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.)

The world smiles with you

The British Medical Journal reported today that happiness was infectious.
(James H Fowler, Nicholas A Christakis, 2008, Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network:longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study, BMJ 2008;337:a2338 doi:10.1136/bmj.a2338) (How’s that for a serious reference?)

Well, Fowler and Christakis didn’t exactly say that happiness is infectious. That was what the free bus newspaper said in the pop-science report. But it doesn’t seem too far off the mark.

From the abstract:

Objectives To evaluate whether happiness can spread from person to person and whether niches of happiness form within social networks …
Results Clusters of happy and unhappy people are visible in the network, and the relationship between people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of separation (for example, to the friends of one’s friends’ friends). People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future. Longitudinal statistical models suggest that clusters of happiness result from the spread of happiness and not just a tendency for people to associate with similar individuals.

I’ll sidestep a long debate over their methods and conclusions* and just temporarily assume the conclusions are correct. Some of itheir data supports a standard “common sense” conclusion. If you are generally “happy”, you make people around you feel happier. Unhappy people make other people feel sad. Most people would agree on the basis of their own anecdotal evidence.

You could account for a lot of the effect through the processes of human interaction. We all spend most of our time communicating in one way or another. It would be strange if emotions expressed in our communications didn’t influence other people.

All the same, it’s a fascinating suggestion that emotions are being transmitted as if they were infections. “Memes”, maybe, although I don’t like using the term, except as a metaphor, and it’s far too easy for metaphors to get taken as literal truths. (Universe created in seven days, for instance.)

The BMJ article doesn’t suggest an explanatory transmission mechanism. This is disappointing, given that they have managed to come up with a measurable concept of “happiness”. Sort of sidestepping centuries of philosophical debate, really. Not invalidating it – a few indices can’t account for human consciousness – but approximating emotions in a quantifiable way, so the researchers could do statistical tests and chart their results.

Off the top of my head, I can guess at a few possible mechanisms – admittedly, all are crackpot theories, but they could be tested – such as people tending to synchronise their brainwaves with those of people they are close to; the action of pheremones; subconscious mirroring of others’ physical state, and so on.

Footnotes, even, as well as references.
* E.g Sampling factors that might have influenced the results included genetics (they focused on family groups), environment (living in a spatially limited area and, so, probably in the same social strata) and the tendency of people to associate with people that they identify with (they looked at friends.)

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.