Some areas of research are glamorous, such as the stars, the genome, or dinosaurs. Some other areas of research are vital to our well-being, such as vaccines, heart disease, and cancer. Other areas of research are fun, such as puzzles and game theory. And the best thing about research in these areas is that you can talk about it during lunch, dinner, and cocktail parties!
However, some areas of research delve into subjects that most people would consider downright disgusting. But what are scientists to do if their pursuit of the scientific truth leads them to spend long hours in the office, the field, or the lab designing and carrying out experiments or analyses dealing with slimy icky things, body parts, tissue samples, or bodily fluids? In this post we are going to see why people consider some things disgusting, but first we are going to go over some examples of research into disgusting things that scientists have published.
Coincident Tick Infestations in the Nostrils of Wild Chimpanzees and a Human in Uganda by Hamer and coworkers, published in The American Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene in 2013.
Here a scientist studying ticks in the nostrils of chimpanzees found that one of these arachnids had latched on to his own nose. He took it out, sequenced its DNA, and found out it may be a new species!
Buttock Augmentation: A Novel Alternative to a Lengthy Procedure by George Solomon, published in The American Journal of Cosmetic Surgery in 2016.
Who would not be interested in coming up with a better procedure to increase buttock size?
The effect of acute increase in urge to void on cognitive function in healthy adults by Lewis and coworkers, published in the journal Neurourology and Urodynamics in 2011.
In this research, scientists had people perform cognitive tasks while drinking fluid. The researchers found that the more you want to pee, the less well you perform in a cognitive task. Good to know!
Volatile components in defensive spray of the hooded skunk, Mephitis macroura by Wood and coworkers, published in the Journal of Chemical Ecology in 2002.
Here the researchers investigated all the chemical compounds present in the anal sack of a variety of skunk. This research stinks!
Experimental replication shows knives manufactured from frozen human feces do not work by Eran and coworkers, published in the Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports in 2019.
An old story in archeological circles stated that a man made a knife from his frozen feces to butcher an animal. The researcher here found out these knives do not work. So now you know what not to do when trying to butcher an animal.
The fate of the embedded virgin sand flea Tunga penetrans: Hypothesis, self-experimentation and photographic sequence by Thielecke and Feldmeier, published in the journal Travel Medicine and Infectious Disease in 2013.
In this article, a researcher found that a sand flea had burrowed under her skin. She allowed it to remain there and made observations that permitted her to gain insight into how sand fleas reproduce. Now, that’s dedication!
The effect of Having Christmas Dinner with In-Laws on Gut Microbiota composition by de Clercq and coworkers, published in the Human Microbiome Journal in 2019.
Yes, you read that right. These researchers investigated how having dinner with your in laws changes the bacterial composition of your intestinal contents.
Personal space invasions in the lavatory: suggestive evidence for arousal by Middlemist and coworkers, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology in 1976.
Here researchers found that men who have other men peeing next to them take longer to begin peeing. I would just sing that song, “Don’t stand so close to me.”
Biomechanics of male erectile function by Daniel Udelson, published in the Journal of the Royal Society, Interface in 2007.
The author of this article studied the male organ and came up with complex mathematical equations that describe its buckling as well as blood flow through it. This guy is an expert.
Pressures produced when penguins pooh—calculations on avian defaecation by Meyer-Rochow and Gal published in the journal Polar Biology in 2003.
As it turns out, some researchers not only study disgusting things, but they also study why you find the things they study disgusting!
The observation was made a long time ago that those things that people find disgusting are related in various ways to infectious diseases. So, scientists have developed the hypothesis that the feeling of disgust in animals such as humans evolved to affect behavior in such a way as to reduce the risk of infection. This is the so called “parasite avoidance theory”.
A group of researchers tested the theory by performing an experiment where they presented several disgusting scenarios in writing to a total of more than 2,600 participants in a study. These scenarios ranged from watching people pick their nose, spotting an unflushed toilet, or seeing pus come out of a genital sore, to accidentally using someone else’s deodorant, eating onion flavored ice cream, or watching a fly crawl across the face of a sleeping friend. The participants were asked to rate each scenario in a scale from 0 (no disgust) to 100 (extreme disgust). Using statistics, the scientists found that the responses of the participants could be categorized into six factors: avoidance of skin lesions, spoiled foods, animal vectors, promiscuous sexual practices, and individuals with poor hygiene or atypical appearance. This suggests that human beings have an instinctive “pathogen detection system” that leads them to avoid people, practices, and objects associated with infectious disease.
But research into disgust is not merely an academic endeavor. Disgust plays an important role in anxiety and phobias, and disgust is an emotion that can often affect our judgement in subtle ways. For instance, in another study researchers asked people to make moral judgments in environments where they were exposed to disgusting stimuli such as a bad smell. They found that people in the disgusting environments tended to make harsher moral judgments. This awareness of the effects of disgust in human psychology has been applied to promote the avoidance of behaviors by people that can lead to spread of disease. Unfortunately, it can also be misapplied to fan prejudice and stigmatize individuals or entire groups of people. For example, studies have revealed that people that are more prone to being disgusted have a greater intuitive disapproval of gay people, and in the past (it is more subtle nowadays) much anti-gay propaganda contained associations with disgusting images and statements.
Disgust expression photo by Eric Molina from flickr is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
I have written extensively on hydroxychloroquine (HQ) in my blog. Now that the interest of society has shifted towards the COVID-19 vaccines, it’s time to do a recap of the issues I addressed related to HQ and provide a final update.
President Trump advocated HQ and one his advisers criticized Dr. Fauci for questioning its effectiveness. The French doctor Didier Raoult claimed a 99.3% success rate in treating COVID-19 patients with HQ, and accounts of patients treated with HQ experiencing dramatic recoveries (Lazarus-like coming back from the dead effects) were appearing in the news. In my post, I warmed against accepting these isolated “dramatic effects” reports as a measure of a drug effectiveness, stated that the only measure of a drug’s effectiveness is clinical trials, and explained why.
I addressed the claim made by some doctors that HQ is 100% effective against COVID-19, and I explained not only why it is highly unlikely, but also that this is a regular claim made by charlatans. I also explain that the best clinical trials conducted so far had not found evidence that HQ worked.
I debunked the misinformation that Dr. Fauci is aligned with powerful pharmaceutical interests to hamper the adoption of HQ as a life saving drug, and that Dr. Fauci already knew HQ worked more than 15 years ago. I also addressed the issue of the articles claiming that HQ did not work and was harmful. I argued that the fact that these articles were published in medical journals and then retracted is not a conspiracy but rather indicate that science worked the way it should. I also debunked the notion that countries that had embraced the use of HQ were doing better.
I decried the politization of HQ and the notion that it is “the president’s drug”, and I outlined the evidence at the time against HQ which indicated it’s not effective against COVID-19.
I debunked in more detail the conspiracy that Fauci knew about HQ being effective, and I proceeded to explain a bold hypothesis that explains why HQ alone does not work against COVID-19.
I debunked the notions that high doses of HQ were used in some clinical trials to make HQ fail, or that pharmaceutical companies want to eliminate HQ because it’s a cheap alternative to their expensive drugs. Since some HQ proponents were then arguing that HQ only works with zinc (the zinc hypothesis), I pointed out that this contradicted their cheering of studies where HQ allegedly worked alone (which it shouldn’t have if it only works with zinc).
I examined the difference between doctors and scientists and debunked the notions that “doctors know best” and that “we don’t need randomized trials”. I also described the important role of the scientific establishment in science.
I explained why observational trials cannot provide the final evidence that HQ works, and I pointed out that even the authors of the studies that the pro-HQ folk cite in favor of HQ state that randomized trials are needed.
Despite the evidence which indicated that HQ did not work alone or with antibiotics, some HQ proponents still supported the hypothesis that HQ worked as long as you combined it with zinc. In this post I explained the evidence against HQ alone or with zinc. I also explained why it is important to remain objective and not fall in love with your hypotheses.
In this final post, I readdressed the conspiracy theory that claimed that the clinical trials of HQ were designed to make it fail. I also examined the accusation that Dr. Fauci’s unwillingness to accept that HQ works was killing people.
As I have mentioned before, to reach a conclusion regarding the activity of HQ on COVID-19 you need to focus on the studies that allocate patients to treatments at random (randomized studies). There are people that keep pushing the claim that HQ does work based on the total number of studies performed on the drug, which includes the observational (non-randomized) studies which are of lower quality because they are prone to bias. I searched a database for randomized studies of HQ and COVID-19, and only two of the studies I found were positive for the drug (1, 2), whereas 25 other studies were negative (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25).
However, whether HQ works or not cannot be established merely by counting the number of pro and con studies. Even among randomized studies, some studies are of lower quality than others. One or two high-quality studies can trump many low-quality studies. In order to evaluate the merits of studies in addressing whether HQ works for COVID-19, scientists perform analyses (studies of studies) where they assess the quality and relevance of the studies. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic several of these analyses have been performed. I searched the database for these analyses and I found 20 of them, all negative for HQ (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20).
The conclusion is inescapable, hydroxychloroquine DOES NOT work for COVID-19. Period, end of the discussion. The breathtaking number of studies conducted on this drug is a testament to its politicization. The sheer amount of manpower and resources devoted to testing HQ was unjustified when a handful of studies would have sufficed. The attacks and lies hurdled against scientists including Dr. Fauci because they refused to accept that HQ works based on the available data was unethical.
From Mr. Trump who unwisely promoted the drug to individuals such as the epidemiologist Harvey Risch and Dr. Vladimir Zelenko or groups such as the Front-Line Doctors who all claimed the drug worked even when the best evidence indicated otherwise, this saga has been a lesson on what people should not do with science and in science. Unfortunately, these people have not learned their lesson and still claim to have been right all along.
Such is the complexity of the human mind.
Image by WHO-openaccess was cropped from a PNG file by Cantons-de-l'Est and is used here under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 IGO license, and was modified to include the name and formula of hydroxychloroquine.
As I have written several times, science is a process that involves a lot of back and forth. Scientists have different opinions and exchange arguments. They adopt positions based on the available evidence and change their mind when new evidence comes along. As is expected, this process is ongoing for the COVID-19 vaccines. These vaccines have been found to be safe and effective in clinical trials and in studies conducted afterwards in real-world situations. But all vaccines, as everything, do have small risks. For example, the COVID-19 vaccines can cause an anaphylactic reaction in individuals prone to severe allergies, and this is recognized in vaccination decisions and procedures.
Because scientists want vaccines to be as safe as possible, there is an effort to identify other rare side effects of vaccines as well as figuring out how the COVID-19 virus works so more effective and safer vaccines can be made. Most COVID-19 vaccines rely on making the cells at the site of injection produce the viral spike protein, which is the protein that allows the virus to get into the cells and infect them. These spike proteins are anchored to the surface of the cells expressing them and trigger the immune response. Therefore, this protein is an object of ongoing research.
Several articles have been published in the scientific literature regarding this protein. In one article, researchers found that the spike protein alone in the absence of the rest of the virus can damage the wall of blood vessels (the endothelium). In a another article researchers found that the spike protein alone or its subunits (the spike protein is made up of two subunits) can disrupt the barrier that protects the brain from blood borne substances (the blood brain barrier). These findings, although preliminary, are important in that COVID-19 displays many symptoms involving the circulatory system and indicate that the spike protein alone could be responsible for them.
The issue we are discussing today arises from another article where researchers were able to measure the spike protein in the circulation of patients who had received the COVID-19 vaccine. A Canadian immunologist, Dr. Byram Bridle, saw the above data and (apparently without consulting with colleagues or the authors of the articles) started claiming that we have made a mistake with the COVID-19 vaccines. He unwisely gave interviews where he claimed that the vaccines make our cells produce the spike protein which is a toxin that leaks to the circulation where it can cause damage in some people. Needless to say the antivaxxer social media pages and websites lit up like a Christmas tree and unleashed upon the internet a torrent of posts and memes proclaiming how unsafe the COVID-19 vaccines are, demanding that vaccinations stop, and bragging about how they had been right all along.
I am not going to debunk this in detail, as others have done a very good job of that, but here is the gist of the argument. The method used by the researchers that detected the vaccine spike protein in the blood was 100-1000 times more sensitive than regular methods. The amount of protein they measured is basically the background that you would get from a very, very small fraction of the protein making into the circulation because of, for example, cells dying. These levels are tens of thousands of times lower than the spike protein concentrations reported to be detrimental in the other articles. Additionally, the spike protein generated by the vaccine is different from the spike protein from the virus as it has been engineered to be safer. Many scientists including colleagues of Dr. Bridle and even the authors of the papers claim that he is overinterpreting the data. Finally, if indeed the spike protein alone turns out to be responsible for a sizable portion of the COVID-19 pathology, then that is excellent news because the antibodies produced by the vaccine (unlike natural immunity) are all against the spike protein, so they will likely neutralize this toxicity too.
Now let me get to the question I formulated in the title of this post. How can you do science in this environment? Scientific research is no cakewalk. There is a lot of frustration and anxiety involved. There are many defeats and few victories. But finally, when scientists find something worth publishing, how do you think they feel when their results are misinterpreted? Every scientist in the COVID-19 field who deals with the demands of research and the toll it takes on their lives must now consider the possibility that the results of their investigations will be splashed in misleading memes all over the internet by the antivaxxer crowd. This means that they will have to devote some of their limited time to dispelling these ideas by doing interviews, writing articles, or answering e-mails from scores of people.
But the worst part is that if scientists find something that may be negative about the COVID-19 vaccine, they may be inclined not to publish it just to avoid being in the center of the media hurricane that will surely form around them. And this is terrible, because we need every piece of information so we can have a more complete picture of the safety and efficacy of the vaccines in order to improve them.
Science thrives on an open debate among scientists. In the old days this debate, which involves highly technical information with a lot of detail and nuance, took place mostly within the scientific community. Today the public can gain access to this debate by several means. Although this is a positive development, the preliminary data and tentative ideas that scientists generate as part of this debate, are being misrepresented by many people, sometimes out of ignorance, but most of the time as part of an agenda to generate viral stories to cause confusion and sow doubt.
And scientists are stuck in the middle of this.
The photo of the COVID-19 vaccine by Lisa Ferdinando (DOD) was taken from the Flickr photostream of the US Secretary of Defense and is used here under an Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0) license.
Scientists know that one important way to gain insight into how the human mind works is by observing what happens when it experiences a disfunction. In this regard, scientists have documented some rare but remarkable neurological conditions and diseases.
The normal function of the brain may be altered as a result of a surgical procedure.
In the second half of the twentieth century, doctors carried out a radical surgery that severed the connections between the two hemispheres of the brain to treat uncurable seizures. While this procedure was effective at stopping the seizures, it would leave both brain hemispheres unable to share information and coordinate with each other. These split-brain patients have been objects of much research that has allowed scientists to gain insight into how the brain normally works.
In humans, the right hemisphere receives nerve inputs from and controls the left side of the body, whereas the left hemisphere does likewise with the right half. With regards to vision, the left hemisphere receives information about the right side of the visual field (it cannot see the left side) with the opposite happening with the right hemisphere. Using this information, scientists were able to relay questions to the subjects and make them perform tasks in such a way that they could discriminate between the responses and performance of the right and the left hemispheres, and what they found was amazing.
They discovered that the two hemispheres often displayed separate personalities and held different beliefs with one split brain patient famously answering the question “Do you believe in God?” with a “Yes” by one hemisphere and a “No” by the other. They also found that the communication between both hemispheres was required for exercising normal moral judgement in fast answers to specific questions.
The normal function of the brain may also be altered as a result of a disease or a traumatic event.
This one is also called, “The Walking Corpse Syndrome” because the individuals afflicted by it develop what are called nihilistic delusions in which they perceive themselves, or some of their body parts, to be dead, dying, or to not exist at all. People with this affliction will reduce food intake or stop eating because they have no use for this activity as they believe themselves to be dead after all. Some patients will spend an inordinate amount of time in cemeteries. Cotard’s Syndrome is often associated with other conditions ranging from severe depression to neurological conditions and diseases.
Alien Hand Syndrome
In this curious disease, one of the hands of a person will start moving on its own without the person being able to control it. The hand will perform purposeful tasks sometimes repeatedly, and may even antagonize things the other hand has just done such as buttoning a button. Alien Hand Syndrome is associated with conditions that cause trauma to the brain and neurodegenerative diseases.
Dissociative Identity Disorder
This disorder, which in the past was called Multiple Personality Disorder, is a situation where the identity of a person is split among at least two separate identities that take control over the individual. Each identity may have their own name, sex, race, and psychological and physical characteristics. Dissociative Identity Disorder is associated with the suffering of psychological trauma specially during childhood.
People affected with Apotemnophilia have an overwhelming desire to amputate their limbs, with some expressing a wish to be paralyzed. Some of the afflicted individuals perform the amputations themselves or ask their friends, relatives, and health practitioners to help them with the process. Although scientists still don’t know what causes the condition, a possible explanation is a faulty representation of the limbs in the areas of the brain that deal with self-recognition of body structures.
Boanthropy, Clinical Lycanthropy, and Clinical Zoanthropy
Boanthropy is a condition where the affected persons believe themselves to be a cow or ox. They will actually go over to pastures, get down on all fours, and eat grass. Clinical Lycanthropy involves people who think they are turning into werewolves. These people see their bodies covered with hair and their fingernails and teeth elongated. These two conditions are cases of the broader disease called Zoanthropy where people believe themselves to have turned into various animals. Some of these conditions are associated with diagnosed mental diseases such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or severe depression.
So, what does the information I presented above reveal about ourselves and our brains?
Most people accept that the brain plays a key role in movement. Individuals who break their spinal columns may be unable to move their limbs. I have posted a video of the time I had Bell’s Palsy where a malfunction in a nerve paralyzed half of my face. Similarly, most people accept the role that the brain plays in processes such as learning, perception, and memory, and there are many examples of accidents or diseases that have led to impairment of these processes.
Nevertheless, despite the acceptance of the role of the brain in determining the processes described above, many people believe the human mind is something special. These people believe that there is something else, whether you call it soul, spirit, essence, or any other such term, that is responsible for the most fundamental aspects of the human mind which they believe cannot just merely be produced by a bunch or nerve cells.
However, the pathologies or conditions I have listed in this post and others indicate to us the importance of the brain not just in determining obvious things like movement, learning, perception, and memory, but also in determining things that lie at the very core of our humanity such as who we are, how we see ourselves, and what we believe in. If a bunch of nerve cells can create movement, learning, perception, and memory, why can’t they also determine our very nature? Much in the same way that the intestines can create digestion, why can’t the brain create the mind?
Of course, science cannot say anything about the existence of a soul, essence, or spirit, but what we can say at this moment is that all the evidence we have so far indicates that everything that you are seems to be nothing more than the result of millions of nerve cells in your head communicating with each other in different patterns and at different times.
Boggles the mind, eh?
The image is from Pixabay is free for commercial use.