Tag Archives: Science

Let There Be Light! A breakthrough in microtechnology that is giving blind people back some sight.

I couldn’t imagine loosing any of my senses, least of all my sight. To go blind slowly over time must be one of the most challenging illnesses a person can have to face. Knowing that there is nothing that can stop a hereditary degeneration of your sight must be heartbreaking, to say the least. Just imagine having the memory of what a flower covered in morning dew looked like as a sunbeam touched the tip of the petal, or being able to recall how you used to look in a mirror but can no longer see yourself, to know that there are wonders beyond most peoples own imaginations that are possible to observe in a sunset and to have all of that knowledge, that discover, taken from you along with your independence has to be one of life’s most unfair consequences of genetic illnesses.

Like any disability that worsens over time you’d hold on to the hope that one day science will find a cure, but it would seem an unfathomable wish for them to cure blindness. This is why the news that came out this week of a microchip that has the potential to restore at least the basic functions of sight seems almost too good to be true.

Some forms of blindness are caused by a degeneration of the photo-receptors within the eye. These are the cells that allow us to interpret light signals into meaning, by building on signals received about colour and brightness. With this information our brain is then able to construct the images that allow us to perceive the world around us. Clever, clever nature.

In people with degenerative eye conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa (RP) the optic nerve is left mostly intact. There are two ‘treatment’ options available at the moment, the first involves forms of gene therapy and other protective factors, which have been shown to slow degeneration in people with this and similar conditions. However, this has to be received at an early enough stage of the degeneration.  The second option is what this current research focused on, and sounds more like something from a science fiction film than reality. They invoke electrical stimulation of the surviving retinal networks to try to produce some form of visual experience in people who’s level of degeneration is beyond that which might be helped by the other form of ‘treatment’. More specifically in this case a microchip is implanted under the transparent retina to act as electronic man-made ‘replacement’ photoreceptors.

The chips are able to sense light and create signals from this at many pixel locations. This is achieved using “microphotodiode arrays” or MPDA’s.  There are 1500 pixel generating arrays on a chip, and each acts independently as a light sensitive electrode, this is subsequently able to provide an electrical stimulus to the neurons nearby. In this way it is unique to other approaches, within each element is the electrode set allowing for the electrical stimulation of neurons to be caused by the reception of light. There are also photodiodes found within the chip which allow for varied amplifications to be transmitted based on the level of light reception.

With the chip in place within the eye, the photodiodes are able to capture an image each, several times a second, simultaneously.

Illustration from the original paper found here . It gives a better demonstration of the set up of the microchip with the electrodes and MPDAs, and also a nice picture of an eye is always a winner. (I can remember dissecting an eye in alevel bio, it was fascinating)

It’s enough to make your head hurt to think about, I mean really. There are 1500 elements able to transmit signals from the photodiodes, which are able to capture an image in a ridiculously small time frame and transfer this into meaningful information by way of electrical impulses to the bipolar cells that would have originally received information from the rods and cones of the eye. With the amount of current that is sent by each electrode determinable by the brightness recorded by each photodiode.  Oh, did I also forget to mention that the chip that all of this occurs on is a mere 4mm square in size!

In this trial study of ‘the chip’ three people with hereditary degenerative blindness were given the implant. They were tested 7 to 9 days after the implant with some psycho-physical tests. If they achieved well on these they went on to be tested for recognition of everyday objects. Due to the electrical nature of the chip it was possible for two test conditions to be employed for all these tests, a chip ‘on’ and chip ‘off’ baseline condition, which allowed for statistically significant results to be acquired.

All three patients were able to detect single electrode single pulse simulations, the perception of this varied slightly between patients but they all reported seeing the stimuli.

They went on to distinguish letters from one another, patient one begin able to tell the difference between U and I, and patient three going further by successfully distinguish four letters presented at random. Patients were also tested on pattern recognition, two of the three were able to correctly distinguish the direction of grid patterns, showing that the chips have high spatial resolution capacities.

Patient two show better recognition in further tests, and interestingly was the only patient of the three to have the chip placed in a slightly different part of the eye. In these cases the patient, identified as Miikka, was able to name objects presented in an unknown dining table situation, including distinguishing between a fork and spoon, as well as an apple and banana.  In subsequent optional tests he went on to read his name (a clip that many will have seen on the news) and pointed out the fact that they’d made a spelling mistake!

The fact that they’d only had the chips in place for just over a week and this was having an impact on their perception of light is impressive enough, but for one participant to go on to read their own name is quite incredible for a first trial.

It’s difficult to find fault in this study, you could say it only worked very successful on one subject, but that wouldn’t be fair at all. It seems promising that all of the patients were able to respond to light stimuli in the first instances.  There are any number of individual differences that might account for the relative different levels of impact that the chip had on all three participants.  One might try to say the media exaggerated the findings in some way but the majority of the reports I saw were very careful to give a full background of the type of blindness that this is appropriate for, as well as the fact that it is very new technology and that it doesn’t ‘restore full sight’.

No questioning then that the results are truly remarkable, and although the success wasn’t replicated in all three subjects, all involved had slight improvements above the level of vision that they had previous to the implant. This research is clearly going to continue to develop into something more and more complex throughout its research future and I hope it can go on to be offered to people with RP more widely in years to come.

It is not often that there is a developement of such magnitude that I’d feel comfortable ending on such a hopeful and positive note but I really do think that this will one day be able to improve the everyday lives of those who have degenerative eye sight. I hope that it’ll go on to allow them to regain the independence that has been taken from them by their conditions and also relieving some of the demands on the carers who have to become their replacement eyes at the moment.

The original paper is:

Subretinal electronic chips allow blind patients to read letters and combine them to words

Eberhart Zrenner, Karl Ulrich Bartz-Schmidt, Heval Benav, Dorothea Besch, Anna Bruckmann, Veit-Peter Gabel, Florian Gekeler, Udo Greppmaier, Alex Harscher, Steffen Kibbel, Johannes Koch, Akos Kusnyerik, Tobias Peters, Katarina Stingl, Helmut Sachs, Alfred Stett, Peter Szurman, Barbara Wilhelm, Robert Wilke.

and a full free PDF can be found here !

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Science is vital rally

Today I attended the Science is Vital rally in London outside the treasury to encourage Osbourne to rethink his proposals to cut the funding budget for science.
A plethora of scientists and others were there to show their support, and the afternoon was filled with speeches by people such as Dr Evan Harris, Simon Singh, Ben Goldacre, Colin Blakemore, Dr Petra Boynton, and a smattering of comedy sci!
All in all it felt like a very unified afternoon, and manged to get me thinking and hopefully will have raised the media awareness which we so need! I don’t want my future to be compromised by a government I didn’t even vote for, but it currently looks like this will happen.
I can’t write too much as I’m using my iPhone and it’s irritating to type on, but the rest of this post will be quotes from the day from signs I spotted to what people said..!

Science beats living in a cave
Putting on a stained lab coat dr evan Harris ‘i wasn’t a very good doctor and I was worse at doing laundry’
‘screening for applications at Eton are such that they elimate taking in those with the gene for shame and regret’- dr michael brooks. ‘we are living in a scientific age and deserve scientifically literate MPs’
Colin Blakemore pointing out that less than half of 1% of the GDP is actually invested in science.
Dr Petra ‘nurture young scientists’
Cutting the budget will compromise the training and saftey of young social
Scientists. Cuts in this country will have an impact on being able to do collaborative research with poorer countries, limiting both of our growths.
Science saves lives!!!
Ben goldacre donned an anorak and shared these gems: Nerd Power! The notion of a Brain Drain- already loosing brightest minds in academia to higher paying city jobs. “you either use it or you lose it”.

Things we can do to help!
1) sign the petiton http://scienceisvital.org.uk/
2) write to your MP
3) get others to sign the petiton!!!
4) come to the lobby on oct 12th
5) go along on the evening October 26th to the royal institute and make your views known!

Science is vital, come on guys you know this. Science is in everything, and affects us all! Get on it. Stop the stupidity and spread awareness.

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Barley Eating – Video

My mom managed to capture the last 30 seconds of Barley eating. I think it’s interesting how she’s trying to completely clear her bowl (in the side that she is already eating from) so one might suggest she is still feeling hungry when she walks away from the bowl, presumably because she ‘thinks’ it is empty!

The saga continues…

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Barley’s forgotten her food again. Hemispatial neglect symptoms in dog continue.

More images of Barley eating, these are from the 6th September, this time she didn’t eat her whole bowl and again ate only from the right hand side.

So the left hemispace neglect symptoms seem to still be present. I’m working on getting a video and mom has said she’ll try to get the vet to maybe get a scan of barley’s brain so will post those if/when they happen.

Have been in touch with a researcher in my dept at Royal Holloway who forwarded the info on to a researcher at UCL’s NIC. He seems very interested in it, and pointed out that Balint induced neglect symptoms in a dog in his early studies on neglect.

Again, anyone with any information that might be useful please get in touch with me. I should get back to writing up my research project, draft is due in next week and I’ve not written a great deal so far.

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Update: Apparent symptoms of neglect in Barley

It’s difficult for me to write with 100% accuracy about her progress as I am at university 80 miles away from home so am relying on interpretations from emails/photographs and updates via the phone from my mom (who is being incredibly helpful, so big thanks is due!).

But Barley’s most recent progress seems quite promising. My mom said she’d noticed Barley’s ‘fussy eating’ (as she calls it) about 2/3 weeks ago after what was likely to have been another stroke since her first major stroke just over a month ago, which left her with a strong left side weakness which she is now recovering from. The photo’s she has sent today indicate that if she is showing  signs of neglect or another similar neurological condition that these  symptoms are beginning to subside. However, I still think that they way in which she is eating is still very interesting, see the below photos for an illustration.

There seems to be a definite right side preference for the food bowl, (image one) and she clears a whole half almost down a straight line bisection before she moves across to the second ‘half’ of the bowl on her left hand side (image 3). The fourth picture seems to indicate she has changed position slightly, as in the previous photos she is standing right in front of the bowl and in this image she seems to be at it’s side. Again I’ll stress that I do not know precisely how she is eating, I keep trying to get my mom to work out video on her photo so we can have a more accurate step by step portrayal of this.

The fact that she’s managing now to eat her entire bowl without promting is a nice postive sign, I suppose as cool as it is that she’s showing these signs of a neglect I do really want her to get better and make a good recovery. I’m not all about ‘the science’.

I’ll end with this image of Barley being looked after by our new Puppy called Moya (who’s in training to be a dog for the disabled for my mom who has a degenerative spinal condition. I love Moya, she is awesome even if she ate my teddy bear last time I went home!)

Thanks to all of you who’ve seen the post about Barley and have shared it around. If anyone has any suggestions as to how I might better test for neglect signs other than with her food bowl please don’t hesitate to put them forward! I’m also not sure how long neglect can last in a dog when it hasn’t been induced medically for scientific research purposes. So I’d be most grateful for any info from those with veterinary science backgrounds or experience with such things as well. All other information about this condition that anyone may have would be really great to see too!

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For all the famous feminists you can name I bet you can’t name more than 2 famous female scientists

The BBC had this story up recently which I have mixed feelings about. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-11084476

It mentions a survey that highlights the clear lack of public awareness/general knowledge there is regarding important women in science. Would be interesting to see comparative data for general public knowledge of male scientists beyond ‘Einstien’. Or better yet ask people to name a theory or explain why those male scientists are famous.

I think a lot of the ignorance isn’t because these scientists are women necessarily, more likely that our knowledge of science, contemporary or otherwise comes from school and is built upon in further education and through popular culture. As such the theories and people behind them that we hear most about, happen to be those that have been put forward by men. I mean they have had a several 100 years head start on us ladies so it’s not surprising really!

The only way this perception of ‘important women in science’ would be likely to change is if it’s a team of wonder women at CERN who discover the Higgs, or a group of girls who find a cure for cancer, or an individual lady finally finds something concrete and indisputable about cognitive function in the non primate brain!

However, with a still heavily biased population of male scientists I think it is unlikely that these major breakthroughs will be down to one women or a group of only women!

I also don’t think it matters what the sex of an individual is if what they do and discover leads to a change our world or a change in our perception of our world in some way.

Why are we still so hung up on equality between the sexes in areas where it seems illogical and really doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things?

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Vote for science, but how?

Where do the main political parties stand on science?

Well it’s tough to tell… here’s some of what I  have ctrl C’ed ctrl V’ed from their manifestos.

Let’s start with good ol’ Labour. Their section titled ‘Investing in science and research

Begins hopefully with a sentence that might as well have been written by a five year old ‘Britain is among the best places in the world to do science’. Sorry? To “DO Science”, as in “when I am a grown up I’m want to do science”? Right. Carry on please..

We are committed to a ring-fenced science budget in the next spending review. To help us do better in turning research outputs into innovation’… Ring fenced? This can’t be positive. What ring, what are you hoping to keep fenced in, science monsters created from hybrid monkeysheepig embryos?

They go on to suggest a new ‘University Enterprise Capital Fund’.  And claim that ‘the proceeds of success will flow back into the higher education sector’. Why would proceeds need to ‘flow back’, oh yes, cause they want to cut the HE budget of course. And then there’s Brown going on about reducing the number of Visa’s for international students. Those international students pay like 3x more than UK students, we need their fee money Gordon!  Oh wait, ‘Universities will be encouraged to develop international links and research partnerships’.. is that by using the connections made by accepting international students? They go on to say they will ‘develop a new gateway for the export of NHS intellectual property and cutting-edge services’. Anybody know what that might even mean? An export of NHS intellectual property.. I hope that means export more doctors and nurses from university training into the hospitals where they are needed.

SIGH.

Moving on to the Conservative: who wish to ‘Make Britain the leading hi-tech exporter in Europe’ . They even got ‘Sir James Dyson’ to recommend things based on his review into how to do this. Because who better to tell you what to do than Henry the Hoover’s best friend!

So based on this “vacuous” knowledge they are going to (among other things) ‘encourage the establishment of joint university-business research and development institutes’. I don’t like this idea, business and university research, might that not lead to invested interest for results, and ultimately corruption and bias?

And ‘initiating a multi-year Science and Research Budget to provide a stable investment climate for Research Councils’. Well okay, but what is this budget, will it be smaller than the previous?

It’s not all sounding dire though, they go on to say they will ‘delay the implementation of the Research Excellence Framework so that it can be reviewed, because of doubts about whether there is a robust and acceptable way of measuring the impact of all research’. I personally am not overjoyed about the idea of this framework, and the ‘impact’ proposal, because it’s difficult to know the ‘impact’ of work before you set out.

They also mention the HE budget plans but no clear direction of their views on this are set out. Somehow they want to provide ‘10,000 extra university places this year’, and I’m not sure this is such a good thing. Universities are already oversubscribed, and the smaller town based uni’s will find it hard to accept any more students when they are already short on cash.

The final point they make about research applies to animal welfare! What a contradiction. They will ‘work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research’, whilst still wishing to maintain the UKs standard of research? Sorry folks, but that surely means rigorous and as-ethically-sound-as-possible animal research.. Okay yes, I think animal testing for cosmetics is wrong sure, but not if we’re ever going to cure cancer, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s etc, we need this work to be done.

Righty enough of the poor ickle monkeys, perhaps that can be a future post?

Let’s move on to the not least equally adorable to monkeys party, the Liberal Democrats. They want to create ‘a dynamic environment for science and innovation’.  So they say ‘Britain’s future depends on a vibrant research base and the ability of innovators to exploit the country’s intellectual capital to generate new home grown high tech industries’. Well that’s lovely. They go on to point out the current problems in the science world ‘despite Government rhetoric, overall public funding of science in real terms is no higher than it was two decades ago’. Yet Labour still maintain the UK is the best place to ‘do science’.

The Lib Dems lso rightly point out that ‘Britain’s Research and Development spend as a proportion of GDP remains near the bottom of the G8. There is no room for complacency.’ So what will they want to do about this? Let’s find out.

At least they are honest when they start with this statement, ‘in the current economic climate it is not possible to commit to growth in spending, but Liberal Democrats recognise the importance of science investment to the recoveryreshaping of the economy’. Well, thank you for not wanting to cut funds at least.

And here are some of their grounded and reasonable suggestions to keep things tickateeboo:

Respect the convention that the science budget, once allocated through the comprehensive Spending Review process, is not used for other purposes’. Can’t really ask for more, well maybe more money if it’s available! But making sure we get to keep what is allocated is a bonus.

This next proposal I really, really do agree with and like,  to ‘ensure that all state-funded research, including clinical trials, is publicly accessible and that the results are published and subject to peer review.’ Well this should be law, if you can’t google it, it isn’t science.

And for the sake of balance I will state here I do not agree fully with all they say, I am yet to be convinced this would be a good idea: ‘reform science funding to ensure that genuinely innovative scientific research is identified and supported, instead of basing funding decisions on narrow impact factors.’ What is a ‘narrow impact factor’ when it’s at home? How can you judge accurately the impact of work before tests have been run? This has potential to impair fields of research that might not seem promising but perhaps will have value later on.

So where does it get good again? Well for me it gets good here, they wish to ‘tackle the gender gap at all levels of scientific study and research to help increase the supply of scientists.’ I hope that happens, we need more men doing psychology and lots more female physicists. I’m sure Prof. Brain Cox can’t be the only pretty physicist one out there, come on girls show the world physics can be sexy in a short skirt as well!

It’s also nice to know Lib Dems would wish to ‘safeguard academic freedom and the independence of scientific advisers by amending the Ministerial Code to prevent government from bullying or mistreating advisers and distorting evidence or statistics’. Well frankly this should be happening anyway?!

So that’s that. All in all I’m left not sure, wish this election could be based on what each MP standing across the UK was like cause there are many scientifc minded MPs out there who I’d vote for in a heart beat, and it’s a shame this isn’t always full reflected by a parties complete manifesto. Luckily I’m not basing my vote purely on the science stand.

Perhaps I’ll vote for the monkey.

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