The Lab Rat Redux

A modern joy of aging is making the cut when one of your doctors semi-retires and reduces her patient load.

My first adventure as a lab rat occurred when i was an undergraduate and volunteered for a study seeking to devise an intelligence test for the blind that would not require asking them questions and recording their answers.  It was great fun, and i got to take a large number of very interesting tests, the last of which involved being blindfolded and feeling of a test that used manipulation of raised designs to test your intelligence.

A year or so after i moved to San Francisco, i found myself one day down at the VD clinic, umm, checking into a public health issue, and i saw on the wall a sign asking for volunteers.  So i did and got to be one of the cohort who helped bring the world the Hepatitis B vaccine.  ta da.

And kept volunteering over the years although none of the later studies i participated in had anywhere near the spectacular results of the Hep B study, all of ’em involving experimental AIDS treatments that turned out not to work.

When i got my bell rung about five years ago and woke up in the ER at SF General, some of the first people i talked to were folks who wanted me to participate in a little brain damage study, which i did, so i got very familiar with devilishly difficult tests of brain function.

And i’m now in an online study with the Brain Health Registry, which involves more of those damnable brain function tests.

Last month i read about a study at UCSF Medical School tracking old farts with AIDS as they slide down into Alzheimers, while giving them classes in techniques to slow their deterioration, so i called ’em up and told ’em i’m your boy!

Well, they said, let’s see.  So last Monday at 9:00AM i turned myself in at the gorgeous new UCSF Mission Bay campus for the preliminary testing.  Preliminary?

They started by taking a medical and behavioral history so extensive and detailed that it felt more like an interrogation, but that was just to soften me up.

The next phase was hours of those hideous brain function tests.  They don’t start out hideous, of course.  The tester just tells you three numbers and asks you to repeat them.  No prob.  Then four numbers, five, etc. etc. etc. until you’ve failed a couple of times.  Then they do the same thing but you have to repeat the numbers backwards, again until you’re thrashing with frustration over repeated failure.

Next, they show you this diagram consisting of various interlocking geometric figures, whisk it away, and give you a blank sheet of paper on which you are to draw the diagram, which is of course impossible.

Another one involved their reading you a list of about thirty words and then asking you to tell them all you could remember.  And the reading the list another time and giving you a second chance to display your memory.  And then a different list but with words that fell into related categories with the words in the previous list, and seeing how many of those you could recall.  And then it got complicated.

Oh, and then some tests using a computer screen in which you have to click on increasing numbers of spots in the order in which they were previously illuminated.  And some involving cards being turned over and your having to click yes or no to indicate whether you’d seen the latest one.

Then they ask you to draw that damn geometric diagram again, the one you’d practically forgot even doing.

And lots more tests i can’t remember.

And then some physical assessments like how hard you can squeeze a hand grip since that old expression about “losing your grip” is based on the reality that folks with dementia lose hand strength compared with the sane population.  Another one tests your dexterity by asking you to pick up the little slippery pegs and insert them in slots they won’t go into unless they’re turned just right.  To help you relax, you have to do it as fast as possible while the timer whirrs.  Oh, and how’s your balance?  That’s tested, too.  And to think i used to skate.

And more and more until finally, at 4:00PM they handed me fifty bucks in cash.  In the old days you volunteered for free, but now you get paid, which of course is a plus even though it was straight through for seven hours without a break.  And since many of my responses to questions ran longer than expected, there was no time for lunch although they at one point brought me a cup of coffee to sip and tossed a banana into my cage.  Best banana i ever ate.

It was a grueling day, but it was made far easier by the people at the hospital being so nice to a garrulous old man.  What is it about that hospital?  I’ve been there a couple of times before for various tests, and everyone i’ve encountered has been warm and gracious.  Warms my damn heart.

As i left i inquired when my next appointment would be and learned that i’d somehow missed understanding that today’s marathon visit was just to determine whether i was qualified for the study.  Gasp.

My disappointment turned to relief when it struck me that this was truly a win-win since learning that i am not crazy enough to qualify would be fabulous news but that if i’m far enough gone to qualify, i’ll be getting training to help me keep from getting worse.

It was only a couple of days later that i realized that, well, i might already be too crazy to qualify, but thank goodness that assessment is left to UCSF rather than my readers.  Late note:  Got a call a week later with the excellent news that i’d done too well on the tests to qualify.  May not need a sleeping pill tonight.

Meanwhile, some handsome stuff on that campus, and not just the interns.

UCSF Medical School, Mission Bay campus

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  1. Rick C.
    Posted 27 June 2015 at 07:59 | Permalink

    Matte, thank you for this detailed explanation, as I now know to NEVER get involved in one of these brain test studies. That’s too much work for me, even if they offered ten times the money… Loved the explanation of “losing your grip.” Very interesting and makes perfect sense.

    • Matte Gray
      Posted 2 July 2015 at 09:16 | Permalink

      Well, the brain studies are more demanding of your time and energy than the typical study that usually just requires your taking an experimental drug and giving them some blood periodically. That said, when i worked at Oracle i was in one study that required me to give myself a subcutaneous injection three times a week of some stuff that turned out to do no harm but give no benefit, either. And there was another one that had me donating plasma every couple of months or so, a procedure so unpleasant that i saw it as a silver lining when my health declined enough that i was no longer qualified to be a volunteer.

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