Itching IgNobels

23 September 2019

Interview with 

Francis McGlone, Liverpool John Moores University

SCRATCHING-CAT

a ginger tabby cat scratching itself

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This week, a very special scientific award show was held at Harvard: the 29th Annual Ig Nobel Prizes. But what science deserves such an accolade? Adam Murphy spoke with Francis McGlone, from Liverpool John Moores University, about the power of his research on scrating an itch…

Adam - On the 12th of September, the most prestigious award show was held: the Ig Nobel Prizes. Only the best of science gets awarded these prizes. This year they went to groundbreaking work such as showing that a pizza may protect against illness and death if that pizza is made and eaten in Italy, for a better understanding of cubic wombat poo, and for an estimation of the amount of saliva produced by a 5 year old. OK, so maybe not what you'd think about at first glance, but the Ig Nobels go to science that makes you laugh and then makes you think, science that may sound quirky but has importance behind it. One of this year's winners was Francis McGlone from Liverpool John Moores University, who, along with Gil Yosipovitch and others, examined the pleasurability of scratching an itch - you know that feeling when you've got an itch, and you just have to get to it, and then the relief of finally getting rid of it. Francis spoke with me about the work he's done.

Francis - In this experiment we looked at different body parts to see where itching was most accompanied by pleasure, basically. So we looked at these three different body sites and asked people after we'd made them itch, which one was the most rewarding, and I think it’s the quirkiness of that experiment that attracted an Ig Nobel. But underneath this almost sort of obvious question about why do you want to scratch an itch, there's an underlying question of why when you scratch that skin is it so rewarding. And this is what really interested me because the skin that you've just scratched, if you scratched the skin when it's not itchy, well it's actually quite uncomfortable. But once we create an itch, scratching that skin site again becomes absolutely deliriously rewarding.

Adam - As I've mentioned, Ig Nobels have to make you think. They can't just be quirky. So what does this work make you think about?

Francis - This research has clinical implications as well because chronic itch is a condition where patients just cannot ignore scratching a piece of skin, until it's quite often damaged. So that itch-scratch cycle is a clinical feature in many chronic conditions. Most people appreciate chronic pain conditions, and can have some sympathy with people suffering from pain, but itch doesn't really get the kind of credibility it needs I think, in terms of how debilitating it is for people. A good example I have was a patient who had his foot blown off on a landmine and this often results in a phantom pain from that missing limb. But this patient claimed it was a phantom itch between the big toe and the toe next to it. So he had an itch coming from a foot that wasn't there, and I think most people can appreciate just how devastating that can be to not be able to get at an itch. So again, we need to look at underlying mechanisms as to why itch is so pervasive, why it cannot be ignored, and in clinical conditions how best we can treat chronic itch. And of course with all of these interesting questions, first of all we need to understand the mechanisms and then we're in a better position to try and treat such conditions.

Adam - There's a good chance just after hearing that you're now a bit itchy. When all is said and done and all issues have been scratched and the prizes given out, where does Francis think the Ig Nobels fit into the world of science?

Francis - I think the Ig Nobel Prizes have been running for quite some time now and they really do add a very important element to us as scientists in terms of getting outreach or enabling us to tell our stories to wider audiences. All the Ig Nobels are based on good science, but a bit wacky. I think that opens a door to drawing audiences in that may not necessarily be interested in our areas of science, but they're drawn in by the quirkiness, and then of course, underneath that, they get exposed to the basic science questions that are being answered and asked within these research areas. And I think the Ig Nobel provides an absolutely superb mechanism by which the general public or the wider public can become aware of the kinds of things we do as scientists.

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