Guest post medicine

Guilty pleasures of meditating with Deepak Chopra

Smut Clyde will take you on a meditative Ayurvedic trip where the most respectable of research institutions and their world-renowned academics were caught dancing with the Guru Deepak Chopra himself. Famous cardiologist and medical writer Eric Topol and the Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn were just two most prominent US academics listed on Chopra's Panchakarma clinical trial.

The following post from my regular contributor Smut Clyde will take you on a meditative Ayurvedic trip where the most respectable of research institutions and their world-renowned academics were seen dancing with the Guru Deepak Chopra himself. Famous cardiologist and medical writer Eric Topol and the Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn were just two most prominent US academics listed on Chopra’s Panchakarma clinical trial, Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative (SBTI). Scripps Research Institute and University of California San Diego (UCSD) used to happily advertise for Chopra’s meditation studies.

Participants’ hearts, guts and brains reached higher levels of function, even their telomeres grew longer, Chopra got even richer, and even the commercial open access publishers Scientific Reports and Frontiers earned their share. Only that at some point at around 2016, Chopra’s aura proved too much to bear. Topol and Blackburn were apparently scheduled to be co-authors on Chopra’s 2016 paper in Scientific Reports, and now deny ever being involved at all, including being listed as SBTI trial’s principal investigators. Other California academics are actually quite happy to rub shoulders with Chopra. Scripps and UCSD still value his transcendental input, and everybody gets richer.

Screenshot from the Scripps website.

He who lies down with dogs should not smear himself beforehand with peanut butter and meat paste, by Smut Clyde

An anonymous contributor to PubPeer had an odd discovery to report: a 2016 webpage on the Chopra Foundation site, announcing that an advertisement for “an Panchakarma-based Ayurvedic Intervention” had been published in the Nature Salon des Refusés, Scientific Reports. It appears from the paper that changing one’s diet brings concomitant changes in one’s digestive function… a startling discovery, well-worth paying $1,760 to publicise.

That was not the oddity, however. The authors declared themselves to be free from vested interests in the product they were advertising…

“Competing financial interests: The authors declare no competing financial interests.”

This led to a Corrigendum, when it came to the attention of SciRep‘s editors that Deepak Chopra (lead author of the paper) is the same Deepak Chopra who pimps the “Perfect Health program” of Ayurvedic Intervention through his Chopra Center, as one of his income streams… but that’s not the oddity either. What is of interest here was the enlistment of Steven Steinhubl and Eric Topol to the authorship list… perhaps to bestow a lustre of legitimacy on the paper, and to imply Professor Topol’s imprimatur for the claims it made, for he is an intellectual heavyweight. Yet Topol appears nowhere in the paper itself… not, at least, in the version accessible in this reality.

The Chopra Foundation have hastily updated the press release to remove Topol’s interpolated name. However, they have not yet amended another Foundation webpage which reiterates the authorship list, and identifies the “Panchakarma-based Ayurvedic intervention” of the advertisement as “the Chopra Center’s Perfect Health program, which prices start at $2865 for a six-day treatment”. What is going on?

“Co-authors include Arthur M. Moseley, Joseph Lucas, Lisa St John Williams and P. Murali Doraiswamy, Duke University; Elizabeth H. Blackburn and Elissa E. Epel, UC San Francisco; Sheila Patel and Valencia Porter, UC San Diego and The Chopra Center for Wellbeing; Scott N. Peterson, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute; Eric E. Schadt, Steven R. Steinhubl and Eric J. Topol, Scripps Translational Science Institute; and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Harvard University.”

We must interrupt the flow of exposition here for a book review. Specifically, Topol’s review of ‘Bad Blood’ – an account of Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos scam. This serves to illustrate Topol’s high scholarly expectations.

“My only criticism is the book’s lack of reflection about lessons learnt from this debacle. How did a company rise to a valuation of $9 billion in a network of so many influential people, even as people were endangered? In my view, letting this technology loose (despite grand claims) without a single publication by independent scientists, never mind replication, was a recipe for jeopardy. Had the medical community and regulators held the company accountable, this could have been pre-empted. “

Topol recommended the book but wondered how people could be fooled into collaborating with an obvious fraudster like Holmes. How could a business empire be built on pure mendacity, with so little scrutiny of the principal’s grandiose assertions? 

Now back at last to the Sci.Rep paper and its main author, Deepak Chopra, of the Chopra Foundation and the Chopra Center and many other stepping-stones to the elimination of ego.

Woos and views[edit]

Deepak Chopra comes from a long line of pseudo-Hindu spiritualists making money off of gullible Americans, but he is one of the first to successfully merge Eastern ayurvedic woo with Western quantum woo and sell it to a mainstream US audience.

Such is his prominence within the New Age and Integrative Medicine landscapes, it might seem that Chopra has always occupied his present position of “Leading New-Age Guru of Eastern Wisdom word-wooze”, bestowing vacuous profundities superficialities and selling a predigested pabulum of quantum-mechanical and perennial-philosophical buzzwords, but this is not the case. Once Chopra was in the role of Chela – a disciple of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Let Andrew Skolnick provide some useful background.

Briefly: in 1991, at the start of his career, Chopra co-authored a piece for JAMA about ‘Ayurveda’ (this was a time when JAMA’s policy was to report on non-Western Healing Modalities, to signal the editors’ open-mindedness and their acceptance of alternative ways of knowing making money).

“Maharishi Ayur-Veda: Modern Insights Into Ancient Medicine

AYUR-VEDA is the oldest existing medical system, having its heritage in ancient India. It is recognized by the World Health Organization and is still widely practiced.1 The All India Ayur-Veda Congress (representing Ayurvedic physicians) has a membership of over 300 000, and 108 Ayurvedic colleges in India grant a degree after a 5-year program. Yet, until recently, Ayur-Veda has been virtually unknown in the West. Current interest in disease prevention and health promotion has led to its investigation by a growing number of Western physicians who are finding it to add valuable knowledge that is complementary to modern allopathic medicine.”

It soon emerged that the “Maharishi Ayur-Veda” praised in this paper had little to do with Ayurveda as commonly understood. Some might say that Ayurveda in India is an inchoate jumble of medieval superstitions and traditional quack remedies ranging from cow dung to toxic metals, with a centuries-long tradition of shortening Indian lifespans while benefiting Indian charlatans; loosely analogous to Traditional Chinese Medicine, or the Renaissance medicinal milieu of trichobezoars and antimony… but I shall not speculate here. The point is that the Modality advertised in Chopra’s article is roughly as ‘ancient’ as New Coke, being a proprietary life-style accoutrement dreamed up by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi to scam gullible Western suckers… just another brand within his business empire, along with Transcendental Meditation and Yogic Flying. The attempt to equate it with the Ayurveda of antiquity was, bluntly, a lie.

Chopra sells Ayurvedic medicine, which is traditional Indian medicine filtered through the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and mixed with “physics” in order to treat the dangerously low levels of money in Chopra’s wallet.[citation NOT needed]

This economy with the truth attracted some opprobrium. Or possibly odium (I am unsure on the exact distinction between the two). More odium / opprobrium ensued from Chopra’s failure to mention his conflicts of interest when he reported on the Maharishi’s products – i.e. his personal profits from their sale, as part of Maharishi Marketing. This is something of a recurring theme.

Chopra was inspired by Skolnick’s article to sue his critics. The case was thrown out of court, though this left Chopra and his lawyer unfazed; they cheerfully lied to the media that Skolnick had admitted fault in a negotiated settlement. I don’t know where I’m going with this, except to note that (1) Deepak Chopra has no shame, and his own unique perspective on facts; and (2) he hires lawyers when people ridicule him for obvious fabrications, so govern yourself accordingly.

Now Chopra’s advent on the scene happened to coincide with the rise of Integrative Medicine within the American health-care economy, and its adoption by major medical centres. The details of Integrative (Complementary) Medicine can be hard to pin down, but the general notion is that more money can be extracted from patients customers if in addition to treatment that works, they are also paying for placebos to make them feel good (and placebos are more effective when adorned with the patina of ‘tradition’). It empowers customers with the responsibility for treatment that doesn’t work (for failing to maintain a sufficiently positive consciousness). This Weltgeist or Zeitanschauung proved to be the ideal environment for Chopra, and we find him in symbiotic relationships with the medical centres.

Much more could be said about Chopra and the rest of his remunerative career, but it will suffice to outsource this to RationalWiki, Orac at Respectful Insolence, and Scævola. There is no point in preaching to the choir (also, Deepak Chopra hires lawyers). Moreover, it would distract us from the original question: Why was Eric Topol’s name co-opted for the Ayurveda paper?

The Sci.Rep paper was one outcome of an especially Chopralific venture called the SBTI, a.k.a. the Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative Initiative [sic] – an unabashed advertisement and validation for the Chopra Centre health-spa / holiday retreat, expressed through the medium of a Clinical Trial. The SBTI is best understood as an exercise in confounders. The ~70 participants received the full panoply of Chopra Resort services (vegan diet, meditation lessons, purgative herbs, mantras, yoga, saunas, massage and possibly scented candles), in exchange for providing data of various forms selected to show a beneficial change (state-of-mind questionnaires, blood tests, heart and breath monitors, microbiome, optional aura readings). A Prospectus provides further detail.

I note in passing that Chopra’s great-souled altruism does not extend as far as paying to advertise his products, and he set up an IndiGoGo account to raise funds for the expenses. It is not clear whether participants paid to take part in the ‘study’. One paper says they didn’t, but according to the prospectus, test subjects and controls alike were charged $2875 (a reduced rate) for the week at his Health Spa.

“There is NOT a direct cost to participate in this study, however there is a program enrollment fee for Perfect Health. The enrollment fee has been offered at a discounted rate due to study requirements/responsibilities taking place during the Perfect Health program.”

According to the Clinical Trial database and to Deepak’s website, a constellation of luminaries were signed up as PIs on facets of the study. Topol and Steinhubl were to analyse the body-function readouts; Nobel Laureate Margaret Blackburn would examine telomere length. From Chopra’s perspective, that makes them his paid staff.

BLOOD-BASED MARKERS OF CELLULAR AGING
Team Leaders
Nobel Laureate Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, Elissa Epel, Ph.D., and Paul J. Mills, PhD
Will be studying:
– Telomerase and Telomere Length
– Oxidative Stress
– Inflammation, Cardiovascular Disease and Stress Biomarkers
– Mitochondrial DNA Health
GENERAL PHYSICAL AND HEART HEALTH
Team Leaders
Eric J. Topol, MD and
Steven R. Steinhubl, MD
Will be studying:
– Single lead ECG/ heart rate
– Heart Rate Variability
– Physical Activity
– Sleep Quality
– Respiratory Rate and Depth
– Photoplethysmogram

Of course the whole Everything-at-Once approach makes it impossible to link any potential benefit to one specific intervention, destroying any value of the exercise as science, though that was never the point. Orac predicted this back in 2014. So years after the trial finished in February 2015, the only publications are the Metabolomics paper and two bits of fluff on self-assessed spirituality / non-duality, and hilarity ensued. Fortunately there was also a series of favorable puff-pieces in Huffington Post, in which the Chopra Corporation takes greater pride.

HUFFINGTON POST ARTICLES:

But wait, there’s more! Can you handle the excitement? For a third version of the Sci.Rep authorship list exists… this time, including Dr Blackburn! This version is presumably authoritative, for it comes directly from the UCSD Press Office, co-signed by “Director of Media Relations” and “Senior Public Information Officer” (though the fawningly Chopra-centric nature of the text inspires a cynical suspicion that it was actually written by one of his lickspittles and sent to UCSD to be churnalised).

“Co-authors include: Arthur M. Moseley, Joseph Lucas, Lisa St John Williams and P. Murali Doraiswamy, Duke University; Elizabeth H. Blackburn, and Elissa E. Epel, UC San Francisco; Sheila Patel, and Valencia Porter, UC San Diego and The Chopra Center for Wellbeing; Scott N. Peterson, Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute; Eric E. Schadt, Steven R. Steinhubl, and Eric J. Topol, Scripps Translational Science Institute; and Rudolph E. Tanzi, Harvard University.”

 

Blackburn has published research on the effects of meditation, recruiting subjects through Chopra’s therapeutic regime, but that lacked his co-authorship and fell outside the SBTI.¹ We should also note Topol and Steinhubl’s 2015 paper, in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, on the topic of “Cardiovascular and nervous system changes during meditation“. Chopra was a co-author there (though relegated to penultimate position in the authorship list: a loss of prestige that may have rankled and cried out for redress).

It may be that Topol was unaware of the calibre of his collaborators, or of the risk they would later feel free to steal his reputation. Now I have no reason to doubt the integrity or the value of the measurements of body functions reported in the Frontiers advertisement paper. And of course Topol has the right to choose collaborators, and to acknowledge them with co-authorship if they have assisted with recruiting subjects. I am just remembering the ‘Bad Blood’ review, and pondering on the irony.

1. ‘Orac’ was mistaken on that point in his critical review of Epel et al. (2016). 


Smut Clyde was referring above to some statements I obtained from Topol, Blackburn and others. Topol categorically denied any involvement with the Sci Reports 2016 paper, but stands behind his collaboration with Chopra in Frontiers 2015, where they discovered that

“meditation led to significant, measureable EEG changes even in individuals just beginning a meditation practice. Our most novel, and reliable finding however was that meditation was associated with a small, but statistically significant decrease in blood pressure in a normotensive population”.

Topel declared to me namely:

“On the latter paper  I never participated and have no idea why I was initially listed as a co-author. I was NOT involved in any way.

On the paper using sensors during meditation, I stand by our carefully collected data on continuous vital signs and that it was a meaningful study, something that had not ever been done previously, and certainly worthy of reporting”

He also denied any involvement with Chopra’s SBTI clinical trial. Both he and Blackburn are listed as Principal Investigators there.

“I’ve never collaborated with Elizabeth Blackburn on any project.”

Screenshot_2018-11-16 Self-Directed Biological Transformation Initiative - Full Text View - ClinicalTrials gov

Topol added in another email, when I pointed him to the above list of PIs:

“I had nothing to do with the “list” or any part of that study. I don’t know what your motive is here with all your emails”.

Apparently, Topol seems to think I put his name on Chopra’s SBTI clinical trial to damage his reputation. As Chopra’s scientific qualifications, these questions Topol chose not to answer.

Elizabeth Blackburn, former president of Salk Institute and emeritus professor at UC San Francisco, winner of 2009 Nobel Prize for her work on telomeres, asserted that regardless of what UCSD press release says, she was never PI on SBTI clinical trial:

“My lab performed some telomere length and telomerase measurement assays but I was not involved in the SBTI study. We performed the telomere/telomerase assays but never wrote that up. 

I and my UCSF colleague Dr. Elissa Epel, PhD, were originally listed as PIs on the clinical trials registry. We decided not to collaborate because of time constraints and other commitments. So our names are not on the papers.

To be clear:

My name was not removed from the science report [likely, Scientific Reports 2016, -LS]. It was never on it in the first place. 

I never wrote papers with Deepak Chopra”.

Prior to that message, Blackburn sent me this 2016 paper she authored with Chopra, for some reason she had to point out it was “peer-reviewed”:

E S Epel, E Puterman, J Lin, E H Blackburn, P Y Lum, N D Beckmann, J Zhu, E Lee, A Gilbert, R A Rissman, R E Tanzi & E E Schadt

Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes

Translational Psychiatry volume 6, page e880 (2016)

We learn there, thanks to this Chopra-Blackburn co-production that there is

“a ‘meditation effect’ within the regular meditator group, characterized by a distinct network of genes with cellular functions that may be relevant to healthy aging, and this network was associated with increased expression of a number of telomere maintenance pathway genes and an increase in measured telomerase enzymatic activity.”

I asked Blackburn if she would be Chopra’s coauthor on the upcoming SBTI paper which Steinhubl announced on Twitter, or collaborate with Chopra again. She answered:

“No, I do not anticipate or plan any such further collaborations, co-authorships or interactions. I am retired.”

Elissa Epel, collaborator of Blackburn and professor of psychiatry at UC San Francisco, is also listed as PI on the SBPI clincial trial. She told me that she also “did not end up collaborating on that project”,  and that she “cannot comment on his  [Chopra’s] scientific credentials. She recommended I interview the study director Paul Mills, who leads a “Mind-Body Biomarker Laboratory” at UCSD:

“Dr. Mills is an excellent scientist and he has experience with him [Chopra,- LS], and as you can see there are many other scientists who have published papers with him you can ask.”

This UCSD professor of mind-body biomarketing is a close collaborator of Chopra, who incidentally also has a UCSD affiliation. The two published together for example a 2015 paper on how spirituality and gratitude help heart-failure patients, in the journal Spirituality in Clinical Practice, by American Psychological Association (APA).

Mills never replied to me. Must be due to my lack of spiritual gratitude for his and Chopra’s work.

Screenshot_2018-11-17 Faculty Profile - Deepak Chopra, MD, FACP


 

 

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8 comments on “Guilty pleasures of meditating with Deepak Chopra

  1. Who is the kettle and who is the pot? Deepak Chopra, or UCSD?

    Re: https://profiles.ucsd.edu/michael.karin

    Problematic publications:-

    http://karinlab-et-al.blogspot.com/

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/26BF1A9A41412947E05D956E91F161
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/549ECA180E3177C27CEF1A5B29186B
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/81F3F8F7D7120ECF9F1E0FA04FAA23
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/70B63BF42E7304DA3CF2B81A9ACBA0
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/523C86C5C95A03FF074A8552CF0E36
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/FD3AFFEAB6D94617D47CFD55F6BB4F
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/6080332E1B311B04928169937773A9
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/B7ED183D6E80956F2E248A9F2CD528
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/AB948DBD49E09CA26BFDD7728BBB7F
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/046E7EE340C2AD319E4AC503644EAE
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/55DDF4F2C8499614CEC4C173AF52AC
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/B53108EC99342EE4236E920A0F5C21
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/4966AA09CF15E616FF386E8643BE34
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/FB953FB41E9A5ABBF3846D854FA9E6
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/AC408EB7ED3DCDABD44E48C4A9F927
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/82B3067EE040DFC32E5CFE6AACBF09#1
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/7C721B099C6B697C1039A600DB0C8F#2
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/8367D973BAD32E76A4A3BDB279D605
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/E81BA1277C7ABB9085D5E69FA2B387
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/B84403FC977C7BED90DEDD4EDB7866
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/45E7A2B5E030C2A52B18350F71DE1B
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/363559ACFDAB5BD8D9B5F12F5FA56B
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/B04503D899CBC6F80D572778219D24
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/2B4152647555B8993C4CE2AF43A27E
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/5A21EB030AF1E9E2DE19EF61DD40EA
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/0AE89F0F0589B43720CE0177C13817
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/3C5582DEEA291115A6ABE9B3A5E870

    Like

  2. https://www.roche.com/about/governance/ec_bod_former/john-reed.htm
    https://www.bizjournals.com/orlando/news/2013/01/15/john-c-reed-head-of-sanford-burnham.html

    https://pubpeer.com/publications/85CA3E7EED013D00B7D4711501383F
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/12093792
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/770A7D14B551E7C1FE1F0B388D17BA
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/0CB570887BF49B5F956A775231A862
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/CFE24891EA3D7762AA45BF8A73470A
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/EAF781E28867D64B78239E99B94800
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/085F586BE817B2DBDEE79ADFF800E2
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/D3DBE03558653B67C15FC9CBB66570
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/C9092FB053C05DEEE56E4DB455F95E
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/AF466ECA0855CB8E736D898A72FC4D
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/58E3E3DC7A5F2809EC7D3FEAC10085
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/944F82C837530A9CE23EA7A7AC6F0F
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/E8023B797BF5BC89F98222E19686FD
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/68950801D8F927B11F08E44C43B3A9
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/0FD921B90190FE60EA70CAB86F5327
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/A763E8EE26D5D3D0CB16874AF96440#1
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/87A5D5874FB25E6705B7EB9E3052E1
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/149ADF34E95081F3CAE3AD44BE0752
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/6BBE5E014064ABD260A333A394F198
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/66C3F34FB6521FB637D14B7B089763
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/773C6C637DCA25F6E377795EAD44D8
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/1C38A7EFB6C0AF9303551AF3B4F18F
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/4DEE35678CAFFC630FD18D3669EFF7
    https://pubpeer.com/publications/A6F4B15F47DC632ED16A2322E096B3

    Like

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