Weird science: 7 published medical studies that are beyond strange

By Naveed Saleh, MD, MS
Published February 21, 2020

Key Takeaways

Occasionally, researchers do offbeat experiments to advance our understanding of medicine. In these instances, rather than focusing on pressing medical conditions, they tend to hone in on more obscure science, like what really happens after a poisonous spider bite or whether we drive better while talking on a cell phone or while intoxicated. (With these studies, it would be interesting to see what went down with the Institutional Review Board.) Here are seven real-life examples of weird medical studies from peer-reviewed journals.

Mite-y dumb

In a letter published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, a veterinarian named Dr. Robert Lopez wondered whether infection with ear mites from a cat’s ear was transmittable to human ears. He couldn’t find the answer in the literature so he inoculated himself—on three different occasions! He put about 1 g of ear mites from the cat into his left ear (gak!) and, sure enough, suffered continual ear infections before finally building up immunity.  

Since he initially published his letter, Dr. Lopez has found that ringworms, pinworms, and roundworms are also transmissible from animals to humans. Somebody cancel his research grants before he destroys himself!

Phone-y news

The relative risk of being in a traffic accident while chatting on a cell phone is comparable with that of driving while legally intoxicated, according to population based studies. In one study published in Human Factors, researchers at the University of Utah tested this hypothesis by having participants engage in simulated driving sessions while either on a cell phone or intoxicated (ie, blood alcohol concentration at 0.08% weight/volume). 

Hold onto your phones! They found that impairment when controlling for driving conditions and task time was comparable in inebriated drivers and those talking on a cell phone. 

We don’t think we need to push the message of “Don’t text and drive” to this audience, but here’s some sound clinical data that backs up how dangerous it is when you’re counselling patients. 

Don’t fool around with these nuts

After eating Brazil nuts 2-3 hours prior, a man had unprotected intercourse with his 20-year-old partner who had a documented Brazil nut allergy. The woman developed urticaria, angioedema, and dyspnea. To figure out the cause of this hypersensitivity reaction, UK researchers did a skin prick test in the woman using the boyfriend’s semen both before and after eating Brazil nuts.

Apparently, some nut protein got into the semen. 

“We believe this to be the first case of a sexually transmitted allergic reaction,” the researchers wrote in the Journal of Investigational Allergology and Clinical Immunology. Of note, Brazil nuts are the second most frequent nut allergy in the United Kingdom. Unfortunately for science, the couple broke up before the investigators could confirm the results.

“Our demonstration of an allergenic Brazil nut protein in the semen clearly proves the ability of such protein(s) to resist digestion. Additionally, to enter the semen, the protein would require circulation in the blood to the prostate or other reproductive organ.”

Notably, severe allergic reactions have been demonstrated in those with crustacean allergy following exposure from kissing. Also, penicillin exposure leading to allergic reaction could occur secondary to intercourse, per the literature.

The moral of this study? If you have food allergies, you might want to find out what your partner recently ate, before you get too close. 

This research bites!

In 1933, a virile 32-year-old University of Alabama physician named Dr. Allan Walker Blair hypothesized that the bite of a black widow spider was dangerous. Despite anecdotal evidence that the bite of a black widow spider was extremely dangerous, experts found it unlikely that this timid, diminutive spider could fell a full-grown adult. How wrong they were. 

To test his hypothesis, Dr. Blair did the unthinkable. He let the spider bite his little finger and documented the results. Upon being bitten, he first experienced a sharp pain followed by a progressive burn, leading to a hellish constellation of symptoms including extreme pain, sweating, vomiting, and mental status changes, which only tapered after 2 excruciating days. In fact, Dr. Blair became so ill, his assistant had to take over documentation after a mere 2 hours.

In the conclusion of the study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, Dr. Blair wrote: "The venom injected by the bite of the adult female spider, Latrodectus mactans, is dangerously poisonous for man."

Dr. Blair had also hypothesized that the initial bite would lead to immunity. As a follow-up to test for immunity, he was offered the chance to be bit again. Understandably, he demurred.

Incredibly, another researcher, William J. Baerg, PhD, an entomologist from the University of Kansas, also allowed a black widow to bite his finger for several seconds. He went through a reckoning similar to Dr. Blair.

"From the point of view of the experimenter, the results were all that could be desired,” noted Baerg. ''From the subject's point of view,” he continued, “they were slightly severe."

An interesting footnote to the story: At the age of 85, the retired Dr. Baerg volunteered to be bitten by a yellow sac spider  to test the effects of its venom. The director of that research project (wisely) turned down Dr. Baerg’s offer.

Smooching for science

Japanese researchers examined the effects of 30 minutes of intense kissing on skin wheal response and neurotrophin levels in a low-powered study involving couples with allergic rhinitis and atopic dermatitis, the findings of which were published in Physiology & Behavior. Researchers enrolled 30 normal participants, 30 with allergic rhinitis (AR), and 30 with atopic dermatitis (AD). Those with AR or AD were all allergic to dust mites and cedar pollen. The investigators performed skin prick tests involving dust mite and cedar pollen allergens, as well as histamine, both before and after the kissing sessions. They found that compared with the histamine control, extended snogging sessions in those with allergy decreased wheal response and levels of neurotrophin—a biomarker of allergic inflammation. To make things even stranger, the researchers noted that people in Japan don’t usually kiss each other. Based on the results of this study, maybe they should? 

Sad videos lead to diddly squats

Visual images can lead to abrupt changes in testosterone levels, according to researchers. In one study published in Hormones and Behavior, researchers presented brief, 4-minute videos to a small group of elite athletes. The researchers then examined the effects of  the videos on the athletes’ salivary testosterone and cortisol levels, along with their performance on squats (ie, three-repetition maximum lifts).

Participants were randomized to watch videos that were sad, erotic, aggressive, motivational, humorous, or neutral. Researchers found that aggressive videos increased cortisol secretion and were linked to improved squat performance. Performance was also elevated in those who watched erotic, aggressive, and training clips. Sad videos, on the other hand, decreased testosterone levels.

“Using short video presentations in the pre-workout environment offers an opportunity for understanding the outcomes of hormonal change, athlete behaviour and subsequent voluntary performance,” the authors wrote.

So, show athletes erotic, aggressive, or training videos for improved performance? Clearly, more research is needed.

Screening with speed bumps

Patients with appendicitis sometimes complain that driving over speed bumps triggers abdominal pain. In fact, physicians have been known to ask about speed bumps during the H&P when suspecting appendicitis. 

In a small prospective study published in The BMJ, UK researchers asked patients who were admitted with suspected appendicitis whether they were exposed to speed bumps on their way to the hospital. Turns out that speed bumps had a higher sensitivity and negative likelihood ratio for appendicitis compared with other clinical features such as rebound tenderness and pain migration.

“Some patients who were ‘speed bump positive’ but did not have appendicitis had other important abdominal diagnoses, such as a ruptured ovarian cyst, diverticulitis, or pelvic inflammatory disease,” they concluded. “We hypothesise that the worsening of pain when travelling over speed bumps in appendicitis may occur because the movement involved irritates the peritoneum in a similar way to that produced by testing for rebound tenderness on examination."

Share with emailShare to FacebookShare to LinkedInShare to Twitter