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Veterinary Acupuncture and the Soviet Space Program

On March 22nd 1995 spacecraft Soyuz 20 lands on the plains of Kazachstan. The capsule brings back to Earth Russian cosmonaut Valery Polyakov from space station Mir. With his stay in space Polyakov sets the record for the longest single spaceflight on 437 days, 17 hours and 58 minutes, a record which stands up to this day. Polyakov looks to be in remarkable good condition and is able to walk unassisted from the capsule to the bus which stands ready to take off the returning cosmonauts.
In August 2102 researchers from Wageningen University publish an article on the use of electroacupuncture in cows. Regular measurements on six acupuncture points give useful information on the health of the cows, they claim. And in case of diagnosed health problems, timely treatment with the same device could play an important role in pushing back the use of antibiotics. These two stories don’t seem to be releated in any way, but there is a surprising connection.

Acupuncture points on a cow and Valeri Polyakov looking from Mir
Acupuncture points on a cow and Valeri Polyakov looking from Mir

Research at Wageningen University

Someone sympathetic to the goals of Skepsis read a short news item in Bionieuws, a Dutch magazine for biologists, about the research from Wageningen University and was wondering if there could be any truth to this. I decided to look a bit deeper in to this. In their scientific article published in Animals [1], an Open Access journal, the authors dr. ir. Roel Bosma, ir. Shirley Kalkers-van de Ven en ir. Mauk den Boer try to find out which of 24 acupuncture points are best used for getting information on the health of the cows. Their research on three herds with 108 cows in total shows that almost anything you can think of has an influence on the electrical impedance of the skin, which is measured in electroacupuncture: time of measurement, milk production in previous or actual month, whether milking was done with a milking robot, the number of in vitro fertilisations, etcetera, etcetera. Measurements on three points on the left shoulderblade turned out to be the most useful for diagnostic purposes and anoter three points for reference measurements.
There is however no good scientific evidence for electroacupuncture delivering better than random diagnoses under properly blinded conditions. The research by Bosma et al. doesn’t look better than fishing for significant relations in an enormous pool of data. If you look long enough and don’t bother to correct for the multiple comparisons problem, you will definitely ‘find’ something. There didn’t seem to be any blinding involved in the research either. So no, this was not what made the research particularly interesting.

The I-tronic device of i-Health
The I-tronic device of i-Health

What did intrigue me, was that they had used a device, the I-tronic of i-Health, which is allegedly based on a device developed by the Russian (Soviet) space program. This is also explicitely stated in the article on a pilot study from 2006 (Bosma, Savelkoul et. al, Livestock Science [2]), on which this latest research was following up. The Russian device would have been used to track the health of cosmonauts during their stay in space. There is a reference given in both articles to an article by a certain professor W.A Sagrjadski, working at an academy for technical en medical sciences in Moscow [3]. Also stated is that this is an article in Russian and that made me wonder whether any of the Dutch researchers had read it themselves. I could not quickly find anything on this Sagrjadski on the Internet or his research myself, so I decided to send first author Bosma an e-mail asking for information, and I sent one to the i-Health firm as well.

Bosma responded quickly. He hadn’t read the Russian study himself and he refered me to the third author, Den Boer, who had used the data and probably possessed an English or German translation. Only then it occured to me that the article mentioned that this Den Boer was working for the i-Health firm. Actually, he owns the company and therefore I had already send him an e-mail! I replied to Bosma that I found this a bit surprising. They had used this device about which the scientific literature was only known by the supplying company, which has a clear commercial interest in getting positive results out of the study. And what about this earlier study from 2006 in which they had used the same device? To my even greater asthonishment, Bosma wrote that Den Boer had been involved then as well, but Livestock Sciences had not allowed to mention him as contributing author, exactly because of his commercial interests. But now with this new study, he deserved to be mentioned, according to Bosma.

The Mysterious Sagrjadski

In the mean time I had stumbled on information on Sagrjadski by trying different transcriptions of the probable Russian name to the Latin alphabet. Using ‘Zagriadski’ I quickly found more. An article in a German esoteric magazine from 1999 tells the story as you can find it on websites offering similar equipment as the I-tronic. In the nineteen-eighties professor Vladimir Zagriadski, having a medical and technical background, would have led the medical research of the Soviet space program. He developed the Prognos diagnostic system which is an improved version of the devices for electroacunpuncture according to Voll.

Prognos would have been developed by the efforts of 400 scientists and technicians and tested on 22.500 subjects. The device established diagnoses with an accuracy over 90 percent for all kind of illnesses, running from cancer, gallstones, asthma, chemical exposures, up to eclampsia. In 1984 cosmonauts Volkow and Atkow would have used a prototype aboard Salyut 7. Later, in 1994-1995, Polyakov would thank his relative good health after his record stay in weightlessness to the support from the Prognos system. There are pictures and some video which show Polyakov using the device on board of Mir. The firm which sells the Prognos device showed a video clip [4] in which we are also told that Prognos was designated to act as the medical system to make a manned trip to Mars possible in 2005. After the Soviet space program ended, Zagriadski brought his system to the market in German via the firm Medprevent.

Vladimir Zagriadski
Vladimir Zagriadski

German skeptical website Psiram.com gives plenty of information on Zagriadksi which should make you doubt the credibility of this version of the origins of the Prognos system. Zagriadski is affiliated with several institutions which resemble well-known and highly reputable Russian scientific institutions in name only. As an example, he is mentioned as vice-president of the International Interacademic Union, which is known to be an organisation which offers fake degrees, a diploma mill. He is also member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences, which sounds an awful lot like the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences, but is in fact nothing more than a private enterprise without any recognition from serious scientists. Amongst its members we spot names of other well known pseudoscientists. The German business partners of Zagriadski deal with all kind of pseudoscientific theories, therapies and diagnostic devices.

Confronting the Authors

When this had become clear and I had checked the sources as good as I could, I confronted Bosma and professor dr.ir. Huub Savelkoul (second author of the pilot study) with these findings. To me it was pretty clear that they had been doing research with a device of very dubious origin. To illustrate that the I-tronic is useless as a diagnostic tool, I pointed them to a test in which the I-tronic/i-health system was used to confirm that a Memon Transformer build in a car would protect the driver from electrosmog. The i-healt system gives a clear deficit on the circular meridian with the Memon switched off during a testdrive of 45 minutes, but gives normal values with the Memon switched on. A remarkable result, because a Dutch TV programme (‘Cellstress‘, TROS Radar 7/11/2011)) had just recently shown that the Memon Transformer boxes didn’t contain anything but sand and a holographic sticker. In the same program we could learn  that Triodos, the ‘green’ bank founded on Steinerist ideals, had purchased several of these worthless Memon devices for more than 40,000 euros.
I thought this information would motivate the two researchers to give a second look to their research. Bosma reacted quite annoyed however and as he didn’t want to doubt the integrity of Den Boer he told me he wasn’t going to look into this any further. This didn’t get any better when I pointed out the fact that i-Health stated in a document to have commissioned the pilot study and that Bosma was mentioned as member of the scientific advisory committee of i-Health. Savelkoul didn’t reply to any of the e-mails.

I-Health

Unexpectedly a little later I got a response to my mail to i-Health. Den Boer had a copy of the article by Zagriadski but thought it too much trouble to make a photocopy for me (too many pages). I was welcome however at his office to have look at it. I did not feel much like paying him a visit, but in the end I managed in getting him to send me a scan of the title pages. Den Boer had gotten his copy personally from Zagriadski in 1997 after a lecture the Russian had given on invitation of the Deutsche Ärztegesellschaft für Akupunktur.
The scans confirmed the origin as mentioned in the references in the scientific articles: an ‘Akademie der Medizinisch-Technischen Wissenschaften Russlands’, but it cannot be found anywhere. In another document from i-Health I had found a table with the results of Zagriadski’s research on the 22,500 test subjects [5]. When I told Den Boer that the whole story didn’t seem credible to me and informed him about the pseudoscientific organisations Zagriadski is connected to, he stopped replying. I-Health sells more dubious devices. The I-tronic had already found its place on the list of ‘Weird Devices’ on the site of the Belgian skeptics and a boardmember of the Dutch anti-quackery society had written an article on their ‘colored light therapy‘.

Scientific Integrity

Because I was considering submitting these matters to the counselor for scientific integrity of the Wageningen University, I decided to contact the last scientist of that university involved with these articles (all other authors are not employed at Dutch universities). This dr. ir. Klaas Frankena let me know to have become involved with the pilot study because he had questioned this type of research in which diagnostic methods are used that are not recognised by regular medicine. His contribution had been the statistical analysis of the outcome values (impedance values), but that hadn’t boiled down to remarkable results.
He wasn’t aware that there had been an issue on letting Den Boer figure as author of the article According to Frankena Livestock Sciences didn’t require a ‘conflict of interests’-statement at that time and the reviewers hadn’t raised serious objections tot the use of the device.
I also wrote to the editor of Animals on the problems I see with the article, in particular the dubious origin of the device and the possible conflict of interest of Den Boer and Bosma. That was an effort I could have saved myself from. In her reply she pointed me to an article she had found on the Internet, which according to her, made the Zagriadski story plausible. It was the esoteric magazine I have mentioned before! Clearly there was no real interest on her side to do any real checking. On my remarks that in this way it becomes quite easy to publish pseudoscientific material in scientific journals, she didn’t not reply.

Polyakov’s involvement

Valeri Polyakov using the Prognos system aboard of the Mir
Valeri Polyakov using the Prognos system aboard of the Mir

There was still one thing bugging me a bit: the role of Polyakov. Although it is quite obvious that Zagriadski had made up the story of the origin and research of the Prognos system, we still have to deal with the pictures and videos in which we can see Polyakov use a device which in everything looks like one used for electroacupuncture. Furthermore I found that he as given several lectures from 2001 till 2003 in Germany, Switzerland and Spain on invitation by Medprevent. In these lectures Polyakov told about the importance of the Prognos technology for long duration space flight: “Being 57 years old, I would immediately travel to Mars, but only under supervision of Prognos.”[6]
I would be very surprised if Russian scientists in the space program really had put some faith in meridians and had done serious research into electroacupuncture, but to find out how all these things fitted together was not that easy. My e-mails to the present space organisation of the Russian Federation (Roscosmos) remained unanswered. Finally via some intermediate contacts I managed to contact someone who should be able to tell whether there was any truth to this story of Zagriadski and Polyakov: dr. Mark Belakovskiy, head of the Institute of Biomedical Problems of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IBMP). He is also leader of the Mars 500 project. Polyakov was also connected to the IBMP for some time after his career as a cosmonaut. Belakovskiy told me they had never had contact with Zagriadski and didn’t know his Prognos system. For me this settles it, the Prognos systems definitely does mot originate from an official space program.

I think it is not unlikely that Polyakov had some ‘free’ time for his own hobbies during his long stay aboard of Mir. Maybe he is really convinced that the apparatus works, maybe doing promotion for Prognos just provides him some nice extra income. We won’t find out easily, I’m afraid. The Russian authorities probably don’t have any interest in asking some difficult questions to this Hero of the Soviet Union and the Russian Federation.
Polyakov is involved with Medprevent, that’s clear. If that is also true for the other cosmonauts who are mentioned in promotion material of Medprevent, is doubtful. Volkov and Atkov are in a picture which allegedly shows them using an early version of the system. That cannot be a photo shot during a mission in space, because they were never together on board of the Salyut 7 (the space station the Russians had in use at the time). Also the device they are using doesn’t look very much like anything having to do with electroacupuncture in particular.
A 2007 brochure [7] contains “the Success Story of PROGNOS … so far”, which gives a timeline starting in September 1994 with:

Visit of Dieter Pies to the Russian cosmonaut city with Colonel Boris I. Kruychkov and German cosmonaut Thomas Rieter regarding the license of the software and hardware of PROGNOS®

This is odd. Why would a foreign cosmonaut be involved in negotiations on the licence for a system developed by the Russians? In 2003 the timeline mentions another German cosmonaut, Ulf Merbold, in connection with a visit of Polyakov to Medprevent. Notably both names of the Germans contain a spelling mistake, ‘Rieter’ instead of ‘Reiter’ and ‘Uif’ instead of ‘Ulf’. I have the strong suspicion that these were not accidental mistakes, but were deliberately made to avoid detection of this document by the cosmonauts; don’t we all Google our own names occasionally?

Wageningen University and Outside Criticism

There are several reasons to have a critical look at this research of Wageningen University in the context of scientific integrity: the incredible origin of the I-tronic device, the conflict of interests of the authors and commissioning firm, and the reluctance of the scientists to look into matters after being confronted with this. And then I didn’t even mention the other issues I found. In the pilot study for instance, the researchers had trouble finding the right spots of the acupuncture points. ‘Luckily’ with the help of a Lecher antenna, which is a rather complicated dowsing rod, they could pinpoint the acupuncture points exactly. Pseudoscience in optima forma.
In the end I decided not to complain at Wageningen University formally or contact the counsellor for scientific integrity. Because in another case where I did take this step, I was told by the university (after a long wait) that there was actually no procedure for persons or organisations not connected to the university to complain. The Wageningen University had by the end of 2012 not yet institutionalised the national model for complaints on matters of scientific integrity, which had been laid down in 2005 and was adjusted in 2012.The university eventually implemented this procedure in the second half of 2013, more than nine months after I ended my research on this.

References

(most references are linked in the text itself)

[1] Bosma, R.H.; Kalkers-van de Ven, S.C.G.; den Boer, M.M.J. Effect of Time (Within and Between Days), and Dairy Production Factors on the Impedance Value at 24 Acupuncture Points in Dairy Cows. Animals 2012, 2, 415-425. http://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/2/3/415

[2] R.H. Bosma, H.F.J. Savelkoul, K. Frankena, T. Baars, E. Laarakker, Dairy herd health, impedance on six acupuncture points and immune response factors in milk: A pilot study, Livestock Science, Volume 99, Issues 2–3, February 2006, Pages 285-290, ISSN 1871-1413, 10.1016/j.livprodsci.2005.07.002. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301622605002095

[3] Sagrjadski, W.A.; Slokasow, W.; Rosanow, A.; Bystrow, J. Computer Supported Electro-Acupuncture Diagnostics (in Russian); Academy of Technical/Medical Science: Moscow, Russia, 1996

[4] http://medprevent.com/videos/dt_messe.swf

[5] http://www.geohealth.gr/docs/i-health%20pdf.pdf

[6] http://www.prognos.info/site/prognos.php?c=ontwikkeling (Dutch)

[7] Prognos brochure (pdf)

 


Published on March 25th 2014

The Dutch version of this article was published in the September 2013 issue of Skepter,  the magazine of the Dutch Skeptics foundation Skepsis, and can now be read online as well.

 

 

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