The Naked Scientists got it wrong: Magnets and Migraines

Note: My original conclusion for this blog post was incorrect. In this post I erroneously mistook Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation with regular Magnothrapy. Please see my full retraction at the bottom of this post.

I was flying back to Perth from Melbourne last night and I was listening to an episode of The Naked Scientists when they suddenly got onto the topic of Magnotherapy.

Also in the news this week, researchers have shown that you can knock migraines on the head with a magnet.  Dr. Richard Lipton is a neurologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.  He’s based in New York and he is with us now.  Hello, Richard. The Naked Scientists

I immediately recognised the Pseudo-Science that was about to follow and they did not disappoint. Like all other forms of magnotherapy this one is also bogus. The only sources I can find  for curing migraine with magnets are the alternative medicines sites, which are of course selling the product.

Chris –   So in your study, you were asking, can a pulse of magnetism alter the outcome of someone seeing initially these auras.  Does it prevent them going on to get a headache?

Richard –   Well, the method we used is called transcranial magnetic stimulation.  It’s a method that’s been around for 30 years.  The idea is that if you apply a powerful magnet to the surface of the skull, the magnetic field penetrates through the skull into the brain and induces a small amount of current flow and depending on where you do it and when you do it, that can have either diagnostic or therapeutic applications.

Magnotherapy has been around for about 30 years but in all this time it has never been proven and like all other Alternative Medicines it has no scientific evidence supporting it’s claim. So why did a credible podcast such as The Naked Scientists report it as legitimate?

Quite simply the producers of the podcast did not conduct their own research into the claims before reporting them as fact. For a “Science” podcast I find this to be fairly irresponsible, it might be acceptable for a regular media outlet to be conned into reporting a fallacy but any show based on science should be treating claims with skepticism prior to reporting them.

When the pseudoscientists and con men are able to trick a credible source, such as a podcast produced by Cambridge University. It highlights the importance of constant vigilance and skeptical awareness. We can never count on others to spot the fallacies for us and should treat all claims with skepticism regardless of the source.


Update on Friday, March 19, 2010 at 10:06PM

It has been brought to my attention that I may have drawn an incorrect connection between Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation and Magno Therapy. I am currently looking further into this and will post a retraction if warranted. Stay tuned, I am working on it and will update as soon as possible. In the meantime if you have any material you would like to share with me on this I can be emailed

Update on Thursday, March 25, 2010 at 9:40PM

Actual Retraction

It would seem that I erroneously associated Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation with regular Magnothrapy. Dr Steven Novella has written an interesting piece on “Treating Migraine with Magnetic Stimulation”

The new treatment represents yet another approach to using electromagnetism to affect brain function – the use of transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS). TMS today is used for research – at different frequencies TMS can either induce or inhibit the activity in a focused part of the brain, and the results can be studied to figure out what that part of the brain does.

There is already published research looking at the effects of different frequencies of TMS on the excitability of brain regions during a migraine. A migraine is, in some ways, like a seizure – it is a neurological event involving abnormal activity in certain brain circuits (the trigeminovascular reflex, for example) and also involving hyperexcitability (leading to central sensitization) of certain populations of neurons. This leads clinically to hypersensitivity to sound, light, smell, and touch – which can both trigger and exacerbate a migraine. NeuroLogicaBlog

Looks like I got this one wrong.

6 thoughts on “The Naked Scientists got it wrong: Magnets and Migraines

  1. Mike

    It’s not pseudoscience. It is a neuroscience research tool that has measurable effects on brain function. Just do a google scholar search for "transcranial magnetic stimulation" and you will find plenty of legitimate papers. It has nothing to do with magnet therapy. Researchers (not quacks) have been using it since 1985.

  2. James Hermans

    Hi Dan,
    Thank you for having the courage to change your position when the facts warrant it. I would like to put to you a few more facts on the research on magnetic therapy where it involves an inhomogeneous magnetic field.

    Indeed, using the generalised term “magnetic therapy” can confuse the issue. Particularly when more credible technologies are grouped with questionable products such as magnetic jewellery and bipolar magnets in underlays and pillows.

    While much more research is needed, it helps to understand the history of magnetic therapy to see where the waters have become muddied.

    Q magnets for instance, are used by highly experienced health professionals such as physiotherapists and doctors who consistently see significant improvements in their patients with quite complex chronic pain conditions.

    I hope this might be useful to you and your visitors.

    James Hermans
    Managing Director
    Neuromagnetics Australia Pty Ltd

  3. Dr Chris Smith

    Hello Dan

    "I immediately recognised the Pseudo-Science that was about to follow and they did not disappoint."

    As the editor of the Naked Scientists, and therefore responsible for the quality and integrity of the content that we broadcast, I am grateful for the humility you have shown by voluntarily retracting your inaccurate and misleading claims about this story and the way we covered it.

    I would, however, like to take this opportunity to explain to readers of this page just how scrupulous and rigorous we are in checking and re-checking the factual content that we include within our programmes.

    Specifically, with this conclusion of yours in mind:

    "For a "Science" podcast I find this to be fairly irresponsible, it might be acceptable for a regular media outlet to be conned into reporting a fallacy but any show based on science should be treating claims with skepticism prior to reporting them."

    I'd like to reassure our listeners that we never cover anything item which we haven't had the opportunity to read the published paper – or the supporting prior literature – first. The scientists we feature are all submitting their work to rigorous peer review, and 10% of the audience we have are endowed with a PhD. We respect that and know very well that if we get it wrong people will tell us very rapidly, by email and partly by hitting the unsubscribe button.

    In closing, I'd like to thank you for your critical listening; we relish critique and feedback – it's how we improve. But what we really relish is getting it right.

    Thank you

    Chris Smith

  4. David

    Any chance you could add a note at the top related that the conclusion had changed? After reading half the article I spend 20 minutes going to other sources and finding research on TMS. Then I came back and finished reading the conclusion. I wish I had known about the change before I read the article and did the research. Thanks!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *