To many a seasoned sesher, the prospect of getting paid to trial alcohol and drugs would sound instantly appealing. What’s not to love about getting a buzz, advancing science and netting a bit of cash, after all?
Dr Stephen Bright, an alcohol- and drug use researcher and lecturer at Edith Cowan University has done just that, becoming the guinea pig in a series of ketamine-fuelled experiments.
“Being a researcher, I was really interested in being on the other side of the interaction,” Dr Bright said.
The study by Monash and Swinburne University scholars was ostensibly designed to determine the driving ability of its participants after a hit of ketamine.
Ketamine is listed on the World Health Organisation’s Essential Medicines List due to its strength as a painkiller and alternative to opiate-based medicines like morphine and fentanyl.
Recently, doctors have also used the drug in cases of treatment-resistant depression, with further trials still taking place.
Dr Bright explains that due to ketamine’s recent spike in use as an anaesthetic and painkiller in emergency rooms, researchers were eager to see how long a patient would have to wait after taking the drug before getting behind the wheel. Or so it seemed…
A hidden agenda
“At some point during the research, I found out that the real reason they were conducting the research was to look at saliva levels for ketamine to develop a roadside test,” Dr Bright said.
“There had been quite a lot of roadside accidents where ketamine had been detected in people – presumably from recreational use.”
“Had I known that, I’m not sure if I would have participated – I don’t agree with roadside drug testing,” he said.
To achieve this agenda, participants were hooked up to a drip of ketamine and subjected to driving simulators and cognitive tests.
After a heavy first dose – called the “bolus dose” by scientists – Dr Bright was given smaller doses every subsequent hour for approximately six to seven hours.
“Having experienced ketamine before, I did know what I was in for,” Dr Bright said.
“The first dose was solid, sort of a ‘K-hole’ type experience, [but] it wasn’t as much fun as it sounds,” he admitted.
“It sounds pretty cool – ‘you get administered ketamine and we put you in a driving simulator,’ but once I was given the all clear it was a full-day experience.”
After every dose, the study’s participants were subjected to the gauntlet of tests again, having their performances recorded each time.
“Imagine being in a hospital room, and there’s a computer on one side,” Dr Bright explained.
“I’m sitting in pretty much a dentist’s chair for the whole day. They could move [the chair] around the whole room – that way I could lie back when they were administering the ketamine.”
Retro gaming on ketamine
“It was really interesting at the start, but by the end I remember saying ‘I don’t want to do the driving simulator again, I just want a nap!'” Dr Bright said.
He describes the simulator as simplistic.
“I grew up around the time that driving games made it into Timezone; it was like one of those retro driving simulator games,” Dr Bright said.
“There wasn’t much happening, maybe one or two other cars on the road, which was fairly straight, like going for a country drive.”
“What they were monitoring was whether I was wandering around on the road or could manage to keep in a straight line.”
“Apparently the rationale was that when you’re driving where not a lot happens, that’s when you’re more likely to mind-wander and end up on the side of the road,” he explained.
The results of the study, published in the paper The acute and residual effects of escalating, analgesic-range doses of ketamine on driving performance: A simulator study, point toward a major loss of driving ability if the person behind the wheel has taken ketamine.
“My driving definitely deteriorated significantly between baseline and being administered the ketamine,” Dr Bright admitted.
“If I had not been required to do the driving simulator, I knew that there was no way I’d approach a car.”
Paying it forward
Despite the study’s purpose and the less than pleasant activities, Dr Bright looks back at his experience fondly.
“I’ve always advised psychologists I’ve supervised in the past and students that I currently teach that it’s really important to be on both sides, to be in both chairs,” he said.
“I use [the ketamine trial] as an example in my teaching to show what it’s like to be a participant so that you can have empathy for participants.”
The ketamine trial might not be the last study that Dr Bright will feature in as a participant.
“As I continue with my work, I do try to give a little bit back to areas like psychedelic research, where it might be difficult to recruit large numbers of people for specific tasks or areas.”
However, he would prefer to see the narrative shifted in the process.
“The trial I participated in had a rationale that spoke of the harm from drug use, and a way to reduce that harm,” he said.
“Why aren’t we talking about the benefits of drug use? Because governments don’t fund that research.”