Here’s How the Immune System Controls Social Interaction [Video]

In a startling discovery that raises fundamental questions about human behavior, researchers at the University of Virginia School of Medicine have determined that the immune system directly affects — and even controls — creatures’ social behavior, such as their desire to interact with others. So could immune system problems contribute to an inability to have normal social interactions? The answer appears to be yes, and that finding could have great implications for neurological conditions such as autism-spectrum disorders and schizophrenia.

“The brain and the adaptive immune system were thought to be isolated from each other, and any immune activity in the brain was perceived as sign of a pathology. And now, not only are we showing that they are closely interacting, but some of our behavior traits might have evolved because of our immune response to pathogens,” explained Jonathan Kipnis, PhD, chairman of UVA’s Department of Neuroscience. “It’s crazy, but maybe we are just multicellular battlefields for two ancient forces: pathogens and the immune system. Part of our personality may actually be dictated by the immune system.”

Evolutionary Forces at Work

It was only last year that Kipnis, the director of UVA’s Center for Brain Immunology and Glia, and his team discovered that meningeal vessels directly link the brain with the lymphatic system. That overturned decades of textbook teaching that the brain was “immune privileged,” lacking a direct connection to the immune system. The discovery opened the door for entirely new ways of thinking about how the brain and the immune system interact.

The follow-up finding is equally illuminating, shedding light on both the workings of the brain and on evolution itself. The relationship between people and pathogens, the researchers suggest, could have directly affected the development of our social behavior, allowing us to engage in the social interactions necessary for the survival of the species while developing ways for our immune systems to protect us from the diseases that accompany those interactions. Social behavior is, of course, in the interest of pathogens, as it allows them to spread.

The UVA researchers have shown that a specific immune molecule, interferon gamma, seems to be critical for social behavior and that a variety of creatures, such as flies, zebrafish, mice and rats, activate interferon gamma responses when they are social. Normally, this molecule is produced by the immune system in response to bacteria, viruses or parasites. Blocking the molecule in mice using genetic modification made regions of the brain hyperactive, causing the mice to become less social. Restoring the molecule restored the brain connectivity and behavior to normal. In a paper outlining their findings, the researchers note the immune molecule plays a “profound role in maintaining proper social function.”

“It’s extremely critical for an organism to be social for the survival of the species. It’s important for foraging, sexual reproduction, gathering, hunting,” said Anthony J. Filiano, PhD, Hartwell postdoctoral fellow in the Kipnis lab and lead author of the study. “So the hypothesis is that when organisms come together, you have a higher propensity to spread infection. So you need to be social, but [in doing so] you have a higher chance of spreading pathogens. The idea is that interferon gamma, in evolution, has been used as a more efficient way to both boost social behavior while boosting an anti-pathogen response.”

Understanding the Implications

The researchers note that a malfunctioning immune system may be responsible for “social deficits in numerous neurological and psychiatric disorders.” But exactly what this might mean for autism and other specific conditions requires further investigation. It is unlikely that any one molecule will be responsible for disease or the key to a cure, the researchers believe; instead, the causes are likely to be much more complex. But the discovery that the immune system — and possibly germs, by extension — can control our interactions raises many exciting avenues for scientists to explore, both in terms of battling neurological disorders and understanding human behavior.

“Immune molecules are actually defining how the brain is functioning. So, what is the overall impact of the immune system on our brain development and function?” Kipnis said. “I think the philosophical aspects of this work are very interesting, but it also has potentially very important clinical implications.”

Source: Press release from University of Virginia.

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Transparent ‘Window to the Brain’ Implant Getting Closer to Reality

Researchers at the University of California, Riverside are bringing their idea for a ‘Window to the Brain’ transparent skull implant closer to reality through the findings of two studies that are forthcoming in the journals Lasers in Surgery and Medicine and Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine.

The implant under development, which literally provides a ‘window to the brain,’ will allow doctors to deliver minimally invasive, laser-based treatments to patients with life-threatening neurological disorders, such as brain cancers, traumatic brain injuries, neurodegenerative diseases and stroke. The recent studies highlight both the biocompatibility of the implant material and its ability to endure bacterial infections.

This is an illustration showing how the "Window to the Brain" transparent skull implant created by UC Riverside researchers would work. Credit: UC Riverside
This is an illustration showing how the “Window to the Brain” transparent skull implant created by UC Riverside researchers would work.
Credit: UC Riverside

The Window to the Brain project is a multi-institution, interdisciplinary partnership led by Guillermo Aguilar, professor of mechanical engineering in UCR’s Bourns College of Engineering, and Santiago Camacho-López, from the Centro de Investigación Científica y de Educación Superior de Ensenada (CICESE) in Mexico.

The project began when Aguilar and his team developed a transparent version of the material yttria-stabilized zirconia (YSZ) — the same ceramic product used in hip implants and dental crowns. By using this as a window-like implant, the team hopes doctors will be able to aim laser-based treatments into patients’ brains on demand and without having to perform repeated craniotomies, which are highly invasive procedures used to access the brain.

The internal toughness of YSZ, which is more impact resistant than glass-based materials developed by other researchers, also makes it the only transparent skull implant that could conceivably be used in humans. The two recent studies further support YSZ as a promising alternative for currently available cranial implants.

Published July 8 in Lasers in Surgery and Medicine, the most recent study demonstrates how the use of transparent YSZ may allow doctors to combat bacterial infections, which are a leading reason for cranial implant failure. In lab studies, the researchers treated E-Coli infections by aiming laser light through the implant without having to remove it and without damaging the surrounding tissues.

“This was an important finding because it showed that the combination of our transparent implant and laser-based therapies enables us to treat not only brain disorders, but also to tackle bacterial infections that are common after cranial implants. These infections are especially challenging to treat because many antibiotics do not penetrate the blood brain barrier,” said Devin Binder, M.D., a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist in UCR’s School of Medicine and a collaborator on the project.

Another recent study, published in the journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine, explored the biocompatibility of YSZ in an animal model, where it integrated into the host tissue without causing an immune response or other adverse effects.

“The YSZ was actually found to be more biocompatible than currently available materials, such as titanium or thermo-plastic polymers, so this was another piece of good news in our development of transparent YSZ as the material of choice for cranial implants,” Aguilar said.

Source: Press release from UC Riverside

Americans want a say in what happens to their donated blood and tissue in biobanks

By Raymond G. De Vries, University of Michigan and Tom Tomlinson, Michigan State University.

The last time you went to a hospital, you probably had to fill out forms listing the medications you are taking and updating your emergency contacts. You also might have been asked a question about what is to be done with “excess tissues or specimens” that may be removed during diagnosis or treatment. Are you willing to donate these leftover bits of yourself (stripped of your name, of course) for medical research?

If you are inclined to answer, “Sure, why not?” you will join the majority of Americans who would agree to donate, allowing your leftovers, such as blood or unused bits from biopsies or even embryos, to be sent to a “biobank” that collects specimens and related medical information from donors.

But what, exactly, will be done with your donation? Can the biobank guarantee that information about your genetic destiny will not find its way to insurance companies or future employers? Could, for example, a pharmaceutical company use it to develop and patent a new drug that will be sold back to you at an exorbitant price?

These questions may soon become a lot more real for many of us.

Precision medicine, a promising new approach to treating and preventing disease, will require thousands, or even millions, of us to provide samples for genetic research. So how much privacy are we willing to give up in the name of cutting-edge science? And do we care about the kinds of research that will be done with our donations?

President Barack Obama makes remarks highlighting investments to improve health and treat disease through precision medicine on January 30, 2015.
Larry Downing/Reuters

Precision medicine needs you

In January 2015, President Obama announced his “Precision Medicine Initiative” (PMI), asking for US$215 million to move medical care from a “one size fits all” approach to one that tailors treatments to each person’s genetic makeup. In his words, precision medicine is “one of the greatest opportunities for new medical breakthroughs that we have ever seen,” allowing doctors to provide “the right treatments at the right time, every time, to the right person.”

The PMI is now being implemented, and a critical part of the initiative is the creation of a “voluntary national research cohort” of one million people who will provide the “data” researchers need to make this big jump in medical care. And yes, those “data” will include blood, urine and information from your electronic health records, all of which will help scientists find the link between genes, illness and treatments.

Recognizing that there may be some reluctance to donate, the drafters of the initiative bent over backwards to assure future donors that their privacy will be “rigorously protected.” But privacy is not the only thing donors are worrying about.

Together with our colleagues at the Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine at the University of Michigan and the Center for Ethics and Humanities in the Life Sciences at Michigan State University, we asked the American public about their willingness to donate blood and tissue to researchers.

Data from our national survey – published in the Journal of the American Medical Association – reveal that while most Americans are willing to donate to biobanks, they have serious concerns about how we ask for their consent and about how their donations may be used in future research.

What are you consenting to?

We asked our respondents – a sample representative of the U.S. population – if they would be willing to donate to a biobank using the current method of “blanket consent” where donors are asked to agree that their tissue can be used for any research study approved by the biobank, “without further consent from me.”

A healthy majority – 68 percent – agreed. But when we asked if they would still be willing to give blanket consent if their specimens might be used “to develop patents and earn profits for commercial companies,” that number dropped to 55 percent. Only 57 percent agreed to donate if there was a possibility their donation would be used to develop vaccines against biological weapons, research that might first require creating biological weapons. And less than 50 percent of our sample agreed to donate if told their specimen may be used “to develop more safe and effective abortion methods.”

You may think that some of these scenarios are far-fetched, but we consulted with a biobank researcher who reviewed all of our scenarios and confirmed that such research could be done with donations to biobanks, or associated data. And some scenarios are real. For instance, biobanked human embryos have been used to confirm how mifepristone, a drug which is used to induce miscarriages, works.

Trust in science is important

Should we take these moral concerns about biobank research seriously? Yes, because progress in science and medicine depends on public trust in the research enterprise. If scientists violate that trust they risk losing public support – including funding – for their work.

Henrietta Lacks. Oregon State University/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Witness the story of the Havasupai tribe of Arizona. Researchers collected DNA from members of the tribe in an effort to better understand their high rate of diabetes. That DNA was then used, without informing those who donated, for a study tracing the migration of Havasupai ancestors. The findings of that research undermined the tribal story of its origins. The result? The tribe banished all researchers.

Rebecca Skloot’s best-seller, “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” revealed the way tissues and blood taken for clinical uses can be used for purposes unknown to the donors.

In the early 1950s, Ms. Lacks was unsuccessfully treated for cervical cancer. Researchers harvested her cells without her knowledge, and after her death they used these cells to develop the HeLa cell line. Because of their unique properties, Hela cells have become critical to medical research. They have been used to secure more than 17,000 patents, but neither she nor her family members were compensated.

In a similar case, blood cells from the spleen of a man named John Moore, taken as part of his treatment for leukemia, were used to create a patented cell line for fighting infection. Moore sued for his share of the profits generated by the patent, but his suit was dismissed by local, state and federal courts. As a result of these and similar cases, nearly all biobank consent forms now include a clause indicating that donations might be used to develop commercial products and that the donor has no claim on the proceeds.

Researchers can ill afford to undermine public trust in their work. In our sample we found that lack of trust in scientists and scientific research was the strongest predictor of unwillingness to donate to a biobank.

Those who ask you to donate some of yourself must remember that it is important not only to protect your privacy but also to ensure that your decision to do good for others does not violate your sense of what is good.

The “Proposed Privacy and Trust Principles” issued by the PMI in 2015 are a hopeful sign. They call for transparency about “how [participant] data will be used, accessed, and shared,” including “the types of studies for which the individual’s data may be used.” The PMI soon will be asking us to donate bits of ourselves, and if these principles are honored, they will go a long way toward building the trust that biobanks – and precision medicine – need to succeed.

The ConversationRaymond G. De Vries, Co-Director, Center for Bioethics and Social Sciences in Medicine, University of Michigan and Tom Tomlinson, Chair Professor, Michigan State University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Sea turtle ‘hitchhikers’ could play an important role in conservation

By Nathan Jack Robinson, Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne.

Many ancient cultures once believed that the world rested on the back of a giant sea turtle. This idea might seem far-fetched today, but for a diverse range of marine organisms, it’s reality. Collectively known as epibionts, these organisms make their homes on the backs of marine animals such as crabs, whales and sea turtles. These epibionts range in size, from microscopic plants called diatoms that are just a few hundredths of a millimeter across to fish called remoras than can grow to lengths of 75 centimeters. As scientists, we are finally starting to unlock the secrets of these mysterious hitchhikers.

A small remora attached to the underside of an olive ridley sea turtle.
Nathan J. Robinson, CC BY-ND

Recently, my colleagues and I described the communities of epibionts living on three species of sea turtle in Las Baulas National Marine Park. Our work on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica is part of a broader effort from scientists worldwide to characterize the epibiont communities of all seven sea turtle species throughout the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian oceans.

As we fill in the knowledge gaps about how sea turtle epibionts vary globally, we hope to figure out if and why different sea turtles from different geographic areas host different epibiont communities. Furthermore, it’s becoming clear that the creatures found on each sea turtle can tell a story about where that turtle has been and what it was doing there . The information encoded in each sea turtle’s unique set of hitchhikers can, in turn, help guide management decisions to protect these animals during their lives at sea.

A barnacle that was found encrusted onto the claw of an olive ridley sea turtle.
Nathan J. Robinson, CC BY-ND

Who are these hitchhikers?

Sea turtles spend almost their entire lives in the water – this is where they feed, breed and sleep. But every few years, adult sea turtles migrate from their feeding areas to sandy tropical beaches where they lay their eggs. These migrations are among the longest in the animal kingdom, and sea turtles can cross entire ocean basins just to reach their preferred nesting beaches. Luckily for us, when sea turtles emerge onto land to nest we have a unique opportunity to work with these animals up close.

A team of biologists from The Leatherback Trust collect epibionts from an olive ridley sea turtle at Playa Ostional, Costa Rica.
Sean A. Williamson, CC BY-ND

The three species that we examined for epibionts were the leatherback, olive ridley and green turtle. Many epibionts smaller than a millimeter in size and may be tucked away in difficult-to-reach places – under the shell at the base of the tail or in old scar tissue, for instance. But with persistence, we were able to uncover diverse ensembles of these tagalongs on the nesting sea turtles.

From a combined total of 43 different sea turtles, we encountered 20 different epibiont taxa. Many of these epibionts have only rarely been observed by scientists before – probably because they’ve only been found attached to sea turtles. In addition, many of these epibionts have bizarre adaptations that let them live life as hitchhikers.

We discovered hermaphroditic barnacles that use their heads to cement themselves to the sea turtle’s shell. Miniaturized males of the same barnacle species also live in the grooves of the shell of the larger hermaphroditic barnacle.

A colony of amphipods that was found on the shell of an olive ridley sea turtle.
Nathan J. Robinson, CC BY-ND

There were colonies of miniature shrimp-like amphipods with hooks at the end of their limbs for gripping onto the sea turtle. We currently think these animals graze on the algae that also grows on a sea turtle’s carapace.

An isopod that was found on the underside of an olive ridley sea turtle’s shell. Often they’re found feeding on the skin of sea turtles. Nathan J. Robinson,  CC BY-ND

In a subsequent study at the same location that is not yet published, we even discovered large isopods. These guys look like woodlice, with huge black eyes. They feed on the skin of living turtles.

Sea turtles have a complex relationship with their epibionts. Sea turtles might be directly harmed by some epibionts, while benefiting from others. In some instances, it might even be a bit of both. For example, barnacles can encrust over the turtle’s nostrils or eyes, yet they can also potentially provide camouflage. Indeed, a sea turtle resting on the sea floor with a shell covered in barnacles could very easily be mistaken for a rock.

Each epibiont has its own story to tell

In our study in Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, we statistically demonstrated for the first time that different sea turtle species do indeed have unique epibiont communities.

What is particularly interesting about this finding is that all three sea turtle species we sampled were from the same nesting area. Marine biologists believe epibionts attach to their sea turtle hosts in specific environments. If they were climbing aboard at the nesting site that these three turtle species share, then we’d expect the sea turtles to have similar epibiont communities.

Since they don’t, our data suggest the epibiont communities of these three sea turtle species are more reflective of where the turtles were feeding than where they nest. This discovery could help scientists worldwide uncover the secrets behind the epic migrations sea turtles make between their nesting beaches and the feeding habitats.

For example, say we know a particular epibiont species attaches to sea turtles only while they’re feeding in coastal lagoons. If we then spot a sea turtle anywhere in the world with this species of hitchhiker, we know it’s likely to have passed through a coastal lagoon sometime in the recent past.

In this way, we can start to think of epibionts as tiny data-loggers that can tell us about the movements and behavior of the sea turtle host. This kind of information can help guide management decisions that affect sea turtle conservation.

Hundreds of thousands of sea turtles end up as by-catch in commercial fisheries.
Salvatore Barbera, CC BY-SA

Implications for fisheries management

The largest threat sea turtles currently face worldwide is ending up as by-catch. Every year, hundreds of thousands of sea turtles are incidentally caught on hooks or entangled in nets intended to catch commercially harvested fish species.

The information we get from sea turtles’ epibionts could help alleviate this problem. With better knowledge of sea turtle movements based on their epibionts, we can start to fish in a more informed way. We can design strategies to avoid sea turtle hot spots, while ensuring that fisheries are still able to catch their desired commercially harvested species.

And of course, any efforts to protect sea turtles will also directly benefit their epibiont hitchhikers. Indeed, an epibiont’s fate is inescapably tied to that of its sea turtle host. This is of particular concern in certain sea turtle populations, such as the East Pacific leatherback turtle, which has declined by 98 percent in less than three decades. As this population teeters on the brink of extinction, so do many of its epibionts.

Epibionts and sea turtles have coexisted for millennia. While it could be said that these epibionts have just been along for the ride, it now seems they could play a crucial role in designing conservation management plans for sea turtles. Far from being passive bystanders in their own decline, these epibionts could be the sea turtle’s saviors if we use just a little human ingenuity.

The ConversationNathan Jack Robinson, Post-Doctoral Fellow in Biology, Indiana University–Purdue University Fort Wayne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Juno Sends First Images to Earth Post-Entry into Orbit

This color view from NASA's Juno spacecraft is made from some of the first images taken by JunoCam after the spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 5th (UTC). Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS. Click/Tap for larger image.
This color view from NASA’s Juno spacecraft is made from some of the first images taken by JunoCam after the spacecraft entered orbit around Jupiter on July 5th (UTC).
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS. Click/Tap for larger image.

The JunoCam camera aboard NASA’s Juno mission is operational and sending down data after the spacecraft’s July 4 arrival at Jupiter. Juno’s visible-light camera was turned on six days after Juno fired its main engine and placed itself into orbit around the largest planetary inhabitant of our solar system. The first high-resolution images of the gas giant Jupiter are still a few weeks away.

“This scene from JunoCam indicates it survived its first pass through Jupiter’s extreme radiation environment without any degradation and is ready to take on Jupiter,” said Scott Bolton, principal investigator from the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio. “We can’t wait to see the first view of Jupiter’s poles.”

The new view was obtained on July 10, 2016, at 10:30 a.m. PDT (1:30 p.m. EDT, 5:30 UTC), when the spacecraft was 2.7 million miles (4.3 million kilometers) from Jupiter on the outbound leg of its initial 53.5-day capture orbit.  The color image shows atmospheric features on Jupiter, including the famous Great Red Spot, and three of the massive planet’s four largest moons — Io, Europa and Ganymede, from left to right in the image.

“JunoCam will continue to take images as we go around in this first orbit,” said Candy Hansen, Juno co-investigator from the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona. “The first high-resolution images of the planet will be taken on August 27 when Juno makes its next close pass to Jupiter.”

JunoCam is a color, visible-light camera designed to capture remarkable pictures of Jupiter’s poles and cloud tops. As Juno’s eyes, it will provide a wide view, helping to provide context for the spacecraft’s other instruments. JunoCam was included on the spacecraft specifically for purposes of public engagement; although its images will be helpful to the science team, it is not considered one of the mission’s science instruments.

The Juno team is currently working to place all images taken by JunoCam on the mission’s website, where the public can access them.

During its mission of exploration, Juno will circle the Jovian world 37 times, soaring low over the planet’s cloud tops — as close as about 2,600 miles (4,100 kilometers). During these flybys, Juno will probe beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

Source: Press release from republished under public domain rights and in compliance with the NASA Media Usage Guidelines.

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Moving exoskeletons from sci-fi into medical rehabilitation and therapy

By Rana Soltani-Zarrin, Texas A&M University ; Amin Zeiaee, Texas A&M University , and Reza Langari, Texas A&M University .

Chances are, you’ve seen a person using a powered exoskeleton – what you might think of as a sort of bionic suit – but only in the movies. In the 2013 movie “Elysium,” for example, Matt Damon’s character has an exoskeleton that makes his body stronger and faster than it would otherwise be. Simply described, they are devices that can be externally worn, resembling the skeleton of the body part they are attached to and able to provide support in many ways.

That technology isn’t just in science fiction; it really exists and has even been commercialized. It supports devices that enhance human strength, assist disabled people and even provide rehabilitation after injuries. Our work focuses on helping stroke patients’ recovery.

Every year, 15 million people worldwide suffer a stroke. More than 85 percent of them survive, but only 10 percent recover completely. The rest must deal with mobility impairment and cognitive disabilities.

Stroke victims can get help relearning skills they have lost or learn new ways of performing tasks to compensate for lost abilities. The most effective rehabilitation is specific to the skills the patient needs, and of sufficient intensity and duration to truly retrain the nerves and muscles involved. However, the number of trained human therapists who can provide this support is limited, while the demand is growing, particularly as populations age.

Physical therapy can require a lot of professional time and contact. Can robots help?
Patient and therapist via

We at the Laboratory for Control, Robotics and Automation (LCRA) at Texas A&M University are working to help solve this problem by developing an intelligent robotic device that can provide therapy services in hospitals and clinics as an enhancement to conventional therapy methods. Our device will be connected to a patient’s upper arm and back during therapy sessions, providing individualized movement assistance to increase strength and flexibility. Such a device benefits therapists by reducing the physical load of their jobs, and patients by providing affordable and widely available therapy opportunities.

Initial development of the exoskeleton was at the Laboratory for Control, Robotics and Automation at Texas A&M University.
Author provided

A growing need

The number of elderly people worldwide is growing, as life expectancies increase. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that the number of Americans age 65 or over will double by 2050. Research suggests that people in that age group have an increased risk of suffering a stroke. We expect the number of stroke survivors who need rehabilitation services to rise significantly in the near future.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of occupational therapy and physical therapy jobs is expected to increase 27 percent and 34 percent, respectively, by 2020. Though interest in the field is growing, the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation projects the current physical therapist shortage will increase significantly in the upcoming decades. Efforts to keep rehabilitation at its current service quality could result in a shortage of as many as 26,000 physical therapists by 2020; improving service or updating it to reflect ongoing research will require even more people.

Robots for rehabilitation

While there remain a number of things that only human therapists can do, many rehab exercises are highly repetitive. This is where robotic systems excel: They can perform the same task countless times, with precision and accuracy without fatigue or loss of attention.

Many researchers around the world have developed robotic devices for rehabilitation purposes. These devices are typically designed specifically to work on patients’ paralyzed arms or legs. Many clinical studies confirm the effectiveness of automated therapy; in some cases it is even better than conventional therapy. However, there is still a long way to go.

Challenges of automated therapy

Despite the many benefits robotic based rehabilitation can offer to society, not many clinics are equipped with such devices. Rehabilitation exoskeletons often require very complicated design and control processes, which usually result in bulky, heavy and expensive devices. In addition, patient trust or comfort with a therapist might be reduced when interacting with a robot.

These challenges limit the usage of robotic devices to research centers and a few rehabilitation centers. Considering the significant role of exoskeletons in the future of rehabilitation, it is time to address these challenges.

How our robot solves these challenges

Our work is focused on developing a lighter, more compact robotic exoskeleton device that can help stroke patients recover strength and motion in their arms. To this end, we have done detailed analysis of even the simplest device components.

Performing a close analysis of device components.
Author provided

While development is ongoing, we are using new technologies and have adopted the most recent findings of rehabilitation science research to build a device that better prepare patients for activities of daily living. In addition to helping stroke patients, this device can also be used for rehabilitation of other patients with arm disabilities or injuries.

The technical evaluations of the device will be completed on the Texas A&M campus in College Station early next year. Once the safety of device is guaranteed, we will test it on real stroke patients in Hamad Medical Center in Doha, Qatar by fall 2017.

Looking to the future

Our final goal is to develop home-based exoskeletons. Currently portability, high costs and limitations on the performance of the available systems are the main barriers for using rehab exoskeletons in patients’ homes. Home-based rehabilitation could dramatically improve the intensity and effectiveness of therapy patients receive. Robots could, for example, allow patients to start therapy in the very early stages of recovery, without having to deal with the hassles of frequent and long visits to clinics. In the comfort of their own homes, people could get specific training at the appropriate level of intensity, overseen and monitored by a human therapist over the internet.

Maximizing therapy robots’ ability to help patients depends on deepening the human-robot interaction. This sort of connection is the subject of significant research of late, and not just for patient treatment. In most cases where people are working with robots, though, the human takes the lead role; in therapy, the robot must closely observe the patient and decide when to provide corrective input.

Virtual reality is another technology that has proven to be an effective tool for rehabilitation purposes. Virtual reality devices and the recently developed augmented reality systems can be adapted to use with rehab exoskeletons. Although linking the real and virtual worlds within these systems is a challenging task, an exoskeleton equipped with a high fidelity virtual- or augmented-reality device could offer unique benefits.

These opportunities are challenging to be realized. But if we manage to develop such systems, it could open a world of fantastic opportunities. Imagine automated rehabilitation gyms, with devices specific to different motions of different body parts, available for anyone who needed them. But there are even more miraculous possibilities: Would no one need a wheelchair anymore?

These devices can also help reduce the social isolation many stroke patients experience. With the aid of augmented reality tools, therapy robots can help patients interact with each other, as in a virtual exercise group. This sort of connection can make rehabilitation a pleasant experience in patients’ daily lives, one they look forward to and enjoy, which will also promote their recovery.

This technology could have everyday uses for healthy individuals, too. Perhaps people would one day own an exoskeleton for help with labor-intensive tasks at home or in the garden. Factory workers could work harder and faster, but with less fatigue and risk of injury. The research is really just beginning.

The ConversationRana Soltani-Zarrin, Ph.D. Candidate in Mechanical Engineering, Texas A&M University ; Amin Zeiaee, Ph.D. Candidate in Mechanical Engineering, Texas A&M University , and Reza Langari, Professor of Mechanical Engineering; Department Head, Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution, Texas A&M University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Cold and calculating: what the two different types of ice do to sea levels

By Matt King, University of Tasmania; Ben Galton-Fenzi, and Will Hobbs, University of Tasmania.

It was back in 250ʙⅽ when Archimedes reportedly stepped into his bathtub and had the world’s first Eureka moment – realising that putting himself in the water made its level rise.

More than two millennia later, the comments sections of news stories still routinely reveal confusion about how this same thing happens when polar ice melts and sea levels change.

This is in marked contrast to the confidence that scientists have in their collective understanding of what is happening to the ice sheets. Indeed, the 2014 Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported “very high confidence” that the Greenland Ice Sheet was melting and raising sea levels, with “high confidence” of the same for the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Despite this, commenters below the line on news stories frequently wonder how it can be true that Antarctica is melting and contributing to sea-level rise, when satellite observations show Antarctic ice expanding.

Unravelling the confusion depends on appreciating the difference between the two different types of ice, which we can broadly term “land ice” and “sea ice” – although as we shall see, there’s a little bit more to it than that. The two different types of ice have very different roles in Earth’s climate, and behave in crucially different ways.

Sea levels rise when ice resting on land, grounded ice, melts (often after forming icebergs). Floating sea ice that melts has a very important role in other areas of our climate system.

Land ice

Ice sheets form by the gradual accumulation of snow on land over long periods of time. This “grounded” ice flows in glaciers to the ocean under the influence of gravity, and when it arrives it eventually melts. If the amount of ice flowing into the oceans is balanced by snowfall on land, the net change in global sea level due to this ice sheet is zero.

However, if the ice begins to flow more rapidly or snowfall declines, the ice sheet can be out of balance, resulting in a net rise in sea level.

But this influence on sea level is only really relevant for ice that is grounded on land. When the ice sheet starts to float on the ocean it is called an “ice shelf”. The contribution of ice shelves to sea-level rise is negligible because they are already in the sea (similar to an ice cube in a glass of water, although the ocean is salty unlike a glass of water). But they can nevertheless play an important role in sea-level rise, by governing the rate at which the grounded ice can discharge into the oceans, and therefore how fast it melts.

Sea ice

When viewed from space, all polar ice looks pretty much the same. But there is a second category of ice that has effectively nothing to do with the ice sheets themselves.

“Sea ice” is formed when ocean water is frozen due to cooling by the air. Because it is floating in the ocean, sea ice does not (directly) affect sea level.

Sea ice is generally no more than a few metres thick, although it can grow to more than 10 metres thick if allowed to grow over many winters. Ice shelves, on the other hand, are hundreds of metres thick, as seen when an iceberg is created and rolls over.

A big breakup.

In the ocean around Antarctica, almost all the sea ice melts in the southern hemisphere spring. This means that every year an area of ocean twice the size of Australia freezes over and then melts – arguably the largest seasonal change on our planet.

So, while ice sheets change over decades and centuries, the time scale of sea ice variability is measured in months.

Antarctic sea ice grows and shrinks dramatically over the course of the year. These changes do not directly affect sea level. Land ice changes are slower but do affect sea levels, at least until the land ice becomes afloat.

The seasonal cycle of Arctic sea ice is much smaller. This is because the Arctic retains much more of its sea ice in the summer, and its winter extent is limited by land that surrounds the Arctic Ocean.

What is happening to land ice?

The two great ice sheets are in Greenland and Antarctica. Thanks to satellite measurements, we now know that since the early 1990s both have been contributing to sea-level rise.

It is thought that most of the Antarctic changes are caused by seawater melting the ice shelves faster, causing the land ice to flow faster and hence leading to sea-level rise as the ice sheet is tipped out of balance.

In Greenland, both surface and ocean melting play important roles in driving the accelerated contribution to sea levels.

What about sea ice?

Over the last four decades of satellite measurements, there has been a rapid decrease and thinning of summer Arctic sea ice. This is due to human activity warming the atmosphere and ocean.

In the Antarctic there has been a modest increase in total sea ice cover, but with a complex pattern of localised increases and decreases that are related to changes in winds and ocean currents. What’s more, satellite measurement of changes in sea ice thickness is much more difficult in the Antarctic than in the Arctic mainly because Antarctic sea ice has a lot of poorly measured snow resting on it.

The Southern Ocean is arguably a much more complex system than the Arctic Ocean, and determining humans’ influence on these trends and projecting future change is challenging.

Observations of the changes happening in the Arctic and Antarctic reveal complex stories that vary from place to place and over time.

These changes require ongoing monitoring and greater understanding of the causes of the observed changes. And public confusion can be avoided through careful use of the different terms describing ice in the global climate system. It pays to know your ice sheets from your sea ice.

The ConversationMatt King, Professor, Surveying & Spatial Sciences, School of Land and Food, University of Tasmania; Ben Galton-Fenzi, Senior Scientist, and Will Hobbs, Physical Oceanographer, Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre, University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Why emotional abuse in childhood may lead to migraines in adulthood

By Gretchen Tietjen, University of Toledo and Monita Karmakar, University of Toledo.

Child abuse and neglect are, sadly, more common than you might think. According to a 2011 study in JAMA Pediatrics, more than five million U.S. children experienced confirmed cases of maltreatment between 2004 and 2011. The effects of abuse can linger beyond childhood – and migraine headaches might be one of them.

Previous research, including our own, has found a link between experiencing migraine headaches in adulthood and experiencing emotional abuse in childhood. So how strong is the link? What is it about childhood emotional abuse that could lead to a physical problem, like migraines, in adulthood?

What is emotional abuse?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention defines childhood maltreatment as:

Any act or series of acts of commission or omission by a parent or other caregiver that results in harm, potential for harm, or threat of harm to a child.

Data suggest that up to 12.5 percent of U.S. children will experience maltreatment by their 18th birthday. However, studies using self-reported data suggest that as many as 25-45 percent adults in the U.S. report experiencing emotional, physical or sexual abuse as a child.

The discrepancy may be because so many cases of childhood abuse, particularly cases of emotional or psychological abuse, are unreported. This specific type of abuse may occur within a family over the course of years without recognition or detection.

The link between emotional abuse and migraines

Migraine is a type of chronic, recurrent moderate to severe headache affecting about 12-17 percent of the people in the U.S. Headaches, including migraine, are the fifth leading cause of emergency department visits and the sixth highest cause of years lost due to disability. Headaches are about three times more common in women than men.

While all forms of childhood maltreatment have been shown to be linked to migraines, the strongest and most significant link is with emotional abuse. Two studies using nationally representative samples of older Americans (the mean ages were 50 and 56 years old, respectively) have found a link.

We have also examined the emotional abuse-migraine link in young adults. In our study, we found that those recalling emotional abuse in childhood and adolescence were over 50 percent more likely to report being diagnosed with migraine. We also found that if a person reported experiencing all three types of abuse (physical, emotional and sexual), the risk of being diagnosed with migraine doubled.

Stress can cause changes in the brain.
Brain image via

Why would emotional abuse in childhood lead to migraines in adulthood?

The fact that the risk goes up in response to increased exposure is what indicates that abuse may cause biological changes that can lead to migraine later in life. While the exact mechanism between migraine and childhood maltreatment is not yet established, research has deepened our understanding of what might be going on in the body and brain.

Adverse childhood experiences are known to upset the regulation of what is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, which controls the release of stress hormones. In plain English, that means experiencing an adverse event in childhood can disrupt the body’s response to stress. Stress isn’t just an emotion – it’s also a physical response than can have consequences for the body.

Prolonged elevation of these stress hormones can alter both the structure and function of the brain’s limbic system, which is the seat of emotion, behavior, motivation and memory. MRIs have found alterations in structures and connections within the limbic system both in people with a history of childhood maltreatment and people diagnosed with migraine. Stressful experiences also disrupt the immune, metabolic and autonomic nervous systems.

Both childhood abuse and migraine have been associated with elevation of c-reactive protein, a measurable substance in the blood (also known as a biomarker), which indicates the degree of inflammation. This biomarker is a well-established predictor of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

Migraine is considered to be a hereditary condition. But, except in a small minority of cases, the genes responsible have not been identified. However, stress early in life induces alterations in gene expression without altering the DNA sequence. These are called epigenetic changes, and they are long-lasting and may even be passed on to offspring. The role of epigenetics in migraine is in the early stages of investigation.

What does this mean for doctors treating migraine patients?

Childhood maltreatment probably contributes to only a small portion of the number of people with migraine. But because research indicates that there is a strong link between the two, clinicians may want to bear that in mind when evaluating patients.

Treatments such as cognitive behavioral therapy, which alter the neurophysiological response to stress, have been shown to be effective treatments for migraine and also for the psychological effects of abuse. Therefore CBT may be particularly suited to persons with both.

Anti-epileptic drugs such as valproate and topiramate are FDA-approved for migraine treatment. These drugs are also both known to reverse stress-induced epigenetic changes.

Other therapies that decrease inflammation are currently under investigation for migraine.

Migraineurs with history of childhood abuse are also at higher risk for psychiatric conditions like depression and anxiety, as well as for medical disorders like fibromyalgia and irritable bowel syndrome. This may affect the treatment strategy a clinician uses.

Within a migraine clinic population, clinicians should pay special attention to those who have been subjected to maltreatment in childhood, as they are at increased risk of being victims of domestic abuse and intimate partner violence as adults.

That’s why clinicians should screen migraine patients, and particularly women, for current abuse.

The ConversationGretchen Tietjen, Professor and Chair of Neurology, University of Toledo and Monita Karmakar, Ph.D. Candidate in Health Education, University of Toledo

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Researchers Have Revealed Pomegranate’s Powerful Anti-Aging Secret [Video]

Are pomegranates really the superfood we’ve been led to believe will counteract the aging process? Up to now, scientific proof has been fairly weak. And some controversial marketing tactics have led to skepticism as well. A team of scientists from EPFL and the company Amazentis wanted to explore the issue by taking a closer look at the secrets of this plump pink fruit. They discovered that a molecule in pomegranates, transformed by microbes in the gut, enables muscle cells to protect themselves against one of the major causes of aging. In nematodes and rodents, the effect is nothing short of amazing. Human clinical trials are currently underway, but these initial findings have already been published in the journal Nature Medicine. 

As we age, our cells increasingly struggle to recycle their powerhouses. Called mitochondria, these inner compartments are no longer able to carry out their vital function, thus accumulate in the cell. This degradation affects the health of many tissues, including muscles, which gradually weaken over the years. A buildup of dysfunctional mitochondria is also suspected of playing a role in other diseases of aging, such as Parkinson’s disease.

One molecule plays David against the Goliath of aging
The scientists identified a molecule that, all by itself, managed to re-establish the cell’s ability to recycle the components of the defective mitochondria: urolithin A. “It’s the only known molecule that can relaunch the mitochondrial clean-up process, otherwise known as mitophagy,” says Patrick Aebischer, co-author on the study. “It’s a completely natural substance, and its effect is powerful and measurable.”

The team started out by testing their hypothesis on the usual suspect: the nematode C. elegans. It’s a favorite test subject among aging experts, because after just 8-10 days it’s already considered elderly. The lifespan of worms exposed to urolithin A increased by more than 45% compared with the control group.

These initial encouraging results led the team to test the molecule on animals that have more in common with humans. In the rodent studies, like with C. elegans, a significant reduction in the number of mitochondria was observed, indicating that a robust cellular recycling process was taking place. Older mice, around two years of age, showed 42% better endurance while running than equally old mice in the control group.

Human testing underway
Before heading out to stock up on pomegranates, however, it’s worth noting that the fruit doesn’t itself contain the miracle molecule, but rather its precursor. That molecule is converted into urolithin A by the microbes that inhabit the intestine. Because of this, the amount of urolithin A produced can vary widely, depending on the species of animal and the flora present in the gut microbiome. Some individuals don’t produce any at all. If you’re one of the unlucky ones, it’s possible that pomegranate juice won’t do you any good.

For those without the right microbes in their guts, however, the scientists are already working on a solution. The study’s co-authors founded a start-up company, Amazentis, which has developed a method to deliver finely calibrated doses of urolithin A. The company is currently conducting first clinical trials testing the molecule in humans in European hospitals.

Darwin at your service: parallel evolution makes good dinner partners
According to study co-author Johan Auwerx, it would be surprising if urolithin A weren’t effective in humans. “Species that are evolutionarily quite distant, such as C elegans and the rat, react to the same substance in the same way. That’s a good indication that we’re touching here on an essential mechanism in living organisms.”

Urolithin A’s function is the product of tens of millions of years of parallel evolution between plants, bacteria and animals. According to Chris Rinsch, co-author and CEO of Amazentis, this evolutionary process explains the molecule’s effectiveness: “Precursors to urolithin A are found not only in pomegranates, but also in smaller amounts in many nuts and berries. Yet for it to be produced in our intestines, the bacteria must be able to break down what we’re eating. When, via digestion, a substance is produced that is of benefit to us, natural selection favors both the bacteria involved and their host. Our objective is to follow strict clinical validations, so that everyone can benefit from the result of these millions of years of evolution.”

The EPFL scientists’ approach provides a whole new palette of opportunities to fight the muscular degeneration that takes place as we age, and possibly also to counteract other effects of aging. By helping the body to renew itself, urolithin A could well succeed where so many pharmaceutical products, most of which have tried to increase muscle mass, have failed. Auwerx, who has also published a recent discovery about the anti-aging effects of another molecule in the journal Science, emphasizes the game-changing importance of these studies. “The nutritional approach opens up territory that traditional pharma has never explored. It’s a true shift in the scientific paradigm.”

Source: EPFL press release.

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Why Your Anti-Virus Software Can’t Stop Ransomware [Video]

If your computer is infected with ransomware, your antivirus software probably won’t detect it until it’s too late.

Hackers use the malware to encrypt your computer files and demand money in exchange for freeing those contents. The attacks are on the rise.

In May the FBI issued a warning that the number of attacks has doubled in the past year and is expected to grow even more rapidly this year.

Attacks most often show up in the form of an email that appears to be from someone familiar. The recipient clicks on a link in the email and unknowingly unleashes malware that encrypts his or her data. The next thing to appear is a message demanding the ransom, typically anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars. Often the ransoms are paid in Bitcoin, a digital currency that defies tracing.

“These attacks are tailored and unique every time they get installed on someone’s system,” says Nolen Scaife, a University of Florida doctoral student. “Antivirus is really good at stopping things it’s seen before … That’s where our solution is better than traditional anti-viruses.”

Scaife is part of the team that has come up with the ransomware solution, which it calls CryptoDrop. It doesn’t keep ransomware out, but rather confronts it once it’s there. CryptoDrop actually lets the malware lock up a few files before clamping down on it.

“If something that’s benign starts to behave maliciously, then what we can do is take action against that based on what we see is happening to your data. So we can stop, for example, all of your pictures form being encrypted,” says Scaife.

“Our system is more of an early-warning system. It doesn’t prevent the ransomware from starting … it prevents the ransomware from completing its task … so you lose only a couple of pictures or a couple of documents rather than everything that’s on your hard drive, and it relieves you of the burden of having to pay the ransom,” adds Scaife.

Scaife and colleagues say early tests of the program have been impressive.

“We ran our detector against several hundred ransomware samples that were live,” Scaife says, “and in those case it detected 100 percent of those malware samples and it did so after only a median of 10 files were encrypted.”

And CryptoDrop works seamlessly with antivirus software.

“About one-tenth of 1 percent of the files were lost,” says Patrick Traynor, an associate professor in computer and information science and engineering, “but the advantage is that it’s flexible. We don’t have to wait for that anti-virus update. If you have a new version of your ransomware, our system can detect that.”

The team currently has a functioning prototype that works with Windows-based systems and is seeking a partner to commercialize it and make it available publicly. They recently presented their results at the IEEE International Conference on Distributed Computing Systems in Japan.

Source: Republished from as a derivative work under the Attribution 4.0 International License. Original article posted to Futurity by Steve Orlando, U. Florida. 

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