Tuesday, May 9, 2017

An Unexplained Side Effect of Radiotherapy Caused a Man to Dream in Colour For First Time

When radiotherapy is applied to the brain, a cancer patient can experience a whole slew of uncomfortable and distressing side effects, from headaches and nausea to hearing loss and seizures.

But one side effect doctors have never seen before just cropped up in a 59-year-old Australian man undergoing treatment for eye cancer - after dreaming in black and white for his entire life, radiotherapy suddenly changed his dreams to full colour.

Led by radiation oncologist Michael McKay from the North Coast Cancer Institute and the University of Sydney in Australia, researchers have reported how the patient's dreams switched from black and white to colour for several weeks, before reverting back to normal once the treatment had stopped.

"During the first week of radiotherapy, he developed 'rapid', vivid-coloured dreams, which persisted throughout the course of his radiotherapy," the researchers report.

"A few days after radiotherapy, the dreams reverted to black and white and became less intense over subsequent months before ceasing."

If the idea of dreaming exclusively in black and white seems weird to you - congratulations, there's a good chance you're young.

A 2008 study by Eva Murzyn, a psychologist from the University of Dundee in Scotland, found that while subjects 25 years or younger were more likely to dream in colour, and almost never dreamed in black and white, those over 55 were five times more likely than the 25-and-under group to dream in black and white.

Overall, she reported, just 12 percent of people were found to dream entirely in black and white. But this hasn't always been the case.

Back in the 20th century, researchers found that the "vast majority" of people surveyed actually dreamt in black and white instead of in colour.

A 1942 study reported that only 29 percent of the university students they surveyed had the occasional coloured dream, and by 1956, researchers were claiming that as little as 15 percent of dreams contained colour.

But by the 1960s, everything changed - coloured dreams suddenly came to the fore.

One 1962 study wrote that ''with careful interrogation close to the time of dreaming, colour was found to be present in 82.7 percent of the dreams", and six years later, another report found that coloured dreams were experienced by 69 percent of patients who were woken up from an REM sleep.

So what changed?
While it's all just speculation at this point, researchers are quick to point out the fact that by the early 20th century, black and white films were prevalent enough to possibly have an effect on how people were dreaming.

"It was very likely that the average college student (the typical participant in these studies) had regular contact with black and white media," Murzyn reports.

According to the hypothesis, with the rise of coloured films and televisions came the rise of coloured dreams - by the late 1960s, nearly all movies in the US were produced in colour.

"The first colour TV shows were broadcast in 1950 (to be viewed in public places) and the first consumer colour TV sets appeared in 1954, and by 1972 the majority of US households had a colour TV," Murzyn points out.

This could well explain why our 59-year-old Australian cancer patient reports only ever dreaming in black and white - by the time Australian televisions had been converted to full colour in 1975, he was already in his 20s.

But it doesn't explain why radiotherapy to the brain would suddenly change everything.

His doctors report that during his month-long treatment, his technicolour dreams featured everything from three-dimensional algebra equations, a timeline of cars he's owned, and various species of fish he'd caught.

"The neurological events were dreams rather than hallucinations, since they immediately stopped when the patient woke up," the researchers explain.

Unfortunately for all of us, it hadn't occurred to the team to record the man's electrical brain activity on electroencephalography (EEG) tests, which would have given them a better idea of where the radiation was affecting his brain.

But the idea of radiation pulses being behind the sudden colour change isn't without merit - as Alice Klein reports for New Scientist, people exposed to radiation during the Chernobyl disaster showed unusual brain activity EEG tests, and over a third reported abnormal dreams.

"[I] the radiation was affecting [EEG-detected] activity, then that could quite readily change the dream experience," Simon Cropper from the University of Melbourne, Australia, who wasn't involved in the study, told Klein.

The researchers say their best bet is that the tissue irritation and swelling caused by the radiation contributed to the man's symptoms - days after the treatment had ended, the colour was gone again.

Another explanation could be that the radiotherapy was waking the man up during various stages of sleep, causing his subconscious to remember the colour of the real world in subsequent dreams.

Without brain scans, we'll never know what happened in this particular case, and we should point out that there are many reasons why we should take this study with a grain of salt, including the sample size of one, and the self-reporting involved.

But the researchers are keen to see if other cases will crop up now that they've identified this as a potential side effect of brain-targetted radiotherapy.

It's not a life-changing shift to suddenly see your dreams in full colour, but knowing how it happens could help us get one step closer to understanding how the brain generates consciousness.

Who's Who: The 6 Top Thinkers In AI And Machine Learning

Every day it seems we are hearing of new advances made by AIs thanks to Machine Learning, from improving healthcare to beating us at poker, it is often easy to forget that, behind every successful robot, there’s a clever human.

The swift pace of change we are seeing today is due to a concerted effort across industry and academia to find practical uses for the ever-growing amount of data we are generating and collecting.

So, in this post I am going to highlight some of the current movers ‘n’ shakers, whose breakthroughs in machine learning are proving to be fundamental to developing the digital tools and technologies making AI possible, from social networks to self-driving cars, to the industrial internet.

Andrew Ng
Ng has just resigned from his post as chief data scientist at Chinese online giant Baidu. As well as that he is the founder of the online training resource Coursera and associate professor at Stanford University’s computer science department.

Before joining Baidu he formed Google’s Brain AI research division and his work has focused on deep learning. At Stanford he has led projects including the development of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Robot (STAIR) as well as algorithms to build 3D digital models from a single flat photographic image.

Yoshua Bengio
Professor at the Universite De Montreal’s department of computer science, Bengio is noted for his research into artificial neural networks and deep learning. He has stated that the overriding ambition behind his research is to understand “principles of learning that yield intelligence.” Among other principles of AI and ML, much of his published work concerns auto-encoders which are used for encoding or formatting unstructured data, to make it understandable by computers via unsupervised machine learning.

Yann LeCunn
As director of AI research at Facebook since 2013, LeCunn has received recognition for pioneering work in the field of computer vision – teaching machines to “see” in the same way we do by recognizing objects and to go on to learn, by classifying them. He is also considered one of the founders of the convolutional neural network model which aims to create algorithms which ingest and interpret information in the same way as a biological organism like an eye or a brain. He is a founding director NYU Center for Data

Rutgers Researchers Discover New Use For Old Drug In Treating BRAIN Injury

Garden State scientists have discovered that lithium, long used in treating bipolar disorder and severe depression, can help preserve brain function

Through research fueled by fines on speeding tickets and traffic violations, Rutgers University scientists have discovered how lithium — a powerful drug long used to treat bipolar disorder — can also help preserve brain function in patients who suffer traumatic brain injury.

The findings, published Monday in the Scientific Reports section of the international journal Nature, are particularly important because most medications now used to treat brain injury focus on the symptoms and pain relief, not preventing further damage. Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, is a major cause of death and disability, impacting some 1.7 million people each year, including more than 12,000 in New Jersey.

A new use for lithium
Researchers discovered that the mood stabilizer lithium, approved decades ago to treat bipolar disorder and serious depression, also protected healthy brain cells from a toxic buildup of chemicals that often result from a violent blow to the head. An analog of the drug rapamycin, an immunosuppressant also used to treat pancreatic cancer, had similar effects, the scientists found.

The work, led by Bonnie Firestein, a professor in Rutgers Department of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, was funded by a three-year grant from the New Jersey Commission on Brain Injury Research. Founded in 2004, the commission has provided tens of millions of dollars in grants to support work underway in the Garden State with money raised through a $1 fee on traffic tickets for moving violations like speeding, cellphone use while driving, and related offenses.

“The public doesn’t often understand what we do with the money,” Firestein said, adding that she felt lucky to work in a state that supports such robust scientific research. “It’s important for people to realize that their speeding tickets are going to this fund.”

TBI is caused by a blow to the head that disrupts normal brain function; it can result in memory loss or other cognitive impairment, physical disabilities including vision and hearing loss, or emotional consequences such as depression and personality change. The condition is not caused by heredity or aging, but can result from other incidents like strokes, brain tumors, or drug overdoses. According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, TBI kills 153 people every day nationwide, or more than 50,000 a year.

Common concussions
“The most common traumatic brain injury that people deal with every day is concussion which affects thousands of children each year,” Firestein said. These can be particularly hard to diagnose, she said, since children may not be as open about their symptoms.

To help protect against long-term brain damage, New Jersey lawmakers have spent several years working on a plan that would require children who suffer a concussion at school to be cleared by a healthcare professional before they can return to class. The latest version passed the Assembly in September but awaits a final vote in the Senate.

Firestein said she and her colleagues will start work this summer on research to pinpoint biological markers that are tied to traumatic brain injury to make the condition easier to diagnose, especially in children. But it is also important to find drugs that prevent long-term damage, she noted, a goal that is the focus of a number of New Jersey-based research projects.

“The hope is to combine a lot of these strategies,” Firestein said. Other researchers are examining the role of immune-system responses and ways to strengthen healthy cells, she added.

Most recent work
The focus of her most recent work, conducted with help from experts at the University of Pennsylvania, was to reduce the impact of the chemical glutamate. Under normal situations, the substance assists with learning and memory. But a head injury can trigger a massive release of glutamate and the buildup becomes toxic, causing damage or death in the healthy cells surrounding the wound, she explained.

“The problem [with TBI] is, a number of cells start to die and some are kind of hanging in the balance, hanging on a cliff,” Firestein explained. “And you want to keep those hanging on a cliff from dying.”

The Rutgers scientists discovered that lithium and a form of rapamycin — both already approved by the Federal Drug Administration for other uses — could be directly applied to help protect these healthy cells. These drugs blocked the glutamate from sending signals to the healthy cells that would otherwise trigger their demise.

“We worked directly on trying to keep these nerve cells functioning,” Firestein said. “The question was, how do we reduce the toxic signals in the brain so the neurons survive.”

Firestein said their research allowed scientists to “sort out” how these two drugs work to block the glutamate messages traveling from damaged to healthy cells. But further research remains to determine how these medicines could work in animals and humans, so it may take some time before the treatment is available for patients.

In an Asian first, robots aid in Thai brain surgery

Staff at Bangkok’s Ramathibodi Hospital have completed the first robotically assisted brain surgery ever performed in Asia. It was successfully conducted on a 77-year-old man with a two-centimetre-diameter brain tumour, the hospital announced on Monday.

“It is a success for the field of medicine in Thailand as well as Asia that the team was able to apply robotic technology in the surgery on a brain cancer patient to improve safety during the procedure and reduce the risk of complications afterward,” Dr Piyamitr Sritara, dean of medicine at Mahidol University’s Ramathibodi Hospital, said at a press conference.

He cautioned, though, that such advanced technology is costly – adding about Bt100,000 to the usual cost of brain surgery – and is not yet covered in any Thai healthcare scheme since it requires close scrutiny by the medical team.

The technology and equipment cost Bt40 million and Thailand and Vietnam are the only countries in Southeast Asia to have the capability.

Surgery Department chief Dr Wachira Kochakarn said the technology minimises injury and recovery time since the robot-guided incision is so much smaller. If the costly procedure was deemed necessary for a patient who couldn't afford it, he said, the hospital foundation would consider helping cover the cost.

Neurosurgery specialist Dr Sorayouth Chumnanvej said robotically assisted brain surgery allows for greater precision in procedures on patients with brain tumours, aneurysms and Parkinson’s disease.

He said the incision in the skull is less than three centimetres in diameter and in the scalp just one centimetre. Whereas such surgery typically allows for an area of error of 3-5 millimetres, robotic assistance reduces that to less than one millimetre. It also reduced the duration of surgery in this case to about half an hour and the patient regained consciousness in about 24 hours, Sorayouth said.