Dr. Matthew Lennon: A History of Self-Experimentation in Neuroscience

Self-Experimentation has shaped the history of neurological research. Isaac Newton pushed a needle in his eye socket to map out the visual distribution of the retina. Angelo Ruffini resected sensitive parts of his own hand to discover sensory nerve endings, including the Ruffini Corpuscle. Oliver Sacks experimented with morphine to better understand subjective drug effects on patients. Kevin Warwick pioneered prosthetics research when he inserted an electrode array into his median nerve allowing him to control a robotic arm more than 10,000 kilometers away. Phillip Kennedy had electrodes inserted into the speech centres of his own brain to try to decode the neural signals of human speech. Self-experimenters have many motivations; to avoid institutional roadblocks, to risk themselves rather than others, to gain subjective research insights otherwise inaccessible to volunteers, to prove a concept otherwise too risky to test. Self-experimentation has little to no legal or institutional regulation, which can complicate the recognition and publication of the work. In the future, self-experimentation will have a critical role to play in neurology research but the practice will need to balance both the zeal of the individual researcher and regulation necessary to institutional recognition.