I’m not waiting till I die to donate my body to science, I’m doing it while I’m still very much alive!
Any given day in the back recesses of academe, private research laboratories, and large pharmaceutical companies work continues on cures for the many things which ail us. White frocked researchers labour on remedies affecting the mind and body and the need for living, breathing, healthy or diseased human specimens, to test their many theories on, has never been greater. I’m more than happy to step into the breach.
But why would people, especially healthy ones, subject themselves to being poked and prodded, given mind numbing tasks to accomplish, expose themselves to extra radiation, or taking medication that may have only been tested on animals and have harmful side effects? It certainly isn’t for the money, although there is usually a small stipend for your troubles. While the benefits of volunteering are well known - making a difference, giving back to the community, or developing new skills, most of which are benign, volunteering for clinical/research studies certainly raises the altruism bar: The knowledge that you may be, in some small way, contributing to a cure for cancer, dementia, or Parkinson’s is certainly on the top of the list.
My reasons for volunteering are a bit more complicated but mostly embrace the hope that I am not in the early stages of one of the diseases I am helping to find a cure for. I enter these studies as a healthy volunteer who will act as part of a control group which the patients afflicted with a disease will be judged against and I hope I will leave the same way I came in.
Most of the studies I have participated in have been with Western University in London, which is a hot bed of research, ranked as one of Canada’s top research-intensive universities achieving acclaim for excellence in many fields.
A typical session begins with an assessment of general health, heart rate and blood pressure are recorded, and you are given a questionnaire to assess mood and temperament. Next, you may perform a computerized test to evaluate thinking, memory, or problem solving, followed by a pencil and paper test which do the same. For some studies, you may be doing these tasks while in a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine, which will measure blood flow in various parts of your brain as well as your brain structure, all to understand how stroke victims, people with Parkinson’s, or obsessive-compulsive disorder pay attention, remember, and make decisions.
Besides the mental toll associated with being involved in one of these studies, the stress from hoping that I will not be flagged for further tests outside of the study, may be the reason why my blood pressure spikes. The nagging knowledge that my word recall is not what it used to be, and that I often go to a room, needing to retrieve something, only to forget what it was once I get there have led me to become very resourceful in proving to researchers that there are still a few good years left in this old brain and that they are lucky to have me. Some might call my methods deceitful, or even unethical but others will understand that admitting that you are indeed not what you used to be can be detrimental to your self esteem.
To my surprise I have found that the questions used to judge a volunteers acuity don’t change much from study to study so, in the hope that others, who are willing to sign up for a research study here is a primer to make you the best, healthy volunteer, you can be. Spoiler alert, for those whose ethical standards are superior to mine: Learn to draw a three-dimensional cube; practise subtracting from one hundred by different numbers; practise touching your nose and someone else’s finger with your index finger; remember what a lion, rhinoceros, and camel look like; remember lots of animal’s names and practise listing words starting with various letters; and when asked to recall five words remember face, church, robe, daisy, red. Knowing all these will impress the researchers and put you at the top of the list for further studies.
I would urge anyone reading this to volunteer for a study. You may be surprised what you find out about yourself, which is never a bad thing, and you can feel proud in the knowledge that, in some small, or perhaps big way, your selfless act will helped make life better for many people.