TCS Daily

Herbal Maladies

By Iain Murray - October 14, 2002 12:00 AM

NBC's coverage of a recent study on the effectiveness of the popular herbal remedy gingko biloba proved in need of a pick-me-up. Reporter Robert Hager began by summarizing the latest research into "the nation's most widely used herbal remedy" by Paul Solomon, Professor of Psychology at Williams College in Massachusetts. After administering learning and memory tests to two groups of people, Professor Solomon found that he was unable to detect any difference between the groups taking gingko and placebos, a finding that contradicts manufacturers' claims that gingko can improve concentration and focus in healthy adults.

Naturally, the obligation to hear the other side of the story elicited criticism of Solomon's research from gingko manufacturers. But in a glaring example of the way the superficial nature of television reporting leaves scientific controversies hanging in the air, NBC did not challenge the manufacturers' claims that other studies contradicted Solomon's findings and went on to mention yet more trials that seemed to find cognitive benefits from gingko use. In so doing, they failed to delve into one of the key aspects of Solomon's research - his comprehensive indictment of those studies for flawed methodology.

Solomon's team had deliberately reviewed the previous studies and found them to be much less well-designed than their own. They were generally much smaller, and only found cognitive improvement in a single test of many administered after taking gingko. There is indeed some suggestion from the previous research that gingko can improve mental functioning in patients who are already suffering from Alzheimer's disease or other forms of dementia, as NBC pointed out, but that is a far cry from what the manufacturers claim. As the researchers say, "despite the manufacturer's claims of improved memory in healthy adults, we were unable to identify any well-controlled studies that document this claim." Solomon's methodologically sound review effectively called into question the scientific power of all previous research on the subject.

In fact, NBC could have learned a thing or two from ABC's brief but focused coverage. On World News This Morning (Aug. 21), Derek McGinty summed up the story perfectly when he said "Another extremely popular remedy is being called into question. A new study suggests gingko supplements do nothing to quickly boost memory, despite years of well publicized claims. The authors say previous studies were flawed and too short to measure gingko's true effects."

Despite the TV coverage, the major newspapers ignored this story. The main exception, the Wall Street Journal, also deserves credit for its comprehensive coverage, "More research is questioning safety, effectiveness of herbs" (Aug. 29). As the new research follows the news that the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine had found, after a three year trial, that the popular herbal "anti-depressant" St. John's Wort was "no more effective for treating major depression of moderate severity than [a] placebo," the Journal looked into the issue of herbal remedies in depth. However, once again, manufacturers' claims were treated with too much credence. The Journal article ended by quoting an industry representative on the gingko study, who said "The thing that bothers me is that the authors act like it's the only trial that's been done." As we have seen, that argument is as much an old wives tale as the claims made for the herbs themselves.

Scientists have argued for years that alternative medicine is a scam. Proving this has, however, been expensive. While individuals are free to waste their money on whatever traditional, alternative or faith-based cures they wish, it has been the taxpayer who has been forced to pay for much of the research that proves what scientists have known all along. The Office of Alternative Medicine's appropriations grew from $2 million in 1992 to $19.5 million in 1998, when Congress decided to replace it with the more extensive National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. That organization, a branch of the National Institutes of Health, has been expanding apace. Its first year budget of $50 million has swelled to $113.2 million in the President's budget for 2003. By the end of next year, almost half a billion dollars will have been spent on the scientific analysis of witches' brews. That's something for the broadcast news to investigate.



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