FMRI Brain Scan

Sizzling Headlines About Brain Damage

The PR team at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) hit a home run this week. They were playing in the ongoing contest to create the most misinformative but sizzling headlines about scientific research. Their winning headline was doozy: MRI reveals brain damage in obese teens.

Of course, that misleading press release was only the start. From there, the sizzling misinformation grew. Andrew Brown and the OEO Team spotted one headline that might be the most sensationally offensive:

Teens with Obesity May Have Brain Damage That Produces Poor Eating Habits

Unfortunately, there are more where that one came from.

Correlation, Not Causation

The number one problem here is the basic mistake of suggesting cause and effect when all the research shows is correlation. Researchers had an observational study of white matter integrity in teens with obesity. They used diffusion Tensor Imaging (DTI). However, they did not directly study brain damage. In other words, they observed structural features that might – or might not – indicate brain damage. And the differences they report add up to an association. Not necessarily an effect of obesity.

Of course, it’s tough to give detailed comments because this research hasn’t even been published or presented yet. It will be presented at the RSNA meeting in Chicago this weekend. So that backs up these headlines is a press release and an abstract. Plus the promise that the data will eventually be presented and peer reviewed.

Threat Hype and Stigma

Maybe you’re thinking, what’s the big deal? This kind of stuff happens all the time. If so, you’ve put your finger on the problem. Hype has no place in science. RSNA is a scientific society presenting a program of science and education. Not hype and misinformation. For this to “happen all the time” is a travesty.

But worse is the promotion of hype and fear about obesity that serves to further stigmatize this disease and people with obesity. False stories about “brain damaged, obese teens” get in the way of rational discourse about an important chronic disease. Labels like damaged and obese are supremely unhelpful.

Public relations professionals should know better and do better. Especially if they work for an organization with science, education, and innovation as its mission.

Click here for the press release, here for the abstract, and here for an example of the stories it generated. For more on the problem of hype in academic press releases, click here.

FMRI Brain Scan, photograph © O O’Neil / Wikimedia Commons

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November 29, 2019