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Why Optogenetics Doesn’t Light Me Up: The Sequel

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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When asked about my style of journalism, I sometimes say that my goal isn’t necessarily to get people to agree with me. It’s to provoke readers into reconsidering some issue.

Has coverage of optogenetics, which thus far has only been tested in animals, exaggerated therapeutic potential for humans?

Well, my recent critique of optogenetics has provoked lots of folks, and most don’t agree with me. We’ve been whacking each other on Twitter, but that format—I’ve belatedly realized–brings out the worst in me. Someone smacks me, I smack back, reflexively. I want world peace but can’t control my own aggression. Embarrassing.

My obnoxiousness makes it too easy for people to attack the messenger and ignore the message. So instead of continuing to bicker with my fellow Twits, I decided to respond in a more measured fashion to several points made by bloggers who have criticized my post. My hope is that this exercise will lead to some useful lessons about science reporting.

Did I call for “the end of optogenetics”? My Scientific American colleague Scicurious suggests that I want to “throw out [optogenetics] because we haven’t cured anything yet.” Journalist Paul Raeburn, similarly, says that the guy who proclaimed The End of Science (the title of my first book) is now calling for “the end of optogenetics.”

But nowhere in my column did I urge that optogenetics research end–any more than in my criticism of the big new U.S. Brain Initiative last spring I urged that neuroscience stop. I want the hype to end. Believe it or not, my criticism of optogenetics and its coverage was meant to be constructive.

Did I overstate the hype? Lots of folks still insist that I exaggerate the degree to which scientists and journalists have touted the potential of optogenetics to transform treatments for human brain disorders. But that potential is a theme—implicit or explicit–of virtually all reporting on the field, including all the pieces I cited in my original post.

Here is how optogenetics pioneer Karl Deisseroth introduces his 2010 overview of the technique in Scientific American: “Despite the enormous efforts of clinicians and researchers, our limited insight into psychiatric disease (the worldwide-leading cause of years of life lost to death or disability) hinders the search for cures and contributes to stigmatization. Clearly, we need new answers in psychiatry.”

Neuroscientist Richard Tomsett says one of my examples of hype—a TED talk by Ed Boyden, another leader of optogenetics—doesn’t count because “the whole point of such talks is hype and speculation.” Really? So scientists shouldn’t be criticized for hyping their research in mass-media venues like TED—which reaches gigantic audiences–because no one is taking them seriously? Surely that can’t be right.

Now, you could say that scientists and journalists have a right–and even responsibility–to envision possible directions of research. Fine. But they also have a responsibility to discuss limitations of such research, so as not to raise false hopes. The bulk of coverage has not gone far enough in outlining these limitations.

Should I have mentioned Helen Mayberg’s research? Journalist David Dobbs calls me “wrong to declare that no one has yet identified any neurological correlates” of mental illness. He cites neurologist Helen Mayberg, whose research he calls “one of the past decade’s most significant lines of work in depression.” Mayberg has reported alleviating depression in patients by stimulating a brain region called A25 with pulses of electricity delivered by implanted electrodes.

According to Dobbs, Mayberg has suggested that “it might be possible to use other means less intrusive than drills and wires–optogenetics in particular–to tweak the circuit she’s been buzzing with her stimulators.” There it is again, the therapeutic promise of optogenetics.

I’m less impressed than Dobbs with Mayberg’s work, for several reasons. First, her published brain-stimulation results involve small numbers of patients and have not been replicated in controlled, clinical trials. Dobbs mentions this caveat. What he does not mention is that Mayberg has received consulting fees from manufacturers of implantable nerve-stimulating devices.

Mayberg, oddly, has also served as a paid consultant for the prosecution in over 40 capital punishment cases, in which she has argued against the use of brains scans as mitigating information. I learned about Mayberg’s corporate and legal consulting activities by reading posts written in 2010 and 2011 by journalist Alison Bass, who raises questions about Mayberg’s conduct here, here, here and here. Bass, when I contacted her recently, said she stands by her reporting.

Dobbs has vigorously defended Mayberg against Bass’s criticism, calling Bass “wrong, wrong and wrong.” But Dobbs does not dispute the basic facts of Mayberg’s consulting activities; he just thinks they have no bearing on her credibility. Dobbs should nonetheless have disclosed Mayberg’s corporate and death-penalty consulting in his reporting on Mayberg, including a laudatory feature article in The New York Times Magazine in 2006, even if—indeed, because–that information would have cast Mayberg in a darker light.*

Are high costs of U.S. health care relevant to optogenetics? Several bloggers found my discussion of U.S. health care to be unfair and irrelevant to a discussion of optogenetics. Scicurious writes: “I also don’t understand the idea that you can’t get excited about opto because some people don’t have healthcare… That’s like saying that many people don’t have adequate transportation and therefore we shouldn’t get excited by going to Mars.”

Actually, that’s a pretty good analogy. I think that the poor state of public transportation and other government-funded services should have a bearing on discussions of and funding for big scitech programs, like missions to Mars or the Moon. For an especially eloquent expression of this perspective, check out this YouTube recording of the poet-rapper Gil Scott-Heron’s famous poem “Whitey on the Moon.”

In the same way, the abysmal state of health care in the U.S. should have a bearing on discussions about biomedical research. I’m not saying that journalists, every time they report on a biomedical advance, need to analyze its potential impact on our health-care problems. But knowledge of these woes should inform coverage of biomedical advances, especially since technological innovation is arguably contributing to our high health care costs.

I understand the desperation of scientists, journalists and everyone for progress in our understanding and treatment of brain disorders. I’m desperate too; mental illness has ravaged people close to me. The question is, How do we balance hope with skepticism? How do we avoid succumbing to what blogger Brandon Keim (in a lonely positive commentary on my original post on optogenetics) calls “the appetite of our public culture for (often tech-centric) narratives of progress and imminent improvement”?

I don’t have any magic formula. My reporting on biomedicine is no doubts at times too skeptical and critical–but that’s because of my conviction that most reporting is not skeptical and critical enough.

*Addendum: David Dobbs on Twitter says that “by my memory, Mayberg had no consulting relationship w device maker in 2005/6, when I wrote the Times piece.” He adds, “I respectfully ask that you remove that accusation unless you can find that she did.” Mayberg started serving on an “advisory board” for Cyberonics, a Texas-based manufacturer of vagus nerve stimulators, in 2003, according to this press release: http://www.ahrp.org/cms/content/view/293/29/. Dobbs tweeted, “Amazed u consider Bass credible.” Bass is more credible than Dobbs–or Mayberg, for that matter.

Image: http://www.buzzcritic.com/wp-content/plugins/wp-o-matic/cache/532d9_oct2109eng-optogenetics.jpg

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. Percival 1:54 am 09/2/2013

    I know that you have an attitude about basic research, space programs, and the military “diverting” the money you think ought to go to alleviating social inequities. But really, “Whitey On The Moon”? Citing race-focused “poetry” does not help your case.

    U. S. health care is abysmal not because Whitey wants to go to space, but rather because it’s top-heavy with non-functional administrators, and its finances are bottlenecked by profit-driven insurance companies. This will not, in my opinion, be alleviated by the recently enacted mandatory health care insurance legislation- if anything, it will further enrich insurance companies and reduce the level of health care available to ordinary folks. Why else are citizens being advised to “get used to” the ills of aging and abandon hope of anything better than palliative treatment under “Obamacare”?

    You say “I understand the desperation of scientists, journalists and everyone for progress in our understanding and treatment of brain disorders. I’m desperate too; mental illness has ravaged people close to me. The question is, How do we balance hope with skepticism?”

    Mental illness ravages those close to *everybody* in one way or another. We already know what doesn’t work- you cite Karl Deisseroth: “Despite the enormous efforts of clinicians and researchers, our limited insight into psychiatric disease (the worldwide-leading cause of years of life lost to death or disability) hinders the search for cures and contributes to stigmatization. Clearly, we need new answers in psychiatry.” Obviously then, what we desperately need are new ways of understanding how the brain generates the mind and how it can go wrong.

    You seem to have made up your mind that optogenetics has no chance of providing any new insights. That’s too bad- you seem to have abandoned hope altogether.

    Link to this
  2. 2. abolitionist 8:26 am 09/2/2013

    John

    “I think that the poor state of public transportation and other government-funded services should have a bearing on discussions of and funding for big scitech programs, like missions to Mars or the Moon.”

    The term non sequitur comes from the Latin “it does not follow”. The two you link – “optogenetic research technique” and “inadequacies of the US Health Care system” – were and remain sufficiently unrelated (despite your special pleading), that neither follows from the other in any logical sequence.

    Your insistence and faith that your non sequitur is not a non sequitur does not change its status as a non sequitur.

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  3. 3. Chryses 2:03 pm 09/2/2013

    Percival,

    In re the author citing race-focused “poetry”: Don’t forget that his is a political blog. If you read John’s prior musings, I think you’ll agree that the author has no problem with the end justifying the means.

    Link to this
  4. 4. QuietQuest 3:01 pm 09/2/2013

    @2 Chryses: “the author has no problem with the end justifying the means.”

    What’s that supposed to mean?

    Link to this
  5. 5. davedobbs 5:09 pm 09/2/2013

    I’m afraid I’m unsurprised that your accusations against me above are based on a crucial falsehood. You state “Dobbs should nonetheless have disclosed Mayberg’s corporate and death-penalty consulting in his reporting on Mayberg, including a laudatory feature article in The New York Times Magazine in 2006, even if—indeed, because–that information would have cast Mayberg in a darker light.”

    The corporate consulting you refer to is presumably Mayberg’s consultancy with ANS (which, as far as I can tell, you know about only because Mayberg herself revealed it in the 2010 NASW that Alison Bass grossly misrepresents). Possibly you’re referring instead or as well to the Cyberonics consultancy you dredged up in a tweet earlier today.

    Why wouldn’t I mention those consultancies in my Times Magazine feature and other reporting I did on Mayberg’s 20-patient clinical trial at the University of Toronto, where she worked until 2004? Because those consultancies had no bearing on that trial. They had no bearing because in that trial, Mayberg, according to information she provided to me in my 2006 reporting on it, used devices made not by ANS or Cyberonics, but by Medtronics, for which she paid cash so she could work independently. (I understand that experimental-device regulations make this harder, alas, in the U.S., where Mayberg moved in 2004, than in Canada.)

    If you’d done any real homework here, instead of flinging around wild accusations, you’d know this. Instead, you say you checked the ‘facts’ about Mayberg’s consultancies with Alison Bass, despite that I’ve already shown that Bass has been horrifically, even willfully wrong on almost every point regarding Mayberg, and has never corrected a single one of those errors when they’re pointed out.

    Neither have you. Instead, you’ve met every correction I’ve offered with a new set of false accusations. You wrote a post saying optogenetics is overhyped; I responded with a post cordially agreeing that optogenetics is overhyped but noting that Mayberg’s successful trials aimed at a pea-sized brain area suggests that you err in saying science has found no clear-cut target for treating things like depression; and instead of acknowledging that, well, maybe there’s at least that one exception, you sought to distract. You brought up irrelevant consultancies that don’t have anything to do with the question at hand. You intimated that Mayberg is a “darker” figure than most people realize. You told everyone that I should have told readers of my Times Magazine feature about a consultancy that had nothing, zero, to do with the work I wrote about there. Along the way you informed me I have “gall” for not reporting that irrelevant consultancy or mentioning, in an article about depression, forensic testimony that Mayberg has given about wild courtroom claims by other scientists that PET scans can tell us when someone’s so crazy he shouldn’t be held fully accountable for murder.

    John, pray tell how any of that relates to optogenetics and the existence or non-existence of neural mechanisms or therapeutic targets for mental illness? While you’re doing so, pray tell too the patients whom Mayberg has helped with this work — whose lives she has saved, and whose gratitude to her they expressed in their own objections to Bass’s error-filled accusations.

    No, wait, actually — don’t. Pray do *not* tell me. Don’t even start. You can if you want, of course, for I can’t stop you — it seems nothing can — but don’t expect me to read or answer you, here or anywhere. You’ve already made it obvious even to someone as thick-headed as I am in offering you even a straightforward and well-meaning response I waste my time.

    So I’m out. I declare this my last waste of time with you. No more of your bait-and-switch. No more of your refusal to honestly represent, much less directly answer, even simple corrections of clear errors. No more of your insistence on meeting any argument, even one offered politely and in good faith, with not a counter-argument but a new accusation, false if need be, meant to leave the last question unanswered.

    What a tiresome, ugly game you play: You serve up these disgusting flaccid balls of bile disguised as honest argument — tennis, anyone? — but when one returns to you in firmer form, you decide tennis won’t do, that serve was never supposed to come back, and you put down your racket and start a game of whack-a-mole.

    Once upon a time, I’m told, you could march with the good ones. Maybe you can yet. But here and far too often, like a one who forgot what got him started, you can merely mimic the old mission. You know some of the motions. You know the pose to strike. You how to hold your head, how to twist your lips into a knowing smirk as you accuse. But anyone paying real heed or knowing the facts sees that you no longer march to advance any serious agenda, to inform, answer, or illuminate, but to deceive, darken, and distract.

    You mime the stride you once had — a determined, inexorable, informed walk forward, pushing off solid ground, that forces those who hide important things to reveal them, to answer questions about practices and errors they’d rather not talk about. But as the objections to your original post and the comments so far lodged here attest, you fool few. Most can see that you are now the one who refuses to answer questions about bad practices and errors, who seeks to distract rather than inform.

    You’ve turned march into moonwalk. You do this slick step to create the illusion of forward motion. But you’re moving in reverse, not gaining any true purchase, not intending to, as you walk back on your own principles.

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  6. 6. Chryses 7:09 pm 09/2/2013

    QuietQuest,

    It means, as illustrated by abolitionist (2) and davedobbs (5), that there are few rhetorical slights of hand the author will avoid in order to win an argument, not to exclude using racist doggerel if what it says is compliant with his POV.

    Link to this
  7. 7. Von Stupidtz 12:59 pm 09/4/2013

    “journalist Alison Bass, who raises questions about Mayberg’s conduct here, here, here and here. Bass, when I contacted her recently, said she stands by her reporting.
    Dobbs has vigorously defended Mayberg against Bass’s criticism, calling Bass “wrong, wrong and wrong.”

    Shouldn’t it be wrong,wrong,wrong and wrong?

    Link to this
  8. 8. PassingFancy 6:11 pm 09/4/2013

    She only got 3 of the 4 wrong?

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  9. 9. garyyoung3 3:53 pm 09/5/2013

    I find Mayberg’s testimony in death-penalty cases repugnant, but I can’t see how it calls into question her research. What little information I could find on the web about the substance of her testimony suggests that she believes defense neurologists have over-hyped the value of brain scans. That seems broadly in keeping the the tenor of your own argument.

    Allison Bass makes the claim that Mayberg has demonstrated a willingness to distort the science in her zeal to see executions go forward. Bass would be more convincing on that point, however, if she cited someone in addition to the experts who have opposed her in death-penalty cases. Do defense experts in such cases represent neurological consensus? I don’t think Bass presents enough information to make that judgment.

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  10. 10. RTomsett 9:36 pm 09/6/2013

    Hi John, many thanks for the link-back. I’ve written a short reply to your points here: http://tomsett.me.uk/anti-optogenetics-2/ – unfortunately I don’t know enough about Mayberg and the criticisms of her work to comment on that particular aspect of your article. My main point is that your issues seem to be about hyped-science in general rather than optogenetics in particular, but you’ve chosen to focus on optogenetics for whatever reason. I think this is a problem exacerbated by funding incentives, and is bigger than a particular field of research.

    Link to this

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