Human Trials

HUMAN TRIALS Illustration

Human Trials

by Alec Austin and Marissa Lingen

It was three weeks into the study, and participants were already claiming to see results. Pauline Lin kept warning her patients that it was the early days yet, and that they should be careful not to discuss anything that might be related to the medication with each other. Her partner, Sandra Okoro, was more sanguine.

“This is what we wanted,” she told Dr. Lin for the fourth time that day. “We can run cognitive tests on them to make sure the increases in intelligence aren’t anecdotal. Come on, stop being so gloomy!”

“Good science is not the same thing as gloom,” grumped Dr. Lin, but she made an effort to relax her shoulders and smile.

“Let’s just– let’s both keep open minds, all right?”

They had already seen several participants that morning, carefully trying not to guess which ones were receiving NGF-7 and which the placebo. But their next patient, Shakti, felt there was no doubt.

“I used to buy them lottery tickets, y’know?” she said, bouncing in excitement. She was a young, slender African-American woman whose cheap clothing still managed to be trendy. “And I looked at them today and I thought, no way, I will not be winning that.”

“Well, that’s good,” said Dr. Lin cautiously.

“Why not keep the money for stakes?” Shakti continued. “Makes a lot more sense. There’s stupid out there they haven’t even used yet, and now that it ain’t me….”

“Steaks?” said Dr. Okoro. “Are you cooking more?”

Shakti laughed. “Poker stakes, hon– uh, Doctor. For awhile I thought blackjack, but that’s barely better than the lottery, and you won’t see me back at the roulette wheel any time soon. Give me poker any day, and lots of it.”

“How’s that going?” asked Dr. Lin, making a note in her file.

“Breaking even, maybe up a little bit,” said Shakti.

“Could you keep track of exact numbers? It would help us to see what effects you’re noticing at this point in the process.”

Shakti agreed, and they ran a few standard cognitive tests on her, memory and computation ability and linguistic analogies. “Who knew I’d get a medical degree and a doctorate to be a SAT proctor?” said Dr. Okoro once Shakti had left. “Seriously, we’re going to have to get some harder tests if this works out.”

“Don’t get ahead of yourself,” said Dr. Lin, but she was smiling as she said it.

Their next patient, Nevaeh, also felt she was seeing results. “I’m done dating losers,” she said, sticking her chin out as she spoke. “I took one look at Clem when he came home falling-over drunk last night, and thought, ‘Oh hell no.’ I ain’t–” She paused to correct herself. “I’m not putting up with that shit any more. For years, I felt like I couldn’t do better, but now I’m on the NGF, I feel like a whole new woman.”

Dr. Lin smiled encouragingly as she scribbled notes about Nevaeh’s vehemence and the care with which she avoided words like “ain’t” and “y’all”. “Can you elaborate on that?” she asked, prompting a diatribe about all the Jeopardy questions Nevaeh had answered correctly before contestants buzzed in over the last week.

Not all the study participants were as enthusiastic about the NGF’s effects as Shakti and Nevaeh, however. Estralita, a retired grandmother, made no bones about her impatience.

“Look, I’m here for a reason,” she said. “I told you that when I came in.”

Dr. Lin sighed. “And we told you, Estralita, that–”

“I remember what you told me. You said intelligence is not all one thing. I’m not stupid. Well, maybe I am by your standards. But I remember that much.

“I’m in this test for one reason, and that’s my piano.”

“I know, ma’am,” said Dr. Lin as gently as she could. “And how is that going for you?”

“No better than it ever did,” said Estralita. “Are you sure I’m getting the right drug?”

This time it was Dr. Okoro who tried to stay patient. “We also told you about double-blind studies, ma’am. We aren’t allowed to know whether you’re getting the NGF-7 or the placebo any more than you are. It would influence how we assessed your progress.”

“Well, there isn’t any progress,” said Estralita. “Not a bit. I still sound like a cow trampling the keyboard on those Bach fugues. It’s not the arthritis, either.” She held her hands out and examined them reflexively. “It’s me. I just can’t make it sound right.”

“I’m so sorry,” said Dr. Lin, exchanging meaning looks with Dr. Okoro. They ran the same tests on Estralita as on the previous patients. When Estralita left, Dr. Okoro shook her head.

“I feel so sorry for that poor woman,” she said. “I wish she’d been one of the ones who got the NGF-7. She wants it so badly. Half these people don’t have the slightest notion what they’d even do with a brain in their head. She knows.”

Dr. Lin looked up from the chart. “Sandra–she’s improved by ten percent on the calculation test. That’s way outside ordinary variation.”

Dr. Okoro came and looked over her shoulder, whistling softly between her teeth. “I’ll be damned.”

“I know it. I’d have thought just the same. She seems so sure.”

“Well, maybe she’s right and the earlier tests didn’t reflect her true abilities. Everybody has a bad day now and then.”

Dr. Lin shrugged. “We’ll find out if it’s consistent, I guess. But it makes you think.”

Dr. Okoro nodded her agreement. “Who’s left for the day?”

Dr. Lin made a face. “Just Tasha.” She wasn’t surprised when her partner groaned. Tasha was the most obvious candidate for neural growth therapy in their entire group. She was the most sweet-natured, hapless person Dr. Lin had ever met. Tasha was constantly trying to do nice things for other people and failing. The time she brought vegetarian Dr. Okoro chicken soup for her cold would have stood out if it had not been classic Tasha: heart in the right place, brain… absent. The poor woman’s family had contacted the research group privately to describe years of similar incidents. No one could dislike Tasha, but she could be extremely difficult to deal with.

“How are you doing this week, Tasha? Have you noticed any changes?”

“Well, it’s hard to say,” Tasha said in her soft, colorless voice. “I was having such a good day, and then I tripped on the curb while I was crossing the street, and my coffee soaked this poor man’s coat.” Her dispirited gaze drifted around the room as she added, “He wasn’t very nice about it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Tasha,” Dr. Okoro said, paging through her notes. “The last time you were here, you were looking forward to your brother’s birthday party. How did that go?”

“Oh,” Tasha said, hunching her shoulders forward. “I didn’t make it. I was pulling into the mall to buy his present when I saw someone on the side of the road with a flat. So I stopped to see if I could help, and they didn’t know how to use a jack…”

Dr. Lin and Dr. Okoro exchanged a glance as Tasha’s tale of woe continued, resulting in a broken jack, several stripped tire lugs, and a punctured spare tire. “…it all looked so easy on Top Gear,” Tasha said with a hangdog expression. “They didn’t say anything about the other end of a tire iron being sharp.”

Dr. Lin bit down on her lip to keep herself from speaking, while Dr. Okoro restricted herself to an eloquent grunt.

“Well,” Dr. Lin said as the silence stretched out. “I hope you get to give your brother his present soon, Tasha.”

“Yeah,” Tasha said, studying the backs of her hands. “Can I take the tests now, please?”

“You know what she told me the first time we gave her the tests?” Dr. Okoro said as she and Dr. Lin watched Tasha filling out a machine-readable test form in pencil. “That she liked filling in the bubbles.”

I like filling in the bubbles,” Dr. Lin said, giving Dr. Okoro a sharp look.

You sort coins into separate pockets of your purse,” Dr. Okoro replied waspishly. “And have separate hampers for different kinds of laundry. It’s hardly the same thing.”

Dr. Lin conceded the point with an upturned palm.

It was getting dark by the time Tasha finished the tests and bade them good night, so Dr. Okoro left to pick up her son from day care while Dr. Lin filed away Tasha’s answer sheet without scoring it. She would get to it tomorrow, or the next day– it wasn’t as if it would show any improvement.

She ran her hand through her short black hair. The day’s results should have been heartening, but it was hard to remember that when the reality of the study fell so far short of her hopes. When they had used the neural growth factor in animal trials, the results had been straightforward: mazes traversed faster, rewards obtained more rapidly. Humans were more complex than animals, of course, but that complexity seemed to produce far more confusion than depth or nuance.

Dr. Lin turned the office lights out behind her. Surely there would be some sense that their work had improved somebody’s life, by the time the trial was over. But breaking up with a bad boyfriend could be anything, really, and one person buying fewer lottery tickets didn’t come close to justifying her work.


Dr. Okoro hadn’t known what a ‘bad beat’ story was before meeting Shakti, but by a month and a half into the study, she was thoroughly sick of them. As Shakti ranted about how her opponent had outdrawn her on the river to fill an inside straight, Dr. Okoro made a wry face at Dr. Lin, who was industriously collecting notes.

“Have you tried reading up on this stuff?” Dr. Lin asked when Shakti finished. “There are web pages and books about probability in poker. I’d be interested to see whether you could get more out of them now.”

Shakti made a rude noise. “I wouldn’t know– I never tried reading them before. Honestly, why should I care what some professor says? I’m up three hundred this week alone.”

Dr. Okoro tried to be neutral but encouraging. “But if you could play even better than you do now?”

“Articles and stuff, that’s not my thing,” said Shakti. “I don’t know, maybe I’ll look sometime.”

“She won’t read those articles,” said Dr. Okoro once they were alone in the observation room.

“She’s playing different kinds of poker now,” Dr. Lin said as they watched Shakti fill in the test form, still grumbling under her breath. “And she seems to have a better grasp on probability than she did at the start of the study.”

Dr. Okoro blinked at her colleague. “You think what sort of poker she’s playing matters?”

“Of course it does. Learning one game versus learning five? That’s a big difference in cognitive load, keeping track of which rules go where and what’s a good bet in which game. And if she’s winning consistently, that means she’s juggling things successfully.”

“Or else she got lucky.”

“Or else that,” said Dr. Lin. Shakti had finished the test and was tapping her pencil impatiently. “Though she claims to have netted over a grand since we started keeping track. I wish she was willing to look at more cognitively complex materials. I always thought our subjects–”

“I did too,” said Dr. Okoro. “The smartest people I know are the ones who are curious, who go find things out when they don’t know the answer.”

“Maybe curiosity and intelligence are more distinct than we thought,” said Dr. Lin.

“Or maybe they’re just not curious about the same things.”

When they went to collect the test forms, Shakti said, “Look, could I get this month’s check a little early?”

The two doctors looked at each other. “I think our funding is on a pretty strict schedule,” said Dr. Lin. “Why do you ask?”

She hesitated, not wanting to sound dubious or judgmental, but could not resist adding, “I thought you were winning more at poker now.”

“I am! But if I had more cash, I could buy into a tournament. Even if I came in eighth or ninth, I’d still bring home mad bank. I need to step up my game; make it to the next level, where all the action is.”

The doctors looked at each other again. “I’m not making any promises,” said Dr. Okoro, “but we’ll see what we can do.”

As they were ushering Shakti out, they noticed Nevaeh talking to Estralita in the waiting room. “I haven’t had any of that so far,” said Nevaeh. “Except maybe last week, there was this time that I just felt–I don’t know, funny.”

“Probably the same thing,” said Estralita. “These drugs, you can hardly get one without side effects. Seems like everything does something it’s not supposed to do.”

“Estralita,” said Dr. Lin sharply, “I’m glad to see you’re here in time for your session, but we asked you not to discuss the effects of the medication with the other participants.”

“I’m not even sure this is the meds, doc,” said Estralita. “It might just be my arthritis, which you know is–”

“Anything that might be the meds,” said Dr. Lin firmly. “Anything. It’s really important for us not to taint our data set here. I hope you understand that.”

Estralita raised an eyebrow. “All right, doc. You take care, honey.”

“You too,” said Nevaeh. When they asked her about side effects, Dr. Lin had a hard time biting back a snide comment about whether the headache Nevaeh reported from when she’d “felt funny” had even existed before Estralita suggested it. Human trials could be maddening.

But on the other hand, Nevaeh really was seeing the kind of life improvements Dr. Lin had hoped the study participants would report. She’d applied for another position at work, one with more responsibility and slightly better pay, and contrary to her previous pattern, she hadn’t invited the hapless Clem back into her life.

“Her test scores are about the same, though,” said Dr. Okoro when Dr. Lin voiced her hopes in the wake of Nevaeh’s departure.

“Well, maybe we’re not testing all the things the drug is helping with,” said Dr. Lin. “You know how hard it is to measure emotional intelligence.”

Estralita’s arrival in the interview room cut off that line of conversation, but as Dr. Okoro smiled across the table at their disgruntled patient, she found it hard not to wish that musical ability was harder to quantify. “I tried playing one of Bach’s solo partitas yesterday,” Estralita complained. “And it sounded awful. My daughter played it better at her recital when she was twelve!”

“What does your daughter do?” Dr. Lin asked hopefully.

Estralita gave her a puzzled look. “What, you want me to say she’s a church organist? She’s an accountant.”

“What can you tell us about this recital?” Dr. Okoro asked, trying to estimate how long ago it must have happened.

Without pausing to think, Estralita gave them a detailed account of who had played what, what she thought of the other children and their parents, and how that nasty little Holochek boy was rotting in jail for assault, and didn’t he just deserve it.

“You have a very impressive memory, ma’am,” Dr. Okoro said, letting Dr. Lin transcribe the relevant details in shorthand.
Estralita made a rude noise. “What, just because it happened two decades ago, I’m not going to remember it? How old do you think I am?”

Dr. Okoro refrained from comment. But when they moved on to the memory tests, Estalita’s performance was visibly improved from the week before.

Tasha, on the other hand, seemed as chastened as ever when she slouched into the interview room. “What’s wrong, Tasha?” Dr. Lin asked as she invited the woman to sit.

“I had to return my brother’s birthday present,” Tasha said, hunching her shoulders closer to her neck. The motion made her look like a turtle retreating into its shell.

“What happened?” Dr. Okoro asked, bracing herself for another tale of well-intentioned mishaps.

Tasha shrugged, tilting her head toward her left shoulder. “I took a look at the shirt I’d gotten him before I wrapped it, and it was this horrible lime green, and the wrong size besides. It would have looked like a tent on him. An ugly tent.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, Tasha,” Dr. Lin said. She had to fight the urge to lean over and pat Tasha’s hand.

“Why am I so terrible at helping people?” Tasha asked despondently. “My Aunt Elena used to give me these horrible sweaters when I was a girl, and I had to smile and thank her even though they were rough and itchy and I never wore them. When did I turn into her?”

“You know, Tasha,” Dr. Okoro said, as gently as she could, “knowing that you’re doing something wrong is the first step toward doing it properly. Yes?”

“I guess,” Tasha replied. But her posture didn’t shift, and not even the prospect of filling in the bubbles on the test form improved her mood.

“What do you think happened with her?” Dr. Okoro asked once she’d shown Tasha out.

“I don’t know,” Dr. Lin said, looking up from transcribing her notes onto the computer. “Maybe she’s not part of the control group after all?”

“People can have epiphanies without the aid of drugs.”

“People can,” Dr. Lin agreed. “Whether Tasha could have is open to debate.”

Dr. Okoro grinned, shaking her head. “Sometimes I wonder how we got into this line of research in the first place, when neither of us can stand dealing with dumb people.”


“Well, it’s true,” said Dr. Okoro.

“You’re very patient with the entire group,” said Dr. Lin.

“Oh, so are you, but we both grit our teeth to do it,” said Dr. Okoro. “I don’t mind so much when I’m helping Henry learn to tie his shoes or sing the ABC song, but he’s just little, not stupid. I know they can’t all be on the drug, but there’s a part of me that really wishes they were.”

Dr. Lin grimaced sympathetically. “I know what you mean. Although– it’s not like we’re seeing the next Einstein coming out of this.”

“Do I have to give you the speech about the patent clerk thing and how it’s misleading again?”

“I think I have that one memorized by now.” Dr. Lin’s grin faded as she thought about their work day. “Estralita doesn’t seem to notice how much better her memory’s gotten. What do you make of that?”

“I don’t think Estralita would notice anything that wasn’t making her into the musician she wants to be,” said Dr. Okoro. “But the tests really are quite conclusive.”

Dr. Lin sat down, scrolling through the files on her tablet. “Here’s the problem. All the subjects are showing improvements in at least one or two areas. And we know they’re not all on the drug.”

“So…is it us, then? Is it the placebo effect, or the interactions with trained neuropsychologists, or…?”

Dr. Lin frowned. “Or even the interactions with each other. We told Estralita to stop talking about her arthritis, but maybe we should be keeping them from ever meeting at all.”

“Or maybe we shouldn’t!” Dr. Okoro took the tablet to look through the files herself. “If they’re benefiting . . . I mean, what are we doing this for, anyway?”

“Fame and fortune, I thought.”

That prompted gales of laughter, and when they went to lock up, Dr. Okoro warned Dr. Lin to avoid the paparazzi.


Shakti’s record-keeping had far surpassed anything Dr. Lin had hoped for. The thumb drive she brought in held not only her financial records for the last month, but also a full hand history of the games Shakti had played–complete gibberish to Dr. Lin, but she felt sure she could have a colleague translate it into English. There were also notes on how the weeks had gone, with outstanding losses accompanied by rudimentary analyses of what had gone wrong.

“There are message boards that help you step up your game,” said Shakti. “Not the ones you were on about; these have explanations that don’t make me want to fall asleep.”

“Well, I’m glad you found something useful,” said Dr. Lin.

“Tell me the truth, Doc– is this stuff going to last? Because my sister was saying she hears they always tell you they’re going to make you smart, but it never lasts, and if you knew one way or the other, I’d– set up retirement accounts or something. If I’m not going to be able to keep playing at this level.”

“We don’t know,” said Dr. Okoro. “We’ve just started the trials; you’re the first group. The neural growth factor might not continue at the current rate, but I see no reason to think that the connections your brain is making now will go away, unless you get something like Alzheimer’s.”

“Didn’t you give this shit to rats and monkeys?”

“Sure,” said Dr. Okoro. “And all of those subjects are doing well. But the human brain doesn’t always behave like the brains of other species. Also, animals don’t live as long as people, so if the effects are going to wear off in thirty years, you’d never know from testing it on a white rat.”

“It never hurts to plan for the future, though,” said Dr. Lin. “I’m really pleased you’re thinking in those terms.”

Shakti shrugged. “I been broke half of my life, and before that, my parents were broke for me. I like having money. I’m not going back.”

“Well, we’ll keep you on the drug regimen if you like,” said Dr. Lin. “I’m really glad this worked out for you.”

Shakti offered her hand to shake. “Hey, me too. Last set of bubbles?”

The tests confirmed their intuitions about Shakti’s progress, and both doctors went glowing into their closing interview with Nevaeh.

“I don’t understand,” said Nevaeh. “I feel so much smarter! I got a promotion at work, and it’s been going really well. The guys I’m meeting are much nicer to me than they used to be– because if they’re not, I leave. How could sugar pills have done that?”

“Honestly, we’re as surprised as you are,” said Dr. Lin. “We even had some qualms about telling you, because if the placebo effect is working for you, we want it to keep working. You’re doing much better than you were at the beginning of the study! Please don’t lose sight of that.”

“Maybe it’s just you,” said Dr. Okoro. “You know you’re trying to improve yourself, and that knowledge could be boosting your confidence.”

“I guess,” said Nevaeh. “So… is there any point to taking the pills? Since there’s nothing in them?”

“Probably not,” said Dr. Lin. “We don’t have any long-term studies on the placebo effect in this kind of situation. But you really are doing well for yourself, Nevaeh. Keep that in mind.”

“My plain old mind,” said Nevaeh. “Same as it ever was.” She paused, worrying at her lower lip with her teeth. “I guess that’s a good thing? Maybe?”

They tried to be reassuring, but Nevaeh still sounded confused and frustrated when she left. Dr. Lin wanted to look more closely at her file to see if they could trace the cause of the unaided improvement, but they still had their last two patients to see.

Estralita was no less frustrated. “But– I’m practicing like crazy! If I’m on this brain growth drug, why am I not getting better at the piano?”


“Is not all one thing, I know, I know! You’ve said that to me twenty-seven times since this stupid study began!”

Dr. Lin simultaneously shared the older woman’s frustration and wanted to smack her. “Listen to yourself. Twenty-seven times. Not twenty-six, or twenty-eight, or ‘about thirty.’ Your memory has grown in leaps and bounds.”

“And what has it got me? I remember the lyrics to every damn song I hear on the radio, but I can’t play them any better. Sure, I remember the music. But my interpretation is stiff and wooden.”

“Your math scores have shot up,” said Dr. Okoro. “Clearly your brain is growing neurons like crazy in these regions.”

“So I can calculate tips in ten seconds flat, and I balance my checkbook without a calculator. Big deal. It wasn’t that hard to use the calculator, and my daughter already did my taxes for me.”

Dr. Lin hesitated. “I don’t want to give you false hope,” she said. “While mathematical and musical ability are often correlated, they don’t seem to be causally linked. Your brain responded in one way to the NGF-7. If you stay on it, you might see further improvements in that area, or you might see nothing. Or– and I have to emphasize that we have no evidence for this– you might see some other area of your brain showing increased connections.”

“And that might not be music,” said Dr. Okoro. “You could find you’re better at word association, or that you read people’s emotions better, or that you’re more coordinated. We really can’t predict which.”

Estralita sighed. “Well, I can’t say you didn’t warn me. Twenty-seven times. I just….”

Dr. Lin reached out and took Estralita’s hand in hers. “You had hopes for something greater. I know. So did we. While this trial has been a great success in some regards, I’ll confess it’s not what I wanted it to be either.”

Dr. Okoro gave her an incredulous look. After Estralita was gone, she said, “What was that? We don’t talk to patients like that!”

“Is it so wrong to admit that we’re human? That we have hopes and dreams that aren’t always fulfilled?” Dr. Lin shrugged. “I think it helps people if they know that we have empathy for them.”

Dr. Okoro shook her head. “Empathy is one thing, but admitting that you’re disappointed in the study–”

“Let’s not fight about this,” said Dr. Lin. “We have one more exit interview.”

“Tasha,” Dr. Okoro said agreed, suppressing a sigh.

But unlike their last few interviews, Tasha was bouncing when she entered the interview room. “Hello, Tasha,” Dr. Lin said as she seated herself. “You’re in good spirits today.”

“No one likes a grumpus!” Tasha declared, beaming at her. “Dr. Lin, Dr. Okoro– I am so grateful to you. You helped open up my eyes to how I used to mess things up when I tried to help people. Oh! Did I tell you? My brother broke down and cried when he opened up his birthday present. I broke one of his favorite Transformers when he was a kid, and he kept bringing it up, so I figured he might like a replacement.”

“That was very thoughtful of you,” Dr. Okoro managed.

“Oh?” Tasha said, blinking at her. “Really? People used to say that to me when I’d tried really hard and screwed everything up. I didn’t screw up again, did I, doc?”

“No, no,” Dr. Lin interjected. “Dr. Okoro didn’t mean that, Tasha. It sounds like your brother really appreciated your present.”

“Okay,” Tasha said, sounding reassured. She paused for a moment, then perked up. “Oh, I just remembered! I brought you presents, too!”

Dr. Okoro exchanged alarmed glances with Dr. Lin as Tasha dug into her purse and produced two neatly wrapped boxes, handing one to each of them. Trying not to hold the gift too far from her body, Dr. Okoro tugged at the ribbon tied around her gift and then tore open the wrapping paper. Beside her, Dr. Lin carefully picked the tape on her package loose, leaving the wrapping paper undamaged.

The last of the paper surrounding Tasha’s gift to Dr. Okoro fell away, revealing a programmable picture frame that could cycle between hundreds of high-resolution images. “You said you had a boy,” Tasha said as Dr. Okoro blinked at it. “So I thought you might want to keep pictures of him on your desk.”

“Thank you, Tasha,” Dr. Okoro said faintly, feeling poleaxed. “That was very kind of you.” As she spoke, Dr. Lin tugged her present free, revealing a pair of fine-grained notepads and a refillable fountain pen.

“You were always taking notes on your tablet for work,” Tasha said as Dr. Lin raised an eyebrow at her. “Maybe the tablet feels good to you, I don’t know. But I always liked the feel of a pen in my hand.” She paused, then began, “I can return it if you don’t–”

“These are lovely, Tasha,” Dr. Lin said, cutting her off. “Thank you very much.”

“So tell me the truth, Doctor,” Tasha said, leaning in toward Dr. Okoro. “Was I on the drug? I was, wasn’t I?”

“You were,” Dr. Okoro confirmed, glancing up from the picture frame. “How long have you known?”

Tasha shrugged. “A couple weeks, maybe? It took me a while to get over all the times I thought I was helping but was really making things worse. Once I started seeing ways I really could help people, though, I knew the drug was doing something.” Tasha stopped to wipe her eyes with the back of her hand, and Dr. Lin silently handed her a tissue.

“I need to make a difference in people’s lives,” Tasha declared, pausing to blow her nose. “I started volunteering at a shelter. I mean, maybe that’s not the best use of my time, but I have to start somewhere. I just wanted you to know how big a difference you made in my life, Dr. Lin; Dr. Okoro. And I have to pay that forward.”

“Well, thank you,” Dr. Okoro repeated. “We were just talking about how hard it is to measure emotional intelligence, but you’re also showing gains in areas our tests can measure.”

“If you need testimonials, I’ll be glad to provide one,” Tasha assured them.

After Tasha left, Dr. Lin sighed. “Testimonials. I wish that would help. I don’t know how much funding we’re going to get for further trials.”

Dr. Okoro sat back in her chair. “It’s so funny, it’s the opposite of the usual problem. Instead of not enough effects in the group receiving the drug, we’ve got too much effect in the placebo group.”

“Maybe we can use that,” said Dr. Lin. “We’ll need to run more standard trials, sure, but we can put a new spin on the grant proposal. If being part of a group that’s getting smarter helps people even if they’re not receiving the neural growth factor, that’s going to be even more beneficial than affecting one person at a time.”

“I guess,” said Dr. Okoro. “But drug companies know they’re not selling to an entire peer group or city. They’re selling to one patient at a time. Or at least their doctors.”

“I’ll draw up some notes on where we could take this,” said Dr. Lin. “Go ahead and get Henry. We’ll talk more on Monday.”

Dr. Okoro smiled. “Thanks. I guess we wanted to make the world smarter, right? We shouldn’t be surprised if it happens in weird ways.”

Once the office was empty, Dr. Lin sat down at her desk. She opened a new file on her tablet, then stopped. Tasha was right: a pen did feel good in her hands. The pen had a satisfying weight, and the blue ink flowed smoothly. She titled the first page of the new notebook, “Opportunities for follow-up studies of NGF-7.”


Alec Austin has been a bookkeeper, a nuclear reactor operator, and is currently a video game designer.  His work has appeared in Analog, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and a variety of other venues.  He’s @AlecAustin on Twitter.  Marissa Lingen is a freelance writer living in the Minneapolis area with two large men and one small dog.  She plays the piano and makes a mean black bean soup.  Her work has appeared in, Lightspeed, and other publications.  She’s @MarissaLingen on Twitter.  It is very hard for them not to end a joint bio with “they fight crime,” but they will resist the urge since actually they don’t, they just write stories.

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