Health and Science

Health and Science – Voice Recognition Software May Diagnose Parkinson’s Disease

Voice recognition software isn’t altogether new to the public, but with the introduction of programs like the iPhone’s “Siri,” it will quickly become a ubiquitous tool in our lives. But outside of sending text messages or looking for great tacos nearby, voice recognition may be able to help doctors diagnose a disease much earlier (and much cheaper) than ever before.

Max Little, from the University of Oxford, has been using voice recognition software to detect changes in a person’s voice over time as a way to either confirm, or detect the onset of, Parkinson’s disease. Parkinson’s is a degenerative disorder of the central nervous system that is normally diagnosed through an analysis of symptoms, along with lengthy and expensive tests to rule out other possible conditions. However, there is no true concrete method of detecting it at this time.

Mr. Little is hoping to change that by taking recordings of a person’s voice over a period of time and using an advanced algorithm to analyze changes in their voice and compare those changes to many subjects who have been confirmed to have Parkinson’s disease. Using data that he collected from 50 patients with Parkinson’s who had their voice recorded once a week for six months, he was able to “teach” his machine to detect common changes among all of them. In recent tests, he was able to figure out which patients had the disease and which didn’t with 86 percent accuracy.

Now, Little is hoping to improve his testing with the aid of crowd sourcing. He is inviting the public to call in to a phone number that he has established and leave recordings so that he can improve his software. He aims to collect another 10,000 voices, and is encouraging people from around the world to help him out so that his software can learn as much as possible.

Little is quick to say that his program will not replace any clinical experts, but rather offer them a quicker and cheaper diagnostic alternative to what they current employ, while at the same time providing them with data on the symptoms of the disease and how they change over time.

It’s incredibly interesting that a technology that allows us to talk to our phones to figure out if it will rain or not, or to order movie tickets, is also able to do something amazing like diagnose degenerative diseases and further medical research.


Health and Science – Crowd-Sourcing Yields Potential Breakthrough in Disease Science

Crowd-sourcing has become highly popular in a number of different areas, from social media outlets like Facebook and YouTube to things as technical as planet discovery for NASA. The thought process behind crowd sourcing is essentially taking the saying “Two heads are better than one” to the extreme.

In this case, a specific group of people were targeted to help with a problem–video game players. As part of a collective effort between the Center for Game Science and various biochemists, the online game “Foldit” was created. Foldit is essentially a puzzle game designed to figure out a new way to redesign enzymes in order to get the best score–one that yields the lowest energy configuration for the enzyme.

As the players continued to work at the puzzle, designing increasingly better ways to reconfigure the virtual enzyme, scientists were testing their solutions in a real-world lab to see which ones worked best. The result, which was published in the January 22 edition of Nature Biotechnology, yielded an enzyme with 18 times more activity than it originally had.

“I worked for two years to make these enzymes better and I couldn’t do it,” said Justin Siegel, a post-doctoral researcher. “Foldit players were able to make a large jump in structural space and I still don’t fully understand how they did it,” he said.

While the new super enzyme that was created using this method has no real world application, it sets the precedence for future games to be used to solve the most intricate problems surrounding enzyme redesign and efficiency. Foldit could easily yield an enzyme that could cure multiple strains of the flu virus, for instance.

To think that something this important could come from a bunch of people solving a puzzle video game isn’t just a neat idea–it’s revolutionary.

Crowd-sourcing, in many ways, is the future of problem solving. With the increased ability to effortlessly communicate with people all over the world, the potential to put many ideas together on one issue is huge. In instances where the cure for a disease is concerned, it could mean the difference between life and death.


Health and Science – 17 Year Old Girl Invents Nanoparticle That Kills Cancer

I don’t know about you, but when I was 17 years old, I was worried about the next test coming up and wondering if the girl who sat in front of me in English class liked me or not. It’s a good thing some other 17 year olds are doing something exceedingly more productive.

Angela Zhang from Cupertino, California just won a one hundred thousand dollar grand prize at the Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology for designing an “image-guided, photo-thermal controlled drug releasing multifunctional nanosystem for the treatment of cancer stem cells.” When I was 17, I made a nice drawing of a tree once.

That design title in and of itself is impressive, but the purpose behind it is revolutionary and may mean huge things for cancer treatment. Her design is an improvement on current cancer treatments because it delivers drugs directly into tumor cells without affecting the healthy cells surrounding them. This new nanoparticle is also able to be activated by a laser, offering doctors a means to control when, where, and how drugs are deployed into a patient.

When asked why she decided to focus on cancer treatment, she spoke about the deaths of her grandfather and great-grandfather. “I asked, ‘Why does this happen? Why does cancer cause death? What are we doing to fix this and what can I do to help?’ she said.

While her invention won’t be ready to use in actual patients for a little while, to make room for testing, it is already being called the “Swiss army knife of cancer treatments” because of the vast array of uses it may bring to the table.

While many people may question the actions of younger generations, young people like Angela–who put over 1,000 hours into this project–should serve as a beacon of hope that there are those who have chosen to focus on the serious issues that affect all of us in order to advance medical technology and treatment. With innovations in nanotechnology happening all the time, it will be interesting to see what will come out next that will change the world of tomorrow.


Health and Lifestyle – VI Fit: Bringing Active Video Games to the Blind

It’s a well-known fact that maintaining a sedentary lifestyle is not conducive to good health. Lack of physical activity has been linked to heart disease, obesity, and even cancer. It’s also true that individuals who are visually impaired tend to have fewer opportunities to engage in physical activities that promote good health and provide enough stimulation to maintain proper fitness. This is especially true in visually impaired children, and results in lower performance motor skills, reduced physical fitness, and an increased chance of obesity.

Ever since the release of the Nintendo Wii, a video game system designed around physical interactions with the video games, people have been heralding the design for its ability to not only entertain, but to actually serve as a way to improve physical fitness and motor skills–so much so, that they’re even used in rehabilitation centers. These types of games have been called “exergames” since the player must be physically involved in order to play.

Now, a group called VI Fit has devised a way to use the Nintendo Wii platform to create games that can benefit the visually impaired. Up until now, these games required the user to be sighted. However, with programming tweaks, they’ve developed multiple games that can utilize the audio and vibration functions built into the motion sensing controller to make these types of games accessible.

One of the games offered is a take on the classic “Whack-a-Mole” game. Called, Pet-n-Punch, the player helps a farmer get rid of varmints by bopping them on the head, while at the same time avoiding the cats that pop up from time to time as well. While it may not seem like something that will cause you to break a sweat, this game is VI Fit’s most physical offering and it gives the player a much higher workout than the other two that they feature.

A second game is a take on the popular Wii Bowling game. By using vibration feedback in the controllers, the player can find the direction they need to throw their ball while receiving audio and speech effects giving the result of each throw. After evaluating the type of physical exertion needed to play this game, they found that the player’s activity was comparable to walking. Two players can play at a time.

Their third offering is a take on Wii Tennis. The controller offers vibration and audio feedback to let the player know when to serve and when to return the ball. As with the bowling, this game can be played alone or with a friend. They tested this game at Camp Abilities with 13 blind children and found that the amount of physical activity needed to play the game was enough to maintain proper physical fitness.

By offering accessible versions of these new exergames, VI Fit has given blind children a huge opportunity to stay active, stay healthy, and have fun in their homes with their family and friends. What’s even better is that you don’t actually need to own a Nintendo Wii game system to play the games. All that is required is a $30 Nintendo Wii controller and a Windows PC with Bluetooth (or a $15 USB Bluetooth dongle) to connect the controller wirelessly. The games mentioned above can all be downloaded from their website for free at

Health – You Are What You Eat

We’ve all heard that saying before, and it’s always been a reference to how the types of foods you eat affect your well being and overall health. However, a new study has shown that our food may become part of us in a pretty remarkable way–and I’m not talking about swallowing some chewing gum that got stuck, either.

This new study has shown that not only are we absorbing nutrients from the food that we eat, but also some of its genetic material as well. The researchers discovered that there were incredible amounts of rice micro-RNA floating around in the bloodstream of their Chinese test subjects. The genetic material floating around in the blood isn’t just along for a ride, either–at least that’s not what they think. In test mice, the same rice micro-RNA changed certain gene expressions and altered the liver’s ability to filter LDL cholesterol. While they haven’t pinned down any measureable effects in humans, it’s very likely that this errant genetic material might be affecting our genes as well.

These findings that show our food might actually regulate how our genes are expressed are certainly an interesting discovery, but they bring up a lot of questions–some positive, some not. On the plus side, this may help explain why certain foods seem to be medicinal. The general evolution of this idea would be to find foods that can help treat certain diseases based on how their genetic material comingles with ours. The negative, though, concerns those foods that are genetically modified, which has become a popular process to control everything from crop yields to the duration of freshness in a number of different foods that span nearly every group. Are these seemingly harmless changes affecting us in ways we haven’t discovered yet? They can’t say yet, and there needs to be a lot more research performed before they’ll have any sort of definitive answer.

When I was a kid, my mom always used to tell me that if I ate any more strawberries that I’d become one. Turns out she might be right.

Health and Science – Vaccines from Space: Another Shuttle Legacy

With the space shuttle missions now over for the foreseeable future, many are looking back on the achievements of the program. Aside from advancing our knowledge of our planet, solar system, and universe, the space shuttle missions also gave researchers a unique opportunity to study certain diseases as well.
Biotech firms like Astrogenetix discovered that when they removed gravity from the equation, bacteria is able to grow at a much faster pace. Specifically, they studied the bacteria responsible for the food-borne illness salmonella, and MRSA, the deadly infection that comes from staph bacteria that is largely resistant to the antibiotics normally used to treat staph infections. In the past three years, different batches of the two bacteria were taken up into space a dozen times.
Now, if you’re like me, you’re probably thinking that the rapid growth of deadly bacteria inside of a metal box floating around the planet might not be the best idea, or perhaps the safest situation for the astronauts. However, that concern aside, this method of growing bacteria was hugely advantageous. By growing the bacteria at an exceptionally rapid rate, researchers were able to begin to understand how they grow and what specific genes are responsible for their growth and spread. This also allowed them to extract DNA in much larger quantities, which gave even more insight into what makes these things tick. With an increased knowledge of their reproduction, advances in vaccine creation will come at a much faster pace.
Many people, including great minds like Carl Sagan, believed that the space shuttle was largely an unimpressive waste of money and space travel–a very advanced, very expensive space delivery vessel. While it is true that the shuttle was used frequently for re-supply missions and not for exploration, the fact that it helped aid in the understanding of many other things, both on this planet and floating in the infinite ether around it, while it made its delivery runs speaks to the versatility of the missions that took place. They were never for a singular purpose. To say anything less is to marginalize what was accomplished and what can now be accomplished in the future with the knowledge and experience gained from the missions that took place. We may not stand and watch men and women riding explosions into the sky any time soon, but whatever the future may bring in that respect will be due to their efforts.

Health and Science – New Procedure Means Limb Re-growth is Possible

When you read things like this, it seems like it’s out of some science fiction movie set far into the future. But in reality, these amazing things are happening now.
U.S. Marine Isaias Hernandez lost seventy percent of his right thigh muscles when an enemy mortar round exploded right next to him in Afghanistan. Were it not for the TV he was carrying that shielded most of his body from the blast, including his head, he would have surely died.
Having survived the incident, doctors were faced with the daunting task of trying to fix his leg. Normally, with injuries of this caliber, doctors would be forced to amputate. But thankfully, a newly-available procedure became an option for Hernandez which is part of a seventy million dollar investment the military made into regenerative medicine research.
In preparation for his operation, Hernandez was asked to build up as much of the remaining thirty percent of muscle tissue that he had left. Doctors then surgically entered his thigh and placed a thin slice of something called extracellular matrix made of a material containing, among other things, pig bladder hormone which acted as a growth-promoting substance.
Since his operation, doctors have said that he’s made “a remarkable recovery,” and he has regained nearly all of the strength in his right thigh.
This case, and others like it, mark a monumental leap forward in how we deal with severe limb trauma. It is especially exciting because, up until the successes of this project, doctors believed that once skeletal muscle was damaged, it was not possible for it to re-grow. These treatments have huge implications on both the battlefield and for doctors who are dealing with regular citizens facing possible amputation.
It’s tough to imagine the range of emotions one must go through when they are told that most of their leg is gone and it is not possible to fix it. With science like this, there is a new hope for these people to continue to lead happy and independent lives.

Health and Science – Malleable Memory

Think about this for a second: if you were given the opportunity to erase a painful memory from your past, would you do it?

It may sound like something out of a movie, where a person’s memory is erased or manipulated by some fictional scientific development, but it turns out that scientists may be able to do just that in the near future. 

Your brain is a massive computer containing countless numbers of interconnected circuits that join together to make you the person you are.  Those circuits are the product of an elegant dance between the electrical and the biological.  Scientists have discovered that a protein called PKM is actually linked to a person’s ability to recollect disturbing incidents in their lives.  By focusing in on the circuitry in the brain that holds that particular memory, doctors may be able to weaken or entirely eliminate the memory.  They plan to do this by inhibiting the PKM protein in a specific circuit so that any bodily reaction to the memory would be removed.

This process requires that they first understand the circuits that contain memory so they can isolate and manipulate them.  While they have begun to do this in small animals like snails, the human brain is vastly more complex and will require a serious amount of study before any memory edits can be performed with any degree of reliability.

That said, this research shows great promise for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and long-term memory disorders like Alzheimer’s.  These treatments, if they do become feasible, could mean a new lease on life for people whose painful memories affect them long after the incident and could greatly assist in patient therapy.

So what do you think?  Should scientists be playing around with our memories?  If you were given the chance, would you delete yours?


Health and Wellness – Beat That Cold!

While winter is finally on its way out, that doesn’t mean that colds are going away any time soon.  In fact, with the swings in temperature, it may mean that colds will be more prevalent over the next couple of months.

The most important thing you can do is act quickly when a cold starts to hit.  Think of treating a cold like planning to go somewhere when you expect a snowstorm.  It’s easier to get going before things get bad than to start when things are already at their worst.

So, what’s the best way to tackle an impending cold?  While there are a number of remedies ranging from over-the-counter drugs to at-home cures passed down from generations, studies have been performed to provide the public with the most effective way to battle the common cold.  The result is that zinc lozenges are absolutely the way to go.

If taken right when you feel a cold coming on, they can reduce the length and severity of the cold by as much as 40 percent, meaning that you’ll be sniffling and sneezing much less than you would be otherwise.  The studies found that coughing was reduced from five days to two, and the total duration of the cold from one week to about four days.

Again, it’s important that you get on it as soon as the primary symptoms arise.  The most effective dosage is about 13 milligrams every four hours or so throughout the day, for a total of about 50-65 milligrams per day.

Scientists believe that zinc is so effective because it eliminates the cold virus in existing mucus membranes.  Your body constantly replenishes these membranes, so if you start taking zinc quickly, the virus won’t be able to move onto subsequent membranes that your body is creating.  You simply get rid of it as your body’s natural cycles occur.

They also say that the direct nasal applications are probably not a good idea, as they can have some nasty side-effects.  If you’ve already got a cold coming on, you definitely don’t want to add to it.  Also, if you do start taking zinc, be sure to monitor how your body reacts to it.  Not everyone can take zinc, and you may have an adverse reaction.  As with any over-the-counter medications, if you do have any bad side effects, stop using the zinc lozenges and just wait the cold out.  Most only last for a week anyway, so it’s not worth it to cause your body any harm.

Now that you’ve got the know-how, battle your next cold with zinc.  You’ll be back to normal in half the time and ready to enjoy the nicer spring weather.


Health and Science – New Development in Burn Treatment

While you may not hear about guns curing people of ailments, there is one that has virtually revolutionized the way burn victims are treated.

Current conventional methods heal burns on the body’s largest organ in as long as weeks, sometimes months.  During this time, the wounds are highly susceptible to infection, which is the reason why many people die from severe burns.  Even though scientists are able to grow skin, the grafts sometimes are not made in enough time to save the patient.

Enter Jorg Gerlach, a scientist who has developed a spray gun that will change everything.  The spray gun uses healthy stem cells, taken from unaffected areas of the patient’s skin and mixed with a sterile solution, to work its wonders.  As it sprays, it coats the affected tissue with the healthy stem cell solution, enabling the skin to heal itself incredibly fast.

In a video demonstrating the technology, a police officer had been severely burned during a fourth of July party.  His arm, he said, looked like a charred piece of meat.  When he went to the hospital, doctors asked him if he would be willing to try an experimental new treatment that they felt he would be a great candidate for.  He agreed, and they went to work.

The officer had checked himself into the hospital on a Friday evening with second degree burns all over his right side.  Miraculously, by Monday morning, less than 4 full days later, his skin was entirely healed.  So far, over a dozen patients have been treated using the spray gun, all of them with stellar results.

This new treatment has been hailed as the possible “holy grail” of burn treatment.  With the ability to cut down healing time from weeks and possibly months to only days, this new device has the potential to help millions of burn victims around the world.

While certain types of stem cell research are wrought with controversy, hopefully this one, which only takes healthy cells from the patient’s own skin, will be acceptable and widely used as quickly as possible.