Psychopharmacology Made Simple: What’s it like when Wellbutrin works?

Wellbutrin (bupropion) works quite differently from SSRIs such as Lexapro (escitalopram), the subject of a previous blog post.

How does it work? Per UpToDate[1], “like other antidepressants the mechanism of bupropion’s activity is not fully understood”. [2]


Clinically, it’s useful to think of it as a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor, or SNRI. It helps depressed mood, low energy level, hypersomnia (sleeping too much), and anhedonia. [3] It’s quite different from the SSRIs, which help anxiety, rumination, and irritability.

Here is one patient’s experience with it. He reported chronic depression for many years that worsened in the last 12 months since he became clean and sober, and got even worse when he quit his lifelong smoking habit, which  increased his irritability. “I want to sleep all day. I have no passion to do anything I used to love doing. I’m not interested or excited by anything.” He had been attending AA meetings daily, then decreased for the last couple of months to 1 or 2 meetings/week. He had no sponsor. He hadn’t progressed beyond the third step because “I feel worn out when I think about picking up a book”.

He started Wellbutrin XL 150 mg/day for one week, and then increased to 300 mg/day, but after 3 days on the higher dosage, he called me to report he was “waking up at 4 AM, ready to go, with a lot of energy. I started to get racy, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, I had  little shocks, “air hiccups”, like I was out of breath. Last night I felt a lot of anxiety, panicky, my heart was heart racing.”


Dosing of Wellbutrin has to be individualized. Some people need 300 mg, some can’t tolerate it and do better on 150 mg. I told him to stop it for a day or two until his symptoms resolved, and then to restart on 150 mg/day.


I saw him one month after he reported the side effects.  “The Wellbutrin is doing good; I feel pretty normal, not elated. Before, I couldn’t get out of bed, I had very low energy, I wanted to sleep 18 hours/day, be horizontal, I felt worn out all the time”. Now, he reported he was going to more meetings, 2-3/day, and working his program.


For depression, one of the  most common conditions seen in outpatient practice, either the SSRIs or the SNRI bupropion are probably the most common first medications tried. [4]



[1] UpToDate is an evidence based, peer reviewed medical information resource.

[2] Wikipedia notes that it is characterized as a weak norepinephrine-dopamine reuptake inhibitor (NDRI). Bupropion is converted into several active metabolites that “are present in much higher concentrations in the body compared to bupropion itself. The most important example is the major metabolite of bupropion, hydroxybupropion, a selective norepinephrine reuptake inhibitor (and likely releasing agent) and nicotinic acetylcholine receptor (nAChR) antagonist … which, with oral bupropion treatment, can reach area under the curve (AUC) plasma concentrations that are as much as 16–20 times greater than those of bupropion itself.”

[3] Anhedonia, or the inability to experience pleasure, is one of the cardinal symptoms of depression. I ask, “Is there stuff you enjoyed doing before (exercising, being with friends, reading, watching movies) that you don’t do now?”

[4] Somewhat analogous to e4 and d4, probably the two most common  first moves in chess, and, like chess, there are infinite variations after these simple beginnings.

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What does hypomania look like?

Hypomanic states are rarely observed by the psychiatric clinician. Bipolar  patients are much more commonly depressed  (according to Judd et al, bipolar II patients spent only 1.3% of the time in hypomania over 13 years of follow-up).  accessed 1/14/17


The manifestations of hypomania are often quite subtle. By definition, in hypomania the patient is not psychotic, does not need hospitalization, and has no marked impairment in social or occupational functioning.


I am indebted to a patient, whom I have treated for 10 years, and who takes several mood-stabilizing medications, for providing a vivid example of hypomania, and the damage that can result.

Her hypomanic states are infrequent, once every 3 months. They occur 3 days before her period, and end when she gets her menses. First she has extra energy, then she stops sleeping for 1-2 days, then feels “light, happy, like I can do no wrong” for one day, and then crashes and goes back to normal.

She only recognizes her hypomania after the episode has ended. When her partner tries to point it out to her, she becomes irritable and can’t hear her. Earlier in her life, she went shopping when hypomanic.

Unfortunately, considerable damage can result from the impaired judgment typical of hypomanic states. In this case, the patient was involved in litigation. She decided to edit and “improve” a document which had already been submitted to opposing counsel “because I thought it didn’t look professional enough”, without  informing her attorney or asking his opinion. The unfortunate result was that her lawsuit, from which she was likely to get a substantial award, was thrown out, and she was fined a large sum for altering the document.

It is much easier for patients to recognize their depressions than their hypomanias. In hypomania, they feel good and often become irritable when others try to inform them something is not right. Perhaps the best approach is to learn what your hypomanic symptoms look like and to work out in advance what your significant others can say or do to get through to you.

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Trans-Atlantic differences on drinking in pregnancy, and the pleasures of literary fiction

The English have a somewhat more relaxed attitude towards drinking in pregnancy than we do in the States.

From the RCOG:

“It is recommended that you do not drink alcohol during the first three months of pregnancy. Drinking small amounts of alcohol after this time does not appear to be harmful for the unborn baby, but you should not:

• drink more than one or two units, and then not more than once or twice per week

• binge drink (which for a woman is when she has six units or more of alcohol on any one occasion).”

Vs the CDC:

“Every woman who is pregnant or trying to get pregnant – and her partner – want a healthy baby. But they may not be aware that drinking any alcohol at any stage of pregnancy can cause a range of disabilities for their child,” said Coleen Boyle, Ph.D., director of CDC’s National Center on Birth Defects and Developmental Disabilities. “It is critical for healthcare providers to assess a woman’s drinking habits during routine medical visits; advise her not to drink at all if she is pregnant, trying to get pregnant or sexually active and not using birth control; and recommend services if she needs help to stop drinking.”

Ian McEwan’s latest novel, Nutshell (“Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space – were it not that I have bad dreams.” Shakespeare, Hamlet), is told from the point of view of a rather sophisticated fetus 2 weeks prior to a full-term birth, during an English summer, using the plot of Hamlet as a frame: his mother Trudy (Queen Gertrude in Hamlet), and his uncle, Claude (King Claudius in Hamlet) are scheming to murder his father (a poet, in the novel).

Here are 3 excerpts from the novel portraying the fetus’s view of drinking:

“I like to share a glass with my mother. You may never have experienced, or you will have forgotten, a good burgundy (her favorite) or a good Sancerre (also her favorite) decanted through a healthy placenta. Even before the wine arrives – tonight, a Jean-Max Roger Sancerre – at the sound of a drawn cork, I feel it on my face like the caress of a summer breeze. I know that alcohol will lower my intelligence. It lowers everyone’s intelligence. But oh, a joyous, blushful Pinot Noir, or a gooseberried Sauvignon, sets me turning and tumbling across my secret sea, reeling off the walls of my castle, the bouncy castle that is my home. Or it did so when I had more space. Now I take my pleasures sedately, and by the second glass my speculations bloom with that license whose name is poetry. My thoughts unspool in well-sprung pentameters, end-stopped and run-on lines in pleasing variation. But she never takes a third, and it wounds me.

“I have to think of baby,” I hear her say as she covers her glass with a priggish hand. That’s when I have it in mind to reach for my oily cord, as one might a velvet rope in a well-staffed country house, and pull sharply for service. What ho! Another round here for us friends!

But no, she restrains herself for love of me.”

Ian McEwen, Nutshell, pages 6-7, 2016, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday

“A few minutes ago the radio told us it was four o’clock. We’re sharing a glass, perhaps a bottle, of Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc. Not my first choice, and for the same grape and a less grassy taste, I would have gone for a Sancerre, preferably from Chauvignol. A degree of flinty mineral definition would have mitigated the blunt assault of direct sunlight and oven blast of heat reflected off the cracked façade of our house.

But we’re in New Zealand, it’s in us, and I’m happier than I’ve been in two days. Trudy cools our wine with plastic cubes of frozen ethanol.”

Nutshell, page 31.

And finally (and best of all):

“Trudy and I are getting drunk again and feeling better, while Claude, starting later and with greater body mass, has ground to cover. She and I share two glasses of the Sancerre, he drinks the rest, then returns to his plastic bag for a burgundy. The grey plastic bottle of glycol (which will later be used to poison his father) stands next to the empty, sentinel to our revels. Or memento mori. After a piercing white, a Pinot Noir is a mother’s soothing hand. Oh, to be alive while such a grape exists! A blossom, a bouquet of peace and reason. No one seems to want to read aloud the label so I’m forced to make a guess, and hazard an Echezeaux Grand Cru. Put Claude’s penis or, less stressful, a gun to my head to name the domaine, I would blurt out la Romanee-Conti, for the spicy cassis and black cherry alone. The hint of violets and fine tannins suggests that lazy, clement summer of 2005, untainted by heatwaves, though a teasing, next-room aroma of mocha, as well as more proximal black-skinned banana, summon Jean Grivot’s domaine in 2009. But I’ll never know. As the brooding ensemble of flavours, formed at civilisations’s summit, makes its way to me, through me, I find myself, in the midst of horror, in reflective mood.”

Nutshell, pages 51-52.

But, beyond illustrating trans-Atlantic cultural differences, I have one other reason for sharing these excerpts with you. A patient lamented yesterday that the pressures of her work for a famous tech company  left her longing for a break, which she wouldn’t have until an island vacation that was months away. And likewise we doctors need to have a  healthy way to relieve the pressures of our work. I  would argue that, for those who love and appreciate great writing, literary fiction can provide a break from the stress of work and daily life that is more readily available, more mentally refreshing, and more spiritually rejuvenating than even the banal pleasures of a resort holiday.

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How long to give an SSRI to work ?

An important review article and meta-analysis, Early Treatment Responses of Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and clomipramine in pediatric OCD was published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (October, 2016, p 851-859).


The most important finding was that “more than 85% of the improvement observed on SSRI compared to placebo in pediatric OCD trials was observed by week 2”. The current guidelines state that an 8 to 12 week trial of SSRIs is necessary, for both children and adults, although adults have a similarly rapid response.


Also, in answer to patients’ common question, “which SSRI is the best?”, there was no “significant differences among individual SSRI agents” (fluoxetine, fluvoxamine, sertraline, paroxetine).


There was no effect of maximum SSRI dosing (previously, it has been posited that OCD response required higher dosages, than, say, depression, and previous adult meta-analyses showed greater therapeutic response with higher SSRI dosages).


Clomipramine, a tricyclic antidepressant, also showed a rapid response (75% of benefit by week 2), and was more effective than SSRIs, compared to placebo (there were no direct drug-drug comparisons). However, clomipramine is not viewed as the first choice, due to its higher side effect burden of “weight gain, anticholinergic side effects, and arrhythmias”.


The major clinical implication of this article is that if there is no or minimal response after 2 weeks of SSRI treatment  in pediatric OCD, one should start seriously thinking about changing medications. It also suggests that the follow-up visit should be 2 weeks after starting the new medication, and not 4.


Apparently this is the case not only in OCD, but in major depression, and in both children and adults.

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J shaped risk curves versus linear risk curves: drinking versus smoking

Too often, when I ask patients if they smoke cigarettes, I hear, “Oh, only 2 or 3 a day”, as if, not a problem, no big deal, like saying, “when I play Russian roulette, there’s only one bullet in the gun”.

There was a nice little article in JAMA recently explain why sometimes even a little bit matters.

If you plot relative risk of mortality on the y-axis, and number of cigarettes/day on the x-axis, you see a simple linear association. Each cigarette smoked increases mortality risk. So with  1-4 cigarettes/day, the relative risk is 1.5, 5-9 cigarettes 2.0, 20-24, 3.0.

In contrast, alcohol, measured in drinks/day, has a j shaped curve. “Consumption of up to 2 drinks/day in women and 4 drinks/day in men was associated with lower mortality than zero consumption, with about one-half drink per day associated with the lowest mortality risk.”

So, better not to smoke.

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Thinking about sleep: Maiken Nedergaard and the function of deep sleep

All animals sleep, even flies (research with the fruit fly Drosophila revealed the presence of clock genes).  All mammals have REM (rapid eye movement) and non-REM sleep. Human infants sleep 16 hours/day (if their parents are lucky); adults sleep 8 hours/day; elderly adults 5.5 hours/day. (S Lockley and R Foster: Sleep: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2012, pages 48-49).

Continuous sleep deprivation kills rodents and flies within days to weeks.

But why do we sleep? It would seem to be an evolutionary disadvantage. We are more vulnerable to predators when asleep. We could be working instead of sleeping. Korean secondary-school students attend hagwons (private cram academies) for five hours after school, then go home at 10 PM to study until past midnight (The Economist, September 19-25, 2015). If they didn’t have to sleep, they could study all night.

So sleep must perform some very important functions. But what?

Maiken Nedergaard, a neuroscientist at the University of Rochester (more specifically, an astroglial biologist), appears to have answered the non-REM portion of this question, in her paper “Sleep Drives Metabolic Clearance from the Adult Brain” (Science Vol 342, 10/18/2013, p. 373-377)

Other bodily organs rid themselves of waste protein products by using bulk flow of fluid between cells to wash them into the blood or lymphatic system, which carry them to the liver, where they are metabolized.

The brain uses 20% of the body’s energy supply. Yet it has no lymphatic system. How does it get rid of its waste products, such as beta-amyloid (Alzheimer’s), alpha-synuclein (Parkinson’s disease, Lewy body dementia), and tau (Alzheimer’s), to name a few, all of which are present in the interstitial fluid surrounding brain cells.

This question becomes more interesting when one considers that “essentially all neurodegenerative diseases are associated with misaccumulation of cellular waste products. Of these, misfolded or hyperphosphorylated proteins are among the most difficult for the brain to dispose of. For example tau and beta-amyloid can accumulate as stable aggregates that are neurotoxic in conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.”

Nedergaard describes the glymphatic system, or, less politely, the “Garbage Truck of the Brain”.

Astrocytes express a water channel, the aquaporin 4 water channel (AQP4). Penetrating arteries which end in the brain are covered by astrocytic endfeet which express AQP4. This perivascular space around the arteries is a “highway for fast influx”, which can be observed with radiolabeled tracer.

In a three-step process, first cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) passes from the para-arterial space, through the aquaporin 4 (AQP4) water channels, into the interstitial space, where “vectorial convective fluxes drive waste products away from the arteries and toward the veins”, and CSF exchanges with interstitial fluid (ISF). Then the ISF and its waste products enter the paravenous space, eventually reaching lymphatic vessels in the neck, and later the systemic circulation, where the proteins travel to the liver, where they are metabolized. The brain has better things to do than chopping up the garbage.

The AQP4 water channels in the astroglial endfeet are crucial to this process (AQP4- knockout mice have a 65% reduction in beta amyloid clearance). In traumatic brain injury and stroke, AQP4 gets “mislocated to the cell body of astrocytes or to astrocytic processes that do not abut the vasculature”, and protein clearance “declines substantially”.

The interstitial concentration of beta amyloid is higher in awake rodents and humans than it is in sleeping ones. One possibility is that “wakefulness is associated with increased beta amyloid production”.

Nedergaard tested “the alternative hypothesis that beta amyloid clearance is increased during sleep and that the sleep-wake cycle regulates glymphatic clearance”.

Her group found that CSF influx into the brain was decreased by 95% in awake mice, compared to  sleeping mice or mice anaesthetized with ketamine/xylazine. (Ketamine has recently been discovered to be a very rapidly acting treatment for bipolar depression, but its antidepressant effect lasts only 1-2 weeks. One wonders if its short duration of action suggests that it clears the brain of garbage, which soon returns, leading to relapse.)

CSF influx into the brain  is “in part driven by arterial pulse waves that propel the movement of CSF inward along periarterial spaces”.

“Convective glymphatic fluxes of cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) and interstitial fluid propel the waste products of neuronal metabolism (proteins, peptides, lactate, ammonia, amyloid) into the paravenous space from which they are directed into lymphatic vessels and ultimately returned to the general circulation for clearance by the kidney and the liver.” This is analogous to garbage removal by “street sweeping” with liquid.

To manipulate the glymphatic system (the garbage highway from the glial endfeet lining the arteries, through the extracellular space, to the paravenous spaces, and the lymph channels), 4 methods were employed, all of which decreased efflux:

1.        AQP40 knockout mice: decreased fluid influx

2.        Cisternotomy: this opening eliminated the low-pressure system

3.        Acetazolamide: blocked CSF fluid production

4.        Sleep deprivation

After traumatic brain injury, increased protein markers are noted in plasma; but all 4 of the above interventions blocked the increase.

(Footnote: This glymphatic process calls to mind both the first sentence of James Joyce’s novel of sleep, Finnegans Wake:  “riverrun, past Eve and Adam’s, from swerve of shore to bend of bay, brings us by a commodius vicus of recirculation back to Howth Castle and Environs.”, and Steven Dedalus’s comment in Ulysses: “All Ireland is washed by the gulfstream.”)

Nedergaard points out that this process was first discovered by Patricia Grady in the early 1980’s, when she observed the movement of horseradish peroxidase into the brain. Attempts by others to replicate her work failed because the replicators used a “cranial window” cut into the skull, which destroyed the low pressure which drives the system. She left science and is now director of nursing at the NIH.

If pulse were the driving force behind the diurnal variation, one would expect to see greater influx during the day, when arterial blood pressure is higher than when asleep. Instead, one sees the opposite.

This system, Nedegaard reasoned, is like plumbing: all that matters is pressure and resistance. Pulse pressure is bigger when one is awake and alert. Yet influx is less. So therefore there must be less resistance while asleep.

“An alternative possibility is that the awake brain state is linked to a reduction in the volume of the interstitial space because a constricted interstitial space would increase resistance to convective fluid movement and suppress CSF influx”.

Nedegaard used techniques developed by Charles Nicholson to assess the volume and tortuosity of the interstitial space in awake, sleeping, and anaesthetized  mice, and found that the interstitial space volume fraction averaged 23.4% in sleeping mice, and 14.1% in awake mice. Both sleeping and anaesthetized mice had  higher levels of slow (delta) wave sleep. “Thus, the cortical interstitial volume fraction is 13  to 15% in the awake state as compared to 22 to 24% in sleeping or anaesthetized mice.” There was no change in tortuosity.

Interestingly, other studies have shown that the interstitial volume declines by 1/3 in aged mice compared to young mice. “The smaller space during wakefulness increases tissue resistance to interstitial fluid flux and inward movement of CSF.” The smaller space in aged animals (and humans) would make it harder to clear out the garbage/amyloid; neurodegenerative diseases are more common in the elderly.

Beta amyloid was cleared twice as fast in sleeping as in awake mice. Before the streets of the brain are swept, they are widened, not by removal of parked cars, as in Santa Monica, but by shrinkage of brain cells into their quiet, resting state.

Nedergaard next asked “what drives the brain state-dependent changes of the interstitial space volume?” Her observation that anesthesia increases glymphatic influx and efflux led her to hypothesize that it is not circadian rhythm but the sleep wake state itself.

Since noradrenergic neurons in the locus coeruleus drive cortical networks into the awake state, Nedergaard administered a cocktail of adrenergic antagonists (prazosin (α1 adrenergic receptor antagonist, which improves sleep in patients with PTSD), atipamezole (α2 adrenergic receptor antagonist), and propranolol (non-selective beta adrenergic receptor blocker) and found that they induced an increase in CSF tracer influx comparable to the sleep state, and increased the interstitial volume fraction from 14.3 to 22.6%.  The antagonists also increased the prevalence of slow, delta waves. “Norepinephrine is the master regulator of ISS volume”, she notes.

Nedergaard can be seen talking about “The Nightlife of the Brain” at the National Institute of Health (2/11/2015) at the NIH website (534 views ( or, more efficiently, on YouTube (the NIH website frequently freezes; 821 views)

She also spoke at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on the Glymphatic System on 12/12/2014. . (1043 views).

So, clearance of brain garbage occurs primarily during slow wave, or deep (N3, formerly called stage 3-4) sleep.

Now, sleep problems occur very early in the course of Alzheimer’s disease (AD), even during mild cognitive impairment, often an Alzheimer’s precursor, with less slow wave sleep (SWS). (Ju, Lucey, Holtzman: Sleep and Alzheimer disease pathology-a bidirectional relationship. Nature Reviews Neurology 10: February 2014, 115-119; ). Alzheimer’s pathology begins 10-15 years before cognitive symptoms appear, when soluble beta amyloid becomes insoluble and aggregates into amyloid plaques.  Amyloid accumulation disrupts sleep; disrupted sleep “increases the risk of beta amyloid accumulation in mice, as well as dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease in humans”.

While chronic sleep deprivation “accelerates beta amyloid deposition into insoluble amyloid plaques”, improving sleep “through treatment with an orexin inhibitor antagonist decreased beta amyloid plaque deposition” in mice. “One obvious approach is to investigate whether improving the quality of sleep in humans can either reduce the risk of AD or delay the progression of preclinical to symptomatic AD.”

In a more recent paper, Holtzman suggests that “considering the profound protective effect of almorexant on beta amyloid plaque burden in mice, the orexin system is a high priority target. The recent approval of suvorexant, the first Food and Drug Administration approved orexin receptor antagonist, provides an excellent opportunity to evaluate orexin-targeted therapeutics on Aβ dynamics and cognitive endpoints in early-stage or presymptomatic AD.”

So, in summary:

  1. The brain rids itself of garbage during deep sleep (n3, non-REM, slow wave), by expanding interstitial fluid volume (due to neuronal cell shrinkage?), and washing away detritus in a slow moving stream of extracellular fluid. Failure to remove amyloid leads to amyloid plaque deposition and cognitive impairment.
  2. Treatments that can enhance stage N3 sleep (deep, non-REM, slow wave), whether medication or behavioral ( ), might help clear garbage such as amyloid and prevent or delay the onset of neurodegenerative disease. Medication possibilities that increase slow wave sleep include gabapentin, trazodone, prazosin, and suvorexant. Interestingly, very low carbohydrate diets increased the percentage of deep, slow wave, stage 4 (n3) sleep, in young males.
  3. Things that decrease slow wave sleep (alcohol, medications, poor sleep habits, sleep apnea, benzodiazepines, opiates) would impair garbage clearance, and increase the risk of neurodegenerative disease.
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Can I bring my medications on vacation?

A patient emailed me recently: he was going to a few countries in Europe. Could he take his medications with him? He was on a schedule II stimulant.

I think it’s a good idea, before visiting a new country, to check out a few websites:

The first is the US State Department’s Alerts and Warnings Page to see if anything really dangerous is happening where you’re going.

Then, on the same page, check out the information for the individual country you’re going to:

Finally, check out the Center for Disease Control Website to see if there are any medical concerns where you’re going.

It turns out that taking a prescribed stimulant to Europe is legal (keep the medication in the original  prescription bottle).

But every country is different, and the laws in the United States are very different from those of other countries, in some surprising ways.

For example, taking a schedule II stimulant into Japan is illegal, with the exception of Concerta (the only schedule II stimulant allowed in Japan for the treatment of ADHD). Adderall, Vyvanse, dextroamphetamine, etc are illegal, even in the original bottle, with a copy of the prescription and a note from the prescribing physician. So are over the counter inhalers containing pseudoephedrine.

“However, it is illegal to bring into Japan some over-the-counter medicines commonly used in the United States, including inhalers and some allergy and sinus medications. Specifically, products that contain stimulants (medicines that contain pseudoephedrine, such as Actifed, Sudafed, and Vicks inhalers) or codeine are prohibited. You can generally bring up to one month’s supply of allowable prescription medicine into Japan. You must bring a copy of your doctor’s prescription as well as a letter stating the purpose of the drug. However, some U.S. prescription medications, such as Adderall, cannot be imported into Japan, even when accompanied by a customs declaration and a copy of the prescription.”  (my emphasis)  (under the heading: Local Laws and Special Circumstances, and sub-heading: Confiscation of Prescription Drugs and Other Medication

This is not a misprint. From another source:

Prescription Medications

“Heroin, cocaine, MDMA, opium, cannabis, stimulant drugs including some  prescription medications such as Adderall, and including some medications available over-the-counter in the U.S. are prohibited in Japan.  There are no exceptions in bringing these prohibited medications into Japan, even if the medication is legally obtained outside of Japan.  The import of stimulant drugs such as methamphetamines and amphetamines in particular are strictly prohibited, even when accompanied by a customs declaration and a copy of the prescription. Japanese customs officials or police can detain travelers importing prohibited items. Japanese customs officials do not make on-the-spot “humanitarian” exceptions for medicines that are prohibited in Japan.”

And another:

“When bringing prescription medications to Japan you may have items inspected and cleared upon arrival by the Customs Agency, and avoid further processing if the following conditions apply:…

Items are not prohibited drugs in Japan such as stimulants (i.e. Adderall)

There are no exceptions in the case of (stimulants), even if the medication is legally obtained outside of Japan. The import of stimulants such as methamphetamines or amphetamines, as well as precursors such as ephedrine or pseudoephedrine exceeding a certain concentration level, is prohibited by the Stimulants Control Law.

Even more curiously, if one had the illusion that the world is rational, while one cannot bring legally prescribed Adderall or Vyvanse into Japan, one can bring in the following with no problem

“If you intend to import / export the psychotropics equal to or less than theamount indicated in the Table (excluding injection form), you don’t need a certificate written by your doctor nor the permission by authorities under the “Narcotics and Psychotropics Control Law”.


1. Secobarbital, up to 6 grams (a barbiturate, rarely used now due to narrow therapeutic index (too easy to overdose on)

2. Mecloqualone, up to 9 grams: per Wikipedia, “Mecloqualone is faster-acting but shorter-lasting than methaqualone and so was used only as a sleeping pill, in contrast to methaqualone, which was used as a general-purpose anxiolytic as well. Mecloqualone was never as widely used as methaqualone and is no longer prescribed because of concerns about its potential for abuse and overdose. In the United States it is a Schedule I non-narcotic (depressant) controlled substance with an ACSCN of 2572 and zero annual aggregate manufacturing quota. It is most often seen these days as a component in purported Quāāludes (resulting from incomplete synthesis of methaqualone) from underground labs.”

3. glutethimide, up to 15 grams: glutethimide is Doriden. Per Wikipedia, “Glutethimide is a hypnotic sedative that was introduced by Ciba in 1954 as a safe alternative to barbiturates to treat insomnia. Before long, however, it had become clear that glutethimide was just as likely to cause addiction and caused similarly severe withdrawal symptoms… Current production levels in the United States (the annual quota for manufacturing imposed by the DEA has been three grams, enough for six Doriden tablets, for a number of years) point to it only being used in small scale research.

So you’re allowed to bring 15 mg of this into Japan, with no problem: this is equivalent to 5 times the annual quota for the entire United States.

In overview, one is allowed to bring in a month of benzodiazepines (diazepam: 1200 mg (Valium), zolpidem (Ambien) 300 mg, and a variety of amphetamine like appetite suppressants (phendimetrazine 3.15 g, phentermine 1.125 g, benzfetamine 1.5 g)

Finally, meprobamate 18 grams: continuing our tour of pharmaceuticals popular in the Mad Men era, meprobamate (Miltown) was  “launched in 1955 and  rapidly became the first blockbuster psychotropic drug in American history, becoming popular in Hollywood and gaining notoriety for its seemingly miraculous effects” (Wikipedia) in relieving anxiety. Like glutethimide, it soon became apparent that it was as dangerous as the barbiturates. “By 1957, over 36 million prescriptions had been filled for meprobamate in the US alone, a billion pills had been manufactured, and it accounted for fully a third of all prescriptions written” (Wikipedia). In 1965, the Medical Letter reported meprobamate was addictive; in 1970, it became a controlled substance; in 2012, the European Union withdrew its marketing authorization; in 2013, Canada did the same.

But I digress. Back to Japan and Adderall, with an example of what happens when one brings prescribed stimulants into Japan:

Carrie Russell was a 26 year old college graduate,  diagnosed with ADHD at the age of 7, whose mother, a physician, shipped her a 90 day supply of Adderall (prescribed by Carrie’s family practitioner), in a “care package”,  when she was in  South Korea. (Her mother removed her  Adderall from the prescription bottle and put them in a Tylenol bottle, because she was worried they might be stolen if properly labeled). Carrie mailed the box to Nagoya, Japan, where she planned to teach English. “At 11 p.m. on Feb. 20, according to Russell’s Portland-area family, five plain-clothed police officers in black suits burst into a Tokyo restaurant where the 26-year-old American was dining with friends. They took her into custody. She was taken 275 miles west to Nagoya, where she was incarcerated in a women’s detention center outside the city.” She was released after 18 days in custody after the Caroline Kennedy, the Ambassador to Japan, intervened.  She gave her Japanese prison experience a good review:

“Russell said that although her arrest was shocking, the detention center “was not anything terrifying,” Russell said. “The facility was clean. We had daily chores.”  Inmates were served bento meals, Russell said, each with rice as a staple and small portions of noodles, potatoes, vegetables and other food. She said she learned some more Japanese language, such as, “How to say, ‘open,’ how to say, ‘refill my water,'” and, ‘I’m finished with my meal.'”

Interestingly, amphetamine abuse in Japan is quite common: “According to police officials, 2.6 million Japanese had used between 15 and 18 tons of amphetamines in the late 1990′s. This is more than the use of all other illegal drugs combined. Officials state that amphetamines are their biggest challenge. The drugs are popular amongst truck drivers, gang members, partiers, housewives, salary men, people wanting to lose weight, and the rich of Japan. Amphetamines are 10 times the cost in Japan than the United States, but still remain the most favorable drug of choice.”

Apparently, the illegal amphetamine trade is controlled by criminal organizations, such as the Yakuza, whose profits might suffer if these medications could be legally prescribed by physicians, as is the case  in the United States and the European Union. Thus economics helps us understand what appears irrational at first glance. Why would Japan allow in dangerous sedatives without restriction and forbid a medication commonly and safely  used for ADHD in other countries? Apparently because it would interfere with the profits of the criminal elements who control the amphetamine market. Another factor is that mental illness is stigmatized in Japan.








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On Is Adult ADHD a Childhood-Onset Neurodevelopmental Disorder? Evidence From a Four-Decade Longitudinal Cohort Study by T. E. Moffitt et al. Published online: May 22, 2015

This surprising  article will probably  change the way clinicians view and assess adult ADHD and the way DSM-6 conceptualizes it.

DSM-5 considers ADHD a “neurodevelopmental disorder” (page 32) and states that “ADHD begins in childhood” (page 61). Diagnostic Criterion B requires that  “Several inattentive or hyperactive-impulsive symptoms were present prior to age 12 years.”

This study presents surprising, almost shocking, evidence to the contrary.

It’s a “prospective longitudinal study of a representative birth cohort”,  namely “all infants born between April 1972 and March 1973 in Dunedin, New Zealand (N=1,037, 52% male, 7% non-Caucasian). Assessments “were carried out at birth and at ages 3, 5, 7, 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 26, 32, and, most recently, 38, when 95% of the 1,0007 study members still alive took part.”


Childhood ADHD was diagnosed in 61 children, for a cohort prevalence of 6%; adult ADHD was diagnosed at age 38 in 3%.

This is the mind-blowing part: “Unexpectedly, childhood and adult diagnoses comprised virtually non-overlapping sets of individuals. Follow-forward from childhood ADHD to adult ADHD revealed that only 3 (5%) of the cohort’s 61 childhood cases still met diagnostic criteria at age 38.”

The follow-forward result is not that surprising. Other follow-up  studies have shown that the great majority of childhood ADHD patients no longer meet the full ADHD diagnostic criteria in adult life, although they experience substantial life difficulties (few got a university degree, many struggled financially, suicide attempts, criminal convictions, etc).  A meta-analysis reported that “only 16% of childhood ADHD cases continue to meet diagnostic criteria into their 20s”.

It’s the “follow-back” that is surprising. Of the 31 cases of adult ADHD at age 38, only 3 had ADHD in childhood.

So those with  childhood ADHD (79% male, IQs 10 points below normal) did not continue to have adult ADHD, and those with adult ADHD (61% male, normal IQ) did not have childhood ADHD.

Amusingly, among “childhood ADHD cases, only 23% had parents who recalled that their child had core ADHD symptoms or was diagnosed with ADHD. Thus, 77% of documented childhood ADHD cases were forgotten 20 years later.” So, 77% false negatives.

So much for obtaining an accurate history of childhood ADHD from parental informants. In addition, 4% of the comparison subjects’ parents (35 in all) “recalled evidence their child had ADHD”. So, 4% false positives.

Why so high? Perhaps because none of the children received medication, “as prescribing medication for ADHD was rare in New Zealand in the 1970s and 1980s.”

Specific medication treatment was also rare for ADHD in adults: only 4 of the diagnosed adults (13%) had taken appropriate drugs (Ritalin, Dexedrine, Strattera).

The adult ADHD patients had elevated (48%)  rates of substance dependence on alcohol, cannabis and other drugs and persistent tobacco dependence (39%). 70% of them saw a mental health professional, and 48% were prescribed psychotropic medications, primarily for depression and anxiety.

What makes this study special is that it is “the first follow-back prospective study of the childhood origins of individuals diagnosed with DSM-5 adult ADHD”, and it revealed that “the adult syndrome did not represent a continuation from a child-onset neurodevelopmental disorder”.

This suggests that adult ADHD and childhood ADHD are two different disorders. Adult ADHD, in this study, appears not to have a childhood onset.

The authors make several interesting points:

  1. “Ubiquitous comorbidity for adults with ADHD has been reported before, suggesting the hypothesis that ADHD symptoms in adults in their 30s might be the psychiatric equivalent of fever, a syndrome that accompanies many different illnesses and is diagnostically nonspecific but signals treatment need.” (my emphasis)
  2. “A third intriguing possibility is that adult ADHD is a bona fide disorder that has unfortunately been mistaken for the neurodevelopmental disorder of ADHD because of surface similarities, and given the wrong name.”
  3. “Ironically, by requiring childhood onset and neurodevelopmental origins, DSM-5 leaves these impaired adults out of the classification system.”
  4. “If our finding of no childhood-onset neurodevelopmental abnormality for the majority of adult ADHD cases is confirmed by others, then the etiology for adults with an ADHD syndrome will need to be found.”
  5. We suspect that, like us, clinicians often ignore the childhood-onset criterion for adult patients needing treatment.” (my emphasis)

This paper has huge implications.







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Proper Artistic Attitude

In order to analyze Davis’ fresh approach to the translation, I would like to compare her work in a famous passage from the novel …. The passage ends with a beautiful and often quoted simile in which Flaubert compares human speech to a cracked kettle. It marks a turning point in Emma Bovary’s first affair, when Rodolphe begins to grow tired of her and her overwrought expressions of love.

From Lydia Davis’ 2010 translation:

He had heard these things said to him so often that for him there was nothing original about them. Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language. He could not perceive—this man of such broad experience—the differences in feeling that might underlie similarities of expression. Because licentious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he had little faith in their truthfulness; one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed commonplace affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to inspire pity in the stars. (Flaubert, trans. Davis, 167)

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Proper scientific attitude

  • “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
    • Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1855) by Sir David Brewster (Volume II. Ch. 27). Compare: “As children gath’ring pebbles on the shore”, John MiltonParadise Regained, Book iv. Line 330
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