Tag Archives: spinal cord injuries

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Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month

September is National Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Month. 17,000 new cases of Spinal Cord Injuries are documented every year in the US alone; in this country today, 200,000 people live with a spinal cord injury (SCI), and someone is paralyzed every 48 seconds.
48 seconds and a life is forever changed. Parents, daughters, college athletes, up and coming Marine Corps officers, co-workers, the person sitting next to you in traffic– SCI shows no partiality to where someone is in life or where they want to be headed.
Vehicle accidents are at the top of the list when it comes to leading causes of SCI, but other causes include: falling, sport injuries, or acts of violence.
In the past year, 19 customers have purchased a wheelchair van from AMS Vans due to a spinal cord injury.
The United Spinal Association is, however, fighting for the lives of those living with spinal cord injuries; they believe in obtaining affordable medical equipment and insurance, housing, transportation, ways that people with SCI can live independently, and numerous other benefits that can be reached through donations and awareness.
Of course, funds and awareness will also help fuel the big over-arching goal: medical research and scientific findings.
To learn more about Spinal Cord Injuries, SCI Awareness Month, and ways to get involved or donate, check out https://www.unitedspinal.org/september-is-national-spinal-cord-injury-awareness-month-2/.

Eye-Tracking Device Gives People with Disabilities Affordable Control

Multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, muscular dystrophy, amputations, and spinal cord injuries rob millions of people of the ability to interact with their surroundings. Computer usage can be a near impossibility, as these diseases and injuries typically affect mobility and the use of the arms and hands greatly. Good news is on the way, as a device that costs under $65 may provide this group of people with the ability to control their computers and interact with their surroundings using only their eyes.

IOP Publishing’s Journal of Neural Engineering showcased the new technology that is made of an eye-tracking device and “smart” software that allows the eye to act as a mouse, providing users with the ability to move a cursor on the screen.

The device, which was developed by researchers at the Imperial College in London, is known as the GT3D device. The reason it is so affordable is because it is made with off-the-shelf items that you wouldn’t expect to see in such a high tech gadget. The device uses two fast video game console cameras that cost around $30 each. These cameras are attached outside of the line of vision to a pair of $5 glasses.

GT3D Eye Tracking Mouse Controller Glasses

The cameras take a continual stream of photos that are used to determine where the pupil of the eye is directed. The researchers then used calibrations to work out where the person was looking on the screen. The researchers also utilized more precise calibrations to figure out a 3D gaze. With this information, they were able to determine how far into the distance the person was looking.

Another added bonus to this new device is that it’s solved what has been considered the “Midas touch problem.” In short, users could move a mouse arrow around a screen, but could not click on any icons easily. In past devices, users had to stare at icons or blink, and the results were less than accurate. With the GT3D device, users wink to click. Being that a wink is a voluntary action, unlike staring or blinking, it is considerably more timely and accurate.

Control a Computer with Your Eyes with GT3D Glasses

The researchers had study subjects play Pong without using hand controllers of any kind to see how quickly they learned to control the game paddles. Dr. Aldo Faisal, Lecturer in Neurotechnology at Imperial’s Department of Bioengineering and the Department of Computing, noted that six of the trial users had never used their eyes to control input previously, and scored within 20 percent of able bodied users after an impressively short 10 minutes of playtime.

According to Dr. Faisal, “Crucially, we have achieved two things: we have built a 3D eye-tracking system hundreds of times cheaper than commercial systems and used it to build a real-time brain machine interface that allows patients to interact more smoothly and more quickly than existing invasive technologies that are tens of thousands of times more expensive. This is frugal innovation; developing smarter software and piggy-backing existing hardware to create devices that can help people worldwide independent of their healthcare circumstances.”

And if you thought the GT3D was already incredibly affordable, this extra good news is really going to blow your mind! According to Dr. Faisal, “We originally created the device for £39.80 ($64) but recent falls in the price of video game console cameras mean we could now actually make the same device for about £20 ($32).” That’s exciting news, indeed!


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New Embryonic Stem Cell Study Could Help Spinal Cord Injuries

Geron Corp

Biomedical research firm Geron Corp, is beginning the first human trial using embryonic stem cells at three different clinical sites, including the Stanford School of Medicine and the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center. The human clinical trial is set up to test whether embryonic stem cells can be safely used to treat patients with recent spinal cord injuries. If this clinical trial goes well, more research can be done into reversing the damage done by spinal cord injuries and helping patients disabled by these kinds of injuries recover function.

The trial is meant to test the safety of using embryonic stem cells, but the ultimate goal of the medical researchers is to see if embryonic stem cells can help injured nerve cells regenerate after an accident. Researchers at Geron “have said the company hopes to show that human embryonic stem cells can be used ‘to achieve restoration of spinal cord function’,” in a statement to Catholic San Francisco. According to researchers at the Stanford School of Medicine, the embryonic stem cells can replace the injured nerve cells with functioning cells and reverse damage to the spinal cord.

However, this is a first phase trial, which doesn’t actually test how well a new medical technology works, but rather tests safety. According to The Stanford Daily, “The first goal of this trial is not efficacy but rather safety—that is, the determination of the treatment’s safety in humans before it can be tested in a larger group.” This means that if this first phase of testing shows that embryonic stem cells are safe to use on humans, then researchers can begin testing how well these stem cells can treat spinal cord injuries on a larger number of patients.

This is the very first clinical trial on human subjects using embryonic stem cells that has been approved by the US Food and Drug Administration. Most of the clinical trials using stem cells for bio research have used only adult stem cells. “We are very excited about this trial,” Marco Lee, clinical assistant professor of neurosurgery, said. “This trial marks the first FDA-approved, clinical, phase-one embryonic stem cell trial. If this initial clinical trial proves to be safe, the FDA will approve further trials with a larger patient pool.”


Optogenetics: Restoring Movement for Physical Disabilities


Like something straight out of Science Fiction or comic books, scientists from Stanford University have been able to more accurately induce proper firing order in the muscles of bio-engineered mice with nothing more than blue light. Their hope is that one day this technique will allow people with paralysis from traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries to move their limbs again and help counteract the debilitating spastic twitches of people living with cerebral palsy. The “secret ingredient” in all of this is algae.

Cross-section of bioengineered mouse sciatic nerve showing the light-sensitive protein in green. (Image courtesy of Nature Medicine.)

Cross-section of bio-engineered mouse sciatic nerve showing the light-sensitive protein in green. (Image courtesy of Nature Medicine.)

Stanford’s Schools of Medicine and Engineering have been collaborating to develop the new technology for the study of optogenetics — a new field of science invented at Stanford that involves taking specialized genes derived from algae and inserting them into the genomes of other creatures. The gene then encodes a light-sensitive protein onto the surface of nerve cells, which are then capable of responding to certain wavelengths of light (i.e. blue), which can be used to modify cell firing patterns via a band of tiny LEDs placed around the sciatic nerve.

This has allowed researchers to control which muscles receive the impulse to move via which lights are turned on and off. The experimental procedure has only been tested on animals, and this latest experiment marks the first time it was tested on mammals (mice), but the results are extremely promising.

Closeup of the optical LED band used. (Image courtesy of Stanford University Medical Center)

Closeup of the optical LED band used. (Image courtesy of Stanford University Medical Center.)

What makes the results different from previous ones involving electrical impulses to control muscles is the degree of control over the order in which the muscles are firing. In previous functional electrical stimulation (FES), paralyzed individuals have been able to walk with the help of an electrical band around the sciatic nerve, but only for a few minutes. This is because the larger, fast-twitch nerve fibers responded well to the electrical impulses, but the smaller, fatigue-resistant, slow-twitch nerve fibers often lagged behind or did not respond at all. Because the slow-twitch muscles control more refined movement, the lack of those muscles moving first (or at all) gave the individual a very jerky movement and resulted in muscle fatigue very quickly.

With the blue LED lights able to penetrate deep into the nerve, the Stanford scientists have been able to access the slow-twitch nerves and incite them to contract before the fast-twitch nerves, giving fluidity of movement back to the test animals and greatly reducing muscle fatigue. In addition, each muscle contraction could be sustained for longer periods with optical stimulation than with electrical stimulation.

The same research team is now conducting similar experiments with a different light-sensitive protein that could help inhibit nerve fibers rather than trigger them, and thus helping individuals suffering from spasticity, like the kind that occurs from cerebral palsy. The researchers are not completely convinced that optical stimulation alone will result in walking for paralyzed individuals, because that movement is based on an incredibly complicated set of muscle systems. However, they do see this as a step in the right direction.

The findings were published in Nature Medicine.

If you’re interested in learning more about optogenetic research, watch this lecture from one of this study’s head scientists: