The Ethics of Self-Experimentation

In this session, Dr Matthew Lennon and Professor Zoltán Molnár introduce us to the concept of self-experimentation and why scientists might be interested in using this approach. In each short video, you will be introduced to a key message relating to self-experimentation. These messages include, importantly, both the ethical and practical considerations which might need to be addressed in regards to self-experimentation.

We would like to thank Dr Matthew Lennon, Grant Rigney and Professor Zoltán Molnár for their help in creating this Summer School session. The text below has been adapted for our Summer School from their article ‘The Regulation of Neuro-Hacking: Why self-experimentation needs the support and recognition of institutions’ – you can read the article online here! Additionally, we would like to thank the University of Oxford Cortex Club for providing the original videos for this session.

A note about safety: in the article and videos below, you will be introduced to some scientists who have taken personal safety risks (often risking serious bodily harm and/or death) in their pursuit of science. These experiments are introduced to allow you to consider the ethics behind such actions – please do not attempt any kind of experiment on yourself, your family, or your peers (or anybody else).

What is Self-Experimentation?

Self-experimentation is specific type of research, where the scientist tests on a single subject – themselves. This might sound strange, but self-experimentation has been around for a very long time, and discoveries from self-experimentation have contributed to our understanding of modern neuroscience!

Before you begin the activities below, there are three questions for you to consider:

  1. In your opinion, should voluntary euthanasia be legal?
  2. In your opinion, should voluntary human experimentation that involves a considerable risk of death or serious harm be legal?
  3. In your opinion, should self-experimentation that involves a considerable risk of death or serious harm be legal?

Think whether your answer would be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to each question – share your thoughts with us using the form at the bottom of this page!

A History of Self-Experimentation

In the 1670s, Isaac Newton stuck a long (blunt) sewing needle into his eye socket. Why? By inserting the needle between his eye socket (between his eye and his bone) Newton hoped to change the shape of his eye, to see if this distorted how he saw things. Particularly, Newton thought that he might learn something about how our eyes saw colour. What saw was a bright glowing spot (a “phosphene”) which was most prominent when he rubbed the needle against his eye!

By rubbing the needle in different places, Newton was able to ‘map’ his own retina. This has helped to develop our understanding of our eye; how light is inverted by the lens in front of our eye, to make an image on the retina (the part of our eye where light is focussed to make an image) to send signals to our brain. How do we know that Isaac Newton did this? Because, like every good scientist, he made careful notes, even drawing diagrams of his eye, the needle, and what he saw!

Click to link here to view an interactive timeline of self-experimentation.

Watch the videos for each year to hear about the history of self-experimentation at each time-point, including how Angelo Ruffini cut out his own nerves (!) and Henry Head, who asked a friend to cut through the radial nerve of his hand, and sew it together again with silk!

As you watch each of the videos, consider the following points:

  • What kind of risk did this scientist take?
  • What kind of benefit did this scientist anticipate from their work?
  • Do you think the potential benefit outweighed the risk?
  • Do you think the actual benefit outweighs the consequences?

Regulation of Self-Experimentation

You might have been surprised, by watching the videos above, to discover that some of the scientists discussed were doing major self-experimentation research in 2014-2016. How is it that scientists are allowed to take these drastic measures, sometimes causing themselves serious harm?

The code of ethics that governs all scientific research is called the Nuremberg Code. This code was developed in the wake of World War II and the Nuremberg trials. In the trial of USA v Brandt (the “Doctor’s Trial”), Nazi physicians were tried for war crimes. The Nuremberg Code grew out of the trial, and was summed up in the judges’ verdict.

The ten points of the Nuremberg Code are still used today as a criterion to decide if medical research is ethical. These points are given below. Read through them now – do you think these are good guidelines for regulating medical research?

  1. The voluntary consent of the human subject is absolutely essential.
  2. The experiment should be such as to yield fruitful results for the good of society, unprocurable by other methods or means of study, and not random and unnecessary in nature.
  3. The experiment should be so designed and based on the results of animal experimentation and a knowledge of the natural history of the disease or other problem under study that the anticipated results will justify the performance of the experiment.
  4. The experiment should be so conducted as to avoid all unnecessary physical and mental suffering and injury.
  5. No experiment should be conducted where there is an a priori reason to believe that death or disabling injury will occur; except, perhaps, in those experiments where the experimental physicians also serve as subjects.
  6. The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.
  7. Proper preparations should be made and adequate facilities provided to protect the experimental subject against even remote possibilities of injury, disability, or death.
  8. The experiment should be conducted only by scientifically qualified persons. The highest degree of skill and care should be required through all stages of the experiment of those who conduct or engage in the experiment.
  9. During the course of the experiment the human subject should be at liberty to bring the experiment to an end if he has reached the physical or mental state where continuation of the experiment seems to him to be impossible.
  10. During the course of the experiment the scientist in charge must be prepared to terminate the experiment at any stage, if he has probable cause to believe, in the exercise of the good faith, superior skill and careful judgment required of him that a continuation of the experiment is likely to result in injury, disability, or death to the experimental subject.

Having considered the Nuremberg Code, you might be starting to see to how scientists are able to justify their self-experimentation legally, using the exception given in Article 5. Watch the video below to find out more about Article 5, and the ethics of self-experimentation.

Problems with the Current Approach to Self-Experimentation

The stories about scientists and regulation above demonstrate a number of problems with the current approach to self-experimentation. Read the points below, and then watch the video to find out more.

  1. It can be hard to get science based on self-experimentation published. Being published is how scientists share their work, gain accreditation for it, and the publication process is also an important step which allows other scientists to examine the methods used, and determine if this is reliable and accurate science. The stories of Kennedy and Hanley, both of whom have not published their work, show that when work is not published, the benefit derived from their work is greatly diminished. This makes it harder to justify the huge risks and costs they shouldered.
  2. When researchers don’t have support for self-experimentation, they sometimes resort to using less safe, less well-controlled environments. This means greater harm is incurred that might have occurred if the researcher was being supported by an appropriate framework. This might be particularly of concern in relation to ‘biohackers’ and the potential future developments of ‘at home’ self-experimentation.
  3. Scientists involved directly in their research cannot be objective when assessing the risks being taken. Particularly in the case of Kennedy, the risks were very significant, and the findings have been of mixed significance.

The current broadly unregulated approach to self-experimentation has allowed a new type of scientist to develop – the so-called ‘biohacker’. ‘Biohackers’ is a broad term which covers anyone who tries to ‘hack’ biology, normally their own. They can be experienced scientists, or complete amateurs – sometimes these individuals experiment on themselves, outside of a science institute (often at home!).

The development of ‘biohacking’ has brought the issue of unregulated self-experimentation to a new level of attention. Some forms of ‘biohacking’ might be classified as practising medicine without a license, and this can lead to authorities being unsure how to regulate such practices. To prevent individuals causing themselves harm (or encouraging others to copy them, leading to those individuals harming themselves), it is important that clearer regulation around ‘biohacking’ and other forms of future self-experimentation is introduced.

The Future

In the future, one solution might be to institutionalise self-experimentation. This would offer a framework of regulation and support which would allow self-experimenters to take a greater risk, as they are more informed. However, scientists would be protected from using methods which might cause unnecessary harm and from taking risks where the benefit is small, or even questionable. Institutionalising self-experimentation would address the problems listed above, as follows:

  1. Institutional recognition and approval will mean that academic journals, which publish papers, will be happy to publish these papers. It will also help to contextualise the risks, by making the research that is carried out more widely shared and used.
  2. Institutional support will allow these experiments to be safer, more valid and reproducible.
  3. Institutional oversight will help mitigate the risks of self-experimentation while maximising the benefit.

What Do You Think?

Now that you have considered the current approach to self-experimentation, the problems with this, and some suggestions for the future, we have a further four questions for you to consider:

  1. Can, or should, self-experimenters be stopped in acts of potentially fruitful self-harm?
  2. If self-experimenters risk or actualise serious harm or death upon themselves while simultaneously uncovering a scientific revolution, should journals publish it?
  3. Should institutions be held liable for self-inflicted research injuries performed in institutional facilities?
  4. Should self-experimentation be regulated?

Think whether your answer would be ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to each question – share your thoughts with us using the form at the bottom of this page!

Final thought: Has doing these activities changed your perspective on self-experimentation? If so, how?

Original article written by Dr Matthew Lennon, Grant Rigney and Professor Zoltán Molnár. Adapted for the St John’s Inspire Programme Summer School by Dr Ana Wallis, Post-GCSE Inspire Project Lead. Original video by the University of Oxford Cortex Club, adapted for the St John’s Inspire Programme Summer School by Alfie Dry, St John’s undergraduate (Human Sciences).

Dr Matthew Lennon

Dr Matthew Lennon is a Medical Doctor, a researcher, and a Tutor at the University of Oxford. Dr Lennon teaches principles of pathology to first year medical students, and is principle tutor for the Psychology for Medicine course to second year medical students at Hertford College, University of Oxford. Having completed his medical training at University of New South Wales (UNSW), Dr Lennon studied a Masters in Neuroscience at the University of Oxford. Dr Lennon is currently studying a PhD in Psychiatry at UNSW. In this work, Dr Lennon is investigating the effects of blood pressure on dementia and cognitive decline.

Grant Rigney

Grant Rigney graduated from the University of Tennessee with a Bachelors in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, before moving to the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. At Oxford, Mr Rigney studied two Masters courses in Neuroscience. In Autumn 2021, Mr Rigney will begin training as an MD at Harvard Medical School.

Professor Zoltán Molnár

Professor Zoltán Molnár is a Tutorial Fellow in Human Anatomy at St John’s College. Professor Molnár earned his MD (summa cum laude) at the Albert Szent-Györgyi Medical University in Hungary, and then remained in Hungary working in Neurological Surgery until 1989, when he moved to Oxford to study a DPhil (PhD). During his PhD, and subsequent research as both an MRC training fellow, and a Junior Research Fellow at Merton College, Professor Molnár studied cerebral cortical development. In the course of his research, Professor Molnár has also worked in both Switzerland and Japan. 

Professor Molnár was appointed to a University Lecturer (Assistant Professor) position at the Department of Human Anatomy and Genetics associated with a Tutorship at St John’s College, Oxford from 2000. He was awarded the title Professor of Developmental Neuroscience in 2007, and has held multiple positions within St John’s College: Vice President (2013–2014); Dean for Degrees (2001–2006). Professor Molnár is heavily involved with teaching both within St John’s College and the department of Physiology, Anatomy and Genetics.

Share with us!

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All pupils who share their work with us by August 31 2021 will receive a certificate of participation in the summer school and will be entered into a prize draw! A £10 Amazon voucher will be awarded to each winning entry, selected randomly from all submissions. If you give us permission, your entry may be shared on Inspire Digital and our social media alongside your first name.