I am a lab rat!

Everyone likes to read about people who have had brain injuries, and what those pathologies have revealed about normal brain function. I mean, you can’t exactly go around tinkering inside people’s skulls to see what the various headmeats and glands do, can you? So the scientists have no choice but to lay in wait for people to have brain problems, and then snatch them up and take them back to the lab. Eventually the results of the study may help healthy people too, if they lead to better understanding of how the wetware works.

Today I got to make my own little contribution to Science [say Science in that Thomas Dolby voice!] by being part of a Stanford-Veterans Administration study of pituitary function after head trauma (including subarachnoid hemorrhage, I guess the blood leaking into your brainstem does your pituitary no good). The pituitary programs the other glands, and therefore controls a lot of stuff related to growth, metabolism, hydration, sex, and reproduction. People who have had brain traumas can experience subtle changes in their ability to grow muscle and burn fat, because the brain-body connection expresses itself through hormones as well as electrical impulses.

Which is where your humble lab rat comes in. It seemed like a noble goal to serve Science by volunteering, and besides I owe Stanford Hospital a lot so helping them out with their research seemed like a small downpayment. Even after a night of fasting, early morning appointment, mandatory pregnancy test, an hour of multiple attempts to slam a catheter into my scarred veins, and the drawing of approximately 40 vials of blood at half-hour intervals… still good. I reminded myself that I was also helping soldiers with brain injuries, and even “normal” people having trouble losing weight due to subtle hormonal problems.

But then I got to sample the joy of drug-induced hyperglycemia, and it’s not as much fun as it sounds. To measure Human Growth Hormone production, they gave me a common medication which also forces your liver to dump glucose into the bloodstream really fast — in fact, the stuff they give you if you’re in a diabetic coma from too much insulin. Not only were the symptoms unpleasant — vomiting, dizziness, feeling like my legs weren’t working, headache, sweats — but the whole experience was just a bit too reminiscent of my hemorrhage. The doctor did hold my hair back while I puked, which I thought was a nice improvement from last time. I reassured everyone that it was OK because I was suffering for Science… I think that nonplussed them :).

Somewhat to my surprise, I made it through the whole day of testing! The last bit was the most fun since it involved a full-body composition scan — e.g. lying on a moving table, lightly taped down, for 6 minutes — rather than blood draws. But I’m glad I gutted it out for Science! Not that I’d wish a brain injury on anyone, but it’s consoling to know that from the misfortune of a few can come knowledge for all.

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