Monthly Archives: March 2013

Neuro-Linguistic Programming – the 1970s neurobollocks that just refuses to die

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I’d prefer to spend two days in a Siberian gulag than with these two smug bullshitters.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) was invented in the mid-70s by Richard Bandler (a psychology and philosophy graduate) and John Grinder (a linguist). It originally grew out of observations made in therapy, and a metaphorical extension of some of the concepts of Chomsky’s transformational grammar. In the fertile grounds of the 70s Californian therapy and self-help movement, it soon blossomed into a multi-faceted set of techniques and philosophies. By the 80s it was being widely touted as a novel therapy technique and attracted some serious attention from researchers. However it was relatively quickly understood that there was no empirical basis for its key claims, and as its practitioners began to make ever more outlandish claims, serious interest from professionals waned.

This didn’t stop the NLP-faithful though. People like Tony Robbins (who studied with Bandler) made incredibly successful careers out of the motivational speaking/books circuit.  Despite this undeniable popular appeal, NLP is nowadays widely-regarded as pseudo-scientific bollocks of a particularly refined and rarefied strain.

It’s actually quite hard to pin down exactly what the key principles of NLP are. This is partly because its founders and practitioners use such vague and amorphous language, full of metaphors and pointless jargon, but also because of the diversity of its supposed applications; from ‘traditional’ therapeutic settings, to sports coaching, to corporate training seminars, to (creepily) seduction. It aspires to include something for everyone; the best way to maximise the market and therefore the potential profit. One relatively common theme is focused on teaching communication skills in order to facilitate the learner’s personal and professional relationships. On the surface this sounds reasonable, but the communication theory that its based on has absolutely zero empirical support. The wackier variants incorporate all kinds of other bollocks like hypnosis, and many NLP-whackos talk about being able to ‘reprogram’ their own (and other’s) brain, often by claiming to influence the subconscious mind in some way.

Despite being nearly 40 years old, and a ridiculous, facile hodge-podge of concepts from psychology, philosophy, linguistics and new-age twaddle with absolutely no support from any reputable sources, amazingly, NLP is still very much alive and kicking. Bandler has kept on developing (and ruthlessly trademarking) a load of new techniques including ‘Design Human Engineering™’, or ‘Charisma Enhancement™’. A lot of his recent work also appears to include hypnosis. His website is essentially one big advertisement for his books, CDs and speaking gigs; and there are literally thousands of individuals, businesses, and ‘institutes’ offering NLP training for a bewildering variety of purposes and people. Bandler has even latterly jumped on the ‘Brain training’ trend with a new company called ‘QDreams‘ (‘Quantum brain training!’; ‘Success at the speed of thought!’ FFS…). Searching on Twitter turns up many, many people earnestly tweeting away about the benefits of NLP. Why is it so persistent? Partly this is because of Bandler’s clear talent for slick marketing, re-invention and dedication to innovative bull-shittery, and partly because NLP was never really clearly defined in the first place, which makes it highly malleable and adaptable to any pseudo-scientific new-age trends that come along. Despite a hiccup in the mid-90s (when Bandler tried to sue Grinder for ninety million dollars) it seems to be as popular as ever, and to be attracting new adherents all the time.

In my opinion the real stroke of genius in NLP, and perhaps the reason why it’s been so successful, is simply the name. These days we’re used to putting the ‘neuro-‘ prefix in front of everything, but back in the ’70s, this was way ahead of its time. Obviously there’s nothing remotely ‘neuro’ about it, though. Plus the ‘programming’ bit has a deliciously Orwellian appeal; promising the potential to effect change in oneself or others, if you just know the right techniques.

But effecting genuinely meaningful behavioural change in yourself is hard work. NLP derives from the quick-fix mentality of the self-help movement and is doomed to failure because of it. Does it actually help people? Perhaps, on some level, but any anecdotal results are almost certainly derived from a version of the placebo effect. Because of its vague nature, it’s not even really clear how its effectiveness would be meaningfully assessed anyway. Until we discover the genuine low-level programming language of the human brain we’ll probably always have to put up with this kind of bollocks being peddled.

There’s another really good article on NLP at the Skeptics Dictionary.

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Interactive metronome treatment for ADHD/ADD; swing your arms about, cure your brain

Ian Dury. Because… any excuse.

One of the best things about starting this blog was several e-mails I got from like-minded people saying nice things, and often, pointing me towards interesting bits of neurobollocks that I wasn’t aware of. Such was a series of e-mails from Deborah Budding and Michael Thaut (who must be one of only a few people in the world who holds posts as Professor of Music, and Professor of Neuroscience – cool) about the ‘interactive metronome’ technique. Michael’s research (unsurprisingly) focuses on the interplay between the brain and music, and in particular, the processing of temporal information as it relates to rhythmicity, so it’s probably fair to say he certainly knows his way around a metronome.

But what’s this interactive metronome business? Well, as you can see in this video on the hypochondriac’s website of choice (WebMD), it’s basically waving your arms about and moving your feet in time to a regular beat. So, it’s basically dancing then, but much more boring.

Surprisingly, given it appears to be such a simple technique, some people are claiming that it can have profound effects, and assist with various disorders such as ADHD, Parkinson’s, MS and even post-brain injury and stroke. The usual bunch of jokers with slickly-designed websites have sprung up offering treatment for all these things and more. The ‘How it works’ section of that website claims that the underlying deficit in a variety of disorders, claiming that the underlying dysfunction in ADHD, autism, dyslexia, Parkinson’s and others is just a ‘neural timing deficit’. The exercises used in IM correct the timing deficit, and therefore (supposedly) treat the disorder.

To say this is startlingly simplistic would be a massive understatement; it’s just plain wrong. The precise neurological issues in many of these disorders are difficult to pin down and are the subject of active investigation but, to take a simple example, we know exactly what the problem is in Parkinson’s; neuronal depletion in the substantia nigra. To claim that it’s some vague neural ‘timing’ issue goes well beyond disingenuousness and into the realm of outright deception.

There’s even a home-based version of IM therapy, that can be run on any computer – however the basic equipment (wiresless button boxes, tap mats for the feet etc.) and the software licence cost $800.

A PubMed search for ‘interactive metronome adhd’ actually produces five hits! However, on closer inspection, all five articles are seriously compromised in some way – studies with no control group, or with very low numbers. Interestingly, one of the papers that pops up is one I’ve discussed before in reference to Brain Balance Centers. So, IM appears to form a cornerstone of what the Brain Balance guys (chiropractic, with a thin layer of neuro-woo laid on top) are pushing too. The IM guys have gone to a lot of trouble to make their approach appear scientific – there’s a well-populated ‘Science’ section on the website, that contains links to lots of articles, however, many of them are ‘white papers’ of uncertain provenance, and the rest are articles from obscure journals, or on barely relevant topics.

Another problem with IM is that it gets conflated with serious interventions. There’s a large field of study focussed on the use and effectiveness of musical-type interventions for a variety of neurological disorders (broadly, called Neurologic Music Therapy, or NMT) that has some solid research behind it. The slick marketing of IM seeks to conflate their approach with much more high-standard music-based therapy approaches.

In Prof. Thaut’s words (my emphases added):

First, where is the research? Studies that back up the clinical effect of IM directly, are very rare or nonexistent. A small study from 2001 is one that comes up repeatedly. One small study does not build clinical evidence. IM seems in general a well marketed but unresearched application. From a research point I see no evidence for the therapeutic benefit of IM.

Second, brain mechanisms in therapy work differently. Possibly to fill the research void IM generously includes ‘borrowed’ research that has nothing to do with their device. Since I am one of the authors they use I have to clearly  state that my brain research in music and rhythm does not address IM and our results do not support IM applications, neither with patients nor physiologically in explanatory brain mechanisms. The only forms of therapy in brain rehabilitation that work are active and specific exercises based on functional learning and training paradigms, not machine tapping. 

Last, rhythm has its own life. The claim that tapping to a metronome improves timing in patients which in turn transfers to all kinds of cognitive and motor improvements is not only unsupported by research but seems based on a misunderstanding. Rhythmic synchronization is a very complex process that fluctuates continuously on a millisecond level and is inherently unstable and variable. This time flexibility is the actual hallmark of functional entrainment. Therefore the IM definitions and measurements of what constitutes rhythmic improvement seem physiologically and functionally meaningless.

So, there you have it. If you’re concerned about your child’s sense of rhythm (for some reason?) you’d probably be much better off signing them up for dance classes, or piano lessons. It’ll almost certainly be cheaper, and they’ll likely have a lot more fun too.

Dietary supplement snake-oil neurobollocks

neurozanAs a wise lady once said, “If you want to sell something, stick a brain on it.” Or in this case, the prefix ‘neuro’. And then the suffix ‘zan’ – whatever the hell that’s supposed to mean. Neurozan dietary supplements are widely advertised in the UK, and the parent company, Vitabiotics, markets a bewildering variety of dietary supplements targeted at different demographic groups.  The Neurozan supplements come in two varieties, original and plus, with the only difference being the ‘plus’ version includes some omega-3 capsules as well. They retail at around £10 for 30-odd tablets. 

A pubmed search for ‘neurozan’ yields precisely zero results, so it appears that there’s no published work on the effects or effectiveness of these supplements. Despite this, the website proclaims ‘Each Neurozan® tablet combines all round nutritional support with a careful balance of vitamins and minerals based on a wealth of published research.’ They contain a long list of vitamins and minerals (the kind you normally find in any multi-vitamin supplement) plus a few ‘special’  ingredients such as gingko biloba and 5-HTP – both of which may actually be psychoactive compounds, but you’d need a considerably larger dose to see any possible effects. A good detailed discussion of the list of ingredients in Neurozan is available in this post on the Ministry of Truth blog.

The research on dietary supplements suggests that with very few exceptions (pregnant women, other people with specific medical conditions) taking a daily multivitamin supplement is unnecessary, as long as you’re generally healthy and eat a sufficiently varied diet (review papers: 1, 2, 3). To be fair to Vitabiotics they studiously avoid making any particularly egregious claims on their website about the effectiveness of Neurozan. They use typical weasel/marketing phrases like “[contains] important nutrients to help contribute to normal cognitive function”, which essentially mean nothing at all.

Other neuro-snake-oil merchants are much bolder in the claims they make though. FOCUSfactor pills are the same old blend of vitamins and fish-oils, yet claim to be ‘Clinically shown to improve memory, concentration and focus’. Hilariously, in tiny text at the bottom of the website are the words “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.” They’re very proud of a ‘clinical study’ that apparently showed improvements on a particular memory test after six weeks of taking their product, however the study’s never been published in any form, and the smart money says it probably never will be.

765There are hundreds more of these products available, with the only real difference between them being the aggressiveness of their advertising and the variety (probably some are more constrained by local advertising regulations than others) of maladies they claim to treat. Really, little has changed since the 19th Century days of Clark Stanley. As long as people can be induced to buy magic potions, unscrupulous people will make money selling them, the only difference now is that to be convincing, you have to put the word ‘Neuro’ on the bottle somewhere.

Utterly shameless diagnostic brain imaging neurobollocks

The impish Dr Amen, with (presumably) some fans. Wonder if he's planning on scanning their brains?

The impish Dr Amen, with (presumably) some fans.

Christian Jarrett’s article in Psychology Today (“Your 5-Step Self-Defence Program Against Neuro-Nonsense”) that I linked to in my previous post briefly mentioned diagnostic SPECT (Single-Photon Emission Computed Tomography) imaging, and the paper he cites (Chandler and Chatterjee, 2011 – open access – yay!) goes into some more detail about this particular brand of neurobollocks. After looking into it myself a little bit, I was absolutely stunned that some doctors a) had the gall to to continue offering these diagnostic methods and treatments to people, and b) that they were allowed to continue doing so by medical regulators (I guess that’s the USA’s free-market, laissez-faire approach to medical care – gotta love it!).

So, a little background. A common theme in neuroimaging research is attempting to identify differences in the brains between different groups of people. Male/female, musicians/non-musicians, schizophrenics/non-schizophrenics, whatever. This is all very interesting and worthwhile – if we can identify a common brain pattern or structure that is different in say, schizophrenia then we may be able to devise better treatments that target it. Voxel-based morphometry is one common method of looking at differences and assesses the relative size/shape of different brain structures, but there are lots of other methods that either look at anatomical or functional differences. The important point here is that you always need a group of people of each type that you want to compare. People’s brains vary pretty widely in the size and shape of the sulci and gyri, and in the amount/location of functional activity that you see in a given task. What is being sought in these studies is a reliable difference that is consistent across the group, and remains as a statistical effect, once all the (random) individual variation has been taken into account. Many people’s brains are a bit funny-looking, but 99 times out of 100 it’s just normal individual variation.

What this means is that developing imaging-based biomarkers that reliably indicate particular states or conditions in an individual is fraught with difficulty. Some progress is apparently being made in this endeavour, but a lot of people are still very sceptical about the idea, and rightly so.

However, Dr Amen, (of the eponymous ‘Amen Clinics‘) is certainly not one of those people. He’s been using diagnostic SPECT imaging for years, and has clinics in six major US cities. Dr Amen uses SPECT imaging to diagnose ADHD, anxiety, depression, addiction, autism, ‘marital conflict'(?!), and for generally healthy people who want to lose weight, or just ‘optimise’ their brain. How does taking a SPECT image of their brain help with this? It’s not really clear, but unsurprisingly, Dr Amen has a slick-looking brain-training-like program (‘The Amen Solution’) that promises all the usual bollocks, and an online store filled with his (many!) books, DVDs, etc. plus (of course) his own brand of dietary supplements. So, basically, I’m guessing that the results of the SPECT scans in his clinics typically indicate that the patient needs to complete a course of his brain-training, or supplements, or both.

Just to be clear – there’s absolutely no way that a SPECT scan of an individual can show up anything useful in diagnosing these disorders. Dr Amen is charging people thousands of dollars, and injecting them with radioactive substances, for absolutely no sound medical reason. 

Why use SPECT? The spatial resolution of the images is crap, and no-one uses it for clinical or research work that much anymore. However, it’s the cheapest of the 3D imaging techniques that can show functional activation. MRI scanners are expensive to buy and maintain, and need fairly large facilities. PET scanners use short-lived radio-isotopes, meaning you have to synthesise them yourself and use them immediately – you need a team of chemists and a well-kitted out laboratory. SPECT uses off-the-shelf isotopes with long half-lives; much, much cheaper and easier.

Dr Amen is a funny one, to be honest. Unlike the Brain Balance Center charlatans , he at least has some medical training and certification, and he publishes some research papers, occasionally even in peer-reviewed journals. He may perhaps be a true believer in what he’s doing, which makes him less mendacious but unfortunately also more stupid. Of course, where one quack leads others will follow, and copycat clinics have sprung up, also using SPECT, and claiming similar things; Dr SPECT scan, and CereScan are two of them. Dr Amen’s slick, media-savvy approach (he seems to be a regular on those dreadful audience-whooping, self-help TV shows they have in the US) marks him out as a serious operator though. Because he has some appropriate training, and has published some research, the Amen Clinics only gets a 9 out of 10 on the Neurobollocks rating scale; I know, I know, I’m just too generous sometimes, it’s a problem.

You can read more about the radiant Dr Amen and his techniques here, and there’s also an interesting Q & A with him over on QuackWatch.

Folk neuroscience, and some other neurobollocks

Woody Guthrie. Because 'folk'. And frankly, just 'because'.

Woody Guthrie. Because ‘folk’. And frankly, just ‘because’.

In a frankly spooky bit of synchronicity, just as the blog was being set up for the first time last weekend, the marvellous and really quite annoyingly youthful and prolific Vaughn Bell had a great piece in the Observer on ‘folk’ neuroscience. His thesis is that the language and general approach of neuroscience has now permeated the public’s way of thinking to such a degree that it’s becoming relatively commonplace to explain things in terms of ‘chemical imbalances in the brain’ or ‘neuroplasticity’. Neuroscientists realise that these kinds of phrases really don’t mean anything much at all, but this kind of neurobollocks seems to have a fairly significant effect on the general public.

The previous posts on this blog have noted that some modern neurobollocks is actually just plain old bollocks, re-packaged. For instance Brain Balance Centers seem to be chiropractic, with a modern ‘brain training’ spin, and QDreams ‘Quantum Brain Training’ is just old neurolinguistic-programming tosh from the 70s given a shiny new (‘Quantum!’) makeover. The reason this kind of cynical re-packaging works, is because of the genuine widely-reported neuroscience research that the public has been exposed to in recent years; because of this media-saturation, some of the key concepts and terminology have become familiar. This familiarity falls short of genuine understanding of course, but we can’t blame the general public for that; these issues are complex, and highly-educated people who have been conducting brain research for years struggle to understand some of them.

The problem is that this familiarity with neuro-terminology is then exploited by the unscrupulous neurobollocks-merchants, who use the same language in order to make us buy useless products, do pointless exercises, and believe our kids are dysfunctional. Fortunately, help is at hand though; Christian Jarrett (also quite infuriatingly youthful and prolific; I mean seriously, don’t these people sleep?) has written an article in Psychology Today titled “Your 5-Step Self-Defence Program Against Neuro-Nonsense”. Read. Digest. Tell your friends.

In other news, a fMRI-researcher at the Washington University has apparently been playing fast and loose with his data in a major way. Psychology is going through a bit of a difficult time at the moment with fraud cases, and it’s all very unfortunate and sordid. There’s a very interesting interview with his PhD supervisor here, and also some thoughtful commentary from another ex-colleague here.

A Quantum of Bollocks

Oh noes, my brainwaves be confuzed!

Oh noes, my brainwaves be confuzed! Note: Actual bird eye’s-view brainscans = actual cartoons with pretty colours on.

‘Quantum’ has been one of the favourite weapons in the pseudo-science douchebag’s arsenal for some time now.  Back in the late 80s, Roger Penrose and Stuart Hameroff made a serious attempt to fashion a theory of consciousness that involved interactions between quantum-entangled molecules in cytoskeletal microtubules. At least, the authors seemed to take it pretty seriously, if nobody else actually did.

Of course, some neuro-snake-oil merchants have jumped on the quantum band-wagon, because… well… because quantum sounds all sciencey, I expect. Plus it has things called ‘leaps’ associated with it (even though that was really just a TV show about time-travellers) which sounds cool, too, right?

First up is a website called ‘QDreams’ with the achingly cheesy tagline “Success at the speed of thought!”. Their product is:

“Quantum Brain Fitness training lets the user simply relax and listen to empowering mind message audio-sessions that are strategically encoded with Neuro-Sensory Algorithms for optimizing brain wave activity”

Riiight. Reading on a bit further reveals that the main man behind QDreams is Richard Bandler, one of the inventors of Neuro-Linguistic Programming, back in the 70s. NLP is a widely-discredited branch of pseudo-science that was popular back in the 70s and 80s among the self-help, motivational-speaking crowd.

I noted in my previous post that Brain Balance Centers seem to be just a re-packaging of some old ideas from chiropractic, re-packaged for the modern neuro-aware world. QDreams seems to be similar – the same old NLP neurobollocks re-packaged to sell once again to fit the current fad of ‘Brain Training’.

Another similar system is being touted over at quantum-mind-power-system.com. This system of ‘monaural and isochronic tones’ will apparently reorganise your brainwaves into a harmonious order and make you rich, successful, better in bed, etc. etc. blah, blah. Urgh. This site even has the nerve to rag on other brain training systems based on binaural beats, saying that they’re ‘just a brainwave placebo—it’s nothing but a sugar pill!’. Whereas their system is baed on ‘proven’ monaural beats. Hilariously they illustrate this point by waveforms of each type of sound, essentially making the point that monaural beats look different in terms of frequency spectra to binaural. Well, duh. This ‘quantum-mind-power system’ costs a whopping $232 for a few CDs and books filled with incoherent gibberish – what a bargain!

Both these companies earn a solid 10 out of 10 on the neurobollocks product rating scale, and both represent the same old bullshit, cynically re-packaged for a modern audience.

Brain Balance Centers: total and utter neurobollocks

Masthead from the Brain Balance Center's website. "clinically proven"!

Masthead from the Brain Balance Center’s website. “Clinically proven”, and oooh… “holistic”. Marvellous.

Brain Balance Centers are a network (actually, to be precise, a network of franchises) of treatment centers spread across the United States, currently operating in 54 locations; most of the major US cities. They offer a treatment called the ‘Brain Balance Program’ that claims to be able to improve:

1. Academic performance
2. Social abilities
3. Cognitive function
4. Sensory and motor skills
5. Visual-spatial organizational skills
6. Immunity and nutritional health

They also claim to effectively treat pretty much any developmental disorder under the sun, including autism, ADHD, Asperger’s, Tourette’s and dyslexia, without the use of any drugs. This is because all these disorders are (apparently) caused by an “underlying functional imbalance or under-connectivity of electrical (brain) activity within and between the right and left sides of the brain.”

Any alarm bells ringing yet? They should be. Whenever someone comes along with a miracle-cure for a range of unrelated conditions, and has come up with the equivalent of a Unified Field Theory of neurodevelopmental disorders, something must be a bit fishy. So it appears in this case. There have already been a couple of excellent take-downs of the claims that Brain Balance Centers make. The first is by the really-very-wonderful Emily Willingham, and you can find it here. Emily expertly refutes a number of the key claims, and proceeds to drill down on the list of evidence and references provided on the website. Her conclusion is that the claims are an “enormous steaming pile of bullshit”.

Another great piece on these guys is by Harriet Hall of SkepDoc, and can be found here. This examines in detail a study published in the International Journal of Adolescent Medicine and Health (which at least appears to be a ‘proper’, if obscure, journal). Harriet notes that despite all the waffle about functional disconnection and hemispheric imbalance of the brain, the exercises performed by the kids in the study were relatively simple (such as synchronising movements to a metronome) and the conceptual link between the treatments and correction of the underlying ‘hemispheric disconnection’ is vanishingly tenuous. Most damningly, the study didn’t include a control group, meaning it’s possible (likely?) that any improvement seen was simply a placebo effect (or more precisely, a Hawthorne effect).

The last author on that paper is a guy named FR Carrick, and all the authors’ affiliations are listed as the “The FR Carrick Institute for Clinical Ergonomics, Rehabilitation and Applied Neuroscience”; and this is where it gets really interesting. Dr Carrick is a specialist in ‘Chiropractic Neurology’. Chiropractic is a branch of alternative medicine with a fairly wacky history (founded in 1895 by a magnetic healer named DD Palmer), and essentially aims to treat health issues by manipulation of the spine. Debunking chiropractic is well beyond the scope of this piece, but let’s just note that there is a paucity of evidence for effectiveness in any condition other than low-back pain, and even there, evidence is pretty mixed. ‘Chiropractic neurology’ as a discipline then, is highly suspect.

It turns out the FR Carrick Institute of whatever whatever has a very glossy and slick webpage, that on closer inspection, really doesn’t contain a whole lot of content. The Wikipedia page for the institute gushes on at some length about the incredible research happening at the Institute, and the “faculty of world class scientists and clinical researchers” employed there (clearly in need of some de-biasing, Wikipedia) but the only personnel mentioned on the website are in the ‘Management’ section: Dr Gerry Leisman and Dr Robert Melillo. Gerry Leisman seems to have had a somewhat chequered career at several universities in the US and UK. Interestingly, in 1994 he was sanctioned by the NIH office of research integrity for falsely claiming to have a MD degree from the University of Manchester (amongst other things).

Dr Robert Melillo (and congratulations for making it, if you wondered where I was going with this digression…) as well as being the executive director of the FR Carrick Institute for advanced alternative navel-gazing is also the founder of… you guessed it! The Brain Balance Centers! Let’s look at his list of eminent-sounding qualifications listed on the site shall, we?

“…adjunct professor of functional neuroanatomy for the graduate doctoral neuropsychology program at Touro College, NY and Leeds Metropolitan University, England.”

Well, they sound like academic appointments at genuine, if hardly wildly-prestigious institutions. Unfortunately,  a search of the Leeds Metropolitan University website produces no hits for “melillo”. A search of the Touro college site also comes up blank (except for a Nicholas P. Melillo – oooh, so close!).

“He is also an associate professor of clinical neurology and childhood behavioral disorders at The Carrick Institute, in FL.”

This Carrick Institute in Florida (not to be confused with the one mentioned above, in New York state!) appears to be a teaching school concerned with chiropractic neurology, and has a loooong list of associate/assistant professors.

“He holds a master’s degree in Neuroscience and is currently completing his PhD in Clinical Rehabilitation Neuropsychology.”

No indication of where he obtained his Masters degree, or where he’s working on his PhD. I’m betting that it might be in one of the FR Carrick Institutes… Incidentally, if he doesn’t have a PhD, or any medical qualifications, why is he calling himself ‘Dr’?

“He is board certified in Chiropractic Neurology and is the former chairman of the American Board of Chiropractic Neurology.”

Meh.

“He is also President of the Foundation for Cognitive Neuroscience.”

The what, now? I can’t find anything online about a Foundation for Cognitive Neuroscience, in fact a google search for “Foundation for cognitive neuroscience” +melillo returns precisely zero results.

My point in all this is not to expose this guy as some kind of fraud, fun though that might be. I find it interesting that Dr (?) Melillo’s background is obviously in chiropractic treatment, and he’s found a gosh-darn-whizzo way of spinning this out into a national network of treatment centers for children. Interestingly, chiropractic isn’t mentioned anywhere on the Brain Balance Center site at all, and it’s not clear if the treatments are derived from chiropractic theory/practice. This paper from 2008 notes that chiropractic has something of an image problem, and is declining in popularity – re-packaging it as ‘hemispheric integration therapy’ for developmental disorders is a good wheeze – it allows a complete break with the previous practices, and allows you to pander to the fears of time-poor, cash-rich parents (a course of treatment is reported to cost around $6000).

So, will your child benefit from treatment at a Brain Balance Center? Possibly they will; regular sessions of individual attention and structured exercises of almost any kind are probably good for children. Will they benefit more than if you just took them to the park to ride their bike every weekend? Most likely not.  The neuro-inspired claims that the Brain Balance Center makes are an incoherent muddle of utterly fly-blown bullshit, built on the foundation of an alternative therapy (chiropractic) which itself is highly suspect. Don’t waste your hard-earned money people – it’s an out-and-out scam.

What this means, is that the Brain Balance Centers receive the highest honour it’s possible for this humble blog to bestow – a mighty 10 out of 10 on the NeuroBollocks rating scale!

Finally, just to leave you in a good mood, here’s Eddie Izzard with a brief bit on chiropractors:

**Update**

I’ve just been sent a link to another piece I wasn’t aware of by Jon Brock. Jon is a developmental disorders researcher in Australia, and became aware of a video discussing one of his papers by a chiropractor called David Sullivan, who it turns out, is connected to the various Carrick institutes, and Robert Melillo, and runs Keystone Chiropractic Neurology. The article is well worth a read, and there’s a lot of good discussion in the comments section too.

First post – some neurobollocks links

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Wanted to have the word ‘vagina’ in my first post. Sue me.

As a brief little taster, before I really get stuck into tearing apart some neuro-charlatans, I thought I’d kick off with posting some relevant links to fairly general articles and resources that others have written.

First up is a short report in Wired magazine on a talk by Molly Crockett, delivered at the TedSalon event in London. The actual talk is also available on the TED website here. She mentions a few classic neurobollocks studies, and other ‘serious’ studies that have been hopelessly distorted by the popular press.

Next up is a widely-quoted piece by Steven Poole in the New Statesman, titled ‘Your brain on pseudo-science: The rise of popular neurobollocks. This article mostly focusses on the kind of popular-science books written by Malcolm Gladwell and the (now-disgraced) Jonah Lehrer. This article did raise the ire of The Neurocritic who raises a number of good points in response, among them, that Raymond Tallis has been talking about popular ‘neurotrash’ for a while now – this article is a good piece on Tallis and covers a number of his main points.

Thirdly, there’s a fantastic lecture online by the never-less-than-utterly-invaluable Dorothy Bishop in which she discusses a number of well-known examples of neurobollocks and proposes some general reasons why studies might show positive effects where actually none exist. If you have an hour to spare, I highly recommend you spend it listening to this lecture. If you don’t have a spare hour, then make one. If you’re really pushed for time/lazy/have the attention span of a schizoid squirrel then Neurobonkers did a brief write-up of the talk here. 

Lastly, the wikipedia page on pseudo-science. Yes, I know… wikipedia sucks as a serious source… Anyway, that page doesn’t actually mention much neuroscience, but has a lot of good discussion of general principles and is well worth a read.