“I am grateful for public television’s courageous stand”

The host of "The UltraMind Solution" responds to Salon's critical article of his PBS medical special.

Topics: Environment, PBS, Science

The value of public television consists in its independent and often farsighted advocacy for ideas and information that elevate the public consciousness, lighten the heart and inspire the mind. Dr. Robert Burton’s Salon article, “PBS’s latest infomercial,” does a disservice by discrediting public television while ignoring shifts in scientific research on systems biology and medicine that hold the promise of solving the puzzle of chronic disease and relieving suffering for millions.

All new ideas encounter challenge and opposition. As Einstein astutely noted, “Great spirits often encounter violent opposition from mediocre minds.” Paradigms don’t shift quietly in the night. A true scientist seeks to understand and inquire into the nature of phenomena. Unfortunately, Dr. Burton seeks to discredit and destroy without an attempt to understand.

Dr. Burton is steeped in 20th-century ideas of reductionist medicine — concepts that no longer represent the fundamental understanding of biological laws and principles emerging in the genomic era. Rather than just describe the phenomena we observe and call by the name of disease, we are able to reframe what we see by mechanisms and cause, not symptoms. The separate specialty disciplines such as neurology or psychiatry describe and treat disease based on disease categories that are no longer relevant as we understand the underlying mechanisms and causes of those diseases.

As the director of the National Institutes of Mental Health, Thomas Insel, M.D., said to me, the “DMS IV” (the psychiatric diagnostic bible) has 100 percent accuracy but 0 percent validity. What he means is simple — the names we have for diseases help us describe groups of people with common symptoms, but tell us nothing about the fundamental mechanisms of, causes of or right treatments for those “diseases.”

Clearly I recognize the magnitude of suffering from mental illness, cognitive and behavioral problems and the burden suffered by so many. That is why I wrote “The UltraMind Solution” and created the companion public television special, to bring forth emerging science in a way that can be understood and acted upon by the public at large. Every statement or claim in the book (and the public television special) is supported by numerous scientific references (attached here).

Through explaining the new paradigm or model of systems medicine in lay terms, I sought to empower individuals to take advantage of emerging science to address the fundamental causes of their suffering. The role of lifestyle, nutrition and environmental toxins on mood and cognitive disorders is undisputed and overwhelming.

The concepts and science outlined in the show and the book are founded in research being done at the National Institutes of Health’s New Road Map Initiative on Systems Medicine, and were recently the topic for a summit of 600 leaders, scientists and educators in this field at the Institute of Medicine held at the National Academy of Sciences. I also recently was invited to testify on functional medicine (Applied Clinical Systems Medicine) before the Senate working group on healthcare reform and met with key officials in the White House. We are beginning a major research program in this field at one of the world’s leading medical institutions, the details of which will be finalized and announced within the next few months.

Rather than disregard present medical knowledge and research, as Dr. Burton suggests I do in my work, I seek to bring it front and center, not “cherry-pick” the research. Across every medical discipline and specialty, the role of inflammation is clear and beyond dispute. Cardiovascular disease, cancer, obesity, osteoporosis, depression, Alzheimer’s and autism as well as asthma, allergies and autoimmune disease are among the many chronic diseases linked by common underlying mechanisms including inflammation. The data is overwhelming. Unfortunately the “mainstream medical wisdom” that Dr. Burton seeks to protect often no longer reflects the emerging science. Clearly Dr. Burton has not reviewed the nearly 500 scientific references (quite a lot of cherries) in my book that link a few underlying mechanisms to nearly all chronic diseases.

He also seeks to distort and discredit scientific information. Dr. Martha Herbert has demonstrated larger brains of autistic children on MRIs and has linked those to inflammatory changes documented by Dr. Vargas. She is a personal colleague, friend and research collaborator. Her work overwhelmingly has linked immune dysfunction and inflammation to the enlarged brains of autistic children.

Note to Dr. Burton: Immune dysfunction, and diffuse inflammation in the brains of autistic children, is the cause of the swollen brains.

Confusingly, Dr. Burton contradicts himself, simply pointing out that there appears to be inflammation in brains of autistic children but not signs of inflammation in the circulation, so the brain inflammation is therefore irrelevant. That is certainly not the conclusion of Dr. Vargas. In her landmark paper, “Neuroglial activation and neuroinflammation in the brain of patients with autism,” she says:

We demonstrate an active neuroinflammatory process in the cerebral cortex, white matter, and notably in cerebellum of autistic patients. Spinal fluid (CSF) showed a unique proinflammatory profile of cytokines [inflammatory proteins] … Our findings indicate that innate neuroimmune reactions play a pathogenic role in an undefined proportion of autistic patients.

Note to Dr. Burton: Pathogenic (disease causing) role, not “association,” is what the research findings of Dr. Vargas shows.

In a surprising distortion of the basic thesis of systems biology, Dr. Burton suggests I say that inflammation is the cause of dementia, depression or autism. I never state that inflammation is the “cause” but the mechanism common to so many chronic diseases. The causes are myriad, including poor diet high in sugar and trans fats and processed foods, infections, allergens, toxins and stress. Those create disease and pathology through the mechanism of inflammation. Addressing those causes and modulating inflammation through diet, lifestyle and environmental modifications is how the doctors of the future will practice medicine. Hopefully the future will not be too far off. This is the model of science and medicine that is the foundation of the show, my book and the field of functional medicine. But what is functional medicine?

Functional medicine is not a unique and separate body of knowledge, but it does represent a different way of applying the scientific and clinical information that emerges from the research literature and from the clinical practices of many disciplines. It is a way of thinking about disease based on how all the body’s systems work together. It helps doctors find the cause and understand the mechanism instead of just treat symptoms while the underlying disease process continues.

Change does not come easy, and will certainly incite ardent detractors. It may be helpful to remember Schopenhauer’s words: “All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

 I am grateful for public television’s courageous stand for what is right, however difficult that may be.


Robert Burton responds here.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>