I need money. Sometimes working with books and slinging BBQ on weekends fails to keep me afloat. So I take side gigs. I work at a bar. I copyedit essays. If I get the chance, I serve as a test subject in medical experiments.
Mostly, these jobs are low-paying. Medical experiments tend to grow lucrative as they grow hazardous, and I play it safe. I am unwilling, for example, to wear a gas mask for an hour while scientists pump in cigarette smoke, or to donate my spinal fluid. I mostly earn 20 dollars a pop on linguistics experiments that involve wearing headphones and determining whether a vowel sounds like an e or an i.
So I was happy to bike out to the San Francisco VA Medical Center for a $20-an-hour brain scan for UCSF’s Brain Imaging and EEG Laboratory. I had called a number from a flier and answered screening questions like, “Has anyone in your family had a mental illness?” or “What’s the highest degree you’ve achieved?” Often, the fact that I’ve had several concussions disqualifies me at this stage, but these researchers invited me to participate anyway. Because I have never had serious psychological problems (at least not diagnosed) and I don’t do drugs, I seem to have fallen into an increasingly small pool of San Franciscans who’d be qualified for this study.
The San Francisco VA is a beautiful hospital, located on a hilltop near Ocean Beach. The Brain Imaging EEG Lab occupies a small downstairs suite. Handwritten notes hang over the sink, like in a college dorm. A researcher explained I was participating as a healthy control in a schizophrenia study.
After an oddly enjoyable interview, researchers ushered me into what appeared to be a reclaimed janitor’s closet. It was time for my EEG.
Taking an EEG feels like being a space monkey. Vanessa, the research assistant, tugged a grommet-perforated cap over my head and strapped it under my chin. A young man swabbed my face with rubbing alcohol while two women stood behind me, clipping wires onto my skullcap. I munched on a granola bar.
The 64 wires on my head measured my brain’s electrical impulses. A monitor translated them into rows of pencil-thin colored lines. These signals oscillated gently or jerked wildly. A vertical line washed from left to right like on a cardiac monitor, painting over the signals with a new screen’s worth of brain activity.
Vanessa squeezed goo into my hair with a syringe — EEG gel. This would better conduct electricity. The man glued electrodes to my nose, forehead, and cheekbones.
Pretty soon, the colored lines on the monitor ran parallel, inscribing miniscule scribbles on the screen. I blinked and some of the lines spiked. I grimaced, and the entire set of signals jerked upward. I could actually see my brain. With all my powers of concentration, I visualized sex. I didn’t notice a difference.
Vanessa explained that a grimace altered the signal so dramatically because muscles use electric impulses. If I so much as swallowed, the electrodes registered my face muscles over the brainwaves. So while I was being tested, they asked, would I please refrain from swallowing, blinking, or moving my head?
The door clicked shut. I sat alone by the light of the computer screen. A recorded voice asked me to enunciate “ah, ah, ah” into a microphone.
For my next task, the recording of my voice played in my ear while I listened, ready to push a button when I heard a high tone.
After a break, Vanessa opened the door. Light poured in.
“How are you doing, Chris?”
Another assistant syringed cold gel onto my scalp. I felt like a stock car at a pit stop.
“It’s okay to get the answers wrong sometimes,” he suggested. “We’re really looking at your reflexes. Try to be as fast as possible.” I could tell my mental processing was disappointing him. I narrowed my eyes.
My ex-girlfriend used to make fun of me for being competitive. When we last visited a neurologist together, she said I was probably the only patient who tried to win the physical. I had become insecure about my brain. I’d had a lot of concussions, the result of sports and general rough living, and now every time I forgot my keys, I wondered what else I was missing.
A week later I took the study’s next test, at UCSF’s main campus.
A functional MRI, or fMRI, identifies which regions of the brain fill with oxygen-rich blood during a task. While an EEG measures the brain’s electrical impulses at a precise time, an fMRI maps brain activity.
Having an fMRI feels like being on Star Trek. Everything at the UCSF lab was cream-colored, smooth, and clean — not clean like an emergency room, which janitors sterilize, but clean like a space ship, something no one uses casually.
Wearing only socks, I shuffled to a large room, which was empty except for a lone machine. An MRI machine is a massive, human-sized tube that by all appearances should teleport people. It gave off a mechanical hum, and a plank extended from the tube in slow motion. Two attendants instructed me to lie on the plank and adjusted pillows under my neck. Lying down felt soothing after 40 minutes on the N-Judah.
The attendants strapped my head down, bent a mirror over my face, and retreated behind the control room’s smoky glass. The plank retracted into the machine. After some adjustments, my mirror reflected a TV screen. The lights cut. BBC’s Planet Earth: Shallow Seas began three inches from my face.
Vanessa’s voice emerged from a speaker near my ear. “Please stay awake. We’re recording a baseline,” she said. Then shit got psychedelic.
MRI machines activate enormous electromagnets around your head, and fire radio waves (frequencies that resonate with water molecules) at slices of your brain. The machine stuttered like a machine gun. Fractals and blue circles pulsed in the screen. While the magnet whirred, the speakers emitted beeps and car noises. I slammed a button every time the letter x preceded the letter a. I memorized letters. I struggled to stay awake.
After an exit interview and some truly fun logic games, I sat down with Elizabeth Yetter, another research assistant for the experiment. (I also called her later for a follow-up, as with the other researchers from this story.)
She explained that the experiment studies “prodromal” patients, people who are at risk of developing schizophrenia. I imagined a parallel me in the prodromal group, someone similar in every way except for a few odd experiences and a hard chat with a doctor.
Dr. Daniel Mathalon, one of the co-directors of the lab, explained that prodromal patients are skeptical of their new sensations. “In the prodromal phase, you lack what’s called ‘delusional conviction,’” he explained. “You think you may hear something, but you’re not sure. You think people are looking at you, but you’re not sure.”
It sounded like junior high. Heck, I get suspicious all the time. My computer once delivered a series of error messages that read: “Google talk plugin is listening,” and I was devastatingly certain that a hacker was recording my conversations. Schizophrenia usually strikes first in people’s mid-20s, making me the right age. I got briefly paranoid about my health, and then paranoid about my paranoia.
The lab was conducting about five to ten studies, all related to schizophrenia. Because each test gathered so much data (the fun puzzles I did turned out to be multiple IQ and personality tests), the researchers examined the information in multiple ways, and wound up publishing papers on findings they didn’t anticipate.
I asked why they had recorded my voice. It had to do with a theorized phenomenon called “efference copy.” This is what allows your brain to distinguish between consequences of your actions and the conditions of the outside world. Efference copy is why you can’t tickle yourself, or why if you rotate your head, you don’t perceive a landscape melting sideways. The scientists at the VA hospital had already found evidence to link auditory hallucinations to dysfunctional efference copy. When I listened to a recording of my voice, the EEG measured what’s called the N100 wave, which the brain fires 100 milliseconds after hearing a sound. In healthy brains, the N100 fires weakly after being stimulated by one’s own voice, and strongly at outside voices. In full-blown schizophrenia, the N100 hardly differs, regardless of the voice.
This bolsters a 25-year-old hypothesis that schizophrenia is a response to a world in which even a person’s own thoughts and actions appear to have originated elsewhere. By observing hard data instead of behavior, the scientists hoped to bring an element of certainty to an indistinct disease.
I signed for my check and walked to the bus.
I felt pretty good. I had asked Vanessa how I had stacked up on the IQ tests. She said my brain was a fine specimen.
If you haven’t used drugs in a few months and you’d like to help, call up UCSF’s Brain Imaging and EEG Laboratory at (415) 221-4810, extension 6403. With so many studies underway, you’re probably needed for something. Some tests are fMRI only, some are EEG only. Come well rested.