Marmite, and the spread of misinformation

Last week we published a study about Marmite affecting brain function in the Journal of Psychopharmacology. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this got a huge amount of media attention, with coverage on radio, television and in print. Anika and I did a range of interviews, which was an interesting and exhausting experience!

What was really striking was watching how the echo chamber of the internet handled the story. We were very careful in our press release and interviews not to name any specific diseases or disorders that might be affected by our intervention. What we think is happening is that the high levels of vitamin B12 in Marmite are stimulating the production of GABA in the brain, leading to a reduction of neural activity in response to visual stimuli. Now it happens that GABA deficits are implicated in a whole range of neurological diseases and disorders, but since we haven’t tested any patients we can’t say whether eating Marmite could be a good thing, a bad thing, or have no effect on any diseases at all.

But to the media, this somehow became a study about trying to prevent dementia! Headlines like “Marmite may boost brain and help stave off dementia” (Telegraph) were exactly what we wanted to avoid, particularly because of the risk that some patient somewhere might stop taking their medication and eat Marmite instead, which could be very dangerous. We even stated very clearly in our press release:

“Although GABA is involved in various diseases we can make no therapeutic recommendations based on these results, and individuals with a medical condition should always seek treatment from their GP.”

But these cautions were roundly ignored by most of the reporters who covered the piece (even those who interviewed us directly), as amusingly and irreverently explained in an article from Buzzfeed. I think a big part of the problem is that it is not routine practise for scientists whose work is covered in the media to give approval of the final version of a story before it is published (or even to get to see it). Maybe a mechanism by which authors can grant some sort of stamp of approval to a story needs to be developed to prevent this sort of thing and avoid the spread of misinformation. In the meantime, it’s been an amazing example of how, despite our best efforts, the media will just report whatever they want to, however tenuously it’s linked to the underlying findings.

The paper:
Smith, A.K., Wade, A.R., Penkman, K.E.H. & Baker, D.H. (2017). Dietary modulation of cortical excitation and inhibition. Journal of Psychopharmacology, in press, [DOI].

Repository version (open access)

University of York press release

A selection of media coverage:

The Independent
The Telegraph
The Times
Sky News
Sky News Facebook Live
Wired
The Mirror
The Express
Metro
The Sun
Netdoctor
SBS
The Jersey Evening Post
The Daily Maverick
Japan Times
Heart
Yorkshire Post
Eagle FM
Stray FM
ENCA
Buzzfeed
New Zealand Herald
Huffington Post
Science Focus
ITV
Nouse
Science Media Centre
Neuroscience News
iNews
NHS UK
Daily Star
Spectator
Boots WebMD
Pakistan Today
Grazia
Washington Times
Men’s Health
South China Morning Post
Good Housekeeping
Inverse
Medical News Today
Daily Mail
Daily Mail

 

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