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Reporting evidence in an accurate way – the effects of COVID-19 on the brain

Written by Marco Bonfanti, PhD researcher at University of Strathclyde and Dr Margaret Rose Cunningham, Senior Lecturer at University of Strathclyde

Over the past two years the world has witnessed the historical event of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. We have got to know the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV 2), first reported in December 2019. The major symptoms are fever, cough, headache, fatigue breathing difficulties, loss of smell and taste, although a third of people infected do not develop any symptoms. The virus spreads when people breath in contaminated air, as the virus is found in small droplets aerosols. After being inhaled, SARS-CoV 2 infects the body through the respiratory tract. The transmission is mostly dependent on a viral spike protein, which interacts with a receptor found in lung cells.

The virus not only affects the respiratory system, but over time more research has highlighted side effects in other areas of the body, such as the cardiovascular system, the gastrointestinal tract, and the nervous system. The action of the virus in the latter context is clear when looking at symptoms. Loss of taste and smell are very common and often arise before the respiratory problems. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, extensive research investigated how the virus can damage the brain. There are two main theories, one where the effect occurs directly from the infection, and another where the virus stimulates the immune system to cause inflammation in the brain. Inflammation is the body response to harmful stimuli, which results in heat, pain, redness, swelling and loss of function.

The UK Biobank is a biomedical database, containing health information from half a million UK participants. In a recent study, Dr Douaud and colleagues at the University of Oxford, used the data to compare brain scans of patients before and after contracting COVID-19. This study was the largest investigation on the effects of COVID on the human brain to date, as it included 785 patients (401 infected – 384 controls). A limitation of this study was however the restricted age range of the participants pool, which was between 51 and 81 years old. Moreover, using a UK database led to the ethnicity of the participants being almost entirely white people. The paper reports that even in mild cases of covid, infected patients took a longer time to complete numeric and alphanumeric cognitive tasks. When looking at what regions of the brain were impacted by the infection, brain scans revealed a modest loss of grey matter thickness in regions mainly associated with smell. 

This study was commented on in an article in The Guardian by the scientist Eric Topol, an expert that stood for evidence-based solutions to treat COVID-19. During the past years we have witnessed how easy it is to report COVID-19 studies in a sensationalistic way, often causing fear in the reader. In this case, the opinion piece reported the key findings in a fair and accurate manner in line with the evidence available from the published study. It was emphasised that this was the largest COVID brain imaging study to date, and how COVID-19 infection might cause grey matter loss and cognitive decline. The limitations of the study were also highlighted. A major one was that brain scans were taken before the outbreak of the widespread omicron variant, which may affect the brain differently than the initial viruses.

Should we then be worried about our brain function if we are infected by COVID-19? The answer is not really. Despite being the largest study to date, 400 patients are still not a representative sample of the global scale of COVID-19, especially considering a cohort of patients of the same ethnicity. Moreover, loss of grey matter and cognitive decline are a physiological event that happen anyway as we age. The greatest risk is therefore in the old population, who may have their smelling impaired after being infected with the virus.

Social media negatively impacts teenagers but perhaps only at certain ages 

Written by Ailbhe McKinney, PhD Researcher at the University of Edinburgh and Dr Sinead Rhodes, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Edinburgh.

The association between mental health and social media is complex. It is not as simple as social media does or does not cause poor emotional well-being. There is also emerging research that the relationship goes both ways; that when a person is feeling low, they go on social media more, perhaps to make themselves feel better suggesting it is a coping mechanism for some people. As Ed Sheeran recently said in an interview, “whenever I see a selfie, I want to reach out to that person”. 

A team from the University of Cambridge, University of Oxford, University College London, and Radboud University Medical Center, recently tried to disentangle the complicated relationship between life satisfaction and social media use by examining the different effects it can have on girls and boys and at different ages. 

Key concepts box: Cross-sectional data: data collected at one time. Example: Comparing mental health scores of people of different ages like comparing the mental health of children with teenagers. Longitudinal data: data collected at two or more time points. Example: Comparing mental health scores of the same people at different times. Comparing data collected two years apart from the same people. 

In their study published in Nature Communications, Dr Amy Orben and colleagues looked at cross-sectional data (see key concepts box) with a sample size of 72,287 people aged 10-80 years. They found that the association between social media use (how many hours someone reports they spend on social media a day) and their life satisfaction (measured by a questionnaire) changes with age. Their findings show the strongest negative relationship during adolescence meaning as social media use goes up, life satisfaction goes down. However, with cross-sectional data, you cannot say which came first, just that they are linked as we have described in a ‘how to research the headlines’ post. The same thing affecting someone in a different way at a different age is called a sensitivity period

The research team then looked more closely at this sensitivity period with longitudinal data (key concepts box) with 17,409 participants aged 10-21 years. They found a gender difference during adolescence. For girls aged 11-13, an increase in social media use predicted a drop in life satisfaction one year later. The same result was found for boys but a little later at 14-15 years of age. This finding suggests that social media affects girls more at this sensitive period of 11-13 years and affects boys more at 14-15 years. This could be because these are the ages girls and boys go through puberty. Social media use did not predict life dissatisfaction at other ages. 

How did the media report the study? 

This study received a lot of media attention (ForbesThe GuardianThe New York Times, and the BBC ) probably given people’s interest in social media’s impact on young people. 

The methodology was reported well in both The Guardian and the BBC in that they explain one of the main limitations is that the study did not measure what social media young people are using (Instagram vs twitter vs WhatsApp vs TikTok) and what they are doing on them (posting photos, waiting for likes, watching videos of cats, talking to friends). This will be important for the next steps in research on social media and mental health. 

It is good to see the Guardian and the BBC mentioned social media companies’ role in this research in providing accurate data. This point could have been explained a little more by noting that the social media use was measured using self-report assessment i.e. asking how long a person spends on social media opposed to objectively measuring it. 

It would have been good to see the strength of the evidence discussed more across news outlets. The study was strong in the sense that the sample size was large, collected longitudinal data at seven time points and used statistical analysis which checked the direction of the relationship (i.e. which came first). While the study cannot prove that the nature of the relationship between social media and life satisfaction, it provides high-quality evidence. 

How can this study be applied to everyday life?

The study’s findings are based on averages. We cannot say for certain a teenage girl using Instagram at 11 years will become less happy and when she turns 14 years old, she can use social media as she pleases with no repercussions. The study shows what’s known as an effect at the population level meaning not everyone will follow this trend. Social media can be a positive thing in a teenager’s life, especially in a pandemic. Parents should ask their children how it makes them feel and, perhaps pay a little more attention to their child’s use at age 11-13 for girls and 14-15 for boys. 

What can ancient DNA tell us about migrations into ancient Britain?

This blog was written by Dr Manuel Fernández-Götz (School of History, Classics and Archaeology, University of Edinburgh).

Ancient DNA (aDNA) studies are revolutionising our understanding of the human past, particularly through the identification of migrations in prehistoric times. The interpretation of migratory movements has been heavily debated in archaeology since the 19th century. While the appearance of new objects or cultural traditions in a region can sometimes point to the arrival of new populations, other alternative explanations such as trade or diffusion of ideas are often also possible. Over the last two decades, the increasing application of bioarchaeological methods, e.g. aDNA analyses, is helping to shed new light on old debates, as well as to uncover hitherto unknown scenarios of large-scale migrations. This is the case with a new study first published in December 2021 in Nature, which suggests the existence of large-scale migratory movements from continental Europe into Britain during the Middle to Late Bronze Age, more specifically in the period from ca. 1300-750 BC. 

This research is part of the large-scale projects undertaken in recent years by the Harvard genetics lab directed by Prof David Reich and his collaborators around the world. In this case, the article brings together over 200 scholars (myself among them), including the team led by Prof Ian Armit from the University of York, who is directing the COMMIOS Project, funded by the European Research Council. In this paper, the authors bring together the results from sequencing the genomes of nearly 800 Bronze and Iron Age individuals from Britain and various parts of the European continent. The results corroborate the existence of significant connectivity across the English Channel in the Middle and Late Bronze Age, including not only the movement of goods, but also people. The most notable outcome of the analyses is that Early European farmer (EEF) ancestry, coming from the continent, increased significantly in England and Wales between 1000 and 875 BC, due to the arrival of migrants during this period and in the immediately preceding centuries. These newcomers seem to have been genetically most similar to individuals from France, although their precise area of origin still needs to be further determined by future studies. 

Although aDNA does not tell us, in itself, what language people spoke, the combination of different strands of evidence (genetics, archaeology, and linguistics) allows for some plausible hypotheses to be established. In this sense, the new results from the Nature article open the possibility that Celtic languages could have been introduced to Britain from the continent as part of these Late Bronze Age population movements. This hypothesis would fit well with the idea of ‘Celtic from the centre’ as proposed in 2020 by Prof Patrick Sims-Williams (Aberystwyth University) on the basis of linguistic and archaeological evidence. According to him, it is likely that early Celtic languages spread from Gaul (mainly present-day France) into Britain in the first millennium BC. 

How was this article covered in the media? The publication has attracted wide media coverage in the UK and abroad, in most cases with a rather adequate representation of the data. The BBC explained the findings accurately while also giving context for its meaning, for example by stating that this migration from France may be how Celtic languages came to Britain. However, with a quote from an expert on aDNA from Trinity College Dublin (Dr Lara Cassidy), the article indicates the findings do not show for certain that this is how Celtic languages arrived in Britain, although it lends evidence to this idea. They included statements from co-authors of the study and independent experts in the field, strengthening the reporting of the research. 

The Daily Mail portrayed the findings largely accurately while also including useful maps, although the term ‘displaced’ used in the headline does not appear in the original article. A positive aspect of the Daily Mail report was the addition of boxes with extra, relevant information (e.g. explaining when the Bronze Age was and the practices associated with this period) to give the reader context for understanding the rest of the piece. This addition is helpful for interested readers with no background in prehistory. Both the BBC and the Daily Mail were clear about how the researchers did not know why this migration took place or where exactly the migrants came from although it was likely from France. 

Why is this research important? Celtic languages are still spoken in various Atlantic regions including Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, and researching their origins is not only relevant from an academic perspective, but also for people for whom the use of a Celtic language continues to represent an important part of their identity. On a broader level, aDNA corroborates that the history of humankind is one of migrations, since its very beginnings to the present, and that Britain is no exception to this. Looking at population movements and their impact from a ‘deep history’ perspective can contribute to a better understanding of present-day migrations and counteract isolationist narratives. People have always moved and mixed, to various degrees, and will continue to do so in the future. We are, very much, Homo migrans

Looking back on Research the Headlines in 2021

2021 was another challenging year for evidence-based media reporting of research. Daily exposure to health related research has again impacted everyone this year. Research the Headlines was set up in 2013 to examine how research is portrayed in the media, and to give the public helpful advice and tools when trying to get to the heart of a news story. Through different activities, we also help others develop the skills needed to become more critical consumers of both research and media reporting; for example, via our How to “Research the Headlines” series and our “Rewrite the Headlines” workshops and competition for primary school children.

During 2021 we posted about media coverage of both COVID-19 and non-pandemic topics. Back in March we wrote a myth busting post about COVID-19. This post was very much needed at the time with all the inaccuracies about the virus that were going around. The post is still highly relevant now we have reached the end of the year as it covers issues like vaccines and variants. We also recently posted about the association between dementia and COVID-19 and were pleased to highlight there was balanced accurate reporting in the media about the research.

We blogged about other cases of accurate reporting of research over the last year. We saw examples of good reporting in posts about diet and brain health. Most journalists were careful to acknowledge the difference between association and causality in relation to the research covered and also included the view of independent experts. Both of these are key priorities we have covered in our Top Tips series. Frequently we saw good examples of sound reporting including linking to relevant charities such as our post about maternal health and obesity back in September. In a recent post about antimicrobial resistance we also highlighted excellent use of the views of an independent academic to support interpretation of the study.

Some media reports of research weren’t quite so accurate. Use of technology and its impact on health is frequently discussed in the media. Back in March we blogged about media coverage of ‘excessive’ smart phone use and highlighted how the media had exaggerated the findings of studies. At Research the Headlines we have frequently spoken about the need to try and look at what the research actually involved and what has been exaggerated.  Other examples of inaccurate reporting again related to risk reported in relation to a percentage format. We have regularly advised caution when interpreting the significance of a reduction or increase of something reported in percentage format. In this recent post about Vitamin D and bowel cancer, the media had reported that ‘eating just half a serving of salmon a day can slash your risk of getting bowel cancer by 50%, study claims’ in reference to the findings of the study.  In our ‘How to Research the Headlines’ tips series we have described the importance of referring to the absolute risk or benefit when describing results, so including the benefit with and without eating this portion of food.

We will continue with our range of activities in 2022 and look forward to continue working with early career researchers and offering them opportunities to develop their blogging skills!

Vitamin D and the Risk of Bowel Cancer 

This blog was written by Dr Issraa Al-Obaidi (University of Strathclyde)

Colorectal cancer is the most common type of cancer in the UK. It is also known as bowel cancer, colon cancer and rectal cancer. The main symptoms of this disease are diarrhoea or constipation, abdominal pain, blood in the stool, unexpected weight loss and fatigue. A recent report for England indicates that this disease has increased in younger adults under the age of 50. 

A study conducted by Hanseul Kim and colleagues at Harvard found that young people (women in this particular study) were recorded at risk of early onset colorectal cancer due to vitamin D deficiency.  This vitamin is formed naturally under our skin when we are outside exposed to sunlight, so it is called sunshine vitamin. It keeps our bones, teeth, and muscle healthy by working together with calcium and phosphorous (a mineral found in foods like beer, cheese, beans, and fish). Vitamin D is available in our daily food such as milk, fish (salmon, tuna, trout), egg yolk, cheese, some cereals and liver. Any deficiency in vitamin D can cause muscle cramps, bone pain, fatigue, and mood changes such as depression. Your GP can order a blood test for you to check any deficiency of vitamin D in your body.

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Beyond social distancing and the need for care: Do Alzheimer’s Disease and COVID19 share genetic risk too? 

This piece was written by Dr Fiona Kerr (Edinburgh Napier University).

The COVID19 pandemic has impacted young and old both due to poor outcomes from the disease itself and through negative impacts on well-being due to lockdown and poor access to healthcare systems. One group that quickly emerged as being particularly vulnerable are people living with dementia, with almost 25% of those who died from COVID19 in 2020 also having Alzheimer’s Disease (AD) or other forms of dementia (COVID19 and Dementia Mortality, Alzheimer’s Society). Much of this disproportionate impact has been attributed to challenges for people with dementia to adhere to the social distancing and hand hygiene mitigations put in place to prevent infection, and their over-representation in care homes, which were particularly hard hit by COVID19 (Science Media Centre). In October this year, a new study in the journal Brain, by Magusali N et al., 2021, identified that a genetic variant may confer risk for both AD and severe COVID19. This suggests that there may also be molecular reasons to explain why people with dementia are particularly vulnerable to this infectious disease. 

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Science in The Media Vs. The Wonderdrug Valley of Death

This blog was written by Dr Delma Childers from the University of Aberdeen.

Antibiotics were the game-changing wonderdrugs that revolutionized medicine in the early 20th century. In fact, their impact stretches far beyond medicine – antibiotics also revolutionized agriculture and livestock practices to usher in an era of relatively cheap and plentiful food in industrialized nations. However, decades of antibiotic misuse, overuse, a lack of drug discovery investment, and the resilient evolution of microorganisms have led to a concerning state of antimicrobial resistance and to a very real threat of society facing a world where the antibiotics don’t work.

18-24 November was World Antimicrobial Awareness Week which is part of a campaign by leaders at the World Health Organization (WHO) to bring attention to the problem of drug resistance. The WHO have listed antimicrobial resistance as one of the biggest global threats to health, food security, and development. There are two main solutions that current research efforts around the globe are testing: 1) find/design new drugs or 2) adapt current drugs to overcome microbial resistance strategies. A recent study (1) demonstrating an outside-the-box solution has been covered by The Daily Mail and Express. How did the media coverage of this study go?

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A balanced diet: can wine and cheese be good for your brain?

This piece was written by Reece Thompson (University of Strathclyde) and Dr Fiona Kerr (Edinburgh Napier University).

As part of the RSE Young Academy Scotland (YAS) Robertson Trust mentoring programme, YAS members mentor Robertson Trust Journey to Success Scholars who have talent, but perhaps not the financial means or guidance, to reach their potential through higher education. Often first in family to undertake a degree, scholars are supported by YAS members to develop their communication, learning, and employability skills. During this year’s programme, Reece Thompson, a third-year student in Biochemistry and Pharmacology at the University of Strathclyde, worked with Dr Fiona Kerr, a YAS member from Edinburgh Napier University, to develop his understanding of how research is reported in the media and to communicate the findings of a complex research study to the public through this Research the Headlines post. 

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Weighing up the risk: The relationship between maternal obesity and bowel cancer risk

In the past week a number of media outlets (The Guardian, The Herald) have covered the findings from research investigating the link between maternal obesity and the rise in numbers of bowel cancer cases in younger adults (aged <50 years).

According to the World Health Organization obesity is a global issue affecting all nations, which has tripled since 1975. Obesity, which is the abnormal accumulation of body fat, has been linked to many illnesses including cancer.

Researchers have shown a clear link between obesity and cancer, but there has been little research investigating the evidence linking maternal obesity with the risk of their children developing cancer later in life.

Researchers at the University of Texas Health Science Centre (Texas, USA) have attempted to answer this very important question on the association between maternal health and health outcomes for their babies later in life. In this study, they focused on the link between maternal obesity and the risk of bowel cancer developing in their children. This work was published on August 21st 2021 in the British Medical Journal Gut.

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Brain blog showcase 2021: Occupational experiences may be associated with poorer memory and smaller memory structures within the brain

This week we’ve been showcasing the work of students who have been “researching the headlines” as part of their undergraduate studies. Their task was to describe an original research report exploring how lifestyle affects brain health in a manner accessible to non-experts, as well as evaluating the media coverage of the research. If you’re interested in using this approach in your own teaching, you can contact Alan Gow for more information and materials.

For our final “brain blog”, we have…

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