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Houston teenager invents lie detector test

May 24, 2006 19:22 IST

It's barely a month since Kaavya Vishwanathan was caught for, well, cheating and trying to lie her way out of it.

Now, at the other end of the truthiness spectrum comes 16-year-old Trisha Pasricha, who has invented a lie detector machine that gives her a gut feeling about the subject.

Literally.

Pasricha asserts that she can catch even the smartest bluffers for the most part, working on their digestive tract, by administering a polygraph test, except she does it with an electrogastrogram (EGG), a machine that records the stomach's electrical activity.

The test grew out of  Pasricha's 10th-grade science fair project, 'Liar, Liar, Your Stomach's on Fire,' which led her to a second-place award last spring in the behavioral and social sciences category of Intel's International Science and Engineering Fair, the world's largest pre-college science competitions.

Now the test, which she developed with the help of P Jay Parischa, her medical professor father and which she claims to be more accurate than the standard polygraph test that concentrates on heartbeats and blood pressure, is on its way to be patented by the University of Texas Medical Branch, Galvenston. And her invention is getting even a wider attention following a report by ABC News on May 15.

Officials at UTMB said the test released last year at a major science convention demonstrates a clear link between the act of lying and a significant increase in gastric arrhythmia.

The test is more an example of a gifted child's inventive mind and her determination to continue with her research despite obstacles, her father said.

"When an university is involved and seeks patent for an invention like this, the invention becomes even more important," he said last week.

Pasricha's mother Reena, a retired engineer with the FBI, suspects that her daughter got interested in lie detection business because of her own FBI connections and an occasional mention at home about lie detector tests. And she has learned a lot about stomach rhythms from her father.

"Her father is not just an MD," Reena Pasricha says. "Since he is an academic and also a professor, our children grew up in a house where teaching and research makes into our dinner conversations."
When the Houston-based Trisha first failed to convince the judges at a school competition of her stomach reactions test, for a day or two she wanted to give up her quest. But her father, who is the director of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, and professor, Neuroscience & Cell Biology and Biomedical Engineering at UTMB, reminded her of the saying: 'To those who are given a lot, lot is expected.'

Her mother recalled that Pasricha, the middle of her three children, began working on making the test more reliable with the help of her father, and the associate professor of gastroenterology at UTMB, Dr. Jiande Chen.

Now, she is waiting for the patent.

"I hope to get it before I go to college," says Trisha, who wants to go to Harvard or Oxford, studying biological sciences with a minor in journalism. She wants to be a medical broadcast journalist, she says, quickly adding she had several other ideas about her future.

Since the test was conducted with the help of the UTMB, the school owns the patent. "It usually it takes about two years and over $15,000 to get an invention patented," said her father. Dr. Chen and he will be named the co-authors of the test along with Trisha.

Trisha began her experiments using a deck of cards that she attached electrodes to the stomachs of volunteers.

She says that she saw changes in the electrical rhythms in most of her subjects. When they weren't telling the truth about the cards, the rhythms went chaotic.

According to a press release of UTMB, researchers at the school recruited 16 healthy volunteers to undergo simultaneous electrogastrogram (EGG) and electrocardiogram (EKG) recordings for three periods. They were testing Trisha's hypothesis that the gastrointestinal tract is uniquely sensitive to mental stress because of the communication between the central nervous system and the enteric nervous system.

"We concluded that the addition of the EGG to standard polygraph methods has clear value in improving the accuracy of current lie detectors," said her father. "The communication between the big brain and the little brain in the stomach can be complex and merits further study."

The findings could lead to an improved polygraph, he believes.

But even with a major university endorsing her tests, some experts have their doubts. But Pasricha is convinced soon professionals will know that her test is more reliable than the standard one.

"The addition of the EGG should theoretically raise the current standard polygraph's accuracy," which is about 90 percent, she said.

But some critics say they will wait for a longer time before they proclaim their faith in her test. 'I would say, it is entertaining,' said polygraph expert Bill Majeski, 'I would be very unlikely to rely on it until extensive studies were done.'

Polygraph expert Dr Daniel Langleben, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, was quoted in the media as saying Trisha's research is 'interesting.' But he also joined other experts in saying that it would take years of research to validate such a device.

But it may be worth the effort, polygraph expert Lawrence Kobilinsky, told ABC News.

'If it's a good idea and it works, then fine, let's add it to our arsenal because law enforcement can use all the scientific help it can get,' he said.

But to the Pasricha family, Trisha's success is much more than gaining recognition.

"She is giving back to the society at a very young age," her father said. "As immigrants most of us have gained a lot from this country, and we should be just as glad to give back too."

Arthur J Pais in New York