Curing Sleep: My Experiences Doing Cowboy Sciencepost by jayterwahl · 2021-02-20T23:59:08.640Z · LW · GW · 9 comments
Background Transhuman Greed The Experiment Results Experimental Design Flaws, Any One Of Which Would Get It Thrown Out, tbh Now, Take to the Streets and Do A Science None 9 comments
Epistemic status: Subjective report describing youthful exuberance. The actual experimentation part of this was very badly executed.
This happened during a period of my life when I was very bored, kinda rich, and getting really into darknet libertarian culture. This is cowboy science, and upon reflection, I was insufficiently concerned about either of legal troubles or brain damage.
Orexin (aka hypocretin-α) is a neuropeptide which promotes wakefulness, weight loss, and happiness. Damage to the orexinergic system seems to cause Type 1 Narcolepsy—comorbid with sleepfulness, obesity, and depression.
Deadwyler et al attempted to prove a causal relationship, by sleep-depriving rhesus monkeys and having them insufflate orexin. It appears that sleep-deprived monkeys snorting orexin perform as well on cognitive tests as the non-sleep-deprived monkeys.
So there I was, a graduate student reading through this paper, and you can hear the gears in my head turning.
- Orexin insufflation appears to promote wakefulness in sleep-deprived primates.
- I am a sleep-deprived primate.
Will this cause some kind of...anti-narcolepsy? Have I found a cure for sleep itself??
I was properly embracing More Dakka [LW · GW]. But this Kerbal Space Program-tier science thought wasn't as nuts as it seemed. This was 2012, the orexin research was fresh, and my neuroscience professors were still touting the party line of “perhaps the only purpose of sleep is to keep humans indoors and conserving calories during the night, because their comparative advantage is day. We don't even know why, or even if, we really need sleep!"
(We didn't know about sleep-as-memory-post-processing, or that, during sleep, the brain lobes spread apart to let the CSF pressure-wash away all of the metabolite byproducts. We just thought sleep was one of those no-longer-adaptive biological quirks inflicted by evolution, which, in defense of past neuroscientists, happen all the time.)
And so, at the thought of no longer needing to sleep, I was filled with a transhuman greed...
So I ordered a vial of primate-brain orexin from the internet, and got to snortin'.
(Did you know that places selling chemicals "for research purposes only" don't check to make sure you're a real researcher? As far as I can tell, it's just enough verification for them to maintain defensibility when you do something stupid with their chemicals. This has problematic implications for biosecurity and should be patched immediately, but is great when you want to do something stupid with chemicals.)
I asked my friends which of them were willing to go on this journey of discovery with me. Perhaps predictably, most of them took issue with deliberately putting a little-researched internet chemical into their brains, "to see what happens".
But I did find one volunteer. And so we began to do science. Or, at least, SCIENCE!!
Our experimental design was as such:
- We will establish baseline tests for our subjects—reaction speed, serial sevens, short-term memory recall, and whatever else comes up when you google "cognitive test online". We will establish baselines for ourselves both in sleep-deprived states, and non-sleep-deprived states.
- I will unfreeze and measure out the appropriate doses of this powder into some distilled water, and put it in insufflation syringes.
- We will give the orexin syringe to our sleep-deprived subject, and they will SNIFFF
Our scores on the tests during conditions of sleep deprivation improved to be commensurate with baseline.
We still felt sleepy, though.
However, the reason why I didn't take to the streets shouting about my cure for sleep was because the experiment was so sloppy that I didn't even trust those results. See below.
Experimental Design Flaws, Any One Of Which Would Get It Thrown Out, tbh
- Although my confederate experimenter/subject was blinded to whether the spray was orexin or placebo, I was not. I guess I intended to compensate for the placebo effect by "trying real hard".
- Because orexin was expensive, I only bought enough for four doses, which put an upper limit on how many trials we could run.
- n=2, y'all.
Now, Take to the Streets and Do A Science
Thus concludes my tale. And although for a few years afterwards I puttered about trying to recreate this experiment, I got distracted by life and romance and cryptocurrency, as is always the case.
If you feel like studying this area and perhaps curing sleep, I am cheerfully available as a consultant.
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