Tag Archives: Health & Medicine

Giving Primates a Third Arm (and Why it Matters)

When you first hear of the work done by Miguel Nicolelis and his team, though the “cool factor” is high, you might wonder as to the practical application. Miguel has spent the last number of years (and, in fact, most of his career) working to gives our primate cousins a third (robotic) arm. In his new book, Beyond Boundaries, he takes the reader through the process that led to this extraordinary accomplishment. Here is one of the earlier videos of his work:

There are a couple very noteworthy items about the research:

Thought-Based

What makes this work exceptional is the fact that there is no physical input made by the primates. The arm is entirely controlled by thought. Electrodes were implanted into the skulls of the animals in order to monitor key areas of the motor cortex, which ultimately translate to commands to move the robotic arm. In the book, Miguel stresses the importance of what he dubs “neural symphonies,” which he uses to explain the idea that it requires the harmonious interplay of many neurons to trigger/predict an action (previous research, such as into the Grandmother Neuron or Halle Berry Neuron, indicated strict specialization of each neuron which initially seems at odds with Miguel’s work). Ultimately his team of researchers were able to construct algorithms which were able to understand movement with a very high degree of accuracy.

Self-Learned and Natural

To teach the primates to use the arm, researches first taught them to play a game with a joystick to move the arm. When the joystick was removed in favor of the direct neural interface, the subjects initially continued to move their arms as they mentally moved the machine. What is truly astonishing, though, is that some figured out on their own that they no longer needed to actually move their arm. Thanks to the wonders of neuroplasticity, they had actually re-mapped their brain to include this third arm, and ultimately became more efficient by merely thinking of moving it rather than moving their existing arm. In short, the subjects had learned to control the arm naturally as if it were an additional appendage rather than an extension of existing appendages.

Practical Application

To bring all of this into the real world, Miguel proposes what he calls a “shoot the moon” project to give paraplegics back the ability to walk. I’ll let him explain this amazing and worthwhile goal, from his recent appearance on the Daily Show:

The Daily Show With Jon Stewart Mon – Thurs 11p / 10c
Miguel Nicolelis
www.thedailyshow.com
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As with most new science, the practical application will begin with medicine. I do not think, though, that the importance of this work can be over-stressed. We are effectively learning to remove the brain’s dependance upon parts of the body, which will open up a whole new world not only for medicine but for human evolution.

G-spot study sparks controversy

The G-Spot debate is probably never gonna end; and who can carry it out better than the English and the French? They’d fight over absolutely anything: football (as in soccer), rugby, wine vs beer, you name. Now, the most recent topic is the G-Spot (am I supposed to write this with capital letters? Absolutely no idea) study conducted by a group of researchers from King’s College in London. According to their study, the… aforementioned spot probably doesn’t exist.

gspot

What they did was they took 1800 women, all of who were pairs of identical or non identical twins. The thing is, if the identical twins are… identical, they both should have the same spot. Well, no such pattern emerged, so the conclusions were obvious. The study, coauthors said: “[the study] shows fairly conclusively that the idea of a G-spot is subjective”.

Well of course somebody had to disagree with this, and of course it had to be the French. It didn’t take long for Surgeon Pierre Foldes to come back with a reply:

“The King’s College study shows a lack of respect for what women say. The conclusions were completely erroneous because they were based solely on genetic observations”

All’s fine until here, we have a scientific debate, two counterparts with arguments that state their case in a topic still open for debate. Until that is, a group of French gynecologists claimed they found the real reason why the British study is wrong: they’re British. Yep, they claimed it was the Anglo-saxon natural tendency to try to reduce absolutely everything to absolutes, including the “mysteries of sexuality”.

Gynecologist Odile Buisson took this even further, stating:

“I don’t want to stigmatise at all but I think the Protestant, liberal, Anglo-Saxon character means you are very pragmatic. There has to be a cause for everything, a gene for everything,” she said, adding: “I think it’s totalitarian”

She also added that the G-Spot is a reality for more than 60% of all women, and anything else is “medical machismo” (gotta hand it to the French, they sure have a way with words).

Until now, there’s been no reply of the English counterpart, but I’m absolutely sure they won’t leave their study (and national pride) tainted, and we won’t have to wait long for a reply. This is just how a scientific debate can turn personal, with no real benefits for anyone; but it sure is fun.

AIDS vaccine shows success for the first time

AIDS is one of the most dangerous diseases nowadays, being a pandemic for many years now, and there’s been quite little development for a cure or a vaccine. However in the past few years researchers have been getting closer and closer to pinning down a solution. Yesterday, a team formed of Thai and US scientists announced that they have found a vaccine combo that reduced the number of HIV infections.

aids

No less than 25 years after the virus responsible for AIDS (HIV) was discovered, it seems scientists have finally been able to make a small but crucial step towards controlling this lethal pandemic. However, the benefits of the vaccine were not spectacular (only 31% less infections), but this is just the first step and can be improved greatly, and shows promise of providing an effective way to control the virus.

“This is a historic day in the 26-year quest to develop an AIDS vaccine,” Dr. Alan Bernstein, executive director of the Global HIV Vaccine Enterprise, who was not involved in the research, said in a statement.

“We now have evidence that it is possible to reduce the risk of HIV infection with a vaccine,” said Mitchell Warren, executive director of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, in his own statement. “There is little doubt that this finding will energize and redirect the AIDS vaccine field as all of us begin the hard work to translate this landmark result into true public health benefit.”

The trial began 6 years ago, and many dispatched it as being a waste of time and money, mostly because each of the two vaccines (separately) were ineffective. However, this study involving more than 16.000 people from Thailand proved them wrong. However, it did not show any results in the 69% that contracted the virus, but with the improvements that will come, it just might be what saves the lives of the 7.500 people that get infected each day.