Curing chronic spinal cord injuries

(I do apologize for the marked decline in the sub-psychotic raging that normally goes on here. I will rectify this once all of my assignments are in. Nonetheless, here is another science news piece. The word limit I faced was one of the the cruellest integers ever imposed on someone like me, ergo I couldn’t get my teeth into the really interesting stuff. I will be attending the mentioned conference and my discussion with Mrs Owen was a long and enlightening one, so I’ll definitely be writing more on this topic in the near future.)

The world’s preeminent spinal cord injury researchers are speaking at a conference in Melbourne at the end of this month. Many of the scientists believe a cure for chronic spinal cord injuries is within reach.

The StepAhead Annual Scientific Conference will be held at St Vincent’s Hospital from November 30 through December 1.

“We’re ready to go,” StepAhead organizer Barbara Owen said, “our research fellows will be treating injured dogs in Thailand – 500 dogs a year get injured over there and the king and queen have constructed a $20 million research facility that we will use.”

“Dog spinal cords are anatomically very similar to human spinal cords,” she added. Previous studies using rodent models have been extremely successful.

StepAhead Australia is a leading international body based in Australia that coordinates and contributes funds to much of the research done into curing chronic spinal cord injuries.

“I’d rate our conference the best in the world,” Mrs Owen said, “we are very selective about who speaks – we only get the leading researchers in their respective fields.”

“We believe that a multicomponent approach is the best way to treat spinal cord injuries.”

Research into the most promising treatments has been unable to proceed to human trials due to pressure from religious groups who oppose the medical use of embryonic stem cells.

Glial precursor-derived astrocytes, nicknamed “star cells” due to their distinctive shape, cultured from embryonic tissue are thought to offer the best hope.

According University of Rochester researcher Prof. Mark Noble, who spoke at last year’s conference, the precursor cells can be cultured from embryos that have been naturally terminated.

Tissue from one embryo can provide enough cells to treat up to 150 patients.

Stem cells would need to be administered alongside a treatment that mitigates scar tissue, a toothpaste-like substance that builds up in the spinal cord at the injury site and stifles cell repair, to be successful.

Treatments discussed at last year’s StepAhead Annual Conference included the use of decorin, a protein that breaks down scar tissue; and engineering micro-scaffolding at the injury site.

Approximately 20,000 Australians are affected by chronic spinal cord injuries.

Most patients with chronic spinal cord injuries suffer loss of sensation below the injury site; as well as loss of motor function and loss of bladder, bowel and sexual functioning. Many also experience debilitating neuropathic pain.

The conference is sponsored by the Australian Government’s Department of Health and Ageing and the benefactors of StepAhead Australia.

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Politics on the brain

A series of studies have been published in various peer-reviewed scientific journals that suggest strong correlations exist between an individual’s personality, their brain structure and their political views.

The first widely-reported article, published online in April, found that the political orientations of young adults are correlated with mass concentrations in distinct brain structures. Ryota Kanai et al (of University College, London’s Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience) found that political liberalism and political conservativism could literally be measured via magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) techniques in two large studies.

“We found that greater liberalism was associated with increased gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex, whereas greater conservatism was associated with increased volume of the right amygdala,” the report said. “These results were replicated in an independent sample of additional participants.”

The right amygdala has been implicated in emotional behaviour processes and the anterior cingulate cortex has been implicated in higher reasoning processes.

“Previously, some psychological traits were known to be predictive of an individual’s political orientation,” lead author Ryota Kanai said in a statement. “Our study now links such personality traits with specific brain structure.”

According to the report, this confirmed previous data that indicated political orientation is correlated with self-regulation in conflict situations and recognition of others’ emotional states.

Related studies concerned the Five Factor Model (FFM). FFM was developed by Costa & McCrae, 1992 for linking personality traits to certain – particularly academic – behavioural patterns. The five factors are conscientiousness, openness, extraversion, agreeableness and neuroticism.

Colin DeYoung et al found in 2010 that FFM traits are strongly correlated with individual brain anatomy. Omura K et al previously found in 2005 that increased concentrations of greymatter in the amygdalae is linked to neuroticism and extraversion.

Alan S. Gerber et al from Yale University in the United States recently found in the relevant literature that FFM dispositional traits may be correlated with certain attitudes that inform political orientations, but the researchers’ report also identified the current limitations on such studies.

Last month, a study lead by Ryota Kanai found that the number of a person’s Facebook friends can be predicted by the mass of certain brain structures. The report echoed previously published studies that found that an individual’s number of real world friends parallels neuronal mass concentrations in brain structures.

Scientists Deborah Blum and Jonica Newby, and Professor Fred Mendelsohn of the Howard Florey Institute, debated in 2007 whether or not current magnetic resonance imagining technologies can accurately predict personality traits and behaviours on ABC News.

The emerging field has been dubbed biopolitics.