Field of Science

Stimulus funds are promoting pseudoscience at Harvard Medical School

Another in an ongoing series of blog posts about wasteful spending by NCCAM, the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine

In today’s competitive research environment, if the government offers money for something, then someone will do it – even if the research is worthless. This even happens at Harvard (where, it so happens, I got my Ph.D.).

Let's look at how, just recently, NIH funnelled more money to acupuncture. Bruce Rosen of the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School has secured two stimulus grants totalling $1.8 million to study acupuncture’s effects on brain activity. This was clever in two ways: first, Rosen took advantage of the fact that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), the home of pseudoscience within NIH, had some stimulus funds that it had to spend quickly. Second, his studies simply use imaging techniques (fMRI) to look at patients’ brains during acupuncture. This virtually guarantees that he’ll find something: if you stick a needle into a person’s body, then of course the brain reacts! It hurts, doggone it! And if you compare this to sham acupuncture, where the pain is a bit different, then voila! you find that the fMRI looks different! Ergo, acupuncture must be activating some special brain functions. Clever!

Specifically, here are the stimulus funds that Rosen just landed:
2P01-AT002048-06 “Neuroimaging Acupuncture Affects on Human Brain Activity, $1,200,061
1P30-AT005895-01 , “Core Center for Multimodal Evaluation of Acupuncture Mechanisms”, $593,196

Here’s how Rosen introduces one of these projects:

“Acupuncture, a component of traditional Chinese medicine, has been used for thousands of years to treat a multitude of ailments. Recent scientific evaluation has suggested that this therapy may demonstrate clinical benefit for a number of conditions including chronic pain, though the mechanisms of action have not been well understood.”
Here we have, in his very first sentence: a classic logical fallacy (the “argument from authority”), right at the beginning of the proposal. Even if a treatment has been used for thousands of years (and let me note here that this is not true of acupuncture, despite numerous claims to the contrary), that doesn’t mean that it works. And of course, in ancient times people had a life expectancy of about 30 years, so we don't exactly want to go back to those days. Rosen follows this fallacy with the “suggestion” that acupuncture might work – and note how vague his claim is, using the phrase "may demonstrate" – despite the fact that all the properly-controlled studies show the opposite. In fact, recent studies show quite convincingly that “sham” acupuncture works just as well, even if the needles don’t penetrate the skin! And with placebo treatments, you get the benefit (such as it is) without the risk of infection from needle sticks.

Rosen has impressive credentials, with a Ph.D. in physics from MIT and an M.D. from Hahnemann Medical College. And he’s probably a really smart guy - who got taken in by pseudoscience somewhere along the way. A look at the publications on his acupuncture center’s website reveals almost no publications in the peer-reviewed literature since 2005. OK, maybe his web page is out of date, so I looked on PubMed and found two – only two – publications by Rosen on acupuncture and MRI in the past two years. Both were small, poorly controlled studies, and one appeared in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, a rather pathetic excuse for a journal. With this kind of productivity, no wonder NCCAM gave him another $1.8 million!

But NCCAM loves this stuff. They even feature a picture from one of Rosen’s (two) studies on their website in their latest newsletter. It doesn’t matter if acupuncture works, as long as you can generate cool MRI images of people’s brains. Hey look, it’s an MRI – it must be science!

So Bruce Rosen is getting $1.8 million in stimulus funds to take worthless MRI images of patients’ brains while someone sticks them with needles. And this $1.8 million is merely a supplement to his ongoing NCCAM work – he’s been funded by NCCAM since at least 2003, (see the “06” at the end of that first grant number above? That means it’s in its 6th year of funding) and he proudly states that “our well-established group has been a leading force in acupuncture mechanism research for over a decade.” Great.

Finally, if Bruce Rosen reads this and feels I’m unfairly attacking him, well, he can reply on this blog (comments welcome!), or he can talk to me in person in February, when I’ll be giving a talk at Harvard Medical School, his home turf.

4 comments:

  1. Will you look him up in February if you don't hear from him sooner? It would be interesting to hear what he says. Of course, it probably would be the standard altie defense "What do we have to lose by testing this? Are you afraid for Western Science?" Which of course ignores the fact that money is finite and every dollar spent on testing superstitions with no reason to suspect that they work is a dollar taken away from testing more plausible treatments.

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  2. What is the worth (in terms of science and fairness) of your comment that the MRI studies are worthless?

    Are pharmaceutical company studies the standard for comparison of studies?

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  3. Steven, any comment on the recent mammography news.

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  4. Anon, there are many fMRI studies that have been extensively criticized because it is so easy to misinterpret the data. See Steven Novella's blog for a few examples. Novella is a neurologist and a well-known skeptic. Or for a good laugh, see the recent study where a Dartmouth team showed emotional responses in a dead salmon (!!) using fMRI.

    Anon(2): The recent mammography news has been blogged about extensively elsewhere. I don't want to throw out a flippant comment without doing more background research.

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