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Tiny electrical shocks to the brain enhance memory: study


4 Star


Tiny electrical shocks to the brain enhance memory: study

Our Review Summary

This story does a bit better job than the other one we reviewed of describing electrical brain stimulation treatment as it is used in other types of patients, and pointing out that it is “very invasive.” Still, it could have been more specific about the inherent risks. Like the other story, it misses a chance to compare the results of this experiment to the size of the temporary memory boost provided by available drugs.



Why This Matters

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.


Does the story adequately discuss the costs of the intervention?


This line of research is so preliminary that we don’t think it’s necessary that stories report specific cost estimates. This story did include a comment about similar treatments being very expensive.

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


The story is clear that this test was just a preliminary experiment to see if brain stimulation can have any memory effects in people. It notes that while researchers say it is worth exploring as a potential treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, there is no evidence yet that it provides such benefits.

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

Not Satisfactory

While this story (unlike the HealthDay story we reviewed) at least mentions that deep brain stimulation is “very invasive,” it should have listed at least some of the major risks of implanting electrodes into the brain connected to stimulation devices under a patient’s skin, including bleeding, strokes and infections.

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.

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


The story includes several mentions of the preliminary nature of this work. It points out that there may be important differences between the epilepsy patients in this study and typical Alzheimer’s disease patients and that there is no proof this technique will work for patients with dementia.

Does the story commit disease-mongering?


The story mentions the estimated number of people with Alzheimer’s disease in the United States and that their ranks are “swelling,” but it does not exaggerate the prevalence of the disease or the portion of the population that could potentially benefit if this line of research makes progress.

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


The story quotes an independent source and includes a comment from an editorial that appears along with the research report in the New England Journal of Medicine. It does not refer to any conflicts of interest, but the authors reported no conflicts in the disclosure forms posted online by the journal.

Does the story compare the new approach with existing alternatives?

Not Satisfactory

This story offers a bit more information about existing treatments than the other story we reviewed, but all it says is that available drugs cannot prevent Alzheimer’s disease from progressing. The story would have been better if it had given readers some sense of how the memory-enhancing effects of available drugs compare to the size and duration of the effects seen in this test of brain stimulation.

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


The story describes how brain stimulation is now used to treat some patients with Parkinson’s disease and other disorders, while making clear that more research is needed before anyone will know if it offers any benefits to people with Alzheimer’s disease.

Does the story establish the true novelty of the approach?


As mentioned above, the story points out that this sort of technique is used to treat other problems.

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


This story includes direct quotes from an interview with an author of the researcher report so it’s clear that it did not rely solely on a news release.

Total Score: 8 of 10 Satisfactory


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