July 2012

Self-Driving Car Passes California State Senate

Google Self-driving Car

We may not have the flying cars so many of us envisioned as children, but the future is here–in California at least. State senators voted 37-0 in support of a bill that permits self-driving vehicles on the roadways of California, as long as a licensed driver is behind the wheel. The self-driving cars were pioneered by Google, and appear to be safer than most drivers on the road today.

Google First Licensed Automous Car

“Human error is the cause of almost every accident on the road today. If autonomous technology can reduce the number of accidents, then we also reduce the number of injuries and fatalities on California’s roads,” said the sponsor of the bill, California State Senator Alex Padilla. “For me this is a matter of safety.”

Senator Alex Padilla in Google Autonomous Car

Recently, Google posted a video of its autonomous Toyota Prius being test-driven by a legally blind man in California. The same Prius also hit the road in Washington D.C., test-driven by two council members there.

“It would enable people who are not able to drive, people who are blind or disabled, it would enable them to drive a car,” D.C. Council Member Mary Cheh said after the trip. “It would also have an extraordinary impact on parking, and traffic itself, because cars are idle about 90 percent of the time…so cars could be used by more than one person. You could get out of your car and tell it to go find a parking space.”

Before you get too excited, the cars are only permitted to be operated by people with a valid driver’s license, which will rule out those with disabilities that prevent obtaining a license currently.

Computer of Google Self-driving Car

The self-driving cars use radar, video cameras, lasers, and a database of information collected from manually-driven cars to allow them to safely navigate the streets, but even Google’s executives admit that the cars have kinks that need to be worked out before mass production could be considered. For example, the cars still have to “learn” how to avoid other vehicle accidents that may block travel lanes.

Computer of Google Autonomous Car

“Those are challenges and the kinds of situations that are not standard,” the developer said. “We are learning how to navigate those.”

The bill in California, SB1298, requires safety and performance standards for self-driven vehicles. Arizona, Hawaii, Florida, and Oklahoma also have similar laws in place. If the bill passes and is signed by Governor Jerry Brown, it would take effect sometime in January of 2013.



Persistent Vegetative State Reversed After Immune Cell Treatment

Older Woman in Coma

A recent experimental treatment may be the cause of a German woman’s partial recovery from a persistent vegetative state after coma. The treatment involved using the woman’s own activated immune cells (ACT), which were injected intramuscularly. The cells were specially activated in a laboratory — in vitro — to produce neuroactive substances thought to enable brain activity.

The woman had suffered a stroke nine years earlier, and had been cared for at home by dedicated family members and a home health aid. The stroke left her in a vegetative state, and she survived with the aid of a feeding tube. As her symptoms began to deteriorate seven months prior to this new treatment, she slipped “into a deep sleeplike state.” The woman’s son had witnessed positive results from a previous case where immunotherapy had improved psychiatric disorders, which prompted him to request the researchers investigate whether their treatment could help his mother.

Ultimately, it should be known that the reason that the researchers agreed to try their form of experimental immunotherapy on the patient was not because of stroke and coma history, but because according to the case report, “A search for microbial infections indicated serologically significant immunoglobulin G and immunoglobulin A titers against Chlamydia trachomatis, Chlamydophila pneumoniae, and a suspected reactivation of Epstein-Barr virus.”

The ACT injections were given weekly, and within the first month the woman began to respond to commands. She opened her eyes in the direction requested of her, and she turned to look at people entering the room. She was able to use both hands to grasp her grandchildren’s hands, and she was able to move her tongue out of the way when her teeth were brushed. Despite having a feeding tube in place for so long, her swallowing reflex eve began to return.

Persistive Vegetative State Improves After Activated Immune Cell Therapy

The treatment did not cause her dementia to improve, but she was eventually able to move herself from one side to the other and grab the hospital bar for support. After eight months of treatments, however, she unfortunately passed away due to aspiration of vomit caused from the continued use of a feeding tube. As tragic as that may seem, her recovery is the far more remarkable thing, both for her family as well as for specialists in this field.

“As a neurosurgeon who treats patients with traumatic brain injuries and serious strokes on a daily basis, I’m too often presented with a patient, who despite our team’s best efforts, fails to awaken from a coma,” stated Dr. Rohan Ramakrishna in his NBC opinion blog on this story. “Sometimes the combination of time, patience and a tireless family results in a patient who wakes up six months after their injury. Other times, though, they don’t — primarily because no treatments are available to change the outcome for patients in persistent coma. But perhaps this new research will change that.”

In the last 50 years, no new therapies have emerged that systematically reverse a coma in individuals who have had significant strokes or traumatic brain injuries. Experts along with Ramakrishna hope that this new approach may have even greater benefits for people who have recently suffered brain injuries.

Dramatic leaps and bounds have been made in rehabilitating people who have become disabled by a traumatic brain injury in recent years, with new treatments often involving retraining the brain to rewire around an injury and learning how to compensate for lost functions with conscious, alert patients. The idea that it may be possible to help reactivate the brains of patients who don’t wake up after TBI is very exciting to many scientists and doctors alike.

We hope to hear more on this kind of research along with further case studies, and we’ll share those stories with you as we hear more.


Original case report:

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Roman’s Law Struggles to Keep CA Funding Spinal Cord Injury Research

Roman Reed Paralysis Research Funding

The Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act, or Roman’s Law, was originally established to provide funds required for researching spinal cord injury paralysis cures. Roman’s Law puts state funds into a general fund for the University of California system, which grants select scientists the financial resources necessary for groundbreaking research into paralysis cure.

Named after Roman Reed, whose vertebrae were crushed during a college football tackle, leaving him paralyzed and ending his dreams of the NFL. Since then, he has gone on to regain use of his arms, father 3 children, and spearhead the campaign for Roman Reed Spinal Cord Injury Research Act of 1999, along with his father Don Reed, who has worked tirelessly along side his son to see this funding get passed.

Romans Law Research Funding

In the decade of Roman’s Law funding, $14 million dollars was spent on research to attempt to cure paralysis. The program brought an additional $64 million dollars in “new money” to California, mainly through matching grants from the National Institutes of Health and other sources, which equaled a 4-to-1 return on California’s investment. The breakthroughs accomplished thanks to Roman’s Law funding include:

    • 175 published papers;
    • The world’s first embryonic stem cell human trials had been begun by Geron, Inc.;
    • Two patents were pending, including a revolutionary change to the Petri dish itself, so it could sort cells and save money;
    • Robotic devices co-developed with NASA could lower the costs of rehabilitation;
    • An electronic “bridge” could join the halves of a completely severed spine;
    • A new biomed company, California Stem Cells, Inc., was formed from research Roman’s Law funded first;
    • Scientists developed more accurate ways to measure paralysis and recovery;
    • A strange-looking electronic “suit” allowed a paralyzed person to actually walk;
    • A new discovery made it possible for nerves to reconnect through the injury scar.

Roman’s Law was originally paid for by the general fund collected from state tax revenue, with $1.5 million dollars a year provided by the State of California. Recent budget cuts meant that the fund would no longer receive money from the state. New funding sources were considered after the budget cuts, and the Appropriations Committee was asked to approve a $3 traffic ticket add-on as a means of funding Roman’s Law last year. The request was turned down, with the main objection being that if a poor person received a traffic ticket and could not pay it, he or she would go to jail.

Roman Reed Press Conference

This year, the Appropriations Committee is being asked to reconsider, but instead of a $3 add-on to traffic tickets, a $1 add-on was requested. So far in 2012, that bill (AB 1657) passed the Assembly, as well as the Transportation and Housing Committee. Next stop is the Appropriations Committee (where it was defeated last year), and after that, the full California Senate, followed by the Governor’s signature. If it can get through all of that, Roman’s Law can start funding paralysis research once again.

Eight states have already passed similar bills: Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri, New Jersey, New York, South Carolina, and Alabama. Those states have traffic ticket add-on fees that range as high as $100, making the California bill seem like a very small price to ask for such an important cause.

While supporters of Roman’s Law sit and wait the verdict, what is your opinion? Should traffic ticket add-ons fund paralysis research?


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Camp Teaches Kids with Disabilities How to Ride a Bicycle

Lose the Training Wheels Camp for Kids with Disabilities

Christopher Kleiber and other elementary school children with disabilities learned to ride two-wheel bikes thanks to the help of middle school student volunteers and a national program called Lose the Training Wheels, which was hosted by Glasgow Middle School in Fairfax County, Virginia.

Lose the Training Wheels Lets Kids Teach Kids with Disabilities

Christopher Kleiber was one of several elementary school children that participated in the Lose the Training Wheels program. He has a condition that makes hand-eye coordination challenging and makes focusing on tasks difficult. He had been riding a bike with training wheels for two years, but had been unable to transition to a two-wheel bike. After the program, he was one of several elementary students found zooming around the gymnasium on two-wheel bikes, with middle school volunteers struggling to keep up on foot.

Lose the Training Wheels Bikes with Rollers for Balance Disabilities

The program uses special bikes to help teach balance, one of which is designed with a roller instead of a back wheel. The rollers are changed as the students make progress.

“Each roller decreases the amount of surface contact it has with the ground,” said John Reyes, the Lose the Training Wheels representative that was there to change the rollers and assist the students. “The rollers help to make the riders feel as though they are on a two-wheel bike.”

Lose the Training Wheels Graduate

After the special roller bike, the students move to a real two-wheel bike that has a handle on that back which the helpers use to keep the riders from tipping and falling.

“Sometimes the kids go way too fast. [Teaching them] takes a lot of time and patience,” said Ryan Thompson, a sixth-grader at Glasgow Middle School that volunteered to help.

Kids Lose the Training Wheels Despite Their Disabilities

The elementary school children learning to ride without training wheels weren’t the only ones learning a valuable lesson. The middle schoolers learned that kids with disabilities are not so different after all.

“We want them to gain a better awareness of disabilities,” said Lose the Training Wheels’ Kevin Crenshaw, who worked with the middle schoolers each day before the riders arrived. “We try to educate them on the power of words. It’s not autistic kids; it’s kids with autism.”

Lose the Training Wheels Voluteers

“We had to think outside the box … use stickers,” said Tristen Dock, a Glasgow sixth-grader, when asked about the boy they were helping. “We had to motivate him as we were going.”

Christopher did not need any extra motivation. When asked where he planned to ride his bike after learning to ride without training wheels, he said, “All across Virginia.”

Lose The Training Wheels operates ten fleets of bikes that travel through various regions of the United States and Canada to conduct more than 80 camps each year. If you are interested in hosting a camp in your area or being a volunteer, contact the program through their website at losethetrainingwheels.org. You can also learn more by watching the video below.


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Kids with Cerebral Palsy Get Gait Help from Motion Analysis Engineers

Center for Gait and Motion Analysis Adam Rozumalski

Not many engineers experience the joy that Adam Rozumalski experiences every day, nor is it one that he likely would have expected when he chose to become a biomedical engineer. The work he is doing at the Gillette Children’s Hospital’s Center for Gait and Motion Analysis is changing the lives of children, one step at a time.

Ellie Goodman is a ten-year-old that appears like any other ten-year-old girl as she plays and dances with friends. Few would guess that she has cerebral palsy, but a year ago her life looked much different.

“I couldn’t balance,” she recalled. “I had people holding my hand when I was little all the time, making sure I didn’t fall.”

That was before she met Rozumalski, a biomedical engineer that makes it his life’s work to help children with disabilities regain balance and improve mobility. During gate lab testing, the same technology that is used to animate blockbusters like Avatar allows him to create a precise picture of how kids move.

“It’s the same technology they use in Hollywood to capture special effects,” Rozumalski explained. “We have the small reflective balls that we can tape on someone’s legs and have them walk through our lab.”

Center for Gait and Motion Analysis Adam Rozumalski

In movies, they use this technology to mimic human movements and create a person walking or performing stunts. At the gate lab, they use the measurements and compare them against healthy children’s movements, using the data to determine how to adjust muscles and bones to help their patients walk easier.

Gait and Motion Analysis

When Ellie first came to the Gait Lab, her left foot would point out. The analysis provided by Rozumalski allowed surgeons to make life-changing corrections, enabling Ellie to walk and run like other children do.

Center for Gait and Motion Analysis

“I look at him and see a life changer,” Goodman. “Kids would mock me, how I would walk — and pretend to be me and lie to me and pretend they weren’t. I feel like kids could now accept me as I am now — and still, kids are getting used to the fact that I can be a normal kid.”

Center for Gait and Motion Analysis Adam Rozumalski

Rozumalski has been helping children like Ellie for a dozen years. “I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he said. “It’s such a wonderfully rewarding experience, knowing the work you are doing is really making a difference.”


Drake’s Music Producer Noah Shebib Doesn’t Miss a Beat with MS

Noah "40" Shebib: top hip hop producer with MS

Noah Shebib, better known as “40,” is a 29-year-old Canadian hip-hop producer. He is signed to production company Hip Hop Since 1978 and has produced music for artists such as Drake, Lil Wayne, and Alicia Keys. He also was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) at age 22, and hasn’t let the diagnosis make him miss a beat.

Noah "40" Shebib: award winning hip hop producer with MS

For Shebib, MS started quite suddenly with sensory issues. He began having temperature confusion, his body relaying signals of hot or cold that were distorted from reality:

“My leg was just on fire when I woke up one day,” recalled Shebib. “I was at the studio. I had fallen asleep and had woken up at two o’clock in the afternoon the next day, and my first initial thought was, ‘Oh, I must’ve fallen asleep by the heater or something. My leg is really hot.’ Then I got in my car and the floor heater was only on, on the left side. I thought, ‘That’s interesting.'”

Noah Shebib and Drake for Multiple Sclerosis cause

“You know, you have all these other explanations except that your brain is telling you something that’s not true. Then I get home and I sit down at my computer, and I’m thinking the heater is just blasting hot air down there. Where is that heat coming from? Then I put on my boots and I said, ‘Oh my god, this boot is really hot. This boot must’ve been beside the heater.'”

Noah Shebib "40" and Drake in the studio

He knew that something was wrong, and went to the hospital. Within a month he was unable to walk, and he received his diagnosis of MS. Noah’s attitude about his disability is excellent. He says that the entire ordeal was inspiring, and he always looked to the bright side, using his situation to his advantage.

“I’ve got this disease, I’m going to live with it,” he said. “I’m going to win with it, and my story is going to be that much better when I get there.”

Hip Hop Producer Noah 40 Shebib with MS

He finds it difficult to explain to people why he may seem okay one day, and not okay the next. One day he may be out playing basketball with friends, and the next day has to lie down on the bed to put his shoes on. Still, Noah stays optimistic.

“I’m constantly forgetting even myself what the repercussions of my disease are. I’ll be like, ‘Come on! Get up! You can do this!’ So not only is it difficult for someone else to understand, it’s also difficult for me to understand.”

For more on this inspiring hip hop producer, Dr. Sanjay Gupta featured him for a story on CNN Health:


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Healing Spinal Cord Injury with Help from the Zebrafish

Zebrafish Repairing Spinal Cord Injuries

The zebra danio, or zebrafish, is a popular aquarium species known for its ease of care and hardiness. One of the most remarkable abilities of this member of the Cyprinidae family is that it is capable of regenerating not just fins and skin, but spinal cord as well! A new study in the Journal of Neuroscience explains how a protein plays a pivotal role in the spinal regeneration process, and gives hope that this information could eventually help spinal cord regeneration in humans.

“When the spinal cord is severed in humans and other mammals, the immune system kicks in, activating specialized cells called glia to prevent bleeding into it,” explained study co-author Professor Peter Currie.

Professor Peter Currie's Zebrafish Spinal Cord Injury Research

“Glia are the workmen of our nervous system. The glia proliferate, forming bigger cells that span the wound site in order to prevent bleeding into it. They come in and try to sort out problems. A glial scar forms.”

The complication with mammal immune systems and spinal cord injuries is that the glial scar forms a barrier, which blocks the axons of nearby nerve cells from penetrating the wound. The axons are threadlike structures of nerve cells that carry impulses to the brain. Without the connection of these axons, paralysis occurs.

“The axons upstream and downstream of the lesion sites are never able to penetrate the glial scar to reform. This is a major barrier in mammalian spinal cord regeneration,” Professor Currie stated.

Zebrafish Spinal Cord Injury Research

“In contrast,” Currie continued, “The zebrafish glia form a bridge that spans the injury site but allow the penetration of axons into it. The fish can fully regenerate its spinal cord within two months of injury. You can’t tell there’s been any wound at all.”

The research team found the protein that is responsible for the shape of the glia in zebrafish. Fibroblast growth factor, or fgf, controls the shape of the glia, and is responsible for the difference in healing between zebrafish and mammals.

“The hope is that fgf could eventually be used to promote better results in spinal cord repair in people,” Professor Currie concluded.

Video from an earlier Cornell study on the process of how zebrafish repair spinal cord injuries can be seen below.



Can Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s Be Stopped with a Single Pill?

Stopping Misfolded Proteins can stop Neurodegenerative Diseases

A recent study published in the medical journal Nature gives hope that a new drug may help prevent a wide range of brain diseases including Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and prion diseases such as the human variant of mad-cow disease. Researchers from the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom prevented brain cells from dying in mice with prion disease, and are now exploring if their technique to prevent brain cell death is applicable in other neuro-degenerative cases.

Nuero-degenerative diseases cause a build-up of proteins, known as misfolded proteins. These proteins are not put together correctly, and when the number of misfolded proteins rises in the brain, brain cells respond by attempting to shut down the production of all new proteins. Extended shutdown of the protein-producing factory results in dead brain cells, as brain cells need good protein to function.

Misfolded protein causes Parkinson's and Alzheimer's

Scientists at the Medical Research Council laboratory attempted to manipulate the switch that turns off the protein factory. By preventing cells from shutting down, they were able to prevent brain cells from dying. In the mice used for the research, a prolonged lifespan resulted from this method.

“The novelty here is we’re just targeting the protein shut-down, we’re ignoring the prion protein and that’s what makes it potentially relevant across the board,” said Professor Giovanna Mallucci, who worked with the team. “What it gives you is an appealing concept that one pathway and therefore one treatment could have benefits across a range of disorders. But, the idea is in its early stages. We would really need to confirm this concept in other diseases.”

The research is very new, and many more studies will need to be conducted and evaluated before we might see this approach used in human clinical studies.

Professor of Molecular Neurobiology at King’s College London, Roger Morris, said it was a “breakthrough in understanding what kills neurons.”

“There are good reasons for believing this response, identified with prion disease, applies also to Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative diseases,” he said. “And because it is such a general response, we already have some drugs that inhibit this response.”


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‘Battle Mind’ One Reason for Large Number of Vets with TBI

Veterans and TBI - Traumatic Brain Injury

Traumatic brain injury, or TBI, has been dubbed the signature injury for soldiers involved in the war on terror, due largely to the insurgent style of fighting using roadside bombs and mortars, combined with multiple tours of duty. As a result, thousands of families are struggling to cope with the after effects of TBI, which are long-term and often undiagnosed until many years after a solider returns home.

David McRaney is an Army captain who always thought of himself as a quick thinker. Today, he likens his brain to a dial up internet connection. McRaney has trouble finding the right words to use, loses his train of thought mid-sentence, and has trouble recalling information he just read. He was in Afghanistan two years ago as a reservist when a mortar shell landed on the bunker he shared with three civilian contractors. The explosion killed the civilians and left McRaney with a traumatic brain injury that makes it difficult to follow direction or process speech.

Army Veteran David McRaney Struggles with TBI

TBI is typically the result of head trauma, such as a blow to the head or a violent jolt. In these cases, the brain collides with the inside of the skull. TBI also happens when a bullet or shrapnel penetrates the skull. Detection of TBI is difficult, and many people are not diagnosed until years after the initial injury, seeking help only when the symptoms progress over time. After severe criticism, the military has recently begun to take TBI more seriously. Evaluation of injuries has been changed, and soldiers are taken out of action if they have head trauma.

Diagnosing and treating TBI quickly is extremely important, but something that the military, especially during the first few years of the war, found to be very difficult. Some injuries, like McRaney’s, are easy to diagnose. He had shrapnel in his skull, and CAT scans showed trauma to his brain. Many other cases of TBI go undiagnosed because soldiers don’t report the injury.

soldier getting CAT scan for traumatic brain injury

“There’s a battle mind,” said Dr. Inge Thomas, coordinator of the TBI Injury Program at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center. “Instead of going and getting rest, they go back in. They don’t want to be seen as sissies.”

While most people that who have mild TBI can fully recover with proper rest and medical management, many soldiers simply brush off the injury and go back into battle. In doing so, the injuries linger untreated, or worse, two or three head traumas happen over the course of a soldier’s career, which compounds the long-term side effects of TBI.

In February, a congressional report suggested that 15 to 23 percent of the two million soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan have experienced some form of TBI. That equates to between 300,000 and 460,000 cases in roughly ten years. Army experts disagree with those estimates, stating they have only diagnosed 126,000 cases of TBI in the decade since the wars began. Either way, the number is staggering and likely going to continue to grow.

As a consequence of the high number of traumatic brain injuries, the military has been forced to invest $633 million into over 200 research studies involving TBI. Some of the recent research, covered previously in our blog, has resulted in a blood test that can identify traumatic brain injury. Now the military is partnering with the NFL in an educational campaign aimed at reducing the stigma surrounding getting care for concussion and TBI.


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