In my science-writing seminar, I emphasize that journalism, no matter how hard it strives for objectivity, is always subjective. To dramatize this point, I assign articles with divergent perspectives on the same topic. Next semester, I plan to give my students reports by David Dobbs and Danielle Egan on the treatment of depression with deep-brain stimulation (DBS), which delivers electrical pulses to specific neural regions via implanted electrodes.
In 2006 Dobbs wrote “A Depression Switch?”, an article for The New York Times Magazine about DBS researcher Helen Mayberg. Dobbs said that 8 of 12 patients treated with Mayberg’s approach, which stimulates a brain region called Area 25, “felt their depressions lift while suffering minimal side effects.” Patients have “re-engaged their families, resumed jobs and friendships, started businesses, taken up hobbies old and new, replanted dying gardens. They've regained the resilience that distinguishes the healthy from the depressed.” Mayberg’s "incredible" results, Dobbs asserted, were “changing how neuroscientists and psychiatrists think about depression.”
Since then, the DBS treatment has suffered serious setbacks, notably the failure of two clinical trials sponsored, respectively, by medical-device firms St. Jude and Medtronic. This month Dobbs nonetheless reiterates his upbeat view of deep-brain stimulation and Mayberg in an Atlantic article, “Why a 'Lifesaving' Depression Treatment Didn't Pass Clinical Trials... but could still be a groundbreaking therapy.”
Dobbs reports that patients in one trial, according to researchers, have improved since it was officially canceled, and Mayberg recently received a $5 million grant to continue her DBS research. Dobbs concludes with a quote from Mayberg: “My husband asks me when I’m going to retire. I’ll retire when the work is done. I can’t stop because some people think it’s worthless. My patients tell me these people are wrong. The data tells me they are wrong... This thing isn’t dead.”
After my students read Dobbs, I will give them two articles by Danielle Egan. Both were published on “Mad In American,” a website dedicated to “rethinking psychiatric care.” The website was founded by investigative journalist Robert Whitaker, whose reporting on mental health I admire.
In her 2015 report “Adverse Effects: The Perils of Deep Brain Stimulation for Depression,” Egan discusses the troubling history of surgery for psychiatric disorders, modern DBS researchers’ conflicts of interests, questions raised by ethicists, “media hype” (including Dobbs’s 2006 Times article) and side effects of DBS treatment. She focuses on two patients, Steve Ogburn (see photo) and “Jim” (a pseudonym), who suffered complications after being implanted.
In January of this year, Egan published a follow-up article, “Brain Implants: Spinning the Trial Results to Protect the Product.” She argues that researchers have overstated positive responses to DBS treatment and understated adverse ones. She contends that researchers categorized Jim as a positive “responder” to DBS treatment even though he told her he experienced no benefits and “a range of adverse effects.” Egan concludes her piece by reporting that Jim, a lawyer, took his own life last October 31 after expressing concern about “protecting future trial participants from harm.”
I’m not neutral on this issue. As indicated in “Further Reading,” I have written critically about brain-implant research past and present, and I have tangled with Dobbs over his coverage. In my 2013 post “Why Optogenetics Doesn’t Light Me Up: The Sequel,” I said Dobbs should have disclosed in his 2006 Times profile of Mayberg that she received consulting fees from implant manufacturers. Dobbs responded that “by my memory, Mayberg had no consulting relationship… in 2005/6, when I wrote the Times piece.” I provided evidence that the implant-maker Cyberonics appointed Mayberg to an advisory board in 2003. See “Comments” for Dobbs’s reaction.
Although all journalism is subjective, I tell my students that it is possible, if you try, to get things right. Read the work of Dobbs and Egan and judge for yourself who gets things right.