Wednesday, August 08, 2012

This Is Spinal Tap: For Science!

If I can't be a Mad Scientist, I can at least be a Crazy Minion!
For nearly a year, I'm been participating in a medical study "Effects of Simvastatin on CSF AD Biomarkers in Cognitively Normal Subjects". In college, I simply lacked the study discipline to do well enough in the sciences to be a scientist, but I like science (...and of course we all have an interest in making medicine work better.) So if I can't be a famous researcher, I can at least be a volunteer for studies ... and other brick in the Wall Of Science!
No Problem! The Needle Goes Right Her!
You can read about the study at the link above, but basically, it's trying to better understand "pre-Alzheimer's" with the hope of ultimately slowing the progress of the disease. Who wouldn't want to help with that!
Most of the study consists of taking a pill every night and logging that I took it (...otherwise, it's just too easy to forget.) The pill is either placebo or Simvastatin, a fairly well understood drug that alters blood cholesterol in fairly predictable ways. Periodically I go in for some blood draws and memory tests; also they occasionally call Kris to ask her about my memory and mood. It's all very sciency.
The difficult part of the study is the two lumbar punctures (a.k.a. Spinal Taps), one at the start and one near the end of the study. There's some proteins in the spinal fluid that they need to measure. All my life I've heard of Spinal Taps as being one of the ultimate measurements of pain, so I was not very enthused about this, but they explained to me that their technique and technology had gotten a lot better. While there is always the risk of something going wrong (...and they carefully went down the long list ...) usually it would be merely a bit painful and then uncomfortable for a day or two.
And in fact, that's just what it was. The needles are long but very, very thing. Actually, there are two hollow needles, one inside the other. The needle that draws the fluid is extra narrow, and its opening is on the side, sort of like the needle you use to inflate a ball. This makes sense, the pointy part pushes the flesh apart and you don't want to jam up the opening. This extra thin need starts out inside a wider needle that gets the process started; it's also easier to see in the picture.
Yesterday (Tuesday) I had the 2nd puncture of the study; while it was annoying, it wasn't really worse than getting stung by a bee. There was an elaborate and careful procedure of explaining things and scrubbing. Really the most difficult part was remembering not to drink coffee beforehand; this is Seattle, and it seemed somehow wrong. I made up for it later!
I don't plan on doing this again but if I were, I would shave my lower back first. There's a lot of procedure involving attaching paper towels (or something like them but more sciency) around the work area, and when the tape came off I felt that - they numb the LP area but not the taped area - what's the sense of that!
The doctor was very cooperative about taking pictures afterwards. I'm afraid it's not my best angle, and the sunburn from Sunday made me a real redneck, but what the heck. It's science!
By the way, if this study just creeps you out, don't worry - there are many many less invasive studies you can get involved with. I've experimented with virtual reality goggles, color sensing, and plenty of other things that didn't involve needles. I find these studies by googling "University of Washington Healthy Volunteer"; if you're outside the Seattle area, try a similar search with your favorite university. You can meet a lot of interesting people working on neat stuff!

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