New breakthrough in heart attack treatment

Are we edging closer towards lowering the risk of recurring heart attacks? Scientists definitely think so. In what has been described as the biggest advance since the discovery of statins, a study has shown that anti-inflammatory injections could lower the incidence of recurring heart attacks in heart attack survivors. Furthermore, these injections have been suggested to also slow the progression of cancer.

It has been discovered that heart attack survivors who were administered injections of a targeted anti-inflammatory drug called canakinumab had a lower risk of such attacks in the future. With this particular drug as well, the incidence of cancer deaths were also reduced to less that fifty percent.

Canakinumab is not normally prescribed for this purpose; its function normally lies in the use for rare inflammatory condition. Instead, the current drugs for the prevention of heart attacks are statins. The main method in which statins prevent heart attacks from recurring is by lowering cholesterol levels. Despite this, statin users who regularly take the drug have a one in four chance of suffering another heart attack within half a decade. While the cause for this is unknown, and research has been done on heart attacks and statins, the current line of thinking is that inflammation within the heart’s arteries are the cause of this recurrence.

The research team followed over 10,000 patients and were led from Brigham and Women’s hospital in Boston. One of the hypotheses tested was whether targeting the inflammation with a potent anti-inflammatory agent would provide an extra benefit over statin treatment. In other words, the trial aimed to see if statins combined with canakinumab would be better than just statins alone. The 10,000 patients who had had a heart attack and had all received a positive blood test for inflammation into the trial. In addition to the doses of statins, patients also received either canakinumab or a placebo, both administered by injection every three months. The trial, also known as the Cantos study, lasted for four years.

For the first group – patients who had received the canakinumab injections – the results demonstrated that there had been a 15% reduction in the risk of a cardiovascular event; this means that the risks of heart attacks, either fatal or non-fatal, and strokes had been reduced. But the benefits of canakinumab did not merely end there. The need for expensive interventional procedures, such as surgery such as bypass surgery, or the insertion of stents, was reduced by over three-tenths. The drug did not, however, change cholesterol levels, meaning that it must still be used alongside statins, and the use of statins as cholesterol limiters will still continue to remain so. There was also no significant statistical difference in the number of death rates between patients who had received canakinumab and those who had been given placebo injections.

Dr Paul Ridker, who led the research team, said the study did “usher in a new era of therapeutics”.
This study is the first incidence where scientists have been able to show conclusively that the risk of cardiovascular risk is reduced when inflammation independent of cholesterol is lowered. Why the results have been considered ground-breaking is due to the insight that they have provided; there could be an entirely new way to treat patients and significantly improve health outcomes through the targeting of inflammation, jointly with the lowering of cholesterol. The statistical benefits for patients who took canakinumab were described as being “above and beyond” those seen in patients who only took statins.

Dr Ridker also mentioned that the study showed that the use of anti-inflammatories was the next big breakthrough following the linkage of lifestyle issues and then statins.

“In my lifetime, I’ve gotten to see three broad eras of preventative cardiology,” he said. “In the first, we recognised the importance of diet, exercise and smoking cessation. In the second, we saw the tremendous value of lipid-lowering drugs such as statins. Now, we’re cracking the door open on the third era. This is very exciting.”

But despite the promising results of the treatment, it was not without its negatives. The researchers reported that there was a rise in the potential chance of dying from a severe infection for about a tenth of a percentage point, although this increase was counterbalanced by decrease by over 50% of cancer deaths across all cancer types. The most promising cancer reduction rates were seen in the case of lung cancer. The odds of dying from lung cancer, with the use of canakinumab, were reduced by over three quarters. There was no scope within this study to investigate that further, although subsequent trials to investigate canakinumab’s effect against cancer are being considered.

Prof Martin Bennett, a cardiologist from Cambridge, had no involvement in the study, and while he said the trial results were a promising insight in understanding the occurrence of heart attacks, he expressed concerns both about the side effects, whether the high cost of the drug would pass the Quality Adjusted Life Years (QALY) test that the NHS administers to determining cost effectiveness of drugs, and also the fact that there were no significantly lesser incidences of deaths between those prescribed canakinumab and those who had received the placebo.

“Treatment of UK patients is unlikely to change very much as a result of this trial, but the results do support investigation of other drugs that inhibit inflammation for cardiovascular disease, and the use of this drug in cancer,” he said. In other words, despite the results of the study and what we can glean from them, he believes statins will still remain the mainstay of recurrent heart attack prevention.

Prof Jeremy Pearson, who is the associate medical director at the British Heart Foundation, showed more positive belief about the trial and the possibilities of it opening the doors to new types of treatment for heart attacks.

He mentioned that heart attacks account for a high number of hospitalisations every year. The figure is thought to be close to two hundred thousand people each year in the United Kingdom. He further explained that the use of cholesterol-lowering drugs like statins, when prescribed to these people to reduce their risk of another heart attack, does save lives, but the reduction of high cholesterol rates as a mere medical focus alone is not always a measure that effectively deals with the whole of the problem.

He added that one could be forgiven in feeling a flutter of excitement when it came to these trial results, which have been eagerly awaited by the medical community. The confirmation of previous medical hunches that the continual inflammation is a significant contributor to the risk of heart disease, and that the intent to reduce it could help save lives, is a significant way forward towards the treatment of heart attack patients.

 

This research into canakinumab is one of many that have been conducted into heart attack prevention. We should be cautious about its possible side effects; aspirin, for example, has been shown to cause bleeding when prescribed to heart attack patients. It has also been suggested that  beta blockers for heart attack patients, on the other hand, do not have the ascribed health benefit. Furthermore, if the drug does end up prescribed to heart attack sufferers, what are the side effects when taken for the long term?

Could we possibly see canakinumab being prescribed as a matter of course for heart attack patients to prevent a recurrent? The answer perhaps lies not with whether or not the drug has benefit – it has already proven this in some areas – but whether the side effects can be mitigated. More importantly, the issue of cost will probably determine its future. If the cost of canakinumab could be lowered, so that its prescription to the over two hundred thousand heart attack sufferers per year would not be a significant burden on the financial limitations on the health service, then we could see it being prescribed as a matter of course. If not, then we may have to wait for a less expensive substitute to hit the market. And while it is somewhat disheartening that medical intervention in recent times is more geared not towards finding medicine that works, but medicine that is cost effective, the promise of canakinumab nevertheless is a positive health step.

Are we nearing a medical cure for Parkinson’s disease?

Are we edging towards a cure for Parkinson’s disease? A study in the medical journal Lancet suggests that while we may still be a bit away from a total cure from the disease, there is enough evidence to suggest that it may soon be possible to halt its progression, which is the next step towards managing or eliminating a disease that causes damage to the brain, tremors, difficulty with movements and eventually memory problems.

Parkinson’s disease is caused by the loss of cells which produce the chemical dopamine. The decline to the brain is slow but eventually the accumulated damage causes mental and physical problems. There is no cure for it but current therapies can help to contain the damage and manage the symptoms. They work by boosting dopamine levels, but only manage the symptoms without addressing the damage to the brain.

The Lancet reports that there is evidence now to suggest the progression of Parkinson’s can be delayed. The damage to the brain can be restricted so that no further damage is done. This means that Parkinson’s sufferers retain their mental capacities at the point of diagnosis. This is promising news and the answer lies with a drug normally used in type 2 diabetes.

The trial in the research published in the Lancet was only conducted on 62 patients, so while the evidence is promising and optimistic, further evaluation and studies need to be carried out in order to confirm the findings and the news should be received cautiously. The long-term benefits or side effects are also not completely certain yet. The drug will need more testing; it is easy to be carried away with initial findings but all medication has side effects, either on mental states or physical well-being that we should be mindful of.

The study was conducted by a team from University College London (UCL) team. “There’s absolutely no doubt the most important unmet need in Parkinson’s is a drug to slow down disease progression, it’s unarguable,” Prof Tom Foltynie, one of the researchers, told the BBC.

Currently, there is no drug which achieves that effect. The drugs that are currently prescribed only manage the symptoms, but do not address damage to the brain.

The study divided the 62 patients into two groups. One group received the drug exenatide, which is normally used in the treatment of type 2 diabetes. Another group was given a placebo. Patients were unaware of which treatment they were receiving. For precautionary reasons, all patients also continued to remain on their usual medication.

The 31 patients who received only their usual medication showed symptoms of decline usually associated with Parkinson’s disease. This decline manifested itself both in mental states such as forgetfulness and memory loss, or through the loss of locomotor movement. The results were apparent over a period of 48 weeks.

Patients for whom exenatide was prescribed displayed stability in their results. In other words, their decline due to Parkinson’s was halted. Not only was the further damage to the brain restricted, the loss of physical movement was contained. This suggested that exenatide could have some role in the damage limitation of Parkinson’s disease.

The initial study took place over a year and after that those on exenatide came off the treatment. Yet the benefits of taking the drug continued for up to three months.

 

Prof Foltynie said, “It gives us confidence exenatide is not just masking symptoms, it’s doing something to the underlying disease.”

Nevertheless, he urged, while we have reason to be encouraged by these positive findings, they still need to be replicated on a larger scale, and the drug also needs to be trialled for a much longer period before any suitable effect and link can be stated.

Another reason to be cautious is that the drug exenatide only made a difference over a maximum trial period of sixty weeks. But in real life Parkinson’s disease afflicts individuals over a prolonged period. The introduction of any new drug into the human body usually causes a noticeable effect at the onset anyway, as the body is flooded by chemicals, but the effect needs to be maintained for prolonged periods without losing consistency. In this particular, case, for a drug to be effective against Parkinson’s disease, it will need to hold back the damage to the brain for years in order that patients who are prescribed the drug would experience a significant improvement on the quality of life.

The effect of Parkinson’s disease is slo. Sufferers experience damage to the brain and slow decline on mind and body over years, sometimes extending up to a decade. The team from University College London said that their research in this 60-week trial produced statistical improvements in quality of life scores, but they will need to extend the benefit over a longer period.

Exenatide’s traditional role as part of a diabetes treatment is in controlling the blood sugar levels in the body. It does this through the action on a hormone sensor known as GLP-1. It is believed that Exenatide makes the hormone sensors work more efficiently or perhaps it improves their ability to survive.

But the GLP-1 sensors are not just found in the body. They are also in existence in brain cells. Those sensors are also present in brain cells too. The current thinking behind using Exenatide in some form as a Parkinson’s disease treatment is that if it can make hormone sensors in the body more efficient, so that they manage blood sugar levels better, then they may have a significant role if used to improve the sensors in brain cells.

It is specifically for this reason that the research of the drug is also being widened beyond its effect on Parkinson’s disease, but also in other neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease.

David Dexter, the deputy director of research at Parkinson’s UK indicated that there was hope offered through the finding that drugs like exenatide, or perhaps similar ones, could slow the course of Parkinson’s that we currently take for granted. They offer some posibilities that other drugs do not.

“Because Parkinson’s can progress quite gradually, this study was probably too small and short to tell us whether exenatide can halt the progression of the condition, but it’s certainly encouraging and warrants further investigation.”

But amidst all the optimism generated by the possible positive effects on exenatide, Dr Brian Fiske, from the The Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, cautioned that “the exenatide studies justify continued testing” but that clinicians and patients should not rush to “add exenatide to their regimens” until the impact and safety of exenatide had been proven.

How does Parkinson’s disease gradually lead to the decline of physical movements and memory loss? The disease affects the brain by a slow process of decline and brings on debilitating loss of movement. It has since been discovered that the damage to the brain is also synonymous with accumulation of high levels of the protein alpha-synuclein in the brain.

Scientists at Columbia University Medical Center and the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology found that T-cells, a part of your immune system, tries to destroy the alpha-synuclein in Parkinson’s disease sufferers, but it is through the killing of alpha-synuclein as an auto-immunity measure that the T-cells inadvertently kills brain cells where the alpha-synuclein accumulates. In other words, a malfunctioning immune system is destroying brain cells, which then have a knock-on impact on the brain’s health and physical functions.

In recent years scientists have made significant progress in their understanding of Parkinson’s disease. One emerging possibility that is gradually gaining ground in that Parkinson’s may have its origins in the gut.

“We imagine that T-cells may first identify alpha-synuclein out in periphery, particularly in the nervous system of gut which is not a problem until the T-cells enter the brain.”

Dr Alessandro Sette, from La Jolla, said: “Our findings raise the possibility that an immunotherapy approach could be used to increase the immune system’s tolerance for alpha-synuclein, which could help to ameliorate or prevent worsening symptoms in Parkinson’s disease patients.”

David Dexter also said that the research lent weight to the idea that “the condition may involve the immune system becoming confused and damaging our own cells.

He stressed however that more needed to be done in order for us to have some understanding about how, in the complicated chain of events that lead or contribute to Parkinson’s, the immune system – or a faulty immune one – played its part in the overall grand scheme of things.

Nevertheless, he added that the new research presented new avenues and opened up new insights into current Parkinson’s treatments. He was optimistic, perhaps cautiously so, that “this presents an exciting new avenue to explore to help develop new treatments that may be able to slow or stop the condition in its tracks.”

Is a medical cure for Parkinson’s disease on the horizon then? Perhaps in fifteen or twenty years’ time, we will look back upon these discoveries – that exenatide halts the decline of the brain by improving the proficiency of GLP-1 hormone sensors in the brain; that Parkinson’s disease originates in the gut; that managing the tolerance for alpha-synuclein by T-cells in the brain prevents them from destroying brain cells which lead to impaired mental and physical function – perhaps in the future we will look upon them as defining moments in the cure of Parkinson’s disease.

So could we expect medical prescriptions for Parkinson’s disease soon? At the earliest, a medical prescription for Parkinson’s will take at least ten to fifteen years to be made available. Pharmaceutical companies are normally granted a patent of twenty years to be the sole distributor of a medical product, in order to reward the impetus and the research undertaken into the product. At least half the amount of time is spent on research and further clinical trials. Most pharmaceutical companies apply for their patent from the time detailed research begins, so that the event that having done a significant part of their research, another company is awarded the patent, is avoided. So the moment a patent is awarded, in this case, for exenatide or a derivative product to tackle Parkinson’s disease – that is a sign we could expect a cure in about ten to fifteen years.

Red wine – the media’s Wonderdrink

If there is anything to be said about the British media, it is that it seems intent to make a superhero or villain out of the common everyday foods we encounter. Every now and again we are presented with small-scale research on food or drink that promises either a miracle cure or a dangerous red flag. One assumption peddled to us is by continuing to consume the food, we will either gain added health benefit without too much effort. Miracle cure just by eating! The counter to this is the article written to warn against continued consumption. Danger food – consume carefully! You are either a superhero, or a villain in the world of miracle foods.

It is safe to assume that the purpose of these articles is ultimately to hook the reader into buying the newspaper to examine the article further. And if it appears on an online version instead, you can be sure that the intention is to keep the reader glued to the page while paid-for advertising revenue flashes on the side panels. To state it cynically, the purpose of these articles is for sales. It might be long before certain foods such as milk might purportedly be the cure to cancer.

We need not spend too much time judging how effective these media reports are. If you are looking to a newspaper as a reference for health advice, you might as well ask about ballet lessons from the petrol station.

One of the poster children for miracle foods is red wine. Depending on what you’ve read, red wine can:

  • Boost immunity
  • Prevent tooth decay
  • Save your eyesight
  • Be good for the heart

But it won’t help you in the fight against diabetes, or help you lose weight. Was worth considering, though.

One of the latest research into red wine studied if, yes, it could find the ageing process. A US study suggested resveratrol, a substance found in the skin of red grapes, may help keep our muscles and nerves healthy as we get older.

Researchers gave mice food containing resveratrol for a year, then compared the muscle and nerve cells of those mice to cells from mice the same age who’d had a normal diet. In the mice who’d had the resveratrol-enriched diet, they found less evidence of age-related changes.

The researchers also looked at another chemical, metformin, but found it had less effect.

Researchers divided laboratory-bred mice into four groups and fed them either:

  • a normal diet
  • a lower calorie diet from four months of age
  • a diet enriched with resveratrol from one year of age
  • a diet enriched with metformin from one year of age

When the mice were aged two years, they looked at their muscle and nerves, at the meeting point of the two (the neuromuscular junction, or NMJ) in a leg muscle. They also looked at the NMJs of three-month-old mice to see how they compared to the older mice.

Compared with mice fed a regular diet, those who’d been given resveratrol or who’d had a calorie-restricted diet showed:

less fragmentation of tissue at the neuromuscular junction
fewer areas where the nerve cells had degenerated, which would have meant that the muscle no longer had input from nerves

The two-year-old mice which had calorie-restricted diets had neuromuscular junctions that were most similar to the three-month-old mice. Metformin had little effect in this experiment.

The researchers say that this indicates less ageing as muscle fibres increase in size with ageing. But this does not suggest if the ageing was beneficial or not to the subject.

Resveratrol has been of interest to anti-ageing scientists for many years and researchers have previously shown it may be linked to a slowing of the decline in thinking and movement, at least in rodents. This study suggests a possible way this might happen.

But the results don’t tell us anything about what happens in humans. They suggest this substance may be useful for further research in humans at some point. They certainly don’t provide a reason to drink gallons of red wine, in the hope of seeing an anti-ageing effect. Drinking too much alcohol is a sure-fire way to speed up deterioration of thinking skills, and can cause brain damage. Too much alcohol in the long term is linked to several cancers, heart disease, stroke and liver disease.

Although red wine contains resveratrol, the amount varies widely, from around 0.2mg to 12.6mg per litre. That’s nothing like enough to get the amounts consumed in this study.

The mice were fed 400mg of resveratrol per kilogram of body weight each day. To achieve the same level of anti-ageing purported in the study, the average weight woman in the UK (around 70kg) would need 28g of resveratrol a day for the same effect. This would be obtained by consuming more than 2,000 litres of the most resveratrol-rich wine. An average weight man would need even more. This would be going beyond side effects and into the realm of health dangers! Or if you were disturbed by the daily consumption of this amount of alcohol, and still wanted to try, you could eat bin loads of berries – you might need fifty of these a day. What’s for breakfast? Blueberries. Snack? Blueberries powerbar. Lunch? Blueberry soup? Dessert? Blueberry cake. Resveratrol occurs naturally in the skins of some red fruits, including some grapes, blueberries and mulberries. But this rate, anti-ageing might be more of a curse.

The study was carried out by researchers from Virginia Tech, Roanoke College and the National Institute on Aging, all in the US, and was funded by the National Institutes of Health.

Is there any thing of value we can glean from this research? One certainly hopes that the whole research was conducted for more significance than mere paper filler.

The effects of rosveratol will probably hold the most interest for researchers. One can imagine that scientists will be looking to produce genetically-modified grapes that hold more of the chemical, or refine the chemical until it reaches higher levels of purity. Drugs, medication, and anti-ageing creams may contain higher levels of rosveratol. Why is there the interest in slowing down ageing? It extends beyond the obvious physical aging. Slowing down the process may also inhibit age-related diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson’s and dementia.

And while it was of little effect in this particular trial, metformin is currently undergoing trials as an anti-ageing drug. While it is one of the drugs used in the treatment of type 2 diabetes, and marketed under brand names such as Glucophage, it is relatively new as an anti-ageing drug.

Belgian researchers researching metformin found it increased the number of oxygen molecules released into a cell. When tested on roundworms, the worms aged slower, did not slow down, nor develop wrinkles. They grew stronger bones and increased their own lifespan by nearly 40%.

Metformin only costs only 10p a day which means it falls well under the threshold of QALY (quality-assisted life years) cost that the NHS uses to measure cost-effectiveness. It is conceivable that either metformin or rosveratol could form the active ingredient of anti-ageing pills or creams in the future.

And when that happens, you can read all about it in the papers again, about how red wine really lengthens your lifespan! You might even want to sign up for a clinical trial!

The British media is really drunk on red wine.

Mental Health Medication – Concerns and Ethics

One of the most common questions about mental health problems is whether people need medication to deal with them, or whether they can be simply dealt with through therapy. Mental health problems can range from the not so severe – such as mild anxiety – to more severe problems like long-term depression. There are some that see medication as a short term, quick fix solution – it will give relief fast, but it doesn’t really teach one to deal with the heart of the problem – hence the suggestion of therapy and counselling. Yet there are those that remain convinced that while therapy re-educates the patient and deals with mental health difficulties on a long term basis, sometimes medication provides a greater level of immediacy in providing a solution, that its role cannot be denied. Should I take medication for _______” is one of the most frequent queries received. The ideal solution is probably a combination of medication and therapy, whilst gradually reducing the level of medication and therapy as the patient progresses.

Medication can be useful. For example, for those with paralysing anxiety, medication can minimise the stress and anxiety placed upon an individual by these stressors until the level of anxiety is at a comfortable and manageable level, enabling one to live their daily life while keeping their anxiety at a level they can control. However, for individuals with a severe mental health condition such as schizophrenia, the use of medication may be necessary in order to attain a level of mental stability and hence safety.

But medication is not just for a stabilising calm influence. For those, however, for whom facing the day is a burden, and who remain unable to get out of bed in the morning because depression has stolen all motivation, mental health medication can provide a jumpstart, an impetus to face the day. Certain people may benefit from taking psychotropic medication. For example, a study funded by the National Institute of Mental Health found that some individuals who were prescribed the selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI) Paxil, because they experienced moderate to severe depression, experienced positive changes in mood, together with significant improvements in depressive symptoms. There was a marked decrease in the level of neuroticism and a similar increase in extroversion. These effects occured over a period of eight weeks and were nearly equivalent to the changes most adults experience in the course of a lifetime.

According to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, human beings must satisfy more basic needs such as food and shelter before they attend to more self-actualising needs. It is difficult for most people to focus on avenues of self-growth when they are in crisis or struggling with anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions. In some cases the polarisation can even lead them further into depression. In this instance, medication can support the psychotherapy process, and a stabilised person can progress further in psychotherapy having had the needs at the lower end of the hierarchy addressed. For example, a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that cognitive behavioural therapy combined with targeted medication tends to lead to significant improvement of attention deficit hyperactivity symptoms in adults. And in the long term, of course, a common outcome of successful psychotherapy is the reduction or elimination of the need for medications, so medication can be viewed as a temporary measure.

And while we have to recognise its benefits for the short term, we have to realise that medication can be harmful for some individuals if taken over a prolonged period. Most, if not all, drugs come with potential risks and side effects. Some can be minimal and tolerable while others carry disadvantages best considered as trade-offs. The side effects range from physical ones to emotional and psychological ones. Physical side effects range from dizziness, drowsiness, or changes in appetite, and/or weight gain. Emotional and psychological side effects may range from mood swings, disinterest in activities, or emotional numbness and a lack of empathy. Prescribed over a long term, antipsychotics may cause permanent damage by leading to conditions such as tardive dyskinesia or Parkinsonism, and may even cause death. The death may not be triggered by physical caused, but by mental irrational thinking. A 2005 article in the Harvard Mental Health Letter spelt out in detail the increasing awareness of risks associated with SSRI antidepressants, such as a potential increase in suicidal thinking and behaviours for adults and children under 24 years of age. One could, however, speculate if the suicidal thoughts were triggered by the medication directly, or whether it was the prospect of lifetime medication without an apparent cure that caused these feelings of hopelessness. Whichever you look at it, it is fair to say that there are people who will benefit from taking these medications, but also people who may experience lasting harm as a result of antidepressant use. The use of medication remains a double-edged sword.

But there are lines of thought that ascribe that medication is not always a necessary process. While medication may be effective for treating certain conditions, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania and Vanderbilt University suggested that, over a period of 16 months, cognitive therapy was a more effective means of preventing a relapse into depression than antidepressants alone. Research findings published in the Journal of the Amercan Medical Association found that while antidepressants were helpful for those experiencing severe depression, milder to moderate forms of depression derived more benefit from other treatment options, such as therapy. A 2010 article published in Newsweek arrived at the same conclusions, suggesting that, for some individuals, antidepressants are little more than a placebo.

To summarise what I’ve said so far: mental health is best addressed through a combination of therapy and medication. Severe forms of mental depression, which require more immediate intervention, would benefit from prescription drugs and therapy, while therapy alone may be sufficient enough for milder forms. Medication provides short-term benefit, especially in higher forms of depression, but we must be cautious over its long-term use because it can have side effects.

Medication can interfere with the emotions as well as the psychotherapy process. One of the most common side effects of psychotropic medication is difficulty feeling certain emotions, perhaps even a lack of empathy, once enough doseage of a drug accumulates in a person’s system. When we consume too much of a drug that is meant to limit our nerves, for example, many people complain of losing the feelings they used to have, report a reduction in their ability to laugh or cry, or experience a decrease in libido. These are the effects of medicines with a calming influence. Other side effects extend to one’s sexuality and love relationships, such as diminished sexual interest. Medication can also limit hyperactivity in the brain, acting as an emotional relaxant, but this slows emotional processing for some, and in doing so, covering up underlying issues and causing the psychotherapy process to be slowed down. A possible consequence of taking too much medication and becoming numb to feelings is the increased likelihood that a person will not become conscious of the emotional or somatic burdens which can cause of stress and suicidal feelings. It may be stretching things a little, but if you view medication as a substance, just like we view alcohol – too much consumption leads to physical health problems, as well as a capacity for clear thought processing – we can get a better idea of how the prescription of medication might not always be a clear-cut issue.

Proponents of a little- or no-medication approach to mental health point out that many emotional and mental health issues are not reducible to a biochemical imbalance. Life events — what happens to and around us – can impact on our mental health, and because medications do not change how people relate psychologically to their experiences, medication alone cannot “fix” all psychological issues. In fact, the temporal masking of life circumstances by medication is probably what induces people to overdose in the first place, taking more medication to completely obviate one to one’s surroundings. Treatment with medication alone can be like stitching up a bullet wound without taking the bullet out first – dealing with the effects without dealing with the cause. It is one of the main criticisms of the medical profession.

Furthermore, an over-simplification of what causes depression has led to the development of anti-depressant drugs that are actually designed to treat or minimise stress. These medications are often of little use because they have been tested on animals, and for the laboratory animals such as rats chronic stress does not cause depression. Psychotherapy, on the other hand, is often able to discover and treat some of the mental health issues that may contribute to depression, such as psychological trauma and anxiety. For example, a 1995 Consumer Reports study shows that some individuals experiencing mental health issues were significantly helped by psychotherapy. The study found that long-term therapy had, in general, the most beneficial effect, and that treatment with therapy alone was no less effective than treatment with medication and psychotherapy.

In an article “Mind over Meds,” which appeared in a 2010 issue of The New York Times Magazine, Dr. Daniel Carlat, a psychopharmacologist, found that the individuals he treated responded better to a combination of treatment with psychotherapy and medication together than they did purely with medication alone. The provision of counselling in addition to medication helped them to be better able to understand the true nature of their concerns. His findings are supported by research that therapy can stimulate the growth of neurons and synaptic connections between neurons. However, medication for depression, anxiety, and other emotional problems do not stimulate the brain; instead they dampen the brain’s mental activity. Therapy is capable of healing core problems and facilitating long-term changes, and why medication alone cannot. But medication is important in areas where the mental thoughts of the individual needs to be reduced to a lower level of activity.

Psychotropic drugs are prescribed to treat a variety of mental health issues when those issues cause significant impairment to healthy functioning. They work by changing or balancing the amount of important chemicals in the brain called neurotransmitters. The reduction or increase of neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine have shown better mood improvements in some individuals. The ideal s to achieve a tolerable balance of these chemicals in order for the individual to attain a healthy life. Psychotropic drugs are usually prescribed by a psychiatrist, a psychiatric nurse practitioner (PMHNP), or a primary care physician

According to the WHO, one in four individuals will experience a mental health issue at some point in their lives. Depression and anxiety are among the most common issues, and these issues can affect people regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, or background. Researchers cannot point to the triggers of mental health impairment, but they can be attributable to environmental factors, genetics, traumatic events or serious injuries and result in psychological symptoms that persist for years.

As we have seen before, for some individuals psychotropic drugs are often not enough are best used as a supplement, and not a replacement, to therapy. Social support from family and friends, structured therapy, lifestyle changes – all leading to a change of environment – can all be important factors in the recovery process. But in some severe mental health issues may require inpatient rehabilitation before the person experiencing them can return to everyday life.

Certain individuals who are prescribed psychiatric medications may prefer not to take them, or they find that these medications do not improve their symptoms enough to outweigh any side effects or risks. Before you take any medication, it is always advisable to speak with your GP or seek specialist advice.

One major cause of concern regarding mental health and medication is the practice of prescribing medications that were originally developed for adults to children. The increase in diagnoses of psychiatric conditions in children – bipolar in particular – has led to an increase in the amount of children who take psychiatric medications. Many of which have only been fully tested in adults, and children take them in smaller doses, but the long-term impact of medication, as well as the effect on children who have yet to reach puberty needs to be examined.

Several different types of medications are used to treat mental health conditions. These include antipsychotics and anti-depressants.

Antipsychotics: These medications are most often prescribed for the treatment of psychotic issues such as schizophrenia. These drugs fall into two categories, typical and atypical antipsychotics.

The brand name is listed first, and the active ingredient is in parentheses.

Typical antipsychotics include:
Thorazine (chlorpromazine)
Trilafon (perphenazine)
Stelazine (trifluoperazine)
Serentil (mesoridazine)
Prolixin (fluphenazine)
Navane (thiothixene)
Moban (molindone)
Mellaril (thioridazine)
Loxitane (loxapine)
Haldol (haloperidol)

Atypical antipsychotics include:
Abilify (aripiprazole)
Clozaril (clozapine)
Geodon (ziprasidone)
Risperdal (risperidone)
Seroquel (quetiapine)
Zyprexa (olanzapine)

Antidepressants are a broad category of psychotropic drugs used for treating depression. There are several different classifications of antidepressants:

Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs): These medications gradually increase the amount of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, in the brain. Common SSRIs include:

Celexa (citalopram)
Lexapro (escitalopram)
Luvox (fluvoxamine)
Paxil (paroxetine)
Prozac (fluoxetine)
Zoloft (sertraline)

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs): A less common variety of antidepressant drugs, MAOIs are often a last option with complex, treatment-resistant depression. Common MAOIs include:

Emsam (selegiline)
Marplan (isocarboxazid)
Nardil (phenelzine)
Parnate (tranylcypromine)

Tricyclics (TCAs): These older antidepressant medications have been pushed to the sidelines by newer, generally safer medications. Still, some people do not respond to the new antidepressants, so TCAs may be prescribed. Tricyclic medications include:

Anafranil (clomipramine)
Asendin (amoxapine)
Elavil (amitriptyline)
Norpramin (desipramine)
Pamelor (nortriptyline)
Sinequan (doxepin)
Surmontil (trimipramine)
Tofranil (imipramine)
Vivactil (protiptyline)

Selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs): These medications work by slowly increasing the amount of norepinephrine in the brain. Common SNRIs include:

Pristiq (desvenlafaxine)
Effexor (venlafaxine)
Cymbalta (duloxetine)

Antianxiety/antipanic medications: These medications are used to treat a variety of chronic and acute anxiety issues, from generalized anxiety to panic attacks. Antianxiety and antipanic medications on the market include:

Ativan (lorazepam)
BuSpar (buspirone)
Inderal (propranolol)
Klonopin (clonazepam)
Librium (chlordiazepoxide)
Serax (oxazepam)
Tenormin (atenolol)
Tranxene (clorazepate)
Valium (diazepam)
Xanax (alprazolam)

Stimulants: Typically, stimulants are prescribed to people with attention-deficit hyperactivity (ADHD). They help regulate disorganized thought processes. Psychomotor stimulants include:

Adderall (amphetamine and dextroamphetamine)
Dexedrine (dextroamphetamine)
Ritalin (methylphenidate)

Mood stabilisers: This category of psychotropic medication is typically used to treat intense, repeated shifts in a person’s mood, which may be common for those experiencing bipolar, schizophrenia, or borderline personality. Many mood stabiliser drugs are also commonly categorized as anticonvulsant medications.

Lamictal (lamotrigine)
Lithium

In 2013, the most prescribed psychotropic drugs in the United States (with the number of prescriptions written during the year) were:

Xanax (alprazolam), 48.5 million
Zoloft (sertraline), 41.4 million
Celexa (citalopram), 39.4 million
Prozac (fluoxetine), 28.3 million
Ativan (lorazepam), 27.9 million
Desyrel (trazodone HCL), 26.2 million
Lexapro (escitalopram), 24.9 million
Cymbalta (duloxetine), 18.6 million
Wellbutrin XL (bupropion HCL XL), 16.1 million
Effexor XR (venlafaxine HCL ER), 15.8 million

Should one be dismayed by the number of prescriptions in a YEAR alone, as well as the various types of medications available? However you feel about them, they all point to mental health as a significant issue, one that we cannot ignore. We have, however, to cautiously consider that medications that seem appropriate at this time may not be at a later stage. Ultimately, it is best that we learn to function without additive medication in the long term, not just because of their side effects – but if we are being cynical, under pressures of financial cost, medical research may in time suggest that certain forms of mental health medication were inadequate in the first place, and if funding is withdrawn patients may find themselves dependent on medication that they have to make their own provisions for – or worryingly, do without.

And it would be unfortunately ironic if the concerns over provision for mental health became another life stressor.

Drugs and Side Effects

All drugs come with side effects, whether they be common off-the-counter medicines or ones that require specialist prescription. Most of these effects can be minor, and some can just be an inconvenience – like having to go to the toilet more often than usual. But a few are serious, and some can just have unforeseen effects that address other ailments.

The most common set of side effects for drugs taken internally involves the gastrointestinal system. Because all prescription drugs invariably end up broken down in the stomach, nearly any drug can cause nausea or an upset stomach. The chances of these happening are quite rare, though for the handful of users this happens too the results can be quite upsetting. For drugs used externally, skin irritation is a common complaint. Which leads me to wonder – if you are merely replacing one symptom with another, is medicine merely an elimination of an ill-effect by replacement through increasingly minor symptoms, until they are bearable?

Side effects fall into several categories. The most common allergic reactions can happen with any drug and can range from itching and rash, which cause flaring on the skin and trigger even more itching and rash. They can be serious all the way up to a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction.

So if drugs have side effects, why not just get rid of these effects in the course of construction? Surely the likes of Glaxo Smith Kline, with their huge companies and research budget, can afford to genetically alter the drugs and lower the side effects? Some drugs can’t help but trigger side effects because of their chemical structure. One example is the common allergy drug diphenhydramine (more commonly known by the brand name Benadryl). It eases allergy symptoms but in the course of doing so, it also suppresses the activity of the body chemical acetylcholine. The side effect it causes is drowsiness and a host of other side effects, including dry mouth. It seems like to minimise allergies, it makes you fall asleep. Surely any fool could do that? Want to stop scratching? Go to bed!

Some drugs typically have barely noticeable side effects when dosed properly. The side effects can be minimal externally but internally they can be quite serious. For example, Warfarin (also known as Coumadin or marketed as Jantoven), is used to prevent blood clots, and while it is usually well tolerated, it can cause serious internal bleeding. I suppose it is like cancer, or heavy consumption of alcohol.

And while side effects may exist within the drug itself, further complications may also occur when certain drugs are mixed with certain other things. If you are mixing different types of drugs together, the combined chemical properties might cause complications. I suppose this is why my mother used to say never take Neurofen and Paracetamol within hours of each other. These might also be considered drug interactions. Drinking alcohol with narcotic painkillers has also caused an alarming increase in accidental overdose deaths. What??? Again, part of me wonders whether it isthe interactions of these chemicals that induced these, or whether it was because drinkers thought they had taken drugs to counter the effects like headaches, and then proceeded to consume more than they would normally have. Drinking grapefruit juice can affect the blood levels of several drugs, including some blood pressure and cholesterol medicines. Citrus fruits tend not to mix well with other foods, although vodka and orange seem a common mix?

Information about drugs legally has to be made available on the label of over-the-counter drug products and on package inserts or printed materials included with the packaging. Usually on the outer box you will find the concise version of all the drug does, and the inserts include the longer version. Because this could be potentially be a long list of possible bad effects, and written in a technical style, it is very helpful to also talk to pharmacists or doctors if you have any queries regarding a drug’s side effects..

In America, before a drug is released on the market it must be approved by the FDA. Pharmaceutical companies typically submitted New Drug Applications (NDAs) which contain the pre-requisite clinical evidence demonstrating that the drug has the therapeutic effect it is supposed to have. The NDA must also contain proof that the drug is safe for human use. Unfortunately this proof comes from testing of the drug, first in animals and then in humans. Is it fair that rabbits and rats should suffer for the human race, in cages, doused with experimental acids to see if they develop irritations or severe symptoms? I guess you have to decide for yourself where you stand on that.

Homeopathic remedies may still be a long way away before they can be relied wholly on as a cure, but the day where herbal or plant-based remedies replace animal-treated alternatives is one we can look forward to. Once the basic questions of safety are settled, the FDA will approve the drug if it deems that the benefits outweigh its risks.

Sometimes not everything is known about a drug’s side effects until after it enters the marketplace and more people start using it. The pool of human testers is fairly small, so until a large data sample of users is obtained the side effects are not wholly known. MedWatch, the FDA’s post-marketing surveillance program seeks voluntary input, mainly from health care professionals, on adverse effects they may be seeing in ”the real world”. Sometimes these reports are numerous and serious enough for the FDA to take regulatory action, either through the addition of warnings to a drug’s label. One example of that involves the psoriasis drug Raptiva. The FDA required that the drug carry the agency’s strongest warning, known as a black box warning, after reports of brain infections and meningitis in patients taking the drug were received. The side effects were deemed so dangerous that the drug was later withdrawn from the market. Did the testers not recognise this when the lab mice died?

In soliciting feedback, the FDA also wants input from consumers using the various prescription drugs. All prescription drugs must be labelled with a toll-free number maintained by the agency for the purpose of reporting side effects with drugs. The FDA labels these “adverse events.” Severe side-effects can be reported through calling MedWatch at 1-800-FDA-1088 or through the FDA web site: www.­fda.­gov/­Safety/­MedWatch/­HowToReport/­default.­htm.

As we have seen earlier, the post-marketing information coming in to the FDA is so disturbing that it results in a drug coming off the market. Another case can be seen with the drug Baycol, which lowers cholesterol, after it was strongly linked to a potentially fatal breakdown of muscle tissue. While it had been initially approved in 1997, it was voluntarily withdrawn just four years later when evidence of its side effects was published. The anti-inflammatory drug Duract spent just one year on the market. It had been approved as a product strictly for short-term use, but the FDA found serious liver problems with people taking the drug for longer than what was recommended. Which begs the question: “Who is responsible for regulating patients’ consumption of medicines?” While they are safety guards in place, such as some drugs available only on prescription, what is to stop patients obtaining multiple prescriptions?

That aside, drug companies are also required to report adverse events to the FDA, and failure to do so can lead to prosecution. In 1985, two drug companies were fined and sentenced to community service for not reporting adverse events involving the blood pressure drug Selacryn and arthritis drug Oraflex. Both products were pulled from the market.

In the UK, licenses can only be granted by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA).

The stages through which potential medicines are first thoroughly researched start first with the use of tissue culture, followed by computer analysis techniques and finally animal testing.

Likewise, if strict standards of safety and effectiveness are met, clinical trials involving humans can then be used. The license for wider use is approved only if a medicine passes all the phases of clinical trials.

The whole process from discovery to licensing can take a long time, around 10 to 15 years, which means pharmaceutical labs work under a cloak of secrecy and also explains why they may not be willing to withdraw a drug for its side effects if they have invested that much time and money in it.

Not every side effect is a bad one. Some are downright welcome. Take finasteride. Introduced in 1992 to treat noncancerous enlargement of the prostate gland, it was found to regrow hair (and is marketed for that purpose under the name Propecia). Patient: “Doctor, how’s my prostrate?” Doctor: “Under control, but a bit hairy.”

Today, millions of men use a low dose of finasteride to treat male pattern baldness. Minoxidil, originally marketed as an oral tablet for high blood pressure, was found to grow hair in those using it. Today, as a topical lotion or foam, it is a popular over-the-counter remedy for baldness. But can you imagine the doctor going “Your blood pressure is normal, Chewbacca”?