This story gives readers a good sense of the tentative nature of this research. It points out that the results seen in patients with epilepsy might not be replicated in those with Alzheimer’s disease. But the story should have done more to point out the inherent risks of pushing wires deep into a patient’s brain. Some comparison to the size of the temporary memory boost provided by available drugs would have helped put the results of this test in better context.
The terrible effects of Alzheimer’s disease and the lack of effective treatments create desperate desires for new options. Stories that report on this line of research should emphasize the caveats and cautions in order to take into account the power of wishful thinking by families and friends of people with dementia.
This line of research is so preliminary that we won’t criticize a story for omitting cost estimates. However, as the story notes, similar technology is used to treat some people with Parkinson’s disease and other disorders, so the story could have told readers how much those applications cost.
The story reports that the test looked only at a simulation of learning how to navigate a virtual city. It points out that this test does not prove that electrical brain stimulation can overcome memory problems caused by Alzheimer’s disease or other types of dementia. An independent source quoted in the story points out the experiment did not show if the effects last.
Even though the researchers did not report any harms to participants in this study, the story should have mentioned that while similar treatments are considered safe enough in the right circumstances, implanting electrodes and electrical stimulation devices can cause bleeding, strokes, infections, mood changes, movement disorders, sleep problems and other harms.
A recent study of deep brain stimulation (DBS) involving 99 Parkinson’s patients concluded that DBS “has an adverse effect on executive functions with implications for daily life of the patients and their relatives.” Almost 10% of those DBS patients had psychiatric events including a suicide attempt.
The story notes that this test included only a small number of participants, and that while it is called “promising” and one quote said it is a “first, important step,” there were also quotes and comments pointing out that many questions remain. Specifically, the story noted that the patients in this test were being prepared for treatment to reduce epileptic seizures and that there may be important differences between them and typical Alzheimer’s disease patients.
The story does not exaggerate who might eventually benefit from this line of research.
The story includes an independent source. Although it does not mention whether the researchers have any conflicts of interest, the authors reported no conflicts in the disclosure forms posted online by the New England Journal of Medicine.
The story should have made some mention of the drugs currently available to improve memory function of people with Alzheimer’s disease. Although these drugs do not alter the progression of the disease, a comparison of their memory-enhancing effects to the level of improvement seen in this test would have given readers a useful way to better understand the size and duration of the effect these researchers saw.
The story is clear that this research is in its early stages, though devices are available that provide similar deep brain stimulation to patients with other disorders.
The story notes that brain stimulation is already used to treat other disorders, but that using it to boost memory would be new.
The story does attribute quotes from a researcher to a news release, but it also includes quotes from at least one other source, so it does not appear to rely only on the release.