Andrea Leadsom and massaging babies’ brains: a theory from the lunatic fringe

In her Tory leadership pitch Andrea Leadsom ‘ended up talking about how important it was to massage the prefrontal cortex of a baby’s brain’, according to an MP who was there.

What? Massage of the prefrontal cortex? Is that perhaps a new health technology that we have not yet heard about? Probably not. Readers below suggest Leadsom has been misquoted. That might be so. If quoted accurately, though, she was most likely referring to an alternative type of treatment called ‘cranial osteopathy’ or ‘craniosacral therapy’ (CST).

CST was invented about half a century ago by an osteopath. He made several assumptions, one more implausible than the next:

• that the spinal fluid is pulsating
• that the cranial bones are sufficiently movable to enable a therapist to feel this pulse
• that it is possible to influence this process with gentle manual manipulations
• that illness is caused by abnormalities in these pulsations
• and that CST would restore health in sick individuals by normalising them.

The CST-practitioner thus uses his or her own hands to evaluate the craniosacral system, feeling various locations of the body to test for the ease of motion and rhythm of the fluid pulsing around the brain and spinal cord. Soft-touch techniques are then used to release any perceived restrictions.

This probably sounds rather vague and nebulous, and we might well ask, how does CST really work? Let’s ask a practitioner of CST who surely must know best:

When a self-development issue is linked to the illness, it is enough for that issue to be acknowledged by the client (without any further discussion unless the client desires it) for the body to release the memory of that issue — sensed by the therapist as tightness, tension, inertia within the body’s systems — so that the healing can proceed.

Several treatment sessions may still be needed, especially if the condition is a long-lasting one. Our bodies’ self-healing mechanisms rely on a combination of the various fluid systems of the body (blood and lymph flow and the fluid nature of the cells making up all the organs and systems within our bodies) and the body’s energy fields. Our hearts generate their own electrical signal independently of the control of our brains. Such signals travel around the body through the blood and other fluid systems. Blood is an excellent conductor of electricity and, when electricity flows through a conductor, magnetic fields are created. It is with these fields that the craniosacral therapist works.

These same fields store the memory of the events of our life – rather like the hard disk on a computer – but these memories can only be accessed when the underlying body intelligence ‘decides’ it is needed as part of the healing process. There is absolutely no danger, therefore, of more being revealed than is strictly necessary to encourage the client back on to their self-development route and to enable healing to take place.

To many desperate parents of ill children — CST is mostly advocated for children — this sort of lingo might sound impressive; to anyone understanding a bit of physiology or anatomy, it is likely to look like pure quackery. CST has therefore been considered by most independent experts to be way out on the lunatic fringe of alternative medicine.

But criticism or ridicule do not stop proponents from making impressive therapeutic claims for CST. It would be quite difficult, I think, to find a condition that some CST practitioner does not claim to cure or alleviate. One UK organisation boldly states that any symptom a patient may present with will improve in the hands of one of their members; in the eyes of its proponents, CST clearly is a veritable panacea.

And let’s be fair, the fact that CST is implausible does not necessarily mean that it is not effective. The theory might be barmy, yet the treatment might still work. Let’s keep an open mind. What we need is evidence from clinical trials.

When I recently evaluated the findings from all randomised clinical trials of CST, I was pleasantly surprised to find that as many as six such studies had been published. The conditions treated in the trials ranged from cerebral palsy, migraine, fibromyalgia to infant colic. Unfortunately, the quality of the studies was, with the exception of one trial, deplorably poor. All the badly flawed studies reported positive results. The only rigorous trial was the one with children suffering from cerebral palsy — and in this particular study the findings were squarely negative. The conclusion of my review was therefore blunt: ‘The notion that CST is associated with more than non-specific effects is not based on evidence from rigorous randomised clinical trials.’ This is polite, scientific speak for saying that CST is bogus.

Some might argue that no harm can be done using CST; on the contrary, the gentle touch might even calm over-excited children and CST could thus be a helpful relaxation technique. In a way, such arguments make sense. Should we then care that it has no specific therapeutic effects?

Few people would argue against the potential benefits of gentle touch or other non-specific effects. But we should realise that, for achieving them, we do not need CST or any other placebo treatment. An effective therapy that is given with compassion and empathy will have a similar effect; and crucially, in addition, it will also generate the specific therapeutic effects that the patient needs.

Whenever CST or other bogus treatments (that is, therapies whose claims are either disproven or not supported by sound evidence) are used, it hinders patients’ access to effective treatments. This is not in the patients’ best interest and can, in extreme cases, have serious consequences.

Whenever CTS or other bogus treatments are endorsed by politicians — and, for some mysterious reason, lots of them engage in this sort of activity — we ought to wonder about their competence and ability to think critically. A lack of these qualities is certainly not in the best interests of the country.

Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter, is the author of A Scientist in Wonderland and the awardee of the John Maddox Prize 2015 for standing up for science. He blogs at edzardernst.com.


  • westlondoner11

    Professor Ernst, I’m no great admirer of Andrea Leadsom, but I’m not sure she has been fairly represented by the anonymous MP who made this claim.

    Other MPs who gave an account of the meeting made no mention of ‘massaging the brain’. There was undoubtedly plenty of chat about baby brains, and possibly about massage, but I think the version you cite has been garbled.

    If you look at her website, you’ll find that she does indeed have an obsession with early development of the pre-frontal cortex – for instance, in this article: http://www.andrealeadsom.com/early-years-intervention/early-years-intervention

    There are many more in similar vein. However, there is not a single mention of craniosacral therapy. There *is*, on the other hand, plenty of reference to Sure Start centres offering baby massage (not CST), and how this is a good way for mother and baby to bond.

    She may have mentioned baby massage, and she undoubtedly mentioned brain development, but I suspect ‘brain massage’ was a mistaken recollection.

    • Mark Greaves

      Thank you for your comment. The article has been amended to make clear Andrea Leadsom may have been misquoted.

  • Looks like the Monty Python Election Sketch was prescient. Leadsom, Tredinnick and co can all split off into the Silly Party now.

  • Keith R Laws

    Professor Ernst – for someone who has a well-earned reputation for debunking alternative medicine research…you seem here intent to ‘create’ your own bunkum …for no good reason.

    I am neither a Conservative nor a supporter of Leadsom, but I think you owe it both to her and the readers to make a clearer case (or indeed …any case). Where has Leadsom ever proposed this ‘therapy’? (indeed, ever even mentioned it?) It seems somewhat unfair and ‘unscientific’ to take at second hand what someone ‘may’ have thought Leadsom said about “Massage of the prefrontal cortex”…and then for you to then suggest “Most likely she was referring to an alternative type of treatment called ‘cranial osteopathy’ or ‘craniosacral therapy’ (CST).”

    A casual search of Google (which I am sure you did before writing this piece) provides zero evidence for your claim, but does show that Leadsom – correctly- sees the importance of the prefrontal cortex in child development e.g. http://www.andrealeadsom.com/early-years-intervention/early-years-intervention. I am sure she makes no claims to be a scientist, but its clear that she has a been working to help put early infant care on the political agenda – which as an aim can only be a good thing.

    Perhaps if we asked Andrea Leadsom, she may say (like me) that she had never heard of ‘cranial osteopathy’ or ‘craniosacral therapy’, she might even admit she used the phrase ‘massage the frontal lobes’, but perhaps in the same way that we all use metaphors?

  • Eugen Roth DC

    ‘Edzard Ernst, emeritus professor at the University of Exeter’…….really?? A bit liberal with the facts Prof. You mean ‘past’ emeritus professor at the University of Exeter…..before you had to leave under a cloud due to some unfortunate circumstances. This article is much like the other articles Prof Ernst pens………mostly a figment of his wild imagination.

    • westlondoner11

      You might want to look up the meaning of ’emeritus professor’.

      Or check the list of emeritus professors on the University of Exeter’s website, on which Professor Ernst appears: http://www.exeter.ac.uk/staff/policies/calendar/part2/emeritus/

      Either way, the only ‘figment of the imagination’ here is your comment.

      • Eugen Roth DC

        so you know as a fact that Prof Ernst works at the University of Exeter. Is that correct? Or are you liberal with the facts too?

        • westlondoner11

          *sigh*

          I suggested you look up ’emeritus professor’ because you are clearly unfamiliar with the concept. Once made an emeritus professor you are one for life: it is an honorary title offered to some (not all) professors when they retire. It allows them to keep calling themselves ‘professor’ after they have left the university where they worked. Edzard Ernst is an emeritus professor. That is a fact.

          • Eugen Roth DC

            I am aware of that. Thanks for the lecture. The way it is worded incorrectly gives one the impression that he still works at Exeter University. You are splitting hairs!

          • westlondoner11

            No I am not splitting hairs. Your point was factually incorrect.

            You wrote this: ‘You mean ‘past’ emeritus professor at the University of Exeter’. That’s just gibberish. An emeritus professor is, by definition, somebody who has left the institution. It is impossible for somebody to be a ‘past’ emeritus professor unless they are dead.

            You then go on, ‘The way it is worded incorrectly…’ But it isn’t worded incorrectly. I have spent half my life working with academics, and ’emeritus professor at the University of X’ is the correct usage, even if they have left the university, town or country where the honour was conferred.

            If you’re going to accuse somebody of being liberal with the facts, you can’t complain if somebody points out your own blatant falsehoods.

          • Eugen Roth DC

            ok…thanks form setting me on the right path!

    • Adrian Thomson

      By ‘unfortunate circumstances’ you mean a member of the royal family had a stupid hissy fit and started throwing his weight around when his favourite quackery got called out as bunkum.

  • Tamas Marcuis

    Extreme right wing fanaticism and the typical delusions of British imperial grandeur akin to the royal children from the King and I, seems to bother most people. That there are accusations of belief in eccentric quackery just gets a “what do you expect” shrug.