Thursday, 18 December 2008

Festive fun from the BMJ

The British Medical Journal is a widely-read, peer-reviewed publication that brings us the latest developments in medicine and research. It's also a hoot to read around this time of year, as the Christmas issue is published. Traditionally the home of placebo-controlled, double-blinded trials and investigations into clinically significant interventions, the BMJ becomes, for one issue only, the home of mirth and tongue-in-cheek 'research' that entertains as much as it informs.

This year, we can treat ourselves to such delights as this report on the effects of head-banging to heavy metal music. Amusingly titled "Head and neck injury risks in heavy metal: head bangers stuck between rock and a hard bass," this study begins with the following crucial information:

Objective To investigate the risks of mild traumatic brain injury and neck injury associated with head banging, a popular dance form accompanying heavy metal music.

Design Observational studies, focus group, and biomechanical analysis.

Participants Head bangers.


There's more. As reported by the Guardian, several medical myths have been debunked by researchers reporting in this months BMJ. These include the 'fact' that one loses 40% body heat through one's head (not so it appears...), and that well-known nugget that giving kids sugar makes them hyperactive - a figment of the parents' perception of their kids' behaviour it seems, rather than a specific hyperactivity-inducing effect of C6H12O6.

The indomitable Prof. Edzard Ernst even chips in, with a systematic review of the evidence relating to the use of Frakincense as an anti-inflammatory agent. He finds fairly good evidence that {alpha} and β boswellic acid, the main active compounds in Boswellia serrata, can provide therapeutic benefit in inflammatory conditions such as Crohn's disease, rheumatoid arthritis and collagenous colitis. Somewhat dispiritingly, though, Ernst concludes that

it might be tempting to buy "instant youth" in the form of a B serrata product for Christmas, but sadly the evidence for this claim is nonexistent


Lastly, there's my favourite from this years selection. This studious and somewhat disturbing analysis looks at whether the Welsh rugby union team's success in the Six (formerly Four and then Five) Nations tournament influences the chances that the Pope dies in the same year. I'll allow the authors to elaborate...

We investigate both parts of this claim, and refer respectively to them as the special and general theories of papal rugby. The special theory indicates the direction of the effect: when Wales win a grand slam, the chance of a papal death in that year increases. The general theory suggests a dose-response relation: when Wales perform particularly well, the expected number of papal deaths increases.

I'm intrigued! Using logistical regression analysis, the authors looked at the number of Papal deaths since 1883 (when international rugby came to the fore), and found that there was no statistically significant relationship between any UK-andIreland team winning a Grand Slam (i.e. winning all their matches) and the Pope dying. Just as well...! They then looked at whether performance in the tournament, judged by number of points scored and other criteria, correlated with Papal deaths - and although good performances by other nations did not correlate, there was a signifiacnt (p=0.0047) link between Welsh performance at rugby and Papal deaths. Shock Horror...? Not quite - as the authors conclude:

The special theory of papal rugby is nothing more than an urban myth, based largely on two Welsh grand slam wins in recent memory. This comes as something of a relief, as we are at a loss to see how the events could be linked, especially given the continuing rapprochement between Catholic and Protestant churches. Nevertheless, using the Six Nations data from 2008, our model for the general theory of papal rugby predicts that 0.62 (about 3/5) of a Pope will die this year. It could be argued that Wales’ strong win over Italy artificially inflates their measure of performance; however, based on the historical evidence, we do not believe the Vatican medical staff can fully relax until the new year arrives.

All of this just goes to show that research can be fun, if at times somewhat frivolous!

I'd just like to end with a tribute to what must constitute a grand effort not to burst out laughing whilst writing an abstract for a paper. The blogger Anne T. V has complied a list of BMJ's xmas editions, and annotated it with favourite entries, and yet I'm sure that none are up to the standard of this publication in the Indian Journal of Chest Diseases and Allied Science. Please, please read this abstract, and remember all the while that this is true, not made up... AllI'l say is that it involves accidental condom inhalation. Nuff said.

Merry Winterval...!


HolfordWatch said...

Winterval always makes me think of Festivus and the airing of grievances plus the stark and unadorned Festivus Pole.

Very enjoyable reading that will enliven some upcoming family dinners and teas - thanks.

jdc325 said...

Cheers - some enjoyable reading there.

teekblog said...

ah Festivus, that most enjoyable time of year!

glad you enjoyed it, it's always amusing to see how medics and researchers 'do humour!'