The story of Jeremy and his magic magnets
Note: Before reading this post, you should pop over to the Independent and read this shocking piece of journalism by Jeremy Laurance: Magnet’s can improve Alzheimer’s symptoms. Then, read the scientific report in question: Improved language performance in Alzheimer disease following brain stimulation. I found myself asking how Mr Laurance could have come up with this, and reached the following conclusion…
Once upon a time there was a journalist named Jeremy, who, having had an illustrious career, decided to sit down and think about his latest article for the Independent. The article in question was about a small pilot study that used Repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation (rTMS) on Alzheimer’s patients. With only a small sample size of ten patients (5 in each group) the authors, who had no pretensions of this being anything more than a short report, concluded with the following:
The findings provide initial evidence for the persistent beneficial effects of rTMS on sentence comprehension in AD patients. Rhythmic rTMS, in conjunction with other therapeutic interventions, may represent a novel approach to the treatment of language dysfunction in AD patients.
Intriguing, thought Jeremy, this study has something to do with… MAGNETS! It was an explosive realisation: magnetic = magnets. Therefore, he concluded, with a leap of logic that’d clear Mount Everest as if it were just a small mole hill, this supports the notion that the application of magnets can help remedy diseases. In a zeal of excitement, he began to write:
To sceptics of alternative medicine, it will come as a surprise. Applying magnets to the brains of Alzheimer’s disease sufferers helps them understand what is said to them. The finding by Italian scientsts, who conducted a randomised controlled trial of the treatment, suggests that magnets may alter “cortical activity” in the brain, readjusting unhealthy patterns caused by disease or damage. The study was small, involving just 10 patients, and the results are preliminary.
Bashing away at his keyboard, with the enthusiasm of a monkey at a typewriter, Jeremy remembered a seemingly magical magnet device. The device was unproven, yet being associated with magnets warranted its inclusion:
[…] Evidence for most of these claims is dubious or non-existent. But one product gained sufficient credence in orthodox circles to to be made available on the NHS. Since 2006 a device called the 4UlcerCare – a strap containing four magnets that is wrapped around the leg – has been available on prescription from GPs. Its maker, the Bristol-based firm Magnopulse, claims that it speeds the healing of leg ulcers and prevents their recurrence. It is believed that the magnets stimulate the circulation but it is not known how.
Not so pseudo-scientific now, thought Jeremy with an unfounded smugness. It wasn’t wholly relevant, but the inclusion of the paragraph would pad out his piece before he actually discussed the study at hand. Sadly, Jeremy hadn’t realised that he had completely conflated TMS with magnetotherapy. It was an easy mistake to make, though, even for a health editor. Who could possibly know the magnets used in magnetotherapy are too weak to have any measurable effect on blood flow? It was on this note that Jeremy’s attention skipped back to his recent viewing of X-Men.
Maybe Magneto was the good guy after all.
P.P.S. The Independent even managed to get the name of the researcher wrong. It’s Maria Cotelli not Maria Costelli.