Scientific Skepticism: Alzheimer’s has been cured!

Scientific Skepticism: Alzheimer’s has been cured! May 20, 2015

Hello, WWJTD readers! Michaelyn here!

Today I’d like to introduce a new series on WWJTD where I’ll be pulling headlines from the media and sharing with you why those headlines suck. My goal is to get you thinking about scientific reporting, and how to apply the proper amount of skepticism before sharing these articles on Facebook. I expect that I’ll focus a lot on psychology and neuroscience/neuropathology because those are the topics I understand best. In the end, I hope we can all learn something.

Today’s article is one I’ve seen shared several times by various Facebook friends. It reports that a “New Alzheimer’s treatment fully restores memory function. [In smaller font] Of the mice that received the treatment, 75% got their memory function back.”

That’s a huge finding! Is this the cure we’ve been looking for? Spoiler alert! No, this is not the cure we’ve been looking for, but it is still a very cool finding. Let’s take a closer look at the details.

According to Science Alert, a team of scientists has discovered a way to use a special type of ultrasound on the brain to clear out damaging plaques that are formed in the brain when a person has Alzheimer’s Disease. Clearing out these plaques in the brains of mice resulted in improving their memory function on several tasks.

So for one, this treatment is noninvasive and doesn’t involve taking any medications. This is super cool. All a patient would have to do is step into the doctor’s office, have some soundwaves sent into their brain, and chill out for a few hours.

However, the focus here was only on the Amyloid-Beta plaques. A quick Google search for “cause of alzheimer’s” is going to inform you that, 1. No one knows the cause for sure and 2. We do know there are two things that form in the brain during Alzheimer’s Disease: plaques and tangles. You may even notice that the Science Alert article mentions neurofibrillary tangles, but it goes on to say the researchers only focused on the plaques.

Here’s a video that briefly explains what these plaques and tangles do in the brain:

So say this new treatment is approved for humans, and doctors are able to use it to get rid of the plaques that are clogging up the space between the neurons in their patient’s brain. While that might clear up some of the issues the patient was having, what about the neurons that are dying and forming tangles? Are we just ignoring those? The disease is going to continue to progress, so while this ultrasound treatment may help in the short term, it is definitely not a cure.

Another very important detail is understanding how Alzheimer’s Disease is diagnosed. Most people won’t visit a doctor until they or a family member notice very significant changes in their memory function and/or personality, and by that point there has already been significant damage to the patient’s brain. Sadly, once neurons have died, there’s no getting them back. This ultrasound treatment can’t do anything to replace that kind of damage.

In conclusion:
*This treatment has only been tested on mice, and isn’t set for human clinical trials until 2017. Much more still needs to be learned before the treatment can be used.
*While this finding is huge and may help slow the rate of symptoms developing, it’s not a cure.
*The mice in the studies may have improved on memory tasks, but it would be impossible to fully restore the memory function of a patient who has already experienced neuronal loss.

TL;DR It’s complicated. Don’t trust headlines of scientific articles in the media.

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