Beware the neuro-fix

There must have been a time when electro- was the magic prefix: electro-plate, electro-magnetism, electrolysis, electro-convulsive, and many, many more. Now it’s neuro-something-or-other.

Adopt a style of being wary whenever you see new claims for neuro-magic, especially in press releases. Science does not always support what is claimed: and institutions releasing press statements about what their research labs have discovered can err on the side of a good story rather than straight truth.

Three years ago a group of UK and Australian researchers1 set out to see if they could track what happened between the lab and the flow of press information to claims made for research results. Their objective was to ‘..identify the source (press releases or news) of distortions, exaggerations, or changes to the main conclusions drawn from research that could potentially influence a reader’s health related behaviour.’ They analysed ‘ .. 462 press releases on biomedical and health related science issued by 20 leading (Russell Group) UK universities in 2011, alongside their associated peer reviewed research papers and news stories ..’. The outcomes were troubling for those of interested in the integrity of the way science it taken out of the lab into public knowledge.

The authors recorded the facts that up to 46% of the press releases from academic institutions contained exaggerated causal claims, whilst 36% that involved animal research contained exaggerated inferences to humans from the animal research outcomes. When press releases from the institutions themselves contained such exaggerations, then 58% of resulting press and news stories contained similar exaggerations compared with only 17% exaggeration when the original press release did not make exaggerated claims.

The main conclusion the authors drew from this is that exaggerated claims for science in the press are very strongly associated with the mis-information that originates from the press releases issued under the authority of the highly-respectable academic institutions issuing the press releases.

On November 7 2017 Julia Bellux writing for the public policy / science site Vox ( wrote about how flawed science helped turn chocolate into a health food. Among other observations she noted that Nature Neuroscience published a 2004 study sponsored by the Mars company that claimed to show how taking the micronutrients called flavanols contained in cocoa supplements could boost memory function in older adults. Using 37 human subjects divided into four groups, the researchers wanted to determine whether cocoa flavanols and / or exercise had a specific impact on brain function in an area of the brain – the dentate gyrus – especially associated with age-related memory loss. They concluded that exercise had no effect, while cocoa flavanol consumption did, claiming that ‘ .. cocoa could reverse age-related memory decline by as many as three decades.’ ‘Columbia University’s newsroom touted the research as demonstrating that “dietary flavanols reverse age-related memory decline.” The research was then picked up by media outlets, including the New York Times, which trumpeted chocolate – not just cocoa dietary supplements – as a memory aid.’

‘But here’s the thing: The study never actually proved that cocoa supplements, and especially not chocolate, could prevent memory decline. It was too small, too narrowly focused, and too short-lived to tell us anything important about real memory loss with aging, said Henry Drysdale, a doctor and fellow at Oxford University’s Center for Evidence-Based Medicine.’

Then on November 9th 2017 in the Life Sciences section of News Medical, Dr Ananya Mandal3 reported that the American Society of Clinical Oncology had published a statement linking cancer to alcohol intake – “Alcohol and Cancer: A Statement of the American Society of Clinical Oncology”. ‘The aim of the statement was to improve public education regarding alcohol abuse and some cancers’, wrote Dr Mandal, though the title of the statement made no reference to that ‘abuse’ part of that intention. The statement says that ‘.. at least 5.5 percent cancers have been found to be associated with alcohol consumption.’ Note that sneaky word ‘associated’. The whole tone of the statement would give a scientifically uninformed reader – the majority of the population – a sense that there was a causal link between alcohol intake and cancer.

This new site at Eicke Leadership Academy wants to start out with the highest standards possible about using neuro-knowledge in an organisational context; and so issues a health warning for those fascinated by the applied neurosciences. Beware what the experts claim. If neuro- has been tagged on to something, take especial care. Careful science does matters. Careless science reporting might, alas, matter even more.

© 2017 P T Brown

By P.T. Brown PhD, Faculty Professor – Applied Neuroscience, Monarch Business School Switzerland; Chairman, Global Leaders/Executive Coaching Vietnam; Chairman of The ION Partnership (International Organisational Neuroscience); guest lecturer at the Fulbright EconomicsTeaching Program in HCMC; faculty at UK’s Royal college of Defence Studies; clinical and organisational psychologist and executive coach and supervisor. Co-author of „Neuropsychology for Coaches“, „Neuroscience for Leadership“ and „The Fear-Free Organization“.