Conflict Of Interest On Brain Electrodes For Depression?

Dr. Helen Mayberg is third from left
Dr. Helen Mayberg is third from left

Alison Bass, an award-winning Massachusetts-based journalist who writes about conflicts of interest and other flaws in the health care system, has a noteworthy new gotcha on her incisive blog here.

She reports that Dr. Helen Mayberg, an Emory University neurologist, spoke to a major science writers' conference at Yale earlier this month, and described what sounded like overwhelmingly positive results with her technique of inserting electrodes into patients' brains to alleviate depression.

The problem, Alison writes:

"Her talk was heavy on anecdotal examples but skimpy on any real evidence of efficacy. Of equal concern, Mayberg did not fully disclose the extent of her conflicts of interest. At the beginning of her talk, she mentioned that she held a patent for the technique and that it was now in clinical trials. She also said she was a consultant for St. Jude Medical. Now, St. Jude Medical Center is the name of a well-regarded nonprofit hospital in California and the clear implication (to many of us in the audience) was that she was consulting for a nonprofit hospital. In fact, Mayberg is a consultant for Advanced Neuromodulation Systems, which also goes by the name of St. Jude Medical Inc., a for-profit multinational company that manufactures medical devices and has annual revenues of $4.6 billion. This is the company that holds the patent for Mayberg's surgical technique and has begun clinical trials to test it. And it has a less than stellar reputation."

Read Alison's post for the full story. My reaction: Dr. Mayberg has gotten some amazing media, including this 2006 New York Times magazine piece, for a technique that has been tried on very few patients. I hope she's right, for the sake of the millions of people with treatment-resistant depression, but I wish there were more evidence — and that something less than major neurosurgery were involved.

This program aired on November 11, 2010. The audio for this program is not available.

Headshot of Carey Goldberg

Carey Goldberg Editor, CommonHealth
Carey Goldberg is the editor of WBUR's CommonHealth section.



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