How to Be a Human Guinea Pig

Written by jason belasco
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How to Be a Human Guinea Pig
Becoming a human guinea pig... (Getty Thinkstock)

There are many good reasons to volunteer to participate in medical experiments: the advancement of knowledge, the opportunity to help future generations--and the opportunity to pick up some well-earned cash.

Hundreds of thousands of of us participate in varying levels of medical research every year. That participation can be as simple as filling out a questionnaire, or as risky as entering into a new drug treatment that might make your hair fall out (though you'll be warned about such unwelcome side effects).

Before you volunteer to participate in any medical study, no matter how simple, consider how far you're willing to go. Some experiments are more involved, time-consuming and painful than others. However, being a human guinea pig is very safe: There are so many requirements and regulations that there's virtually no chance you'll wind up disfigured or dead. (For information about the safety of human-subject trials, follow the links in Resources.)

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Learn About Simple Experiments

Almost every study in which you participate will have some kind of requirement. Some studies will only want college-educated men between the ages of 30 and 32, and some studies will only want Polynesian grandmothers who have had at least 10 children. The more specific the requirements are, the more likely it is that you'll get paid a lot of money if you fit them.

Simple experiments are, by nature, simple to conduct and to find subjects for. These usually involve doing nothing to you per se, but simply studying your current state. Questionnaires, quizzes, a blood test and/or an MRI are all relatively simple. There are three basic categories of simple experiments:

Questionnaires and interviews

These experiments are easy and quick, but also the lowest-paying. Psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists and their grad students usually run them. These types of studies usually involve sitting for an interview or filling out a questionnaire, or in some cases looking at images and describing your feelings toward them (usually via multiple-choice questions).

These are incredibly easy experiments, and a great way to make some extra cash. This is an especially attractive option for college students, since you can simply walk around campus and find out what studies are taking place.

  • What it generally pays: Between £3 and £13, depending on how long it takes. If you're in college, many professors will give you extra credit in lieu of cash for helping their grad students with a particular study.
  • Possible risks: Extreme boredom, and you sometimes have to return for follow-up sessions.

Medical exams and/or interviews: Type I

Many researchers are interested in the correlation between someone's general health and his stress levels, anger management or other mental factors. In Type I exams, you are usually subjected to a lengthier examination that will probably involve a general physical (including height, weight and blood pressure); you then answer questions about your mental health.

  • What it generally pays: The range is wide, but you could pocket anywhere from £13 to £65.
  • Possible risks: a cold stethoscope, the revelation of private information, and time.

Medical exams and/or interviews: Type II

These are the same as the Type I experiments, except that they may involve some more advanced procedures, such as:

  • Blood tests: They're not a big deal, but if a paper cut makes you queasy, you may want to stay away.
  • EKG: those white, circular stickers on you that measure heart function and brain response. (It doesn't hurt at all.)
  • MRI: A doctor will slide you headfirst into a coffin-like tube to see what's going on inside your organs. If you're claustrophobic, avoid these. But they're so expensive you probably won't encounter this in a voluntary experiment.
  • Internal exams: These can involve vaginal exams and/or rectal exams.

Remember, the more you allow to be done to yourself, the more money you'll probably make.

  • What it generally pays: Usually a little more than the Type I experiments. It depends on the tests given, but the range is about £32 to £65.
  • Possible risks: It's very rare, but you could have some weird reaction to a test. Also, after a blood test, you may feel lightheaded or queasy.

Learn About More Involved Types of Experiments

The bigger, poke-and-prodding, higher-paying experiments are usually not one-shot deals. Most will involve multiple visits, and others require you to stay in a hospital for one night or more. While the risks do increase as the experiment becomes more involved, all of the regulated ones are pretty safe.

Sleep studies, commonly performed by psychiatrists, usually involve interviews/questionnaires, or even induced anxiety (from a mild electric shock) before you go to sleep. Then, through EKG tests and videotape, your sleep patterns will be closely observed.

These studies do require a decent amount of time--usually 1 or more (but not necessarily consecutive) nights--so they are usually pretty lucrative. In addition, the risks are tiny. It won't necessarily be a comfortable experience--you may be asked to stay awake for as long as you can--but it won't be dangerous.

  • What it generally pays: Usually about £65 per night, for about 1 to 3 nights.

Some experiments will pay you to ingest illegal drugs or drink alcohol. However, because of the dangerous nature of illegal drugs, these trials are very rare, and usually only performed on real guinea pigs. When these experiments are allowed, rest assured that you will be closely monitored to make sure nothing disastrous happens.

The alcohol studies are more common; you'll have to drink a certain amount of alcohol, then answer questions and/or have tests performed on you. These also usually take place over more than one session, and you have to be at least 21 years old.

  • What it generally pays: Anywhere from £32 to £65.
  • Possible risks: With illegal drugs, addiction or violent reactions could occur--but this is why these trials are rarely performed. The risk of alcohol poisoning is very small.

If you submit to clinical trials for experimental drugs, you'll be taking a drug that has yet to be officially approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). But don't worry; it won't be some elixir mixed in a bathtub.

There are different types of clinical drug trials; the simplest involve a small number of volunteers taking the drug over a certain period of time to test its safety in the human body. In a second type, patients who have a specific ailment can really benefit, and also provide great help to future patients. These are called double-blind placebo trials. Volunteers with a certain ailment (e.g. allergies, acne, hypertension or AIDS) are recruited. Patients are randomly assigned into either a group that is taking the real medication or one that is given a placebo (a fake pill with no "real" medication in it). Neither the patients nor the researchers know if the patient is taking the real medicine or the placebo. The reason scientists use placebos is to make sure the "cure" to an ailment isn't purely mental.

At the end of the trial, the volunteers find out what they were taking. If the researchers feel that people who take the real medication show significant improvement, the placebo group will get the medication for free and the researchers will use the study as evidence that the drug should be available to all.

Recently, ethicists have made an outcry against these types of trials, claiming that it isn't right to withhold the drug to those with the ailment. However, if the researchers determine that the drug has a substantial benefit, they can halt the trial early and give everyone the treatment. Besides, the only way to figure out if a medication really works is to compare people who do take it with people who don't.

If you're worried about bad reactions or side effects of the medication, it's a valid concern. But doctors will always go to great lengths to make sure you're safe. So as long as you answer all of the doctor's questions honestly, any bad reaction will be a completely freak occurrence.

  • What it usually pays: Up to a few hundred pounds; however, some do not pay anything, because the free treatment is considered the compensation.
  • Possible risks: Side reactions to a drug--either mild or severe--although this is very rare. These experiments usually also require many tests and a large time commitment.

Find Those Experiments

To cash in on this market, you'll have to seek out experiments. It's not that hard. If your friends, relatives or acquaintances work for a medical or academic institution, see if they need any subjects. Also, you can ask your doctor about any clinical trials he knows of. But there are other options.

A great place to find ongoing experiments is a college campus. This is because the researchers know that college kids are desperate for cash. Whether or not you're a student, check around campus (especially the student centres) for flyers advertising various types of experiments. Also, most major universities have research hospitals near them, so head over and ask around. They'll either sign you up for an experiment right then or put you in a database and contact you when one rolls around. Finally, go to the psychology, communication-research and sociology departments at any college.

Newspaper ads sometimes mention opportunities for human guinea pigs. However, if you do find an ad, when you call, you'll probably find it's all filled up already. But keep your eyes open: Sometimes, pharmaceutical companies or hospitals run widespread ads asking for volunteers. If you do see one and are interested, call immediately. Those spots fill up almost instantly.

And of course, there's the Internet. Search for the website of a major hospital near you, then look for any section concerning clinical trials or research volunteers. This page will find a hospital in your area. is another good place to start. WebMD offers listings (by state or medical speciality) of both NIH studies and clinical trials that are looking for volunteers.

If you don't mind pumping your body full of (legal) drugs, opportunities abound at pharmaceutical companies. Simply contact the companies and tell them you're interested in being a guinea pig, and they'll let you know if there are clinical trials going on--or they'll put you in a database.

Remember, there are many guinea-pig hopefuls around, so if you see an experiment that looks good, follow up on it right away.

Although almost every study will be official and safe, always read the ad carefully, and stay away from anything that looks sketchy.

Make Sure You're Qualified for the Experiment

You'll probably have to be at least 18 years old. And obviously, if the experiment asks for females, you have to be female. If you're not sure if you qualify, call and ask.

For any medical-type experiment, it's also common to see the phrase "healthy volunteers." This doesn't mean you have to be Arnold Schwarzenegger; you just have to be reasonably healthy.

If you meet these basic requirements, you'll first have an initial interview, at which the doctor will ask you to name the following:

  • Medication you are currently taking. This includes any recreational drugs. You will probably be given a urine test, but failing to pass doesn't necessarily mean you'll be disqualified.
  • Any pre-existing health conditions (including mental health) or allergies you have.

You must answer these questions fully and honestly--they're set up to protect you from any harm. And don't worry; everything is confidential. If it's determined that any medication you're taking will interfere with the experiment, you won't be allowed to participate.

Make sure you can devote the time necessary for the entire experiment. While you won't get charged a fee for dropping out of an experiment, you probably won't get paid, and you will surely anger the researchers.

Check the location of the experiment and make sure you have sufficient transportation (e.g., car, bus, taxi or subway). Also, ascertain that the experiment doesn't conflict with any moral or religious beliefs you hold.

Know What to Expect During the Experiment

Once you've been accepted, the first thing that you'll probably do is sign a consent form. This is a contract that explains the procedure and duration of the experiment, the possible dangers or side effects, and the compensation (i.e., how much you'll get paid).

Some of the simple experiments may not entail a full consent form (depending on what the questions are about), but always ask about it anyway. Once you sign, you acknowledge that the responsibility for any risks, and most of the liability, are put on your shoulders if something should happen. Read the consent form very carefully and ask any questions you may have.

After that's taken care of, just listen to the doctor(s) and do what they say. You're allowed to leave the experiment at any time, for any reason. And if at any time you feel sick or in pain, speak up immediately.

During interviews or questionnaires, your personal information is extremely confidential, and your answers will be coded (that is, "hidden") anyway.

After it's all over, if your compensation is a small amount, you'll probably get cash; if you're making more, a check will be mailed to you. Also, if you had to pay for transportation, gas or a babysitter, you might get reimbursed, so ask about it. If you took any drugs that might cause drowsiness, you may want to ask a friend to drive you to and from the exam (especially if it's an alcohol trial).

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