Alzheimergate – or: How sensationalism made Alzheimer’s disease contagious

In the current issue of the prestigious British medical journal Lancet (published September 19, 2015) a remarkable editorial entitled „Alzheimergate? When miscommunication met sensationalism“ was published. In this editorial reference is made to an article that was published on September 10, 2015, in the no less prestigious science journal Nature, which apparently for many journalists suggested that Alzheimer’s disease is contagious in humans. What had happened?

The research groups led by the London scientists John Collinge and Sebastian Brandner had studied the brains of eight people who had died 36-51 years of age from the so-called iatrogenic Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (iCJD). More than 200 people have contracted iCJD after they had been treated – typically in childhood – with growth hormone from human pituitary, which had been obtained from human cadavers. As we now know, these pituitaries were contaminated with prions. Although this practice was discontinued around 1985, because of the long incubation period of the disease are new cases are being reported until today.

In four out of eight of the examined brains the London researchers found moderate to severe deposits of amyloid-β, as is typical for Alzheimer’s disease. None of these patients had mutations that would predispose for Alzheimer’s disease with early onset, and no one had an ApoE ε4 genotype. In a control group of 116 patients in the same age range (or older) with other prion diseases they found only minimal or no corresponding changes.

Experimentally it has been shown that it is possible to induce the typical Alzheimer’s pathology by inoculating homogenates of Alzheimer’s brains in transgenic mice and primates. Thus, it was now consequent that the authors entitled their article: „Evidence for human transmission of amyloid-β pathology and cerebral amyloid angiopathy“. In their abstract, the authors even express the warning “that healthy exposed individuals may also be at risk of iatrogenic Alzheimer’s disease and cerebral amyloid angiopathy”.

In their Editorial, the editors of the Lancet now indicated that they had been contacted five days prior to the publication of the Nature article by a government representative, who had been worried of a possible reaction of the public. Although the British Science Media Centre was involved in the adequate communication of the article, they had requested advice from the Lancet in order to prevent a public panic reaction.

It became obvious on September 10, the date of publication of the article in Nature, that concern was not unwarranted. The British “Independent” headlined “Alzheimer’s disease may be infectious, study claims” the “Daily Mirror” wrote “Alzheimer’s can be spread from human to human, explosive research claims” and the “Daily Express” proclaimed: “Alzheimer’s BOMBSHELL: British experts find disease can be PASSED between humans“. Although individual media such as the BBC tried to discuss the issue objectively, the general tone of the media was rather alarming.

The German press took up the theme. The headline in the “Zeit” was: “Alzheimer’s might be transferable.” („Alzheimer könnte übertragbar sein.“). The “Focus” wrote “New Study: Alzheimer’s could be transferable.” („Neue Studie: Alzheimer könnte übertragbar sein“). The “Welt” headlined “Alzheimer’s transferable under certain conditions” („Alzheimer unter bestimmten Bedingungen übertragbar“). At least “Der Tagesspiegel” noted “Granny is not contagious” („Oma ist nicht ansteckend“) Two days later, the “Zeit” followed with an article entitled “First cause panic, then sell drugs?” („Erst Panik machen, dann Medikamente verkaufen?“). According to the article one of the authors of the Nature article years ago had developed a drug, which could prevent the transferability of prions, for example with surgical instruments.

The editors of the Lancet now pointed out in their Editorial that in particular the title of the Nature article is misleading. The authors have not shown the transfer of amyloid pathology from person to person. The study shows rather merely that amyloid pathology, such as the one found in Alzheimer’s disease, can also be observed in patients with iCJD. This observation does not allow for the conclusion that amyloid pathology is indeed transmissible. The study does not demonstrate that the patients studied had ultimately really developed Alzheimer’s disease and their brains showed no tau protein, which would be typical of Alzheimer’s disease. “The findings, although certainly interesting, were a long way from a true ‚paradigm shift’ ”. Ultimately, the press reaction has led to an unnecessary anxiety and potentially diminished many years of efforts to de-stigmatise patients.

What can we learn from this story? Journalists who want to write an exciting story are sometimes joined by scientists who sell their supposedly “objective” findings in their quest for publicity, and together they cause a lot of damage at the end.

This post is also available in: German

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