Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Robot arm controlled by the mind

Christian can drive a car
Christian Kandlbauer Every morning Christian Kandlbauer wakes up, dresses himself, and gets in his car to drive to work.

This may sound mundane, but for the 21-year-old Austrian these are remarkable feats.
Doctors say he is the first person in the world to drive a car using a mind-controlled robotic limb.
Four years ago Christian lost both his arms after being electrocuted by 20,000 volts. Now he is able to control all of the joints in his left prosthetic arm by merely thinking about what he wants his arm to do.
He has a conventional prosthetic fitted on his right side.
Experts at the medical technology company, Otto Bock Healthcare, which developed the mind-controlled arm, say it is the first project of its kind in Europe.
On Wednesday, they will announce at an international conference in Leipzig, Germany, that the technology is ready to leave the laboratory and be put to everyday use.
It is like my earlier arm - I feel that my arm is a part of my body
Christian Kandlbauer
"UK patients could benefit in the next few months," says Dr Hubert Egger, head of the research and development project for the mind-controlled arm.
"Christian is the first patient in Europe where this surgery was done, and the first person in Europe with this mind-controlled prosthetic. In the future we hope to fit patients in the UK with prosthetics like this."
Dr Egger's team is publishing detailed surgical and technical guidelines for the mind controlled arm.
It involves a new technique known as targeted muscle reinnervation (TMR), where nerves that once controlled a lost limb are used to control a prosthesis.
Sensory hand
A 'sensory hand' may follow
Christian was the "guinea pig" for the four-year research project.
Surgeons at Vienna General Hospital transplanted the nerves that previously controlled his healthy limb to the chest muscles in a six-hour operation.
The transplanted nerves allow electrical impulses from the brain to reach the muscles in the chest.
The muscles act like a booster, amplifying the signal to a level that can be picked up by electrodes on the surface of the chest.
These signals are interpreted by a micro-computer, and used to control a prosthesis which responds in real time to thoughts from his brain.
This allows him to control his prosthetic arm as if it were his real arm.
Now Christian can drive, hold down a job, and even grasp a glass of beer.
"I feel very happy," he told the BBC in a telephone interview. "It is like my earlier arm - I feel that my arm is a part of my body."
Lighter, stronger
Scientific improvements are bringing prosthetics ever closer to the real thing.
They are now lighter, stronger, and more cosmetically appealing.
But not all amputees may be able to afford advanced prosthetics. There is already a large discrepancy between what is available on the NHS and the expensive prosthetics provided to soldiers.
How it works
When phantom limb is 'moved' electrical impulses from the brain move along grafted arm nerves into chest wall
Muscles boost electrical sensors and they are picked up by electrodes on surface of skin
Signals analysed and converted into a pattern that can be used to control the prosthetic using artificial intelligence
Ernie Stables of the British Limbless Ex-Service Men's Association (Blesma) says anything that is likely to improve the quality of life for amputees is welcome. But he says expense will be a factor.
"Limb centres across the country are pretty poorly funded as it is," he explains. "And I expect this initiative will be prohibitively expensive in NHS circles.
"So yes, it is a significant advance, and UK patients could potentially benefit if the funding is there.
"The private option is an avenue but only very few people can afford to go down that route."
Otto Bock says it is difficult to put a cost on the procedure. The research project behind Christian's prosthetic cost several million euros.
It says the cost will come down when the prosthetic goes into production.
Four years on, Christian has returned to work as a warehouse clerk at the garage that once employed him as a mechanic.
He has little memory of his accident and the days that followed.
He says it was strange when the limb was first fitted as he couldn't imagine that it would work.
Now, he is simply grateful that he has the freedom to get on with his life.
"With the prosthesis I am able to do things in my daily life alone without the help of another person," he says. "I am independent."

Sickle cell disease 'affects brain function in adults'

Washington, May 12 (ANI): In a new study, adults with sickle cell disease scored worse on memory function tests than healthy adults, suggesting that the blood disorder may affect brain function.

As pert of the research, funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), part of the National Institutes of Health, scientists tested cognitive functioning of 149 adult sickle cell disease patients (between the ages of 19 and 55) and compared them to 47 healthy study participants of similar age and education levels from the same communities. All of the participants were African-American.

More sickle cell disease patients scored lower on measures such as intellectual ability, short-term memory, processing speed, and attention, than participants in the healthy group.

The sickle cell disease participants did not have a history of end-organ failure, stroke, high blood pressure, or other conditions that might otherwise affect brain function.

Researchers at 12 sites within the NHLBI-supported Comprehensive Sickle Cell Centers conducted the study.

"This study suggests that some adult patients who have sickle cell disease may develop cognitive problems, such as having difficulty organizing their thoughts, making decisions, or learning, even if they do not have severe complications such as stroke related to sickle cell disease," said NHLBI Acting Director Susan B. Shurin.

"Such challenges can tremendously affect a patient's quality of life, and we need to address these concerns as part of an overall approach to effectively managing sickle cell disease," she added.

The results of the study are published in the May 12 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association

Schizophrenia genes linked to brain signalling

woman talking with doctor.jpg
Schizophrenia genes linked to brain signalling
(Getty Images)
Genetics researchers analysed the genomes of patients with schizophrenia and found numerous copy number variations-deletions or duplications of DNA sequences-that increase the risk of developing the neurodegenerative disease.

Significantly, many of these variations occur in genes that affect signaling among brain cells.
"When we compared the genomes of patients with schizophrenia to those of healthy subjects, we found variations in genes that regulate brain functions, several of which are already known to be perturbed in patients with this disorder. Although much research remains to be done, detecting genes on specific pathways is a first step to identifying more specific targets for improved drug treatments," said study leader Dr. Hakon Hakonarson, director of the Center for Applied Genomics at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

A devastating psychiatric disorder that affects an estimated 1.5 per cent of the population, schizophrenia may include hallucinations, disorganized speech, abnormal thought processes and other symptoms.

The researchers compared DNA samples from a total of 1,735 adult patients with schizophrenia to DNA from 3,485 healthy adult subjects, using highly automated genotyping tools.

They used a whole-genome approach, covering the full set of genetic material from each individual, following their first analysis with a replication study.

The study team found copy number variations (CNVs) in or near genes that play important roles in the brain.

Among those genes were CACNA1B and DOC2A, both of which carry the codes for proteins that use calcium signals to help control how neurotransmitters are released in the brain.

Two other genes, RET and RIT2, are members of another signalling gene family known to be involved in brain development.

The researchers found that the genes and signalling systems linked to schizophrenia had some overlap with those for autism and for attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. In fact, the current study found deletions in the same region of chromosome 16 as that found in a CNV study of autism spectrum disorders that Hakonarson led in 2009.

"Although different brain regions may be affected in these different neuropsychiatric disorders, these overlaps suggest that there may be common features in their underlying pathogenesis. These genes affect synaptic function, so deletions or duplications in those genes may alter how brain circuits are formed," said Hakonarson.

The research appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences .

Scientists determine brain molecule that causes hangovers

If you're in pain the morning after, you have a specific molecule in your brain to thank.
If you're in pain the morning after, you have a specific molecule in your brain to thank.
Barflies, meet your worst enemy: the neuropeptide.
The brain-signalling molecule has been determined by scientists as the source of hangovers, according to a study from the University of Southampton School of Biological Sciences.
From studying worms - whose simple brains are similar in makeup to the human brain - the scientists were able to see how alcohol affects signalling in the brain, triggering withdrawal symptoms such as anxiety, agitation and seizures, according to LiveScience.
"This research showed the worms displaying effects of the withdrawal of alcohol and enables us to define how alcohol affects signalling in nerve circuits which leads to changes in behavior," said professor and lead researcher Lindy Holden-Dye.
Small doses of alcohol during withdrawal - aka the "hair of the dog" cure - did help ease the worms' hangover symptoms, but scientists cautioned that this approach increases risk of alcohol dependency.
The study is the most specific to date in pinpointing exactly where and how alcohol consumption affects the nervous system and the brain, according to LiveScience.