Giving bad science a bad name

“Coffee cures Alzheimer’s.” This sounds like great news for me personally, given that generally I drink enough coffee per day to wake up the population of a small town.

Am I drinking the right amount, though? How much do you need to drink to avoid – nay, cure – the dread disease?

The Independent claims that a modest cup a day will do it.

A coffee a day ensures the memory will stay

The BBC has a more demanding coffee-drinking schedule. And it’s a lot more tentative about the good it will do.

Coffee ‘may reverse Alzheimer’s’
A possible treatment for dementia?
Drinking five cups of coffee a day could reverse memory problems seen in Alzheimer’s disease, US scientists say.

Wait, a mere two cups of coffee might do it.

The mice were given the equivalent of five 8 oz (227 grams) cups of coffee a day – about 500 milligrams of caffeine.
The researchers say this is the same as is found in two cups of “specialty” coffees such as lattes or cappuccinos from coffee shops, 14 cups of tea, or 20 soft drinks.

It may be too pedantic to point out that a latte or cappuccino are defined by the milk, rather than by the caffeine content. I take it they are using these as shorthand for “real” rather than instant coffee. Ground coffee or espresso may just be too unfashionable to mention.

The Daily Express actually led with this news item covering its front page, in some print editions. It thinks two coffees is the magic quantity.

DRINKING two cups of coffee a day reverses the effects of Alzheimer’s, ground-breaking research has revealed.
Scientists say powerful evidence shows caffeine not only helps to stave off the disease but can even treat it, as it helps to sharpen the memory.

This news item is a mite less groundbreaking than it appears. There was a similar story last year. The protective volume of coffee was one cup a day.

“This is the best evidence yet that caffeine equivalent to one cup of coffee a day can help protect the brain against cholesterol.

In that experiment, it was rabbits that got the caffeine. The poor buggers were killed, of course, but at least they they were just regular rabbits, as far as I can make out.*

Not so the mice. They were bred to have symptoms of Alzheimers. I am sure you will correct my neuroscience idiocy but – is that really the same as human beings having Alzheimers? Or so close to the same as dammit?

(I have serious doubts about the applicability of this research to humans. Serious enough to say that – in the astronomically unlikely event that I were ever on a university ethics committee – I’d have said to these experimenters “Not a chance. You haven’t justified doing the Frankenstein thing of breeding creatures to be sick, in this case. First try some epidemiological studies of people.”)

The interesting thing is that the research report itself doesn’t even claim that coffee cures Alzheimers.

Researchers in the US have shown that caffeine can boost memory in mice with Alzheimer’s symptoms.
At the moment it is not clear whether caffeine can have the same effect in people. Researchers are now carrying out trials to see if caffeine can be beneficial for people with Alzheimer’s.(from the Alzheimers Research Trust website)

However, a casual scan of a few news items would leave you thinking that you only need to force a few doppio espressos down the throats of your formerly caffeine-free older relatives and they could emerge brighteyed from dementia.

(* Another paper in the same journal reckoned that

Acetaminophen inhibits neuronal inflammation and protects neurons from oxidative stress

I think that’s paracetemol to us. I’ll start swallowing two with my morning latte.)

And now for something completely different

This is really interesting. It’s a programme from teacher’s tv about brain research. (Yes, Teacher’s TV. I kid you not. It’s not all Key stage 3 in Geography.)

It really makes you think. The savant skills are amazing. There’s an experiment that seems to show that turning off a bit of the brain makes people better at seeing what’s really there. There’s loads about the nature of creative thought.

Wowee science week

Wow number 1
A cursory check hasn’t turned up any other blogs that deal with this one. So, here’s a link to BBC post about a fossil fish that presents evidence of live birth.

The 380 million-year-old specimen has been preserved with an embryo still attached by its umbilical cord.
The find, reported in Nature, pushes back the emergence of this reproductive strategy by some 200 million years.

In your faces, yet again, young earth creationists. Though I suppose it’s another of those incomprehensible god-tests where he sticks evidence that contradicts the book of genesis just to sort out those people who prefer evidence to myth so he can put their names in the “go straight to hell for doubting the magic words” book

Wow number 2

Monkeys have been able to control robot arms to feed themselves, using the power of thought alone.

I’m not the world’s greatest fan of messing about with the bodies and brains of animals but the implications of this research are pretty amazing.

Does this mean that we can finally carry out the 100 monkeys with typewriters experiment?

Wow number 3

Mars. How great that it looks like an abandoned farm planet.

Small whines.. I have to moan a bit about the false colouring, which makes the enterprise seem a little spurious. Why didn’t they use colour cameras? (Yes, space bandwidth, and so on. I don’t care. I want full-colour images.)

And I could have done with fewer pictures of the lander. It’s a bit like taking a holiday in Angkor Wat and then putting yourself in the foreground of every photo.

Aside from these tiny gripes about the presentation, seeing the surface of Mars is fantastic.

Two short planks?

It’s National Brain Training Awareness Month, according to the Metro.

I couldn’t remember the name of the month (I still thought it was July) or the name of the Prof* who’s promoting it (Ian Robertson), without finding my copy of the Metro and copying it down. So this brain training stuff might be becoming a matter of urgency.

Ian Robertson said

“Studies show our average IQ rose all the way through the 20th century, but has declined over the last ten years.”

I have to admit that this seems more than mildly spurious, given that IQ is not exactly reliable evidence of much (The field is dominated by shady bad-scientists from Birt to Eysenck and doesn’t show anything except the ability to do well on IQ tests.)** But, given that the claim fits so smoothly in with my own prejudices, I’m happy to run with the ball here.

I do indeed feel that people in general are getting noticeably stupider. I would be happy to argue the toss all day about what factors could be responsible – from the after effects of the lead in the petrol when today’s young adults were growing brain-tissue, through a lowest-common-denominator education system that rewards conformist office skills and discourages imagination, shot through with constant testing.

But, this diatribe must have some word limit, so I’ll stick to the synergistic effects of an increasingly stupid culture. According to Robertson, the brain is a muscle that needs exercising throughout life.

Few of us are doing work that exercises it. (Working in a call centre uses much less of the brain than a traditional manual labourer used to exercise.) Few of us have interests that expand our consciousness or physical or mental skills.

The more stupid we become, the more stupid things get rolled out for our entertainment, the more we imbibe them uncritically, the more stupid we come.

*Cue Whiney codgerish rant*

It used to be said that the Sun newspaper was aimed at people with a reading age of 11, hence its mass market appeal. Now, that’s already starting from a pretty low base.

But, we now have television that makes reading the Sun seem like an intellectual pursuit. (It involves READING, ffs.)

Dull and self-obsessed “ordinary” people locked up with others of their ilk while they compete ever more bitchily for our attention. Talent shows with z-list music-biz judges, where both contenders and judges compete bitchily for our attention. And so on. Dull Z-list celebs learning to dance. Dull z-list celebs eating raw worms. 10 sexiest male singers. 100 greatest TV advert characters……..

We are basically socially reinforcing every tendency towards stupidity that we can muster. And we are making ourselves as stupid as we possibly can at a time when we really need our brains. We are living in a time of extreme crisis – in terms of wars, resources, the natural environment, population pressure. And we are all busy doing the “fiddling while Rome burns” thing – switching off our intelligence to avoid noticing that all the threats that have been looming for decades haven’t gone away.

*Cue Gushing rave*

From another perspective, though, there is lots of evidence that some people have been getting much smarter over the past ten years. The Internet didn’t even really exist a little more than ten years ago. And it’s spawning works of genius all the time. The people designing software and net tools are expanding the world’s possibilities every day. Just plain old Internet users are taking these inventions and creating miraculous things in terms of communication and art. (Witness the atheist blogroll, some of the things on You-tube, the arcane worlds of linux fanatics and hax0r groups, brilliant blogs, amazing photography, stunning 3d rendering, etc)

So I suspect that average intelligence hasn’t actually fallen. The average brain capacity has just become polarised. The people with the working brain tissue are getting exponentially smarter and the mentally challenged are giving up the fight to become fully human.

(* Not sure what his job is. The Metro says “Dean of NeuroScience at the University of Dublin”. Some training site that cites his research says “Professor of Psychology at Trinity College Dublin.” Maybe a promotion plus a change of specialty? )
** Coincidentally, Pharyngula expresses his problem with doubting the validity of IQ while wanting to go along with IQ-based research that matches what he wants to hear – in his case, that atheists have 5 points higher IQs than believers. Well, he’s only pretending to be torn. Of course he doesn’t accept it as ‘true’, enticing as the idea is. there is an interesting discussion of IQ, with some good comments. The post was picked up on WhyDontYou tumbler and Planet atheism as well.
*** How brainy is this, hey? Three footnotes. On a blog? 🙂 In your face, stupid people.