On fish, brains and inflated rectums

A scientist discovers that the pursuit of life and knowledge can sometimes be less than rational.

Stuart Derbyshire

Topics Politics

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A recent trip back to the UK from the USA reminded me how insane the world is becoming.

In an attempt to inculcate responsibility into her two daughters, my sister has purchased two goldfish. I think the test is simply that the longer the fish live, the more responsible my two nieces are considered.

This is a reasonable attitude to take towards a three- and a six-year-old – but the fish shop apparently felt a similar test was necessary for my 36-year-old sister. Upon selecting her two goldfish the shopkeeper asked if the tank was ‘ready’. Ann, my sis, was confused – ‘I am buying the tank now’. The shopkeeper was appalled – ‘You can’t just drop the fish into any old water, you know; it needs to be treated’. It seems that tap water is not good enough for goldfish any more, so Ann left with the tank, no goldfish and two saddened children.

Returning later Ann again tried to purchase two goldfish and was again asked, ‘Is your tank ready?’. She replied in the affirmative – but this was not sufficient assurance of fish safety. ‘How did you get it ready?’

‘I bought the tank here and the treatment elsewhere. Now can I have two sodding goldfish?’

‘Well I have to check, you can’t just drop the fish into any old water you know.’

‘When I was a kid we used to go to the fair and come home with a fish inside a plastic bag and then drop it into a bowl of tap water. Are you telling me I was being cruel?!’

I think we all know the answer to that – but I am happy to report that Ann’s days of fish abuse are over. The two purchased goldfish are alive and well in a properly treated tank.

Unfortunately, my trip was not just recreational – I was expected to do work. The Brighton Conference Centre was host to the 2001 Human Brain Mapping conference (previously held in Paris, Boston and Montreal – don’t ask). For those of us into brain photography these affairs are usually interesting and occasionally even exciting, but this time there was a touch of the sublime.

First, there was the renowned psychiatric professor who used the chairmanship to promote her new book shamelessly – ‘reviewed favourably in Nature and available at the bookstore outside where I will be signing copies’. Then there was the disgruntled research associate from the University of California at Davis, who stormed the stage in protest at being denied the young investigator award. Wearing a long trench coat, she ranted about sexual harassment. The Americans braced themselves for gunfire, while the Brits optimistically expected a stripper.

The ridiculous became surreal, however, when former champion boxer Chris Eubank stood up to ask a question. He wanted to know where in the brain is the centre for ‘emotional intelligence’, and how could he make it work better. A mad enough question at the best of times, but the researcher he addressed had just spent 10 minutes describing the brain response to a tapping sensation. We were all justifiably perplexed – Eubank didn’t have a badge on, so how the hell did he get in?

Of course, the USA can also pitch for the surreal and ridiculous. My particular area of scientific interest is pain, and especially those pain disorders that defy conventional understanding – for example, low back pain with no noticeable pathology, chest pain in the absence of a cardiac problem, or gut pain without any bowel disorder. When I image the brain, therefore, I inflict a painful stimulus on the volunteer to monitor those areas that uniquely respond during pain experience.

This is fairly straightforward when dealing with pain on the surface of the skin – we can use an electrical heat probe or a bucket of iced water – but it is more awkward when trying to investigate gut disorders. One has to go inside, and so we literally place a balloon into the rectum. This was the work I did during my years at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA). It is a dirty job, but I guess somebody has to do it.

Issues of safety meant that the amount of inflation we could inflict was fairly low – no more than 60mmHg pressure on the rectal wall. For some people this is experienced as painful, and for most it is noticeably uncomfortable, but there are a minority of subjects who never get past the mere urge to defecate. Such volunteers were no good because we were interested in gut discomfort, not the normal urge to go.

Understandably, we wished to save time and money by screening those volunteers whom we suspected would not feel discomfort. We discovered that one simple mechanism was to disqualify gay men, but we were not allowed to do this because of ‘discrimination’. The ethics committee (Institutional Review Board) would have nothing of our attempts to inquire about sexual orientation. It is apparently a question of gay pride to have an experimental balloon in your lower gastrointestinal tract.

So if you ever think your job is a load of crap and a waste of time, think about this: somebody in Los Angeles could be pointlessly inflating the rectums of homosexual men.

Stuart Derbyshire is an assistant professor in the University of Pittsburgh Department of Anaethesiology. He is a contributor to Animal Experimentation: Good or Bad?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

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Topics Politics


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