Should Self-Experimentation be Promoted?

By: Yameng Zhang

Edited By: Thomas Luh


“To Study the Brain, a Doctor Puts Himself Under the Knife.” Staring at the title, I was shocked, and then touched, but at last shrugged and murmured to myself: “is this a mad scientist in real life?”


This title is from a news article about Phil Kennedy, a neuroscientist. Kennedy was enthralled with neuroscience from a very young age, so he stayed in labs for years developing “invasive human brain computer interfaces,” with which neurons can grow on an artificial wire connecting the human brain to a computer. (Sounds like the idea of a mad scientist.) Early research was productive: a severely paralyzed, locked-in patient could move a computer cursor with this interface. However, after experiments in which five patients died or experienced severe suffering during research, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) refused to approve further implantation of electrodes in human brains in Kennedy’s experiments. After analyzing the old data for a long time, Phil came to an impasse: he did not have sufficient data, funding was scarce, and the ethics of the experiment were not justified. Then, he made the decision to experiment on himself. “This whole research effort of 29 years so far was going to die if I didn’t’t do something,” he said. “I didn’t’t want it to die on the vine. That is why I took the risk.” However, the side effects of this experiment could be huge. When his skull was opened, Phil was at risk of dying at any time. During the twelve hours of surgery, Phil’s blood pressure soared up, even causing temporary paralysis. However, Kennedy said: “I wasn’t the least bit scared. I knew what was going on. I invented the surgery.” (He sounds confident, but again, also like a mad scientist.) The result was that Kennedy collected some truly precious data, and cyborg research (beings with both organic and biomechatronic parts) continued.
stem cell junky 2_first draft

Dating back to 605 BCE, self-experimentation has a long history. One early example of self-experimentation is a king’s diet change, found in the Bible. Daniel, a Jewish prisoner, and his colleagues were granted positions in the government of Nebuchadnezzar. However, they could not accept the king’s diet of wine and meat. When they suggested that the king modify his diet to a more vegetable-based one, local people doubted whether the new diet could support daily activities. Daniel and his colleagues tried the new diet themselves for two weeks, and proved to others that it was indeed healthier than the established one.  Like in this case, many self-experiments focus on “melt experiments,” which do not expose the subject to high risks.


Later self-experimentation in medicine and biology involved more danger, indeed. Operated with the will of a professional scientist, self-experimentation could include long-term or high-risk experiments, offer very detailed data, and often yield amazing results. For example, Sanctorius of Padua weighed himself, his daily solid and liquid intake, and combined excretions for over thirty years, leading him to the discovery of metabolism.


So, should self-experimentation be extolled? Should selfless sacrifice be promoted? For me, no. One concern is the accuracy of the experimental results: self-experimentation, as a single-subject scientific experiment, is not completely objective. The subject has already been well-informed of all of the theories of the experiment and has his/her own expectations for results. Also, it is not easy for any human to prove his/her own postulate wrong. From another angle, we might consider the well-being of the scientists themselves. Scientists already are a group of people with outstanding persistence and a strong desire to solve problems. We should not expect more from them. In other words, even if we know that self-experimentation is more effective than regular experimentation, we should not put more stress on them to conduct it. If we extoll and promote self-experimentation, more scientists would do this due to peer pressure and reputation. They have already devoted their energy to science, and they do not have the responsibility to devote their life.

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