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Sensationalism of Science

Updated: Aug 1, 2022

You've probably seen headlines about scientific findings that cause you to go, "Wow! Really? I didn't know that," and then click share without doing a deep dive. We are all guilty of sharing without reading the article, but when it comes to scientific research findings, it's often that they become over-simplified and sensationalized.

This happens all the time in psychedelic research. For example, a study earlier this year from a prominent research group at Imperial College London and University California San Francisco, titled "Increased global integration in the brain after psilocybin therapy for depression" really stirred the pot. A news report from UCSF highlighting the research and sharing information with the lay public titled their article "Psilocybin Rewires the Brain for People with Depression" which gets picked up by other news outlets and misinforms the public about the findings and ignores the nuances in the research. It's like a game of telephone where the information gets more and more simplified as it gets passed down.

Recently, a review came out titled "The serotonin theory of depression: a systematic umbrella review of the evidence" which challenged the current belief held by researchers, doctors and the public that depression is linked brain abnormalities relating to serotonin neurotransmission. Serotonin is a chemical in the brain that has effects on several brain systems and other chemicals, therefore influencing mood, sleep, hunger, cognition and more. The review claims that there is no empirical evidence to support this theory, going as far as to state:

"...this belief shapes how people understand their moods, leading to a pessimistic outlook on the outcome of depression and negative expectancies about the possibility of self-regulation of mood. The idea that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance also influences decisions about whether to take or continue anti- depressant medication and may discourage people from dis- continuing treatment, potentially leading to lifelong dependence on these drugs."

Interestingly, the only alternative theory offered by these authors is that anti-depressants are placebo or "zombie" pills (yes they actually said zombie pills). The criteria in place for the review are based specifically on the authors own set of parameters of what constitutes proper analyses, adequate addressing of confounding anti-depressant use, outcome specification and publication bias (among other things like sample size and heterogeneity). The authors did not include any clinical data assessing the effects of various anti-depressants versus placebo controls (Arroll 2009 review does a great job assessing these results).

Why does this matter?

Well, the study basically is telling people that this theory is fake and their anti-depressant medications don't work, despite their being people with various forms of anxiety and depression that have greatly benefited from these drugs. The study also ignores the complexity of the human brain and all its interactions. Depression is thought to be heterogeneous disorder with potentially multiple underlying causes, of which anti-depressants may target some of the symptoms.

Upon being shared to the public, there have already been multiple over-simplified and sensationalized articles that can disseminate false information to people seeking professional or medical help. Even a simple google search of serotonin and depression yielded 5 news articles spreading misinformation.

This can be extremely harmful to patients and may even encourage patients to stop taking their medication, which can cause serious physical and mental side effects. We encourage everyone to look at these types of articles with a critical eye and ask the hard questions when it comes to media portrayal of science.

We also encourage people on psychiatric medication to please consult their doctors and therapists before discontinuing medication. Treatment for mental health is personalized, everyone has their own unique brain, so what works for someone may not work for you.

Check out some links below for the articles and further reading on the topic:


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