Even before his son was born, Pawan Sinha saw unique potential. At a birthing class, Dr. Sinha, a neuroscience professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, stunned everyone, including his wife, by saying he was excited about the baby’s birth “because I really want to study him and do experiments with him.” He did, too, strapping a camera on baby Darius’s head, recording what he looked at.
Dr. Sinha is among a new crop of scientists using their children as research subjects.
Other researchers have studied their own children in the past, but sophisticated technology allows modern-day scientists to collect new and more detailed data. The scientists also say that studying their children allows for more in-depth research and that the children make reliable participants in an era of scarce research financing.
“You need subjects, and they’re hard to get,” said Deborah Linebarger, a developmental psychologist who directs the Children’s Media Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, who has involved her four children in her studies of the effect of media on children.
Arthur Toga, a neurology professor at the medical school at the University of California, Los Angeles, studying brain change, scanned his three children’s brains using magnetic resonance imaging.
Stephen M. Camarata at the medical school at Vanderbilt, has involved all seven of his children in studies of learning problems and speech.
And Deb Roy, at M.I.T., embedded 11 video cameras and 14 microphones in ceilings throughout his house, recording 70 percent of his son’s waking hours for his first three years, amassing 250,000 hours of tape for a language development study he calls the Human Speechome Project.
Some research methods are clearly benign; others, while not obviously dangerous, might not have fully understood effects. Ethicists said they would consider participation in some projects acceptable, even valuable, but raised questions about the effect on the child, on the relationship with the parent, and on the objectivity of the researcher or the data.
“The role of the parent is to protect the child,” said Robert M. Nelson, director of the Center for Research Integrity at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “Once that parent becomes an investigator, it sets up an immediate potential conflict of interest. And it potentially takes the parent-child relationship and distorts it in ways that are unpredictable.”
Researchers themselves acknowledge the challenge of being simultaneously scientist and parent.
“I don’t want them to feel uncomfortable, like I’m invading their privacy,” said Dr. Linebarger, who ultimately set some boundaries. “When you mix being a researcher with being a parent, it can put your kids in an unfair place.”
Children have been subjects for some well-known scientist-parents, including Jean Piaget, the child-development theorist. But some past examples would probably not pass ethical muster today.
Jonas Salk injected his children with his polio vaccine. Clarence Leuba, a psychologist, wondering if laughter in response to tickling was learned or innate, forbade tickling of his infant son and daughter, except when he tickled them, wearing a mask to hide his expression.
These days, scientists using human subjects are expected to seek approval from institutional review boards, which consider federal regulations on risk, coercion of subjects and researcher bias.
Some scientists said that in studies with multiple subjects they considered it unnecessary to report their child’s participation, because they would face no greater risk than others. Some asserted that involving their children proved risks were minimal.
Dr. Toga said some nonscientists have said: “Why would a parent subject their kid to the dangers of M.R.I.? You should be ashamed of yourself.”
His response: “All I’m doing is taking a picture. Nobody loves my kids more than me. Would I ever do something that would endanger them?”
Some researchers sign required parental consent forms, and some have spouses sign.
“I sign my own permission slips,” said Gedeon Deak, whose three sons have participated in his cognitive science studies at University of California, San Diego. He tells review boards his subjects are a “sample of convenience,” not randomly selected, but he has seen no need to specify that his sons are among the participants.
“If they’re your kids and you want to ask them questions, you can,” he said. “If you want to put your kid into a drug trial, that’s different.”
Michael Caligiuri, who oversees U.C.S.D.’s review boards, said researchers should disclose their child’s role. He said panels might allow it but would probably require that investigators “can’t be present” when their children participate and “can’t view identifiable data” from their children.
Some scientists use their children only in pilot studies, not published ones, in case their child’s performance skews the results.
Dr. Linebarger changed some of her procedures after her son Alec, at about age 5, answered a question by saying “his parents didn’t listen to him and that sometimes he felt lonely,” she recalled. “I was just floored,” she said. “I sort of assumed that we have this wonderful son-mother relationship. I decided I needed to be more careful. I was worried I would be biasing anything I did.”
Now, her husband handles forms, and staff members usually conduct the testing.
“We videotape and I look at it after, and sometimes I don’t even like to do that,” she said, because it is tempting to question them on their answers.
M.I.T.’s review board chairman, Leigh Firn, said that Dr. Roy’s project did not raise concerns about risk since parents routinely videotaped children, but that its scale prompted questions about privacy – for his son, but also for visitors to his Arlington, Mass., home.
The board consulted an independent expert and urged safeguards. Cameras and microphones had to be easily turned off. Visitors signed consent forms. People can have their video segments erased – including his son, once he is 18. The expert recommended not videotaping toilet training, to avoid later embarrassment.
Dr. Roy has students who catalog recordings sign confidentiality agreements, and each handles only video or audio, in 15-minute, randomly ordered snippets. They are asked to report anything “potentially embarrassing,” he said, but usually “when there’s something juicy or controversial the recording is off, and if it isn’t, good luck finding it.” Plus, every room has an “oops button” to erase regretted utterances instantly.
Now, as he analyzes his son’s vocabulary bursts, tracks how a single word progressed from “gaga” to “water,” and studies interaction between his son and grown-ups, he said some scientists say: “My god, this is such a valuable database. Why don’t you share it more openly?” He said he had been denied a federal grant because he would not. Like Dr. Sinha, he is expanding the project to include other children, applying the research to autism.
Some researchers say scientist and parent roles sometimes intertwine.
“You put your kid in the scanner and you say please, please, please, let it be normal,” Dr. Toga said.
Dr. Deak, who sometimes observes while students test his children, finds his investigator role “fighting with the natural thing of wanting your kid to get the answers right.”
When one son, 4, answered questions about color and shape wearing an electrode-studded cap to measure brain waves, “I wasn’t sure whether he’d be willing to put the cap on, whether he’d be willing to do the task,” Dr. Deak said. He did, although “he needed more breaks than other kids. He wanted snacks.”
And when Karen Dobkins, a U.C.S.D. psychology professor, enlisted her infant twins, Gabriel and Jacob, she said, “it was kind of painful, because one of my twin boys basically played the game really well, but my other son, we couldn’t even use his data.” She said that “made me worry that he had autism.”
Her worries proved unfounded. Still, she said, “I took only the good data and copied it and put it in both of their baby books.”
Some researchers say their children can become very practiced at taking tests, affecting their results.
At 18 months, Dr. Linebarger’s daughter Callie was so blasé about research that she interrupted a study and said, “No questions, Mama,” Dr. Linebarger recalled. “Later, when we were walking to get pizza and she was riding on my husband’s shoulders,” she said, “I tried to slip the questions in casually and she just looked at me with a smirk.”
Some scientists’ research stems from their children’s experiences.
When his toddler, Claire, had inexplicable monthly fevers, Greg Licameli, an otolaryngologist at Children’s Hospital Boston, had her tonsils removed (a colleague performed the surgery). The fevers stopped, and he began studying similar cases.
Dr. Camarata and his wife, Mary, devised research around their daughter Kathryn’s habit of repeating word endings, their daughter Laura’s verbal precociousness and their daughter Jane’s reading trouble.
When his son Vincent had serious speech problems, he focused on language disorders.
Vincent, now 19 and in college, said he had “had a very good experience with my dad and his work. We’d go out and have lunch, go hiking, shoot skeet sometimes. It never felt like a drill, ever. It felt like fun.”
Dr. Toga said research had allowed his children to “come to work with Dad,” and get brain-scan printouts for show-and-tell. “They were so determined to please their father that they would lie still,” he said.
His daughter Rebecca, now 18, said that at first, “it was kind of claustrophobic” in the noisy scanner, her head covered with a “cage kind of thing,” her body tight in blankets. “The first time I kept talking because I was nervous, but then they just calmed me down and I got used to it,” she said. By age 8 or 9, she fell asleep during a study.
Dr. Sinha’s wife, Pam, although a scientist herself, did not rest easy.
She was “quite opposed to this idea of experimentation” on their son, Dr. Sinha said, so “it had to be done surreptitiously, whenever she would go out or when I would take him out in his little BabyBjorn.”
It is still, he said, “a sore topic between us.”