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Research, Surgery, Technology

Replicating the sensitivity of human touch in robots

Replicating the sensitivity of human touch in robots

A piece published today in the New York Times examines the importance of replicating the sensitivity of human touch in designing the next generation of robots. Noting that the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Laboratory designed the first robotic arm in the 1960s, reporter John Markoff offers a look at ongoing research around campus, and elsewhere, involving robotics:

Consider Dr. Nikolas Blevins, a head and neck surgeon at Stanford Health Care who routinely performs ear operations requiring that he shave away bone deftly enough to leave an inner surface as thin as the membrane in an eggshell.

Dr. Blevins is collaborating with the roboticists J. Kenneth Salisbury andSonny Chan on designing software that will make it possible to rehearse these operations before performing them. The program blends X-ray andmagnetic resonance imaging data to create a vivid three-dimensional model of the inner ear, allowing the surgeon to practice drilling away bone, to take a visual tour of the patient’s skull and to virtually “feel” subtle differences in cartilage, bone and soft tissue. Yet no matter how thorough or refined, the software provides only the roughest approximation of Dr. Blevins’s sensitive touch.

“Being able to do virtual surgery, you really need to have haptics,” he said, referring to the technology that makes it possible to mimic the sensations of touch in a computer simulation.

Markoff goes on to discuss advances in haptics, “a science that is playing an increasing role in connecting the computing world to humans.”

Previously: Stanford surgeon uses robot to increase precision, reduce complications of head and neck procedures, CyberKnife: From promising technique to proven tumor treatment and Stanford researchers develop flexible electronic skin

Events, Medicine X, Stanford News, Technology

Countdown to Medicine X: 3D printing takes shape

Countdown to Medicine X: 3D printing takes shape

3D printed handFrom customizing lab equipment to assisting in surgical planning to developing models of proteins and pathogens, 3D printing is helping to reshape biomedical research and health care. This year, Medicine X (which kicks off one week from today) will explore the transformative force of the technology during a range of panels and demonstrations in the “3D Printing and the Future of Medicine” session.

During the session, attendees will have the opportunity to learn more about health-care related 3-D printing applications at the “3-D Experience Zone,” which will showcase technologies from leading manufacturers. Attendees can learn about surgical applications of 3D printing from 3D Systems; find out how 3D Hubs is creating a global community by connecting owners of 3D printers with those who want to utilize the technology; and see how Occipital’s 3D scanning hardware for the iPad is supporting patient care. Additionally, they can discover how Artec creates a 3D full-body scan in a mere 12 seconds and enjoy chocolate and candy from the ChefJet food printer.

The session will also feature two Saturday-afternoon panels titled “Diverse Distributed & Design-Driven” and “Innovation Implementation,” with the latter exploring:

…some of the challenges and issues to consider in this brave new world. Will the FDA approve printed food, pharmaceuticals, and medical devices? How can 3D printing startups include patients in their design process? What are the public health implications when almost anyone can print biomaterials from the comfort of their own home? And once we ensure public safety, how can we make 3D printing affordable and accessible for all?

Darrell Hurt, PhD, computational biologist and project lead for the National Institutes of Health 3D Print Exchange, is among the panelists, and Monika Wittig, director and co-founder of Live Architecture Network, will moderate the discussions.

“As a designer, I am thrilled that this conference continues to widen the view of valuable cross-disciplinary collaborations. This is decidedly the aspect that I found most profound during my first Medicine X experience,” said Wittig. “My hope is attendees leave this session feeling a heightened awareness of 3D design and production technologies and the many realms of potential engagement in health sectors including prototyping, globally-distributed production and mass-customized design.”

More news about Stanford Medicine X is available in the Medicine X category.

Previously: Countdown to Medicine X: Specially designed apps to enhance attendees’ conference experience, Countdown to Medicine X: Global Access Program provides free webcast of plenary proceedings, Countdown to Medicine X: How to engage with the “no smartphone” patient and Medicine X symposium focuses on how patients, providers and entrepreneurs can ignite innovation
Image of 3D printed hand from Medicine X

Mental Health, Nutrition, Obesity, Research, Women's Health

Stressed? You could be burning fewer calories

Stressed? You could be burning fewer calories

cupcakesBad news, ladies: Findings (subscription required) recently published in Biological Psychiatry show that women who consumed comfort food while feeling stressed burned fewer calories than their zen-like counterparts.

In the study, Ohio State University researchers quizzed a group of women about what was causing stress in their lives before they ate a caloric meal consisting of eggs, turkey sausage, biscuits and gravy. Scientific American reports:

Turns out that the most stressed women had higher levels of insulin. Which slows down metabolism and causes the body to store fat. And that fat, if not burned off, accumulates in the body.

The women who had reported feeling stressed or depressed in the day before eating the meal burned 104 fewer calories during the seven hours following the meal than women who felt more mellow.

If eating high-calorie comfort food to alleviate stress becomes habitual, the result could be an average weight gain of 11 pounds per year.

So next time you’re feeling overwhelmed and exhausted, you might want to reconsider reaching for a cupcake.

Previously: Learning tools for mindful eating, Mindful eating tips for the desk-bound and Want to curb junk food cravings? Get more sleep
Photo by Class V

Autoimmune Disease, Chronic Disease, Health and Fitness, Research, Technology

Video game accessory may help multiple sclerosis patients reduce falls, boost brain connections

Wii_balance_boardNintendo’s Wii Balance Board has helped get people off the couch and moving as they play aerobic video games like Super Hula Hoop or Dance Dance Revolution. Now a study published this week in Radiology shows that the video game console’s balance board may help reduce multiple sclerosis (MS) patients’ risk of falls by rewiring their brains.

In a small study, researchers used an MRI technique called diffusion tensor imaging to analyze changes in the brain of MS patients that used the Wii Balance Board while playing video games for 30-40 minutes a day five days a week.

According to a recent Forbes post:

MRI scans in the MS patients in the study demonstrated significant growth of nerve tracts which are integral in movement as well as balance. It turns out that the changes seen on MRI correlated with improvements in balance as measured by an assessment technique called posturography.

These brain changes in MS patients are likely a manifestation of neural plasticity, or the ability of the brain to adapt and form new connections throughout life, said lead author Luca Prosperini, M.D., Ph.D., from Sapienza University in Rome, Italy.

”The most important finding in this study is that a task-oriented and repetitive training aimed at managing a specific symptom is highly effective and induces brain plasticity.”

“More specifically, the improvements promoted by the Wii balance board can reduce the risk of accidental falls in patients with MS, thereby reducing the risk of fall-related comorbidities like trauma and fractures,”

 added Prosperini.

Researchers cautioned that the improvements in balance did not persist after patients stopped playing the video games, suggesting that patients will need to continue their training in order benefit from the intervention.

Previously: Study analyzes video game-related injuries and Comparing the Wii Fit board to a clinical force platform
Photo by Joachim S. Müller

Aging, Complementary Medicine, Health and Fitness, Mental Health, Neuroscience, Research

Mindfulness training may ease depression and improve sleep for both caregivers and patients

Mindfulness training may ease depression and improve sleep for both caregivers and patients

meditatingDepression and poor sleep often affect both dementia patients and their caregivers. Now new research shows that caregivers and patients who undergo mindfulness training together experience an improvement in mood, sleep and overall quality of life.

While past studies have shown that yoga and simple meditations can relieve caregivers’ stress, researchers at Northwestern University wanted to determine if patients and caregivers could be trained together.

In the small study (subscription required), pairs of patients and caregiver participated in an eight-week mindfulness program. Patients were diagnosed with dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease or mild cognitive impairment, often a precursor to dementia. Caregivers included spouses, adult children or other relatives. The training was designed specifically to meet the needs of  individuals with memory loss due to terminal neurodegenerative illness and their caregivers. Researchers evaluated participants within two weeks of starting the program and two weeks of completing it.  Lead author Ken Paller, PhD, explained the results in a release:

We saw lower depression scores and improved ratings on sleep quality and quality of life for both groups… After eight sessions of this training we observed a positive difference in their lives.

Mindfulness involves attentive awareness with acceptance for events in the present moment… You don’t have to be drawn into wishing things were different. Mindfulness training in this way takes advantage of people’s abilities rather than focusing on their difficulties

Since caregivers often have limited personal time, mindfulness programs that accommodate them as well as patients could be an effective approach to helping both groups regularly attend sessions, said researchers.

The findings were published Monday in the American Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease and Other Dementias.

Previously: Regularly practicing hatha yoga may improve brain function for older adults, Study suggests yoga may help caregivers of dementia patients manage stress and How mindfulness-based therapies can improve attention and health
Photo by Alex

Events, Medical Apps, Medicine X, Stanford News, Technology

Countdown to Medicine X: Specially designed apps to enhance attendees’ conference experience

Countdown to Medicine X: Specially designed apps to enhance attendees’ conference experience

Figure 3 - BlanketLast year’s Stanford Medicine X conference explored ways in which technology could be used to augment the attendees’ experiences. During breaks between sessions, organizers used specially developed software to transform television screens set up in the lobby outside the main auditorium into interactive spaces where participants could exchange ideas. On one screen, attendees used their mobile phones to text their reflections on previous sessions or respond to prompts such as: “What’s your dream for health care?” The texts appeared as yellow sticky notes on a virtual corkboard. Another screen served as a digital journal where participants could text comments about what they learned and have them displayed to a wider audience. As people walked up to the screen to read the contextually relevant content, they naturally started conversations. In an effort to bridge the divide between the people who were physically present at the conference and those who were watching the live-stream from other locations, an additional screen broadcast tweets from around the world in real time.

This year, conference organizers have developed three iPhone apps for Medicine X based on Apple iBeacon, a Bluetooth-powered location system. “When we heard about the iBeacon technology, it was clear that it would fit really well into a conference setting as well as being useful for allowing people to interact with the large-screen displays,” said Michael Fischer, a PhD student in computer science in the MobiSocial Lab at Stanford, who helped develop the app. “We brainstormed all the possible ways that the iBeacon technology could help people participate in the conference and came up with some ideas that we are excited to test out at the upcoming conference.”

In anticipation of this year’s conference, I reached out to Fischer to learn more about how the apps will further enhance attendees’ experience at Medicine X. Below he explains how they will facilitate networking among participants, allow them to provide feedback or rate speakers and serve as a sort of “flight-attendant call button.”

Can you briefly explain how the apps work?

One app allows us to extend the Wellness Room, so that people can request items without having to go to the room and miss part of a session. The Wellness Room provides special amenities, such as warm blankets or a place to rest, to assist patients in managing their conditions during the conference. The room was designed to help patients physically attend the conference who might have otherwise not been able to. For example, a previous ePatient attendee had a medical condition called cryoglobulinemia, which causes proteins known as cryoglobulins to thicken if the ambient temperature drops too low. If this were to occur, it could lead to kidney failure and would be life threatening. So it’s crucial for this patient to keep warm. Using the iBeacon technology we were able to develop a system that allows people to use an iPhone to request a blanket or other item be delivered to their seat. There will be iBeacons on all the tables in the room so that the phone will automatically know where you are sitting. All the requests will be forwarded to a volunteer who will bring the item directly to the table.

Another app will be used during the breaks to help people get to know each other. The application works by displaying short bios on a nearby TV screen. In this way, the screen acts as a type of watering hole that people can gather around. When new people approach, their bios will be added to the screen. When a person leaves the proximity of the screen, the bio will be removed. We’ll have multiple screens set up around the conference. Our hope is that people can find a group that they might not yet be familiar with. The service is opt-in and people can switch to and from stealth mode at any time. Conference-goers will also have the option to forgo this app altogether.

Lastly, we have developed a feature that will be used at check-in. We want to create an experience that will surprise and delight people from the moment they step into the conference. There is a tradition at Stanford during freshman year that when you first come to your dorm, the dorm staff yells out your name. It is pretty big surprise and makes you feel part of the community instantly. We wanted to replicate that experience as best we could for the conference.

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Public Health, Public Safety, Research, Technology

Mining Twitter to identify cases of foodborne illness

During this year’s Big Data in Biomedicine conference at Stanford, Taha Kass-Hout, MD, chief health informatics officer for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, talked about the potential of social media to monitor food safety saying, “You are what you eat, and in this world, you are what you tweet.” Taking this concept into a real-world setting, officials at the Chicago Department of Public Health developed an algorithm to mine Chicago-based tweets for sentiments of food illnesses and, as a result, were able to investigate incidents of food poisoning that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. According to a recent article in Popular Science:

… in a recent project, the city of Chicago sought food poisoning cases by setting an algorithm to mine Chicago-area tweets for complaints. The Chicago Department of Public Health’s Twitter bot, plus a new online complaint form, helped the department identify 133 restaurants for inspections over a 10-month period. Twenty-one of those restaurants failed inspection and 33 passed with “critical or serious” violations. Not a bad haul.

Chicago is now working with the health departments of Boston and New York to see if its system could work in those cities, according to a report city researchers published with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Plus, Twitter isn’t the only social media platform cities are looking to mine for public health violations. In May, New York City’s department of health reported on using an algorithm to spot Yelp reviews that point to food poisoning cases. New York’s Yelp project led the city to discover three restaurants that had multiple violations. All the Yelp cases the city inspected had otherwise gone unreported, New York officials wrote in their own CDC report.

The Chicago bot was pretty simple, as Twitter-reading computer programs go. It searched for tweets geo-located to Chicago and its surrounding suburbs that mentioned “food poisoning.” Human staff then read the tweets to determine if they were relevant. (Sounds fun.) Staff marked tweets as relevant or not relevant, to give the algorithm data to better learn what tweets to pull in the future. Then staff members responded to relevant tweets themselves.

Previously: Videos of Big Data in Biomedicine keynotes and panel discussions now available online, Discussing access and transparency of big data in government and Improving methods for tracking flu trends using Twitter

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Cancer, Parenting, Pediatrics, Public Health, Research

Study shows number of American teens using sunscreen is declining

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Despite an increase in cases of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer, growing percentage of high school students get a failing grade when it comes to using sunscreen. HealthDay reports:

The number of U.S. teens using sunscreen dropped nearly 12 percent in the last decade, a new report shows.

During that same time period, the number of teens using indoor tanning beds barely decreased. Both indoor tanning and failure to use sunscreen increase the risk of skin cancers, including deadly melanomas, the researchers noted.

“Unfortunately, we found a decrease in the overall percentage of teens who reported wearing sunscreen, from 67.7 percent in 2001 to 56.1 percent in 2011,” said lead researcher Corey Basch, an associate professor in the department of public health at William Paterson University in Wayne, N.J.

“Using sun-protective behaviors like applying sunscreen and avoiding intentional exposure to tanning devices will be key [to lowering cancer risk],” she added.

Use of indoor tanning devices by white girls decreased only slightly, from 37 percent in 2009 to 29 percent in 2011, she said.

Study authors say more research is need to understand why teens aren’t following national guidelines regarding sun protection.

Previously: Melanoma rates exceed rates of lung cancer in some areas, Beat the heat – and protect your skin from the sun, Working to protect athletes from sun dangers and Stanford study: Young men more likely to succumb to melanoma
Photo by Alex Liivet

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Obesity, Parenting, Pediatrics, Research, Sleep

Study shows poor sleep habits as a teenager can “stack the deck against you for obesity later in life”

Study shows poor sleep habits as a teenager can "stack the deck against you for obesity later in life"

11386276_c148dfd9bd_zNew research examining the effect of sleeplessness on weight gain in teenagers over time offers strong evidence that inadequate sleep may increase the risk of obesity.

In the study, researchers at Columbia University and the University of North Carolina pored over health information from the the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health on more than 10,000 Americans ages 16 and 21. In addition, details about individuals’ height, weight and sleep habits were collected during home visits in 1995 and 2001.  According to a release, results showed:

Nearly one-fifth of the 16-year-olds reported getting less than six hours of sleep. This group was 20 percent more likely to be obese by age 21, compared to their peers who got more than eight hours of sleep. While lack of physical activity and time spent watching television contributed to obesity, they did not account for the relationship between sleeplessness and obesity.

“Lack of sleep in your teenage years can stack the deck against you for obesity later in life,” says [Columbia researcher Shakira Suglia, ScD]. “Once you’re an obese adult, it is much harder to lose weight and keep it off. And the longer you are obese, the greater your risk for health problems like heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.”

“The message for parents is to make sure their teenagers get more than eight hours a night,” adds Suglia. “A good night’s sleep does more than help them stay alert in school. It helps them grow into healthy adults.”

Previously: Want teens to eat healthy? Make sure they get a good night’s sleepProlonged fatigue and mood disorders among teensMore evidence linking sleep deprivation and obesityStudy shows link between lack of sleep and obesity in teen boys and Study shows lack of sleep during adolescence may have “lasting consequences” on the brain
Photo by Adrian Sampson

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

Health and Fitness, Neuroscience, Research

Regularly practicing hatha yoga may improve brain function for older adults

77878_webPast studies have suggested that practicing yoga can help those suffering from insomnia rest easier and boost the immune system. Now new research shows that regularly participating in hatha yoga, which emphasizes physical postures and breath control, may improve older adults’ cognitive function.

In a study (subscription required) involving more than 100 adults ages 55 to 79, researchers assigned roughly half of the individuals to attend hatha yoga classes three times a week for eight weeks while the others participated in sessions in which they engaged in stretching and toning exercises. The Huffington Post reports:

At the end of eight weeks, the group that did yoga three times a week performed better on cognitive tests than it had before the start of yoga classes.

The group that did stretching and toning displayed no significant change in cognitive performance over time. In addition, researchers say the differences seen between the groups were not the result of age, gender, social status or other similar factors.



Edward McAuley
, PhD, who co-led the study, noted that participants in the yoga group displayed significant improvements in working memory capacity. “They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted,” he said in a press release. “These mental functions are relevant to our everyday functioning, as we multitask and plan our day-to-day activities.”

Previously: Stanford researchers use yoga to help underserved youth manage stress and gain focus, Third down and ommm: How an NFL team uses yoga and other tools to enhance players’ well-being, Yoga classes may boost high-school students’ mental well-being and Study shows yoga may improve mood, reduce anxiety
Photo by Neha Gothe

From August 11-25, Scope will be on a limited publishing schedule. During that time, you may also notice a delay in comment moderation. We’ll return to our regular schedule on August 25.

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