Misleading Headlines About Folate and Tylenol Do More Harm than Good

Some May 2016 headlines mislead readers into thinking that folate, a nutrient that has long been recommended as essential for a healthy pregnancy may instead be linked to increased risks for autism; other headlines suggested that Tylenol use leads to a loss of empathy.

Misleading Headline from Johns Hopkins University Media Department Regarding Relationship of Folate During Pregnancy and Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children

Much like the information in the video above, the press release issued by the Media and Public Relations department of Johns Hopkins University about study results done at the facility read, “Too Much Folate in Pregnant Women Increases Risk for Autism, Study Suggests.” Talk about a headline loaded with innuendo and just enough information – but not too much – to strike fear in the minds of women of child-bearing age.

Physicians have long advocated supplementation with folate (folic acid) during pregnancy to help decrease the likelihood of the developing fetus from encountering spinal birth defects. Reading no further than the headline of the press release or others like it might make women second guess taking the still-recommended folate supplements, or cause other mothers with children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) to wonder if they had caused the disorder by taking folate during their pregnancies.

Neither of these scenarios is what the study from Johns Hopkins University suggested. Fortunately on Thursday, May 12, 2016, many media outlets provided reporting such as in the video below that points to the continued importance of folate supplementation in pregnancy.

Ohio State University Releases Media Report on Tylenol (Acetominophen) and Its Potential Affects on Empathy

On Tuesday, May 10, 2016, the Ohio State University website published an article titled, “When you take acetominophen, you don’t feel others’ pain as much.”  There are a number of factors associated with the study itself and the reported results that make the headline suspect – and even more so why mass media choose to publicize the results of two small studies that are merely the beginning point of potential research.

What scientists have noticed when doing brain scans is that the part of the brain that is activated when a person is feeling pain is the same part of the brain activated when a person is imagining someone else feeling pain. This lead some researchers to wonder if medication that reduces pain would also affect that same person’s ability to imagine someone else’s pain (empathy).

To that end, researchers at Ohio State University conducted two small scale studies. One study involved 80 student participants, another with 114 student participants. In both studies one half of the group was given placebos, the other half acetominophen. After a period of time the study participants’ empathy was measured by reactions to various stimuli. The results suggested what scientists already theorized – that the same portion of the brain seems to be involved in sensing one’s own pain and that of others.

Acetominophen happened to be the over-the-counter analgesic used in these two small studies, but that doesn’t mean the conclusion is definitively about acetominophen – any more than it definitively confirms any type of scientific theory.

Related Information: Evaluating Online Health Information and Research

These are only two of the many misleading headlines and news accounts of health and scientific research that can be found in the various media. While it’s true that in reading the entire article headlined by innuendo or outright overstated outcomes the reader may learn that his/her initial impression was wrong, but how many people read just the headline, react, and move on? That can be misleading and could be potentially dangerous, depending on what a person might do with such information.

John Oliver, host of Last Week Tonight, recently took on the media and its habit of reporting inaccurate or misleading scientific information:


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