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How to report on preliminary Alzheimer’s research results

Gary Schwitzer is Publisher of HealthNewsReview.org. He Tweets as @garyschwitzer, or under our project signature, @HealthNewsRevu.

Mouse 410x273The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune published a fairly good example of how to inform, but not mislead or cheerlead, when reporting about early Alzheimer’s research results.

Let’s start with the headline and subhead:

Alzheimer’s researchers at University of Minnesota reverse memory loss in mice

The research could lead to new treatments for humans, but that would be 10 years away.

Yes, it probably only made news because it was about a local research effort in Minneapolis.  Chances are this wouldn’t have been reported by the Star Tribune if it had come out of the University of Wisconsin, just a few hours away.

But there was no hometown cheerleading.

Instead, the story included:

  • Caveats from the researcher herself:  “…but it’s a 10-year process even if we’re successful.”
  • Caveat from a scientific director for the Alzheimer’s Association: “One has to remember that this [research] is on mice,” he said. “We have, unfortunately, successfully treated mice and rats for years, and that hasn’t translated to humans. So for a treatment, there’s still a long way to go.”
  • Caveat from an independent expert: “The idea of reversal of memory loss, quite frankly, is wishful thinking at the present time,” said Dr. David Knopman, an Alzheimer’s specialist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.”

Finally, since it is often how a story starts and how it ends that makes an impact on readers, the ending also provided context and caution with a final quote from the researcher:

“You have to test it in animals first to make sure it works, make sure it’s safe,” she said, before even testing it on people. That’s why, she said, even if all goes well, it will be years “before there would be a pill that you could get from the pharmacy.”

So the story left little doubt about context:  interesting research from a researcher with an interesting track record, but nowhere near any human application or implication.

It didn’t seem like a Herculean effort for the paper to report it in this way, but it stands apart from a lot of what we see in Alzheimer’s disease (and other health care news) reporting – or in PR news releases.  For example:

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