I’m not a big fan of reporting on animal studies, because the results are often not replicated with humans. Animal studies are like the small surveys conducted in undergraduate psychology classes — you can find interesting results that may mean nothing except to the subjects you studied (e.g., well-educated young adults, most of whom are still teens).
In the case of mice, well, we can say the results generalize to mice. (If we wanted to be even more specific, one could argue that lab mice bred for laboratory experiments are different than mice bred and raised in the wild, but let’s leave that leaf unturned.) But in a 24/7 news cycle, even mice studies can get mainstream media pickup.
Case in point, this article in the UK’s The Guardian. It starts off well enough, making the reader believe this is a nice robust piece of interesting research:
The health benefits of a regular run have long been known, but scientists have never understood the curious ability of exercise to boost brain power.
Now researchers think they have the answer. Neuroscientists at Cambridge University have shown that running stimulates the brain to grow fresh grey matter and it has a big impact on mental ability.
A few days of running led to the growth of hundreds of thousands of new brain cells that improved the ability to recall memories without confusing them, a skill that is crucial for learning and other cognitive tasks, researchers said.
The new brain cells appeared in a region that is linked to the formation and recollection of memories. The work reveals why jogging and other aerobic exercise can improve memory and learning, and potentially slow down the deterioration of mental ability that happens with old age.
Four paragraphs into the article and no mention of the fact that all of this research is the result of scientists studying some lab mice. Amazing.
Now, if the reporter had ended virtually every sentence above with, “in mice,” then it would’ve been fine. But no, that would make people legitimately wonder whether the research really pertained to them as human beings.
I have no problems with mainstream media reporting on animal studies such as this one. But please don’t bury the fact that the findings are from a single animal study down in paragraph 9.
We have long known that regular exercise and eating a healthy, low-fat diet helps your brain health. This is not new news. But it’s not really sexy to hear the same boring message over and over again. So some folks are constantly looking ways to repackage this boring information. “It’s not just exercise, but jogging, that increases your brain health!”
Hence the reason mice studies such as this one are elevated into the mainstream media. And the reason why the “science correspondent” tried to hide the fact that it was just a mice study.
Read the full article: Start running and watch your brain grow, say scientists
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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Jan 2010
Published on PsychCentral.com. All rights reserved.
Grohol, J. (2010). Running Mice Suggests Brain Fitness?. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 10, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2010/01/21/running-mice-suggests-brain-fitness/