There’s a wonderful article, originally in The Telegraph, with the title “Can Depression Be Treated With Anti-Inflammatory Drugs?” Snopes.com, the preeminent debunker of all things dubious, proceeded to do what they do best – debunk. In their analysis, they find several factors common to many widely reported studies that illustrate why we shouldn’t take these announcements of causes or cures at face value or at least without a grain of salt.
They break down their reasons for not jumping on the study’s bandwagon into three major categories.
No Credible Scientists Have Argued that All Depression is Caused by Inflammation. The article in The Telegraph was talking about patients with Major Depressive Disorder (MDD) who were not responding to current medication, or who also had other inflammatory-related conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA). And the information came from just one talk by just one scientist,
Association is Not Evidence of Causation. I’ve written on the subject before (http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-7Z, http://wp.me/p4e9Hv-9L), and included a link to a short video that explains the scientific process, from original study up to the time when a new drug or treatment hits the market (http://www.vocativ.com/culture/junk-science/). Briefly, it means that just because two things are correlated (or happened one after the other) does not prove that one caused the other. Inflammation may have caused depression, or depression may have caused inflammation, or other factors may have influenced one or the other, or both, or neither.
The Anti-Inflammatories Discussed Are Specific, Powerful Drugs with Side Effects. You can’t just go down to the corner drugstore and pick up a bottle of ibuprofen and think you’ve solved your depression problem. And it turns out that the anti-inflammatories they’re talking about increase the risk of infections and cancers, and are wildly expensive.
While the science discussed by the Telegraph in this article is real, it omits seriously important context and misrepresents decades-old research as a breaking development in a way that could provide false hope to those suffering from depression. The interplay between the immune system and the mind is increasingly well established, but that doesn’t mean that science has established anything close to a new treatment for depression as a result of this understanding.
“False hope.” That’s what a lot of these headlines regarding causes and treatments for depression offer. Shall we look at another recent example?
This one, I’m sorry to say, comes from bp magazine (bphope.com). The headline is “Underlying Molecular Mechanism of Bipolar Disorder Revealed.” The tagline reads, “Findings inform development of potential diagnostic test and improved therapies.”
But that’s not exactly true. The first paragraph says nothing about the underlying mechanism of bipolar disorder. Instead, it talks about the mechanism “behind lithium’s effectiveness in treating bipolar disorder patients,” something very different. But that doesn’t make as snazzy a headline. The article also says the results “may support the development of a diagnostic test” and “may also provide the basis to discover new drugs that are safer and more effective than lithium.” May. Might. Or might not. Too soon to get your hopes up.
The conclusion? [T]he study demonstrated that bipolar disorder can be rooted in physiological—not necessarily genetic—mechanisms.” Well, I’m a word nerd, not a science geek, but “can be” is a far cry from “is.”
Now for my favorite, reported by the BBC: “Magic mushrooms can ‘reset’ depressed brain.” Again, the tagline says “raising hopes of a future treatment,” which is a pretty far stretch. The study was performed on 19 subjects, each given one dose of psilocybin. The article reports that “Half of patients ceased to be depressed and experienced changes in their brain activity that lasted about five weeks.”
So. Tiny sample. No control group. And flip a coin on the results. Personally, I don’t see that raising much hope.
Bottom line for this one: junk science. Eye-catching headline. They won’t be handing out magic mushrooms at the local mental health clinic anytime soon. (The article does warn not to self-medicate.)
We’ve been hearing for years about tests to diagnose depression and bipolar, and stunning new treatments. Well, the studies take years to do properly; the tests need to be proved accurate and better than current psychological testing; and the treatments must go through years and years of studies, animal testing, and human testing, complete with control groups and sufficient numbers of subjects to make them scientifically significant.
I just wish these people would quit reporting “results” until they have some to show.