Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Two Hands to Health

Thursday, July 16th, 2015

I would like to introduce a short documentary I just completed. Tammy the Tumour was originally intended as a story about Maureen Steenhill and how playing the piano helped in her recovery from two major brain operations. It turns out other important factors also played a role in her healing.

There is something special about playing the piano in terms of the effect on the brain. Making music is in itself a healing activity. What piano has in addition is that very complex use of two hands acting independent of each other. The only other activity like that I can think of is juggling. There were two complementary studies; one in 2003 from University of Regensburg and another from Oxford University in 2009 that showed an increase in the size of the brain after learning to juggle. There are definite parallels to piano playing from what I have been reading.

Dr. Tara Gaertner is both a neuroscientist and a piano teacher. She writes a blog called Training the Musical Brain. I found in one of her postings called Hands Together some good points about whether the tradition of practicing new piano pieces using hands-separately is as effective as practicing with both hands at the same time. Apparently when we play with our left hand, our right motor cortex not only sends motor commands to our left hand, but it also sends commands to the left motor cortex, telling it not to move the right hand. And vice versa when we play with our right hand. Interhemispheric inhibition is an important mechanism to maximize the independent functioning of each hemisphere. But if we don’t practice with both hands those inhibiting signals will simply inhibit us a little too much.

Maureen has a brain that’s experienced 20 years of a growing tumour pressing on it, a second tumour, two operations and treatments of radiation. She is convinced that all this interhemispheric communication going on at the piano is helping her short term memory. I believe her and for myself who neither juggles or plays piano I have at least my french horn and DIY projects. I don’t need an MRI to tell me how these activities are keeping me healthy. If you have any personal experience or expertise on this subject please feel free to add your comments or insights below.

Maureen was treated at the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital. Her first operation to remove a meningioma brain tumour was July 2013. In April 2014 she had a second operation when a smaller tumour was removed. Following that she received radiation treatments. Maureen is grateful to the team at The Neuro especially her doctor and surgeon Dr. Jeffery Hall.

Function restored … not quite yet.

Thursday, March 6th, 2014

I have come across a lot of news lately on the various options there are for those people who are missing one or both of their hands. Most readers of this blog already appreciate what hands can do. But when I listen to the stories from people who, through surgery or prosthetic device, having regained manual function, the appreciation is tremendously elevated.

The simplest choice is a passive device which can appear remarkably lifelike, matching the skin tone and contours of the natural limb, while still providing some important functional abilities, such as pushing, balancing and supporting.

The next level of complexity uses technology similar to what was developed in the early twentieth century. Due to their reliability, durability, and relatively low cost, body powered devices are the most popular prostheses. They are controlled by a harness that captures an unrelated movement of the user’s body, such as a shrugging of the shoulders, and transfers this movement through a cable system to either a hand or hook.

Next in line are myoelectric prosthetics which use battery and electronic motors to function.  It is custom made to fit and attach to the remaining limb.  Once it is attached, the prosthetic uses electronic sensors to detect minute muscle, nerve, and EMG activity. The myoelectric artificial limb does not require any unwieldy straps or harnesses to function but the disadvantages are currently their weight and cost.

New social and technological developments are becoming part of this world as well. The Open Prosthetics Project is website initiative dedicated to the development and sharing of new prosthetic technology, funded and kept alive by the prosthetic community itself. Their motto is “Prosthetics shouldn’t cost an arm and a leg” (very clever!). There is a range of discussions from the practical to opinions on legal and financial issues and the validity of claims from various prosthetic manufacturers. I am slowly learning how the complex abilities of the natural hand are very hard to replicate.

3D printers are playing a role in prosthetic development. In 2011 Richard in South Africa had an accident where he cut off his fingers on his right hand. Straight out of hospital, Richard set to work in researching and developing a finger replacement for himself. While surfing the internet he discovered Ivan who had created a giant mechanical prop hand. Even though Ivan lived in Bellingham, Washington he was genuinely enthusiastic to join the project. Each owned a 3d printer so they could prototype the ideas they shared. Initially the final parts were made of CNC machined aluminum but now they can use the plastic shapes made from the 3d printers. They came up with a design that helped Richard along with others who heard of their work. To support what they were doing MakerBot donated two Replicator 2 3D printers. Learn more about their involvement on the MakerBot blog. The company Robohand, the fruition of their initial collaboration, has helped over 200 people.

Marine Corps Staff Sgt. James Sides is the first person to test a prosthetic robotic hand actuated by electrodes implanted in his forearm. The implantable myoelectric sensor system, or IMES, was developed by the California-based Alfred E. Mann Foundation with support from the Department of Defense. An recent article by the American Forces Press Service tells you more about about this project and other initiatives coming from military agencies. What was interesting to me was that Sides’ prosthetic uses six of the eight electrodes, and in the future they could tap into the extra two if they had a hand that would allow more activities, such as bending the wrist back and forth. There is still the need and potential for more development in the future.

Myoelectric prosthetics inevitably with become lighter, cheaper and more capable over time. Even now there are sensors built into the hand that can control the motors to handle even the most delicate of objects. As far as feedback to the brain through the nerves … well don’t get your hopes up. Wait a minute … maybe it is possible if you follow the work of a number of European researchers. This article and video done by The Telegraph gives a good overview. It is revolutionary that they were able to connect to nerve endings in this subject’s body. These are nerves that have been inactive for nine years since this 36-year-old amputee lost his left hand in an accident. It is exciting but the scientists say that development of a fully functional “bionic hand” is still some years away.

Gerwin Smit was a PhD fellow at a university in the Netherlands who wanted to take development in another direction. He learned more than 30% of people who get fitted for a prosthesis eventually stop using it. In some cases it is because of the weight or the effort to overcome friction inherent in devices that use cables. His idea was to make it much lighter with no motors or batteries and to eliminate the need of cables. Gerwin looked at airplanes and cars that use hydraulic cylinders for their brakes. Watch the TEDx talk and you will be impressed at what he came up with.  On June 11, 2013, he was awarded a PhD at TU Delft for his work on the subject. I hope he can bring the idea out of the university setting and into the real world.

Hand transplantation takes us away completely from the prosthetic world. The first hand transplant to achieve prolonged success was directed by a team at the University of Louisville in 1999. The Louisville group went on to perform the first five hand transplants in the United States. As of March 2011, there have been a total of 70 hands transplanted on 52 patients around the world. There still remains problems of drug-related side effects, uncertain long-term outcome, the high costs of surgery, rehabilitation and immunosuppression. The woman is the picture had a double hand transplantation in September 2011. There were serious complications at first but over time her body adjusted. In this Jan, 2013 story done by ABC News it notes that Lindsay Ess has at least two more years of daily therapy ahead of her, but she said her situation has inspired her to want to help others with disabilities, including wounded veterans.

I have been hearing a number of testimonials from recipients of a prosthetic or of a transplantation. There is a common feeling of joy at finally accomplishing those tasks that we take for granted. To be honest I don’t often think how lucky I am when I brush my teeth or tie my laces. But I do think sometimes how nice it is to find time for tinkering down in the basement. So maybe that is where I will go right now.

The Music Sidetracked Me

Saturday, March 2nd, 2013

It has been a little while since I have done anything with the Working Hands Project. I have been busy producing a documentary about “Come Sing Messiah”, an activity that an amateur music organization has been staging in Ottawa for the last 25 years. This has got me thinking a lot about music and its effect on our lives. There are some musical activities like playing piano and guitar that do involve complex hand movements. It seems though that music making as a whole is good for the brain. I should also include music listening. Dr. Daniel J. Levitin is a neuroscientist and musician. He wrote an article call The Music of My Mind. He shows the convergence of  music and neuropsychology when composers write their music in certain ways. He also debunks the theory that you are affected differently with different types of music. The power of the effect is related more to how well you like the music.

I am an amateur french horn player. For me the body part that is doing complex actions are not my hands but my lips. Where my brain gets a good workout is when the notes are just so fast, that the best way to play them is not to think. There is a lot of interesting information on this subject on Dr. Daniel J. Levitin’s site.

Now that was delicious!

Wednesday, July 4th, 2012

One of the documentaries that I am trying to develop will focus on the science of the hand, looking at the hand-brain connection. Part of that story will involve the research of Dr. Kelly Lambert who wanted to understand why epidemiological research has suggested our generation is up to 10 times more likely to experience depression than our grandparents, even though their times were physically tougher. There were many parts to the research but I would like to quote her on one of the experiments;

“Putting the effort-driven reward idea to the test in the laboratory, my students and I designed a study in which one group of rats was trained to dig for froot loop rewards each day (worker rats) whereas a second group was given their froot loop rewards regardless of their effort (trust fund rats). After six weeks, each animal was presented with an unsolvable problem (unbeknownst to the rats) and the worker rats persisted for nearly twice as long as the trust fund rats. The “effort-driven reward” training appeared to have immunized the worker rats against the “learned helplessness” often associated with depression. Also interesting, when we tested for the presence of a brain neuropeptide (Neuropeptide Y) that is associated with resilience, the worker rats had more than their trust fund counterparts.”

It turns out that resilience is not the only trait developed from doing effort-based activities. Jonah Lehrer, a contributing editor at Wired, wrote in his blog a post called “Why Making Dinner Is a Good Idea”. A test was done where mice, in order to get some sugary (polycose) water, had to press a lever. As the number of times required to press the lever increased (up to 15), the water somehow became tastier. The scientists measured these preferences in part by analyzing the rate and duration of “licking bursts”. The speculative conclusion was that the association of effort and deliciousness would have been an adaptive association back when calories were scarce, and we’d sometimes have to work hard to end up with a rather disgusting dinner.

Both studies seem to point to extra activity in the areas of the brain associated with our sense of well-being. In simple terms when your striatum is excited, life is good. Inversely, obese people tend to have reduced activation in the striatum after sipping an ice cream treat, which leads to increased consumption. In other words, they kept on consuming the milkshake in a manic search for satisfaction.