not structured in ways that can be easily studied by researchers who want to assess their effectiveness within a structured medical model of therapeutic change.

But Twelve Step Facilitation is considered to be a treatment approach. According to the NIDA description of “12-Step Facilitation Therapy,” TSF is a manual-based, structured treatment approach. It is “designed to increase the likelihood of a substance abuser becoming affiliated with and actively involved in 12-step self-help groups, thereby promoting abstinence.” And TSF is listed by NIDA as an evidence-based treatment approach, the same organization, by the way, that Sindewald referenced as defining addiction as a brain disease. Apparently NIDA doesn’t agree with her that TSF is not an evidence-based treatment approach.

It seems Sindewald’s failure to acknowledge the difference of A.A. and other 12-Step groups from the various addiction treatment approaches that apply “Twelve-Step philosophy” was intentional. It sets up a straw man argument that illegitimately transfers a critique of the TSF treatment approach onto 12-Step groups. It also seems that Sindewald’s claim to have set aside her bias while she examined Twelve Step treatment philosophy and TSF was not true.

11/29/16

Marijuana & Adverse Health Effects

© David Castillo Dominici | 123rf.com

© David Castillo Dominici | 123rf.com

In the 2016 election there was another political milestone met besides the presidential election of Donald Trump—four more states voted to legalize recreational marijuana. California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada joined Alaska, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and the District of Columbia. However, the public use of marijuana—recreational or medical—is still not permitted anywhere. Arkansas, Florida and North Dakota approved medical marijuana initiatives and Montana loosened restrictions on an existing medical marijuana law. The executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance was quoted in The Washington Post as saying: “The end of marijuana prohibition nationally, and even internationally, is fast approaching.”

Given the election of Donald Trump and the international position on marijuana, this may be more optimism than reality. Within the U.S. there has been clear momentum towards legalization of some kind, as there are now eight states and the District of Columbia where recreational marijuana is legal; and 28 states and the District of Columbia where medical marijuana is permitted. However, because of the ongoing federal classification of marijuana as a Schedule I drug, reliable research into the benefits and adverse health effects from marijuana use is hard to come by. The public needs to be more aware of the scientific research into the potential adverse effects and medical benefits from marijuana as the U.S. continues to move toward a complicated, patchwork quilt of varied state laws and regulations regarding marijuana.

A good place to start is with an article written by the current director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), Dr. Nora Volkow and three others, “Adverse Health Effects of Marijuana Use.” Volkow et al. reviewed the current state of the scientific findings on the adverse health effects related to the recreational use of marijuana. Their review focused on the areas where the evidence was the strongest. In a table summarizing their confidence in the evidence for adverse effects of marijuana on health and wellbeing, they gave the following assessment of marijuana use, particularly with heavy or long-term use that starts in adolescence.

Effect

Overall Level of Confidence

Addiction to marijuana or other substances

High

Diminished lifetime achievement

High

Motor vehicle accidents

High

Symptoms of chronic bronchitis

High

Abnormal brain development

Medium

Progressive use of other drugs

Medium

Schizophrenia

Medium

Depression or anxiety

Medium

Lung cancer

Low

Long-term marijuana use can lead to addiction; there’s no real doubt. About 9% of those who experiment with marijuana will develop dependence, according to the criteria for dependence in the DSM-IV. This increases to one in six (16.7%) among those who started using marijuana as teens. Daily smokers have a 25% to 50% risk of developing an addiction to marijuana. There is also a cannabis withdrawal syndrome, with symptoms such as: irritability, sleep difficulties, dysphoria (a state of being unhappy or unwell), cravings, and anxiety.

Since the brain remains in a state of active development until around the age of 21, individuals under 21 who use marijuana are more vulnerable to adverse long-term effects from marijuana use. Adults who smoked marijuana regularly during adolescence have impaired neural connectivity (fewer fibers) in certain brain regions.

The impairments in brain connectivity associated with exposure to marijuana in adolescence are consistent with … findings indicating that the cannabinoid system plays a prominent role in synapse formation during brain development.

While regular use of marijuana is associated with anxiety and depression, causality has not been established. Marijuana is also regularly linked to psychosis, especially among people with a predisposition. Heavy marijuana use, greater drug potency, and exposure at a young age can all negatively effect the experience of psychosis or schizophrenia, accelerating the time of a first psychotic episode by 2 to 6 years.

Because marijuana use impairs critical cognitive functions during acute intoxication and for days after use, many students may be functioning below their natural capabilities for long periods of time. “The evidence suggests that such use results in measurable and long-lasting cognitive impairments, particularly among those who started to use marijuana in early adolescence.” A failure to learn at school, even for short or sporadic periods of time because of acute intoxication, will interfere with the capacity to achieve educational goals. This seems to explain the association between marijuana use and poor grades.

Heavy marijuana use has been linked to lower income, greater need for socioeconomic assistance, unemployment’s, criminal behavior, and lower satisfaction with life.

There is also a relationship between THC levels in blood and performance in controlled driving-simulation studies. These studies have been a good predictor of real-world driving ability. “Recent marijuana smoking and blood THC levels of 2 to 5 mg per milliliter are associated with substantial driving impairment.” The overall risk of involvement in an accident increases by a factor of 2 when someone drives soon after using marijuana. Not surprisingly, combining marijuana and alcohol seems to result in greater risks than the use of either drug alone.

The authors noted that most of the long-term effects of marijuana use in the article have been seen among heavy or long-term users. Yet the presence of multiple confounding factors, including the frequent use of marijuana with other drugs, detracts from their ability to establish causality.

They also noted there is a need to improve our knowledge on the potential medical benefits of the marijuana plant. A report by the Institute of Medicine sees the benefits for stimulating appetite and in combating chemotherapy-induced nausea and vomiting, severe pain and decreasing intraocular pressure in the treatment of glaucoma. “Nevertheless, the report stresses the importance of focusing research efforts on the therapeutic potential of synthetic or pharmaceutically pure cannabinoids.” With all of its problems, the existing structure for the approval of new medicines through the FDA is better than the current lack of any safety and regulatory apparatus with medical marijuana. The ongoing failure to confirm or refute the plethora of health and medicinal claims with marijuana use is progressively taking us back to the days of patent medicine claims in state-by-state approval. In conclusion they summarized the results of their review of the literature on adverse effect from marijuana use as follows:

Marijuana, like other drugs of abuse, can result in addiction. During intoxication, marijuana can interfere with cognitive functions (e.g. memory and perception of time) and motor function (e.g. coordination), and these effects can have detrimental consequences (e.g. motor-vehicle accidents). Repeated marijuana use during adolescence may result in long-lasting changes in brain function that can jeopardize educational, professional, and social achievements. . . . . As policy shifts toward legalization of marijuana, it is reasonable and probably prudent to hypothesize that its use will increase and that, by extension, so will the number of persons for whom there will be negative health consequences.

A German review study by Hoch et al., “Risk Associated with the Non-Medical Use of Cannabis,” also sought to summarize the current state of knowledge regarding the physical and mental adverse effects of intensive recreational cannabis use. They came to conclusions similar to the Volkow et al. study. Hoch et al. noted the potential for addiction and withdrawal, mild negative effects on learning capacity, neurocognitive impairments with adolescents, an increased risk of psychosis, and others. “Further research is required to clarify the causal nature of the links between cannabis consumption patterns and adverse events.”

Empirical data have now clearly shown that starting early in life and regularly using high amounts of cannabis for a long period of time increases the risk of various mental and physical disorders and endangers age-appropriate development. Because many studies have failed to control properly for confounding variables, it still cannot be stated beyond doubt that there is a causal connection between cannabis consumption patterns and cognitive damage or the development of comorbid psychic or somatic disorders. The worldwide increase in the THC content of cannabis may increase the health risks, particularly for adolescent users. Further research is required to determine why some people are more affected than others by the unfavorable consequences.

On the other hand, another long-term study of chronic marijuana use among young adult men by Bechtold et al., was published  in the journal, Psychology of Addictive Behavior. The study used data from The Pittsburgh Youth Study, a longitudinal study that followed seventh grade students until they were 36. The study found that chronic marijuana users were no more likely than other groups to experience several physical or mental health problems, including early onset psychosis and heart problems. Some limitations in applying the findings of this study would include the fact that participants were only followed until the age of 36, perhaps too early for many of the health problems to become evident. Another difference was that the heaviest use category for marijuana was “more than 3 times per week,” while Volkow et al. seems to have been looking at daily or almost daily use.

In a postscript addition to the above studies, a 2016 study by Columbia researchers found evidence of a compromised dopamine system in heavy marijuana users. Dopamine levels were lower in the striatum, an area in the brain involved in working memory, impulsive behavior and attention. Previous studies have found addiction to other drugs of abuse, like cocaine and heroin, have similar effects on dopamine release. This was the first such evidence for marijuana.

A press release by the Columbia University Medical Center quoted the lead author as stating that in light of the increasing use and acceptance of marijuana, especially by young people, it is important to look more closely at the potentially addictive effects of cannabis on key regions of the brain. The study was small, with 11 adults who were severely dependent upon marijuana and 12 matched healthy controls. The average age of onset among the marijuana users was 16, with dependence occurring by 20. In the month before the study, all users in the study had smoked daily.

“Compared with controls, the cannabis users had significantly lower dopamine release in the striatum, including subregions involved in associative and sensorimotor learning.” The investigators also explored the relationship between dopamine release in the striatum and cognitive performance on learning and working memory tasks. The bottom line was that long-term, heavy marijuana use could impair the dopaminergic system, which in turn could have a series of negative effects on learning and behavior.

I talked with someone who had been to California a few weeks after the 2016 election when recreational marijuana use was legalized. She reported how employees of her hotel were gathering outside on their break to smoke pot, similar to what cigarette smokers do. If legal recreational use becomes more widespread in the U.S., the adverse physical and mental adverse effects from heavy, regular use will also become more evident. Then marijuana use will take a place beside alcohol use and tobacco use as a public health problem.