The news media loves their human interest stories, which often take the form of some likable person suffering from a medical condition who benefits from an experimental or fringe treatment. Throw in a celebrity angle, and you have pop media gold. This narrative fits perfectly with quack treatments, and allows charlatans easy access to free media exposure.
This story from the Mail Online (hardly a respected outlet) is a great example. Former rugby star, Alix Popham, is apparently suffering from early onset dementia, thought linked to his sports career through thousands of sub-concussions. Research has shown a potential link between sports that involve minor head trauma and early onset neurodegenerative diseases. In this Lancet study, the risk of dementia was increased in professional soccer players who frequently head the ball, but not for goalies who rarely head the ball. This likely relates to what is now called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE).
The Mail reports:
The 44-year-old is the first former professional sportsman to undergo this treatment in South America being conducted by pioneering American biotech firm Neurocytonix for incurable neurological disorders.
This, of course, raises immediate red flags for me. Any new treatment for incurable neurodegenerative diseases would be massive news, and perhaps the biggest medical news over my entire neurological career. A new treatment coming out of the blue without a long history of academic research and published papers, from basic science through animal research and finally human research, is also suspect. Further, an American company conducting treatments in Mexico raises eyebrows – raising the possibility they are evading US regulations. In fairness, the founder and CEO of Neurocytonix, Dr. J Roberto Trujillo, is Mexican American, which may be the explanation, but still Mexico would be the friendlier venue.
Popham’s story, as told, is also not very compelling. He speaks of having headaches associated with light-sensitivity – that sounds like migraine. A temporary improvement in migraines could be random or due to lots of factors, and could be misinterpreted by Popham as his underlying dementia improving (especially if that is what he is being told to expect). Further, Popham says he felt improvement after three days. That is implausibly fast for a treatment that is supposed to cause neuronal regeneration. An implausibly fast response to treatment is a classic sign of placebo effects.
The treatment is based on a machine, the cytotron, developed by Dr. Rajah V Kumar. It uses magnetic fields and radiofrequency treatments. Kumar has been using the machine to treat cancer and osteoarthritis. He bills it as “tissue engineering”. Strange that the same device will kill cells to treat cancer, and also cause neuronal regeneration. Looks like another case of a treatment in search of an indication. Trujillo picked up the device and rebranded it as a Neurocytotron.
Neurocytonix claims they completed a clinical trial involving cerebral palsy in January 2023. They do have a registered clinical trial, but no official results. They say they are preparing papers for publication, but PubMed has nothing so far. Taking a year to publish results is not unusual in itself, but the more time goes by without a publication the more suspicious it becomes. There is a history of trials for dubious treatment somehow never being published. The trials themselves are simply used to give the patina of legitimacy. Neurocytonix reports that “The results of this clinical trial provide support for additional studies.” I would think that if the results were clearly positive, they would say so. The conclusion that the results “support further research” is well known here at SBM as a euphemism for “negative”.
If you look for images related to Neurocytonix you see lots of images like this one. This is clearly false color, meant to show the growth of new neuronal pathways. But of course, we have no idea if this is legitimate. These kinds of images are easy to manipulate, or just select the images that tell the story you want to tell. Without proper blinding and controls, we can’t really draw any conclusions. But they do make for good marketing.
The Mail concedes, “the science still needs to be proven through clinical trial”, just as an aside, as if it is just a bookkeeping thing, like dotting the “i’s”. Of course, the science is where most new treatments fail.
The claims being made for the Neurocytotron are highly implausible. Neural regeneration in the central nervous system is perhaps one of the most challenging research problems in neurology. In many ways it is the holy grail for neurological research.
It is highly unlikely that a repurposed cancer-treating machine from India has suddenly solved this vexing problem, through something as simple as magnetic and radio frequency waves. This is beyond an extraordinary claim. What we have so far is just hype – no scientific evidence, let alone extraordinary evidence. Unfortunately, in my opinion, this has all the red flags of a dubious and exploitative fringe treatment.
Spreading hype about this treatment online and in news media, before a single paper is published, is also highly irresponsible. Something like this should not rise to the level of popular reporting until it has passed some basic thresholds of science. If it were legitimate, there are standard procedures for evaluation. First we should see some basic science showing why these frequencies should cause the central nervous system to do something it does not ordinarily do. Then let’s see some proof of concept with plated neurons, and then in animals studies. There is no mention of any such research on their website and nothing I can find on PubMed. Finally we then need human clinical trials showing safety and efficacy. Again – we have nothing.
I will keep an eye on that one registered trial, to see if they ever publish the results and what it shows. In the meantime, I remain highly skeptical of these claims.