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.