Friday, April 05, 2013

Correlation Is Not Causation: The Surprises Science Brings Us

On my way home from work today, I heard this story on NPR's "Science Friday" program.
Reporting in Science Translational Medicine, researchers write that amyloid-forming proteins, traditionally thought of as enemies to the nervous system, may actually be protective 'guardians' instead. Study author Lawrence Steinman, a neurologist at Stanford University, explains how amyloid injections helped paralyzed mice with a multiple-sclerosis-like disease walk again.
 Listening to Dr. Steinman explain the experiment, what struck me most was his repeated insistence that the experimental results were the opposite of those hypothesized.  Amyloids are present in a variety of neuro-degenerative diseases, including Alzheimer's Disease, Parkinson's Disease, and Multiple Sclerosis.  For a couple decades now, it's been thought they are, if not the cause, certainly a destructive element in the course of these diseases.  Dr. Steinman also noted that recent trials of amyloid-inhibiting drugs on humans had either no effect or, in a few cases, actually sped up the course of degeneration.  Taken together with these findings, I think it is at least possible that a natural response to limit destruction of nervous system tissue has been misinterpreted due to its ubiquity in those effected by these diseases.

While Dr. Steinman was clear enough there were still many questions that need to be asked and answered, as well as caution in interpolating these findings and considering a radical treatment for human multiple sclerosis, at the very least the experiment demonstrates the marvelous way science corrects itself.  It also is a cautionary tale in that marvelous bugaboo that haunts statistical sciences - the appearance of two things together does not define causation.  It only notes what it notes, viz., that two things occur together.  The mechanisms that bring them together may be a variety of things.

Here's hoping there's more research on the effect amyloids have on the nervous system.

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