Falsified Data Could Set Alzheimer’s Research Back 16 Years

A Vanderbilt University neuroscientist detects possible fraudulent claims regarding a landmark 2006 study, possibly uprooting a prevalent theory regarding Alzheimer’s disease progression.

By Yedida Bogachkov, Ph.D.

Key Points: 

  • Dozens of potentially doctored images were found in scientific publications that laid the groundwork for current theories of Alzheimer’s disease (AD) progression.
  • Therapies based on these theories have failed in clinical trials, leading to questions regarding these initial claims.

For a long-time now, over a decade, it’s been thought that researchers were on track to preventing AD and halting its progression by targeting amyloid-beta — a protein thought to clump within the brain and cause AD. However, a new expose shows this may not be the case.

Matthew Schrag, a neuroscientist, and physician at Vanderbilt University has blown the whistle on questionable findings in a landmark study published in Nature in 2006 that highlights the role of amyloid-beta, specifically A𝛃*56, in AD. A recent article in Science describes how Schrag discovered evidence of data manipulation or even outright fabrication in this highly influential publication. Ultimately, Schrag prompted the uncovering of apparently altered or duplicated images in dozens of scientific journal articles. Researchers in the community state that if these falsities are real, the loss of funding and wasted time and effort is immense and the AD field may have been set back as much as 16 years.

“You can cheat to get a paper. You can cheat to get a degree. You can cheat to get a grant. You can’t cheat to cure a disease,” Schrag said, “Biology doesn’t care.”

Falsehoods in Alzheimer’s Research

Schrag had already been looking into fraudulent claims concerning an AD drug called Simufilam before coming across the monumental 2006 Nature article, a work that helped reinvigorate the amyloid hypothesis of AD — that amyloid-beta clumps cause AD. Upon finding what looked like fabricated data, Schrag got the journal Science to spend nearly 6 months with several top Alzheimer’s researchers to investigate his claims of possible misconduct. They finally reached similar conclusions, calling into question years of Alzheimer’s research.

The lead author, who generally obtains and organizes most of the data in a study, of the article in question is Sylvian Lesné. In all, over 20 suspect papers with Lesné as an author have been uncovered. Two of these papers were recently extensively corrected, but still show signs of imaging tampering and fraudulent claims. While Schrag decided to provide his findings to Science to speed up the process, federal agencies, universities, and journals are still quietly investigating his claims.

Where Do We Go From Here?

Schrag’s findings have called the amyloid hypothesis into question. Many investigational therapies for AD have depended on targeting amyloid-beta, and if Lesné’s articles are fraudulent, much of the last decade’s amyloid-beta research may be unusable, having been based on the initial fraudulent claims.

This situation brings to light the importance of reproducibility in science research and the need to have verifiable data, which was not seen in the case of A𝛃*56, with few researchers able to even detect it. When it comes down to it, scientists are working for society, working for the millions of people affected by the diseases they research, and if we can’t trust their honesty, it undermines their authority and knowledge. And from these findings, it seems like one bad apple can poison years of research.


Pillar, C. Blots on a field?, 21 Jul 2022. Science, doi: 10.1126/science.ade0209


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