Success stories are a staple of medical communication. The clinician or reporter tells the tale of a patient whose ailment has been ameliorated by a new drug, device, surgical procedure or other intervention.
This method has helped win acclaim for an experimental treatment for depression—pioneered by Helen Mayberg, a neurologist at Emory University--that involves electrically stimulating a brain region called Brodmann area 25 with implanted electrodes.
Journalist David Dobbs began his 2006 New York Times Magazine article, "A Depression Switch?", by introducing us to Deanna Cole-Benjamin, whose profound depression persisted in spite of years of psychotherapy, drugs and electroshock therapy. After physicians inserted electrodes into her brain and stimulated it, Cole-Benjamin felt her depression lift.
As reported by Dobbs, Cole-Benjamin recalled: "It was literally like a switch being turned on that had been held down for years… All of a sudden they hit the spot, and I feel so calm and so peaceful. It was overwhelming to be able to process emotion on somebody's face. I'd been numb to that for so long."
Similarly, CNN medical correspondent Sanjay Gupta, in a 2012 report on Mayberg's treatment, showed Edi Guyton, another woman afflicted with intractable depression, getting electrodes inserted into her brain in an operating room at Emory. After physicians turned on her electrodes, Guyton smiled and chuckled on camera. "It felt fantastic," she said later.
Gupta, who like Mayberg is a neurologist at Emory, called Guyton "one of Mayberg's most dramatic success stories" but noted that Guyton "still has some bad days."
Gupta and Dobbs both acknowledged that some recipients of Mayberg's brain-implant treatment did not respond so positively, but the reporters did not tell the story of these unfortunate subjects. Nor have Dobbs or Gupta covered the recent failure of a clinical trial of Mayberg's treatment method. Called BROADEN, for BROdmann Area 25 DEep brain Neuromodulation, the trial was overseen by St. Jude Medical Inc., a medical device company for which Mayberg consults.
After I blogged in March about the failure of the BROADEN trial, I received an email from a man named Steve Ogburn, who said he was a patient in the BROADEN trial. "I am sorry to say I am 'collateral' damage from that study for treatment resistant depression," Ogburn wrote.
Ogburn tells the story of his literally painful involvement with BROADEN on a 15-minute video he recorded and posted on You Tube. I urge anyone interested in experimental treatments of mental illness—and more broadly in medical communication--to listen to Ogburn's tale. Then please ponder this question: When reporting on a potential medical advance, to what degree should journalists balance their success stories with failure stories?