Two guinea pigs share their health study stories 

Once Around the Hamster Wheel

The key to your fiscal and moral solvency is right in your hands, just a few pages away in this very newspaper. On 4X of the City Paper's Exchange section, you'll find a number of health studies faithfully posted each week, seeking out marijuana smokers, cocaine snorters, and over-imbibers. A medical researcher may monitor your brain, your blood, or your saliva in the hopes of figuring out what pushes our desire for the things that are so bad for us, or they may want to see what an anxiety pill might do for a wavering pothead. A few of the studies are through MUSC, others are not. Most promise some sort of financial compensation.

In the spring of 2008, Newman Lawrence, brother of City Paper contributor Stratton, was willing to volunteer his healthy body for the advancement of science — and for a monetary prize. Back then, he was managing a downtown retail store and living with a medical student who conducted tests with MUSC's brain stimulation lab, experimenting with thresholds for chronic pain. In the roommate's spare time, he'd do other, more vice-driven tests himself, and he passed the word along to Lawrence.

"I definitely thought it was a fun, easy way to make easy money. That was definitely my intention in doing those tests," Lawrence says. It didn't take much for him to hop on his bike and ride the few blocks from his house to the medical school. "Here's a way I can get money for a good bar tab one night or something like that." And they paid in cash.

Lawrence initially qualified as a control in a tobacco study, having a brief history with the product but no current use. He went in, filled out some forms, answered questions. It took about an hour; he made $60. The second time, they stuck him in an MRI and watched his brain patterns to see what might cause him to smoke. "I was in there for five, 10 minutes just with them watching me, and then I went back in and I was supposed to hold a cigarette, occasionally smell a cigarette." The extra effort meant he pocketed a higher sum.

Next up was an alcohol study. Again, Lawrence came in, filled out some forms, answered questions. He noted his monthly drink intake — one beer on Monday, three bourbon gingers at Salty Mike's on Friday. And they asked him his drink of choice: Miller High-Life. But the second half of the test wasn't so easy.

"I sat in a room for an hour doing absolutely nothing. Couldn't watch TV, couldn't talk, couldn't do anything. Literally sitting in a chair, and every 10 minutes or something like that, they drew blood," from an IV attached to his arm, he says. "After 30 minutes, they came in, opened a beer, stuck it on the table next to me, then asked me a set of questions each time they came in."

Like "How do you feel right now?" and "What is your desire to drink?" "How has that changed over time?" Because the researchers were taking blood, the payday for the study was better.

My own health study experience, which took place later that same year, was nowhere near as prickly as Lawrence's. I similarly went in for a preliminary meeting, filled out some forms, answered questions, for which I pocketed maybe a Jackson. I can't really remember. What I do remember is the second visit and being shut into a small room in MUSC's psychiatry building with a video camera trained on me. I was abandoned by my tester for 10-minute-or-so intervals to do nothing but stare at the neglected roof of the VA hospital outside the window. When I was lucky, a helicopter or airplane flew by.

Instead of testing my blood, they tested my saliva, and I passed the minutes with foul-tasting foam cylinders stuffed into my cheeks, occasionally answering similar questions to the ones Lawrence was asked. Halfway through the session, I was brought two standard cups of beer, and I could drink as much or as little as I wished. I was given a survey and a time limit, and if I guessed correctly whether or not the beers were the same, I'd be taking home a significantly larger sum than if I couldn't. The beers looked identical. Their tastes were interchangeable too. I was left to agonize over each and every bubble that rose from the bottom of the cup, hoping that they would hold the key to my boosted income.

The strategy worked.

And that's the only health study I have ever participated in. A few weeks after my go on the hamster wheel, I returned to school in Florida , where I traded guinea pig stories with friends who'd been paid thousands and traveled as far away as Texas for sleep- and food-deprivation tests. Since then, I've become a booster, telling my friends to take a gander at Craigslist for different testing opportunities, and I've kept an eye out for myself as well. But like Lawrence, I have my limits.

"I would never do a test where they were testing treatment or anything like that," he says. I agree. In fact, it's why I turned down a marijuana study that tested anti-anxiety medication. "I didn't want to do anything that was a risk to my body, but an MRI or drawing blood I wasn't worried about." Lawrence hasn't returned to MUSC for a health study in quite some time.

Still, when you're looking for an easy buck, it's tempting to ignore the importance of this kind of testing. "I'll be honest: I would not say that I was completely honest in all my answers, and I definitely did it as a way to make money," Lawrence says. But the results of these tests are crucial. "Our researchers are looking for qualified individuals who can show them if a medication, therapy, or some combination of the two really has a place in treating people," says Heather M. Woolwine, MUSC's media relations director. "These studies are no different than clinical studies for cancer or diabetes treatments. Alcoholism and addiction are disease processes that can be effectively treated, and the information learned through these studies helps us find better treatments while providing baseline data for how the brain functions in relation to these substances."

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