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The Navy SEAL and His Doctor: An experimental brain treatment blows up two lives (rewired.inewsource.org)
140 points by tomohawk 9 days ago | hide | past | web | 41 comments | favorite

I've had a small 3rd party encounter with mental health services here in Virginia.

I got about half way through the article, couldn't finish it. Honestly, what this doctor is doing with TMS sounds just like what I saw the doctors do here. Throw crap at the wall and see what sticks.

Talk with the patient for fifteen minutes, prescribe them a drug cocktail, hold for a few days, say some mumbo jumbo about having a small spirit child inside you. You have to see a judge before we release you. Nevermind, no you don't. Time to go, boot them out the door.

And here's the HN crowd, getting all excited about the potential of micro dosing LSD. I think my baking soda volcano from grade school was more scientific.

I'm not saying there's no point in trying. I'm just saying I think we're over confident in what we think we know. At some point, it starts to feel like we're just making it up as we go along.

Yes that's basically right. We still don't know enough to reliably diagnose the root cause of most mental health problems based on direct tests or observations. So physicians have to prescribe treatments on a trial and error basis using a mix of intuition and scientific evidence until they find something that seems to work reasonably well for the patient. The long-term effects of many drugs — both legal and illegal — are largely unknown and sometimes impossible to reliably determine.

I'm not aware of any "scientific evidence" that physicians use with patients. There's no way to measure depression objectively. An assertion that someone's "brain chemistry" is off holds about as much water as their chi being misaligned. It sounds sciencey, but if you can't measure it, you're making things up.

There are standardized depression screening questionnaires such as PHQ-9. Those are at least somewhat subjective, but they are widely used in large scale double-blind studies of mental health treatments. If a large fraction of subjects report a significant improvement in symptoms relative to the control group then we can have some scientific confidence in the treatment.


Brain chemistry such as neurotransmitter levels is clearly a factor in some mental health conditions. There is no serious dispute of this fact. But it's also clearly not the only factor.

> we're over confident in what we think we know.

This should be HN's tagline.

Very good article to read. Not many places these days bother to cover a story like that.

The behavior evinced by the researcher, Murphy, seems typical of the modern technologist. Hubris, plain and simple. A better scientist would be just as concerned with the failures and rejects as with the successes. His ready ties to the military research centers are immediately troubling and suspect to me. The kind of experimentation they have been known to support, (MK series), makes me think this Murphy guy got an all but official blank check for his work.

This TMS business is not quite half baked, not yet. They can talk about brainwaves and frontal lobes all day, but the facts are: the human mind is far too complicated to be fixed by a magnetic hammer, even when applied gently. Surmont's description of the TMS as a "digital narcotic" is probably worth more than any trial the FDA has ever done. Use of drugs and cannabis alongside brute force brainwave manipulation is a recipe for disaster. The problem with these treatments, is they completely fail to treat the real causes of mental instability. Reading through Surmont's life story, he is a textbook subject for mental experimentation. Unknown family history, Lack of a stable home, sexual abuse, military trauma, TBI, on and on. Hes a walking DSM-V. If I wanted someone I could use up and throw away, I couldnt find anyone better.

The real disgusting part about the whole affair is, that it is the same tired failures Ive seen before, in real life with people I know. Here's a secret that they will never admit to:

We have the technology to fix every case of "PTSD" that we get back from overseas. (TMS is not it btw). Being able to make and break the human mind are two sides of the same coin. The ability to thoroughly break and rebuild any human mind has been a trade secret of our intel agencies for about 40 years now. They are very good at it. All it would take, to solve PTSD, is to put the people who run those black projects in a talent exchange with the VA. But they will never give up thier secrets, and so men like Surmont are out there walking around untreated, like aging sticks of dynamite, sweating nitro.

I could go on for hundreds of pages about the sordid history of American military medical experimentation.

Im glad Surmont got a happy ending - somewhere in that San Diego daze, the man upstairs decided to help him out.

>Being able to make and break the human mind are two sides of the same coin.

Do you have reason to believe that this is true specifically for the mind? I can't think of any other scenario where you would need to be able to make something in order to break it.

I would suspect the claim is using a specific understanding of "break". Obviously you can break a human mind with a bullet or a chisel through the eye socket, but there are certain types of breakage that are not possible without much more nuanced understanding of how the mind functions.

In general, I think the idea is that when we learn to create a type of thing, we also learn a great deal about new ways to destroy it.

But OP is claiming that some of the techniques used to break minds can be used to cure PTSD. Some of us are skeptical, and OP gives no reason to think that the 'two sides of the same coin' adage is applicable here.

The most bizarre aspect of mental illness is a few of them can actually be treated by drugs which are a huge blunt instrument. While nothing is going to be a panacea it seems possible possible for TMS to aid in a subset of mental problems for at least a subset of patients.

I think the larger concern is people overselling any treatment. That’s especially true for anything even slightly experimental. Which is why Medicine is mostly taught from rote memorization over experimentation. That may occasionally fail some people, but as a system it’s avoiding a host of issues.

> The most bizarre aspect of mental illness is a few of them can actually be treated by drugs which are a huge blunt instrument

It’s never seemed bizarre to me. You could treat a broken leg using only morphine if you wanted to. The pain will probably go away, but the leg won’t get less broken.

Pharmaceuticals to treat mental illness are limited, but they're better than just palliative (morphine for a broken leg).

Morphine for a broken leg would be a symptomatic treatment in most cases (unless you were expected to die without recovering from it, then it would be palliative). As far as I can tell most medications for mental illnesses are also symptomatic. If somebody had general anxiety issues, and they started taking benzodiazepines, their anxiety issues would be expected to return if they stopped taking them. Unless they had also undertaken other non-pharmaceutical treatments during that time.

> unless you were expected to die without recovering from it, then it would be palliative).

I understand that palliative care has developed a connotation of "this is what we do for you when you're dying..." but the definition is e.g.

palliate verb (used with object), pal·li·at·ed, pal·li·at·ing. to relieve or lessen without curing; mitigate; alleviate.

If you have to keep taking something, the treatment is palliative and not curative.

If treatments are applied based on symptoms rather than an understanding of the cause, they also tend to be palliative.

Palliative's primary meaning is to treat or mask symptoms rather than the disease itself, and it has nothing to do with duration. Current antiretroviral therapy for HIV is for life, as far as we know, but this does actually treat the disease itself by controlling the virus. Painkillers for a broken leg are generally only needed until it heals, but they are not causal in that healing, and are properly called palliative.

One cannot make a case that any given treatment for mental illness is merely palliative on the basis of duration.

Lifelong treatments are indeed not curative, but they are better than palliative care, which is better than nothing.

> Being able to make and break the human mind are two sides of the same coin. The ability to thoroughly break and rebuild any human mind has been a trade secret of our intel agencies for about 40 years now.

I'm not convinced. What about the side effects? I doubt you can break and rebuild someone's mind without lasting psychological damage. It's something intelligence agencies don't need to care about, but it's of crucial medical importance.

>a secret that they will never admit to

what evidence makes you think that this is the case? what's the technology to fix PTSD that you're speaking of?

You're talking about psychological manipulation, behaviorism, conditioning, NLP... that sort of thing? It's not like any of it's secret; it's just fragmented, buried and dismissed by mainstream culture because most people do not want to believe in a lack of independent human will or the idea that core behavior or beliefs can be intentionally manipulated. The idea makes most people so uncomfortable they won't even seriously consider the possibility. However, it seems that good political operatives and marketing people have a pretty good understanding of some parts of it. So do some police and military personnel, especially in other countries (like China) with less interest in ethics or human rights. So do people obsessed with animal training (although that can't use the language part of the equation). So do psychologists, in theory (they should, being psychologists), although most psychologists resort to higher-level therapeutic strategies that are really some suboptimal combination of low level behavior/conditioning/NLP strategies which are primarily what works.

For those who are still lurking the comment chain and "Want to Know More," I'll leave you all this name only and wish you good luck on your trip down the rabbit hole: Fritz Springmeier, rest in peace.

Another bit from the article of great concern is the use of this new protocol on active duty personnel! Of course, as you noted, this is not a new thing as all branches have treated rank and file active duty as potential guinea pigs.

Legitimately do not think the MK ultra experiments are relevant to this. It was 60+ years ago, and it was the CIA - a civilian, not mil agency - in league with major universities.

I met Dr. Murphy through a mutual friend in 2018, and attended a presentation that he gave about his prTMS treatment. I thought it was a bit odd that someone who had a radiology / oncology background would be pushing TMS, and was very disappointed by the rigor of his presentation. I wish I had the slides to show, but it appeared to be something out of a pop science article, and lacked much scientific background other than a sort of 'drugs are harsh and non-specified, but I have a personalized treatment that works much better.'

This set off the crank alarm for me, which got even louder when he made claims about it being a sort of cure-all for psychiatric and even non-psychiatric problems (depression, PTSD, anxiety, concussion recovery, and even cognitive performance). Furthermore, he appeared to lack a technical or mathematical understanding of the technology itself, using only vague analogies about aligning the frequencies of different parts of the brain and whatnot. However, I'm not the one with titles and prestigious academic positions, so my complaints about his lack of evidence weren't taken too seriously.

I asked him direct questions, but he didn't answer much other than that his brother, a chiropractor, had helped him write the software for prTMS and designed the protocol (which I thought was very odd). Furthermore, he described prTMS as TMS-like treatment that was based on EEG readings and supposedly personalized, but given at a fraction of the intensity of usual TMS treatment (which made me skeptical that it would work).

I'm surprised that he was able to attract so many big-name patients and supporters - which included the Notre Dame University football team too. And, given that his lofty claims about prTMS are completely unsupported by research, I'm not surprised that it has reached the public eye.

Some of what was discussed in the article was news to me ($10 million in funds he said was for him, claims about Newport's surveillance, etc) However, none of it was surprising. He appears to have a history of disputes with his partners and employees (including at other offices that offered prTMS not mentioned in the article) and Notre Dame (he 'treated' their football team). It's a bit ridiculous to hear him claim that people's lawsuits and complaints are simply a result of jealousy and malicious behavior, considering his history of deceit.

Edit: it appears that he's under investigation for the university funds he took: http://rewired.inewsource.org/UC-San-Diego-Investigation-10-...

> his brother, a chiropractor, had helped him write the software for prTMS and designed the protocol

Well that is seriously not a good sign.

Indeed. Chiropractors are notoriously bad at QA

Wildly damning and unprofessional that the doctor tries to discredit the patient’s perspective because he has been psychotic.

Reminds me of something supposedly hitting the market soon [0]. Randomly hammering your brain with some electric current, and with no understanding of the mechanisms, or without a model to test, seems complete pseudoscience. Be sad if people use these and experience problems down the track.

[0] https://thinkhumm.com/

As a person familiar with both the experimental method as well as veteran mental health issues, with this story I can’t help but think of the classic image of Homer Simpson randomly punching buttons on his nuclear control panel.

This doesn’t read like any methodical and rigorous research for a credible and effective treatment.

In the article, the behavior exhibited by Dr. Murphy seems similar to the paranoia and delusions of grandeur that chronic cocaine users present.

I was wondering if there might have been some self-experimentation...

Fascinating. I mean we know that repetitive TMS can induce mania in unipolar depression cases so it makes sense that Surmount could have a manic psychosis induced by it. I think the trigger rate is higher for bipolar patients as well. And while it's rare in general, Surmount had a lot of treatments which probably raised the likelihood of a manic episode. I don't think we know the combined effect of TMS and antidepressants for example and the likelihood they trigger mania.

Ignoring Surmont for a moment ... Dr. Murphy sure sounds paranoid to me (IANACP). Perhaps a few treatments with PrTMS would help that.

Just another example of the army readily experimenting on soldiers with novel 'treatments'. Want to test some new unproven medical technology? The army will hook you up. Thousands of hapless subjects who will do as they're told, no questions asked.

They are not forcing or coercing anyone with that specific intent unlike many commercial actors. In fact, when we compare for example DARPA's TCDS research - it has beaten a lot of competetive initiatives in the private sector when it comes to pushing high quality ethical neuro science and it's tech forward. I'm not a military ethics fan and of the opinion it lacks all over the world but the matter at hand surely ain't as gloomy black & white as you present.

I thought for a moment this article would be about a terrible misunderstanding of the famous Navy Seals Copypasta

Can some summarize this story? Seems interesting but don’t have time to read it all.

"The Navy SEAL and His Doctor: An experimental brain treatment blows up two lives"

I also need a TL;DR version of this story, is there anyone evil? The Dr.? Or all are innocent?

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