Is Donald Trump suffering from Pick’s Disease (frontotemporal dementia)?

Changing the conversation about Donald Trump’s fitness for office from whether he has a personality disorder to whether he has an organic brain disorder.

mind the brain logoChanging the conversation about Donald Trump’s fitness for office from whether he has a personality disorder to whether he has an organic brain disorder.

Trump.jpgFor a long while there has been an ongoing debate about whether Donald Trump suffers from a personality disorder that might contribute to his being unfit the President of the United States. Psychiatrists have ethical constraints in what they say because of the so-called Goldwater rule, barring them from commenting on the mental health of political figures that they have not personally  interviewed.

I am a clinical psychologist, not a psychiatrist. I feel the need to speak out that the behavior of Donald Trump is abnormal and we should caution against normalizing it. The problem with settling on his behavior being simply that of a bad person or con man is it doesn’t prepare us for just how erratic his behavior can be.

I’ll refrain from making a formal psychiatric diagnosis. I actually think that in clinical practice, a lot of mental health professionals too casually make diagnoses of personality disorders for patients (or privately, even for colleagues) they find difficult or annoying.  If they ever gave these people a structured interview,  I suspect they would be found to fall  below the threshold for any particular personality disorder.

Changing the conversation

But now an article in Stat has changed the conversation to whether Donald Trump suffers from personality disorder to whether he is developing an organic brain disorder.

I’m a brain specialist. I think Trump should be tested for a degenerative brain disease

When President Trump slurred his words during a news conference this week, some Trump watchers speculated that he was having a stroke. I watched the clip and, as a physician who specializes in brain function and disability, I don’t think a stroke was behind the slurred words. But having evaluated the chief executive’s remarkable behavior through my clinical lens for almost a year, I do believe he is displaying signs that could indicate a degenerative brain disorder.

As the president’s demeanor and unusual decisions raise the potential for military conflict in two regions of the world, the questions surrounding his mental competence have become urgent and demand investigation.


I see worrisome symptoms that fall into three main categories: problems with language and executive function; problems with social cognition and behavior; and problems with memory, attention, and concentration. None of these are symptoms of being a bad or mean person. Nor do they require spelunking into the depths of his psyche to understand. Instead, they raise concern for a neurocognitive disease process in the same sense that wheezing raises the alarm for asthma.

In addition to being a medical journalist, the author Ford Vox of the article is a neurorehabilitation physician who is board-certified physical medicine and rehabilitation physician with additional subspecialty board certification in brain injury medicine.

I was alerted by the possibility of a diagnosis of frontotemporal dementia by a tweet by Barney Carroll. He is a senior psychiatrist whom I have come to trust as a mentor on social media, even though we’ve never overlapped in the same department at the same time.

barney forget psychnoanalysis

And then there was this tweet about the Stat story, but I could judge its credibility because I did not know the tweeter or her source:

trump's disease

I followed up with a Google search and came across an article from August 2016, before the election:

Finally figured out Trump’s medical diagnosis after watching this:

It’s called Pick’s Disease, or frontotemporal dementia

Look at the symptoms, all of these which fit Trump quite closely:

  • Impulsivity and poor judgment
  • Extreme restlessness (early stages)
  • Overeating or drinking to excess
  • Sexual exhibitionism or promiscuity
  • Decline in function at work and home
  • Repetitive or obsessive behavior

And especially these, listed earlier in the article:

Excess protein build-up causes the frontal and temporal lobes of the brain, which control speech and personality, to slowly atrophy. 

Then I followed up with more Google searches, hitting MedLine Plus,  the website maintained by the National Institutes of Health’s Web site for patients and their families and friends and produced by the National Library of Medicine.

Pick disease

Pick disease is a rare form of dementia that is similar to Alzheimer disease, except that it tends to affect only certain areas of the brain.


People with Pick disease have abnormal substances (called Pick bodies and Pick cells) inside nerve cells in the damaged areas of the brain.

Pick bodies and Pick cells contain an abnormal form of a protein called tau. This protein is found in all nerve cells. But some people with Pick disease have an abnormal amount or type of this protein.

The exact cause of the abnormal form of the protein is unknown. Many different abnormal genes have been found that can cause Pick disease. Some cases of Pick disease are passed down through families.

Pick disease is rare. It can occur in people as young as 20. But it usually begins between ages 40 and 60. The average age at which it begins is 54.


The disease gets worse slowly. Tissues in parts of the brain shrink over time. Symptoms such as behavior changes, speech difficulty, and problems thinking occur slowly and get worse.

Early personality changes can help doctors tell Pick disease apart from Alzheimer disease. (Memory loss is often the main, and earliest, symptom of Alzheimer disease.)

People with Pick disease tend to behave the wrong way in different social settings. The changes in behavior continue to get worse and are often one of the most disturbing symptoms of the disease. Some persons have more difficulty with decision making, complex tasks, or language (trouble finding or understanding words or writing).

The website notes

A brain biopsy is the only test that can confirm the diagnosis.

However, some alternative diagnoses can be ruled out:

Your doctor might order tests to help rule out other causes of dementia, including dementia due to metabolic causes. Pick disease is diagnosed based on symptoms and results of tests, including:

Assessment of the mind and behavior (neuropsychological assessment)

Brain MRI

Electroencephalogram (EEG)

Examination of the brain and nervous system (neurological exam)

Examination of the fluid around the central nervous system (cerebrospinal fluid) after a lumbar puncture

Head CT scan

Tests of sensation, thinking and reasoning (cognitive function), and motor function

Back to Ford Vox in his Stats article:

In Trump’s case, we have no relevant testing to review. His personal physician issued a thoroughly unsatisfying letter before the election that didn’t contain much in the way of hard data. That’s a situation many people want to correct via an independent medical panel that can objectively evaluate the president’s fitness to serve. But the prospects for getting Congress to use the 25th Amendment in this way seem poor at the moment.

What we do have are a growing array of signs and symptoms displayed in public for all to see. It’s time to discuss these issues in a clinical context, even if this is a very atypical form of examination. It’s all we have. And even if the president has a physical exam early next year and releases the records, as announced by the White House, what he really needs is thorough cognitive testing.


Before biting the bullet, I also spoke with Dr. Dennis Agliano, who chairs the AMA’s Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs, the panel that wrote the new ethical guidance. He advised me to be careful: “You can get yourself into hot water, since there are people who like Trump, and they may submit a complaint to the AMA,” the Tampa otolaryngologist told me. Ultimately, he reassured me that I should just do what I think is right.

Which is warn the president that he needs to be evaluated for a brain disease.

Good luck, Dr Vox, but at least we have a reasonable hypothesis on the table. As Barney Carroll says “Time will tell.”

slurred speech

Unmasking Jane Brody’s “A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health” in The New York Times

A recipe for coercing ill people with positive psychology pseudoscience in the New York Times

  • Judging by the play she gets in social media and the 100s of comments on her articles in the New York Times, Jane Brody has a successful recipe for using positive psychology pseudoscience to bolster down-home advice you might’ve gotten from your grandmother.
  • Her recipe might seem harmless enough, but her articles are directed at people struggling with chronic and catastrophic physical illnesses. She offers them advice.
  • The message is that persons with physical illness should engage in self-discipline, practice positive psychology exercises – or else they are threatening their health and shortening their lives.
  • People struggling with physical illness have enough to do already. The admonition they individually and collectively should do more -they should become more self-disciplined- is condescending and presumptuous.
  • Jane Brody’s carrot is basically a stick. The implied threat is simply coercive: that people with chronic illness are not doing what they can to improve the physical health unless they engage in these exercises.
  • It takes a careful examination Jane Brody’s sources to discover that the “scientific basis” for this positive psychology advice is quite weak. In many instances it is patently junk, pseudoscience.
  • The health benefits claimed for positivity are unfounded.
  • People with chronic illness are often desperate or simply vulnerable to suggestions that they can and should do more.  They are being misled by this kind of article in what is supposed to be the trusted source of a quality news outlet, The New York Times, not The Daily News.
  • There is a sneaky, ill-concealed message that persons with chronic illness will obtain wondrous benefits by just adopting a positive attitude – even a hint that cancer patients will live longer.

In my blog post about positive psychology and health, I try to provide  tools so that consumers can probe for themselves the usually false and certainly exaggerated claims that are being showered on them.

However, in the case of Jane Brody’s articles, we will see that the task is difficult because she draws on a selective sampling of the literature in which researchers generate junk self-promotional claims.

That’s a general problem with the positive psychology “science” literature, but the solution for journalists like Jane Brody is to seek independent evaluation of claims from outside the positive psychology community. Journalists, did you hear that message?

The article, along with its 100s of comments from readers, is available here:

A Positive Outlook May Be Good for Your Health by Jane E.Brody

The article starts with some clichéd advice about being positive. Brody seems to be on the side of the autonomy of her  readers. She makes seemingly derogatory comments  that the advice is “cockeyed optimism” [Don’t you love that turn of phrase? I’m sure to borrow it in the future]

“Look on the sunny side of life.”

“Turn your face toward the sun, and the shadows will fall behind you.”

“Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day.”

“See the glass as half-full, not half-empty.”

Researchers are finding that thoughts like these, the hallmarks of people sometimes called “cockeyed optimists,” can do far more than raise one’s spirits. They may actually improve health and extend life.

See?  The clever putdown of this advice was just a rhetorical device, just a set up for what follows. Very soon Brody is delivering some coercive pseudoscientific advice, backed by the claim that “there is no longer any doubt” and that the links between positive thinking and health benefits are “indisputable.”

There is no longer any doubt that what happens in the brain influences what happens in the body. When facing a health crisis, actively cultivating positive emotions can boost the immune system and counter depression. Studies have shown an indisputable link between having a positive outlook and health benefits like lower blood pressure, less heart disease, better weight control [Emphasis added.].

I found the following passage particularly sneaky and undermining of people with cancer.

Even when faced with an incurable illness, positive feelings and thoughts can greatly improve one’s quality of life. Dr. Wendy Schlessel Harpham, a Dallas-based author of several books for people facing cancer, including “Happiness in a Storm,” was a practicing internist when she learned she had non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system, 27 years ago. During the next 15 years of treatments for eight relapses of her cancer, she set the stage for happiness and hope, she says, by such measures as surrounding herself with people who lift her spirits, keeping a daily gratitude journal, doing something good for someone else, and watching funny, uplifting movies. Her cancer has been in remission now for 12 years.

“Fostering positive emotions helped make my life the best it could be,” Dr. Harpham said. “They made the tough times easier, even though they didn’t make any difference in my cancer cells.”

Sure, Jane Brody is careful to avoid the explicit claim the positive attitude somehow is connected to the cancer being in remission for 12 years, but the implication is there. Brody pushes the advice with a hint of the transformation available to cancer patients, only if they follow the advice.

After all, Jane Brody had just earlier asserted that positive attitude affects the immune system and this well-chosen example happens to be a cancer of the immune system.

Jane Brody immediately launches into a description of a line of research conducted by a positive psychology group at Northwestern University and University of California San Francisco.

Taking her cue from the investigators, Brody blurs the distinction between findings based in correlational studies and the results of intervention studies in which patients actually practiced positive psychology exercises.

People with new diagnoses of H.I.V. infection who practiced these skills carried a lower load of the virus, were more likely to take their medication correctly, and were less likely to need antidepressants to help them cope with their illness.

But Brody sins as a journalist are worse than that. With a great deal of difficulty, I have chased her claims back into the literature. I found some made up facts.

In my literature search, I could find only one study from these investigators that seemed directly related to these claims. The mediocre retrospective correlational study was mainly focused on use of psychostimulants, but it included a crude 6-item summary measure  of positive states of mind.

The authors didn’t present the results in a simple way that allows direct independent examination of whether indeed positive affect is related to other outcomes in any simple fashion. They did not allow check of simple correlations needed to determine whether their measure was not simply a measure of depressive symptoms turned on its head. They certainly had the data, but did not report it. Instead, they present some multivariate analyses that do not show impressive links. Any direct links to viral load are not shown and presumably are not there, although the investigators tested statistically for them. Technically speaking, I would write off the findings to measurement and specification error, certainly not worthy of reporting in The New York Times.

Less technically speaking, Brody is leading up to using HIV as an exemplar illness where cultivating positivity can do so much. But if this study is worth anything at all, it is to illustrate that even correlationally, positive affect is not related to much, other than – no surprise – alternative measures of positive affect.

Brody then goes on to describe in detail an intervention study. You’d never know from her description that her source of information is not a report of the results of the intervention study, but a promissory protocol that supposedly describes how the intervention study was going to be done.

I previously blogged about this protocol. At first, I thought it was praiseworthy that a study of a positive psychology intervention for health had even complied with the requirement that studies be preregistered and have a protocol available. Most such studies do not, but they are supposed to do that. In plain English, protocols are supposed to declare ahead of time what researchers are going to do and precisely how they are going to evaluate whether an intervention works. That is because, notoriously, researchers are inclined to say later they were really trying to do something else and to pick another outcome that makes the intervention look best.

But then I got corrected by James Heathers on Facebook. Duh, he had looked at the date the protocol was published.

He pointed out that this protocol was actually published years after collection of data had begun. The researchers already had a lot to peek at. Rather than identifying just a couple of variables on which the investigators were prepared to stake their claim the intervention was affected, the protocol listed 25 variables that would be examined as outcomes (!) in order to pick one or two.

So I updated what I said in my earlier blog. I pointed out that the published protocol was misleading. It was posted after the fact of the researchers being able to see how their study was unfolding and to change their plains accordingly.  The vagueness of the protocol gave the authors lots of wiggle room for selectively reporting and hyping their findings with the confirmation bias. They would later take advantage of this when they actually published the results of their study.

The researchers studied 159 people who had recently learned they had H.I.V. and randomly assigned them to either a five-session positive emotions training course or five sessions of general support. Fifteen months past their H.I.V. diagnosis, those trained in the eight skills maintained higher levels of positive feelings and fewer negative thoughts related to their infection.

Brody is not being accurate here. When the  authors finally got around to publishing the results, they told a very different story if you probe carefully. Even with the investigators doing a lot of spinning, they showed null results, no effects for the intervention. Appearances the contrary were created by the investigators ignoring what they actually reported in their tables. If you go to my earlier blog post, I point this out in detail, so you can see for yourself.

Brody goes on to describe the regimen that was not shown in the published study validation to be effective.

An important goal of the training is to help people feel happy, calm and satisfied in the midst of a health crisis. Improvements in their health and longevity are a bonus. Each participant is encouraged to learn at least three of the eight skills and practice one or more each day. The eight skills are:

■ Recognize a positive event each day.

■ Savor that event and log it in a journal or tell someone about it.

■ Start a daily gratitude journal.

■ List a personal strength and note how you used it.

■ Set an attainable goal and note your progress.

■ Report a relatively minor stress and list ways to reappraise the event positively.

■ Recognize and practice small acts of kindness daily.

■ Practice mindfulness, focusing on the here and now rather than the past or future.

For chrissakes, this is a warmed over version of Émile Coué de la Châtaigneraie’s autosuggestion “Every day in every way, I’m getting better and better. Surely, contemporary positive psychology’s science of health can do better than that. To Coué’s credit, he gave away his advice for free. He did not charge for his coaching, even if he was giving away something for which he had no evidence would improve people’s physical health.

Dr. Moskowitz said she was inspired by observations that people with AIDS, Type 2 diabetes and other chronic illnesses lived longer if they demonstrated positive emotions. She explained, “The next step was to see if teaching people skills that foster positive emotions can have an impact on how well they cope with stress and their physical health down the line.”

She listed as the goals improving patients’ quality of life, enhancing adherence to medication, fostering healthy behaviors, and building personal resources that result in increased social support and broader attention to the good things in life.

Let me explain why I am offended here. None of these activities have been shown to improve the health of persons with newly diagnosed HIV. It’s reasonable to assume that newly diagnosed persons have a lot with which to contend. It’s a bad time to give them advice to clutter their life with activities that will not make a difference in their health.

The published study was able to recruit and retain a sample of persons with newly diagnosed HIV because it paid them well to keep coming. I’ve worked with this population before, in a study aiming at helping them solve specific practical problems that that they said got in the way of their adherence.

Many persons with newly diagnosed HIV are low income and are unemployed or marginally employed. They will enroll in studies to get the participant fees. When I lived in the San Francisco Bay area, I recall one patient telling a recruiter from UCSF that he was too busy and unable to make a regular visit to the medical center for the intervention, but he would be willing to accept being in the study if he was assigned to the control group. It did not involve attending intervention sessions and would give him a little cash.

Based on my clinical and research experience, I don’t believe that such patients would regularly show up for this kind of useless positive psychology treatment without getting paid. Paticularly if they were informed of the actual results of this misrepresented study.

Gregg De Meza, a 56-year-old architect in San Francisco who learned he was infected with H.I.V. four years ago, told me that learning “positivity” skills turned his life around. He said he felt “stupid and careless” about becoming infected and had initially kept his diagnosis a secret.

“When I entered the study, I felt like my entire world was completely unraveling,” he said. “The training reminded me to rely on my social network, and I decided to be honest with my friends. I realized that to show your real strength is to show your weakness. No pun intended, it made me more positive, more compassionate, and I’m now healthier than I’ve ever been.”

I object to this argument by quotes-from-an-unrepresentative-patient. The intervention did not have the intended effect, and it is misleading to find somebody who claim to turn their life around.

Jane Brody proceeds with some more fake facts.

In another study among 49 patients with Type 2 diabetes, an online version of the positive emotions skills training course was effective in enhancing positivity and reducing negative emotions and feelings of stress. Prior studies showed that, for people with diabetes, positive feelings were associated with better control of blood sugar, an increase in physical activity and healthy eating, less use of tobacco and a lower risk of dying.

The study was so small and underpowered, aside from being methodologically flawed, that even if such effects were actually present, most of the time they would be missed because the study did not have enough patients to achieve significance.

In a pilot study of 39 women with advanced breast cancer, Dr. Moskowitz said an online version of the skills training decreased depression among them. The same was true with caregivers of dementia patients.

“None of this is rocket science,” Dr. Moskowitz said. “I’m just putting these skills together and testing them in a scientific fashion.”

It’s not rocket science, it’s misleading hogwash.

In a related study of more than 4,000 people 50 and older published last year in the Journal of Gerontology, Becca Levy and Avni Bavishi at the Yale School of Public Health demonstrated that having a positive view of aging can have a beneficial influence on health outcomes and longevity. Dr. Levy said two possible mechanisms account for the findings. Psychologically, a positive view can enhance belief in one’s abilities, decrease perceived stress and foster healthful behaviors. Physiologically, people with positive views of aging had lower levels of C-reactive protein, a marker of stress-related inflammation associated with heart disease and other illnesses, even after accounting for possible influences like age, health status, sex, race and education than those with a negative outlook. They also lived significantly longer.

This is even deeper into the woo. Give me a break, Jane Brody. Stop misleading people with chronic illness with false claims and fake facts. Adopting these attitudes will not prevent dementia.

Don’t believe me? I previously debunked these patently false claims in detail. You can see my critique here.

Here is what the original investigators claimed about Alzheimer’s:

We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” said Levy. “Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated and positive beliefs about aging can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable.”

I exposed some analysis of voodoo statistics on which this claim is based. I concluded:

The authors develop their case that stress is a significant cause of Alzheimer’s disease with reference to some largely irrelevant studies by others, but depend on a preponderance of studies that they themselves have done with the same dubious small samples and dubious statistical techniques. Whether you do a casual search with Google scholar or a more systematic review of the literature, you won’t find stress processes of the kind the authors invoke among the usual explanations of the development of the disease.

Basically, the authors are arguing that if you hold views of aging like “Old people are absent-minded” or “Old people cannot concentrate well,” you will experience more stress as you age, and this will accelerate development of Alzheimer’s disease. They then go on to argue that because these attitudes are modifiable, you can take control of your risk for Alzheimer’s by adopting a more positive view of aging and aging people

Nonsense, utter nonsense.

Let chronically ill people and those facing cancer adopt any attitude is comfortable or natural for them. It’s a bad time to ask for change, particularly when there isn’t any promised benefit in improved health or prolonged life.

Rather than Jane Brody’s recipe for positive psychology improving your health, I strongly prefer Lilia Downe’s  La Cumbia Del Mole.

It is great on chicken. If it does not extend your life, It will give you some moments of happiness, but you will have to adjust the spices to your personal taste.

I will soon be offering e-books providing skeptical looks at positive psychology, as well as mindfulness. As in this blog post, I will take claims I find in the media and trace them back to the scientific studies on which they are based. I will show you what I see so you can see it too.

 Sign up at my new website to get advance notice of the forthcoming e-books and web courses, as well as upcoming blog posts at this and other blog sites. You can even advance order one or all of the e-books.

 Lots to see at Come see…

Is risk of Alzheimer’s Disease reduced by taking a more positive attitude toward aging?

Unwarranted claims that “modifiable” negative beliefs cause Alzheimer’s disease lead to blaming persons who develop Alzheimer’s disease for not having been more positive.

Lesson: A source’s impressive credentials are no substitute for independent critical appraisal of what sounds like junk science and is.

More lessons on how to protect yourself from dodgy claims in press releases of prestigious universities promoting their research.

If you judge the credibility of health-related information based on the credentials of the source, this article  is a clear winner:

Levy BR, Ferrucci L, Zonderman AB, Slade MD, Troncoso J, Resnick SM. A Culture–Brain Link: Negative Age Stereotypes Predict Alzheimer’s Disease Biomarkers. Psychology and Aging. Dec 7 , 2015, No Pagination Specified.

From INI

As noted in the press release from Yale University, two of the authors are from Yale School of Medicine, another is a neurologist at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, and the remaining three authors are from the US National Institute on Aging (NIA), including NIA’s Scientific Director.

The press release Negative beliefs about aging predict Alzheimer’s disease in Yale-led study declared:

“Newly published research led by the Yale School of Public Health demonstrates that                   individuals who hold negative beliefs about aging are more likely to have brain changes associated with Alzheimer’s disease.

“The study suggests that combatting negative beliefs about aging, such as elderly people are decrepit, could potentially offer a way to reduce the rapidly rising rate of Alzheimer’s disease, a devastating neurodegenerative disorder that causes dementia in more than 5 million Americans.

The press release posited a novel mechanism:

“We believe it is the stress generated by the negative beliefs about aging that individuals sometimes internalize from society that can result in pathological brain changes,” said Levy. “Although the findings are concerning, it is encouraging to realize that these negative beliefs about aging can be mitigated and positive beliefs about aging can be reinforced, so that the adverse impact is not inevitable.”

A Google search reveals over 40 stories about the study in the media. Provocative titles of the media coverage suggest a children’s game of telephone or Chinese whispers in which distortions accumulate with each retelling.

Negative beliefs about aging tied to Alzheimer’s (Waltonian)

Distain for the elderly could increase your risk of Alzheimer’s (FinancialSpots)

Lack of respect for elderly may be fueling Alzheimer’s epidemic (Telegraph)

Negative thoughts speed up onset of Alzheimer’s disease (Tech Times)

Karma bites back: Hating on the elderly may put you at risk of Alzheimer’s (LA Times)

How you feel about your grandfather may affect your brain health later in life (Men’s Health News)

Young people pessimistic about aging more likely to develop Alzheimer’s later on (

Looking forward to old age can save you from Alzheimer’s (Canonplace News)

If you don’t like old people, you are at higher risk of Alzheimer’s, study says (RedOrbit)

If you think elderly people are icky, you’re more likely to get Alzheimer’s (HealthLine)

In defense of the authors of this article as well as journalists, it is likely that editors added the provocative titles without obtaining approval of the authors or even the journalists writing the articles. So, let’s suspend judgment and write off sometimes absurd titles to editors’ need to establish they are offering distinctive coverage, when they are not necessarily doing so. That’s a lesson for the future: if we’re going to criticize media coverage, better focus on the content of the coverage, not the titles.

However, a number of these stories have direct quotes from the study’s first author. Unless the media coverage is misattributing direct quotes to her, she must have been making herself available to the media.

Was the article such an important breakthrough offering new ways in which consumers could take control of their risk of Alzheimer’s by changing beliefs about aging?

No, not at all. In the following analysis, I’ll show that judging the credibility of claims based on the credentials of the sources can be seriously misleading.

What is troubling about this article and its well-organized publicity effort is that information is being disseminated that is misleading and potentially harmful, with the prestige of Yale and NIA attached.

Before we go any further, you can take your own look at a copy of the article in the American Psychological Association journal Psychology and Aging here, the Yale University press release here, and a fascinating post-publication peer review at PubPeer that I initiated as peer 1.

Ask yourself: if you encountered coverage of this article in the media, would you have been skeptical? If so what were the clues?

spoiler aheadcure within The article is yet another example of trusted authorities exploiting entrenched cultural beliefs about the mind-body connection being able to be harnessed in some mysterious way to combat or prevent physical illness. As Ann Harrington details in her wonderful book, The Cure Within, this psychosomatic hypothesis has a long and checkered history, and gets continually reinvented and misapplied.

We see an example of this in claims that attitude can conquer cancer. What’s the harm of such illusions? If people can be led to believe they have such control, they are set up for blame from themselves and from those around them when they fail to fend off and control the outcome of disease by sheer mental power.

The myth of “fighting spirit” overcoming cancer that has survived despite the accumulation of excellent contradictory evidence. Cancer patients are vulnerable to blaming themselves for being blamed by loved ones when they do not “win” the fight against cancer. They are also subject to unfair exhortations to fight harder as their health situation deteriorates.

onion composite
                                                        From the satirical Onion

 What I saw when I skimmed the press release and the article

  • The first alarm went off when I saw that causal claims were being made from a modest sized correlational study. This should set off anyone’s alarms.
  • The press release refers to this as a “first ever” d discussion section of the article refer to this as a “first ever” study. One does not seek nor expect to find robust “first ever” discoveries in such a small data set.
  • The authors do not provide evidence that their key measure of “negative stereotypes” is a valid measure of either stereotyping or likelihood of experiencing stress. They don’t even show it is related to concurrent reports of stress.
  • Like a lot of measures with a negative tone to items, this one is affected by what Paul Meehl calls the crud factor. Whatever is being measured in this study cannot be distinguished from a full range of confounds that not even being assessed in this study.
  • The mechanism by which effects of this self-report measure somehow get manifested in changes in the brain lacks evidence and is highly dubious.
  • There was no presentation of actual data or basic statistics. Instead, there were only multivariate statistics that require at least some access to basic statistics for independent evaluation.
  • The authors resorted to cheap statistical strategies to fool readers with their confirmation bias: reliance on one tailed rather than two-tailed tests of significance; use of a discredited backwards elimination method for choosing control variables; and exploring too many control/covariate variables, given their modest sample size.
  • The analyses that are reported do not accurately depict what is in the data set, nor generalize to other data sets.

The article

The authors develop their case that stress is a significant cause of Alzheimer’s disease with reference to some largely irrelevant studies by others, but depend on a preponderance of studies that they themselves have done with the same dubious small samples and dubious statistical techniques. Whether you do a casual search with Google scholar or a more systematic review of the literature, you won’t find stress processes of the kind the authors invoke among the usual explanations of the development of the disease.

Basically, the authors are arguing that if you hold views of aging like “Old people are absent-minded” or “Old people cannot concentrate well,” you will experience more stress as you age, and this will accelerate development of Alzheimer’s disease. They then go on to argue that because these attitudes are modifiable, you can take control of your risk for Alzheimer’s by adopting a more positive view of aging and aging people

The authors used their measure of negative aging stereotypes in other studies, but do not provide the usual evidence of convergent  and discriminant validity needed to establish the measure assesses what is intended. Basically, we should expect authors to show that a measure that they have developed is related to existing measures (convergent validity) in ways that one would expect, but not related to existing measures (discriminate validity) with which it should have associations.

Psychology has a long history of researchers claiming that their “new” self-report measures containing negatively toned items assess distinct concepts, despite high correlations with other measures of negative emotion as well as lots of confounds. I poked fun at this unproductive tradition in a presentation, Negative emotions and health: why do we keep stalking bears, when we only find scat in the woods?

The article reported two studies. The first tested whether participants holding more negative age stereotypes would have significantly greater loss of hippocampal volume over time. The study involved 52 individuals selected from a larger cohort enrolled in the brain-neuroimaging program of the Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging.

Readers are given none of the basic statistics that would be needed to interpret the complex multivariate analyses. Ideally, we would be given an opportunity to see how the independent variable, negative age stereotypes, is related to other data available on the subjects, and so we could get some sense if we are starting with some basic, meaningful associations.

Instead the authors present the association between negative age stereotyping and hippocampal volume only in the presence of multiple control variables:

Covariates consisted of demographics (i.e., age, sex, and education) and health at time of baseline-age-stereotype assessment, (number of chronic conditions on the basis of medical records; well-being as measured by a subset of the Chicago Attitude Inventory); self-rated health, neuroticism, and cognitive performance, measured by the Benton Visual Retention Test (BVRT; Benton, 1974).

Readers get cannot tell why these variables and not others were chosen. Adding or dropping a few variables could produce radically different results. But there are just too many variables being considered. With only 52 research participants, spurious findings that do not generalize to other samples are highly likely.

I was astonished when the authors announced that they were relying on one-tailed statistical tests. This is widely condemned as unnecessary and misleading.

Basically, every time the authors report a significance level in this article, you need to double the number to get what is obtained with a more conventional two-tailed test. So, if they proudly declare that results are significant p = .046, then the results are actually (non)significant, p= .092. I know, we should not make such a fuss about significance levels, but journals do. We’re being set up to be persuaded the results are significant, when they are not by conventional standards.

So the authors’ accumulating sins against proper statistical techniques and transparent reporting: no presentation of basic associations; reporting one tailed tests; use of multivariate statistics inappropriate for a sample that is so small. Now let’s add another one, in their multivariate regressions, the authors relied on a potentially deceptive backwards elimination:

Backward elimination, which involves starting with all candidate variables, testing the deletion of each variable using a chosen model comparison criterion, deleting the variable (if any) that improves the model the most by being deleted, and repeating this process until no further improvement is possible.

The authors assembled their candidate control/covariate variables and used a procedure that checks them statistically and drop some from consideration, based on whether they fail to add to the significance of the overall equation. This procedure is condemned because the variables that are retained in the equation capitalize on chance. Particular variables that could be theoretically relevant are eliminated simply because they fail to add anything statistically in the context of the other variables being considered. In the context of other variables, these same discarded variables would have been retained.

The final regression equation had fewer control/covariates then when the authors started. Statistical significance will be calculated on the basis of the small number of variables remaining, not the number that were picked over and so results will artificially appear stronger. Again, potentially quite misleading to the unwary reader.

The authors nonetheless concluded:

As predicted, participants holding more-negative age stereotypes, compared to those holding more-positive age stereotypes, had a significantly steeper decline in hippocampal volume

The second study:

examined whether participants holding more negative age stereotypes would have significantly greater accumulation of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles.

The outcome was a composite-plaques-and-tangles score and the predictor was the same negative age stereotypes measure from the first study. These measurements were obtained from 74 research participants upon death and autopsy. The same covariates were used in stepwise regression with backward elimination. Once again, the statistical test was one tailed.

Results were:

As predicted, participants holding more-negative age stereotypes, compared to those holding more-positive age stereotypes, had significantly higher composite-plaques-and-tangles scores, t(1,59) = 1.71 p = .046, d = 0.45, adjusting for age, sex, education, self-rated health, well-being, and number of chronic conditions.

Aha! Now we see why the authors commit themselves to a one tailed test. With a conventional two-tailed test, these results would not be significant. Given a prevailing confirmation bias, aversion to null findings, and obsession with significance levels, this article probably would not have been published without the one tailed test.

The authors’ stirring overall conclusion from the two studies:

By expanding the boundaries of known environmental influences on amyloid plaques, neurofibrillary tangles, and hippocampal volume, our results suggest a new pathway to identifying mechanisms and potential interventions related to Alzheimer’s disease

pubpeerPubPeer discussion of this paper [ ]

Comments accumulated for a couple of days on PubPeer after I posted some concerns about the first study. All of the comments were quite smart, some directly validated points that I been thinking about, but others took the discussion in new directions either statistically or because the commentators knew more about neuroscience.

Using a mechanism available at PubPeer, I sent emails to the first author of the paper, the statistician, and one of the NIA personnel inviting them to make comments also. None have responded so far.

Tom Johnstone, a commentator who exercise the option of identifying himself noted the reliance on inferential statistics in the absence of reporting basic relationships. He also noted that the criterion used to drop covariates was lax. Apparently familiar with neuroscience, he expressed doubts that the results had any clinical significance or relevance to the functioning of the research participants.

Another commentator complained of the small sample size, use of one tailed statistical tests without justification, the “convoluted list of covariates,” and “taboo” strategy for selecting covariates to be retained in the regression equation. This commentator also noted that the authors had examined the effect of outliers, conducting analyses both with and without the inclusion of the most extreme case. While it didn’t affect the overall results, exclusion dramatically change the significance level, highlighting the susceptibility of such a small sample to chance variation or sampling error.

Who gets the blame for misleading claims in this article?

dr-luigi-ferrucciThere’s a lot of blame to go around. By exaggerating the size and significance of any effects, the first author increases the chance of publication and also further funding to pursue what is seen as a “tantalizing” association. But it’s the job of editors and peer reviewers to protect the readership from such exaggerations and maybe to protect the author from herself. They failed, maybe because exaggerated findings are consistent with the journal‘s agenda of increasing citations by publishing newsworthy rather than trustworthy findings. The study statistician, Martin Slade obviously knew that misleading, less than optimal statistics were used, why didn’t he object? Finally, I think the NIA staff, particularly Luigi Ferrucci, the Scientific Director of NIA  should be singled out for the irresponsibility of attaching their names to such misleading claims. Why they do so? Did they not read the manuscript?  I will regularly present instances of NIH staff endorsing dubious claims, such as here. The mind-over-disease, psychosomatic hypothesis, gets a lot of support not warranted by the evidence. Perhaps NIH officials in general see this as a way of attracting research monies from Congress. Regardless, I think NIH officials have the responsibility to see that consumers are not misled by junk science.

This article at least provided the opportunity for an exercise that should raise skepticism and convince consumers at all levels – other researchers, clinicians, policymakers, and those who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and those who care from them – we just cannot sit back and let trusted sources do our thinking for us.