Question mark health journalism strikes again: Could cell phones be used to treat depression?

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Question mark health news.jpgI’ve written before about The Daily Show’s criticism of journalists trying to get away with saying anything in headlines or teases, simply by putting a question mark after it. Past examples:

• Can Your Purse Make You Sick?

• Pomegranates Prevent Breast Cancer?
• Fountain of Youth?

It happened again this week, this time in print, and in a very odd context. As a followup to all of the news coverage of the latest study raising some questions about what cell phones might do to our brains, the Wall Street Journal posted a blog piece headlined, “Could Cell Phones Be Used To Treat Depression?” Excerpt:

“..if there aren’t harmful effects, the ability to induce brain activity could actually be a good thing. Cell phones potentially could be used therapeutically, as a non-invasive tool to interact with brain rhythms or stimulate parts of the brain that aren’t working optimally, according to Reto Huber, a professor at the University Children’s Hospital Zurich who also has studied electromagnetic fields and cell phone use but wasn’t involved with the new JAMA study.

There are already brain stimulation techniques for depression, like electroconvulsive therapy (ECT, aka shock therapy) and transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS. The amount of additional brain activity induced by cell phones — about 7% to 8% — is on par with the amount of increased brain activity currently induced by TMS, according to Volkow. So perhaps one day cell phones could be hand-held brain stimulation devices, she says.”

If readers brains aren’t spinning from holding up their cellphones too close for too long, they might be spinning from the lack of evidence given to support such a projection. As for the comparison to TMS, don’t jump to conclusions about that either. Read a past review of news coverage on that.

The Wall Street Journal piece appeared on a health blog – not a science-of-tomorrow blog. “Potentially could be used therapeutically” and “perhaps one day could be” are projections based on absolutely no therapeutic evidence. And we think the blog post should have said that.

The WSJ wasn’t alone in this. The Los Angeles Times health blog stated:

“But Dr. Nora Volkow, the JAMA study’s lead author, suggested a far less ominous take on the JAMA findings. That cellphones’ electromagnetic energy stimulates activity in nearby brain cells may one day suggest therapeutic uses for electromagnetic energy, she said in an interview. After all, transcranial magnetic stimulation, which temporarily suppresses or “jams” activity in brain cells nearby, is widely used in neuroscience research, and is being studied in the treatment of depression, epilepsy and even in halting eyelid spasms. Deep-brain stimulation is considered a promising treatment for some stubborn forms of depression.”

This cell phone story has been bouncing around for more than 20 years. Readers certainly need clear analysis of potential harms. And we wonder why it’s even worth confusing the issue with projections of potential benefits – in the total absence of any evidence.

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Ken Leebow

February 25, 2011 at 10:53 am

I know this is an over-simplification, however, it’s a good idea to ignore the “research of the day” report – frequently contradictory and a misdirection toward leading a healthy lifestyle.
Here’s a good cartoon that addresses research …

Larry Husten

February 25, 2011 at 11:19 am

I don’t want to defend the headline but it should be noted that it was written, I think, at least partly as a response to the overwhelming number of news reports about the cell phone study which brought up yet again the specter of cell phones causing brain cancer. I haven’t looked but I suspect many of those news stories also used question marks in the headline, and I suspect the level of evidence is about the same (ie, nil) for both propositions.