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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

Applied Biotechnology, Parenting, Pediatrics, Research, Sleep, Stanford News, Technology

Biodesign fellows take on night terrors in children

Biodesign fellows take on night terrors in children

baby on bed

Standing in the Clark Center’s grand courtyard, gazing upward at scientists ascending an outdoor staircase and traversing the exterior corridors on the top two floors, one senses that big ideas take shape here. But how?

Prototyping, say Andy Rink, MD, and Varun Boriah, MS, who spent the last year as Biodesign fellows. Part of Stanford’s Bio-X community, the Biodesign Program trains researchers, clinicians and engineers to be medical-technology innovators during its year-long fellowship. Fellows learn the Biodesign Process, which could be likened to design thinking for health care. On teams of two or four, the fellows identify a substantial health-care need and generate ideas to solve it using medical-device innovation.

Though most Biodesign projects take root after fellows complete a “clinical immersion” shadowing health-care workers in a hospital to observe problems, Rink found his inspiration when visiting family and waking up to a 3-year-old relative’s screams from recurring night terrors. The problem was not so much that it affected the child – pediatricians may advise that children will likely outgrow the condition – but that it affected the parents, Rink saw.  The parent’s lost sleep and anxiety over their child’s well being had huge effects on their quality of life. (In some cases, these are so severe that Xanax and Valium may be prescribed to the children as a last-ditch effort.) What if a treatment could be found that involved no medication and no parental intervention, offering everyone a solid night’s sleep?

The physician and engineer are working with School of Medicine sleep researchers Christian Guilleminault, MD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, and Shannon Sullivan, MD, clinical assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, on a clinical method to treat night terrors in children. In a first-floor room of the Clark Center, they’re protoyping an under-mattress device that senses how deeply a child is sleeping and is able to prevent the nightly episodes from occurring, creating a healthier sleep cycle for the children.  This relieves the parent’s anxiety, and helps the entire family sleep better.

Faculty and students from more than 40 departments across Stanford’s campus, including the schools of medicine, business, law, engineering and humanities and sciences, play a role in Biodesign, as do experts from outside the university. Fellows work closely with the Institute of Design at Stanford, attending – and then teaching – the school’s d.bootcamp. They also have access to the d.school’s facilities and consult regularly with their faculty. Some of the d.school’s methods – focusing on big problems, encouraging radical collaboration, prototyping early and user-testing before focusing on functionality – guide the trajectory of Biodesign projects.

Physicians who are Biodesign fellows often work outside their specialty, and engineers bring a mix of academic and industry experience to the design table. While faculty mentors may simply provide advice to fellows, Guilleminault and Sullivan have become invested in the course of the research as lead investigators on the study. For their involvement, they were both honored with the Biodesign Specialty Team Mentorship Award.

Fellow Boriah noted that medical-device innovation is moving from products like catheters to systems such as health IT, mobile health and software. A former CEO and co-founder of a wearable patient blood-diagnostics device, he said the Biodesign program has provided valuable “access to clinical reality.” Rink, a surgical resident at Northwestern University, said that as a fellow, he’s been “exposed to a side you don’t see in a hospital.”

The researchers are currently recruiting participants ages 2-12 for their study. Rink and Boriah are also working with the Stanford-supported StartX to see their project into the next stage of development.

Previously: Sleep, baby, sleep: Infants’ sleep difficulties could signal future problemsStudying pediatric sleep disorders an “integral part” of the future of sleep medicine and At Med School 101, teens learn that it’s “so cool to be a doctor” 
Photo by MissMayoi

Behavioral Science, In the News, Research

Does non-conformity fuel creativity?

Does non-conformity fuel creativity?

IMG_8143When you think about it, visionaries and inventors like Steve Jobs and Steve Woznick became as well-known for bucking the system and creating controversy as they were for Apple computers. And Galileo Galielei, who was pivotal in the development of modern astronomy, spent the last years of his life under house arrest for his divergent scientific views.

Historically, innovation and acceptance have not gone hand in hand. A recent article in Psychology Today looks at three studies that theorize about the idea that social rejection, for people who have an independent self image, may fuel creativity.

From the piece:

Across three studies, Sharon Kim, Lynne Vincent, and Jack Goncalo explicitly rejected participants by telling them they were not selected to be in a group. In another condition, they told participants they would join the group after completing some tasks. After either being rejected or accepted, participants were then given 7 minutes to complete a measure of creativity called the Remote Associations Test (RAT), in which they were asked to find a word that connects three seemingly unrelated words (e.g., fish, mine, and rush; see answer at the end)…

…The results suggest that rejection may not merely be a result of the unconventionality of creative people but that the actual experience of rejection may promote creativity. What’s more, the effects depend on a person’s self-concept. For those who are highly invested in belonging to a group by affirming their feelings of independence, rejection may constrain them. But for those scoring sky high in a need for uniqueness, the negative consequences of rejection on creativity may be mitigated and even reversed.

All of these results suggest that rejection may not merely be a result of the unconventionality of creative people but that the actual experience of rejection may promote creativity. What’s more, the effects depend on a person’s self-concept. For those who are highly invested in belonging to a group by affirming their feelings of independence, rejection may constrain them. But for those scoring sky high in a need for uniqueness, the negative consequences of rejection on creativity may be mitigated and even reversed.

While rejection and isolation aren’t pleasant, and are actually things many of us actively avoid, it seems there could be great benefit in becoming aware of how we respond to these things. Do we let them define us or use them to our advantage to stimulate growth and self-esteem?

Previously: To get your creative juices flowing, start movingMedicine X symposium focuses on how patients, providers and entrepreneurs can ignite innovation and Stanford Medicine X partners with IDEO to create design challenge
Photo By: Lloyd Dangle

Big data, Evolution, Genetics, In the News, Research, Science, Stanford News

Flies, worms and humans – and the modENCODE Project

Flies, worms and humans - and the modENCODE Project

It’s a big day in comparative biology. Researchers around the country, including Stanford geneticist Michael Snyder, PhD, are publishing the results of a massive collaboration meant to suss out the genomic similarities (and differences) among model organisms like the fruit fly and the laboratory roundworm. A package of four papers, which describe how these organisms control how, when and where they express certain genes to generate the cell types necessary for complex life, appears today in Nature.

From our release:

The research is an extension of the ENCODE, or Encyclopedia of DNA Elements, project that was initiated in 2003. As part of the large collaborative project, which was sponsored by the National Human Genome Research Institute, researchers published more than 4 million regulatory elements found within the human genome in 2012. Known as binding sites, these regions of DNA serve as landing pads for proteins and other molecules known as regulatory factors that control when and how genes are used to make proteins.

The new effort, known as modENCODE, brings a similar analysis to key model organisms like the fly and the worm. Snyder is the senior author of two of the papers published today describing some aspects of the modENCODE project, which has led to the publication, or upcoming publication, of more than 20 papers in a variety of journals. The Nature papers, and the modENCODE project, are summarized in a News and Views article in the journal (subscription required to access all papers).

As Snyder said in our release, “We’re trying to understand the basic principles that govern how genes are turned on and off. The worm and the fly have been the premier model organisms in biology for decades, and have provided the foundation for much of what we’ve learned about human biology. If we can learn how the rules of gene expression evolved over time, we can apply that knowledge to better understand human biology and disease.”

The researchers found that, although the broad strokes of gene regulation are shared among species, there are also significant differences. These differences may help explain why humans walk, flies fly and worms slither, for example:

The wealth of data from the modENCODE project will fuel research projects for decades to come, according to Snyder.

“We now have one of the most complete pictures ever generated of the regulatory regions and factors in several genomes,” said Snyder. “This knowledge will be invaluable to researchers in the field.”

Previously: Scientists announce the completion of the ENCODE project, a massive genome encyclopedia

Pain, Research, Stanford News

New painkiller could tackle pain, without risk of addiction

New painkiller could tackle pain, without risk of addiction

painkillersThose suffering from chronic pain, take note: A new pain-reliever may soon be on the scene that lacks the “high” of opioids and the cardiac-risk of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAIDs) drugs such as aspirin. The compound reduced inflammatory pain in mice, according to research by a team of Stanford scientists led by Daria Mochly-Rosen, PhD, a professor of chemical and systems biology.

Mochly-Rosen discovered the compound, called Alda-1, more than five years ago while searching for the reason moderate alcohol use can decrease the severity of heart attacks. She found an enzyme, called aldehyde dehydrogenase 2, that breaks down a family of alcohol byproducts, called aldehydes. Aldehydes also cause pain in mice and Alda-1 relieves the pain, Mochly-Rosen said.

“I’m not a pain expert,” Mochly-Rosen says in our release on the Science Translational Medicine paper. “We hit this enzyme for a completely different reason. Hopefully this will help people who have pain.”

Alda-1 — coincidentally, Alda is also the name of Mochly-Rosen’s 87-year-old mother — works by knocking aldehyde dehydrogenase 2 into high gear. Say goodbye to the aldehydes, and goodbye to the pain.

Mochly-Rosen’s discovery of the link between pain and Alda-1 is a big deal for many reasons, including the suffering of thousands addicted to opioids such as Oxycontin. It’s also particularly meaningful for the millions in the Han Chinese ethnic group who suffer from alcohol flush.  They have a mutation in aldehyde hydrogenate 2, which makes it uncomfortable to drink alcohol and causes sufferers to turn red.

The inflammation is caused by the build-up of aldehydes, which are byproducts of alcohol. Alcohol-flush syndrome, as it’s sometimes called, has been recognized for decades.

The researchers created a mouse with a mutation akin to the enzyme mutation in humans. When they injected aldehydes into the mice, the mice with the mutation felt more pain than the other mice. And Alda-1 also relieved their pain.

Dribbles of evidence suggest some Asians are more sensitive to pain. Now, Mochly-Rosen and her team plan to investigate if the susceptibility stems from the enzyme mutation.

Becky Bach is a former park ranger who now spends her time writing, exploring, or practicing yoga. She’s currently a science writing intern in the medical school’s Office of Communication & Public Affairs.

Previously: Another big step toward building a better aspirin tablet, Blocking addiction risks of morphine without reducing its pain-killing effects, Patients’ genetics may play a role in determining side effects of commonly prescribed painkillers, and Stanford’s Sean Mackey discusses recent advances in pain research and treatment
Photo by Michelle Tribe/Wikimedia Commons

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

Aging, Autoimmune Disease, Immunology, Infectious Disease, Research, Stanford News

Our aging immune systems are still in business, but increasingly thrown out of balance

Our aging immune systems are still in business, but increasingly thrown out of balance

business as usual

Stanford immunologist Jorg Goronzy, MD, told me a few years ago that a person’s immune response declines slowly but surely starting at around age 40. “While 90 percent of young adults respond to most vaccines, after age 60 that response rate is down to around 40-45 percent,” he said. “With some vaccines, it’s as low as 20 percent.”

A shaky vaccine response isn’t the only immune-system slip-up. With advancing age, we grow increasingly vulnerable to infection (whether or not we’ve been vaccinated), autoimmune disease (an immune attack on our own tissues) and cancer (when a once well-behaved cell metamorphoses into a ceaselessly dividing one).

A new study led by Goronzy and published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggests why that may come about. The culprit he and his colleagues have fingered turns out not to be the most likely suspect: the thymus.

This all-important organ’s job is to nurture an army of specialized  immune cells called T cells. (The “T” is for “Thymus.”) T cells are capable of recognizing and mounting an immune response to an unbelievably large number of different molecular shapes, including ones found only on invading pathogens or on our own cells when they morph into incipient tumor cells.

Exactly which feature a given T cell recognizes depends on the structure of a receptor molecule carried in abundance on that T cell’s surface.  Although each T cell sports just one receptor type, in the aggregate the number of different shapes T-cells recognize is gigantic, due to a high rate of reshuffling and mutation in the genes dictating their receptors’ makeup. (Stanford immunologist Mark Davis, PhD, perhaps more than any other single individual,  figured out in the early 1980s how this all works.)

T cells don’t live forever, and their generation from scratch completely depends on the thymus. Yet by our early teens the organ,  situated  in front of the lungs at the midpoint of our chest, starts shriveling up and replaced by (sigh – you knew this was coming)  fat tissue.

After the thymus melts away,  new T-cells come into being only when already-existing ones undergo cell division, for example to compensate for the attrition of their neighbors in one or another immune-system dormitory (such as bone marrow, spleen or a lymph node).

It’s been thought that the immune-system’s capacity to recognize and mount a response to pathogens (or incipient tumors) fades away because with age-related T-cell loss comes a corresponding erosion of diversity:  We just run out of T-cells with the appropriate receptors.

The new study found otherwise.  “Our study shows that the diversity of the human T-cell receptor repertoire is much higher than previously assumed, somewhere in the range of one billion different receptor types,” Goronzy says. “Any age-associated loss in diversity is trivial.” But the study also showed an increasing imbalance, with some subgroups of T cells (characterized by genetically identical  receptors)  hogging the show and other subgroups becoming vanishingly scarce.

The good news is that the players in an immune response are all still there, even in old age. How to restore that lost balance is the question.

Previously: How to amp up an aging immune response, Age-related drop in immune responsiveness may be reversible and Deja vu: Adults’ immune systems “remember” microscopic monsters they’ve never seen before
Photo by Lars Plougmann

Genetics, Medicine and Society, Pain, Research, Science, Stanford News

From plant to pill: Bioengineers aim to produce opium-based medicines without using poppies

From plant to pill: Bioengineers aim to produce opium-based medicines without using poppies

Basic RGBStanford bioengineer Christina Smolke, PhD, and her team have been on a decade-long mission to replicate how nature produces opium in poppies by genetically engineering the DNA of yeast and then further refining the process to manufacture modern day opioid drugs such as morphine, codeine and the well-known painkiller Vicodin.

Smolke outlined the methods in a report  (subscription required) published in this week’s edition of Nature Chemical Biology, which details the latest stages in the process of manufacturing opium-based medicines, from start to finish, in fermentation vats, similar to the process for brewing beer.

An article published today in the Stanford Report offers more details:

It takes about 17 separate chemical steps to make the opioid compounds used in pills. Some of these steps occur naturally in poppies and the remaining via synthetic chemical processes in factories. Smolke’s team wanted all the steps to happen inside yeast cells within a single vat, including using yeast to carry out chemical processes that poppies never evolved to perform – such as refining opiates like thebaine into more valuable semi-synthetic opioids like oxycodone.

So Smolke programmed her bioengineered yeast to perform these final industrial steps as well. To do this she endowed the yeast with genes from a bacterium that feeds on dead poppy stalks. Since she wanted to produce several different opioids, her team hacked the yeast genome in slightly different ways to produce each of the slightly different opioid formulations, such as oxycodone or hydrocodone.

“We are now very close to replicating the entire opioid production process in a way that eliminates the need to grow poppies, allowing us to reliably manufacture essential medicines while mitigating the potential for diversion to illegal use,” Smolke added.

While it could take several more years to refine these last steps in the lab, bioengineering opioids would eventually lead to less dependence on legal poppy farming, which has numerous restrictions and international dependencies from other countries. It would also provide a reliable supply and secure process for manufacturing important pain killing drugs.

Previously: Blocking addiction risks of morphine without reducing its pain-killing effects, Do opium and opioids increase mortality risk? and Patients’ genetics may play a role in determining side effects of commonly prescribed painkillers 
Photo by Kate Thodey and Stephanie Galanie

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.

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