Wednesday, October 6, 2010

The Ig-Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine

While this is the time of year for the Nobel prizes (arguably the highest awards in science), it is also the time of year for the Ig-Nobel prizes which, according to the website "are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative — and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology."  So, while the King of Sweden may be honoring Robert Edwards for his research leading to in vitro fertilization (IVF), the Ig-Nobels are honoring researchers in the Netherlands who discovered that symptoms of an asthma attack can be alleviated (sort of) by hopping on the nearest roller coaster.  While it is funny to think about researchers in white coats buckling people in to a roller coaster and then surveying them on their symptoms, there is a good scientific rationale behind the study...  

Asthma is caused when the bronchial tubes become inflammed or swollen, constricting the airway and making it hard to breathe.  For a long time, we have known that a hormone called epinephrine can reduce this inflammation and open the airway, which is why it is a common ingredient in over the counter asthma inhalers.  Of course, epinephrine is known by another name: adrenaline, which gets secreted by the adrenal gland in high stress situations, like riding a roller coaster or bunjee jumping, etc.  Of course, this study didn't look at levels of adrenaline, but rather they measured the lung function of the participants (using a spirometer to measure the volume of air that the subjects could inhale and exhale) and they measured the subjects's self reported description of how bad they thought their symptoms were.  As it turns out, there was no difference in lung function before and after riding the roller coaster, BUT, the subjects, on average, reported feeling like they could breathe better after riding the loop-dee-loop than they could before.  What this tells us is that it wasn't the adrenaline, or even any real improvement in lung function that made the subjects feel better, and yet they felt better.  So rather than actually alleviating the symptoms, riding the roller coaster seems to have changed how the subjects perceived their symptoms.  A minor distinction, perhaps, after all, if you feel better, does it matter whether or not you actually are better?  One might argue that having trouble breathing while unaware of this difficulty is a bad thing, but I will leave that up to you, as well as any questions about how changes in mood might bring about these changes in perception (endorphins immediately come to mind, but then, there could be so many other things). 

RIETVELD, S., & VANBEEST, I. (2007). Rollercoaster asthma: When positive emotional stress interferes with dyspnea perception☆ Behaviour Research and Therapy, 45 (5), 977-987 DOI: 10.1016/j.brat.2006.07.009

No comments:

Post a Comment