stories from the wilder side of science

2. Urine in the Web

In 1948 the pharmaceutical researcher Peter N. Witt discovered quite by chance that spiders build quite different webs when under the influence of drugs than they do otherwise. The psychiatrists at the Friedmatt Sanatorium and Nursing Home in Basle, Switzerland, were aware of Witt’s work and hit on the idea of trying to get to the bottom of schizophrenia using spiders.

It was a mystery – and remains so to this day – what the precise trigger was for the onset of this mental illness. However, fifty years ago scientists thought that they had found a promising lead: after taking drugs such as mescaline or LSD, healthy patients began to show symptoms similar to those exhibited by schizophrenics. These chemical substances induced short-term hallucinations and personality disorders. Could it be that such substances were permanently present in the metabolism of those suffering from schizophrenia? In other words, were schizophrenics on a constant ‘high’ due to a mere whim of their body chemistry?

So, at the start of the 1950s, researchers in Basle began to examine the urine of schizophrenics in an effort to discover what this chemical compound might be. Urine was chosen as the basic material for their investigations “so that we ‘d never be stuck for large quantities to work on,” as one of the team involved later wrote. But how on earth were they supposed to find a substance that, for one, they weren’t even sure existed in the first place and, for another, they had no idea what it consisted of?

The biologist Hans Peter Rieder collected and prepared 50 litres’ worth of urine samples from fifteen schizophrenics. The resulting urine concentrate was fed to spiders and the webs that they spun were then compared to those constructed by spiders that had been given researchers’ urine instead. If any systematic difference was evident in the webs made by these two groups, then it might well be that the substance they were trying to find was responsible. Moreover, if the webs also resembled those spun by spiders under the influence of LSD and mescaline, they the scientists would at least what type of substance they were looking for.

The experiment was conducted several times with various different concentrations of urine, but the results were disappointing: although the spiders certainly constructed different webs when under the influence of urine than they did otherwise, no systematic difference was apparent between researchers’ and schizophrenics’ urine. After a further series of experiments, the team came to the conclusion that the geometry of spiders’ webs just wasn’t a suitable tool for diagnosing mental illnesses.

But the researchers did find out one thing: namely, that the concentrated urine “must taste extremely unpleasant, despite all the sugar that was added”. The spiders’ behaviour left no room for doubt: “After taking just a sip, the spiders exhibited a marked abhorrence for any further contact with this solution; they left the web, rubbed any residual drops off on the wooden frame, only returned to the web after having given their pedipalps and mouthparts a thorough cleaning, and could scarcely be persuaded to take another drop of the stuff”.

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