Apples, mice, men and miracles
Posted by apgaylard on January 24, 2009
I was slightly bleary-eyed this morning as the BBC Breakfast review of today’s papers showed the Daily Express shouting from its front page, “MIRACLE OF APPLE JUICE – It keeps the brain healthy and can delay Alzheimer’s“. That would be amazing if true. The problem is: nobody knows whether this is really true, yet.
Actually reading the story revealed the inevitable – an extrapolation from an animal model. The research was done on mice, not men.
Looking at the Express‘s coverage, the article doesn’t mention this key detail until its sixth paragraph,
“The study, published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, shows that drinking apple juice helped mice to perform better at finding their way through a maze and prevented the decline in performance that was usually seen as they aged. “
By this point apple juice had already been transformed into, “The miracle juice”. Well, the work published by Chan and Shea may well be a miracle for mice; but it is incredibly premature to make this inference in the context of Alzheimer’s – a human disease.
I don’t doubt that this is good quality scientific work. The two problems that I have with the almost universal template used for this story are, first, that the applicability of the animal model to human health is not explored at all. Second, the way the story is constructed begs the question– the benefits claimed still need substantiation. However, as far as the Express is concerned, apples are already a miracle.
I wonder if presenting science to the public in this way doesn’t undermine its value and reputation. It certainly raises expectations and promotes a false image of how science works.
A second article, in the health section, does a slightly better job. This time the headline is a question: COULD APPLE JUICE WARD OFF ALZHEIMER’S? And it’s a legitimate question. Also, the fact that the study is based on a mouse model is explained in the third paragraph. Thankfully the status of apple juice is downgraded to a, “wonder-juice”. This is still over-enthusiastic, but at least it’s not a miracle anymore!
This article also carries one of the most sensible quotes I have read on this topic, from Harriet Millward, the Deputy Chief Executive of the Alzheimer’s Research Trust,
“We need far more research before we can be sure whether apple juice protects us from Alzheimer’s, so there’s no need to re-write our shopping lists just yet.”
The Telegraph also has slightly more measured coverage, “Apple juice could guard against Alzheimer’s” The mice make it into the second paragraph and apple juice remains plain old apple juice – not a “miracle” or “wonder”.
Even so, there is still the implication in the coverage generally that tests on mice are directly relevant to Alzheimer’s in people. Neither is there any attempt to explore the strengths and weaknesses of the animal model.
Another interesting aspect to this story is that the professor behind the paper, Thomas Shea of the University of Massachusetts has a strong track-record in apple-based research.
In 2006 he was a co-author on a paper entitled, “Apple juice concentrate maintains acetylcholine levels following dietary compromise” published in the same journal. This paper claims that its findings “provide a likely mechanism by which consumption of antioxidant-rich foods such as apples can prevent the decline in cognitive performance that accompanies dietary and genetic deficiencies and aging.”
This could be true, but the work was sponsored by the U.S. Apple Association and the Apple Products Research and Education Council. Of course, this does not imply anything untoward – but it needs to be borne in mind. It would also be interesting to know if this recent work had sponsorship from the same source.
The press coverage of this work also implied that human trials were close,
“Shea also notes that a human clinical study evaluating consumption of apple products will begin in the near future.”
Now a trial involving people would be more interesting than those on mice. Let’s hope that the “near future” is not too far away.
In the mean time it would be nice if the press showed some restraint when covering stories of this kind. Some realisation that effects in mice are not likely to be the same as those in people would be good too. As would some small effort to explain how useful a particular animal model is.
I know that is too much to ask – claims of miraculous breakthroughs are far more entertaining than the usual cautious progress of real science. I just wonder if the media can get away with crying wolf indefinitely.
Chan A, and Shea TB, (2009) Dietary Supplementation with Apple Juice Decreases Endogenous Amyloid-β Levels in Murine Brain. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 16(1) pp. 167-171.
Chan A, Graves V, Shea TB, (2006) Apple juice concentrate maintains acetylcholine levels following dietary compromise. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. 9(3), pp. 287-291.
I decided to leave a comment on the Express‘s website, in the vain hope that it may do a little good.
GOOD SCIENCE, BAD REPORTING
As far as I can see the science is perfectly respectable. The problem is the reporting. This work is very early trials on MICE not people. I doubt that the scientists used the words “miracle” or “wonder” as the journalists are doing.
Though there is always the chance that the university/journal press release has spun the story too hard.
It is misleading to talk about this in terms of treating people to prevent Alzheimer’s. One day it may not be – but not today.
This is just typical red-top sensationalism. It does no one any good.
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