July 2011

Frontier Airlines

Quadriplegic Passenger Forced off Frontier Airlines Flight

John Morris, a 24-year-old Colorado State University student who is quadriplegic due to a snowboarding accident in 2006 that left him paralyzed, was forced off a Frontier Airlines flight, because the pilot felt it was not safe for him, despite Morris having flown Frontier Airlines from Denver International Airport to Dallas for a family function just two days prior.


Morris is confined to a wheelchair with limited upper body control. When he and his mother, Kathleen Morris, boarded in Dallas for their return home, he was strapped in with a seatbelt extension normally used by larger passengers, the pilot refused to take off until Morris was removed from the plane.

“When a flight attendant saw Morris strapped in, they said they would have to clear it with the captain,” said Kathleen Morris. In the past, Morris had always used airline seat-belt extensions to secure his chest and legs to the seat. This time, however, he was told that Frontier’s equipment could not be used for medical purposes, so other passengers offered their belts to help restrain him.


Airport police were called, and three officers boarded the plane. Although they were sympathetic to the situation, there was nothing they could do. Because Morris did not pose as a threat to the plane or the passengers, this was not a police matter. They advised the  pilot that Morris appeared to be safely restrained, but the pilot refused to examine the restraints himself nor would he take off with Morris on board.

“He cannot fly. I want him off this plane,” the pilot told police. “I felt horrible. I just felt like I didn’t belong. I haven’t felt that bad since the accident,” added Morris.


“The pilot did what he thought was best for the safety of this disabled person and the party, as well as the airplane, there was no wrong done here,” stated Peter Kowalchuk, a spokesman for Frontier. “I don’t believe that his rights were violated. We’re in the process now of conducting an investigation.”

The Department of Transportation’s policy does allow removal for safety reasons. However, the decision must be based on a direct threat analysis. The investigation will determine if the pilot used proper protocol.

Frontier arranged for Morris and his mother to be on the very next flight to Denver, where that pilot welcomed him on board. Morris has retained an attorney and has decided to make it his mission that this does not happen to another passenger.


Study Finds Stress Not a Risk Factor for Multiple Sclerosis


A new study shows that stress is not likely to raise the risk of developing multiple sclerosis (MS). Stress has been suspected to play a role in aggravating existing multiple sclerosis, but it has not been established weather stress could increase the risk of developing the disease. Researcher Trond Riise, Ph.D. of the University of Bergen, Norway said, “While we’ve known that stressful life events have been shown to increase the risk of MS episodes, we weren’t certain whether these stressors could actually lead to developing the disease itself.”

Multiple sclerosis is an autoimmune disease that affects the brain and spinal cord (central nervous system). MS is caused by damage to the myelin sheath (the protective covering that surrounds nerve cells); when the myelin sheath is damaged, nerve impulses are slowed or stop completely. This causes periodic bouts of muscle pain and weakness. The cause for MS is still unknown; however, the most common theories suggest a virus or genetic defect, as well as environmental factors.

Stress and MS

Researchers studied the relationship between stress and the risk of developing MS in over 237,000 female participants. Each participant gave their level of general stress at both work and home, as well as any physical or sexual abuse in their childhood. Risk factors for MS including age, ethnicity, latitude of birth, body mass at the age of 18, and smoking status had to be taken into consideration.

This rules out stress as a major risk factor for MS,” concluded Riise, who added, “Future research can now focus on repeated and more fine-tuned measures of stress,” to fully exclude stress as a risk factor for the multiple sclerosis.


Practicing Meditation for Pain Management


Meditation is the act of engaging in thought or contemplation, by appealing to a feeling or internal state such as compassion or attending to a specific focal point. It is an internal practice which an individual can do by themselves or in a religious setting, and now a recent study offers proof that meditation produces powerful pain relieving effects in the brain.

In the study, 15 healthy participants were selected to attend four 20-minute classes to learn the meditation technique called “Focused Attention” — a form of mindfulness, where the participant is taught to take deep breaths and let go of any distracting thoughts or emotions.

The participants’ brain activity was examined using arterial spin labeling magnetic resonance imaging (ASL MRI), which is different from the standard MRI in that it captures longer durations of brain processes like meditation. To induce a reaction during the brain scans, a heat device was placed on the participants right leg and heated a small area to 120 degrees Fahrenheit, which most would find painful over a 5-minute time period. The scan results showed that meditation reduced brain activity in the somatosensory cortex, which is the area of the brain involved with creating the feeling of where and how intense the pain is.

Meditation vs. Pain

“We found a big effect — about a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity and a 57 percent reduction in pain unpleasantness. Meditation produced a greater reduction in pain than even morphine or other pain-relieving drugs, which typically reduce pain ratings by about 25 percent,” said Fadel Zeidan, Ph.D., lead author of the study and post-doctoral research fellow at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. “This is the first study to show that only a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation.”

Researchers believe that meditation has great potential for clinical use, because little training is required to produce such dramatic pain-relieving effects. “This study shows that meditation produces real effects in the brain and can provide an effective way for people to substantially reduce their pain without medications,” Zeidan said.


Stem Cell Research Presents Clues to Cause of ALS

The Stem Cell

A team of scientists and researchers at the University of California have found clues to the cause of Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known more familiarly as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) by finding lower levels of a certain protein in the induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs) of patients with ALS. This finding has the potential to explain how at least one form of inherited ALS is caused.

ALS nerves

In a stem cell study focusing on ALS, an international team of scientists work to find the cause of ALS in hopes that finding the cause will lead to treatment and perhaps even a cure. This discovery raises hope that scientists are on their way to making strides in the treatment of ALS. In the past, scientists have had problems moving clinical trails for potential ALS treatments from animal models to human models.

This problem has shown how ALS is so complex and difficult to decode. The new finding suggests that lowered levels of the protein VAPB may play a key role in the development of one form of inherited ALS called ALS8. Also, these lower levels of VAPB have been documented  in non-inherited forms of ALS as well.

Control vs. ALS8

The study creates optimism as there is a possibility that the lowered levels of VAPB plays a key role in the process of these other forms of ALS as well as ALS8. It is significant that this particular protein show differing levels between patients with and patients without ALS, because the VAPB protein is involved in many cellular processes throughout the body.

Although scientists do not yet know how the loss of this protein contributes to ALS, the discovery serves as another building block as scientists attempt to crack the ALS code to defeat the disease that so many have defied and fought hard against.


Naki’o: the ‘Bionic’ Dog

Naki'o: the 'Bionic' Dog

Naki’o has the energy and spirit of any puppy — he’s playful, loving, and beyond adorable, but one thing sets him apart from the rest of the litter: Naki’o has four prosthetic paws. The custom-made prostheses were created for this puppy after losing his paws to the harsh Nebraska winter.

Naki'o and Owner Christie Pace

The young puppy was found in the basement of an abandoned home with his paws frozen in a puddle on the cold concrete floor. Naki’o was the only puppy out of his litter that found his way to the icy water.

Naki'o's Baby Picture

After he was adopted by Christie Pace, Naki’o showed the determination to enjoy life despite all that had happened to him. His desire to live led his new family to raise money to have new paws made for the energetic puppy. Nakio’s family was able to raise just enough money to give Naki’o back two of the four paws he lost.

The Bionic Dog

Naki’o’s new paws were made by a Denver company called OrthoPets that specializes in pet prosthetics. The prosthetic paws allowed the puppy to move with ease; however, he was still having problems with his other two legs. The owner of OrthoPets, Martin Kaufmann, was so impressed by Naki’o’s willpower to use all four of his legs he decided to outfit Naki’o with two more prosthetic paws free of charge.

The Bionic Dog

This pup is the first dog ever to be fitted with a full set of bionic legs that allow for natural puppy movement like running, jumping, and playing fetch. Before Naki’o received his new paws, he had to take frequent breaks from playing and be carried by his family or wheeled around in a stroller. Naki’o’s newfound mobility has given him the ability to play longer and enjoy more of life. This canine’s success story marks a milestone in veterinary medicine and gives hope to the future of animals everywhere.


New Methods for Early Detection of Alzheimer’s Disease

Alzheimers Concept Horizontal

Scientists at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow are developing a new technique that makes it possible to detect Alzheimer’s disease (AD) in its earliest stages by focusing on finding the clusters of the peptide associated with the disease as they begin to gather. The Strathclyde researchers discovered if you use the ratio of detected fluorescence signals from the peptide as they gather, patients could be screened far earlier and without the use of invasive needles or wires.

Alzheimers Brain Scans

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common form of dementia. It is irreversible and terminal, with less than 3% of individuals living beyond 14 years post-diagnosis. By the year 2050, it is thought that likely 1 in 85 people will be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, so if there could be earlier diagnosis, there could be more preventative measures taken and possibly delaying or reversing the effects. Currently, the disease is diagnosed with behavioral assessments and cognitive performance tests, along with brain scans (as seen above).

alzheimers brain

Dr. Olaf Rolinski of the University’s Department of Physics, who led the research, explained their early diagnosis technique as: “When irradiated with light, the intrinsic fluorescence given off by the peptide is like a communication from a spy. We took samples of the peptide and discovered that, where they were in the type of aggregation linked to Alzheimer’s, they produced fluorescence light signals which could be picked up with our technique much earlier than in more conventional experiments, such as those that use the addition of a dye.”

Although little is known about how or why these peptides gather in the brain as they do, Dr. Rolinski’s research provides hope for treatment. “This approach could help us understand better the role of these peptides in the onset of Alzheimer’s and discover ways in which the disease could be stopped in its tracks early on. We now want to take the research further so that it can be used in the development of drugs to treat Alzheimer’s,” said Dr. Rolinski. We now have a technique to detect the disease early, next is to find a cure.

Alzheimer's Disease button

Steps to that possible cure are getting closer, as researchers at the RIKEN Brain Science Institute recently discovered the exact, little-studied peptide that is the most abundant in Alzheimer’s patients with the greatest neurotoxicity of all the peptides and highest propensity to cluster. Along with being more toxic, the previously overlooked amyloid-beta peptide 43 also appears to increase with age, which is consistent with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and could mean that this particular peptide is the best biomarker for early AD diagnosis.


Barbara Gordon (aka Batgirl) as Oracle

DC’s ‘Batgirl’ Reboot Means Disabled ‘Oracle’ Disappears

DC Comics, founded in 1934, is one of the largest and most successful companies operating in the market for American comic books. DC recently reported the return of the disabled heroine, Barbara Gordon a.k.a. Oracle, and formally known as Batgirl. In the Batman comic book issue “The Killing Joke,” the famous villain the Joker showed up at Barbara’s house, shooting and paralyzing her.

Batman's The Killing Joke cover

From her wheelchair, Barbara realized she could no longer be the high-flying superhero she had been, so she devoted all of her time to developing the most complex and powerful computer systems and renamed herself the Oracle, which is who she has been for over two decades, attracting quite a large following.

Barbara Gordon in Oracle #1

Oracle fans were not pleased to hear that the creators of the comic book are contemplating taking the character out of her wheel chair. DC Comics has not released a statement explaining why. In response to the news, Elena Babarich, creator of the web comic “Sister Claire,” began the “Oracle-Create-a-Thon,” which is a new Tumblr blog dedicated to fan art, fan fiction, and activism to maintain awareness of the physically challenged and to make the feelings of Oracle fans known to DC Comics. The blog features original works inspired by the character, as well as links to excerpts from the Oracle Comic books.

Batgirl Barbara Gordon (Oracle) Disabled

As the new story gets revamped, Barbara Gordon’s character will go to physical therapy and finally be able to get out of her wheelchair after more than twenty years, meaning she will no longer be a voice for the physically handicapped in the comic book world. On the blog, some fans expressed their excitement for the return of the non-physically challenged Batgirl. They also highlighted other disabled superheroes such as Professor X of the X-Men, who is also in a wheelchair, Daredevil, who is blind, and Dr. Niles Caulder (the Chief ), who is paraplegic.

Other fans, mainly those people with disabilities, felt DC Comics should not bring Barbara Gordon’s Batgirl hero back without the chair, feeling the change is “needless, dumb, and more than a little cruel,” as one fan explained. Most Oracle fans feel it defeats the character’s purpose.

Barbara Gordon (Batgirl) as the disabled Oracle

The Barbara Gordon/Batgirl/Oracle storyline is not the only comic book that is going to be revamped. All 52 DC titles are going to be given a makeover. Questions from very concerned fans, worried that DC Comics is rebooting all of their stories, caused DC to release a statement explaining that this is not the case. In answering the question, “Does ‘The New 52′ undo events or continuity that I’ve been reading?” DC Comics’ reply is:

“Some yes, some no. But many of the great stories remain. For example – Batgirl. ‘The Killing Joke’ still happened and she was Oracle. Now she will go through physical rehabilitation and become a more seasoned and nuanced character because she had these incredible and diverse experiences.”

To read more on the Barbara Gordon story, visit www.DCComics.com.

Oracle - Disabled Batgirl Barbara Gordon


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Dennis Hong’s Car to Help the Blind ‘See’ While Driving

Dennis Hong

Dennis Hong, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Tech, has designed a car for the blind. He states this is not a “self driving” car, but rather a car in which a visually impaired driver can determine speed, proximity and route, while driving independently. Studies began with the construction of a “driverless” car. In the 2007 DARPA Urban challenge, Hong won third place with a robotic car that drove itself. After only pressing the start button, the car made it to its destination completely unassisted. It was then that the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) challenged the research community to engineer a car that would allow a blind person to drive safely and independently.

Dennis Hong's Driverless Car

The NFB’s “Blind Driver Challenge” was not to create a vehicle that would drive a blind person around, but one that a blind person could make active decisions and drive. Because the driver is visually impaired, the car would need to perceive the environment and gather information for the driver. To do this, it would need a computer system for that could measure acceleration, a GPS unit to get an estimated location of the car, two cameras to detect the lanes on the road, and lasers to scan obstacles such as a car approaching from the from the front or rear, as well as any obstacle that may run into the road. This information is then fed into the computer. The computer processes this information to relay to the driver, and gives instructions on how to operate the controls of the vehicle.

Dennis Hong Driverless Car

Even with all the technology, it would still be difficult to relay just this information to a person who cannot see fast enough to react accurately.  For this they have also created non-visual interfaces such as drive grip gloves with vibrating elements on the knuckles to direct the driver’s steering, as well as a speed strip, which is a massage chair that conveys information in reference to the speed to the driver. These are both informational devices.

Test drives have been very successful and marks a big step for the blind community. However, most drivers do not agree with giving a visually impaired individual driving privileges. They feel the technology is not 100% reliable, and if anything were to malfunction, it would be dangerous for the blind driver and anyone else on the road. Still others feel it would be a great experience, but they should not drive alone. The social and legal implications will still need to be worked out, but the car is well on its way to being a reality.