Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Garrison Keillor on education, ideology and learning to read

As of today I've written about 45 posts reading and cognitive disabilities. Since my wife and I are basically bleeding-heart liberals (for want of a better term), it's particularly sad that the liberal establishment has often been opposed to evidence-based education in reading. Even today, there's a strong remnant of 1960s era approaches to teaching reading in Minnesota's educational establishment.

Today, a local celebrity and certified liberal, Garrison Keillor, writes on the topic as only he can:

We're failing our kids |

... And then there is the grief that old righteous people inflict on the young, such as our public schools. I'm looking at U.S. Department of Education statistics on reading achievement and see that here in Minnesota -- proud, progressive Minnesota -- on a 500-point test (average score: 225), 27 percent of fourth-graders score below basic proficiency, and black and Hispanic kids score 30-some points lower than white on average, and the 30 percent of public schoolkids who come from households in poverty (who qualify for reduced-price school lunches) score 27 points lower than those who don't come from poverty.

Reading is the key to everything. Teaching children to read is a fundamental moral obligation of the society. That 27 percent are at serious risk of crippling illiteracy is an outrageous scandal.

This is a bleak picture for an old Democrat. Face it, the schools are not run by Republican oligarchs in top hats and spats but by perfectly nice, caring, sharing people, with a smattering of yoga/raga/tofu/mojo/mantra folks like my old confreres. Nice people are failing these kids, but when they are called on it, they get very huffy. When the grand poobah Ph.D.s of education stand up and blow, they speak with great confidence about theories of teaching, and considering the test results, the bums ought to be thrown out.

There is much evidence that teaching phonics really works, especially with kids with learning disabilities, a growing constituency. But because phonics is associated with behaviorism and with conservatives, and because the Current Occupant has spoken on the subject, my fellow liberals are opposed.

Liberal dogma says that each child is inherently gifted and will read if only he is read to. This was true of my grandson; it is demonstrably not true of many kids, including my sandy-haired, gap-toothed daughter. The No Child Left Behind initiative has plenty of flaws, but the Democrats who are trashing it should take another look at the Reading First program. It is morally disgusting if Democrats throw out Republican programs that are good for children. Life is not a scrimmage. Grown-ups who stick with dogma even though it condemns children to second-class lives should be put on buses and sent to North Dakota to hoe wheat for a year.

St. Michael, I beg you to send angels to watch over fourth-graders who are struggling to read, because the righteous among us are not doing the job.

For more on this topic see:

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Reading goes to the dogs

The Strib writes about reading to dogs in the Ramsey county library system:
Libraries pair furry friends with phonics: "The Ramsey County library system introduced the Paws to Read program last summer, when therapy dog owners approached library administrators about volunteering. So far, the library system has hosted programs in Roseville, Shoreview, Maplewood and now Mounds View."
Saint Paul's been running the same program for at least six months. We've been regulars at two libraries. I can't say that it makes a great difference for our children, but they do like it.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

A mouse model for schizophrenia

This was announced in July of 2007, but I completely missed it. I only read of it in a recent 'top 10 science stories' article.

Hopkins team develops first mouse model of schizophrenia

Johns Hopkins researchers have genetically engineered the first mouse that models both the anatomical and behavioral defects of schizophrenia, a complex and debilitating brain disorder that affects over 2 million Americans.

In contrast to current animal studies that rely on drugs that can only mimic the manifestations of schizophrenia, such as delusions, mood changes and paranoia, this new mouse is based on a genetic change relevant to the disease. Thus, this mouse should greatly help with understanding disease progression and developing new therapies.

Animal models of schizophrenia have been hard to design since many different causes underlie this disease. However, Akira Sawa, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of psychiatry and neuroscience and director of the program in molecular psychiatry and his colleagues took advantage of the recent discovery of a major risk factor for this disease: the DISC1 gene (short for disrupted in schizophrenia), which makes a protein that helps nerve cells assume their proper positions in the brain.

As reported online this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers generated mice that make an incomplete, shortened form of the DISC1 protein in addition to the regular type. The short form of the protein attaches to the full-length one, disrupting its normal duties.

As these mice matured, they became more agitated when placed in an open field, had trouble finding hidden food, and did not swim as long as regular mice; such behaviors parallel the hyperactivity, smell defects and apathy observed in schizophrenia patients. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), taken in collaboration with Susumu Mori, Ph.D., professor of radiology, also revealed characteristic defects in brain structure, including enlarged lateral ventricles, a region that circulates the spinal fluid and helps protect against physical trauma.

Sawa notes that the defects in these mice were not as severe as those typically seen in people with schizophrenia, because more than one gene is required to trigger the clinical disease. “However, this mouse model will help us fill many gaps in schizophrenia research,” he says. “We can use them to explore how external factors like stress or viruses may worsen symptoms. The animals can also be bred with other strains of genetically engineered mice to try to pinpoint additional schizophrenia genes.”

Mouse models for human disorders of the mind are hugely important. In 2006 I wished for a murine autism model (twice, actually) and in 2007 there were hints of some models (MECP2 based). I didn't realize that a DISC1 model also existed for schizophrenia.

Of course as I always mention, autism and schizophrenia are fuzzy labels we apply to what's likely to turn out to be many diverse neurologic disorders.

A mouse model is to thought disorders as the telescope was to learning about the universe. It's progress we can celebrate.

Friday, January 04, 2008

Treating impulsive aggression: HUGE placebo effect is better than Risperdal

Impulsive and irritable aggression is a big issue in low IQ adults and children. Risperdal, in particular, has been heavily prescribed for this problem over the past ten years.

One study in adults suggests it doesn't really work; but note that it's approved in the US for children with autism -- it wasn't studied in that group. (The journalists language, btw, implies it's often used for mere ADHD alone; that's not true.)

The amazing part of this study, was the placebo effect.
Drugs Offer No Benefit in Curbing Aggression, Study Finds - New York Times

The drugs most widely used to manage aggressive outbursts in intellectually disabled people are no more effective than placebos for most patients and may be less so, researchers report....

In recent years, many doctors have begun to use the so-called antipsychotic drugs, which were developed to treat schizophrenia, as all-purpose tranquilizers to settle threatening behavior — in children with attention-deficit problems, college students with depression, older people with Alzheimer’s disease and intellectually handicapped people...

The new study tracked 86 adults with low I.Q.’s in community housing in England, Wales and Australia over more than a month of treatment. It found a 79 percent reduction in aggressive behavior among those taking dummy pills, compared with a reduction of 65 percent or less in those taking antipsychotic drugs.

The researchers focused on two drugs, Risperdal by Janssen, and an older drug, Haldol, but said the findings almost certainly applied to all similar medications. Such drugs account for more than $10 billion in annual sales, and research suggests that at least half of all prescriptions are for unapproved “off label” uses — often to treat aggression or irritation...

... Previous studies of the drugs’ effect on aggressive outbursts have been mixed, with some showing little benefit and others a strong calming influence. But the drugs have serious side effects, including rapid weight gain and tremors, and doctors have had little rigorous evidence to guide practice.

... Janssen, a Johnson & Johnson subsidiary, said that Risperdal only promotes approved uses, which in this country include the treatment of irritability associated with autism in children.

In the study, Dr. Peter J. Tyrer, a professor of psychiatry at Imperial College London, led a research team who assigned 86 people from ages 18 to 65 to one of three groups: one that received Risperdal; one that received another antipsychotic, the generic form of Haldol; and one that was given a placebo pill. Caregivers tracked the participants’ behavior. Many people with very low I.Q.’s are quick to anger and lash out at others, bang their heads or fists into the wall in frustration, or singe the air with obscenities when annoyed.

After a month, people in all three groups had settled down, losing their temper less often and causing less damage when they did. Yet unexpectedly, those in the placebo group improved the most, significantly more so than those on medication....
Holy cow. That's one hell of a placebo effect.

A typical placebo effect should have been around 30% improvement. In that case Risperdal would be looking great today.

In this group the placebo effect is MUCH larger than expected.

If this is born out in f/u studies, we need to figure out how to leverage that. Why was the placebo effect so large? Was it due to a change how peers and caregivers treated the study participants? A synergistic effect between the study participants expectations and behaviors and those of his (most are male) caregivers?

There are two interesting results in this study, but if we can harness that placebo effect then the net result is actually very positive for special needs adults. We don't know if children would have such a huge placebo response, so the study needs to be repeated in children.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

OS X: automated spoken summary of email messages

This post is about using OS X's built-in summary and speech functions for persons with limited vision, but it's probably broadly useful to anyone with language challenges.
Gordon's Tech: Email Summary and speech

.... My mother's vision is failing. This is something she could use, though I've already programme done key to active the built-in generic reading engine. Too bad doesn't let me attach a script to a nice fat icon, but I might create a rule that would routinely read each message she opens. (Rules are hidden away in mail preferences -- which is not a logical place for that function.)"

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Tips for academic organization

Giving Disorganized Boys the Tools for Success - New York Times doesn't have any major new advice, but it describes typical organizational measures that should probably be started in grade school.