Pass me the Brain Protector™.

Manchester University publish a magazine thing called “UniLife”. I unsubscribed from the print version because I find that sort of thing rather distracting, but I still read the online version. And the latest issue has an article (page ten, left column) entitled

Colour purple sees off Alzheimer’s

Well, that explains the new logo.

This struck me immediately as bullshit. Quack nutritionists have been extolling the virtues of brightly coloured fruit ever since that weekend when everyone thought anti-oxidants were really good for you, and whenever new research apparently confirms something that a quack just made up my default reaction is both scepticism and skepticism. Sometimes even skeptikism. But I read on.

Eating purple fruits such as blueberries and drinking green tea can help ward off diseases including Alzheimer’s, Multiple Sclerosis and Parkinson’s, a University of Manchester report claims.

Claims about more than one disease are another classic quack hallmark.

Ground-breaking research from Professor Douglas Kell has found that the majority of debilitating illnesses are in part caused by poorly-bound iron...

This is going to be about anti-oxidants, I thought, isn’t it?

...which causes the production of dangerous toxins that can react with the components of living systems.

“Toxins”? This article has more canards than Sarkozy’s duck island. It still may be totally legitimate, of course, but my finely-tuned bullshit-detection heuristics are all lighting up like the BBC switchboard after Jan Moir forgets to Sky+ something and assumes it must have been offensive.

In order to protect the body from these dangerous varieties of poorly-bound iron, it is vital to take on nutrients, known as iron chelators, which can bind the iron tightly.

This caught me off-guard. I was expecting anti-oxidants, and suddenly here are chelators. Chelation therapy is already an established form of quackery, and already touted to treat Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also very dangerous (in its more common, non fruit-based form).

I guess there must have been a press-release, because the same article appears word-for word on PhysOrg, with approving comments from a chelation quack, and on HealthNewsTrackByron J Richards’ Wellness Resources, a website that sets off more of my alarm bells than anything in UniLife ever could, has a copy of the article, adding

I believe that Dr. Kell has hit upon a basic principle of health with far reaching application for prevention of diseases that are at epidemic levels. ... I have recently highlighted the importance of blueberries for the protection of your brain and this is another important angle on this issue.

Richards’ website also sells a $80/month dietary supplement called “Brain Protector™” which, he says, “contains key nutrients to enhance protection of the brain and nervous system. Includes blueberry and more!” Radio nutritionist and chiropractor Alan Pressman has also written about the article, in almost so glowing terms as those he reserves for Deepak Chopra. Apparently nobody that Google News indexes picked up the story.

UniLife didn’t link to the original research, but the version of the article on the chemistry department website did. It’s a review article. Well, two review articles. They’re both very long, and packed with something like two thousand references each (along with some weirdly amateurish diagrams, “figures” that are really just paragraphs of text, and dodgy-looking underlined sections, often including only the “anti” in “antioxidants” – journals really need to stop trusting scientists to format articles). I profess no knowledge at all about biochemistry, but I came away from them with the impression that yeah, maybe this was a process present in quite a few diseases, and if so then slowing it down could help a bit, but nothing that would justify the claims in the UniLife article. A review article – even two review articles – isn’t really “ground-breaking research” to me. It’s a way of pointing out a connection you’ve spotted. It hypothesises. It should be followed with a systematic review, a meta-analysis, to show if there is evidence for the hypothesis. A regular review has no explicit inclusion or exclusion criteria for the papers it cites, and shouldn’t be seen as an unbiased snapshot of the evidence.

I think promoting early research findings too heavily is a risky game, especially where there are already dangerous quacks trading on the same ideas. You can’t retract from these people – even after he was struck off, they still cling to Andrew Wakefield’s debunked and retracted ‘study’. I think the claims in this press release are hugely overblown, as is the overall impact of the research, and I think singling out Alzheimer’s disease in the headline misrepresents the original articles. And even if it’s a totally legitimate bit of well-conducted research discovering something genuinely novel and useful, writing it up in the form of cargo-cult quackery probably wasn’t a great idea.

So is this article proper research? I hardly even care. If it’s quackery, I’m appalled. But if genuine science is now indistinguishable from quackery even to seasoned veterans, well surely that’s even worse?