Shaky Hand, Stable Spoon: Device Helps Essential Tremor Patients

For people whose hands shake uncontrollably due to a medical condition, just eating can be a frustrating and embarrassing ordeal — enough to keep them from sharing a meal with others.But a small new study conducted at the University of Michigan Health System suggests that a new handheld electronic device can help such patients overcome the hand shakes caused by essential tremor, the most common movement disorder.In a clinical trial involving 15 adults with moderate essential tremor, the device improved patients’ ability to hold a spoon still enough to eat with it, and to use it to scoop up mock food and bring it to their mouths.The researchers measured the effect three ways: using a standard tremor rating, the patients’ own ratings, and digital readings of the spoon’s movement.The results are published online in the journal Movement Disorders by a research team that includes U-M neurologist and essential tremor specialist Kelvin Chou, M.D., as well as three people from the small startup company, Lift Labs, that makes the device, called Liftware. The study was funded by a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health that the researchers applied for together.Public-private partnership — with a Michigan differenceThe technology came full circle to its test in the UMHS clinic. The company’s CEO, Anupam Pathak, Ph.D., received his doctorate from the U-M College of Engineering — where he first worked on tremor-cancelling advanced microelectronic technologies for other purposes.The concept is called ACT, or active cancellation of tremor. It relies on tiny electronic devices that work together to sense movement in different directions in real time, and then make a quick and precise counter-motion.Lift Labs, based in San Francisco, developed the device, which resembles an extra-large electronic toothbrush base. It can adjust rapidly to the shaking of the user’s hand, keeping a detachable spoon or other utensil steady. In other words, it shakes the spoon in exactly the opposite way that the person’s hand shakes.But to truly test whether their prototype device could help essential tremor patients overcome their condition’s effects, the Lift Labs team turned to Chou, who with his colleagues sees hundreds of essential tremor patients a year.UMHS offers comprehensive care for the condition as part of its Movement Disorders Center. Chou and his colleagues have experience in prescribing a range of medication to calm tremors, and evaluating which patients might benefit from advanced brain surgery to implant a device that can calm the uncontrollable nerve impulses that cause tremor.”Only about 70 percent of patients respond to medication, and only about 10 percent qualify for surgery, which has a high and lasting success rate,” says Chou, who is an associate professor in the U-M Medical School’s departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery. “People get really frustrated by tremor, and experience embarrassment that often leads to social isolation because they’re always feeling conscious not just eating but even drinking from a cup or glass.”The trial, Chou says, showed that the amplitude of movement due to the tremor decreased measurably, and that patients could move the spoon much more normally. Though the trial did not include patients with hand tremors caused by other movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, the device may be useful to such patients too, he notes.Says Pathak, “A key aspect of Liftware is a design with empathy. We hear of people struggling every day, and decided to apply technology in a way to directly help. …

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New search engine delivers content matched to student ability

An Internet search engine developed specifically for schools by two University of Alabama in Huntsville professors is being tested as a way to increase reading abilities in challenged students and help motivate intellectual development in gifted students, while saving schools money on textbooks.Complexity Engine has been awarded a $10,000 development grant from the UAH Charger Innovation Fund and is in the final round of vying for an Alabama Launchpad grant. Launchpad is a program of the Economic Development Partnership of Alabama to promote, reward and increase the pipeline of high-growth, innovative ventures that have the potential to grow and thrive in the state.”We just have a host of features we want to roll out with Complexity Engine and that’s why winning the Launchpad competition is essential,” says developer Dr. Philip Kovacs, an associate professor of education who conceived the system and is collaborating with Dr. Ryan Weber, an assistant professor of English, to develop it. Tripp Roberts, a Georgia Institute of Technology computer science junior, collaborates to produce the necessary software.Complexity Engine uses a sophisticated algorithm to search websites for content and delivers free, customized and age-appropriate reading materials to a user’s computer. It promises to give teachers, parents and students an efficient, affordable way to promote reading. Teachers and administrators can set parameters for the search results, and the reading experience can be either student self-directed or guided by the teacher.”What we’re developing is a way to get through the nonsense and junk online and get to the learning material,” says Dr. Philip Kovacs. Complexity Engine is currently in testing with 500 gifted fifth and sixth grade students at a mid-sized regional school system.”The reason the school system wanted to use it is because they have a hard time finding challenging material for their gifted students,” Dr. Kovacs says. …

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The African green revolution at the tipping point

Oct. 15, 2013 — In some areas of Africa, farmers, scientists and policymakers are beginning to win the war on hunger, says Pedro Sanchez, PhD. Several factors have come together in recent years to tip the scales and increase food production.Share This:Sanchez will present “The African Green Revolution at the Tipping Point,” on Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2013 at 8:45 AM. The presentation is part of the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America Annual Meetings, Nov. 3-6 in Tampa, Florida. The theme of this year’s conference is “Water, Food, Energy, & Innovation for a Sustainable World.” Members of the media receive complimentary registration to the joint meetings.According to Sanchez, not only will African farmers in countries like Nigeria, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Ghana and Malawi will be able to sell more food this year, but they will have enough to feed their own families. “All factors are moving along the value chain” says Sanchez, including policies and subsidies, credit guarantees and the creation of buyer groups. Agronomic improvements, bringing fertilizer and better seeds, are the entry point of the success. “In order for us to move Africa above this level of success, we will need to implement agricultural technologies,” says Sanchez. …

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Parents’ genes may influence children’s back to school fears

Sep. 9, 2013 — Many parents may have noticed their children seemed on edge during their first week of school. They may have been agitated, withdrawn or more focused on themselves, rather than what was going on around them. Such behaviours are classic symptoms of high anxiety, says Université de Montréal researcher Richard Tremblay.Tremblay is a professor emeritus whose area of expertise is childhood psychology and psychiatry, particularly antisocial behaviour. In 1984, he launched a longitudinal study that focused on the development of children from conception on. Many of the original participants are now in their mid-30s. Thanks in part to funding from the Canada Foundation for Innovation, Tremblay was able to build a mobile lab in 2005 that allowed him to park this study at participants’ front door — a convenience that helped ensure their cooperation over decades.He says the longer timelines of his study gave him the chance to better understand the hereditary and environmental factors that lead a child to become aggressive, depressed or anxious.Tremblay says the anxiety young students feel as they return to school is often related to the uncertainties they feel about their new teacher and classroom environment, the kids they’ll interact with and whether their bullies will hunt them down during recess.”It’s a big change in the rhythm of life for everybody, especially children,” says Tremblay. “Those who have problems with anxiety often create worst-case scenarios, almost like horror stories in their minds.”But Tremblay adds that being prone to such back to school horrors is not isolated to the imaginations of young students. Rather, their sky-is-falling tendencies may have been inherited from their parents, he says.”There is a big genetic effect in terms of anxiety behaviours,” says Tremblay. “The best predictors of anxiety or depression among children are their parents’ own struggles with the same disorders. …

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DNA ‘cages’ may aid drug delivery

Sep. 1, 2013 — Nanoscale “cages” made from strands of DNA can encapsulate small-molecule drugs and release them in response to a specific stimulus, McGill University researchers report in a new study.The research, published online Sept. 1 in Nature Chemistry, marks a step toward the use of biological nanostructures to deliver drugs to diseased cells in patients. The findings could also open up new possibilities for designing DNA-based nanomaterials.”This research is important for drug delivery, but also for fundamental structural biology and nanotechnology,” says McGill Chemistry professor Hanadi Sleiman, who led the research team.DNA carries the genetic information of all living organisms from one generation to the next. But strands of the material can also be used to build nanometre-scale structures. (A nanometre is one billionth of a metre — roughly one-100,000th the diameter of a human hair.)In their experiments, the McGill researchers first created DNA cubes using short DNA strands, and modified them with lipid-like molecules. The lipids can act like sticky patches that come together and engage in a “handshake” inside the DNA cube, creating a core that can hold cargo such as drug molecules.The McGill researchers also found that when the sticky patches were placed on one of the outside faces of the DNA cubes, two cubes could attach together. This new mode of assembly has similarities to the way that proteins fold into their functional structures, Sleiman notes. “It opens up a range of new possibilities for designing DNA-based nanomaterials.”Sleiman’s lab has previously demonstrated that gold nanoparticles can be loaded and released from DNA nanotubes, providing a preliminary proof of concept that drug delivery might be possible. But the new study marks the first time that small molecules — which are considerably smaller than the gold nanoparticles — have been manipulated in such a way using a DNA nanostructure, the researchers report.DNA nanostructures have several potential advantages over the synthetic materials often used to deliver drugs within the body, says Thomas Edwardson, a McGill doctoral student and co-author of the new paper. …

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Hydrogen fuel from sunlight

Aug. 29, 2013 — In the search for clean, green sustainable energy sources to meet human needs for generations to come, perhaps no technology matches the ultimate potential of artificial photosynthesis. Bionic leaves that could produce energy-dense fuels from nothing more than sunlight, water and atmosphere-warming carbon dioxide, with no byproducts other than oxygen, represent an ideal alternative to fossil fuels but also pose numerous scientific challenges. A major step toward meeting at least one of these challenges has been achieved by researchers with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE)’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) working at the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP).”We’ve developed a method by which molecular hydrogen-producing catalysts can be interfaced with a semiconductor that absorbs visible light,” says Gary Moore, a chemist with Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division and principal investigator for JCAP. “Our experimental results indicate that the catalyst and the light-absorber are interfaced structurally as well as functionally.”Moore is the corresponding author, along with Junko Yano and Ian Sharp, who also hold joint appointments with Berkeley Lab and JCAP, of a paper describing this research in the Journal of the American Chemical Society (JACS). The article is titled “Photofunctional Construct That Interfaces Molecular Cobalt-Based Catalysts for H2 Production to a Visible-Light-Absorbing Semiconductor.” Co-authors are Alexandra Krawicz, Jinhui Yang and Eitan Anzenberg.Earth receives more energy in one hour’s worth of sunlight than all of humanity uses in an entire year. Through the process of photosynthesis, green plants harness solar energy to split molecules of water into oxygen, hydrogen ions (protons) and free electrons. The oxygen is released as waste and the protons and electrons are used to convert carbon dioxide into the carbohydrate sugars that plants use for energy. Scientists aim to mimic the concept but improve upon the actual process.JCAP, which has a northern branch in Berkeley and a southern branch on the campus of the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), was established in 2010 by DOE as an Energy Innovation Hub. …

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Your spouse’s voice is easier to hear — and easier to ignore

Aug. 29, 2013 — With so many other competing voices, having a conversation on a bustling subway or at a crowded cocktail party takes a great deal of concentration. New research suggests that the familiar voice of a spouse stands out against other voices, helping to sharpen auditory perception and making it easier to focus on one voice at a time.”Familiar voices appear to influence the way an auditory ‘scene’ is perceptually organized,” explains lead researcher Ingrid Johnsrude of Queen’s University, Canada.Johnsrude and her colleagues asked married couples, ages 44-79, to record themselves reading scripted instructions out loud. Later, each participant put on a pair of headphones and listened to the recording of his or her spouse as it played simultaneously with a recording of an unfamiliar voice.On some trials, participants were told to report what their spouse said; on other trials, they were supposed to report what the unfamiliar voice said. The researchers wanted to see whether familiarity would make a difference in how well the participants understood what the target voice was saying.The results, published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, show a clear benefit of listening to the familiar voice.Participants tended to be much more accurate on the task when they had to listen to their spouse’s voice compared to an unfamiliar voice matched on both age and sex — they perceived their spouse’s voice more clearly. Furthermore, accuracy didn’t change as participants got older when they were listening to their spouse’s voice.”The benefit of familiarity is very large,” Johnsrude notes. “It’s on the order of the benefit you see when trying to perceptually distinguish two sounds that come from different locations compared to sounds that come from the same location.”But when participants were asked to report the unfamiliar voice, age-related differences emerged.Middle-aged adults seemed to be relatively adept at following the unfamiliar voice, especially when it was masked by their spouse’s voice — that is, they were better at understanding the unfamiliar voice when it was masked by their spouse’s voice compared to when it was masked by another unfamiliar voice.”The middle-aged adults were able to use what they knew about the familiar voice to perceptually separate and ignore it, so as to hear the unfamiliar voice better,” Johnsrude explains.But performance on these trials declined as the participants went up in age — the older the participant was, the less able he or she was to report correctly what the unfamiliar voice was saying.”Middle-age people can ignore their spouse — older people aren’t able to as much,” Johnsrude concludes.The researchers suggest that as people age, their ability to use what they know about voices to perceptually organize an auditory ‘scene’ may become compromised.While this may make it more difficult for older adults to pick out an unfamiliar voice, it has an interesting consequence: The relative benefit of having a familiar voice as the target actually increases with age.”These findings speak to a problem that is very common amongst older individuals — difficulty hearing speech when there is background sound,” Johnsrude says. “Our study identifies a cognitive factor — voice familiarity — that could help older listeners to hear better in these situations.”Co-authors on this research include Allison Mackey, Hélène Hakyemez, Elizabeth Alexander, and Heather Trang of Queen’s University, Canada; and Robert Carlyon of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge, England.This research was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Canadian Foundation for Innovation, the Ontario Innovation Trust, and the Canada Research Chairs Program.

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Brain circuit can tune anxiety

Aug. 21, 2013 — Anxiety disorders, which include posttraumatic stress disorder, social phobias and obsessive-compulsive disorder, affect 40 million American adults in a given year. Currently available treatments, such as antianxiety drugs, are not always effective and have unwanted side effects.To develop better treatments, a more specific understanding of the brain circuits that produce anxiety is necessary, says Kay Tye, an assistant professor of brain and cognitive sciences and member of MIT’s Picower Institute for Learning and Memory.”The targets that current antianxiety drugs are acting on are very nonspecific. We don’t actually know what the targets are for modulating anxiety-related behavior,” Tye says.In a step toward uncovering better targets, Tye and her colleagues have discovered a communication pathway between two brain structures — the amygdala and the ventral hippocampus — that appears to control anxiety levels. By turning the volume of this communication up and down in mice, the researchers were able to boost and reduce anxiety levels.Lead authors of the paper, which appears in the Aug. 21 issue of Neuron, are technical assistant Ada Felix-Ortiz and postdoc Anna Beyeler. Other authors are former research assistant Changwoo Seo, summer student Christopher Leppla and research scientist Craig Wildes.Measuring anxietyBoth the hippocampus, which is necessary for memory formation, and the amygdala, which is involved in memory and emotion processing, have previously been implicated in anxiety. However, it was unknown how the two interact.To study those interactions, the researchers turned to optogenetics, which allows them to engineer neurons to turn their electrical activity on or off in response to light. For this study, the researchers modified a set of neurons in the basolateral amygdala (BLA); these neurons send long projections to cells of the ventral hippocampus.The researchers tested the mice’s anxiety levels by measuring how much time they were willing to spend in a situation that normally makes them anxious. Mice are naturally anxious in open spaces where they are easy targets for predators, so when placed in such an area, they tend to stay near the edges.When the researchers activated the connection between cells in the amygdala and the hippocampus, the mice spent more time at the edges of an enclosure, suggesting they felt anxious. …

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An organized approach to 3-D tissue engineering: Getting closer to viable organ implants

Aug. 20, 2013 — Researchers at the Institute of Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (IBN) have developed a simple method of organizing cells and their microenvironments in hydrogel fibers. Their unique technology provides a feasible template for assembling complex structures, such as liver and fat tissues, as described in their recent publication in Nature Communications.According to IBN Executive Director Professor Jackie Y. Ying, “Our tissue engineering approach gives researchers great control and flexibility over the arrangement of individual cell types, making it possible to engineer prevascularized tissue constructs easily. This innovation brings us a step closer toward developing viable tissue or organ replacements.”IBN Team Leader and Principal Research Scientist, Dr Andrew Wan, elaborated, “Critical to the success of an implant is its ability to rapidly integrate with the patient’s circulatory system. This is essential for the survival of cells within the implant, as it would ensure timely access to oxygen and essential nutrients, as well as the removal of metabolic waste products. Integration would also facilitate signaling between the cells and blood vessels, which is important for tissue development.”Tissues designed with pre-formed vascular networks are known to promote rapid vascular integration with the host. Generally, prevascularization has been achieved by seeding or encapsulating endothelial cells, which line the interior surfaces of blood vessels, with other cell types. In many of these approaches, the eventual distribution of vessels within a thick structure is reliant on in vitro cellular infiltration and self-organization of the cell mixture. These are slow processes, often leading to a non-uniform network of vessels within the tissue. …

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Breast cancer surgery linked to swollen arm syndrome

Aug. 7, 2013 — Breast cancer survivors who have extensive surgery are four times more likely to develop the debilitating disorder arm lymphoedema, a QUT study has found.The findings in a new paper Incidence of unilateral arm lymphoedema after breast cancer: a systematic review and meta-analysis published in the journal The Lancet Oncology, reveal the invasiveness of surgery to treat breast cancer increases the risk of developing arm lymphoedema.Lead author of the study Tracey DiSipio, from QUT’s Institute of Health and Biomedical Innovation, said women who had undergone an axillary lymph node dissection — an invasive surgery to remove lymph nodes under the arm — were four times more likely to suffer swollen or disfigured arms.She said this was compared to women who had received a sentinel lymph node biopsy.”Arm lymphoedema is typically characterised by swelling in one or both arms, causing pain, heaviness, tightness and a decreased range of motion,” Dr DiSipio said.”The appearance of the swollen or disfigured arms provides an ever-present reminder of breast cancer and often contributes to anxiety, depression and emotional distress in effected women.”Dr DiSipio said the study, a systematic review of the incidence of arm lymphoedema after breast cancer, also found that one in five women (21.4 per cent) would be diagnosed with the condition.”This is a significant research finding and provides us with the most accurate incidence rate to date,” she said.”Until now the incidence rate has been reported anywhere from between zero to 94 per cent. With this information we can explore whether lymphoedema rates differ between breast cancer survivors.”Dr DiSipio said the study also pinpointed a number of risk factors linked to arm lymphoedema.”The risk factors increased when there was a lack of regular physical activity, or high body-mass index,” she said.”These factors are potential targets for future prevention strategies or for more effective management of the disorder.”Dr DiSipio said the results of the study added weight to calls to integrate prospective surveillance of arm lymphoedema into standard breast cancer care.”Currently there are no standardised practices when it comes to detection and treatment of arm lymphoedema,” she said.”Given most patients present with the arm lymphoedema within the first two years after breast cancer, more frequent surveillance throughout this time is recommended.”

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Micro-machines for the human body: Researchers adapt microscopic technology for bionic body parts and other medical devices

Aug. 7, 2013 — Tiny sensors and motors are everywhere, telling your smartphone screen to rotate and your camera to focus. Now, a team of researchers at Tel Aviv University has found a way to print biocompatible components for these micro-machines, making them ideal for use in medical devices, like bionic arms.Microelectromechanical systems, better known as MEMS, are usually produced from silicon. The innovation of the TAU researchers — engineering doctoral candidates Leeya Engel and Jenny Shklovsky under the supervision of Prof. Yosi Shacham-Diamand of the School of Electrical Engineering and Slava Krylov of the School of Mechanical Engineering — is creating a novel micro-printing process that works a highly flexible and non-toxic organic polymer. The resulting MEMS components can be more comfortably and safely used in the human body and they expend less energy.A two-way streetAs their name suggests, MEMS bridge the worlds of electricity and mechanics. They have a variety of applications in consumer electronics, automobiles, and medicine. MEMS sensors, like the accelerometer that orients your smartphone screen vertically or horizontally, gather information from their surroundings by converting movement or chemical signals into electrical signals. MEMS actuators, which may focus your next smartphone’s camera, work in the other direction, executing commands by converting electrical signals into movement.Both types of MEMS depend on micro- and nano-sized components, such as membranes, either to measure or produce the necessary movement.For years, MEMS membranes, like other MEMS components, were primarily fabricated from silicon using a set of processes borrowed from the semiconductor industry. TAU’s new printing process, published in Microelectronic Engineering and presented at the AVS 59th International Symposium in Tampa, FL, yields rubbery, paper-thin membranes made of a particular kind of organic polymer. …

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Essential clue to Huntington’s disease solution found

July 29, 2013 — Researchers at McMaster University have discovered a solution to a long-standing medical mystery in Huntington’s disease (HD).HD is a brain disease that can affect 1 in about 7,000 people in mid-life, causing an increasing loss of brain cells at the centre of the brain. HD researchers have known what the exact DNA change is that causes Huntington’s disease since 1993, but what is typically seen in patients does not lead to disease in animal models. This has made drug discovery difficult.In this week’s issue of the science journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, professor Ray Truant’s laboratory at McMaster University’s Department of Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences of the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine reveal how they developed a way to measure the shape of the huntingtin protein, inside of cell, while still alive. They then discovered was that the mutant huntingtin protein that causes disease was changing shape. This is the first time anyone has been able to see differences in normal and disease huntingtin with DNA defects that are typical in HD patients.They went on to show that they can measure this shape change in cells derived from the skin cells of living Huntington’s disease patients.”With mouse models, we know that some drugs can stop, and even reverse Huntington’s disease, but now we know exactly why,” said Truant. “The huntingtin protein has to take on a precise shape, in order to do its job in the cell. In Huntington’s disease, the right parts of the protein can’t line up to work properly. It’s like trying to use a paperclip after someone has bent it out of shape.”The research also shows that the shape of disease huntingtin protein can be changed back to normal with chemicals that are in development as drugs for HD. “We can refold the paper clip,” said Truant.The methods they developed have been scaled up and used for large scale robotic drug screening, which is now ongoing with a pharmaceutical company. …

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Monitoring nutrient intake can help vegetarian athletes stay competitive

July 17, 2013 — A balanced plant-based diet provides the same quality of fuel for athletes as a meat-based diet, provided vegetarians seek out other sources of certain nutrients that are more commonly found in animal products, according to a presentation at the 2013 Institute of Food Technologists (IFT) Annual Meeting & Expo®.The research was compiled by Dilip Ghosh, Ph.D., director of Nutriconnect in Sydney, Australia. He was unable to attend the meeting, so his presentation was given by Debasis Bagchi, Ph.D., director of innovation and clinical affairs at Iovate Health Sciences International Inc. in Oakville, Ontario, Canada.Ghosh’s research noted that vegetarian athletes have been present throughout history. Perhaps most notably, analysis of the bones of Roman Gladiators indicate they may have been vegetarians. There are several notable vegetarian athletes today, such as marathon runners Bart Yasso and Scott Jurek, and pro Ironman triathlete Brendan Brazier.The key to success, Ghosh found, is that vegetarian athletes must find ways within their diet to reach the acceptable macronutrient distribution for all athletes, which he breaks down as carbohydrates (45-65 percent), fat (20-35 percent) and protein (10-35 percent).”Vegetarian athletes can meet their dietary needs from predominantly or exclusively plant-based sources when a variety of these foods are consumed daily and energy intake is adequate,” Ghosh wrote in his presentation.Vegetarians should find non-meat sources of iron, creatine, zinc, vitamin B12, vitamin D and calcium because the main sources of these typically are animal products and could be lacking in their diets. Vegetarian women, in particular, are at increased risk for non-anemic iron deficiency, which may limit endurance performance. In addition, vegetarians as a group have lower mean muscle creatine concentrations, which may affect high-level exercise performance.These deficiencies can be avoided or remedied through several food sources acceptable to the vegetarian diet, such as orange/yellow and green leafy vegetables, fruits, fortified breakfast cereals, soy drinks, nuts and milk products (for vegetarians who consume dairy).Ghosh noted that his conclusions are based on observational and short-term interventional studies, but there needs to be a well-controlled long-term study to further assess the impact of a vegetarian diet on athletic performance.The presentation also included a discussion of nutrition for bodybuilders, defined as athletes whose primary goals are to maximize muscle size, optimize fat and minimize body fat.Phil Apong, senior formulation specialist/researcher at Iovate Health Sciences, said dietary recommendations for bodybuilders depend on many factors, such as genetics, age, gender and body size. But in general the current recommendation is 1.4 to 2.0 grams of protein per kilogram (g/kg) of body weight — about 1 gram per pound. Ideally a bodybuilder should seek to eat that amount in increments of 20 to 25 grams of high-quality protein throughout the day to maximize protein synthesis in muscle in response to training.However, Apong noted those benefits did not exist past the limit of 2.4 g/kg.”This is important because it seems to indicate there is an upper cap of protein intake that seems to promote protein synthesis to the maximum level and if you exceed this upper cap of protein level intake, you will not be pushing protein synthesis any further,” Apong said. “In fact, you’re going to be oxidizing protein for energy production.”

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Plain surfaces transformed into low-cost touch screens

July 10, 2013 — A low cost system developed by Nanyang Technological University (NTU), based on the principles of vibration and imaging that is able to track the movements of multiple fingers and of objects, can do just that.Retrofitting the system onto existing flat-panel TVs will transform it into new, touch sensitive display screens, at only a fraction of the cost of new touch-sensitive display screens, which can cost tens of thousands of dollars.Once hooked up to a computer, the modified TV screens can then be used as interactive billboards, mall directories and even as a digital whiteboard which can track what is drawn or written.NTU Assistant Professor Andy Khong, who led the research, says this award-winning system has been proven on different types of large surfaces.”Our innovative system is able to transform surfaces such as wooden tables, aluminium, steel, glass and even plastics into low-cost touch screens. It means in future, you could play computer games or draw sketches on walls or windows since almost all surfaces can be made touch-sensitive with our system,” says Prof Khong.The technologies developed for the system have already led to several academic publications, patents and conference papers. The latest research findings were published earlier this month in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) journal.How it worksNamed STATINA (Speech Touch and Acoustic Tangible Interfaces for Next-generation Applications), this interdisciplinary research project exploits principles of vibration waves propagating on a solid surface.By using a few low-cost vibration sensors and a specially developed algorithm, the system can pinpoint the location of a light tap on any surface. When further equipped with low-cost web-cameras, this system can also track the movements of multiple fingers or objects on any surface.Since sound waves propagate through matter at a certain speed, it is possible to derive the location of the touch based on when each sensor picks up the signal, Prof Khong added.In addition to understanding the mechanics behind solid wave propagation, the scientists had developed a unique signal processing algorithm to figure out the exact location of the initial point of impact.Future plansSTATINA is the culmination of Prof Khong’s research spanning the last four years. He and his team of researchers are now working to commercialise their invention by developing a more compact system and expanding its capabilities to include tracking of fingers and stylus movements using optical cameras.So far, they have tested their system on surfaces such as wooden tables, aluminium, steel, glass and plastics.Initially funded by the Media Development Authority (MDA) under the National Research Foundation (NRF) Co-Space grant call, the team has also recently been awarded the NRF Proof-of-Concept grant, which awards innovative research of up to $250,000 for the development of a commercially viable prototype based on their initial research. They are also working with the Institute of Technical Education under the Ministry of Education Translation Innovation Fund (MOE-TIF). The team won the Prestigious Engineering Achievement Award 2012, presented by The Institution of Engineers Singapore (IES) last December.

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First-ever therapeutic offers hope for improving blood transfusions

June 25, 2013 — Researchers from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine have developed an unprecedented approach to restore nitric oxide (NO) to donated blood, a breakthrough that could dramatically reduce harmful effects from transfusions.Jonathan Stamler, MD, and colleagues from Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and from Duke University Medical Center describe their findings in the June 24 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Stamler and his colleagues report that restoring blood levels of NO in animals prior to transfusion improved their tissue blood flow, oxygen delivery, and kidney function.Patients in the U.S. receive approximately 15 million blood transfusions a year. The procedure is often used to replace blood lost through trauma, but also can supplement shortages in a patient’s own ability to produce blood due to cancer and other diseases. Increasingly, medical research publications associate transfusions with harmful consequences including heart attacks, renal failure, and death. A compelling explanation put forward in the literature is that the quantity of NO declines rapidly after donation because it has a short lifespan. Normally, NO dilates blood vessels and allows red blood cells to access tissue and deliver oxygen.In the blood, NO exists in a bioactive form called S-nitrosohemoglobin (SNO-Hb). The unique process Stamler and team developed to restore SNO-Hb — so-called renitrosylation therapy — could have significant benefits for millions of patients.”Inasmuch of the world’s supply of banked blood is deficient in SNO-Hb, efforts to restore its levels may hold great therapeutic promise,” said Stamler, director, Institute for Transformative Molecular Medicine and the Robert S. and Sylvia K. Reitman Family Foundation Distinguished Chair in Cardiovascular Innovation, Case Western Reserve School of Medicine and University Hospitals (UH) Case Medical Center, and director, Harrington Discovery Institute, UH Case Medical Center.”One important aspect of our study is the insight that knowledge of banked blood’s SNO-Hb status may be used to judge the efficacy of a transfusion,” Stamler said.This information would allow physicians to discriminate between blood donations that may cause harm versus those that will have restorative effects following transfusion.The research team hypothesized that the loss of NO compromises the ability to dilate blood vessels and thereby deliver oxygen to tissues, which is critical for survival. …

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Study on fragile newborns challenges current practices

June 20, 2013 — One of the largest clinical trials done in infants with congenital (present at birth) heart diseases, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, shows that the increasingly common practice of using the drug clopidogrel (Plavix®) to reduce shunt-related blood flow issues is not effective in the dose studied.”Once again, pediatric-specific research shows that newborns and infants are not little adults,” said David Wessel, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Children’s National Medical Center, and lead author on the international study published in the June 20, 2013 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. “The take away message for pediatric cardiac care providers is to reconsider use of Plavix® in certain cases. In pediatric medicine, the assumption is that smaller doses of a drug that works in adults will work in infants, but our study shows that this is not true for these young patients. For the parents of these fragile newborns, it is important to understand that research informs best practices, and they need to be informed advocates for their children.”The objective of this international trial, which included more than 900 patients seen across 134 centers in 33 countries, was to evaluate the efficacy of Plavix® compared with placebo for the reduction of all-cause mortality and shunt-related morbidity in neonates and infants with cyanotic congenital heart disease palliated with systemic-to-pulmonary artery shunts. Many forms of congenital heart disease can be repaired in early infancy, and pulmonary blood flow with shunts is an important consideration during initial treatment that may include reconstructive heart surgery for defects in heart ventricles.As the authors note, effective prevention for thrombosis (blood clots) in neonates and infants with these heart conditions had not been previously tested, although aspirin treatment was associated with significantly lower risk of mortality and shunt thrombosis in a separate registry developed before this trial. Preventive treatment in adult patients who develop clots in coronary arteries often combines aspirin and Plavix®. As happens with many drugs approved for use in adults, Plavix® use is spreading into pediatric practice without sound evidence, according to study authors. In fact, they continue, use of this drug has increased 15-fold from 2001 to 2009 in children’s hospitals in the US.This study showed no benefit from adding Plavix® to current treatment, which often includes aspirin. As noted in the study, the use of Plavix® to address thrombosis in newborns and infants being palliated with systemic-to-pulmonary artery shunts does not reduce all-cause mortality or shunt-related morbidity.Further analysis (not part of the original trial design) supports the notion that aspirin alone may be effective at reducing the risk of clot formation in these infants. The study authors point out that the trial suggests that switching from aspirin alone to Plavix® alone at the dose studied is not a good idea.”This is a good illustration of the successful collaboration between industry and academia to conduct clinical research in children under the written request process of FDA’s Best Pharmaceuticals for Children Act (BPCA), noted Edward Connor, MD, MBE, Director of Innovation Development at Children’s National and internationally recognized expert on drug development. …

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Filmmaking magic with polymers

June 12, 2013 — Think about windows coated with transparent film that absorbs harmful ultraviolet sunrays and uses them to generate electricity. Consider a water filtration membrane that blocks viruses and other microorganisms from water, or an electric car battery that incorporates a coating to give it extra long life between charges.The self-assembled copolymer block film that makes it all possible is now being fabricated with intricately organized nanostructures, giving them multiple functions and flexibility on a macroscale level never before seen.Gurpreet Singh, a Ph.D. candidate in The University of Akron College of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering, led a team of researchers to devise a method that enables the films to assemble themselves and allows them to serve as templates or directly as end products. The films can be embedded with nanoparticles that enable everything from data storage to water purification.Breakthrough with many functionsSuperimposed with nanopatterns that allow them to be implanted with a variety of functions — electronic, thermal or chemical — the films can be produced at an industrial level, which is no small feat in the world of science, says research team member Alamgir Karim, associate dean of research for the college and Goodyear Chair Professor of Polymer Engineering. Other research collaborators include Kevin Yager of Brookhaven National Laboratory in Upton, N.Y., Brian Berry of the University of Arkansas and Ho-Cheol Kim of the IBM Research Division of Almaden Research Center in San Jose, Calif.”We have moved films manufacturing from microns to meter scale, opening pathways from the lab to fabrication,” Karim says. “Fundamentally, it allows us to practice nanoscience on a large scale. We can now produce these films quickly and inexpensively, yet with precision and without compromising quality.”Created with speed and uniformity, compatible with flexible surfaces, and subjected to temperature extremes, the copolymer thin films — developed at the National Polymer Innovation Center at UA — are noted in two recent American Chemical Society Nano journal articles: “Dynamic Thermal Field-Induced Gradient Soft-Shear for Highly Oriented Block Copolymer Thin Films”and “Large-Scale Roll-to-Roll Fabrication of Vertically Oriented Block Copolymer Thin Films.”Market-ready technologyFunded by the National Science Foundation, the research represents a market-ready revival of a technology developed by Bell Laboratories in the 1950s for metal and semiconductor purification and adapted in the 1980s for polymer crystallization. Since then, the technology remained dormant, until now.”We revived the technology and made it scalable, opening opportunities for full-scale manufacturing,” Karim says, noting that IBM has expressed interest in continuing the research and development of the technology, and is exploring applications ranging from membranes for batteries to high-density magnetic tape storage.”The process should be of interest to a broad range of industries — from high-tech to low-tech — worldwide,” Karim adds. “Manufacturing of these nanostructures can be done on industrial platforms such as UA’s roll-to-roll manufacturing (developed by collaborator Distinguished Professor of Polymer Engineering Miko Cakmak) at relatively high speeds not possible previously.”

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Conflict-of-interest restrictions needed to ensure strong FDA review

June 6, 2013 — A 2012 law that loosened conflict-of-interest restrictions for FDA advisory panels could weaken the agency’s review system and could allow more drugs with safety problems to gain market approval, says a new analysis published June 7 in Science by researchers at the George Washington University School of Public Health and Health Services (SPHHS).The 2012 legislation removed measures put in place by an earlier law passed in 2007, according to the report by Susan F. Wood, PhD, an associate professor of health policy at SPHHS and Jillian K. Mador, a medical student at the GW School of Medicine & Health Sciences (SMHS). The 2007 FDA Amendments Act put caps on the number of experts with conflict of interest who could serve on FDA advisory panels in order to ensure an impartial review of new drugs, the authors said.They say there is good reason to worry about the revisions in the law that now allow FDA panels to have more members who report a conflict — such as consulting fees from drug companies. The removal of the requirement for “caps” on advisory committee members with financial conflicts was seen as a top priority of the pharmaceutical industry during the 2012 passage of the FDA Safety and Innovation Act.”Panels top-heavy with experts who have financial ties to industry might be more likely to dismiss or ignore scientific evidence of risks or other problems,” said Wood, who is a former FDA official and the lead author on the paper. “This analysis also suggests that loosening the restrictions could lead to an appearance of conflict — and to potentially biased recommendations for approval or disapproval of a FDA regulated product.”The authors point to historical examples of cases in which loaded panels voted for drugs that were later found to have serious safety problems.The 2012 law was passed after the drug industry complained that the conflict of interest restrictions slowed down the FDA approval process and made it hard to fill panel positions with qualified experts. But Wood and Mador looked at the evidence and concluded that there are plenty of scientists with expertise to fill these positions — without the ties to the industry.The analysis goes on to say that the restrictions did not affect FDA’s productivity in the past and there is little reason to think that reinstituting the caps would slow down the process of bringing safe new drugs to market today. The analysis also demonstrates that the caps have never been reached, so FDA had apparently been successful in identifying experts without financial conflicts.The analysis concludes that the evidence does not support the decision to remove the caps on conflict of interest and points out that Congress will soon begin discussing reauthorization of the 2012 law which is revised every five years. The authors urge the scientific and medical community to weigh in early on those discussions in order to point out concerns — and to ensure that the FDA Advisory Committee and review process remains strong and effective.

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New chemical approach to treat Alzheimer’s

May 29, 2013 — Scientists at the University of Liverpool and Callaghan Innovation in New Zealand have developed a new chemical approach to help harness the natural ability of complex sugars to treat Alzheimer’s disease.

The team used a new chemical method to produce a library of sugars, called heparan sulphates, which are known to control the formation of the proteins in the brain that cause memory loss.

Chemically produced in the lab

Heparan sulphates are found in nearly every cell of the body, and are similar to the natural blood-thinning drug, heparin. Now scientists have discovered how to produce them chemically in the lab, and found that some of these sugars can inhibit an enzyme that creates small proteins in the brain.

These proteins, called amyloid, disrupt the normal function of cells leading to the progressive memory loss that is characteristic of Alzheimer’s disease.

Professor Jerry Turnbull, from the University’s Institute of Integrative Biology, said: “We are targeting an enzyme, called BACE, which is responsible for creating the amyloid protein. The amyloid builds up in the brain in Alzheimer’s disease and causes damage. BACE has proved to be a difficult enzyme to block despite lots of efforts by drug companies.”

“We are using a new approach, harnessing the natural ability of sugars, based on the blood-thinning drug heparin, to block the action of BACE.”

Dr Peter Tyler, from Callaghan Innovation, added: “We have developed new chemical methods that have allowed us to make the largest set of these sugars produced to date. These new compounds will now be tested to identify those with the best activity and fewest possible side effects, as these have potential for development into a drug treatment that targets the underlying cause of this disease.”

Current treatments only help symptoms

There are more than 800,000 people in the UK, and 50,000 in New Zealand living with dementia. Over half of these have Alzheimer’s disease, the most common cause of dementia. The cost of these diseases to the UK economy stands at £23 billion, more than the cost of cancer and heart disease combined. Current treatments for dementia can help with symptoms, but there are no drugs available that can slow or stop the underlying disease.

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