Have You Heard? 2018 in Review

As the end of 2018 is rapidly approaching, we wanted to look back of some of the things the HYH team got up to across the last year. We’ve been fortunate enough to visit lots of local groups to hear about the types of health and science stories that have caught people’s attention. The feedback from the groups helped us to develop our handy infographic to help people judge the reliability of research-focused media reports. We’ve even used the infographic to judge news stories for our own blog posts. The image below gives you a flavour of the topics we were writing blogs about in the past year.

In the past few months, we have been joined by a host of new members, who bring lots of new and exciting ideas for HYH in 2019. So stay tuned, and in the meantime- we thank you for your support and wish you happy and healthy holidays!

HYH at Science Spectacular!

Last week the HYH team did something a little bit different to usual. We joined up with a plethora of the best scientists and communicators from the University of Manchester (among many other fantastic institutions) at Science Spectacular, part of the Manchester Science Festival.

Joining Jason, Donna, Kirsty and myself was new recruit Maddy who jumped right in at the deep end without breaking a sweat! We had a fantastic time chatting about recent science stories in the news and just generally how we hear about scientific discoveries. We also had some great discussions about how science gets from the lab to the headline and, importantly, how you can use our infographic to cut through the hype and get an idea of the research behind the headlines. We even managed to make some great contacts for groups that we can visit in the future!

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All in all a hugely enjoyable day (and fun for me to be back in Manchester for the first time in a while). Watch this space for our next sessions and some other exciting updates from the Have You Heard? Team!

Have You Heard? at Hanna Court

How times flies, we’ve been running Have you heard for almost a year now! In June the HYH team visited the residents of Hanna Court retirement community in Handforth for another great session about science in the news. We enjoyed hearing the group’s perspectives on a wide variety of science news stories, from cannabis treatments for epilepsy to the effects of plastic on the environment. It’s always fantastic to hear people speaking up about the topics that interest them and this was no exception. We also discussed the pitfalls of reporting science and how information can get lost along the way. We learned a lot about what catches this group’s attention and how they decide which stories to trust. At times the discussion was personal for both sides which made the session memorable for all involved. One resident said in feedback “Thank you so much for personalising science.”

We were also excited to share our newly printed infographic with some simple tips for reading science news stories. This got a good reception and we are looking forward to sharing it with other groups in future. If you are interested in HYH visiting you to discuss science in the news we would be happy to discuss a meeting, get in touch with us here.

Have You Heard? goes on the radio!

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We’re always looking for new ways to get out into communities here at Have You Heard? but that is sometimes easier said than done. However, every now and then we get a fantastic opportunity.

On March 19th Mike and Kirsty from the HYH team were invited to chat with Roz Brown on her show ‘Out For Lunch With Silver Seniors’ live on Wythenshawe FM. We had an absolute ball of a time and learnt a huge amount from Roz.

Thanks so much to Roz for having us on and sending us this recording!

Here is that recording for anyone who missed it…

China’s falling satellite: a down to Earth summary

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Artists impression of the Tiangong-1 space station. Credit: CMSE/China Manned Space Engineering Office

Tiangong-1, China’s first space station, will fall to Earth between Friday 30th March and Monday 2nd April. The heady brew of international politics and a rogue satellite putting Easter weekend at risk has fuelled these juicy meteorophobic headlines:

“OUT OF CONTROL Chinese satellite could hit Earth in three days – and boffs don’t know where” – The Sun, 27th March 2018

“Out-of-control Chinese space station is predicted to smash back into the Earth’s atmosphere over Easter – and Australia is in the ‘impact zone’” – The Daily Mail, 27th March 2018

To answer the immediate questions these headlines raise:

  • Yes, this satellite is big enough that some of it will hit Earth. It is about 10m long and with fuel weighed 8.5 tonnes. The biggest uncontrolled re-entry was NASA’s Skylab at 74 tonnes in 1979.
  • The probability of a part hitting a person are 10 million times smaller than getting struck by lightning in a year. This is because most of Earth’s surface is uninhabited thanks to oceans and deserts.
  • No one has ever been killed by space junk.

This is the latest instalment in a growing narrative around the danger of space junk – discarded bits of rockets and satellites which are gradually falling out of orbit and back to Earth. This is a very real problem, and sizeable chunks of space agencies are devoted to predicting space junk re-entry, most notably ESA’s Space Debris Office and NASA’s Orbital Debris Program Office.

Incredibly, all of the junk in orbit is tracked (cool interactive where you can track TIANGONG 1 in a cloud of other junk). This is so that satellites like the international space station can dodge them and not become space junk themselves. The worst case scenario, named the Kessler Syndrome, is a chain reaction of collisions reducing all of the satellites we rely on to a fine, glittering cloud of debris that ultimately blocks our access to space. Notable recent steps towards this dystopia came in 2007, when China converted their own satellite into 3000 pieces of junk with a passive-aggressive missile (yup China is ‘that flatmate’ when it comes to, erm, communal space..), and 2009, when a commercial American satellite and a Russian military satellite collided yielding 2000 more pieces. The current tally is around 16000 pieces of trackable space junk with a range of particle sizes stretching from centimetres to whole spent rocket bodies from past space missions.

Thankfully, almost all objects falling to Earth are not only slowed by the air resistance as they speed through Earth’s atmosphere, but are heated rapidly until they burn-up harmlessly about 80km above the ground. This will be the fate of almost all space junk, however pieces with high melting points (e.g. tungsten metal parts) will make it down to Earth’s surface. Most of these are tiny fragments and do not impact with enough force to injure anyone. Large or dense pieces will also make it to Earth’s surface and pose the most risk to people. Luckily the Earth is very sparsely populated due to oceans and deserts, so the chances of you being hit by space junk are currently numbered at 1 in several trillion.

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Where Tiangong-1 could land. The graph left shows population density. The graph right is the probability of reentry for each latitude. Image courtesy of ESA.

So what is the most likely fate of poor Tiangong-1? Most of Tiangong-1 will burn up in our atmosphere, the rest will land in the sea, and Earthlings will go back to eating chocolate eggs and reading the Sunday papers.

Should We Start Drinking Cherry Juice To Improve Our Sleep?

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Should you start drinking cherry juice to boost your sleep?

Today is #WorldSleepDay where the benefits and necessity of sleep are championed (with very good reason).  So, here’s a little something, originally posted on the personal blog of one our members, tackling bogus claims about how to get a better night’s sleep.

The internet is awash with advice based on rubbish science, and it’s not unusual for news outlet to pick up on this. Luckily, I have a source who expertly scours the internet and provides me with the best of the worst scientific journalism. Today’s offering is from the Daily Mail who are advertising the miraculous sleep inducing powers of tart cherry juice and other shady sleep treatments. The article in question claims that you can get 84 extra minutes of sleep if you start drinking tart cherry juice. Seems too good to be true? Well, let’s take a look at the research in question.

This study was led by Jack Losso at Louisiana State University. His team had a group of 8 people take part in a pilot trial of whether tart cherry juice would improve sleep in a group of individuals diagnosed with insomnia. The participants in this trial were initially randomised to either drink a cherry or placebo drink twice a day (once in the morning and once again a few hours before bed). Their sleep was assessed at the start of the study and again two weeks later at the end of each stint of juice or placebo. They found that the participants spent 86 more minutes asleep in the cherry juice compared to placebo condition. Additionally, out of five self-report sleep measures there was found to be an increase in sleep efficiency (time in bed divided by time spent asleep) as measured by only one of these.

Unfortunately, this study is not available online, so we only have access to the abstract and the press release until it is published September 2018. This makes it hard to analyse in any more detail. This was a very small pilot study with only 8 participants diagnosed with insomnia. In addition, the study threw a lot of different sleep questionnaires at the trial for little plausible reason other than they could. It’s not unusual for there to be two (different measures assess slightly different things) but five is overkill. This is worrying as it suggests that the researchers could change the goal posts if one measure did not produce the effect they wanted to see.

The Daily Mail articles also seems to have glossed over the age of the participants who were “over 50” according to the study. This study alone is not enough to convince us that cherry juice is something we should all stock up on to combat a poor night’s sleep. However, what is the wider evidence to support cherry juice impact on sleep?

The initial rationale for conducting these trials was based on a mixture of anecdotal evidence and plausible biological pathways. For example, it has been suggested that tart cherry juice can reduce inflammation and increase melatonin levels. Both of these could conceivably improve an individual’s sleep. However, prior to this recent pilot trial there was very little scientific research to support an association between improved sleep and tart cherry juice. Based on my own search of the literature, there were two additional published trials I could find which looked at the effect of tart cherry juice on sleep.

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The evidence for cherry juice and sleep is currently lacking

The first by Glyn Howatson and colleagues recruited a sample of 20 people with a mean age of 27. In this study participants were either given diluted tart cherry juice or a placebo fruit cordial. The participants were not told about the hypotheses beforehand, but I’m still not entirely convinced that people wouldn’t have cottoned on to what drink was supposed to be doing something. The researchers found no differences in sleep when they looked at the self-report measures except a reduction in napping from 9 minutes to 2 minutes in the cherry juice group. Participants in the cherry group did stay in bed slightly longer and spent longer asleep (34 minutes) as measured by a Fit-Bit like watch. Of course, if they were spending longer in bed, immobile, it is perhaps not surprising that their sleep would have been longer too due to limitations of such devices (e.g. they treat a lack of movement as sleep).

The second study by Wilfred Pigeon and colleagues conducted another pilot randomised controlled trial with 15 people who were, on average, about 72 years old. It used a similar setup as Glyn Howatson’s randomised controlled trial in that participants were randomly assigned to drink either the placebo or cherry juice first. The other drink was then given two weeks later. Their ‘cherry juice’ was actually a blend including both tart cherries and apple juice which makes it hard to say that it was the cherry juice specifically having the active effect. In this study, using self-report sleep diaries, it was found that participants went to sleep 2.6 minutes quicker, slept 8.4 minutes longer, and spent 17 less minutes awake during the night in the juice (cherry and apple) compared to the placebo juice drink. A fuller exploration of this study can be found here on the brilliant NHS Choices website but again, this study is far from convincing.

Together, these studies are not poorly conducted but their findings are not particularly impressive either. They do suggest that cherry juice may be doing something but it’s hardly comparable to the supposed 84 minutes which leads the Daily Mail article. In fact, the second study, besides having a tiny effect on sleep, is not even solely cherry juice. Personally, I don’t have the option to get 85 extra minutes sleep, I’m more interested in my sleep being more restful. None of these studies showed that this was the case and this is something which is likely to be more important to most people including those with a diagnosis of insomnia.

Finally, because you can’t make this kind of stuff up, two of these three studies were part or fully funded by the Cherry Marketing Institute. The only study that wasn’t funded by them was given free products by a company which produces and sells, including other products, cherry-based drinks aimed at physical enhancement. It’s not unusual for an intervention to have a hand in a trial but this, and the Daily Mail article, feels more like advertising than validating a potential treatment. Is it too much to ask for a randomised controlled trial without some form of cherry PR company hovering in the background?

With all of this in mind, cherry juice’s effect on sleep does not seem to have a scientific basis. As always, if you find tart cherry juice is a miracle cure for you then feel free to ignore me. Your glass of tart cherry juice is hardly causing anyone harm and it’s fantastic if, anecdotally, it works for you. However, in this instance, it looks like cherries are another alternative treatment for insomnia which need to be taken with a considerable bucket full of salt.

I never liked cherries anyway.

Inquisitive Tortoise

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Bikram yoga: worth the heat?

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Is knotting yourself into a pretzel in a hot room better for you than trying the same thing at room temperature? A recent paper (featuring in the Express, Forbes & the Independent) asked that very question. This study was fairly well reported, with all three of the above news outlets choosing headlines that accurately reflected the research – good stuff! So with that in mind let’s take a look at the study.

Yoga comes in many shapes and sizes but this study focused on a style of yoga called Bikram yoga. Bikram, who’s founder has been in the headlines for some fairly unsavory accusations of late, follows the same strict series of 26 yoga poses at the nice and toasty temperature of 40.5ºC.

A previous study by the same group of scientists found that for people aged 40-60, 9 weeks of Bikram yoga improved how well endothelial cells worked (these are the cells that line the inside of your blood vessels, known to be involved in vascular diseases such as atherosclerosis). So this time the team wanted to work out whether these changes were due to the yoga, the heat it was done at or both.

To figure this out, participants were randomly assigned to either practice Bikram yoga 3 times a week for 12 weeks at the usual 40.5ºC, to do the same sequence at a more pleasant 23ºC or to do no yoga at all (the control group).

So how reliable is this research? Let’s check it out using our toolkit.

  1. The study was published in the peer-reviewed Experimental Physiology and the news articles above have accurate headlines and summaries of the research (Forbes get extra kudos for getting a quote from an independent researcher).
  2. The press release however fails to mention that the study only included 40-60 year olds, and according to the groups’ previous study the same effect just isn’t there for younger participants (sorry folks!)
  3. An obvious downside to studies like this is that all participants are obviously well aware of whether they are practicing yoga or not! This means that some measurements could be affected by the placebo effect. Though this is less likely for a study like this where results were drawn from X-ray scans and blood tests, as opposed to questionnaires of perceived pain for example, the researchers doing the measurements weren’t blinded (they knew what group each participant was in) meaning that some bias could have snuck into the data analysis.
    This is why a randomised double blind placebo-controlled trial is considered the ‘gold standard’ (double blind = neither the participant nor the researcher know which treatment or intervention the subject is receiving).
  4. It is worth considering that this study has shown an effect in only one type of yoga – in fact a previous study by the same group didn’t see any changes in vascular function when practicing hatha yoga twice a week, so is it that the Bikram yoga was practiced 3 times a week or is it the type of yoga? It’s very difficult to say.

To better understand whether yoga is beneficial or not overall, collecting many different studies together to look at all the available evidence is probably the best indicator. The Cochrane Library review and summarise all of the evidence that has been collected on a given treatment for a particular illness or benefit, from how to get kids to eat more fruit and veg to yoga for improving health and wellbeing.

Overall this study throws some more evidence into the ring that some types of yoga can be good for some people, sometimes.

HYH gets involved!

This week we ventured out for our first HYH talk of 2018! We were invited to join the line up at a Public and Patient Involvement event hosted by the University’s very own Centre for Primary Care. As some of you may know, Public and Patient Involvement in research refers to research which is developed and conducted in conjunction with patients or members of the public who have real life experience or an interested in the topic the scientists are researching. Now, with that in mind, it’s fair to say that our audience were all actively engaged in the world of research. This made them a great group to gather further ideas from, following our successful pilot with Didsbury SciBar, they were able to give us more insight into the types of things they look for when judging whether to believe what they hear or read about in the news. As well as the tips featured in our toolkit, articles were judged more reliable if they were published in well-known, high quality journals, and also if the research was reported in a similar fashion by a number of different newspapers or websites. Continue reading

A Dhal Won’t Stop Dementia

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Today the Daily Express leads with this headline: Eat CURRY to beat Alzheimer’s: THIS spice boosts memory and may stop onset of dementia.

Now it’s safe to say I am sceptical of this. Curcumin, found in turmeric (hence the link to the curry) is a real trigger-point with many scientists as, despite countless suggestions in the headlines that it can be a miracle cure for almost anything that ails you (Alzheimer’s, cancer and lupus all in 2018…), there is currently no evidence of any effect in humans (see this useful blog for a summary). “But why not at least try it? What’s the harm?”. Well unfortunately curcumin has the unenviable history of actually killing someone due to unregulated use. So I’m on the back foot with this already but it’s important to look through this article nonetheless, let’s break it down using the HYH toolkit.

  1. The title is indeed outrageous. People living with dementia were not tested at all and there is no way they can make these claims. Additionally, no-one was given any curry. They were given a pill containing curcumin which is a substance that is in an ingredient that is in curry. Making this link is false.
  2. Reading further things look up. The research has been published (but there is no link) in a reputable journal and it does appear to be open-access. Thumbs up.
  3. The study is well-designed. The trial (done in humans ) included randomisation and blinding and the discussion section of the paper includes a healthy segment on the (many) limitations of the study.
  4. There is a quote from an impartial source which provides an excellent voice of reason – pointing out that these are early-stage results and that no-one should be taking curcumin just yet.
  5. There is definitely an issue with correlation-causation. The paper essentially makes the statement. Indians eat curry. Indians are less likely to develop dementia. Therefore curry stops dementia. This is backed up by some weak studies with poor statistics and is a dangerous point to make.

As usual this is actually a fairly well-written article with a naff headline. Another classic hallmark is some excited quotes of how great the study is – by the lead author. One example is this “Studies indicate a lower prevalence of Alzheimer’s in Indian people who consume curcumin in curry.” – which is misleading as I point out in number 5 above.

Overall we can make the usual (but boring) conclusion – interesting study, more research needed. I’m going to give this a 4/10 (7/10 without the headline).

Do Our Brains Actually Communicate by WiFi?

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Do our brains communicate via wifi? Image via DigitalRalph @Flick 

Does your brain work on fibre-optic or is it stuck in the dial-up era? A recent article posted by the Daily Mail (originally appearing in a fuller, pay-walled, form on the Sunday Telegraph) claims that we communicate in part through a wi-fi-like system between brains. Sound a bit too bizarre to be true? Well, that’s because it is not just an exaggeration but quite simply wrong.

As social creatures we pick up on a myriad of cues from others around us and use this information to guide how we respond to others in familiar or unfamiliar situations. It is this information, alongside our own prejudices and experience, which provides kindling for what we know as ‘gut feelings’. It is not, as the author of the above article suggests, because our brains work in a similar way to the router in your living room.

Besides the bizarre title, why should we be cautious about this article? Here are the first things which raised alarm bells in my head:

  1. The article only had a single expert (the same one who put the wi-fi idea forward) talk about the issue. This is not necessarily terrible practise but with bold claims you want to have a broad range of informed views to feel more confident in the article. If someone with no vested interest in the results can also support them, and provide evidence to back them up, then this should help quieten the initial pseudoscience claxons.

 

  1. The ‘evidence’ for the article’s claims are original thoughts of the researcher from their recent book. These claims are supported by research which does not appear directly linked to the points being made in the article.

 

  1. On the theme of evidence, the only support for the claims being made are in the form of a link to a pay-walled news story from another newspaper. No research to backup the claims of the researcher and the article makes it hard to determine whether what is being said is true and based on evidence.

 

  1. Sometimes ridiculous titles do a dis-service to a reasonably written article. This is not one of those times. This title is misleading and quite simply wrong.

 

  1. Finally, the author of the article failed to spell the researcher’s name correctly. Journalists (and most other people with jobs) have strict deadlines but the name of the researcher the piece is about should really be spelt right. It might seem like a minor point but if they can’t get the name of the most important person in the piece right, they likely did not research the topic in sufficient detail for any reader to comfortably trust on face value alone.