Concussion small
You read that headline correctly.

Stephanie Seneff first came to skeptical attention when she published a study claiming that vaccines were linked to autism. She trolled through the VAERS database and, as David Gorski noted, “tortured the data until it confessed.” Last year she published a paper in which she claimed glyphosate caused autism, claims which I addressed almost a year ago. Gorski also deconstructed this paper, noting, “In fact, if you look at the slides for Seneff’s talks (e.g., this one, available at her MIT web page), you’ll find a tour de force of confusing correlation with causation…”

Seneff is a computer scientist who apparently is anti-vaccine and anti-GMO. In a stunning example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, she feels she can take her computer expertise and export it to biology. She nicely demonstrates that expertise is not so easily transferable.

From autism to concussions

Last year she also published a paper, which escaped my attention until it was recently pointed out to me, claiming that glyphosate, GMOs, and other modern lifestyle factors are responsible for the recent increase in concussions. Her co-author on the paper is Wendy Morely, who is a “Registered Holistic Nutritionist” specializing in the nutrition of concussion. Neither author has any neuroscience background.

In order to make this claim the authors have to take the reader on a wild ride of speculation, over-interpretation of the literature, tenuous links, cherry picked data, and confusing correlation with causation, all guided by motivated reasoning to arrive at a pre-determined destination.

The authors propose the existence of, “Diminished brain resilience syndrome.” In fact, they propose many entirely new concepts in the paper, all without doing any actual research or presenting any actual data. It is a long and tortured argument, but let’s see if I can briefly summarize.

Essentially they argue that concussions are on the increase because the general population had poor nutrition, disordered gut microbiota, and increased exposure to toxins (specifically glyphosate and GMOs) which render the brain less resilient to injury and less able to repair itself after injury.

They tie their new syndrome to various metabolic factors, including decreased availability of sulphur, magnesium deficiency, decreased function of the pineal gland, and altered omega 3:6 fatty acid ratio. It would take a novel to deconstruct every aspect of their elaborate web of speculation. Suffice it to say that hundreds of studies would be required to verify the many steps in their chain of argument.

Their theory is based partly on the idea that sulphate is required to help the cerebrospinal fluid organize into a gell-like substance that cushions the brain from impact. They write:

Thus, while encephalopathy is associated with a high risk of collateral damage to neurons through excitotoxicity, it serves an essential role in boosting sulfate levels in the extracellular matrix, which is required in order to replace damaged neurons with newly differentiated progenitor cells, regain the ability to metabolize glucose as a fuel, promote the breakdown and recycling of cellular debris, and, more generally, to support the maintenance of structured (gelled) water that will protect neurons from damage due to mechanical stress.

Poor referencing

They do have many references, but none of them establish their central thesis. I followed many of the links to see what they show, and they often do not establish the fact they are referencing. Here are a couple examples – they write:

The level of demand and utilization of magnesium has significant implications for athletes, as it is estimated that 90% of athletes are deficient in magnesium compared with the general American population at 68%.

Those numbers struck me as very high, so I followed the citation, and I could find nowhere in the referenced paper a mention of those percentages. I looked for the incidence of magnesium deficiency and found that the rate is not even close to the numbers cited. For example, in one reference it was found that that an in-patient population (i.e. a sick population) had a prevalence of magnesium deficiency of 10%.

If you are a “holistic nutritionist” then of course it’s good for business for everyone to have a nutritional deficiency.

Glyphosate and gut bacteria

Another linchpin of the author’s claims is that glyphosate has a negative effect on the beneficial bacteria in our guts. They link to one paper, which is an in vitro study of chicken microbiota. So it is not a study in living organisms, and not in people. I searched the database for glyphosate and microbiota and came up with – that one study. That’s why they referenced it, it’s the only study.

We can keep going through the dozens and dozens of claims that they make. Each one is wild speculation, proposing entirely new mechanisms or biological phenomena, or taking preliminary evidence as if it is a solid conclusion.

Conclusion: A proposal is not proof

Sometimes scientists will publish a paper, which is essentially a commentary, in which they propose a new phenomenon. This is a perfectly legitimate part of science. Such papers should be taken as nothing more than that – a proposal. It is a suggestion for possible future areas of research.

Generally, however, you don’t propose more than one entirely new phenomenon in a single paper. Each new proposal is statistically unlikely to be true, and if you present two new proposals you end up with unlikely squared.

Morely and Seneff make dozens of new claims and proposals in one paper. They are trying to get to a specific destination by leaping from one slippery rock to the other. They slip and fall on the very first stone, however, as they begin by claiming that:

While the number of reported sports-related concussions (SRCs) has been steadily rising over the past decade, prompting increased media and medical attention, the number of children participating in the top five organized team sports (OTS), over the same time period, has actually been declining. This surprising juxtaposition is not limited to the world of sports.

This is not a surprising juxtaposition. As they themselves point out (although it seems only to dismiss) – there is increased recognition that concussion, especially in sports and especially multiple mild concussions, is a serious neurological issue. Increased awareness and a markedly reduced threshold is most likely driving the increased presentation of concussion to medical attention.

There is absolutely no data to suggest that the population is more susceptible to neurological injury – there is no evidence for the alleged “diminished brain resilience syndrome.”

At present this proposal is nothing but speculation and utter nonsense apparently designed to drive business to holistic nutritionists and scaremonger about glyphosate and GMOs.

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.