Health Research For What? | Mind You

By Dr. David Laing Dawson

I have come to the conclusion that many if not most medical/behavioural researchers must be bitter souls. Whatever we humans like to do, they put under the microscope searching for reasons we shouldn’t do it. If we are having fun it is undoubtedly because we are doing something bad for our health.

Now many of us like our coffee in the morning. I prefer mine home roasted, Guatemalan Antigua. Two or three cups every morning. And I have been able to say, until recently, that whenever these bitter young researchers put coffee under the microscope they come away disappointed: for coffee appears to have in it, not just the seeds of pleasure, but substances that are good for our brain and cardiovascular system.

Of course that couldn’t last. Today in my news feed it appeared that coffee drinking, caffeine in particular, may be keeping us alert and focused, but it is also diminishing our neuroplasticity. That is, making it more difficult for us to learn new skills and concepts.

So I had to read the study. And, like many of these studies, it is flawed. Very small (tiny actually) cohort, unwarranted extrapolations from MRI data to real life, bent assumptions, biased conclusions. A waste of time and money.

But it did occur to me that thousands of young (and not so young) researchers, many as part of a degree program, spend millions of dollars researching questions that do not need to be answered, that flow from petty prejudices, that can’t be answered with small samples and poor methodology anyway, and that will ultimately have no effect on our welfare – well, actually, some of them do increase the number of self-deprecating jokes and moments of guilt as we continue to do what we must do. (From recent unnecessary research, while sipping pinot noir at a wine tasting in West Kelowna, I might make a comment about now knowing (“pointing to”, “suggesting”) the name of the ingredient in red wine that gives some people headaches.)

So let me propose to all those researchers, and the profs who mentor and support them, that we do this differently. We spend this public money differently.

The first step would be to survey old professionals. In medicine that would be old docs in many specialties, old nutritionists, old practicing dentists, judges, police officers….

And we ask each of them to formulate one question they would like answered, a question they know, if they had an answer, would actually help their practices, their patients and their clients.

The only time it would make sense to ask the question of coffee and neuroplasticity would be if experienced pediatricians and child psychiatrists noticed that a high proportion of autistic and OCD teens and young adults consumed coffee every day as children, and then wondered if, just maybe, coffee was the culprit.

Lets start there. Ask some old docs what questions went unanswered in their years of practice. Let that be the beginning of your research.

And remember Dr. Frederick Banting was 41 when he was allowed into a laboratory to seek answers to a question that he knew could, from his years of experience, make a big difference.

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