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Guardian’s story on strobe lights: Mouse research on Alzheimer’s again finds its way to mainstream audience

Rating

2 Star

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Strobe lighting provides a flicker of hope in the fight against Alzheimer’s

Our Review Summary

mouse mice animal studies researchThis story describes a study in which genetically engineered mice were exposed to an hour of pulsing light daily for a week, with the result that certain toxins associated with Alzheimer’s disease were dramatically reduced in their brains.

The story suggests the flickering lights are an intriguing, non-invasive, and probably inexpensive idea that could hold promise for treatment of Alzheimer’s disease in humans. There is a major disclaimer: “The authors caution that a ‘big if’ remains over whether the findings would be replicated in humans – and whether cognitive deficits as well as visible symptoms of the disease would be improved.”

This is a story that admits many of the limitations of the research it cites, but initially draws people in with a headline that promises much more than the research has so far delivered. The study cited was published in a top journal and could represent a meaningful step on the way toward innovative treatment for Alzheimer’s disease. The operative word, however, is “could.” This research is years away from impacting human lives, if indeed the findings end up being relevant to humans at all–and that needed to be explained better.

Furthermore, the heavy use of medical terminology and a confusing explanation of the rationale behind the study could make it hard for many people to pick up on just how far from application the findings really are. This is a study that is important for researchers, but one we think probably didn’t need a wide general audience in mainstream news publications.

 

Why This Matters

Alzheimer’s is a tragic disease that impacts hundreds of millions of people worldwide. It is excruciating not only for victims but for caregivers who watch their loved ones incrementally being taken away from them. Hopeful headlines about results of mouse trials–the vast majority of which don’t translate into benefits to humans anyway–seem irresponsible. Couldn’t we use our line space for something more relevant? If not, here’s how we recommend framing these kind of stories.

Criteria

Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?

Not Applicable

The story does include a hint from the senior author that the treatment would be “accessible,” and presumably the cost of flickering lights would be an issue for most people.

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

Not Satisfactory

Given that the research under consideration here involved mice — and genetically bred mice at that — there’s no way to determine whether the intervention would have any benefit at all to people, let alone to quantify the likely benefits for human. The story does acknowledge this. But in the process, it also overstates what is known about the causes of Alzheimer’s and therefore how relevant this approach is to treating it. The story states flatly that “toxic proteins” are the culprit, but this is the subject of much debate within the Alzheimer’s research community and increasing evidence points against it.

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

Not Applicable

This potential treatment is still in mouse trials, so there’s not a lot that can be said at this point about potential harms. The author quotes the researchers, who pointed out that the lights as they were used in the trial “would not be offensive at all for people to have in the background.”

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

Satisfactory

The story acknowledges in the third paragraph that the study involved only mice and notes that more research will be needed to determine whether this intervention has any relevance to people. It also acknowledges recent failed drug trials and notes that drugs typically take more than a decade to develop before clinical efficacy is even examined. We’ll award a Satisfactory grade on that basis, but we renew our concern that this is mice–and nothing here is relevant to the lay reader. We think that this is the kind of research that’s better left communicated amongst research audiences, not the general public.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?

Satisfactory

The study does not engage in disease mongering. It would be hard to overstate the tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease. We’re a little disappointed that the article closes by conflating dementia with Alzheimer’s, when it tells readers that dementia has passed heart disease as the second leading cause of death in Britain.

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

Satisfactory

The senior author of the study is cited (and her quote came from an unattributed news release, see last criterion, below), but so are other researchers. Independent sources appear to have been consulted. The story also notes that the author has formed a company to pursue this, which is an important conflict of interest disclosure.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

Overall, this story feels inappropriately weighted in several ways, and a lack of background information about the state of the science in treatment for Alzheimer’s disease is one of them. The recently failed Eli Lilly trial is mentioned, but there’s no explanation of other prevention and treatment approaches (some of which are based on an entirely different model of the disease) that are currently under investigation.

There’s also no sense of just how little can be done for Alzheimer’s patients at this point in time, nor indeed how devastating the condition is for victims and their families. That kind of information would have provided a much-needed context for the results of the study.

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

Not Satisfactory

The story address availability with this statement: “The latest intervention, scientists predict, should be quicker and cheaper to confirm in humans than pharmaceuticals, which typically take more than a decade to develop and assess for safety before the clinical efficacy is even examined.” OK, quicker and cheaper — but does that mean a year from now or five years or 10?

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?

Not Satisfactory

The study author and one external source are quoted explaining that the findings are surprising. Just how novel the approach is would have been better established if the story gave readers background facts about current treatments and results of similar research. For example, other researchers reported earlier this year that light stimulation could purportedly “retrieve lost memories” in Alzheimer’s mice.

At the very end we’re told two of the co-authors on the original study are starting a company to investigate therapeutic potential in humans. It would be helpful to know if this company is the first of its kind and whether other researchers are looking into specific types of sensory stimulation as treatment for this disease.

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

Not Satisfactory

The study quotes two independent experts, which is good. But, it uses quotes taken directly from PR materials from the research organization without attribution:

Example, this quote:

“If humans behave similarly to mice in response to this treatment, I would say the potential is just enormous, because it’s so non-invasive, and it’s so accessible,” said Li-Huei Tsai, director of the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory at MIT, and the paper’s senior author.

Is taken from here, which published this as:

“But if humans behave similarly to mice in response to this treatment, I would say the potential is just enormous, because it’s so noninvasive, and it’s so accessible.”

Total Score: 3 of 8 Satisfactory

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