(UPDATED)Humans are evolving a bone spike at the back of the head

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Young adults are more likely to have a spike-like growth on their skull, and a scientific study has linked the phenomenon to the rise in use of smartphones and tablets from a young age.

The bony skull bump — known as an external occipital protuberance — is sometimes so large, you can feel it by pressing your fingers on the base of your skull.

The feature used to be so rare that in 1885 a French scientist called Paul Broca complained that it had been given a name,according to the BBC.

But a study published in the Journal of Anatomy found that the growth was becoming more frequent — especially among 18 to 30-year-olds. About a quarter of 18-30-year-olds in the study had an external occipital protuberance.

David Shahar, the Australian health scientists who conducted the research, believes the development was triggered by the modern obsession with smartphones. Shahar believes that the spikes will keep getting bigger as people keep hunching over their handheld devices. But the growth on its own should not be dangerous, he said.

No, Your Kids’ Evil Cellphone Won’t Give Them Horns

A study published a couple years ago on a cranial growth has recently gotten new life as the media discovered it and has pitched it as “horns” or “bone spurs” created by cellphone use. Anthropologists and other scientists, however, have been thoroughly debunking the study this week and calling journalists out on their lack of research into the topic.

The “enlarged EOP” studies have gotten new life this past week particularly because of Shahar and Sayers’s interpretations of their data. In concluding their 2018 paper, they write, “We hypothesise that the use of modern technologies and hand-held devices may be primarily responsible for these postures and subsequent development of adaptive robust cranial features in our sample. An important question is what the future holds for the young adult populations in our study, when development of a degenerative process is evident in such an early stage of their lives?”

This interpretation, of course, has wildly spun out of control and landed in the form of headlines like this one from today’s Washington Post: “Horns are growing on young people’s skulls. Phone use is to blame, research suggests.” And anthropologists are not happy. Here’s why:

1. The study ignores anthropological research over many decades.

John Hawks, a palaeoanthropologist at the University of Wisconsin, took to Twitter this morning in a thread about the Washington Post‘s piece. He notes that the finding would be interesting if true, “but there are many warning flags with this study. The external occipital protuberance is a well-studied trait in anthropology, and we know a lot about its frequency in different populations. This paper cites none of that.”

“I’ve seen plenty of enlarged EOPs in the early Medieval skulls I’ve studied — male ones, mostly,” Nivien Speith of the University of Derby tells me. “It could be genetic, or even just a simple bony outgrowth that has unknown etiology. Often, they can occur through trauma to the area as well.”

Shahar and Sayers also call the enlarged EOP a “degenerative process,” and the news media has reported it as a “bone spur.” These are problematic terms, scientists asserts, because “in this case, they’re referring to bone growths that could be due to bone building from increased musculature and movement, not degeneration.”

2. The Nature article contains multiple errors. 

Other researchers on Twitter also had issues with the study methodology. Nsikan Akpan, who holds a PhD in pathobiology, asked his followers to spot how Shahar and Sayers’s methods don’t match their conclusions. He then quote-tweeted a response from a user named Dhari who suggests he’d like to see quadratic age and that it “would’ve been helpful to see the actual logistical model. Given how extremely parsimonious the model is, it seems many possible confounders are absorbed in the error.”

3. The interpretation of “phone bone” far over-reaches the study parameters.

Suggesting that large EOPs may be related to strong neck muscles is not an outlandish suggestion at all, and in fact has been known and proven time and time again. But attributing this change to looking at cellphones smacks of “kids these days” complaints.

Shahar and Sayers actually explain that they found only one published study on the topic of EOP changes, which may have led them to think that EOP changes are a new topic and therefore worth pathologizing. They cite this 2017 BMJ Case Report on an “occipital spur” that the study authors Eby Varghese and colleagues recognize is a normal variant but that was also symptomatic.

In order to figure out if adolescents and children are at greater risk of developing EOP, then, it would appear that Shahar and Sayers need to design a study that examines these age groups. Although more difficult in terms of ethics and permissions, this sort of study would reveal whether EOP expression is happening at younger ages. However, the study would also need to use individuals who were not otherwise symptomatic, if the goal were to understand the prevalence of enlarged EOP within a population. Shahar and Sayers took their sample from, presumably, chiropractic patients and therefore not a random sample. Because of this, they cannot fairly conclude that there is a direct connection between enlarged EOP and neck issues.

Will your kid’s “evil” cellphone give him “horns”? No. But if your neck hurts after hours of looking down at it, you might want to lie down on a pillow for a bit.

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