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BuzzFeed oversells benefits of experimental technology used on paralyzed man

Rating

4 Star

Categories

A Paralysed Man Can Play “Guitar Hero” Using A Computer That Reads His Thoughts

Our Review Summary

Human body brain anatomyThis is a story about a case study involving one man with a specific type of partial paralysis, who regained some motion via an experimental device implanted in his brain and connected to a device worn on his arm.

The case study is undoubtedly newsworthy, but BuzzFeed’s coverage was unbalanced. It starts off with a “be amazed” tone, skipping over important nuances about the technology and the man’s limited skills. For example, the headline blares that a mind-reading computer allows the man to play “Guitar Hero.” Only much later in the story do we get important details and caveats, ending on a “be disappointed” tone.

As well, the story should have told readers that the lead researchers have an interest in patents associated with the hardware and software they are developing.

 

Why This Matters

Be amazed. Be disappointed. That’s the cycle that stories like this put us through. The achievement presented by these researchers is remarkable; they demonstrated that this line of work may someday produce something of benefit to some people with certain types of paralysis.

But overselling the achievement as a mind-reading computer that gave a paralyzed man the ability to play “Guitar Hero” (a challenge for many able-bodied readers) gives us a false high and sets us up for a crash. It undermines the credibility of science and medical reports.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

It is too early in the development of this experimental technology to begin talking about what the price of such a system might be. But readers would have gotten a clearer idea of the preliminary state of this work if the story had noted that the brain mapping, device implantation, sophisticated equipment and hundreds of hours of training probably cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Does the story adequately quantify the benefits of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Not Satisfactory

This article included important caveats about the limited actions that the patient was able to perform, and made it clear that this device was highly experimental. But most of these details are mentioned only near the end of the story. We might have given the story a Satisfactory rating if the headline and opening paragraphs had matched the tone of these later sections. However, the overly broad claims at the top of the story overwhelm the cautionary details.

Also, the story should have more clearly pointed out that (as a Nature news article specifically noted) this approach may not work for people who, unlike this patient, don’t still have at least some ability to move their shoulders and elbows. As a result, the story implies that this experiment is relevant to a far broader group of people than the researchers claim.

Does the story adequately explain/quantify the harms of the intervention?

Not Satisfactory

Even if the technology is experimental and only tested on one patient, the story should have included some discussion of risks of the implantation surgery and the implant itself.

Does the story seem to grasp the quality of the evidence?

Satisfactory

We will give the story a Satisfactory rating here because it’s made clear that this is a study of one person. Readers who pay attention all the way to the end are indeed warned about how far this line of work is from producing a useful option for real-world use.

However, the story would have been better if–instead of boasting that the patient can play “Guitar Hero”–the headline and opening paragraphs had been clearer that he could produce a limited range of finger and hand motions in painstakingly prepared laboratory conditions that, rather than revealing a useful device, demonstrate that the goal of a useful device is probably not impossible someday.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

Paralysis from spinal cord injuries is a devastating condition, so the story is not overstating the situation facing patients.

Does the story use independent sources and identify conflicts of interest?

Not Satisfactory

The story includes strong context and cautionary statements from two independent sources. However, we cannot give it a Satisfactory rating because it doesn’t tell readers that the researchers have an interest in patents for the hardware and software they are developing. These financial interests were clearly noted in the Nature journal article and should have been included in the story.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Applicable

This experimental device does appear to allow this patient to do things that no other treatment can. However, the main achievement is a proof of concept. Unfortunately, the story makes the difference between his baseline function and his movements in the laboratory appear bigger than it is.

Does the story establish the availability of the treatment/test/product/procedure?

Satisfactory

The story is clear that this device is in laboratory testing. The comments from independent sources at the very end of the story help describe the long and uncertain road ahead for researchers.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Satisfactory

The story describes the specific new achievement of this experimental device: sensing electrical patterns in the brain and then translating them to electrical stimuli that trigger appropriate muscle movements.

Does the story appear to rely solely or largely on a news release?

Satisfactory

The story includes comments from independent sources and does not rely solely on a news release.

 

Total Score: 5 of 8 Satisfactory

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