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Improving Life, Predicting Death

Improving mobility after a stroke, predicting death, improved memory, bioengineered bladders and risk of asthma.

Summer 2006
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YEARS AFTER A DEBILITATING STROKE, patients can still regain significant use of an impaired arm by constraining the other arm, say researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Forced to use their impaired arm during a two-week rehabilitation program, subjects showed “large to very large improvements” compared with patients limited to fitness, relaxation and cognitive exercises. One theory suggests that the therapy reorganized the brain, stimulating underutilized areas to increase dexterity in the damaged limb.

A PERSON'S RISK OF DYING within the next four years can be predicted with more than 80% accuracy by a 12-question survey developed at the San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center. Among the questions: Are patients able to manage their money, bathe themselves and push heavy objects across a room? After studying more than 11,000 patients 50 and older, the medical center’s researchers identified 12 independent predictors of mortality, which account for different risk and disease-related factors.

A HUNGER TRIGGER might also improve memory and learning. After injecting the hormone ghrelin into mice, researchers at the Yale Medical School found that the animals’ mental acuity improved by up to 40%, based on their performance navigating a maze and other tests. The stomach releases ghrelin when it is empty, but the hormone also interacts with the brain’s hippocampus, where memory and learning occur. The Yale scientists think it may have bestowed an evolutionary advantage on humans and other animals by increasing memory during the search for food.

BIOENGINEERED BLADDERS have been successfully transplanted into seven patients, a first for a lab-grown complex organ, by Wake Forest University School of Medicine researchers in North Carolina. To prevent rejection, the bladders were grown from the patients’ own cells seeded on a biodegradable, bladder-shaped scaffold. All seven patients, who suffer from a condition that can cause poor bladder function, reported improved urinary control. The researchers are now attempting to bioengineer pancreases and hearts.

ASTHMA RISK APPEARS TO DOUBLE for children who were given antibiotics when they were less than a year old. What’s more, after reviewing data from some 27,000 children, researchers at the University of British Columbia found that each additional prescription increases the risk further. The study seems to support a theory that children not exposed to enough microbes and germs develop weak immune systems.

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