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Behavioral Science, Global Health, In the News, Public Health, Research, Sleep, Technology

Electricity access shortens sleep, study shows

Electricity access shortens sleep, study shows

Radium_Dial_UVGrowing up, my engineer father always told me to move my flowery glow-in-the-dark clock farther from my bedside. “You’re nuts, Dad,” I would respond, equating his concern with his conviction that he was dropped off by aliens in the New Mexican desert in 1947.

But now it turns out he may have had a point (although I’m still quite sure he came from a hospital in Pennsylvania, not a spaceship).

A new study published in the Journal of Biological Rhythms has shown that access to artificial light at night has shortened the amount of time we sleep each night. A recent University of Washington release describes the study:

The researchers compared two traditionally hunter-gatherer communities (in Argentina) that have almost identical ethnic and sociocultural backgrounds, but differ in one key aspect – access to electricity…

In their usual daily routines, the community with electricity slept about an hour less than their counterparts with no electricity. These shorter nights were mostly due to people who had the option to turn on lights and go to bed later, the researchers found. Both communities slept longer in the winter and for fewer hours in the summer.

This is the first study to examine differences in communities, rather than relying on artifically manipulating light in a laboratory.

“In a way, this study presents a proxy of what happened to humanity as we moved from hunting and gathering to agriculture and eventually to our industrialized society,” said lead author Horacio de la Iglesia, a University of Washington biology professor. “All the effects we found are probably an underestimation of what we would see in highly industrialized societies where our access to electricity has tremendously disrupted our sleep.”

So douse those lights, turn off the TV, push back your glowing clock, and embrace the dark — with a nice, long snooze.

Previously: New recommendation: Adults need at least 7 hours of sleep each nightMobile devices at bedtime? Sleep experts weigh in and Can adjusting your mobile device’s brightness help promote better sleep?
Via Medical News Today
Photo by Arma95

Neuroscience, Stanford News, Surgery, Technology

Stanford researchers provide insights into how human neurons control muscle movement

Stanford researchers provide insights into how human neurons control muscle movement

Brain-Controlled_Prosthetic_Arm_2A few years ago, a team led by Stanford researcher Krishna Shenoy, PhD, published a paper that proposed a new theory for how neurons in the brain controlled the movement of muscles: Rather than sending out signals with parceled bits of information about the direction and size of movement, Shenoy’s team found that groups of neurons fired in rhythmic patterns to get muscles to act.

That research, done in 2012, was in animals. Now, Shenoy and Stanford neurosurgeon Jamie Henderson, MD, have followed up on that work to demonstrate that human neurons function in the same way, in what the researchers call a dynamical system. The work is described in a paper published in the scientific journal eLife today. In our news release on the study, the lead author, postdoctoral scholar Chethan Pandarinath, PhD, said of the work:

The earlier research with animals showed that many of the firing patterns that seem so confusing when we look at individual neurons become clear when we look at large groups of neurons together as a dynamical system.

The researchers implanted electrode arrays into the brains of two patients with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a neurodegenerative condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. The new study provides further support for the initial findings and also lays the groundwork for advanced prosthetics like robotic arms that can be controlled by a person’s thoughts. The team is planning on working on computer algorithms that translate neural signals into electrical impulses that control prosthetic limbs.

Previously: Researchers find neurons fire rhythmically to create movement, Krishna Shenoy discusses the future of neural prosthetics at TEDxStanford, How does the brain plan movement? Stanford grad students explain in a video and Stanford researchers uncover the neural process behind reaction time
Photo by FDA

NIH, Pregnancy, Research, Technology, Women's Health

Scientists create a placenta-on-a-chip to safely study process and pitfalls of pregnancy

Scientists create a placenta-on-a-chip to safely study process and pitfalls of pregnancy

2798127284_487b56b9cf_zThese days it seems that just about anything can be recreated on a microchip. But still, I did a double-take when I read about the new way that scientists are using technology to study pregnancy: They’ve created a “placenta-on-a-chip.”

A functioning placenta is critical for a healthy pregnancy because it regulates the flow of nutrients, oxygen and waste products between the mother and fetus. It also controls the fetus’ exposure to bacteria, viruses and other harmful substances. Researchers would like to learn more about how the placenta acts as a “crossing guard” and how it can regulate the body’s traffic so well. Yet, studying the placenta is hard to do because it’s highly variable, and tinkering with the placenta is risky for the fetus.

To overcome these challenges, an interdisciplinary team led by a University of Pennsylvania researcher created a two-chambered microchip that mimics the structure and function of the human placenta. The study was published online in the Journal of Maternal-Fetal and Neonatal Medicine and is reported on in this National Institutes of Health press release:

The device consists of a semi-permeable membrane between two tiny chambers, one filled with maternal cells derived from a delivered placenta and the other filled with fetal cells derived from an umbilical cord.

After designing the structure of the model, the researchers tested its function by evaluating the transfer of glucose (a substance made by the body when converting carbohydrates to energy) from the maternal compartment to the fetal compartment. The successful transfer of glucose in the device mirrored what occurs in the body.

As Roberto Romero, MD, chief of the perinatology research branch at the NIH’s National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, explains in the press release, this new technology could help researchers explore how the placenta works, and what happens when it fails, in ways that couldn’t be safely done before. This, the researchers say, could lead to more successful pregnancies.

Previously: NIH puts focus on the placenta, the “fascinating” and “least understood” organPlacenta: the video game, The placenta sacrifices itself to keep baby healthy in case of starvation, research showsThe placenta sacrifices itself to keep baby healthy in case of starvation, research shows and Program focuses on the treatment of placental disorders
Photo by Jack Fussell

Bioengineering, Neuroscience, Stanford News, Technology

From brains to computers: How do we reverse-engineer the most mysterious organ?

From brains to computers: How do we reverse-engineer the most mysterious organ?

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So let’s say you want to make a piece of electronics that works just like the brain. Where would you start?

That’s the question neuroscientist Bill Newsome, PhD, director of the Stanford Neurosciences Institute, posed in a recent talk to a Worldview Stanford class on decision-making.

I thought the idea was so intriguing I wrote a series of stories about what it would take to reverse engineer the brain, and how close we are to succeeding at each. We’re still a ways from computers that mimic our own agile noggins, but a number of people are making progress in everything from figuring out where the brain’s wiring goes to creating computers that can learn.

These are the steps Newsome outlined to take us from our own grey goo to electronics with human-like capacities:

  1. Map the connections: Neuroscientists Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, and Brian Wandell, PhD, are mapping where the brain’s 100 billion neurons go.
  2. Monitor the signals: Biologist Mark Schnitzer, PhD, and bioengineer Michael Lin, MD, PhD, have created ways of watching signals in real time as they fire throughout the brain
  3. Manipulate the system: Neuroscientists Karl Deisseroth, MD, PhD, and Amit Etkin, MD, PhD, are working on techniques to manipulate the way the brain works and watch what happens.
  4. Develop a theory: Not only do we not know how the brain works, we don’t even really have a theory. Applied physicist Surya Ganguli, PhD, is working to change that.
  5. Digitize the circuits: If you want to turn the brain into electronics you need some wiring that mimics the brain. Bioengineer Kwabena Boahen has made just such a chip.
  6. Teach electronics to interact: Engineer Fei-Fei Li, PhD, has taught a computer to recognize images with almost human-like precision. This kind of ability will be needed by electronics of the future like self-driving cars or smarter robots.

Previously: Neuroscientists dream big, come up with ideas for prosthetics, mental health, stroke and more
Image, based on two Shutterstock images, by Eric Cheng

Cardiovascular Medicine, Stanford News, Technology

Stanford-India Biodesign fellows develop prototype device to improve success of pacemaker implants

Stanford-India Biodesign fellows develop prototype device to improve success of pacemaker implants

This post is part of the Biodesign’s Jugaad series following a group of Stanford Biodesign fellows from India. (Jugaad is a Hindi word that means an inexpensive, innovative solution.) The fellows will spend months immersed in the interdisciplinary environment of Stanford Bio-X, learning the Biodesign process of researching clinical needs and prototyping a medical device. The Biodesign program is now in its 14th year, and past fellows have successfully launched 36 companies focused on developing devices for unmet medical needs.

IMG_6136 560When the Indian biodesign fellows observed a pacemaker implantation earlier this year, the surgeon spent four hours trying to firmly insert wires from the pacemaker into the heart muscle. Even after a painstaking surgery, the wires fall out in about five percent of cases. That’s an expensive and risky problem.

The team’s solution, which was officially revealed at the biodesign symposium last week, is a device made of popsicle sticks and a spring that attaches to the long wire that screws into the heart. The spring records the amount of force a surgeon uses when screwing in the wire. If it records a higher force, that likely means the screw went firmly into the heart muscle. A lower force means it might not have inserted well and the surgeon should try again.

The team presented their prototype to an audience of faculty, the program’s alumni and local business leaders. Harsh Sheth, MD, said their inexpensive solution to a widespread problem met with good reviews. “We were strongly encouraged to continue developing this,” he said. The team needs to finish their fellowship, but they say they might return to the idea when they are done.

Sheth and his fellow teammates Shashi Ranjan, PhD, and Debayan Saha, all had prior experience in either surgery or engineering but had never been through a deliberative process that would result in a device that combines medical needs, engineering expertise and business sense.

They’ll take their newfound skills back to India, where they’ll start the process over in the second phase of their fellowship. Their departure marks the end of Indian biodesign fellows spending immersive time at Stanford. Ranjan told me that he’s glad he applied to the program when he did rather than waiting a year, when he would have done the entire program in India.

“Being at Stanford was an amazing experience,” he said. “We had access to Silicon Valley, business, technology. We don’t have anything like that [at home].” In the future, fellows might visit the U.S. or other partner countries for shorter stays, and Stanford fellows will have opportunities to learn about biodesign in India.

Previously: Success breeds success: Early innovators in India created a sense of possibilityA jugaad for keeping pacemakers in placThe next challenge for biodesign: constraining health-care costs and Stanford-India Biodesign co-founder: Our hope is to “inspire others and create a ripple effect” in India
Photo by Amy Adams

Global Health, Nutrition, Pediatrics, Stanford News, Technology, Women's Health

Stanford initiative aims to simultaneously improve education and maternal-child health in South Africa

Stanford initiative aims to simultaneously improve education and maternal-child health in South Africa

Nomfusi_counselingWhat if we could “leapfrog” over the education and technology gap in low-resource countries, while at the same time improving maternal and early childhood health in those areas? That is precisely the promise of a new Stanford-sponsored initiative spearheaded by Maya Adam, MD, a lecturer in the human biology program here.

I recently had the chance to speak on the phone with Adam and hear more about this project, which consists of designing picture-based educational videos that are loaded on tablets and distributed among community-health workers. At present, the video on child nutrition is being used as a pilot in South Africa through the organization Philani, where twelve “mentor mothers” have been using the tablets since March. As you’ll read below, there is immense potential for the project to scale up in the near future.

What have the results of this initiative been so far?

The feedback that we’ve gotten was that a lot of the mothers being counseled said, “You know, you’ve been using phrases like ‘balanced diet’ for many years, and I didn’t quite know what that meant until I saw the plate with the green vegetables and the little bit of protein and the little bit of grains.” Certain phrases became clearer when they were drawn in pictures. Also, we found a lot of the children wanted to come watch because it was a screen-based activity.

The workers themselves found it useful to convince their patients, for example, of the importance of prenatal care, because when the patients heard it both from the video and from them, it was almost as if the video was validating their messaging. So they’re very eager to have the project continue. They have a whole list of other videos they want us to make, from breastfeeding to HIV/AIDS prevention… It’s really been a powerful way both to teach and give these highly intelligent women access to technology that could enhance their education and help them overcome the barriers in their lives.

How easy would it be to use these videos in different regions of the world? 

slider-9_compressedWe have videos translated into English, Xhosa, and now Spanish, because they’ll be used next in Guatemala… We can use English in the U.S. in under-resourced locations. These are all very universal messages, and that’s why it’s so exciting: For a relatively small amount of effort, we can make videos that can be both translated into many other languages, and subtly altered visually so they resemble women and children in each different part of the world. For example, while we were creating the video, we put the braids that African women traditionally wear in their hair on a different layer of the Photoshop, so that layer can be removed and the resulting woman will have straight dark hair that would be more appropriate for use, say, in Guatemala.

We thought a lot about how to represent food. A real plate of food from South Africa would be culturally inappropriate in Guatemala, but by using cartoon images of fruits and vegetables, it becomes much more universal… We tried to show a variety of different fruits and vegetables without specifically showing that “this is a guava,” because a guava might not grow in other parts of the world.

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Cardiovascular Medicine, Medical Apps, Precision health, Research, Stanford News, Technology

MyHeart Counts shows that smartphones are catching on as new research tool

MyHeart Counts shows that smartphones are catching on as new research tool

using iPhone - 560

In the three months since Stanford researcher and cardiologist Michael McConnell, MD, told ABC’s Nightline that the new MyHeart Counts iPhone app would give scientists “a whole new way to do research,” the number of users has continued to steadily climb.

“Traditionally reaching many people to participate in research studies is quite challenging,” McConnell told business correspondent Rebecca Jarvis in March. “The ability to reach people through their phone is one major advance.”

The number of iPhone owners who have downloaded the app and consented to participate in a large-scale study of the human heart has now reached 40,000. In an effort to keep updated on how the app is progressing as a new research method, I reached out to McConnell, the lead investigator of the study, with a few questions. The MyHeart Counts study continues to break ground as a new method for reaching large numbers of research participants in a short amount of time, McConnell told me. Comparing it to traditional research trials, he said:

There have been larger research studies, particularly national efforts to study their populations, but we believe enrolling this many participants in such a short time frame is unprecedented.

The app, which was launched in early March, collects data about users’ physical activity using the smartphone’s built-in motion sensors. Participants also answer surveys concerning their cardiac-risk factors. In return, they get coaching tips and feedback on their chances of developing heart disease.

McConnell says that the next phase of the project, which will use behavior-modification methods to encourage healthy behaviors, is about to be launched. App users will be given more personalized feedback about their individual behaviors and risk, based on the American Heart Association’s Life’s Simple 7 guidance. Future tips will include messages on everything from how to manage blood pressure, eat better, lose weight and control blood sugar. Part of the study is to determine whether these type of “pings” used through apps are actually successful at changing human behavior, McConnell told me:

Healthy behaviors are critical to preventing heart disease and stroke, so the MyHeart Counts app will study which motivational tools are most helpful. This will follow the second activity and fitness assessment… The initial approach will be empowering participants with more personalized feedback about their individual behaviors and risk.

To sign up for the MyHeart Counts study, visit the iTunes store.

Previously: Lights, camera, action — Stanford cardiologist discusses MyHeart counts on ABC’s Nightline, Build it (an easy way to join research studies) and the volunteers will comeMyHeart Counts app debuts with a splash and Stanford launches iPhone app to study heart health
Photo by Japanexperterna (CC BY-SA)

Mental Health, Research, Science, Technology

Fear factor: Using virtual reality to overcome phobias

Fear factor: Using virtual reality to overcome phobias

3493601806_7f5512fe6d_zPast research has shown that virtual reality can be effective in treating phantom limb syndrome, helping smokers kick their nicotine habit, easing patients’ pain and reducing post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms, among other things. Now a pair of engineering students at Santa Clara University in California are exploring the potential of the technology to assist individuals in overcoming their fear of heights and other anxiety-related conditions.

The design duo behind the project are undergrads Paul Thurston and Bryce Mariano. The students partnered with Kieran Sullivan, PhD, a psychology professor at Santa Clara, to develop a simulation tool that guides patients through a controlled virtual environment populated with phobia-triggering features. More details about the system were provided in this recent university story:

They started with a fear of heights simulation. As the patient takes in a 360-degree view from atop a building, the therapist can alter the virtual height and the resultant view—backing off or increasing exposure as needed according to the patient’s emotional response. While the team stresses that their tool is for use by trained therapists, not for sufferers to use on their own, Thurston notes that just knowing you can take the goggles off while immersed in the experience may make this form of treatment more approachable for some.

“Another aspect of our project that has been very important to us is to keep it affordable as well as accessible for future development,” said Mariano. “By using economical hardware and developing the simulation using the Unity Game Engine, which is 100 percent free and readily available, we hoped to create a platform that would allow others to easily pick up the project where we left off and continue expanding on the library of simulations to treat the widest possible range of phobia patients.”

Previously: From “abstract” to “visceral”: Virtual reality systems could help address pain and Can behavioral changes in virtual spaces affect material world habits?
Via CBS San Francisco
Photo by Amber Case 

Bioengineering, Global Health, Stanford News, Technology

Success breeds success: Early innovators in India created a sense of possibility

Success breeds success: Early innovators in India created a sense of possibility

This post is part of the Biodesign’s Jugaad series following a group of Stanford Biodesign fellows from India. (Jugaad is a Hindi word that means an inexpensive, innovative solution.) The fellows will spend months immersed in the interdisciplinary environment of Stanford Bio-X, learning the Biodesign process of researching clinical needs and prototyping a medical device. The Biodesign program is now in its 14th year, and past fellows have successfully launched 36 companies focused on developing devices for unmet medical needs.

MATERNAL & INFANT MORTALITY IN DEVELOPING COUNTRIESAnurag Mairal, PhD, MBA, director of global exchange programs, joined Stanford-India Biodesign in 2008 to help fellows navigate challenges in designing new medical technology in India, which at the time had great need but little infrastructure for developing and marketing new technologies. I recently spoke with him about the program.

What were the challenges for Biodesign in India when you started?

When I joined Stanford-India Biodesign I felt it was going to be a difficult ride knowing India at that time. The mindset in India is very traditional and doesn’t allow people to step out of the box. Here in the United States what is remarkable is that we have everything across the street. Design, prototypes, animal labs, testing facilities, venture capital — they are all easily accessible. In India none of that existed. We needed to build all of that because it was going to be important to the success of Biodesign.

I had experience in emerging markets and was able to step in when the fellows needed to start thinking about markets for their products. I had a good understanding of the needs and also what challenges a typical medical device would face.

Have things changed?

One of the remarkable things that happened is that not only was the program successful, it affected other institutions in India in both the private sector and academia. A lot of innovators are now working on new technologies across India. Now we need to help all of them with commercializing the technology.

Success breeds success. When one group has success developing a medical technology it makes other people believe it is possible. That sense of possibility and reality has been a major accomplishment. The success of the early fellows and the ecosystem we built around them brought people together and energized the following batches of innovators. Now there is no doubt that medical device innovation is a real thing in India. It’s a remarkable shift in tone in that marketplace.

What is next for Stanford-India Biodesign now that fellows won’t be spending extensive time at Stanford?

Phase 1 of Stanford-India Biodesign was training fellows in the Biodesign process. Most of those previous fellows are in development mode now, and we see challenges in commercializing their products. I think there is a lot of work that needs to happen before these technologies are successful in the marketplace in India. Phase 2 will focus on training entrepreneurs and innovators on the entire process of developing and commercializing a product.

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Bioengineering, Global Health, Medicine and Society, Research, Stanford News, Technology

National Geographic: “Emerging Explorer” Manu Prakash helping “lead a new age of discovery”

National Geographic: "Emerging Explorer" Manu Prakash helping "lead a new age of discovery"

Prakash in Nigeria - 560

As I’ve gotten busier, and my life has moved online, I’ve let most of my magazine subscriptions lapse. All except for National Geographic, which both my husband and I continue to enjoy each month.

With its storied history, familiar yellow cover, knock-your-socks-off photography and carefully crafted science and social science features, I consider it a good use of precious paper (and pennies).

So I was psyched to hear that Stanford’s own Manu Prakash, PhD, has been named by the publication as one of 14 2015 National Geographic Emerging Explorers. Prakash is most well-known for the Foldscope, a low-cost paper microscope that has been sent to 130 countries, but he’s also working on constructing a small-scale chemistry kit and on a variety of other projects. As summarized in a National Geographic article, he “specializes in what he calls ‘frugal science,’ designing inexpensive laboratory instruments that can spread science and medical opportunity around the world.”

Thanks to the Explorers program, he’ll gain $10,000 to support his research and a year in the international spotlight. As indicated in the article, expectations of him and the other winners are high:

“Our Emerging Explorers are inspiring young visionaries who are looking at ways to remedy global problems and are undertaking innovative research and exploration,” said Terry Garcia, National Geographic’s chief science and exploration office. “They will help lead a new age of discovery.”

Here’s to looking forward to year of innovative “frugal sciences” creations from the Prakash lab.

Previously: Microscopes for the masses: How a Stanford bioengineer is helping everyone “think like scientists”, Miniature chemistry kit brings science out of the lab and into the classroom or field, Stanford bioengineer among Popular Science magazine’s “Brilliant 10″Manu Prakash on how growing up in India influenced his interests as a Maker and entrepreneur and Stanford bioengineer develops a 50-cent paper microscope
Photo, of Manu Prakash and a group of children in Nigeria, courtesy of Prakash

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