Confessions of a Lab Rat

A graduate student becomes a willing—if not always enthusiastic—subject in multiple experiments
October 1, 2011
Pricked, dazed, scanned, zapped

Pricked, dazed, scanned, zapped: Research-study participant Ilgunas prepares to slide inside an MRI machine.
Les Todd

Over the course of my graduate education at Duke, I was zapped by electrodes, pricked by needles, dazed by pharmaceuticals, and I can even say that I shared three of my four primary bodily fluids. While it may sound like I spent my time exploring the shady side of the student body, I actually got paid to do these things.

I was a lab rat—a research-study participant. I took part in some twenty-five studies that would pay, typically, $10 to $20 an hour to participants willing to undergo cognitive tests, pop experimental pills, and have their brains scanned in MRI machines. And for much of my college career, I was willing—at least until I did an experiment with an anti-seizure pill that caused a harrowing, drug-induced nightmare involving my sinking into a pit of quicksand.

But with graduation around the corner— and a mere $330 in the bank and no job lined up—I needed some quick cash. So I came out of lab-rat retirement and signed up for eight studies in my last nine days at Duke.

My first couple of studies were easy enough. I’d receive $10 an hour to take a series of cognitive tests such as connecting dots and navigating through mazes on paper. Things took a turn for the weird, though, when I did a study with Duke’s Social Sciences Research Institute. A researcher led me into an empty room with a computer at the far end. He told me to fill out a questionnaire and memorize an instruction manual from the 1940s as best I could—which seemed like the most boring task ever assigned to a human being. (Since this study is ongoing, I’ve altered some minor details so as not to compromise the results of future experiments.)

On a table next to the computer was a curiously placed stack of pictures of buxom B-list starlets flashing come-hither smirks. I tried to stay focused on the manual, but every few seconds, my eyes would wander over to the pictures.

The room was eerily quiet, giving me liberty to swivel my index finger into my right nostril, trying to dislodge what felt like a crusty arrowhead. But then I paused—with finger still hooked in nose—to eye the walls, wondering if someone, on some television screen somewhere, was watching.

After I finished reading the manual, the researcher came in and—much to my horror— revealed that he had been videotaping me. The real purpose of the experiment had to do with self-control, not memory. If I gave him permission to view the video (which I did, hesitantly), he would watch it to measure how much time I spent doing what I was supposed to be doing on the computer rather than looking at the pictures.

Despite the discomforts and embarrassments, research participation, in ways, is an ideal job because it’s the antithesis of a real job. There’s no punch card, no boss, and you get to decide when you want to work and when you want to sleep until 1 o'clock in the afternoon. Plus, all the experimenters give you warm smiles and some version of a kind-hearted thank you for your “contribution to research.” Whenever they’d thank me, I’d—for a moment—beam with pride and bask in the reminder that, yes, I am a good person, and, yes, I am providing a useful service. But really, I only cared about getting paid. I never felt the glow of a “job well done” or fulfilled from having done a “good day’s work”; rather, I felt desperate and dirty, like I’d just sold a kidney to pay a gambling debt.

I’d done most of my experiments, over the years, with the Brain Imaging and Analysis Center (BIAC), whose members perform nearly 2,500 scans a year (about 70 percent with Duke students). Since 1998, BIAC has been doing research on cognitive disorders such as autism, depression, and Alzheimer’s. Researchers recruit people with a variety of these disorders to perform tasks in an MRI scanner, but they also need a control group of disorder-free participants.

For my final experiment, I signed up to be a part of the control group for an experiment on schizophrenia. At the lab, I emptied my pockets and took off my belt. I walked through a metal detector and stood warily in front of the MRI machine. It was humming, buzzing, and glowing— a bagel-shaped portal that has enough magnetic power to suck steel hand tools out of one’s grip from several feet away. It seemed alive.

I lay vampire-like on the bed as a technologist strapped a breathing belt around my waist and clamped a pulse detector around my left index finger. She also hooked up an eye tracker on my plastic helmet that collects data when pupils dilate. I stuffed plugs into my ears, and she packed a pair of headphones snugly against the sides of my face so that she and the researcher could talk to me from another room. On my stomach, she placed a box with four buttons and a squeeze ball that would sound an alarm if I wanted to be pulled out.

“Don’t fall asleep,” she instructed.

“I’ll do my best not to,” I assured her.

“You better not. You don’t want me to come get you.”

It costs BIAC $440 to run the machine for just an hour, yet as one of the researchers told me, seven out of twenty-five sessions are wasted, largely because participants have a hard time staying awake. The other major problem is that if a participant moves his or her head more than four millimeters, it could wildly distort the scan. Participants must remain perfectly still. For two hours.

The technologist rolled me into the scanner slowly. I could feel my arms—already pressed tight against the sides of my torso—rub against the walls of the machine. My heart thumped, and I gasped for air. It seemed inevitable that, in moments, I’d be squealing for someone to get me the blank out of there, but as I settled into the shadowy confines of my sarcophagus, the panic passed.

Directly above my eyes was a tilted mirror on which I could see a projection of a computer screen, controlled by the researcher in another room, where she and the technologist watched my brain. When the study began, I was shown a photograph, followed by a series of random images that I was to try to memorize. After that, I’d see just one image. My task was to click a button if I recognized this image from the previous series. As the sequence repeated, the initial photographs rotated among ordinary images—such as a fireman standing by his truck—and disturbing ones, such as a mutilated dog, a clubbed protestor, or someone pointing a gun at me.

All the while the machine droned, pulsed, and squawked as it took thirtyfour pictures (or “slices”) of my brain every two seconds. Sometimes it sounded like a phone ringing or Super Mario dropping into a sewer pipe. Other times, there was a heavy thumping that made me feel as if I were trapped inside a stereo speaker playing techno.

Every time they showed one of those terrible photographs, I was so jarred that I had far more trouble concentrating on the next series of images. This was, I’d later learn, an expected response: While emotion and working memory are located in different parts of the brain, their processes can interfere with one another. And when a schizophrenic sees a disturbing image, it can trigger a maladaptive emotional response, making it difficult for them to encode memories. The images of the changes in oxygen level in the blood in my brain would be compared to those in schizophrenics so researchers could highlight the exact site of abnormalities in the schizophrenic’s brain.

Two hours and hundreds of images later, the technologist rolled me out and thanked me for my “contribution to research.”

I can’t say if it was because I’d made $391 or because writing this essay had forced me to learn more about the studies I was participating in, but upon reflection, as I slid my belt through my jeans loopholes and dropped my keys into my pocket, I believe I did feel the dim glow of a job well done and the fulfillment of a good day’s work.

Ken Ilgunas

Ilgunas A.M. ’11 is currently living in Coldfoot, Alaska, and writing his book, Vandweller: One Student’s Attempt to Get out and Stay out of Debt, about his experiences living in a van while enrolled at Duke.