Some alternative medicines are essentially magic – like homeopathy, acupuncture, reiki, and straight chiropractic. They purport to work through non-existent “life force” or essence. Sometimes they try to blur the lines by adding a layer of scientific jargon, but in the final analysis they are magic. Other so-called alternative products or treatments are just bad medicine. They have not been properly studied, their plausibility is low, or they have actually been shown not to work. Still others are overtly spiritual, like mind-body new age nonsense (but at least it’s honest).

Some treatments, however, are pure pseudoscience. They purport to work through sophisticated mechanisms understood through cutting-edge modern science. They often exploit hype about the potential of emerging technology, and so are planting their scams in fertile soil. Emerging technology pseudoscience has been a thing for a couple of centuries. It goes back at least to the discovery of electromagnetism and its importance to biological systems. Anton Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” is an example. Magnetic devices were all the rage in the 19th century. There were literally hundreds of magnetic or electrical quack devices in the Victorian age, prompting some mainstream debunking.

At the turn of the 20th century, soon after the discovery of radioactivity, radiation cures were popular. It took the FDA to finally shut down radioactive health products in the mid-20th century. By then radiowave treatments were popular. At the turn of the 21st century we now have stem cell quackery. Stem cells are a legitimate emerging technology, but there is a huge gap between the potential promise and the current reality. This gap is filled by an increasing number of stem cell quack clinics that promise to cure a variety of severe diseases by injecting a mysterious stem cell cocktail somewhere.

I also dare you to find a supplement that does not contain antioxidants (I know they exist, but you get my point).

None of these promising technology-based scam therapies go away entirely (except for radioactive treatments, for obvious reasons). They just get added to the growing list. Magnetic, electrical, and radiowave-based treatments are still popular.

Neuropseudoscience

The last two decades have seen an explosion in our ability to study and our knowledge of brain function. Neuroscience itself is as old as phrenology, but with new knowledge and techniques comes a new batch of pseudoscientific claims. I was recently pointed (by David Gorski) to one particular company that nicely represents this phenomenon. iSynchrony claims to treat neurological disorders by adjusting your brain waves. They claim:

Using a well-established technology, the electroencephalogram (EEG), we analyze our patients’ brain wave activity to identify the areas that are “out of sync.” With this data, we create a customized plan to treat psychiatric and neurological disorders utilizing individualized Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (iTMS).

They do a good job, in my opinion, of skimming technological jargon off the top of actual scientific studies, without representing the actual science. The result sounds impressive to a non-expert, while simultaneously sounding like gibberish to a neuroscientist. They further “explain:”

In a person whose brain activity has had its frequency disrupted by a physical or emotional trauma, the brain’s waves may appear imbalanced. iTMS directs short magnetic pulses to the area of the brain in need of stimulation to help synchronize the alpha waves and restore balanced brain wave activity.

The core notion on which they are basing their claims is that brainwaves are normally synchronized or “balanced,” but this balance is disrupted by trauma (emotional or physical), and their treatment restores this balance. All of this is either misleading or untrue. In their promotional material they claim that: “Children with autism have disrupted neural synchronization compared with controls.” They then link to this study for support. This is a great example of distorting the findings of a study to support dubious claims that sound scientific.

The study does purport to show that children with autism have abnormal neural synchronization, but you have to dig deeper to find out what they are actually talking about. We already know that some children with autism have diminished connections among their brain cells. In other words, the brain does not talk to itself as robustly as in neurotypical children.

In healthy brains neurons have a normal resting firing rate at a certain frequency. One core concept in neuroscience is that cells that wire together fire together. So it is also true that clumps of neurons will fire together, they will synchronize their baseline pattern of firing. Further still larger networks of neurons can do the same. Coupled with this is the further basic notion that there is tonic inhibition of neuronal firing at baseline, meaning that at rest the brakes are on so that neurons don’t fire out of control. Neuronal synchronization results from the interconnectedness of brain networks, but also from alternating waves of different amounts of inhibition of those networks.

The result of all this is that, at rest with the eyes closed, an electroencephalogram (EEG) will record what is called the alpha rhythm, an 8-12 Hz smooth sinusoidal wave synchronized throughout the brain (but dominant in the back of the brain). Children with autism have decreased interconnectedness, therefore they have decreased synchronization. No surprise there.

Here is where iSynchrony makes a massive and implausible leap:

Patient-specific treatment with iTMS tailored to each patient’s unique alpha-EEG signal – serves as an effective therapy for autism by normalizing the alpha brain wave oscillation.

There is essentially zero plausibility to this claim. To further explain why we need some additional background on TMS. This technology uses magnetic waves to either increase or decrease the firing rate of a network of neurons. This is a very useful technology for research because it can be tuned to a specific frequency and targeted to a specific brain region. We can say – let’s see what happens when we turn down this part of the brain?

TMS is also an emerging potential therapeutic tool. It may be possible, for example, to stop a seizure or migraine from progressing by using TMS to inhibit neuronal firing. There is absolutely no reason, however, to suspect that TMS alters brain wiring.

In autism the altered EEG pattern is simply a manifestation of the underlying pattern of connections among neurons, which is decreased. Using TMS to change the EEG may have an effect while the TMS is being applied, but its effect is temporary at best and may just be cosmetic when applied to a condition like autism. TMS does not change the underlying condition of decreased brain interconnectedness, and therefore has no plausibility as a treatment for autism. There is no more reason to think it will cure autism than to think that covering over a measles rash with makeup will cure measles.

But the iSynchrony promotional material links to studies about autism, about the EEG, about TMS in order to make it seem like their treatment is scientific. When they make their ultimate claim about treating autism quoted above, however, there is no link. That is because there is no published study showing that it is effective.

They do, however, make this claim:

At the 2014 Autism One conference, the results of a 12-week randomized controlled trial of 24 autistic children, done by Dr. Jeff Bradstreet under the auspices of the Brain Treatment Center, were released showing that an individualized Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (iTMS) protocol could dramatically improve autism with slightly less than half the children achieving a neuro-typical rating by Child Autism Rating Scale, and another quarter achieving a 30% improvement in their scores. These results open a new frontier for reversing autistic symptoms.

For regular readers of SBM or anyone familiar with the anti-vaccine movement, alarm bells should be ringing. First, Autism One is not a science conference. David Gorski has characterized it as an “anti-vaccine quackfest”. So the results of this study have not been published, peer-reviewed, or even presented at a scientific conference, just a non-scientific conference essentially known for promoting dubious quack treatments for autism.

Even worse, Dr. Jeff Bradstreet is a known promoter of pseudoscientific autism treatments. In 2015 Bradstreet was found dead from an apparent suicide. The regulatory noose was closing in around him – his clinics were being raided and it seemed that his time was up. According to The Washington Post:

Despite scientific consensus to the contrary, Bradstreet believed vaccines could cause autism. And he recommended unorthodox and often unapproved autism treatments including hyperbaric oxygen chambers; hormone injections; stem cell therapy and chelation, a risky chemical procedure Bradstreet believed could remove the mercury supposedly introduced by vaccines.

iSynchrony has essentially tied their scientific validity to a disgraced autism quack who presented one small and likely worthless study at a pseudoscientific conference. I think that puts things into perspective.

Unfortunately iSynchrony is not unique in exploiting “brain wave pseudoscience.” It does sound superficially compelling (if you are not a neuroscientist), the notion of altering the brain waves to alter brain function. The problem is that such claims have the arrow of causation backwards. Brain function determines brain waves, not the other way around. Changing how the brainwaves look on EEG is just cosmetic. At best it might reflect an immediate effect. For example, drugs that affect brain function can certainly change the brain waves – but that is because they are changing brain function. TMS can affect brain function while it is being applied, but it does not rewire the brain or cure anything.

Further still, the notion of “balancing” the brain waves is too simplistic. It does not reflect any real understanding of brain function.

Extending the claims further to psychiatric illness, or just optimizing brain function for the worried well with lots of disposable income, is even more tenuous. I have looked at a lot of EEGs. In a healthy brain they should be symmetrical left to right. We specifically look for asymmetry as a sign of pathology. Emotional trauma, anxiety, depression, and similar conditions should not cause any such changes. A stroke or a tumor would.

Further, EEG is a very noisy medium. It takes a lot of training to see the patterns through all the noise, and to filter out the normal variants and all the things that can affect the EEG (like blinking or facial muscle movement). Noisy systems are ideal for quacks, however, because they provide ample opportunity to make up fake patterns from the noise. If you want to see “individualized imbalance” in an EEG, you can. You can also program an algorithm to mine the EEG noise for similar imbalances.

In the end what we have is just a 21st century version of a phrenology machine.

In short, be very skeptical of any device or treatment that promises to balance your brain waves. Such claims are pseudoscientific nonsense.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the president and co-founder of the New England Skeptical Society, the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also contributes every Sunday to The Rogues Gallery, the official blog of the SGU.