Some truly bizarre research projects offer helpful health insights

Crazy Scary Healthy

If you have asthma, you might want to move to Jackson Township, NJ.

Jackson Township is the site of a roller coaster called Kingda Ka at Six Flags Great Adventure. This massive, horrifying giant offers a vertical drop of nearly 420 feet. Maximum speed: 128 mph.

Sounds more like a near-death experience than a roller coaster.

But according to a new study, Kingda Ka might be ideal for asthma patients. Researchers from The Netherlands used roller coaster rides to test the effects of stress on patients with chronic asthma. They found that respiratory distress was actually reduced after one circuit on a roller coaster.

Not only was this study published (in Behavior Research and Therapy), but it also won the 2010 Ig Nobel Prize in Medicine.

Key word: “Ig.”

The Ig Nobels are presented every year by the editors of the Annals of Improbable Research. The goal of the prizes: to make you laugh, then think.

Here’s what I think: The Ig Nobels have a clear bias for health-oriented research. Because this year, as in past years, several prizes offer health insights (even though riding a roller coaster might be the least convenient way EVER to relieve an asthma attack).


After the Medicine Prize, three more 2010 Ig Nobels featured health issues.

The Peace Prize went to UK researchers who asked subjects to plunge their hands in icy water and then respond with either a neutral word or a swear word. In the journal Neuroreport the authors write: “Swearing increased pain tolerance, increased heart rate and decreased perceived pain compared with not swearing.”

In other words, swearing reduces pain. Just as we always suspected.

U.S. researchers took the Public Health Prize for determining that potentially dangerous microbes cling to the beards of scientists who work in microbiological labs. They found that even after washing, enough toxins remained in the beards to spread sickness to others.

And a New Zealand team was awarded the Physics Prize for proving that it’s better to look like you’re slightly insane than it is to be rushed to the hospital with a broken leg.

The NZ researchers used steep, wintery footpaths to show that you’re less likely to slip and fall on the ice if you wear a pair of oversized socks on the OUTSIDE of your boots.

Good to know. I’m not sure I’ll actually try it, but it’s good to know.

Fun with fruit bats

Other prizes of note include the Management Prize for Italian researchers who showed that organizations run more efficiently when employees are promoted at random, rather than by merit. Something for General Motors executives to think about.

And three prizes were just plain messy…

The Chemistry Prize was awarded for proving that oil DOES mix with water.

The Transportation Planning Prize was awarded for determining the best routes for railroad tracks through the use of slime mold. The Japanese team that won this division also took home a 2008 Ig Nobel for showing that slime molds can solve puzzles.

And the Engineering Prize went to a UK team that devised a method for collecting whale mucus with a remote-control helicopter. This isn’t quite as bizarre as it sounds: The mucus samples are used to diagnose disease in whales.

And finally…I’m not going to go into detail about the Biology Prize. Let’s just say that it reveals something very very personal about the sex lives of fruit bats. If you’re really interested (admit it, you are) you can read about it on the Ig Nobel website at

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson

“The Ig Nobel Prizes” Improbable Research,

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