Advanced imaging modalities map neural connections

Images of 68 brains from the Human Connectome Project recently became available. The process was powered by highly advanced brain scanning hardware and state of the art image processing and analysis software.

To provide multiple perspectives on each brain, researchers employed several methods:

1. MRI scans provided basic structural images of the brain, providing very high resolution images of the convoluted folds of the cerebral cortex.

2. fMRI scans detected blood flow throughout the brain and showed brain activity for subjects both at rest and engaged in seven different tasks (including language, working memory, and gambling exercises).

3. Diffusion MRI tracked the movement of water molecules within brain fibers. Because water diffuses more rapidly along the length of the fibers that connect neurons than across them, this technique allows researchers to directly trace connections between sections of the brain.

Each imaging modality has its limitations, so combining them gives neuroscientists the best view of how the brain works.  The data was purged of noise and artifacts, and then organized into a database.

Smartphone as handheld biosensor

University of Illinois researchers have developed an iPhone cradle and app that uses its camera and processing power as a biosensor to detect toxins, proteins, bacteria, viruses and other molecules.    Professor Brian Cunningham, the team’s leader, discussed healthcare applications:  “A lot of medical conditions might be monitored very inexpensively and non-invasively using mobile platforms like phones. They can detect molecular things, like pathogens, disease biomarkers or DNA, things that are currently only done in big diagnostic labs with lots of expense and large volumes of blood.”

Wireless, dissolvable circuits could kill bacteria

Professor John Rogers of the University of Illinois has created bio-absorbable electronic circuits which could be implanted into wounds and powered wirelessly to destroy bacteria during healing before dissolving harmlessly into body fluids once their job is done.  Rogers and others have previously reported biodegradable flexible circuits and electronic devices that can be safely laid directly onto skin. But their success in making their circuits wireless could prove crucial to many potential applications, especially in medicine.

Multitasking neurons enhance brain’s computational power

Many neurons, especially in brain regions that perform sophisticated functions such as thinking and planning, react differently to a wide variety of stimulation.

“We started noticing early on that there are a whole bunch of neurons in the prefrontal cortex that can’t be classified in the traditional way of one message per neuron,” said Professor Earl Miller of MIT’s Picower Institute.

Miller and colleagues report that these neurons are essential for complex cognitive tasks, such as learning new behavior.  Professor Stefano Fusi at Columbia University developed a computer model showing that without these neurons, the brain can learn only a handful of behavioral tasks.

Another crowdfunded vital sign monitor

As the crowdfunding of remote health devices increases, another vital sign monitor has launched on Indiegogo.

Scanadu Scout analyzes and tracks temperature, respiratory rate, blood oxygen, heart rate, blood pressure and stress trends.  The company states that it accomplishes this in 10 seconds.

The device is still pre-FDA approval but quite promising. They claim that they can read systolic and diastolic blood pressure at 95% accuracy.  It looks like they are not reading oxygen saturation level.  We hope they’ll add it in the next version.

Hyperbaric oxygen treatment for brain injuries

Tel Aviv University and Assaf Harofeh Medical Center researchers are treating stroke patients with hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT), high-pressure chambers where oxygen-rich air increases oxygen levels in the body by a factor of ten.  Their goal is to reinvigorate dormant neurons and improve patients’ motor function, memory and other abilities that current therapies do not address.

The researchers are studying the potential benefits of HBOT for traumatic brain injury, and as an anti-aging therapy, applicable to Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia patients.

Eldercare robots perform essential tasks

Already popular in Japan, today’s New York Times reports on the developing trend of robotic companions for the elderly.

A typical Japanese example is the Tsukuba University created Hybrid Assistive Limb. The battery-powered suit senses and amplifies the wearer’s muscle action when carrying or lifting heavy objects.  Caregivers can also use the suit to aid them while lifting patients from a bed, and patients can wear it to support their movements.  Other Japanese devices include a small, battery-powered trolley to aid independent walking; a portable, self-cleaning bedside toilet; and a monitoring robot which tracks and reports the location of dementia patients.

The Times describes several interesting US developed robots:   Cody, a Georgia Tech created robotic nurse cable of bathing patients;  HERB, a Carnegie Mellon developed butler which retrieves objects and cleans; Hector, a University of Reading robot which provides medication reminders, locates lost objects, and can assist in a fall; and Paro, a baby seal looking robot which calms dementia patients.

Watson’s health care capabilities described to lawmakers

On Capitol Hill, IBM representatives described the supercomputer’s new health-care related features, including the ability to ingest patients’ medical information and synthesize thousands of medical journals and other reference materials along with patient preferences to suggest treatment options.

The Watson team has collaborated with the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and insurer Well Point to teach the computer about the medical world.