A scientific investigation has claimed that the data behind the most influential theory about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease may have been “manipulated”.
Experts fear that the alleged fake results have misled research over the past 16 years, potentially squandering billions of pounds of funding.
A six-month investigation by Science, considered one of the world’s most respected research journals, revealed the “shockingly blatant” manipulation of results in a 2006 University of Minnesota study.
The research paper pointed to a specific protein – known as amyloid beta – as the driving force behind Alzheimer’s disease. It was the first substance in brain tissue ever identified that appears to be behind the condition’s effects on memory theft.
The study was published in the journal Nature competition, and it became one of the most cited articles on Alzheimer’s disease ever published.
The US government has spent about 1.3 billion pounds ($1.6 billion) in funding for studies that mention amyloid over the past year alone. It made up half of all Alzheimer’s research funding in the country.
But images from the study, which involved injecting mice with the protein, appear to have been manipulated to ‘better fit a hypothesis’, according to Dr. Elizabeth Beck, a forensic image consultant who was asked to review the data.
Charities today criticized the “extremely serious” allegations.
But they insisted that the same theory remains because decades of research have identified other amyloid proteins as the cause. Even if the original results were falsified, a leading expert claimed “we certainly wouldn’t need to flush the baby out with the bathwater.”
The most influential theory about the causes of Alzheimer’s disease that has prompted hundreds of experiments may have been based on “manipulated” data.
What is Alzheimer’s?
Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive degenerative disease of the brain in which the accumulation of abnormal proteins leads to the death of neurons.
This disrupts the transmitters that carry messages, and causes the brain to shrink.
More than 5 million people suffer from the disease in the United States, where it is the sixth leading cause of death, and more than a million Britons have it.
What is happening?
When brain cells die, they lose the functions they provide.
This includes memory, direction, the ability to think and reason.
The progression of the disease is slow and gradual.
On average, patients live five to seven years after diagnosis, but some may live ten to 15 years.
- short-term memory loss
- behavioral changes
- Mood Swings
- Difficulties handling money or making a phone call
- Severe memory loss, forgetting close family members, familiar things or places
- Feeling anxious and frustrated due to the inability to understand the world, which leads to aggressive behavior
- Eventually you lose the ability to walk
- He may have problems eating
- The majority will eventually need 24-hour care
Source: Alzheimer’s Association
Dr. Matthew Schrag, a neuroscientist at Vanderbilty University in Tennessee, was the first to discover the problems of studying nature.
He noticed anomalies in the original images, which were published by Dr. Sylvain Lesne and his team, during another investigation of an experimental drug for Alzheimer’s disease.
Dr. Schrag told the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) that they have “the potential to mislead an entire field of research”.
Science, an AAAS-American Association for the Advancement of Science publication, conducted its own investigation of the research, and found “strong support for Dr. Schrag’s skepticism.”
Ms. Beck told the magazine: “The experimental results obtained may not be the desired results.
“This data may have been changed to…better fit a hypothesis.”
German psychiatrist Alois Alzheimer’s first identified plaques in the brain of dementia patients in 1906.
Then a study conducted in the 1980s suggested that beta-amyloid protein was behind its buildup.
But hundreds of trials over the next 20 years, designed to finally find a treatment that would target the toxic buildup of proteins in the brain, failed.
The theory lost steam until the famous University of Minnesota paper in 2006, which has become the basis for hundreds of studies since then.
Reviewing the images used to demonstrate the effect of amyloid beta on the mice in the study, Harvard neurologist Dr. Dennis Silko claimed, “There are certainly at least 12 or 15 images where I agree that there is no other explanation” than manipulation.
‘These claims are very serious,’ said Dr Sarah Emarisio, Head of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK.
Although we have not seen all of the published results that have been called into question, any allegation of scientific misconduct needs to be investigated and dealt with as appropriate.
“Researchers need to be able to trust their peers’ findings, so they can continue to make progress for people with conditions such as dementia.”
She described the amyloid protein as “the focus of the most influential theory on how Alzheimer’s disease develops in the brain.”
Dr Emarisio said: “But the research that has been called into question focuses on a very specific type of amyloid.
“These claims do not jeopardize the vast majority of knowledge accumulated during decades of research about this protein’s role in disease.”
Nature is investigating the concerns and will provide an editorial response at a later time.
“In the meantime, readers are advised to exercise caution when using the results presented therein,” she said.
The paper’s authors claim they “still believe” that beta-amyloid plaques play a major role in Alzheimer’s disease and defend their original findings.
A spokesperson for the University of Minnesota said: “The university will follow its procedures to review the questions raised by any allegations.
“At this time, we have no more information to provide.”
Dr Richard Oakley, associate director of research at the Alzheimer’s Society, told The Times: ‘There are many types of amyloid that we know contribute to the death of brain cells in dementia.
“If what has been suggested here is true, we certainly wouldn’t need to flush the baby out with the bathwater.”