Monday, January 16, 2017

The Brain Named Itself - But that Doesn't Make it a Bad Name

Flame retardants, which are added to a vast majority of furniture in the United States (thanks to California), are neurotoxic.  They alter intracellular calcium signaling and disrupt extracellular neurotransmitter receptors.  This view, which is substantially supported, is widely believed by most academics and those with a vested interest in public health.  At the same time, gifted scientists funded by industry and the American Chemical Society, publish papers poking holes in this research.  For the most part, both sides are producing legitimate science.  How can this be?  How can flame retardants be both neurotoxic and safe to use?  In short, flame retardants show signs of neurotoxicity but, for the most part, at concentrations that are likely way higher than normal human exposure.  

To me, this biased storytelling is built into the framework of modern scientific practice.  The academic must produce a lavish story, far beyond the mundane ‘flame retardants show signs of neurotoxicity’, to be published in top-tier journals and attain/maintain employment.  In order to be considered for the next issue of Neuron, our research must be framed in a much broader context.  We must say something like, “Application of Hexabromocyclododecane (HBCDD) to dopaminergic neurons showed signs of neuronal cell death, decreased neurite length, and overall diminished dopamine vesicular packaging.  Taken together, these data may explain an involvement of HBCDD in the development of Parkinson’s disease.”  Although some of our colleagues at Emory would strongly disagree, this last statement is a stretch.  This stretch, if fallen into the wrong hands, could turn into a newspaper headline.  It’s not the researchers fault, however, since that’s how the system works. 

Additionally, consider the role of the PhD-trained scientists working for the chemical company.  Despite mounds of evidence that flame retardants can be neurotoxic, their position forces them to produce articles poking holes in otherwise sound science.  Given their training, I suspect they would not willingly go near flame retardants, yet their livelihood depends on them turning an eye to produce an alternative view.  

Unfortunately, bias is built into the system.  We operate in a realm where both the academic and the industry scientist can generate opposing data and both be correct.  To be biased is to be human.  I think the biggest mistake we can make is to formulate a scientific opinion before we be consider both sides of the argument.       

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