StATS: Self experimentation (created 2005-09-13)

Stephen Dubner and Steven D. Levitt, authors of the hot selling book, Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, have a regular column in the New York Times Magazine. In the September 11, 2005 issue, the article "Does the Truth Lie Within" discusses self-experimentation.  The authors highlight Seth Roberts:

Seth Roberts is a 52-year-old psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. If you knew Roberts 25 years ago, you might remember him as a man with problems. He had acne, and most days he woke up too early, which left him exhausted. He wasn't depressed, but he wasn't always in the best of moods. Most troubling to Roberts, he was overweight: at 5-foot-11, he weighed 200 pounds.

When you encounter Seth Roberts today, he is a clear-skinned, well-rested, entirely affable man who weighs about 160 pounds and looks 10 years younger than his age. How did this happen?

The authors go on to say that all of Seth Roberts ills were cured by self experimentation. He tried various interventions and evaluated the results.

It took him more than 10 years of experimenting, but he found that his morning insomnia could be cured if, on the previous day, he got lots of morning light, skipped breakfast and spent at least eight hours standing.

Losing weight depended on a theory of weight regulation known as the set-point theory which says that your weight is determined by what you needed to survive during stone age times because

when food is scarcer, you become less hungry; and you get hungrier when there's a lot of food around.

This encouraged us to store food when it was plentiful as fat so as to help us survive when food becomes scarce. It worked well long ago, but today food is plentiful all year round, so the signal to stop storing fat never gets turned off. Seth Roberts experimented with flavors that might trick the set-point system into thinking that food was actually scarce. A bland, unflavorful diet might work, he theorized, but no one wants to be stuck eating like that. He found that a few tablespoons of unflavored oil worked as did several ounces of sugar water.

The results were astounding. Roberts lost 40 pounds and never gained it back. He could eat pretty much whenever and whatever he wanted, but he was far less hungry than he had ever been. Friends and colleagues tried his diet, usually with similar results.

Numerous references and additional details are at the Freakonomics website

There are several amusing examples of self experimentation at this website, but not mentioned is one of my personal favorites, the 1994 Ig Nobel prize winner in Entomology:

Robert A. Lopez of Westport, NY, valiant veterinarian and friend of all creatures great and small, for his series of experiments in obtaining ear mites from cats, inserting them into his own ear, and carefully observing and analyzing the results. [Published as "Of Mites and Man," The Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, vol. 203, no. 5, Sept. 1, 1993, pp. 606-7.]

The IRBForum also has an amusing tale of self-experimentation

With respect to PI's being a part of their own studies, I am reminded of the interesting story of Dr. William Castle studying pernicious anemia in 1926, a uniformly fatal disease until about that time.

[I had the great privilege of knowing "Big Bill" when I was a child, spending 2 weeks each summer with his family on Cape Cod, not knowing that he was a demi-god in the medical research world. He taught me how to swim, sail, and fish!]

He would eat raw beef patties each morning, then regurgitate one hour later. He would incubate the slurry at body temperature for six hours, then strain it and feed it to patients with pernicious anemia through a naso-gastric tube! The prompt reticulocyte response in patients unresponsive to beef muscle alone or gastric juices alone provided the proof of the existence of a substance called intrinsic factor.

Hmmm. How would that experiment be worded in an informed consent statement these days?! Email by Toby Acheson, 03-14-04.

as well as two cautionary tales

One of the difficulties with investigators enrolling in their own research is that they may not take the same precautions with their own health that they take with others. Examples from my institution include Jesse William Lazear (1866-1900) who died of yellow fever after likely experimenting on himself with a series of experimental inoculations and William Halstead (1852-1922), who developed addictions to cocaine and morphine while researching the potential for these drugs as local anesthetics. Email by Lisa Leventhal, 03-13-04.

Another participant in the IRBForum, Miguel Roig, cites a publication opposing self-experimentation in a 03-16-04 email:

Except in certain cases of unusual risk, self-experimentation should not be encouraged. It is usually scientifically inadequate for lack of proper controls and sufficient subjects to generate meaningful results. It is also inadequate as an ethical test because even if lay persons are also enrolled, self-experimentation is neither necessary nor sufficient to establish that they may participate. Davies, J. K. (2003) Self-experimentation. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance, 10(3),175-187.

This page was written by Steve Simon while working at Children's Mercy Hospital. Although I do not hold the copyright for this material, I am reproducing it here as a service, as it is no longer available on the Children's Mercy Hospital website. Need more information? I have a page with general help resources. You can also browse for pages similar to this one at Category: Ethics in research.