It’s been a rough week for scavengers around the world, with a torrent of news headlines declaring loudly “frightening evidence” has been found showing Alzheimer’s disease is related to a little nasal exploration with the fingers. It turns out that this link comes from a deeply speculative press release, and according to several neuroscientists contacted by New Atlas, it is “extremely unlikely.”
As with much science news these days, the nose-picking story originated with a press release, in this case one from Griffith University in Australia published on Friday, October 28. The story was titled “New Research Suggests Nose Picking May Raise Risk of Alzheimer’s and Dementia,” and promoted a study published in the journal scientific reports.
The study, in mice, found that a bacterium called chlamydia pneumonia it can infect parts of the brain when planted in the animal’s nose. Additionally, the study found that when that particular bacterium crosses the mouse brain, it can trigger pathological changes similar to those seen in Alzheimer’s disease.
Essentially, that’s “the research,” and perhaps most unusual is that the research isn’t particularly “new.” Actually, the study was published 10 months ago, in February. And when it was published it was accompanied by a press release stating“Bacteria in the nose may increase the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.”
So it seems reasonable to ask why a 10-month-old study is being touted as “new research” with an entirely new conclusion suddenly suggesting that nose picking might be associated with Alzheimer’s risk.
To try to understand how this novel link with nose picking came about, New Atlas spoke to Professor James St John, one of the study’s co-authors. St John said that he felt that when the first press release was published earlier in the year, the studio was overwhelmed by other stories at the time. And since the study was first published, several ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists have contacted him excited by the findings, urging him to further explore this link between nasal infections and dementia.
“It has to be investigated, they said,” St John told New Atlas, referring to feedback he received from ENT researchers regarding the study. “We never thought to look at the history of infections or damage to the nose, and they are right. Since we put out the press release, many people have contacted me. One said, my wife, she got Alzheimer’s disease, and she had nasal infections serious, and he was picking his nose a lot at the time he had the first symptoms, and things like that. So we’re not sure, but we need to find out.”
The nose-picking link that seems to be the focus of this new wave of media coverage stems from a small part of the study that found that deliberate injury to mouse epithelium led to increased bacterial infiltration of peripheral nerves and the olfactory bulb. . The nasal epithelium is the thin layer of tissue that lines the inside of the nose, and in the study the researchers used a chemical to damage that tissue as a model that resembles “natural nasal injuries” in humans.
The hypothesis St John puts forward is that nose picking may cause similar damage to the lining of the nose, which could possibly lead to a higher volume of pathogens moving into the brain. And those pathogens in the brain can trigger a cascade of events that leads to the development of Alzheimer’s disease.
Of course, that leaves a key question: what kind of vigorous nose picking are we talking about here?
St John admits that “gently picking your nose probably isn’t going to do that”, but if you pick your nose until it bleeds, then maybe that’s a bigger problem.
New Atlas reached out to several neuroscientists and dementia researchers for their comments on this possible association between nose picking and Alzheimer’s disease. Several felt the suggestion was so ridiculous that they preferred not even to be associated with this story, however some researchers offered measured responses to St John’s hypothesis.
Bryce Vissel, a neuroscientist at the University of New South Wales, has a particular research focus on neurodegenerative diseases. He says the core findings in the St John study are interesting. According to Vissel, the idea that bacterial infections might play a role in dementia, and that those infections can spread from the nose to the brain, are compelling, if still incredibly speculative, areas of research. These are not conventional views, Vissel said, but they are certainly topics that many researchers are investigating.
Where Vissel struggles is with the hypothetical jump to nose picking as a plausible risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. He says there is no evidence that this incredibly common human behavior plays a role in Alzheimer’s.
“I have never heard of it, seen no evidence or obtained a basis for making such a statement,” Vissel said. “I would be concerned if people interpret what they have said as if they are afraid to do what humans have done for millennia. And I think that fear would be unwarranted under this document.”
Nikki-Anne Wilson, a postdoctoral fellow at Neuroscience Research Australia, echoes Vissel’s thoughts. She agrees that there is a growing body of evidence indicating that inflections could play a hypothetical role in certain neurodegenerative diseases, but it’s a big leap to go from the findings of this new study to the suggestion that nose picking is a factor. that contributes to Alzheimer’s.
“The suggestion that a disruption of the nasal epithelium may increase the likelihood of such an infection is novel,” Wilson said. “However, this animal study is far from causal evidence that picking your nose gives you Alzheimer’s disease. We know that there are many factors that contribute to the development of Alzheimer’s disease throughout life and it is very unlikely to be caused by a missing finger in the nose.” “
St John is the first to admit that more research needs to be done and is working to start a big study next year looking at people in the early stages of late-onset Alzheimer’s. The study will investigate participants’ sense of smell, take bacteria samples from their noses, and track their medical history for evidence of nasal infections.
In discussing this upcoming study, St John did not mention the survey of nose picking as a risk factor for Alzheimer’s disease. And considering that previous research has found that nose picking is “an almost universal practice in adultsYou’ll probably have a hard time finding someone who will admit they’ve never slipped a sneaky finger in there for a quick cleanup.
Ultimately, despite last week’s hyperbolic news headlines, nose pickers should relax and not worry that they’re giving themselves insanity. Sure, maybe take it easy and be nice when he gets a little nasal digging, but don’t worry, this extraordinarily common behavior will give him Alzheimer’s.