Media Less Likely to Cover Alzheimer’s Research Stories If Mice Are Mentioned in the Title

Using mice for research purposes is a longstanding tradition and is important for many reasons. Mice have a variety of biological similarities to humans, and they’re easy to keep and breed for research purposes. They also have a much shorter lifespan than humans, enabling researchers to study entire lifetimes in just a couple of years. In short, using mice for human healthcare research helps us get answers to our most pressing health and treatment questions quickly, inexpensively, and safely.

However, one reason mouse research isn’t particularly popular, aside from the potential for animal cruelty issues, is that the mention of mice implies that whatever breakthroughs have been made in the study are not very close to being available to the general population yet. Usually, a mouse study is one of the first steps to the development of a new drug or treatment.

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First, the drug is ideated and designed, and then it may undergo laboratory testing before being used on mice. But even after a successful preclinical mouse study, any drug still has to undergo clinical trials, and if those are successful, more time will be needed for FDA review and approval.

A recent study aimed to see what media coverage was like for 623 papers on Alzheimer’s disease research findings and breakthroughs published in open-access journals and indexed in PubMed in 20018 and 2019.

All of the papers involved mice, but 405 mentioned mice in their titles, while others 218 buried that information deeper in the text.

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The study authors found that media were more likely to cover a story about an Alzheimer’s-related finding or breakthrough if the authors omitted mice from the title. Papers that mentioned mice in their titles, on the other hand, received far more limited coverage. In addition, media that covered mice-related research without mice in the title were not as likely to include mice in their article titles.

“When authors omit mice from the paper’s title, writers of news stories reporting on these papers tend to follow suit. What we see is that in most cases their headlines do not mention mice either,” says Dr. Fabio Gouveia of the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation in Brazil, an author of the study.

Papers that did not mention mice in their titles received twice the number of social media tweets as those that did not mention mice in their titles (18.8 versus 9.7 tweets on average).

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This may not seem terribly concerning, but there are some problems here. One issue is that articles that downplay the use of animal models in the research are actually overinflating the scientific value of the work being reported. This leads to the public being misled about how important or relevant different bodies of research are. It’s important that the public not be led to believe that this research applies directly to Alzheimer’s and other human health topics when it’s really only been shown to be relevant to mice.

“There are around 200 animal models to study Alzheimer’s disease, and yet the vast majority of potential treatments discovered through experiments on mice are ineffective when tested in humans,” says Dr. Marcia Triunfol, one of the study’s authors and Humane Society International’s scientific advisor. “Despite this significant flaw in the animal models, we show that articles glossing over the fact that the results were obtained using animals are given increased visibility and therefore implied credibility by the media. The reporting of animal research needs to be addressed with far greater caution and more prominent disclaimers in mainstream media to ensure the public understands that the results of animal experiments may have little to no relevance to human patients.”

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Similarly, research that mentions mice in the title may be underreported, regardless of its significance, having the opposite effect. While mouse research is not as relevant to humans as clinical trials are, it’s still important research.

Dr. Triunfol and Dr. Gouveia are pushing for new editorial policies that would require the titles of experimental articles to identify the species or tissue sources used in the research if it wasn’t human.

Hopefully, if we can improve the quality of scientific reporting, it will also be possible to improve the accuracy of what the media reports and create more transparency around what’s really going on with Alzheimer’s research.

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