Reiki for rats?

I’ve gone on record as saying more times than I care to remember that there is no such thing as “alternative” medicine. There is only medicine. Indeed, the only reason any medicine is considered “alternative” is (1) it is on a scientific basis incredibly improbable and/or it comes from a pre-scientific “healing” tradition; (2) its efficacy is unproven in scientific studies and clinical trials; (3) its efficacy has been tested in randomized clinical trials and found wanting; or (4) a combination of (1) plus one or more of the other three. Of course, one argument that I have made before is that clinical trials are about more than just science; they are also about medical ethics. In practice, this means that it is usually unethical to test therapies that are highly improbable on a scientific basis in human subjects testing without compelling preclinical data in the form of cell culture and animal experiments. The reason is, absent such evidence, testing such therapies in humans is all risk, with, for all intents and purposes, no potential benefit.

Still, some believers in “complementary and alternative medicine” (CAM) keep trying to come up with the necessary preclinical data, no matter how incredibly improbable on a strictly scientific basis the CAM remedy being tested is. This is particularly true for a modality like homeopathy, which is so incredibly unlikely on a scientific basis, given its postulate that diluting and shaking a compound actually makes it stronger even when there isn’t a single molecule of the original substance remaining. It’s also true for reiki, the Japanese art of “energy healing,” which has inexplicably become popular in academic medical centers and has even been used, for reasons that I haven’t been able to figure out, in a major trauma center. Never mind that, for reiki to work, there has to be some sort of human energy field (i.e., qi) that can be manipulated by a master through time and space using the appropriate symbols and gestures. If it worked, it’d be a great thing, especially if I could send the healing energy into the past or the future, it’d be way cool. Too bad reiki is among the woo-iest of woo, and about as improbable as it gets. Indeed, it’s nothing more than magic, complete with elaborate gestures, symbols, and incantations. Doctor Strange would be a good reiki master, just as he would be a good homeopath, given that reiki and homeopathy are in essence magic.

Still, I have to give woo-friendly “scientists” credit for one thing: They’re so convinced of the magic of homeopathy or “energy healing” like reiki that they keep trying to demonstrate it scientifically. Indeed, I found a study published just a couple of months ago in which Gary Schwartz at that desert bastion of woo, the University of Arizona, tested reiki on rats.

My first thought upon seeing this study was to start to giggle almost uncontrollably. I don’t know about you, but conjuring up an image of reiki masters doing all their hand gestures and symbols on laboratory rats strikes me as hysterically hilarious, particularly given all the effort the investigators went to to make this study seem “scientific.” Still, Schwartz apparently wanted to test whether the application of reiki could alleviate the increase in heartrate that occurs because of the stress of the application of 90 dB white noise. Get a load of the methodology:

Six (6) male Sprague Dawley rats weighing 375 to 400 g were obtained from Charles River Laboratories (Portage, MI). Three of the rats had been implanted with PhysioTel® C50-PXT telemetry transmitters (Data Sciences International (DSI), St. Paul, MN) at Charles River Laboratories (Fig. 1). After giving the implanted animals 8 days to recover from surgery, all 6 animals were shipped to Tucson, Arizona. Upon arrival, each implanted rat was pair-housed with a nonimplanted rat in wire mesh cages (16 X 12 X 12 inches) with plastic bottoms. No data were collected from the 3 rats that were not implanted with telemetry transmitters; they served only as cage-mates for the implanted rats. Each cage contained a ramp leading to a wire mesh shelf (16 X 4 inches) and a piece of polyvinylchloride tubing (length = 8 inches, diameter 4.5 inches) for enrichment. The rat diet consisted of Harlan Teklad 7001 rat chow (Harlan Teklad, Madison, WI) and water that was deionized and chlorinated to 10 parts per million. Fresh food and water were available ad libitum. The same investigator performed all measurements throughout the whole experimental procedure, and the only other people who entered the room were the animal caretaker, who was instructed to perform his duties gently and quietly, and the 2 Reiki and sham Reiki practitioners. All research procedures and animal care were reviewed and overseen by the University of Arizona’s institutional animal care and use committee (IACUC).

Wow. It sounds almost like science, doesn’t it? Almost.

I’d have loved to have been on that IACUC. Really. It would have been a hoot. I’d have been asking this: You mean you plan on doing surgery on rats to implant these monitoring devices, and then you plan on doing magic on them to see if you can reduce their heart rate in response to the stress of noise? That‘s your experimental plan? I guess those reiki masters are really skilled. Not only can they detect and recognize human life forces, but they can detect rodent qi as well and fix it. I don’t know how they do it, but those reiki masters are amazing, aren’t they?

Here’s the meat of the study, where it gets all “science-y”:

For each experimental series, the implanted radiotelemetric transmitters were turned on by gently swiping a small bar magnet longitudinally down the chest. Cardiovascular data were recorded from the 3 implanted animals starting at 8:45 AM. At 9:00 AM, the animals were subjected to 30 minutes of 90-dB white noise. Data were recorded during the noise period. This procedure was repeated for the next 2 days. On the fourth day, the Reiki treatment was introduced; after the initial, quiet 15-minute period of data collection, each of the 2 Reiki practitioners performed Reiki for 15 minutes on a pair of rats. Next, they both treated the remaining pair of rats simultaneously for 15 minutes. The rats were then subjected to 30 minutes of white noise. For the first 15 minutes each Reiki practitioner performed Reiki on the same pair of rats they had treated first previously; for the second 15 minutes both practitioners treated the remaining pair of rats. Data were recorded continually during this process. The whole noise and Reiki procedure was repeated for 4 more days, making sure that the same practitioner did not treat the same pair of rats on subsequent days. After a 2-week rest, the whole 8-day procedure was repeated except that the 2 Reiki practitioners were replaced by 2 students who were not trained in Reiki. The students imitated the physical movements of the Reiki practitioners, and this procedure was termed sham Reiki.

This methodology brings up a number of questions. First, why did the third pair of rats get the bonus reiki treatment by both reiki masters at the same time? Were these rats made twice as mellow by the applications of double-strength reiki? If not, why not? One would expect that reiki, if it were real, would have a dose-response curve. Oh, wait. That’s the nasty materialist skeptic in my talking. Reiki masters don’t need no stinkin’ dose-response effects!

The glaring flaw in this experimental methodology should be obvious. For the first treatment round, all three pairs of rats got reiki and all three supposedly showed effects. After the passage of some time, the three pairs of rats were then subjected to the same experiment, except with sham reiki practitioners. Of course, rats react to the presence of humans, and if the reiki masters were sufficiently soothing to the rats, that could have had an effect. Also, rats react differently to people depending upon if they’ve become acclimated to them through repeated contact or not. It wasn’t stated whether the rats were acclimated to the reiki masters or not. Most importantly, though, there’s no way of telling whether this is a period effect, or not. The time passage could be even long enough for seasonal effects. Who knows? A better experimental methodology would have been done to test two groups, reiki and sham, in parallel or to a two-period crossover design. As described, this study is well nigh uninterpretable.

Another strange aspect of this paper is in Figure 2, which shows the pulse rate data for one rat in response to reiki on five different days, I see extreme variability. On most days, the decrease in heartrate was in the 1.5% to 5% range, and on only one day was it 33%. Moreover, the data is presented in a most unconventional day. After all, if there were only three rats, there’s no reason before-and-after data can’t be presented for them all, but that’s not the way it was presented. Instead, the authors presented linear regression of initial heartrate versus decrease in heartrate, trying to argue that the higher the initial heartrate, the more the effect of reiki. This is abuse of statistics, pure and simple. There is no reason to assume a linear model for decrease in heartrate as a function of initial resting heartrate. Also, a correlation coefficient of -0.68 is reported. Odd that the r2, the more appropriate metric, wasn’t reported. It would have been 0.46, not nearly as impressive.

Of course, the worst flaw of all is the number of experimental animals used. Getting interpretable results from any animal study, particularly rat studies, with N=3 with each animal serving as its own control rather than a parallel control group is also pretty close to impossible unless the treatment effect under study is really, really strong. I guess that reiki‘s so strong that it don’t need no stinkin’ control group, either. Another aspect of this experiment is that there’s no objective way to way to detect the difference between “real” reiki and sham reiki. What if one of the reiki master’s magic wasn’t working one day or one of the “sham” practitioners had somehow figured out how to administer a little bit of reiki? There’d be no way to tell. Also, those taking the measurements of heartrate and blood pressure were not blinded to when the rats were receiving reiki or sham reiki, another source of potential bias.

Basically, this study shows nothing. It doesn’t even work very well as a pilot study. I will, however, agree with one thing the authors say. This probably is indeed the “among the most rigorous tests of the efficacy of Reiki that has been performed.” Of course, if that’s true, that shows you just how bad the data supporting reiki is.

Those of you who are regular readers probably wonder: Who funded this study? Those of you who are regular readers can probably already guess. In case you can’t, though, here’s the Acknowledgments section:

This research was supported by National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants R21 AT 1124 (A.L.B.) and P20 AT00774 (G.E.S.) from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) and RR01 RR017358 (A.L.B.) from the National Center for Research Resources, and a grant from the Canyon Ranch Institute (G.E.S.).

Yes, indeed. This study was funded by the NCCAM. It’s your tax dollars at work once again. Don’t you feel as though you’re getting your money’s worth from NCCAM as it funds reiki masters focusing their magic on rats? (I still have trouble not giggling that that image brings to mind.) Aren’t you glad our precious research dollars are being spent on a study like this instead of that nasty, materialist science?

Don’t answer me. Answer your Congressman.