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The magic Alzheimer’s helmet: A shocking dose of skepticism from ABC News

The other day I mentioned the now-infamous magic Alzheimer’s helmet, a device being hyped to the press by a group of scientists on the basis of very little data. Believe it or not, of all organizations, ABC News has published an article citing the skeptics’ side. It starts:

What if the secret to stopping the progression of Alzheimer’s disease — and perhaps even reversing its ravages — lay in the use of a special hat?

Too crazy, too goofy, too good to be true, warn experts on the debilitating disease.

Some more:

But Alzheimer’s researchers not affiliated with the work say the chances that the hat would actually work for human patients is remote at best.

“I have not heard of anything along these lines before. Who knows what it is? But it sounds more hocus-pocus than anything,” says Dr. Ronald Peterson, director of the Alzheimer’s research center at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. He adds that he has not seen any legitimate reason why exposure to infrared rays would lead to a halt or reversal of mental decline — through the regeneration of cells in the brain or otherwise.

“A strong bit of skepticism is warranted on this kind of thing.”

“I cannot conceive of any underlying biological mechanism by which that could work,” says Zaven Khachaturian, editor-in-chief of Alzheimer’s & Dementia: Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association.

“This sounds like a very gimmicky kind of thing to me. I would not waste time on it.”

No doubt Peterson and Khachaturian are on the payroll of Elsai and Pfizer, makers of Aricept. At least, that’s what I’m expecting to hear from defenders of this device.

Peterson then adds:

“You can imagine how excited people would get if they thought a hat or hairnet that shot rays into the head would make a difference in Alzheimer’s disease,” he says. “I think we can approach these kinds of things with cautious optimism at best.”

Yes, it would be nice if magic rays could somehow bring back the personality and memory of loved ones in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease. Certainly, as someone who’s no longer as young as I once was, I’d be very reassured that, if I ever developed Alzheimer’s disease, that this helmet represented hope. Unfortunately, the hype began way too prematurely, given the highly speculative nature of this helmet and its proposed mechanism of action.

To Dr. Dougal and his associates, all I can say is: Data first, hype later–but only if the data are worthy of hype.

By Orac

Orac is the nom de blog of a humble surgeon/scientist who has an ego just big enough to delude himself that someone, somewhere might actually give a rodent's posterior about his copious verbal meanderings, but just barely small enough to admit to himself that few probably will. That surgeon is otherwise known as David Gorski.

That this particular surgeon has chosen his nom de blog based on a rather cranky and arrogant computer shaped like a clear box of blinking lights that he originally encountered when he became a fan of a 35 year old British SF television show whose special effects were renowned for their BBC/Doctor Who-style low budget look, but whose stories nonetheless resulted in some of the best, most innovative science fiction ever televised, should tell you nearly all that you need to know about Orac. (That, and the length of the preceding sentence.)

DISCLAIMER:: The various written meanderings here are the opinions of Orac and Orac alone, written on his own time. They should never be construed as representing the opinions of any other person or entity, especially Orac's cancer center, department of surgery, medical school, or university. Also note that Orac is nonpartisan; he is more than willing to criticize the statements of anyone, regardless of of political leanings, if that anyone advocates pseudoscience or quackery. Finally, medical commentary is not to be construed in any way as medical advice.

To contact Orac: [email protected]

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