Of Rats and Road Rage

By Bill Moore

Posted: 28 Nov 2009

One of the benefits of having a PhD in the family, especially one whose professional focus is the body's immune system, is that she has read innumerable biomedical science research papers: the good, the bad and the really ugly from a scientist's perspective. Now it may come as a surprise to us layman, but not all science is good science. There are many reasons why: the chief culprit being the intense competition within the research community to "publish or perish." Others include inadequate research tools and improper protocols and, yes, lazy scientists.

Worse, while most studies seldom emerge from the milieu of their specific field, some occasionally find their way into the larger world like Amal Kinawy's study Impact of gasoline inhalation on some neurobehavioural characteristics of male rats recently published in BMC Physiology. Wired's online edition picked up the study, as did Discover magazine, which, after identifying numerous other "things about driving to make your blood pressure rise", added a new one: gasoline fumes.

Intrigued, I downloaded the study while my daughter, the PhD studying cancer at Rutger's University, was eating breakfast and preparing to fly back to New Jersey.

"Listen to this, Carissa," I began, reading portions of the abstract to her, asking her to "interpret" it for me. She quickly scanned it...

This paper examines closely and compares the potential hazards of inhalation of two types of gasoline (car fuel). The first type is the commonly use leaded gasoline and the second is the unleaded type enriched with oxygenate additives as lead substituent in order to raise the octane number. The impacts of gasoline exposure on Na+, K+-ATPase, superoxide dismutase (SOD), acetylcholinesterase (AChE), total protein, reduced glutathione (GSH), and lipid peroxidation (TBARS) in the cerebral cortex, and monoamine neurotransmitters dopamine (DA), norepinephrine (NE) and serotonin (5-HT) in the cerebral cortex, hippocampus, cerebellum and hypothalamus were evaluated. The effect of gasoline exposure on the aggressive behaviour tests was also studied.
"Okay Dad, she's just explaining what she was measuring; sodium, potasium, acetylcholinesterase," the last rolling off her tongue like nickel metal hydride would off mine. "There's some things you need to understand about research papers like this. Before you buy into their findings you need to find out who the researcher is, where and how they conducted their research, where the paper was published." There are respected, peer-reviewed journals like Nature and there are, well, less than reputable ones and you need to know the difference, she explained, adding that publishing scientific papers can be a very lucrative business.

As we read more of the paper together, it became clear that there appeared critical gaps in Ms. Kinawy's protocol, at least they didn't appear to be sufficiently explained in the paper. One of the key ones being how was "aggressive behavior" defined? This is a highly subjective determination and every effort needed to be made insure results weren't being tainted by observer bias.

The other critical aspect of the study was what it actually investigated. It did not, as the Discover Magazine "blog" suggested, causes of road rage. That headline would lead you to believe that human aggressiveness during driving is stimulated by the inhalation of automotive exhaust fumes, when in fact Kinaway did not study exhaust fumes, but vaporized leaded and unleaded gasoline fumes. Egypt is in the process of switching from leaded to unleaded gasoline. It is the impact of inhaling vaporized gasoline fumes that she looked at her lab at Cairo University, which are entirely different from combustion aerosols.

While the inhalation of gasoline fumes, both leaded and unleaded varieties, may, in fact, lead to heightened rodent aggression, it's a long leap to say that the five minutes most drivers spend refueling their gas guzzler once a week will stimulate equally aggressive responses by harried motorists. This isn't to say it isn't a contributing factor and a reason to switch to electric drive, but research like Ms. Kinawy's shouldn't be looked to as conclusive evidence and you certainly shouldn't write headlines that misrepresent her findings.

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