The EurekAlert site at www.eurekalert.org is yet another "science news" site that seems to just pass on press releases coming from university press offices. Nowadays university press offices are not a very reliable source of information, as they tend to display all kinds of "local bias" in which the work of researchers at the university gets some adulatory treatment it does not deserve. University press offices often make grandiose claims about research done by professors at their university, fawning or hype-filled claims that are often unwarranted. The press releases from university press offices often make unimportant or dubious research sound as if it was some type of important breakthrough.
The EurekAlert site says that it is "a service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science." That makes it sound like we would be getting some kind of "official science news" or at least news of better-than-average reliability. But very strangely at the bottom of each news story on the site, we read this notice: "Disclaimer: AAAS and EurekAlert! are not responsible for the accuracy of news releases posted to EurekAlert! by contributing institutions or for the use of any information through the EurekAlert system." That basically means that we should not trust any headlines we read merely because they appear on the EurekAlert site. At the post here I discuss various untrue headlines that appeared on the EurekAlert site.
The latest untrue headline to appear at the EurekAlert site is a headline from two days ago, one which stated "USC team shows how memories are stored in the brain, with potential impact on conditions like PTSD." Nothing of the sort occurred. All that happened was that some scientists tracked some new synapses being created and an equal number of synapses being lost after some tiny zebrafish learned something.
We read text in the story that contradicts the story's headline:
"They made the groundbreaking discovery that learning causes synapses, the connections between neurons, to proliferate in some areas and disappear in others rather than merely changing their strength, as commonly thought. These changes in synapses may help explain how memories are formed and why certain kinds of memories are stronger than others."
Notice the contradiction. The headline claimed that the team had showed how memories are stored in the brain. But the text of the story merely makes the much weaker claim that the type of thing observed "may help explain how memories are formed."
The quotation above is not even an accurate description of what was observed. The scientists did not find that synapses "proliferate in some areas and disappear in others." Instead what was observed in each area of the zebrafish brain studied was a roughly equal number of gains of synapses and losses of synapses. Below is one of the visuals from the paper (from the page here and the site here). It shows synapses losses and gains in only one tiny part of the zebrafishes brain during a small time period. Notice the blue dots (representing synapse losses) are roughly as common as the yellow dots (representing synapse gains).
Data results such as this are best interpreted under the hypothesis that we are merely seeing random losses and gains of synapses that continually occur, and that the result has nothing to do with anything being learned. It has long been known that synapses are short-lived things. The paper here states, "Experiments indicate in absence of activity average life times ranging from minutes for immature synapses to two months for mature ones with large weights." Synapses randomly appear and disappear, just as pimples randomly appear and disappear on the face of a teenager with a bad case of acne.