Tag Archives: neurobollocks

You keep using this word ‘neuroplasticity’. I do not think it means what you think it means.

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So, I wanted to write a post about how the word ‘neuroplasticity’ is  the current neuro-bullshitter’s favourite big sciencey-sounding word to throw around these days. I was going to explain how it was actually such a broad umbrella term as to be pretty meaningless, and talk about some things like LTP and synaptogenesis in the hippocampus which (in contrast) are precise, well-defined terms, and fascinating processes, and how your brain is changing in a ‘plastic’ manner even as you read these words. It was really going to be a great post.

Unfortunately (as so often seems to happen), it turns out that the mighty Vaughan Bell beat me to it by a scant three years with this typically outstanding post on mindhacks.com. So. I guess you should all just go and read that instead, and I’ll have to be content with my standard operating procedure and take the piss out of some quacks instead.

The ‘About the Science’ section of the Brain Balance Centers main website has some awesomely meaningless language, that manages to work in some other big sciencey-sounding word too:

“It was once thought that the brain was static, unable to grow or change. But extensive research and in depth study of epigenetics has shown that it’s remarkably adaptable, able to create new neural pathways in response to stimulus in the environment, a branch of science called neuroplasticity.”

Ooh – epigenetics, and neural pathways. Fans of meaningless brain cartoons should definitely check out that site too, their disconnected vs. connected diagram is fabulous.

The Lumosity website (a brain-training company) has some pretty choice language too:

“But when neuroplasticity’s potential is thoughtfully and methodically explored, this physical reorganization can make your brain faster and more efficient at performing all manner of tasks.”

There are lots of other examples I could paste in here. I spend a fair amount of time looking at these companies’ sites and I’ve come to the conclusion that any mention of the word ‘neuroplasticity’ is basically a massive red-flag. People are very fond of using it to promote these things, but mostly their arguments boil down to “Because: neuroplasticity!”, which as Vaughan explained so eloquently, doesn’t mean anything at all without a whole additional layer of explanation, refinement and qualification.

So – a top tip, when you see the word ‘neuroplasticity’ think ‘bollocks’ instead.  99% of the time you’ll be absolutely dead-on.

A presentation on neurobollocks by Chris Atherton

Just a quickie to point you towards an ace set of slides by Chris Atherton (twitter: @finiteattention) available on SlideShare.net, detailing a presentation at the Cambridge Usability group meeting. Some really excellent points and examples in there.

See the slides on SlideShare.net  by clicking here.

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.

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.