Lit­tle cash but much ca­chet at the Ig No­bel awards

The Irish Times - Tuesday - Health - - Health l Lifestyle - Muiris Hous­ton muirishous­ @muirishous­ton

Did you know that tak­ing up the didgeri­doo re­duces snor­ing or ever won­der why old men have such big ears? Of course you didn’t, and you may never have gleaned these price­less nuggets if it were not for the lat­est Ig No­bel awards, which were an­nounced re­cently. Hosted by the jour­nal An­nals of Im­prob­a­ble Re­search, the Igs are an an­nual ex­er­cise in ir­rev­er­ence that cel­e­brate sci­en­tific stud­ies which “can­not, or should not, be re­peated”.

The al­ter ego of the No­bel Prize is the Ig No­bel – a play on the words “ig­no­ble” and “No­bel”. Awarded a week or so be­fore the for­mal Swedish cer­e­mony, the awards are pre­sented at Har­vard Univer­sity by ac­tual No­bel win­ners to re­searchers whose projects “first make peo­ple laugh, and then make them think”.

De­scribed by Na­ture mag­a­zine as com­ing with lit­tle cash (win­ners re­ceive a 10 tril­lion Zim­bab­wean note – which is prac­ti­cally worth­less) but much ca­chet, the Ig No­bels also high­light oblique re­search. But when you scratch the sur­face they in­evitably in­volve an ap­peal­ing dose of ec­cen­tric­ity.

A Swiss team won this year’s Peace prize for the pa­per, Didgeri­doo Play­ing as Al­ter­na­tive Treat­ment for Ob­struc­tive Sleep Ap­nea Syn­drome: Ran­dom­ized Con­trolled Trial. They showed didgeri­doo play­ing re­duces snor­ing and eases the symp­toms of ob­struc­tive sleep ap­noea. The au­thors sug­gest this could be due to the im­prov­ing ef­fect on tongue mus­cles and the re­duc­tion of “fat pads” in the throat.

In­tru­sive sound

Given that it is the pa­tient’s part­ner who suf­fers the most from the sound of ob­struc­tive snor­ing, you would have to won­der how the in­tru­sive sound of a didgeri­doo would be any bet­ter. But there is clearly some prac­ti­cal merit in the tech­nique: one of the au­thors now works as a ther­a­peu­tic didgeri­doo in­struc­tor and has taught around 2,500 pa­tients with sleep ap­noea. And in the view of lead au­thor, Milo Puhan, a pro­fes­sor of pub­lic health and epi­demi­ol­ogy at the Univer­sity of Zurich, the didgeri­doo is “no worse than any other in­stru­ment”.

“Reg­u­lar play­ing of a didgeri­doo re­duces day­time sleepi­ness and snor­ing in peo­ple with mod­er­ate ob­struc­tive sleep ap­nea syn­drome and also im­proves the sleep qual­ity of part­ners,” his study con­cluded.

Sleep ap­noea is a sig­nif­i­cant health prob­lem, which has in­creased in preva­lence along with ris­ing lev­els of obe­sity. It car­ries a risk of sud­den death so the find­ing that the prac­tice of daily blow­ing the Aus­tralian wind in­stru­ment may strengthen the up­per res­pi­ra­tory tract, mak­ing breath­ing eas­ier, is, ec­cen­tric­ity not with­stand­ing, a valu­able one.

I can­not stand the smell of cheese. Walk­ing through a French mar­ket­place while those around me sniff ap­pre­cia­tively, I retch silently. So thank you to the French sci­en­tists who won the 2017 Ig No­bel for Medicine, by car­ry­ing out a brain imag­ing study, in which peo­ple were asked to smell ched­dar, goats’ cheese and gruyère while ly­ing in an MRI

‘‘ The find­ing that the prac­tice of daily blow­ing the Aus­tralian wind in­stru­ment may strengthen the up­per res­pi­ra­tory tract, mak­ing breath­ing eas­ier, is, ec­cen­tric­ity not with­stand­ing, a valu­able one

scan­ner. It pin­pointed a brain re­gion called the basal gan­glia as the neu­ral epi­cen­tre of cheese dis­gust. Al­though no cure is men­tioned, it is oddly re­as­sur­ing to know there is a sci­en­tific ba­sis for my cheese smell eme­sis.

Big ears have had a raw deal ever since the Noddy books were deemed un-PC. Step for­ward Kent GP, James Heath­cote, whose study was sparked when he and sev­eral other gen­eral prac­ti­tion­ers were dis­cussing how they could do more re­search. He wanted to know why old men have such big ears, which some of his col­leagues ridiculed.

Un­per­turbed, Dr Heath­cote mea­sured the ear length of more than 200 pa­tients and dis­cov­ered not only that old men have big ears but that ears grow about two mil­lime­tres per decade af­ter age 30. His re­search won him an Ig No­bel in Anatomy.

And in case you were won­der­ing, women’s ears grow with age, too, but their ears are smaller to start with, and men’s big ears may be more no­tice­able be­cause they tend to have shorter hair or none.

As Noddy’s car might have ex­claimed: a “Parp -parp” piece of re­search.

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