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A Paralysed Man Has Walked Again Using Only Brain Power

A 26-year-old man who suffered an injury 5 years ago that made him physically unable to walk has taken his first steps using only the power from his brain, according to a report in the Journal of NeuroEngineering and Rehabilitation. It is the first time that an individual who is unable to walk due to spinal cord injury (SCI) has purposefully operated a noninvasive brain computer interface (BCI) system for overground walking in real time, giving hope for the feasibility of developing BCI brain implants to help people to walk again.

Surveys indicate that for people who have paraplegia due to SCI, being able to walk again is a high priority on the way to improving their quality of life. Sixty-percent of them say they would be willing to use a BCI implant if it would help them to walk. Most people who become paralysed due to SCI achieve mobility from a wheelchair, but the sedentary lifestyle that ensues often leads to further problems such as heart disease. Not only do these cause further suffering to the individual, but they also contribute to medical costs.

Video provided by New Scientist

The study, led by Dr. Zoran Nenadic of the University of California, shows that it is possible for someone to use their own brain power to be able to walk again. The participant underwent training and tests for 19 weeks to prepare the walk. In each session, he gained more control and completed more and more tests. Initially, mental training was needed to reactivate the walking ability within the brain. From a seated position, and wearing an electroencephalogram (EEG) cap that read his brainwaves, the participant learned to control an avatar in a virtual reality environment. He also underwent physical training to recondition and strengthen the muscles in his legs.

Next, he practiced walking while suspended 5 cm above the ground, in order to be able to move his legs freely without supporting himself. On his 20th visit, he used these skills and an EEG-based system to walk along a 3.66-meter course on the ground. He wore a body-weight support system for aid and to stop him from falling. The author of the report adds that he was also able to carry on a light conversation during the walk, without interfering with the system, suggesting good real-time control.

Robotic exoskeletons and functional electrical stimulation (FES) have been used to achieve mobility, but they have disadvantages. First, they cannot exploit the neuroplasticity of the pathways between the brain and the spinal motors pools. Second, they lack the supra spinal control that an able body intuitively has. They also have the inconvenience of tending to rely on switches controlled manually. The researchers believe that if a system can be developed without these drawbacks, it would drastically improve the quality of life of individuals who are unable to walk due to SCI.

Spinal cord stimulation using BCIs offers hope of regaining voluntary lower extremity movements to those with SCI. It would enable intuitive and direct brain control of walking via an external device. If the feasibility of such a device can be established through successfully testing it among enough people, a fully implantable BCI could be developed, that might restore the ability to walk in a way that resembles nature.

In the words of Dr. Nenadic;

“Once we’ve confirmed the usability of this noninvasive system, we can look into invasive means, such as brain implants. We hope that an implant could achieve an even greater level of prosthesis control because brain waves are recorded with higher quality. In addition, such an implant could deliver sensation back to the brain, enabling the user to feel their legs.”

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Organs Age At Different Rates According To A New Study

A study using animals suggests ageing is not a gradual decline of the entire body all at once, but a more disordered process with some organs ageing faster than others. How each individual organ ages depends on its cellular proteins and its physiological function in the body, new research from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies proposes.

“Ageing is associated with the decline of protein, cell, and organ function,” wrote the authors in their study. “We identify 468 differences in protein abundance between young and old animals.”

Ageing, in clinical terms, is a progressive deterioration of organ function as the cells and proteins within organs decline. Meanwhile, the activity levels of genes decrease as animals age, past studies have shown, with most genes showing similar changes across all of the organs. However, a recent study using state of the art technologies on mice tissue concluded the vast majority of proteins remain unchanged in number with age. These recent findings made the issue of age more confusing.

How exactly does ageing affect proteins, then, if it doesn’t decrease their numbers? the scientists wondered. Do age-related changes differ from organ to organ?

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Co-first authors of the study, Dr. Brandon Toyama of the Salk Institute and Dr. Alessandro Ori of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory combined genomics and proteomics in their examination of young and old rats. By focusing on both genes and proteins at once, these two researchers and their colleagues were better able to analyse cellular changes in the animals’ livers and brains. What did they discover?

First, they were able to identify 468 differences in protein abundance between the younger and older animals. Second, they observed another set of 130 proteins showing age-related differences in terms of their location within cells, their phosphorylation state, or some other characteristic that would affect either the activity level or function of proteins.

Essentially, then, these discoveries expanded the list of proteins modified by age.

The scientists most dramatic finding? Most of the age-related differences in proteins could be found in just one organ or another for example the brain ageing faster than the liver. In fact, a larger proportion of proteins in the brain were affected by ageing compared to the liver. The reason why, the researchers theorized, is because cells in each of these organs function uniquely. Throughout adulthood, for instance, cells in the liver are frequently replaced. By contrast, neurons in the brain are non-dividing and must survive for the entire lifetime. And so they feel the effects of ageing most.

Based on their new findings, the researchers define ageing as an organ-specific deterioration of the cellular proteome. Going forward, they plan to study differences between individuals, nevertheless, the researchers believe this current work provides “a rich data resource to stimulate further studies of ageing.”

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15 Year Old Developing Diagnostic Test To Diagnose And Prevent Alzheimers

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A British school boy — who happens to be only 15 — has developed a new test with the potential to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease 10 years before the first symptoms appear. It may be able to stop the disease in the future.

Krtin Nithiyanandam from Epsom, Surrey, came up with his creation for the Google Science Fair, and has made it through to the final week. He’ll find out next month whether he has won the grand prize, a prestigious scholarship and the opportunity to take his idea further and begin development.

The test consists of an antibody that can penetrate the brain and attach to neurotoxic proteins that appear during the first stages of the disease. The “Trojan horse” antibodies also attach to fluorescent particles that can be observed through a brain scan.

“The main benefits of my test are that it could be used to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease before symptoms start to show by focusing on pathophysiological changes, some of which can occur a decade before symptoms are prevalent,” Krtin told The Daily Telegraph. “This early diagnosis could help families prepare for the future and ensure that existing drugs are used to better effect.”

Normally, neurodegenerative diseases like dementia are so difficult to diagnose and treat because of the blood-brain barrier, a highly exclusive barrier that separates circulating blood from the brain. The barrier is highly selective, often only allowing water, some gases, and the specific molecules crucial to neural function to pass through. According to research, The blood-brain barrier blocks the entry of 100 percent of large-molecule neurotheraputics and 98 percent of all small-molecule drugs. Krtin’s antibodies, however, can pass through the barrier, allowing them to be much more useful than any previous attempts at early diagnosis of the disease.

“Some of my new preliminary research has suggested that my diagnostic probe could simultaneously have therapeutic potential as well as diagnostic,” said Krtin, who attends Sutton Grammar School.

Lab tests showed that the antibodies had the capability to catch toxic proteins and stop them from developing further. This could potentially stop Alzheimer’s altogether.

Worldwide, almost 44 million people have Alzheimer’s or a related dementia. In the UK, 850,000 suffer from dementia, and the disease kills at least 60,000 people per year. In the U.S., Alzheimer’s is the only disease in the top 10 causes of death that cannot currently be prevented, cured, or even slowed.

“I chose Alzheimer’s disease because I am fascinated by neuroscience and the workings of the brain,” Krtin said. “I learned about its cruel and devastating effects and how it interferes with everyday life, and nobody should have to live with this debilitating disease.”

Krtin suffered from auditory problems as a child, and hopes to study medicine when he leaves school.

“We want to support and foster the next generation of scientists and engineers,” Andrea Cohan, Google Science Fair’s Marketing Lead, told The Daily Telegraph. “The UK has once again proven itself as a hotbed of science creation.” Cohan said that young people often possess the creative ability to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges.

Krtin, who moved to the UK from India with his family as an infant, told The Daily Telegraph that winning the science fair would be “life changing.”

“It would be more than a dream come true, and it would also encourage me to pursue my interests in science, and hopefully one day, to change the world.”