Field of Science

Who's Afraid of the Wasabi Fire Alarm ?

It was a strange series of events that lead me to having dinner with IgNobel awards maestro Marc Abrahams, former Monty Python Terry Jones and the inventors of the wasabi fire alarm. I had met Marc at the IgNobel show when it came to Imperial. I know I should have been writing up my PhD, but  one night surely wouldn't matter too much ?
 We ended up talking about this new fire alarm that had been invented by a couple of japanese researchers. This fire alarm was not like normal ones. Instead of ringing, it sprayed an infusion of wasabi into the air. Who could possible want a fire alarm that sprays you with wasabi. Isn't it bad enough being inside a burning building, and now they've invented a fire alarm and burns you from the inside too ?
This product was marketed to the deaf, which to me suggested a new horror was being inflicted on the disabled. I suggested that it would be useful for clearing out rooms in a night club when the music was too loud. Because I don't like nightclubs or the people who use them. So as we talked, Marc mentioned that the two IgNobel prize winners were coming into the country to exhibit their invention, and would I like to come along and discuss my ideas with them.
So that was how I ended up at the Science Museum to meet the inventors of the fire alarm. To my surprise Dr Makoto Imai was a friendly psychiatrist from Sapporo had helped test out the fire alarm, and his somewhat more subdued colleague, Hideako Gotou were not the vindicitive pranksters I had hoped for expected.
They had brought with them their new invention. It was quite simply a fire alarm with a wire attaching it to one of those automatic air fresheners you see in more upmarket public toilets. We were shown into the science museum, which was planning to exhibit the fire alarm. Marc and Steve Colgan  (of colganology) and I were treated to an enthusiastic tour of the museum by former New Scientist editor Roger Highfield. He had taken to the new role with aplomb, positively bouncing with excitement about all of the new exhibits and events happening at the museum.
After this, we ended up taking the inventors to the Knightsbridge fire station for a photo op.
Eventually a Tom Whipple, a journalist from the Times arrived, and displayed true dedication to his profession by making Dr Imai demonstrate the power of the alarm directly.

Immediately after he had finished dousing the choking journalist with wasabi spray, the inventor wryly noted that "This is a misuse of this system".
Whilst the effects are dramatic, and painful, the recovery was rapid.  Tom had to get quite close to the spray to get the worst effects. I was told this system would be mounted in such a way as to avoid situations where users get blasted in the face as demonstrated above.
Since the inventors were only going to be in London for a day, Marc had offered to show them around some of the best tourist attractions. As the Photo Op was drawing to a close, Marc said that he was taking the Inventors to meet Terry Jones at Centre Point, and whether Steve and I would like to come along. Whilst I still had a lot of writing to do for my thesis, I was not going to let it get in the way of meeting one of the Pythons.
So we ended up in a restaurant in one of the tallest buildings in the centre of london. If the day hadn't been so foggy, I would have been able to see my house from it. And so we sat down to dinner with our esteemed host and his wife. Later that day I would go home and be quizzed about the whole experience by my flatmates. They would ask whether he had eaten waffffer thin mints and look eachother knowingly as if this was a reference I should get.  I was spending too much time trying talking to Dr Imai, trying to decipher his motives for creating a wasabi spraying alarm.
  I asked him exactly how did this idea came into being?
 The original idea for the alarm came from the author Karin Matsumori. She had lost her hearing during her time at school, and had intially pitched the idea of an odour based alarm system to the perfume company Seems Inc.
At this point, Dr Imai noticed that I was feverishly writing all of this down on my arm. I had left the house without my note pad. So I had been writing notes on my hand since the museum. By the time we had reached the restaurant, my arm had begun to turn blue.
 Noticing this, He produced a business card, and wrote the pertinent details in neat handwriting. I asked him why the focus of his alarm system was on odour, rather than say, flashing lights.
There were a variety of problems with visual systems. What if the lighting system was not visible from wherever the person was?  And the most pressing concern was how to get someone to wake up quickly in the event of fire.
Conventional Fire alarms rely on triggering the startle reflex. When a human hears a loud unexpected noise, this reflex kicks into action to make you alert to possible danger. It can wake you up out of a deep sleep, and help you escape a fire. To demonstrate the startle response, watch this with the sound off, and then with the sound turned right up.

stereo skifcha from xgabberx on Vimeo.

So visual cues just don't have the same impact. So the question is whether the addition of an olfactory cue would make this type of alarm more effective.But this reflex is based solely on sound. A deaf person cannot react to these cues, so they would not be awakened. So how could they get a fire alarm for the deaf that could wake them out of a deep sleep. The solution was to use a different sense altogether. The sense of smell.
 Seems Inc tried out a number of different fragrances, such as the smell of dirty old socks, and others to see what would work. At some point, they contacted Dr Imai and asked him to conduct a trial with wasabi to see if it could wake people up.
Then  it occurred to me that since Dr Imai was a clinical psychiatrist, there was one key question that I needed to ask. What has this research told him about the brain?
He told me that the way the brain processes the smell of wasabi is quite different to how it treats most other smells. Most of the things you smell are processed by an area of your brain called the olfactory bulb which cuddles up against the back of your nose. When sensory neurones detect smells, they relay this information to the bulb, which can interpret these signals and relay this information to the rest of the brain. Pretty much everything that you can smell goes through this region. However, there is a problem.When you sleep, the olfactory system becomes dormant as well.  This may have been a problem for the inventors of the odour alarm.
But there are certain chemicals which don't limit themselves to using the olfactory system. For instance, when you fry chillis you will no doubt notice that the smell stings the nostrils somewhat. When cutting onions, your eyes will often betray you and start to weep. These are examples of smells which activate pain receptors in mucus membranes in the eyes. When Dr Imai took electro encephalogram readings of the brains of volunteers exposed to wasabi, he noticed this manifest as trigeminal nerve activation.
The trigeminal nerve is not the most famous of the cranial nerves, but it is important. It controls the muscles around the face and mouth, and processes pain in these areas. This is why you get a stinging sensation in addition to flavour when you eat spicy food.
If you happen to be ill, and are bunged up with a stuffy nose, whilst most of the sensory neurones associated with olfaction get knocked out, the trigeminal system is still in working condition. Most importantly, the trigeminal system doesn't go to sleep when you do.  So odours that can have an effect on this system will be able to wake you up from a sleep.
As I noted earlier there are a number of different odours which can activate this system, to different extents.  One viable candidate was capsaicin, the primary component of pepper spray. So why aren't we talking about an alarm that pepper sprays you ? In a word, boiling points.
Capsaicin has a higher boiling point than the odorant in Wasabi. This basically means that unless the fire was already too hot to survive, the fire alarm would have to physically squirt you with the liquid. If you are out of its range, it is pretty much useless.
 The chemical that gives wasabi it's smell however has quite a low boiling point, and exists as a gas. That is why when you have wasabi, it hits you in the nose, whereas a chilli exerts most of its fire in the mouth.
I asked whether this odour could travel faster than say the smell of smoke, and whether it would wake people up before the fire had gotten out of control. The solution here would be to have multiple odour dispensers in a house linked to a smoke detector system, so that no matter where you were, the smell of wasabi would reach you before the smell of smoke.
Is it possible to get used to the smell ? Hypothetically it's possible, if unlikely. Because of the way it acts to elicit pain, it would be harder for people to get used to its smell, in the same way that you can get used to the smell of a fart after a while. However, it's your olfactory system that controls how you adapt to smells, and is the reason why people are mostly unaware of their own body odour. However, the pain sensing system does turn itself off in the same way. However, if people eat enough wasabi on a regular basis , it is possible for them to become less sensitised to the stinging sensation. Of course the only way to test whether this were true would be to find wasabi eating champions, test whether they need more spray to wake them up.
Speaking of which, it turns out that there is someone working on an alarm clock that will sprays wasabi. That's something to look forward to.
But despite my initial skepticism about the practical uses of the wasabi fire alarm, I was slowly won over. These weren't just a pari of eccentric inventors who had decided to add another terror to being trapped in a burning building. They had identified a specific safety concern for the deaf. And to solve this problem, they had come up unique and well thought out solution to this problem.  In spite of myself, I was surprised. While their research had made me laugh, and it was now getting me to think. What else should I have expected from IgNobel prize winners ?

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