When Daddy's A Mad Scientist, You'll Wear An Electrode Cap And Like It!

Awesome, awesome article in the Times yesterday about "a new crop of scientists using their children as research subjects."

As one might expect, scientists experimenting with their kids is as old as crazy scientists. Piaget waxed child psychiatric, Salk injected his youngsters with polio and this other guy would tickle his kids wearing a mask (yeah, I don't know.) Nowadays, it's rather more regulated: "These days, scientists using human subjects are expected to seek approval from institutional review boards, which consider federal regulations on risk, coercion of subjects and researcher bias," while some researchers sign parental consent forms...to work on their own kids. Others admit that they think such measures are unnecessary, given the benign nature of the research.

If there is an upswing in at-home experimentation, it may be because financing means that it can be hard to get subject, and new technology makes research somewhat more portable. The experiments cited in the article are pretty benign, and range from "strapping a camera on baby Darius’s head, recording what he looked at", scanning kids' brains, and filming them round the clock to analyze language patterns - not that we imagine those performing vivisections or cancer drug trials on their twins would be particularly eager to talk to the Times.

Of course some "ethicists" find any of this problematic. Says one, “The role of the parent is to protect the child...once that parent becomes an investigator, it sets up an immediate potential conflict of interest. And it potentially takes the parent-child relationship and distorts it in ways that are unpredictable.” Sure enough, one scientist does gloat that his kids "were so determined to please their father that they would lie still,” in an MRI machine. Says another,

When one son, 4, answered questions about color and shape wearing an electrode-studded cap to measure brain waves, 'I wasn’t sure whether he’d be willing to put the cap on, whether he’d be willing to do the task,' Dr. Deak said. He did, although 'he needed more breaks than other kids. He wanted snacks.'...and when Karen Dobkins, a U.C.S.D. psychology professor, enlisted her infant twins, Gabriel and Jacob, she said, 'it was kind of painful, because one of my twin boys basically played the game really well, but my other son, we couldn’t even use his data.' She said that 'made me worry that he had autism.'...Her worries proved unfounded. Still, she said, 'I took only the good data and copied it and put it in both of their baby books.'

But, wow, the strangest case is the one in which the husband wants to do research on a new baby and his scientist wife chooses to draw a line. Since she was “'quite opposed to this idea of experimentation...it had to be done surreptitiously, whenever she would go out or when I would take him out in his little BabyBjorn' — still 'a sore topic between us.'”

All that one is left thinking, after reading this, is not that this is a "new phenomenon" so much as a much more obvious form of the parental madness that most people are prone to in one form or another. Should parents harm kids? Should doctors overstep boundaries? Should people be terrible parents and ruin their kids' lives? Ideally, no. Some of these researchers will obviously take this in a strange direction - but that strangeness will probably already be there in one form or another. Someone who's keeping weird secrets from his wife has, arguably, other problems. As a "phenomenon," it's hard to get too exercised...although that electrode cap would give us nightmares.

Test Subjects Who Call the Scientist Mom or Dad [NY Times]