Want to participate in one of our research studies?

Released: Friday, December 16, 2016

Research conducted at LSU's Pennington Biomedical Research Center has changed the way Americans eat, exercise, age and think about chronic disease.

The center's studies have influenced the development of nearly every obesity medication and every class of diabetes drug on the market. They have shaped the DASH Diet, which U.S. News & World Report ranked as the No. 1 overall diet in the country for several years running. They have also helped U.S. soldiers and their families stay healthy.

The lives of people in Louisiana, through the United States and across the globe have been improved by the work done at Pennington Biomedical.

The center's achievements reflect more than the ingenuity of its world-renowned scientists. Many discoveries are made possible by the commitment of the nearly 5,500 volunteers who participate in research studies each year. Many study volunteers have such a rewarding experience they sign up for additional studies and recruit their family and friends to screen for studies.

Those resounding referrals don't surprise Jennifer Rood, Ph.D., the center's associate executive director for cores and resources. "We're not studying some disease that is in an obscure location, a million miles away," she says. "We are studying the things that affect you and your family right here in Louisiana. We have something for most everyone."

If you've ever wondered if you - your parents, children or other family members - would benefit from being a Pennington Biomedical volunteer, here are answers to some of the most commonly asked questions:

Why would anyone want to participate in a research study?

Grace Bella has been a study recruiter at Pennington Biomedical for 12 years. "While the compensation participants often receive for participation is nice," says Bella, "most people - 90% - don't even ask about it, when they call. The biggest concern is: What can this study do to improve their health?"

For example, "A lot of people in our chronic disease studies - obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease - want to live better, healthier lives," explains Rood. "They look to the scientists here at Pennington Biomedical to help them do that."

The need to find better ways to combat a chronic illness is a powerful motivator for some individuals to join research studies. On the other end of the spectrum, individuals in peak physical condition have been energized to participate by the challenge of maximizing nutrition and exercise - along with a patriotism - to enroll in research that aims to improve a soldiers' resilience and endurance.

No matter their personal reasons for participating the study, Pennington Biomedical volunteers are motivated to help move science forward and make a difference in the world.

What kinds of studies does Pennington Biomedical offer?

Pennington Biomedical research focuses on nutrition, exercise, dementia, obesity, diabetes, and other chronic diseases throughout the human lifespan.

Clinical research studies range from measuring body composition and understanding attitudes about body image to trying out new diet and exercise programs - many driven by smartphones, videogames and other technology - and evaluating new techniques and medication to prevent and treat chronic conditions.

What kind of time commitment do the participants have to make?

The amount of time people devote study participation ranges widely.

"You could be in a focus group for an hour, and that's all you do," says Rood. "You could be in some of our really long-term studies such as a four-year dementia study, or our diabetes prevention study that has lasted 10-plus years."

Visits can be as short as a one-time, hour-long session, as routine as yearly examination taking place over multiple years or as lengthy as a month-long inpatient stay. Recruiters work with each person to determine which study best fits their lifestyle and schedules.

What do participants actually do?

The activities are as varied as the research studies.

Studies can explore everything from the effect of gestational diabetes on infants (and later as they grow into adults) to the weight loss potential of exergaming for adolescents and the effectiveness of a combination of FDA-approved medications to control blood sugar to the possibility of medicines to slow or halt the progress of Alzheimer's disease.

Once a volunteer has been qualified, most studies require a baseline medical history and physical exam. Some may involve bloodwork, imaging, questionnaires and exercise tests . Others require participants to photograph the food they eat, eat meals prepared in Pennington Biomedical's metabolic kitchen (which can be take-out), follow a specific exercise regime or receive medication.

What are the benefits?

Whether it's receiving sophisticated test results, help with weight loss management or exercise strategies or medications to improve cholesterol or blood pressure, Pennington Biomedical volunteers complete studies with a better understanding of their health.

Some studies require sophisticated tests through advanced technology such as MRI scans (which show detailed pictures of soft tissues such as the brain) and DXA scans (which measure body fat, muscle and bone mass) and specialized lab tests such as oral glucose tolerance tests. Some participants have an opportunity to stay in a metabolic chamber that shows how many and what type of calories (fat, protein, or carbohydrate) are burned throughout the day. These specialized tests may be unavailable elsewhere and often not covered by insurance under ordinary circumstances. If Pennington Biomedical staff see an abnormality in a test result, they notify the participants so they can follow up with their regular physicians.

In addition, "The results of thousands of dollars of testing are yours at no charge," says Bella. "The information we provide here is an enhancement of what most people are trying to do on their own, or that their doctors are trying to do. Who doesn't want to do more for their health? Your goal is to do more for your health. It's just taking it a step further."

Although the test results are valuable, sometimes the education that participants receive from Pennington Biomedical experts is priceless. Even years later, Rood recalls the affect a calorie restriction study had on one particular participant. "He changed his life completely - the way he thought about food, the way he ate, the way he maintains his health after the study," she says. "That's what all of us hope for. We hope to advance science through our research to help people live better and healthier."

How can I find out if I qualify for any studies?  

"Each study has its own set of criteria," Bella says. "The screening process is to make sure it's a good match. As much as we want to learn from you, we hope it will be of benefit to you in terms of health information and health benefit."

Pennington Biomedical makes it easy for technophobes and technophiles alike to find the right study.

1. By phone.
One of the easiest ways to find out if there's a study that interests you is to call a recruiter directly. By recording your age and calculating BMI (body mass index), the recruiter can determine what studies are looking for participants with your demographics. Then, the recruiter can ask more specific questions. Even if there's nothing available at the moment, the recruiter can enter your information into Pennington Biomedical's customized database, so you can be contacted in the future.

2. Online.
If you'd rather not wade through the details of each study to find out which ones fit you, you can fill out a volunteer questionnaire (https://my.pbrc.edu/clinic/screener/?Study=9999-0000) to automatically be contacted when there is a study that fits your profile.
You can see all of the studies available by going to www.pbrc.edu/healthierLA. The studies are organized into several categories:

  • Cognitive Impairment and Alzheimer's Disease
  • Diabetes/Prevention
  • General Health & Wellbeing
  • Pediatrics
  • Women's Health

For more information on how you can support this and other projects at LSU’s Pennington Biomedical Research Center, visit www.pbrf.org.