Monday, March 01, 2010

Oh, why the hell bother?

Public notice boards are common in educational institutions. They serve as a valuable medium for advertisements of a wide range of products/services and situations, from sales spiels for various laboratory-related items, announcements for various events, buying and selling of items within the faculty/student/staff community, to solicitation of volunteers for clinical studies - all legitimate reasons. Imagine, then, my surprise, when I discovered - inside a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine research building, no less - prominently displayed amongst everything else, an advertisement for Acupuncture services, from someone who claimed to be a scientist (!) at Johns Hopkins. The person was apparently 'finishing another degree in Acupuncture', and was 'currently in the clinic phase of school', and had new openings in her 'treatment schedule'.

The advertisement had some rather fantastic claims. It mentioned that acupuncture provides a "safe, effective way to treat physical, mental, or spiritual (!) symptoms of any type"; it also proudly proclaimed that some of the symptoms this person's 'patients' had had alleviated included "psoriasis, temperature fluctuation/hot flashes/cold extremities, smoking reduction, anxiety, urogenital issues and many more". In bold and capital typeface, the advert screamed that if one bought 3 'treatments', the fourth was free. And there was - prominently featured - a website, which provided access to the said 'treatments'.

Curious as to whether the Hopkins School of Medicine had now started to endorse pseudoscientific therapy of uncertain provenance, I decided to dig deeper. The 'scientist' turned out to be a technician in the lab of an anesthesiology/critical care medicine professor; the lab is engaged in legitimate basic and preclinical translational research in the areas of cerebrovascular physiology and cerebral ischemic injury. The said technician (Hopkins has a fancy name for technicians, called 'Research Specialists'), with an MA degree, provides specialized neurobehavioral testing for mice and rats.

Not finding an obvious link between the qualifications or job description of this person and the claimed 'treatments', I turned to the website. It was very... illuminating.

The blurb for the website proclaims that it is...
...a business concerned with your health and well being through acupuncture, yoga, feng shui, reiki, and organic cooking.
To each his/her own, I thought. If someone wishes to believe in this utterly nonsensical, evidence-challenged flimflammery, such as acupuncture, feng shui and reiki, I can only point and laugh, not much else. But then I glanced at the 'Practitioner Profile'. The person mentioned above is billed as a 'behavioral neuroscientist at Johns Hopkins University'. Notice how the name of the JHU figures prominently, so as to lend an instant credibility to all the dubious practices described thereafter.

It is mentioned that this person's "background is in the effects of natural and complementary medicines (such as gingko biloba, red wine components, antioxidants, and omega-3 fatty acids) on learning and memory in models of stroke and Alzheimer’s disease." However, the nature and extent of this person's contribution to the overall research in these aspects was nowhere to be found - a fact I found quite telling.

Resveratrol, a component of red-grape skins and found in significant amounts in red wine, has anti-oxidant properties, and may prevent platelet aggregation, thereby preventing atherosclerosis. Along with other anti-oxidants in red wine, it may also inhibit the genesis and progression of certain tumors, as found in animal studies. However, studies with resveratrol have been primarily in vitro, and its benefits as well as pharmacological effects in humans have not been established. Studies shows that intake of recommended amounts of Omega 3 fatty acids, found in fish oil, lowers triglycerides and slows atherosclerosis, as well as reduces the risk of myocardial infarctions, arrhythmias, and strokes. Gingko biloba, one of the highest selling herbs in the US, has shown modest improvements in some cases of claudication and Alzheimer's/multi-infarct dementia, as well as in cerebral insufficiency. However, additional evidence of its efficacy is needed, which is made difficult by the preponderance of poorly designed trials. In case of a vast majority of symptoms for which gingko is traditionally taken, there is extremely poor evidentiary support.

Once the mechanism of action, efficacy and safety of these naturally-occuring substances are properly examined and established, they can form the basis of medications for prophylaxis and therapy. I never understood this rush by certain individuals with vested interests to promote them as 'complementary/alternative medicines'. But I digress.

As I read further down, the 'qualifications' (read: claim to fame) of this person became much more apparent. She has trained under two styles of feng shui, completed training to be a Reiki practitioner, and about three years back started taking acupuncture classes at that temple of all things pseudoscientific, the Tai Sophia Institute of Maryland (perhaps not surprisingly, when I navigated to the Published Works section of their Academic Research page, I was greeted with "This area is under construction").

My question at this point is rather simple: Countless dedicated men and women across the country put in enormous amounts of time, energy, effort and patience, straining their eyes and minds to gather, evaluate and utilize evidence in support of their work or studies, working their arses off towards a PhD or an MD degree - hoping to eventually make a difference directly or indirectly in people's lives. Why bother with all that, when taking a few courses in handwaving and woo-purveying quackery seems to eminently qualify one for doling out 'treatments' to a vulnerable population with poor judgment and making good money off it, too?

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