[AI] Diary of a lab rat; What's it like to spend five days

Sanjay ilovecold at gmail.com
Wed Jan 9 10:32:04 EST 2008

  Diary of a lab rat; What's it like to spend five days
          blindfold in the name of science? One brave journalist
          found out

Alison Motluk

FOR more than a decade, I have been reporting on the big advances
in neuroscience. I have talked to the top names, attended their
conferences, read their papers and visited their labs, but I have
never been on the receiving end of their work - until now.
Earlier this year, I volunteered to become effectively blind for
a week, as part of a study to test what happens to a brain when
it is suddenly deprived of light. This is my diary:Thursday

Induction. I report to the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in
Boston, as instructed. To be honest, I am having second thoughts.
I'm not sure I want to be blindfolded. What if I can't hack it?
I'm worried I'll wake up in the middle of the night and not know
where I am, that I won't be able to find the bathroom, that
they'll discover a brain tumour - or worse, a very small,
unimpressive brain. Why did I agree to do this?

I realise there is no turning back as I meet the research team.
Naomi Pitskell is the study coordinator, Lotfi Merabet will be
running the show, and Marina Bedny plans to conduct some pilot
tests on me. Over the next few hours they evaluate my hearing,
vision and general neurological function. Miraculously, despite
last night's insomnia, all is normal.

Others have done this before me, but that isn't much consolation:
most were undergraduate students about half my age. I confide to
Lotfi my big fear that I will be the subject who definitively
pinpoints the age when the human brain can no longer adapt - that
I'll lose my sight for good. "That's not going to happen!" he
hoots. Yet later, as I re-read the 17-page consent form, I notice
that the hospital and staff cannot be held responsible if
anything goes wrong.

In the afternoon the team introduce me to some of my tasks. One
involves listening to pairs of tones and deciding whether they go
up or down. Another requires me to produce verbs to accompany
nouns: I hear "dog" and respond "fetch". Then there is the
category game. Listing countries is easy, but I am totally
stumped on cars and football teams.Friday

Day Zero. Today the researchers are locating my visual cortex.
Unfortunately that involves staring at flashing lights - a
guaranteed migraine trigger for me. At least obsessing over the
impending headache helps me ignore the discomfort of getting into
an MRI scanner, which entails lying down on a long plastic tray,
having your head locked into a little plastic cage, and being
slid into a narrow cylindrical hole. You feel a bit like a CD
being popped into a stereo, or a stiff going into storage in the
morgue. I lie there motionless for two hours.

By the time I formally check into the hospital, a big snowstorm is
blowing in, and the city is coming to a standstill. I am lodged
in a special wing reserved for people crazy enough to sign up for
research projects and clinical trials. The nurses are friendly.
They have seen this all before, and tell me people cope
surprisingly well with the blindfold, although one woman did have
to be sent home when she was caught peeking at the TV.

Tonight I will be alone, but I learn that down the corridor some
hapless soul will soon be staying awake for 88 hours straight for
a sleep deprivation study. It puts the blindfolding into context.

I spend the evening playing with my talking clock and practising
writing with my eyes closed using my "writing guide". A note is
posted on my door: "This is study N-107. When entering this room
please announce yourself so our blindfolded subject is not
startled." Yikes! What am I getting into?Saturday

Day One. I wake early, very anxious. After breakfast I perform the
ceremonial last washing of the hair and take a good, hard look
around my room to try to imprint it on my memory. At 8.20 Lotfi
enters and the blindfolding begins. I slip on the eyemask, with
its shiny black plastic front, thick foam backing and Velcro
strap. It has cavities carved out of the foam, so I can open my
eyes if I want. Then Lotfi wraps an elastic bandage around my
head to hold the mask and make sure it is light-proof. He shines
a flashlight at potential weakpoints. I can't see a thing.

Now the testing begins in earnest. I do more verbs and lists and
tones. There is also a new task, where I have to figure out if
there are spaces between rows of raised dots. It's weird, but I
don't mind not being able to see them. I don't even miss seeing

The crucial next step is a baseline fMRI scan. By comparing this
with a similar scan done on day five, the team will be able to
see how my brain has adapted to life without visual input.
Shortly before noon, Lotfi brings news that the scanner is
broken. We have no option but to stop the experiment. They remove
my blindfold. We will have to wait and see whether we can start
again tomorrow.Sunday

Day One - Again. Woo-hoo! The scanner is working. By late morning,
with blindfold replaced and a fresh round of cognitive tests
behind me, Lotfi helps me down the elevator and into the hospital
lobby. With my white cane and head bandaged I am creating a stir.
"I hope none of my patients see me with you," he quips. "They'll
wonder what I did wrong."

We drive over to Boston University, where all my scans are being
done. The scanner is a nicer place without vision. I do tasks
like identifying objects by touch, recalling a list of words and
generating yet more verbs. The scanner is not entirely fixed yet,
and every so often it turns itself off to avoid overheating. When
that happens we have to start all over again. I lie still for
what feels like hours.

Back at Beth Israel it is time for some transcranial magnetic
stimulation. TMS uses magnets to induce tiny electrical impulses
that turn off target areas of the brain, so researchers can test
whether they are needed in certain tasks. Journalists often give
the impression it is quick and easy: far from it. First I have a
device strapped to my head so that my brain can be tracked in
space, allowing comparisons on day five. Then they use an MRI
scan to figure out where the target areas are. This is not quick.

Finally we are ready for the TMS itself. In a trial run on my arm
it click-clicks away harmlessly. See? It's nothing. It feels just
the same on the first scalp site. Click click click. At the
second site it is a bit more like a mean flick of the finger
against my skull. The final site, just above my left ear, is
altogether less fun - like having a woodpecker perched on the
side of your head, pecking once a second for 10 minutes, but
without breaking the skin.

Driving back after the scan, I had noticed an intense pinprick of
light. It lasted a minute or two then disappeared. Later, there
were short-lived and less intense specks, sometimes many at a
time, like a distant galaxy. Now it is evening and I am seeing
brightly illuminated swimming sperm and slowly swirling
firecrackers. At other times there is a grey, textured palette,
something like the grainy undersea images from the wreck of the
Titanic. When things settle down, I sense the faint glowing haze
of a late-summer dusk. I press my talking clock. "It's
ten-oh-five pm."Monday

Day Two. No more tests until day five now. Instead, I have lessons
in navigation - and not a moment too soon. I have already given
myself a bloody lip by slamming into a towel rail. Carol Coggio
Faherty from the Carroll Center for the Blind in Newton,
Massachusetts, teaches me how to protect my head and how to
square off so I set off in the right direction from my starting
point. I also learn how to use a guide's elbow and my white cane,
and, perhaps most importantly, not to feel self-conscious as I
grope around.

Eating is distressing. I hunch over my tray and shovel the food
in. With utensils, I never know how much is coming, so now I just
use my hands. I feel like a caveman. I am not enjoying the
flavours or textures at all, and my senses of smell and touch are
not coming to my assistance as I had hoped. For instance, biting
into a lovely firm piece of cucumber, I discover it is actually a
slice of lemon.

The lightshow continues. Jagged shapes, vertical lightning
strikes, symmetrical patterns, strings that quiver in time to the
music on my CD.Tuesday

Day Three. I have become very sensitive to my body temperature. I
feel it rise dramatically after eating, and I can tell where I am
by how cool or warm the air around me is. I have never noticed
this before. My sense of smell is also becoming more acute.
Perhaps I didn't need that to tell me I could use a shower.

Strange things are happening. A short while ago, a nurse came in
while I was listening to music and I didn't hear her say hello.
Suddenly I smelled face powder right next to me and leapt up in
terror. While talking to the nutritionist, my phone rang. I told
my friend to call back and resumed the conversation, only to
discover the nutritionist had gone.

I was enjoying the "view" from my window until someone pointed out
that the blind was drawn. Even in the middle of the day, my room
is in complete darkness.

There is no darkness for me, though. The shapes and flashes have
been joined by what look like searchlights, bouncing off waves
and patches of thick fog. Flares are set off, illuminating the
choppy seas of my brain for an instant. It seems like a desperate
cry for help. "Hello visual input! Are you out there!" This
sensation is heightened by the sounds of a storm at my window,
though I am told the day is sunny and calm. It's hard not to be
just a little alarmed.Wednesday

Day Four. I have noticed a growing pig-headedness. For the past
three days I have woken with the confident knowledge that it is 8
am. Each day, the clock disagrees. First 5.35, then 5.30, then
today 4.45. Ditto when navigating my room. I square off against
the bed and head towards the bathroom. Failing to encounter the
anticipated wall, I nevertheless continue confidently until I
chance upon the table on the opposite side of the room. It makes
me tetchy to discover the room morphing as I walk knowledgeably
through it.

Lotfi took me for a stroll around the hospital this afternoon. I
was completely comfortable negotiating stairs because I had the
glorious handrail. Once back on the flat, however, I felt
vulnerable, as though I was perched on a tiny platform - one
wrong step and I would hurtle over the edge.

Tonight I had the weird sensation of being able to detect my hand
passing in front of my eyes. As I waved it to and fro, it caused
a ripple of visual disturbance through the image in my head. I
can only assume that in a desperate attempt to see, my visual
cortex is taking coordinates from my hand and saying "Look! We
have intelligence that something is moving right here. It's yay
big with five appendages and it's wagging. Can you find it!" The
astonishing implication is that at least part of seeing is
knowing what to look for.

I am so ready for this to end. I've finished listening to David
Sedaris at Carnegie Hall and have the entire unabridged
Thirty-nine Steps  under my belt. I hope my brain performs well
tomorrow - especially that most important trick of allowing me to
see again.Thursday

Day Five. Suddenly, everything is very exciting. We're nearly
there, and with no major mishaps. We repeat everything we did on
day one, including the cognitive tasks, the scanning and the TMS.
By 4.30 pm, right on schedule, we are done.

It is time to take the blindfold off. Lotfi sits across from me in
my room. It feels like he has rescued me from a kidnapping and is
about to debrief me. The blind is down and we are in total
darkness. He removes my bandage and puts a towel over my head. I
undo the Velcro and take off the mask. I am shocked to see the
inside of the towel glowing with light. After a few minutes, I
glance down at my thighs. They are like embers. I feel nauseous
and have to look up again. After a few minutes, we take the towel
off and the room seems bright all around me, despite being in
pitch darkness.

Gradually, my eyes adjust and Lotfi raises the blind a centimetre.
Within 10 minutes it is drawn all the way up, and everything is
bright and crisp, no longer on fire or grainy. There's a problem,
though. When I move my head, my eyes are not seeing what my head
reports - every snapshot is just a split second behind what it
should be.

By 5 pm my vision is almost normal again. An hour later I am at
Logan airport. As I enter the departure lounge, I start to cry
with relief. With my unwashed hair, hospital bracelet and tears,
I must cut quite a picture. People are staring at me again.
Still, it is marvellous to be able to see them doing it.The
blindfold study Alison Motluk

Blind people can do certain things much better than sighted
people, such as localise sounds in space and read Braille. Their
verbal memory also tends to be better. Brain imaging suggests
that they have these talents partly because they call upon the
visual cortex - no longer involved in seeing - to help out. Is
this some extraordinary adaptation that happens in brains that
have grappled with sightlessness for years? Neurologist Alvaro
Pascual-Leone at Harvard Medical School suspected not. To test
his hunch, in 1997 he began the Blindfold Study.

Over the years, his team has blindfolded dozens of subjects for
five days straight to find out just how flexibly and quickly the
average brain can respond to blindness. Sometimes they taught
people Braille, then tested how well they could recognise the
letters through touch alone on day one versus day five. Other
experiments have explored whether people's ability to localise
sound improves after being deprived of sight.

In both these cases, subjects performed better on day five than
day one. Brain scans with fMRI revealed that just like blind
people, volunteers were recruiting their visual cortex to carry
out these non-visual tasks. What's more, if on day five
Pascual-Leone temporarily disabled the visual cortex using TMS,
the volunteers were suddenly unable to identify the Braille
characters or figure out as accurately where sounds were coming
from. TMS had no effect on performance on day one.

All this calls into question the idea that the visual cortex is
exclusively visual, Pascual-Leone says. He believes that that
part of the brain simply prefers vision, but when vision is not
an option, it can draw information from the other senses. His
ideas reflect a growing realisation that the human brain is much
more flexible than previously thought. It is made to be versatile
and adaptable, argues Pascual-Leone, and it doesn't dally when a
sense goes AWOL - it just moves on to another.My brain's
contribution to science Alison Motluk

The task:  On day one of blindfolding, I was presented with cards
with lines of tiny raised dots on them. Sometimes I had to say
whether there was a gap in the line of dots. Other times I had to
decide whether there was a parallel line just next to the main
line. It sounds easy but wasn't. The researchers compared my
tactile ability on day one and day five.

The results:  This was a pilot study, and I was subject number one
with no control but, for what it's worth, I did show a dramatic
improvement. "You were able to discriminate much smaller gaps and
you were able to detect much finer breaks in the offset,"
researcher Lofti Merabet says.

The task:  On days one and five, I listened to numerous pairs of
tones. Sometimes the second tone went up in pitch, sometimes
down, and I had to indicate which. In many cases it was hard to
tell, and my responses felt instinctual.

The results:  Again, this was a fledgling pilot study. This time I
showed no improvement. The researchers think they may need to
make the task more difficult to pick up any subtle changes.

The task:  I was given nouns such as "car" and asked to respond
quickly with a related verb, such as "drive". In some of these
tests, I was zapped with TMS for 10 minutes immediately
beforehand to temporarily disable parts of my brain. Other tests
were done in a brain scanner.

The results:  Again, only a pilot study, but as expected, I did do
worse on day five after TMS to disable the visual cortex.

The task:  While lying in the brain scanner, I was handed a
succession of small objects to grope and identify by touch -
things like a plastic spoon and a toy horse.

The results:  The researchers were trying to activate a part of my
brain known as LO, which lights up when we identify objects by
sight. Recent findings, confirmed by the Blindfold Study,
indicate that tactile information can also activate LO,
suggesting that it couldn't care less where the information is
coming from - eyes, fingertips, even ears - so long as it conveys
something about shape.

Results from my fMRI scan are not yet in.

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