Neuro-news

Science is never fixed in place: it must always move forward, and in that sense it is always “news.” What makes science news in a journalistic sense, however, tends to be biased by current concerns, economic interests, and popular fears and hopes.

It is no surprise that research into the brain, in particular, continues to be the focus of much media attention—not only for the obvious reason of its central role in the very fabric of evolved life and of its infinite complexity, but also because of the culturally strong need to understand the biological bases of human behavior. This has led to many excessively positive claims for, and overinterpretations of, necessarily partial, provisional findings about brain mechanisms. The prefix “neuro” now twists into pseudo-scientific shape all aspects of human behavior, from aesthetics to economics, as if the putative cerebral correlates for all that we do explained to us what we are. Of course there are worthwhile and important avenues to explore here; but reports in the mainstream media can hardly do justice to their scientific, methodological, and conceptual complexity.

Yet truly newsworthy neuroscience does get reported. The publication in a June 2015 issue of Nature of the discovery of a lymphatic system within the central nervous system is hugely important, and was acknowledged as such in more mainstream venues. Science Daily titled its report of the discovery “Missing link found between brain, immune system; major disease implications,” with the blurb, “In a stunning discovery that overturns decades of textbook teaching, researchers have determined that the brain is directly connected to the immune system by vessels previously thought not to exist. The discovery could have profound implications for diseases from autism to Alzheimer's to multiple sclerosis.”

We might need to take with a few grains of salt this last sentence—the sort of claim that reflects comprehensible wishful thinking rather than actual reality, typical of what constitutes fast-burning “news.” On the other hand, few discoveries do “overturn decades of textbook learning”—and this one probably does. The fact that established learning can be explicitly overturned is important in itself, for it is easy to forget that most work goes on within given frameworks, on the basis of assumptions rather than with an eye to the need always to question precisely those assumptions that are taken for granted. This particular discovery emphasizes at last the need to understand connections between the nervous and immune systems, and can only push forward the development of the still merely burgeoning field of neuroimmunology. Precisely because of the highly specialized nature of research and clinical care, brain facts tend to be understood apart from body facts, in a Cartesian fashion, as if one were really apart from the other. This piece of news reminds us that we can only understand one as an aspect of the other; and that we need to take seriously, in scientific terms, phenomena such as the placebo and nocebo effects, and the role of the psyche in the evolution of mental and physical disease generally.

And in turn, this goes to show that what we each take to be scientific news—that is, news about our understanding of the world and ourselves—is a function of what we expect it to look like.