When the experimenters become the experiment
Some scientists get deeply, personally involved in their research, whether by zapping their muscles as they sleep, using lasers on their eyes or offering an arm to hungry mosquitoes
A group at UCD’s school of physics uses low-power lasers to build up images of the living retina to better understand how light coming in from different angles is picked up. Image: Getty
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The history of science is strewn with stories of self-experimentation. It’s not something to try at home, but in some cases the inquisitive researchers not only lived to tell the tale but also made a major discovery or advance.
In the 1980s, Australian Barry Marshall drank a soup of bacteria to show that Helicobacter pylori causes peptic ulcers and scooped a Nobel prize as well as a belly ache for the discovery.
JBS Haldane also suffered for the cause – in the 1940s he spent time in a decompression chamber to look at how gases affect the human body. As well as gathering results, he also got a burst eardrum and seizures for his trouble.
It is not uncommon for scientists to involve themselves in their experiments to this day, but regulations and ethics committees are there to put the brakes on the more extreme notions. So why do scientists self-experiment? And what are they finding out?
For Dr André Brodkorb, getting to grips with how a milk protein called alpha- lactalbumin gets digested in the stomach meant putting his own stomach on the line. “We had done some trials in test tubes in the lab, and I was excited about the prospect of a human study, which we did at the Mercy University Hospital in Cork,” recalls Brodkorb, who is a research officer at Teagasc, Moorepark.
“And when it came to recruitment I had to show leadership for my students. We had 10 people taking part and all of a sudden I was one of the dots on the graph.”
For the trial he had a nasogastric tube inserted into his stomach, then he drank the protein drink and samples were pulled out through the tube over time. It was a not wholly pleasant experience, he recalls.
As he waited for his stomach to do the digesting, out of interest the gastroenterologist showed him a tiny gadget for a “capsule” endoscopy, which takes real-time images of the gut as it passes through.
“So we had this idea to use it to watch as the proteins are digested in the stomach,” he says.
Again, Brodkorb was the guinea pig. This time a pH probe was fed down into his stomach and he swallowed the protein drink and the camera.
“We saw how the protein coagulated and how that correlated with the acid secretion in the stomach,” he says. “It clearly showed the difference between what happened in the test tube and in the stomach.”
Those insights have sparked interest from colleagues across Europe and also from industry, says Brodkorb, who now shows his “gut movie” to researchers and companies.
For Prof Brian Caulfield, trying new approaches out on himself is part and parcel of being a physiotherapist.
“Our place of work is the human body, and we use physical means and exercise to rehabilitate people,” he says. “So it’s somewhat natural to test things on ourselves.”
Caulfield, dean of physiotherapy at University College Dublin and a director at the new Insight Centre for Data Analytics, is interested in finding ways to enhance human performance in health or in sport.
A few years ago he wanted to find out if electrical stimulation could get muscles to burn off large numbers of calories during rest. So he rigged himself up to zap his leg muscles as he slept.