The Case Of The Missing Parasites

By Neuroskeptic | December 8, 2012 4:17 pm

Collembola or “Springtails” are a common group of bugs – they’re technically not insects although much like them – found all over the world.

There’s no evidence that these critters are parasites for humans – except for one strange scientific report claiming to have found Collembola body parts in skin scrapings from people diagnosed with delusional parasitosis – a psychiatric disorder characterised by the belief that one is infested with parasites.

According to said 2004 paper by Altschuler et al, these patients are not delusional after all. This paper has been popular in the delusional parasitosis community.

However, insect expert Matan Shelomi says that Altschuler et al’s best photo of the so-called Springtails was probably Photoshopped. He explains that in the only pic to clearly show anything resembling a ‘bug’ (there were many others, but none look convincing), the raw microscope image shows nothing but a blurry blob.

Altschuler et al claimed to have enhanced the contrast, but when Matan did that, there was still no visible critter. However, in the published image, a rather sinister bug is clearly seen. How did it get there?

Either the image contrast was somehow selectively enhanced just for the ‘bug’ part – which, of course, presumes that the bug was there, and is quite invalid – or more likely,

The level of detail present in Altschuler et al.’s enhanced image, particularly in the areas of the legs and a very odd pair of stripes along the abdomen, does not appear when contrast is applied equally. Such detail, however, can easily be created using functions such as Burn, Dodge, and Colorize on Photoshop®,when applied to select portions of the image manually as if via paintbrush.

However, Shelomi says, even if such fraud is proven, there may be nothing anyone can do: the journal the original paper was published in has since folded, so it would be impossible to retract it, and the author runs an independent non-profit and is hence not subject to scientific misconduct regulations.

Thanks very much to @benmeg for sending me a copy of this paper.

ResearchBlogging.orgShelomi M (2012). Evidence of Photo Manipulation in a Delusional Parasitosis Paper. The Journal of parasitology PMID: 23198757

CATEGORIZED UNDER: animals, mental health, papers, woo
  • Anonymous

    Photoshopping this image was potentially damaging to a lot of people. If you've ever suffered from the delusion that insects are crawling all over you, you know it is NOT FUN. Can you imagine someone trying to “treat” this by going after the skin itself? Creams, etc.? This is a person who needs help for their mind, and their anxiety, going after some phtotshopped evidence to give them relief is not smart or kind. There are real people suffering when they have these delusions (trust me on this).

  • Neuroskeptic

    Very true, and Shelomi points that out too. It's just as bad as saying to a psychotic person “Aliens are out to get you” or to a depressive “You are the worst person in history”.

  • Juliano Assanjo

    Sadly true story. I don't know about the author of the Photo-shopped paper, but, this is just another brick in the wall. Many PhDs and PostDocs are bullied by their mentors to do Hary Poter's magic, and they end up photo-shopping and/or results-forging.

  • spike

    but wait a minute!
    they say that they examined the scin scrping of 20 subjects. I bet there is something more scientific going on other than a figure. That can't be the whole story and f it is, I am really sorry for the poor science!

  • M.Shelomi

    Shelomi here. Thanks for citing my paper!

    Delusional Infestations are very tragic. These people are 100% convinced they have insects or whatnots on their bodies, but only they can see them. While the condition is treatable with psychotherapy and/or medication, patients will never seek psych help because they think they need dermatologists or parasitologists instead.

    @Anonymous: They do treat themselves, and it goes WAY beyond creams. They bathe in bleach and lysol. They try to cut the mites from their bodies using razors, then claim the scabs they create are caused by the insects. They have their pets put down for fear that they were the source of the mites. They fumigate their homes, cars, and bodies. A few have committed suicide. Many, however, eventually enter a “chronic” state where they still believe they are infested, but stop seeking treatment. Beyond the self-harm (and one attempted murder of a family doctor… really!), these patients can actually function well in society. They just suffer immensely.

    @Spike: The science in the paper is abysmal. No control group, no blinding… it's just awful. Much larger studies, such as by the Mayo Clinic and CDC, have confirmed that Delusional Infestations are just that: delusional.

    If someone you know may be suffering from such delusions, DO NOT CONFIRM THE DELUSION! It will become fixed, and will never go away. Sympathize with their suffering, and encourage them to seek help (there may be potentially serious underlying conditions going untreated), but never accept their explanation of mites, bugs, worms, fibers, nanomachines, etc.

    For more information:

  • Neuroskeptic

    Thanks for the comment, M Shelomi!



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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