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Gary Marcus recently published in The New Yorker entitled “Neuroscience Fiction”. It presents neuroscience as a science littered with inconsistencies and inaccurate data, referring mainly to PET and fMRI brain imaging studies. As a neuroscientist I take an exception to this. I am also surprised that Gary Marcus, an author of several scientific papers and a professor of psychology at NYU, does not have a better grasp on how to critically review scientific papers. The established peer review process is good, but it simply ensures sound scientific technique and interpretation of the data, not independent reproduction of the findings. Within any of the vast number of scientific disciplines it is easy to find papers that seemingly contradict each other. This is not something that is neuroscience specific and if you carefully read the papers, including the methods section (gasp), you can often determine the source of their inconsistencies. When dealing with emotional responses to an image (regularly done in fMRI studies) you can get vastly different responses from two different subjects in the same study where every methodological detail is identical. For example, one person may see a dog as a soft adorable cuddly animal while another person that was recently bit by a dog could experience intense fear. Now, if someone else does a seemingly similar study, but uses different images or in a different order or with different thresholds and parameters, it is not surprising that these two studies could yield very different results. That isn’t to say that something cannot be learned from comparing the studies and outcomes.
The problem isn’t with neuroscience or science in general. Scientists must publish and present their results so they can be scrutinized by other scientists, reproduced in an independent lab, and alternate explanations, interpretations, and theories (or further support) can be established. Problems arise when the findings are sensationalized through irresponsible reporting and the scientist is either not able to or simply does not accurately portray their research to the general public. Scientists need to learn to be cautious when disseminating their findings to the general public. They should be careful to emphasize that their new, cutting edge discovery has the potential to do this or lead to that, but that it doesn’t actually accomplish it yet. There is a breakdown in communication between scientist, reporters and the general public and I see it every day on CNN, The New Yorker, and many other popular new sources.
Tell us what you think…Is this a problem? What can be done about it? Should sensationalized findings be considered scientific/ethical misconduct?
This post deviates from our normal posts. It is not about careers. It is not directly about science and research. But it is about results. I recently attended a conference and had the pleasure of attending a talk by Dan Cohen about the use of music as an aide to improve quality of life for people with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Music is able to accomplish this by engaging the whole mind and body. Dan Cohen gave several examples of success stories, but one of the more powerful was Henry. As you can see in the video, Henry was unresponsive, irritable, depressed, and at times didn’t even recognize his own daughter. After just a few sessions of listening to music that was personalized for him, not just songs from his generation, but songs he actually used to listen to and enjoy, Henry became animated. He began to sing and dance and he became responsive to questions and engaging.
While Dan was not an especially polished speaker, his message was clear…personalized music is more effective than any medicine currently on the market at increasing quality of life for people with dementia. This is a sentiment that is echoed by many, including Dr. Oliver Sacks who authored Musicophillia and Dr. Peter Davies who has been instrumental in the development of several drugs to treat Alzheimer’s disease (such as Aricept). The Music and Memory program has been implemented in over 60 nursing home/adult care facilities across North America since its inception 7 years ago and every single one of them has continued the program. My question is this…why is this inexpensive (the cost of iPods, earphones, and music-if they are not donated) and easily implemented (just find out what music they like and download it on the iPod) program not established in every adult care facility in the world? In the US alone there are over 5 million people living with Alzheimer’s disease and an estimated cost to/on society of ~$200,000,000,000/year. Add to that the cost to bring an Alzheimer’s drug to market. Now think about the efficacy of that drug. Add in patient compliance and potential side effects. Is there really any comparison? The Music and Memory program can be implemented now with almost immediate results and added benefits of decreasing depression, disruptive behaviors, and anxiety.
Modern medicine has been wonderful at extending our lifespan. Unfortunately, this is often accompanied by debilitating diseases and poor quality of life. As the holiday season is upon us, why don’t we get involved and do some good. If you get a new iPod, why not donate your old one to Music and Memory ? Better yet, start a donation center in your city and bring Music and Memory to people in your community. Let’s see if we can make a difference worldwide.