U.K. Government Dashes Hopes Of A Brexit Vote Redo In Response To Petition

A European Union supporter stands with a European Union flag during a picnic against Brexit in London's Green Park on Saturday.

A European Union supporter stands with a European Union flag during a picnic against Brexit in London’s Green Park on Saturday. Daniel Leal-Olivas /AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Daniel Leal-Olivas /AFP/Getty Images

Since British voters decided to leave the European Union in a referendum two weeks ago, more than 4 million people signed a petition calling for a do-over.

Now, the U.K. government has issued an official response to the petition, dashing the hopes of voters who want to see another referendum. “The Prime Minister and Government have been clear that this was a once in a generation vote and, as the Prime Minister has said, the decision must be respected,” it reads.

The vote on the so-called Brexit required more than 50 percent of the voters to favor leaving the EU. “The petition contends that in such an important decision, the bar should be set higher,” as Larry Miller tells our Newscast unit.

The petition reads: “We the undersigned call upon HM Government to implement a rule that if the remain or leave vote is less than 60% based a turnout less than 75% there should be another referendum.”

In its response, the government says that the legislation which determined the referendum’s rules “received overwhelming support from Parliament.” It adds: “The Act did not set a threshold for the result or for minimum turnout.”

It describes the referendum as “one of the biggest democratic exercises in British history with over 33 million people having their say.” Now, it says, the country must “prepare for the process to exit the EU and the Government is committed to ensuring the best possible outcome for the British people in the negotiations.”

The petition was actually started by an activist who wanted to see the U.K. leave the EU “when polls suggested remain would win,” according to The Guardian. The newspaper adds that it “has been the subject of controversy after it was discovered that thousands of signatures were fake.”

As Larry reports, while the petition “may lead to a Parliamentary debate there is practically no chance the Brexit vote will be held again.”

The backlash against the vote has been particularly strong among young people, as we reported, with at least 73 percent of voters aged 18-24 wanting to remain in the EU.

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Theranos Founder Elizabeth Holmes Barred From Operating Labs For Two Years

Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos, speaks at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco in November 2015.

Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos, speaks at the Fortune Global Forum in San Francisco in November 2015. Jeff Chiu/AP hide caption

toggle caption Jeff Chiu/AP

Theranos was poised to revolutionize the blood testing industry by using only a few drops of blood in inexpensive tests. But now, federal regulators say they will bar the company’s dynamic founder and CEO Elizabeth Holmes from owning or operating a lab for at least two years.

“Last year the government began to scrutinize the company after experts found that the results of the blood tests were inaccurate,” as NPR’s Laura Sydell told our Newscast unit.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, a federal regulator, said in a letter made public Friday that it is also revoking certification for the company’s Newark, California laboratory and cancelling the lab’s approval to receive Medicare payments. The sanctions will not take full effect until September and the company can appeal.

The company will also be fined $10,000 for every day it is out of compliance with the regulator’s recommendations on how to run the labs, starting on July 12.

Theranos repeatedly failed to prove it had corrected issues previously identified by the regulator, according to the CMS letter, including a finding of “immediate jeopardy to patient health and safety.” According to The New York Times, “that apparently referred to erroneous results in a test of blood clotting used for patients who take the blood thinner warfarin.”

Erik Gordon, a business professor at the University of Michigan, told Laura that while the company can appeal, the likelihood for success is miniscule. “If the technology doesn’t work, there’s nothing. There’s just smoke and mirrors. A lot of hype and nothing,” he said. As for Holmes: “She’s radioactive at this point,” Gordon says. “I mean, she can’t stay at the company.”

Theranos said in a statement that it accepts “full responsibility” and vowed to “work non-stop to resolve the issues identified.” It added that Holmes will continue to lead the company and denied that any patients were harmed by their tests.

Holmes dropped out of Stanford at 19 to found the company, which sought to disrupt the tech industry with cheaper, simpler tests. As Laura reported, “Theranos was valued at 9 billion dollars; it had a contract with Walgreens.” Holmes herself was viewed as a wunderkind and drew comparisons to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, Laura said:

“Holmes had a beautiful vision, backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in investment, and a board of big names like Henry Kissinger and George P. Schulz. The media had a love fest. Time magazine called Holmes one of the 100 most influential people in the world. She was profiled in Fortune andThe New Yorker.”

But as Laura reported, the Theranos story is now viewed as a cautionary tale, “and questions are being raised about whether applying hardware and software business culture to biotechnology is dangerous.”

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#NPRreads: Simplify Your Weekend With These 3 Stories

A "tiny house" in Richmond, Virginia in 2015.

A “tiny house” in Richmond, Virginia in 2015. The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

#NPRreads is a weekly feature on Twitter and on The Two-Way. The premise is simple: Correspondents, editors and producers from our newsroom share the pieces that have kept them reading, using the#NPRreads hashtag. Each weekend, we highlight some of the best stories.

From Digital News Intern Gabriel Rosenberg:

Tiny houses can’t create a revolution if they’re only available for the privileged, white, + middle class. #NPRreads https://t.co/uPkW9PntbI

— Gabe Rosenberg (@GabrielJR) July 6, 2016

I’ll happily admit to a longtime HGTV addiction. But I have a much more complicated relationship with the tiny-house shows that now fill those sort of channels.

Doree Shafrir, writing for BuzzFeed News, puts together the best profile I’ve seen yet on these shows and the “tiny house movement” they’re part of. (A tiny house would be defined, loosely, as a well-decorated shack smaller than a normal house’s bedroom.)

These shows, as any casual viewer can testify, revolve almost entirely around white, middle class individuals or families making a choice to downsize — in style.

“It’s not new for people to be living in RVs or mobile homes; it’s just that now there’s a new vocabulary to gentrify living in a small space,” Shafrir writes.

But intersecting issues of legality, cost, and culture leave out those who might benefit most from tiny houses. That’s not much of a movement.

“If you’re coming from a more abundant place, in which you could live in a 2,000-square-foot house but you choose to live in 200 square feet, then you can be part of the community,” Shafrir writes. “If not, well, you’re just poor.”

From Digital Editor Joe Ruiz:

This is a necessary #NPRreads both outside and inside the @NPR newsroom. https://t.co/yxO5OjExsK

— Joe Ruiz (@joeruiz) July 7, 2016

Diversity isn’t a quota. It’s not just making sure there are diverse groups of people in newsrooms. It’s actively seeking to tell the stories of those who are not you, and of those who aren’t the audience you’ve served in the past. It’s covering your blind spots, as Greg Howard of Deadspin once wrote.

In this column by Venice Buhain at the Seattle Globalist, she writes of the issues we’re still facing in journalism, and how we should ask how to rectify them.

“Having people of color on staff isn’t just a move toward political correctness, or a symbol of progress to feel good about.”

Newsrooms across the country, including my own, would serve themselves and our audiences better if we focused more on how to better represent our audience and tell their stories. If we don’t, the audiences who aren’t being served by those who would claim they are, will not care when we falter. They will not care when we can no longer serve the community, because they will have either found it elsewhere, or begin serving it themselves.

From Deputy Managing Editor Chuck Holmes:

Lovely take on Ralph Stanley & his legacy. He “reinvented music by not reinventing it.” @howtopreserve #NPRreads https://t.co/aQteX4I0FF

— Chuck Holmes (@chuckatnpr) July 1, 2016

Ralph Stanley was famous for his music, but when I think of him I also picture the land – the rolling hills and distant hollows of southwestern Virginia, a place of poverty and beauty and simplicity and hard times. Stanley, who died in June at the age of 89, played what he called “old time” music. The rest of us know it as bluegrass.

This piece from Oxford American elegantly describes the place Stanley came from and never really left. The music he created came from that place, too, with roots that stretch back beyond America’s beginnings. In the 20th Century and well into this one, he made popular a kind of music that came from another era, but still touches people. Timeless. Like that Appalachia landscape.

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Fresh Air Weekend: 'Bobby Kennedy'; Allen Toussaint's New Album; Rethinking Addiction

Robert F. Kennedy is remembered as a liberal icon, but biographer Larry Tye says his views changed over the course of his career.

Robert F. Kennedy is remembered as a liberal icon, but biographer Larry Tye says his views changed over the course of his career. Random House hide caption

toggle caption Random House

Fresh Air Weekend highlights some of the best interviews and reviews from past weeks, and new program elements specially paced for weekends. Our weekend show emphasizes interviews with writers, filmmakers, actors and musicians, and often includes excerpts from live in-studio concerts. This week:

From ‘Runt Of The Litter’ To ‘Liberal Icon,’ The Story Of Robert Kennedy: Biographer Larry Tye says Kennedy wasn’t always the “hot-blooded liberal” we remember today. The transformation wasn’t a “flip-flop” he says; “he took things to heart in ways that few politicians do.”

Jazz Legend Allen Toussaint’s Touch And Timing Shine On His Last Record: The New Orleans-based musician completed recording his final album a month before he died last November. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead calls American Tunes a “fond last look” at Toussaint’s talent.

‘Unbroken Brain’ Explains Why ‘Tough’ Treatment Doesn’t Help Drug Addicts: “We have this idea that if we are just cruel enough and mean enough … to people with addiction, that they will suddenly wake up and stop, and that is not the case,” journalist Maia Szalavitz says.

You can listen to the original interviews here:

From ‘Runt Of The Litter’ To ‘Liberal Icon,’ The Story Of Robert Kennedy

Jazz Legend Allen Toussaint’s Touch And Timing Shine On His Last Record

‘Unbroken Brain’ Explains Why ‘Tough’ Treatment Doesn’t Help Drug Addicts

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'He Had Many More Films To Make': Remembering Iranian Director Abbas Kiarostami

Abbas Kiarostami poses during his visit to the 54th Cartagena Film Festival in 2014. The filmmaker left Iran only twice to make movies.

Abbas Kiarostami poses during his visit to the 54th Cartagena Film Festival in 2014. The filmmaker left Iran only twice to make movies. Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Joaquin Sarmiento/AFP/Getty Images

Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami began making films in 1970 and continued working in his homeland after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. He helped make Iranian filmmaking a major international force, despite leaving Iran only twice to make movies. Kiarostami died Monday in Paris, where he had gone for cancer treatment. He was 76 years old.

Kiarostami stepped onto the world stage in 1990 with Close-Up, a film that was praised by the likes of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. Several years later, he shared the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival with 1997’s Taste of Cherry. But according to film critic Godfrey Cheshire, Kiarostami’s situation was complicated. Cheshire has written a lot about pre- and post-revolution Iranian cinema and got to know the filmmaker personally.

Kiarostami's Taste of Cherry won the Palme d'Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. It follows a man (Homayoun Ershadi) who is contemplating suicide and drives around Tehran looking for someone to bury him.

Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival. It follows a man (Homayoun Ershadi) who is contemplating suicide and drives around Tehran looking for someone to bury him. Abbas Kiarostami/The Kobal Collection hide caption

toggle caption Abbas Kiarostami/The Kobal Collection

“Kiarostami had support from the government at really the highest levels, in some cases — ministers were backing him and trying to help him,” Cheshire says. “And then he had these hard-liners that were pushing against him and restricting his access to materials, etc. So it was a real back and forth throughout his career.”

Cheshire says the government understood the international prestige Kiarostami could bring, but he still ran into problems with censors. “For example, he told me that his film The Wind Will Carry Us, which is a really amazing film — he quotes Omar Khayyam, who of course is this great figure in Iranian literature that people revere. And yet the censor wanted to cut that because, you know, Omar Khayyam can be read in different ways, but in the way that Kiarostami put in this thing it was almost saying life after death doesn’t exist. And this is something, you know, verboten.

Kiarostami also got in trouble for his most honored film, Taste of Cherry, in which a man contemplates suicide. But the filmmaker avoided the harsh penalties suffered by younger colleagues like Jafar Panahi, who can’t officially make films in Iran. Dorna Khazeni, a translator who worked closely with Kiarostami, says the filmmaker avoided those penalties by looking for truths beyond immediate political situations.

“He had the authority of poetry, the authority of art and the authority of cinema,” Khazeni says. “That really truly went beyond the confines of the time and place he happened to be in [in] Iran. He would take a small subject and by paring it down and excluding so much in that small subject, he was able to capture a truth in time and place that transcended the particularities and that was decipherable to any viewer, anywhere.”

His stories were about a boy trying to return a schoolbook to a classmate, or a poor but likeable man who impersonates a filmmaker and gets caught. Cheshire says Kiarostami’s vision was both global and deeply personal.

“He sort of opens the world of art cinema — which prior to his arrival had been really concentrated on Europe, America and also to an extent Japan — up to the whole Islamic world,” Cheshire says. “But it’s also that this one particular individual had a vision that was so sophisticated in terms of the formal nature of film but was also very, very personal and very, very loving in a way. His films, I think, are full of love for people and for culture and for the medium.”

Kiarostami was revered by many around the world, and he mentored and inspired two generations of filmmakers in Iran. According to friend and translator Khazeni, he always saw beyond his status.

“He had at once a grasp of his stature and a complete humility vis-à-vis what had been decreed about his work,” she says. “He just worked. That was what he had to do. … And that’s what makes me so unhappy about the news of his death, because he had many more films to make.”

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I'm Giving You Everything: A Portrait Of The Writer As A Young Spice Girls Fan

The Spice Girls in 1997, about a year after the release of the group's debut single, which topped the U.K. pop charts for seven weeks.

The Spice Girls in 1997, about a year after the release of the group’s debut single, which topped the U.K. pop charts for seven weeks. John Stanton/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption John Stanton/Getty Images

In 1962, Goonhilly Earth Station’s biggest satellite dish, Arthur, received the first live trans-Atlantic television broadcast from America. Over the coming decades, it would bring Muhammad Ali’s fights, the Apollo 11 moon landing and the U.S. leg of Live Aid to British TV screens. In the year 2000, as an 11-year-old on a school trip, I approached this monument to telecommunication in a state of anxious anticipation over less momentous news. We had just gotten dial-up Internet at home, but I was only allowed on it once a week. I had to take my chances to get online when I could. On the massive computers promoting the glorious World Wide Web, I punched in spicegirls.co.uk and lost the rest of our tour group as I waited for the site to load. I needed to know: Had they announced their split yet?

Paranoia over the inevitable ruled my final pre-teen years. I was the one who hung on too long, insisting that the Spice Girls were still viable when everyone knew the game was up. Their debut single, “Wannabe,” was originally released in Europe 20 years ago yesterday, on July 8, 1996. A few months later, I started at a new school, where my new best friend Holly introduced me to this five-headed pop hydra. We were soon writing letters to the band, and once enclosed my favorite necklace, which we insisted they share. (How they could possibly resist fighting over this piece of chewed black cord threaded with wooden beads was unclear.) We had a mild disagreement when I wrote our home phone numbers and took great pains to explain that we were both unlisted. I’m not sure what I thought they were going to do with them — read them to the nation on Live & Kicking? — as she wisely pointed out.

A clipping from a Spice Girls fanclub magazine showing the author, at age 10, holding a "Baby Spice" quilt she made with her grandmother.

A clipping from a Spice Girls fanclub magazine showing the author, at age 10, holding a “Baby Spice” quilt she made with her grandmother. Courtesy of Laura Snapes hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of Laura Snapes

My Spice Girls fandom wasn’t the cute kind of fervor (as seen in photos from another school trip, filled with toothy girls in floral leggings flashing the Girl Power sign) but all-consuming desperation. I would set aside Sunday afternoons to glue magazine cuttings onto both sides of a sheet of A4, slide it into a plastic wallet and thread the new page into my bulging lever-arch archive. (I once left a pile of unarchived clippings at a frenemy’s sleepover, and she claimed to have burned them.) My parents wouldn’t let me get Spice Girls wallpaper because “I’d grow out of it,” which seemed inconceivable. In August 1998, when my baby brother was being born, my other brother and I were sent to my grandparents’ house and given projects to keep us busy. My nana helped me make a Baby Spice quilt, which got me into their fanclub magazine. When Victoria and David Beckham had their first son in March 1999, I sent a pair of discounted blue Mothercare socks to one of Britain’s richest couples. (“Beckingham Palace” was all you needed to write on the envelope; I received signed photos back.) Once we got cable, I would scour the TV listings for any Spice Girls-related shows. I vainly begged my mum to set the VCR for a mysterious network called Spice that only came on air at 10:00 p.m. and showed the same program until it powered down at dawn. (It was, of course, a porn channel.)

I don’t remember the first time I heard the Spice Girls’ music — probably sitting on the cabin bed in Holly’s tiny lilac bedroom, on the CD changer with Suggs’ “Cecilia.” Listening to those songs now, I don’t really hear what they actually sound like, the instrumentation; they’re photographs of primary color emotions that then seemed incredibly sophisticated. I didn’t have many friends before going to my new school, but now pro-friendship riot “Wannabe” was my reality and anthem. Age seven, Holly and I embarked on a mission to learn as much about “doing it” as possible, just as safe-sex anthem “2 Become 1” became the band’s first Christmas No. 1. Come 1997, the playground was awash with rival groups performing variations on the Motown wiggle to “Stop.”


What I do remember specifically is the first time I read about them in a magazine. Geri explained that until now, she’d always assumed that pop stars were kept in some sort of box, and only let out for TV appearances. This was sharp knowledge to acquire as a seven-year-old: not for me infantile 2-D conceptions of the pop machine, but an adult understanding that these women had rich internal lives. This roughly amounted to knowing who their boyfriends were (and adopting them as my de facto crushes) and any other tidbits that trickled out via Smash Hits. Age 10, I started getting my dad’s newspaper from the village post office, and would buy any tabloid that contained even an inch-high story about them. My concept of them as pro-girl pop cheerleaders soon expanded. After Mel B’s husband sold a story about them having sex “solidly for two weeks up to three or four times a day,” she explained that her mum consoled her by saying that nobody would believe it as it was physically impossible to do it all night long. I logged this important fact, along with speculation over Mel C’s sexuality and Geri’s visible eating disorder. This, it turned out, was the complex richness of their — women’s — lives.

It wasn’t until much later that I looked up proper journalism from the Spice Girls’ imperial period and realize how much the reality jarred with what I had been sold. Kathy Acker’s Vogue profile of the band looped around Tumblr, criticizing their ruthless individualism, but praising their energetic, populist feminism. I read the mocking Spectator interview where they — or Geri and Victoria, at least — emerged as pro-Thatcher, pro-monarchy and anti-Europe (positions I’m glad I didn’t know age seven otherwise I would no doubt have parroted them as my own). David Sinclair’s comprehensive biography, Wannabe: How the Spice Girls Reinvented Pop Fame, revealed them to be even more venal and conniving than the mounds of branded plastic that I craved made clear.

It was a strange reckoning, discovering that the pop culture that formed you had some rot at its core. I’m no fan of much of what they set in motion: celebrity culture, kids’ pop that didn’t even bother to coat its commercial intent with anything resembling personality, so-called “choice feminism” rooted in labels rather than liberation. But dismissing their power on ideological grounds doesn’t feel right. They were feminist ambassadors who believed that a tyrannical female prime minister was an automatic feminist win. Sex-positive family entertainment. Neo-liberalist firestarters. Bawdy working class girls who broke free of the pop manufacturing machine to create an even bigger one. Cheeky patriots who made pop into a leading British industry and maintained a strong disregard for the country’s rock establishment. The Spice Girls were all of these things.

They never formally announced their split — or if they did, I had moved on. At age seven, the Spice Girls formed my entire idea of what was cool and worldly, but as more codified teenage notions set in, I realized they no longer fit. Holly and I disproved their maxim that “friendship never ends” when she decided that S Club 7 was the superior band, a dagger through my tiny heart. A year later, I followed suit, replacing their posters with images of Avril Lavigne and tAtU. I accepted that Geri’s second solo effort, Scream If You Wanna Go Faster, wasn’t the greatest record of all time. Attempted to eBay my signed photos of the Beckhams. Dumped the contents of my meticulously compiled Spice Girls folders into the recycling bin without a second thought. Reading their original press coverage these past few months has been a kick, but what I wouldn’t give to have those folders back.

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Hope Still Races Ahead Of Evidence In Magnet Treatment For Autism

Katherine Streeter for NPR

Katherine Streeter for NPR

The story is a familiar one: the saga of a loving parent’s quest to save a child. This time it’s about the mother of a boy with autism. The mother scours the medical literature in search of any kind of treatment, however far-fetched and experimental. She finds one that seems promising, something involving magnetic fields, and moves mountains to get it for her son as part of a research protocol.

Then, seeing that it helps, she devotes herself to getting more of it. Ultimately the mother starts a foundation to promote research into the new treatment, hoping to prove its value and one day make it part of standard care, not just for her son but for other children with autism, too.

This particular version of the story, though, is tinged with irony. The treatment in this case is transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS), and the mother is a Minneapolis woman named Kim Hollingsworth Taylor. In 2012, Taylor’s son, age 14 at the time and on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, was part of a trial of TMS that seemed to relieve a few of his autism symptoms for several days, making him able to read social cues more accurately and to complete cognitive tasks in far less time than before.

We all carry an invisible frame of reference in our heads that filters our experience, shaping the way we see each other and the world. This week’s episode of the NPR podcast and show Invisibilia explores what happens when that frame of reference gets turned upside down — in one case by a brief encounter with a powerful magnet.

Pleased with the results, Taylor found a way the following year for her son to get more treatments in Boston, twice a week over the course of 10 weeks, even though TMS had not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration for autism symptoms (and still has not).

During this time, Taylor says, her son’s autism symptoms disappeared, and he went from being a boy with no friends to being a boy who was asked to the homecoming dance by four different girls. The change thrilled her so much that she started a small nonprofit to advance research into the use of TMS for autism. Taylor, who has a background as a financial analyst in the medical technology industry, called the foundation Clearly Present, the phrase her son used to describe how he felt after treatment. “It’s like there’s more of me here now,” he told her.

But the benefits began to fade after just a few months. Now, three years after his last treatment, Taylor’s now 18-year-old son is back to where he was before he started on TMS. And he says he doesn’t want to try it again if it means again disrupting the family life and moving to Boston with his father for another three-month stretch.

So here is Taylor, committed to organizing scientific conferences and soliciting research funding through the Clearly Present Foundation, with the personal impetus for her labors having disappeared.

“Like most people I would crawl on broken glass to make things a little better for my kid,” Taylor said in a recent phone interview. So she finds it “profoundly sad” that there’s no place closer to home that could offer TMS to her son — and frustrating to be in the midst of a demanding volunteer project that, for now at least, doesn’t seem likely to help her own child.

In an article on TMS for Spectrum, a web magazine about autism science, the writer Lydia Denworth called the story of the Clearly Present Foundation “a cautionary tale for anyone who reads too much into TMS’ benefits.” Another cautionary tale is featured in the latest episode of NPR’s podcast and program Invisibilia, about a middle-aged physician on the autism spectrum who also tried TMS. The treatment, which the woman (also named Kim, but not related to Taylor) underwent twice, enabled her to perceive subtle emotions in others for the first time in her life. Then, after less than an hour, that insight disappeared.

How did she feel about getting this brief insight into how most people experience feelings? “It could be that you would get a glimpse of this and you couldn’t have it, and it would be completely heartbreaking and you couldn’t get over it,” she told Invisibilia host Alix Spiegel. But after reflection, the physician told Spiegel, her feelings were mixed — depression, yes, but also gratitude that she’d had a chance to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be human.

Autism is a developmental disorder that can be disabling, and there’s no cure. That makes families uniquely vulnerable to the potential of untested treatment. The fear is that TMS could turn out to be the latest in a long string of untested or off-label treatments for autism, from chelation therapy to hyperbaric oxygen chambers to gluten-free diets, that desperate parents have been spending money on for decades.

None of these treatments has proven beneficial in clinical trials, and some have actually caused harm. FDA officials worry that even if a treatment is relatively safe, it could still divert precious resources away from proven treatments, such as behavioral interventions and certain drugs.

Companies promoting untested approaches face “possible legal action if they continue to make false or misleading claims about products and therapies claiming to treat or cure autism,” the FDA wrote in a consumer bulletin in 2014. “Some of these so-called therapies carry significant health risks.”

It’s easy to understand the enthusiasm for a treatment like TMS, which is non-invasive, non-pharmacological, and already has FDA clearance for one condition — severe depression that doesn’t respond to other treatments. It has few known side effects, though it has been shown, in very rare cases, to cause seizures.

The treatment involves placing a relatively small and very powerful electromagnet on the scalp, and sending pulses of magnetic waves directly into the brain to activate or de-activate particular neurons. It has been used experimentally in autism, mostly in hopes of developing a better diagnostic tool. But as news percolates of this research application, more and more people want to try it for themselves or their children.

But for autism, the science of TMS treatment is, according to researcher Lindsay Oberman, “still in its infancy.”

“I know it’s easy to get overly optimistic given the media coverage and web posts about the remarkable responses some people with autism have reported after participating in a TMS study,” Oberman, a research psychologist at Brown University and Bradley Hospital in Rhode Island, wrote last March in a blog post for the advocacy group Autism Speaks.

But those studies have been very few — just 13 in the medical literature to date — and they tend to focus on only a select group of subjects: adults, generally male, who are high-functioning and do not have epilepsy. It’s risky, then, to generalize to how TMS would affect women or children with autism, or people with more severe symptoms.

Author and autism activist John Elder Robison took part in a study of TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) at Boston's Beth Israel Hospital in March.

Author and autism activist John Elder Robison took part in a study of TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) at Boston’s Beth Israel Hospital in March. Keith Bedford/Boston Globe via Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Keith Bedford/Boston Globe via Getty Images

“I caution against drawing conclusions from the preliminary results of the TMS studies that I and others have conducted,” wrote Oberman in her blog post.

Among those 13 trials of TMS for autism, which involve fewer than 200 people altogether, only one is a double-blind, randomized trial — the type of trial designed to rule out the so-called placebo effect (improvements that occur because subjects expect them to).

In the double-blind study, conducted in Australia on 28 high-functioning adults diagnosed with autism or Asperger’s syndrome, the 15 people in the treatment group showed some improvement, compared to the 13 controls, in terms of better social skills and reduced anxiety, both immediately after the treatment and at the one-month follow-up.

The real excitement over TMS for autism, however, does not come from the medical literature. It comes from popular testimonials of people on the autism spectrum who credit TMS for heightening their emotional sensitivity and leading to fewer obsessions, fewer repetitive actions, and improved social skills.

John Elder Robison, an author and autism activist, describes his own experience in his latest book, Switched On: A Memoir of Brain Change and Emotional Awakening. The alterations of TMS were life-affirming, he writes, but they were tinged with sadness, too, because his insights into others’ emotions showed him how troubled most people’s inner lives really are.

“Before the TMS, I had fantasized that the emotional cues I was missing in my autism would bring me closer to people,” Robison wrote earlier this year in The New York Times. “The reality was very different. The signals I now picked up about what my fellow humans were feeling overwhelmed me. They seemed scared, alarmed, worried and even greedy. The beauty I envisioned was nowhere to be found.”

But while Robison says his heightened emotions have generally persisted in the eight years since his first treatment, even his doctors say his response is unusually robust.

It’s easy to see why parents would grab at cures that promise to bring back their sons and daughters, to give their children a voice, stop them from self-harm, or offer them a chance at friendship and independence. But quite apart from the question of whether the traits of autism are symptoms to be treated or differences to be embraced — a debate at the heart of the neurodiversity movement — Oberman says it’s too soon to institute TMS as a treatment, especially for children, whose brains are still developing.

It’s difficult to predict the long-term consequences for children of routinely disrupting their brain activity. And it’s hard to know, for children and adults alike, the details of how best to offer TMS for autism: how often it should be used, for how long a period, in which regions of the brain, and for what purposes.

“There are still many things that we do not understand about how the developing brain responds to TMS or any form of neural intervention,” Oberman told me by email this week. “And if the goal with TMS is to ‘rewire’ or affect the connectivity of the brain in order to improve symptoms, we first have to understand what degree of connectivity and wiring is healthy at any given age, and what type of stimulation will improve the functioning of these areas.”

In other words, scientific evidence about the efficacy of TMS in autism is not in yet, and it’s accumulating the way most scientific evidence does: with painful slowness.

Among the still-unanswered questions about TMS is how it works and which autistic behaviors it best targets. Put ten clinicians in a room, Oberman says, and you’ll likely get ten different answers. Her own research interest is in social communication, she says, but other symptoms — poor executive functioning, depression, irritability, poor language skills — are just as likely to be affected.

“We’ve been using TMS for adults with autism who have other co-morbid conditions such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and depression,” Eric Hollander, director of the Autism and OCD Spectrum Program at Montefiore Medical Center and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, says. “And we’ve had good luck in terms of reducing the severity of some compulsive behaviors, as well as anxiety.”

Hollander has found TMS useful for relieving such autism symptoms as agitation, self-injury, and behavioral rigidity. But he says many questions about TMS for autism are still unanswered, including which brain regions to target, the optimal frequency and duration of treatment, and the best schedule for booster therapy for long-term maintenance.

In addition to all these questions about how TMS should be used, scientists don’t really know much about who the best candidates for TMS are. Is it best aimed at those on the high-functioning end of the spectrum? Only for adults? Only for those without epilepsy or other co-existing problems?

And what are the ethical implications of recommending TMS for a use not approved by the FDA? Even though it is legal (doctors can prescribe any FDA-approved drug or device for any purpose, not only the purpose for which it was originally approved), that does not make it the right thing to do.

One way to answer these questions is through a multi-center therapeutic trial of TMS for autism, something that Kim Hollingsworth Taylor and the Clearly Present Foundation have been trying to help organize. But clinical trials are expensive and would require a major grant, which members of the coalition of researchers Taylor has assembled, known as the TMS Therapy for Autism Consensus Group, have spent the past two years trying to obtain. They’re talking now about first coordinating a number of pilot studies at individual institutions, on the way to gearing up to a large-scale, multi-center clinical trial.

There are already a few studies of TMS and autism underway: one in Canada is looking for improvement in executive function in 50 adolescents and young adults; another in France is looking for changes in social cognition in 60 adults; and one in Israel (the one most relevant to children) is looking for changes in social interaction in 20 children and adolescents who have autism or an intellectual disability or both.

In the meantime, Oberman says the only safe way to receive TMS for autism, for adults and children alike, is by being part of a research trial — which means going to clinicaltrials.gov to volunteer to be a study subject.

“I would not recommend receiving TMS ‘treatments’ from a clinician outside of a research study,” she says, “as there is no standard protocol, nor strong evidence that any given protocol is likely to lead to long-term improvements in symptoms of autism spectrum disorder. Anyone who tells you otherwise is simply misleading you.”

Science writer Robin Marantz Henig is a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine and the author of nine books. She also serves on the board of advisers for Spectrum Magazine.

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The Humble Postage Stamp Reveals A Lot About A Country

An envelope with early stamps from Pakistan, including the first commemorative stamp (in red) designed by the renowned artist A.R. Chughtai and issued in 1948.

An envelope with early stamps from Pakistan, including the first commemorative stamp (in red) designed by the renowned artist A.R. Chughtai and issued in 1948. Courtesy of Adnan Hussain Nanjee hide caption

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For 27-year-old Adnan Hussain Nanjee of Karachi, Pakistan, postage stamps are more than just postage stamps: They tell the history of his country.

A South African stamp features President Nelson Mandela.

A South African stamp features President Nelson Mandela. World Stamp Show hide caption

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Click here to subscribe to our weekly global health and development email. NPR hide caption

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“Take a look for yourself,” says Nanjee, who was in New York last month to take part in the World Stamp Show, a once-a-decade international convention that welcomed approximately 250,000 stamp collectors and enthusiasts, eager to display, view, buy and sell everything philatelic.

He takes out his phone and opens a slideshow of brightly colored stamps, decorated with scenic backdrops and distinctive geometric patterns. He shares a British India postage stamp from 1947, with the word “Pakistan” boldly printed in caps over the top. It served as an announcement that the newly independent country now had its own independent postal service.

Similarly, Peter W. Van Der Molen, in from Johannesburg for the show, shares examples of old stamps depicting Queen Victoria and recent stamps celebrating Nelson Mandela and South African music legends.

But in the developing world, stamps aren’t just about history. They also provide insight into a country’s concerns.

For instance, this 1991 stamp was issued by Pakistan to mark the 25th anniversary of the Asian Development Bank, which helps member countries increase access to education, public health, trade and finance.

The 1991 stamp from Pakistan celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Asian Development Bank.

The 1991 stamp from Pakistan celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Asian Development Bank. World Stamp Show hide caption

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Agriculture is a prominent theme: This 1976 stamp from Nigeria publicizes its Operation Feed the Nation program, which encouraged greater food production and fewer imports.

This 1976 stamp from Nigeria promoted "Operation Feed the Nation."

This 1976 stamp from Nigeria promoted “Operation Feed the Nation.” World Stamp Show hide caption

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Health issues are common. This 1976 stamp from Cuba was issued in honor of the World Health Organization’s World Health Day, themed around the prevention of blindness.

The 1976 stamp from Cuba was issued in honor of World Health Day — dedicated to the prevention of blindness that year.

The 1976 stamp from Cuba was issued in honor of World Health Day — dedicated to the prevention of blindness that year. World Stamp Show hide caption

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Cuba has traditionally taken great pride in its universal health system and its medical care, says Dr. Yamil Kouri, a practicing physician and stamp collector visiting the show from Lexington, Mass. “They have a long history of issuing stamps for multiple causes, not only political but social and world health issues.”

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