PBS: Not so neuroscience-savvy

Salon has an interesting piece condemning a recent PBS show purportedly on Alzheimer’s treatment but really more of a sketchy informercial. The program concerns a neurologist with tenuous ties to UC Irvine who advocates SPECT (single photon emission computed tomograpy, a technique which, similar to PET, uses a radiotracer) and some unfounded preventative treatments for Alzheimer’s. The neurologist Bill Amen has appeared on many big-name media outlets including CNN, the Today Show, and Fox News (and the real sign of media success — Oprah) although his approach to Alzheimer’s detection and treatment is lacking in scientific credibility:

“SPECT scans are not sufficiently sensitive or specific to be useful in the diagnosis of A.D.,” neurologist Michael Greicius , who runs the Stanford University memory clinic, and has a special interest in the use of functional brain imaging in the diagnosis of A.D., tells me. “The PBS airing of Amen’s program provides a stamp of scientific validity to work which has no scientific validity.”

Continued pontification on neuroethics issues after the jump.

Looking at Amen’s website, you can find all sorts of “neuro supplements” (many of them seem to be similar to basic multivitamins, probably not harmful but not really neuro treatments in any specific way) and more intriguing products like the $4.95 online Amen Brain System Test which “is a valuable tool to help determine if there are problems in the prefrontal cortex, anterior cingulate gyrus, basal ganglia, temporal lobes or deep limbic system.” Really? Anterior cingulate? Deep limbic system? Hmmm.

Although people are certainly getting duped by Amen who is out for a quick buck, he is likely indicative of a larger trend. Namely, cashing in on the public’s desire to apply modern neuro research to improving their own health. (After all, that is how/why a lot of neuroscience is funded.) Some of this type of stuff is legitimate and that’s fine, but a lot of it won’t be. How could Amen get promoted through many “respectable” media outlets? Didn’t anyone try to check out his claims? Amen’s response to the critical Salon article makes no headway in providing scientific support for his treatment. As Stephen Colbert might say, his response smacks of truthiness. Where are the neuroethicists and neuroscientists on this one? Shouldn’t they be complaining to the news outlets and reminding them of their duty to fact-check the reports made on their shows? And yes, I mean interviewed guests too. General popularity should not be conflated with scientific approval. People who make scientific claims need to be checked on!

This issue seems to be a pertinent one these days, as demonstrated by this front page NYT article (NYT, login) on the absurd use of ex-military as news analysts and their propagandistic use by the Pentagon. Truthiness seems to be all the rage right now. Let’s hope facts come back into the picture before bad neuroscience leaves a lasting bad impression.

On a more positive note, I’d be curious to hear any opinions on what kinds of products based on preliminary results from neuro research should be allowed and how the scientific community can become more active in approving what’s good and what’s not. I do think that we will soon have many neuroscience entrepreneurs and not all of them are going to have PhDs. What products can be trusted? Maybe we need a forum for reviewing and rating these products — even one based on feedback from users. Ideas?

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