Almost every day the CBS Early Show puts on light and fluffy “news you can use.” This segment was about news no one can use yet – because it was in mice.
There’s nothing wrong with reporting on animal research. But when you suddenly one day drop in animal research in a time slot used almost every day for consumer health news, and then fail to emphasize the limitations of animal research, you’re not doing the audience a service. Is the CBS Early Show going to regularly report on basic research and animal research? Or just stories they think are cute because they involve coffee at a time when people are waking up?
The on-air text graphic labeled the piece, “Can caffeine prevent Alzheimer’s disease?" But the study reported on found only that caffeine reduced memory loss only when added to the water of mice already exhibiting memory loss.
At the end of the segment, the physician-reporter said, “It’s important to realize the study did not find really a preventive effect, but more of a therapeutic effect.”
Huh? So why did CBS label this as a prevention story?
The physician-reporter twice called the study results “very encouraging” – although the results of what actually happened to the mice was never adequately explained. And they’re mice. The focus of the segment appeared to revolve around illustrating for viewers the amount of coffee they would need to consume to equal the amount given to the mice. All this, without ever once mentioning that results in mice do not guarantee similar benefit in humans.
The segment just flat failed to acknowledge the limitation that this was an experimental study in a mouse model of Alzheimer’s disease and that human studies need to be done before a recommendation could be made for people.
The cost of caffeine is not in question.
While the broadcast indicated that caffeine had a therapeutic benefit in these mice, it provided no way to gauge the magnitude of this benefit. And it neglected to explain that until trials with people are conducted, there is no way to know even whether the effect seen in mice would also be seen in humans.
There was no discussion of potential harms. Given the sleep challenges that many older adults have and the possibility of interactions with prescription medications with caffeine, the potential for harm should have at least been mentioned.
There was a lack of specific information. The segment stated that it included information from "two new studies" conducted in mice "induced to have the same sort of memory changes as we see in Alzheimer’s disease." It was actually a single study from which two papers were written and published. The segment did not provide any information about the extent to which improvement was seen or what exactly was measured.
This segment did not engage in overt disease mongering.
No independent experts on Alzheimer’s disease, the utility of mouse models of human disease, or caffeine appeared in this segment.
There was no discussion of other interventions or even treatments under investigation for ameliorating memory loss with Alzheimer’s disease.
The availability of caffeine is not in question.
The segment failed to put the new findings into the context of the studies which have been conducted for more than a decade examining whether coffee had remedial effects in those with Alzheimer’s disease.
Why report on this now? This story aired on July 6. The day before, the Florida Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center sent out a news release – http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2009-07/uosf-crm070109.php. The same line about Starbucks appears in the segment as appeared in the news release. (It is worth noting that the press release actually contains information about potential harms as well as a metric to compare the memory benefit to.)
Given the timing, and given the fact that no other source was cited and no expert interviewed, it appears that the story relied heavily on what was in the news release – with no independent vetting evident.