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Biomedical Engineering

The Biomedical Engineering blog is the place for conversation and discussion about topics related to engineering principles of the medical field. Here, you'll find everything from discussions about emerging medical technologies to advances in medical research. The blog's owner, Chelsey H, is a graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) with a degree in Biomedical Engineering.

When You Should Swear

Posted May 15, 2016 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Everyone has the same reaction when they stub their toe on the edge of the bed. And now we know why it makes you feel…better.

A phenomenon known as lalochezia allows us to tolerate more discomfort for a longer period of time when we swear. There is something exciting about swearing because swear words come from taboo topics. It's also linked to an emotion which sparks a biological response in our bodies to help us tolerate pain.

You can't stock up on swear words though: the more you swear the less it helps.

Learn more by watching this video!

12 comments; last comment on 05/16/2016
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Revolutionary Regeneration

Posted May 03, 2016 2:02 PM by Chelsey H

Have you ever seen a gecko regrow its tail? The regeneration of limbs by salamanders and geckos was the inspiration for research done at UNSW Australia. The research team identified stem cell therapies capable of regenerating any human tissue damaged by injury, disease or aging.

The research, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science journal, describes a process in which bone and fat cells are reprogramed to induced multipoint stem cells (iMS).

The ground-breaking technique switches off the memory of fat and bone cells and converts them into stem cells so they can repair different cell types once they are put back in the body. This is done by mixing the cells in a bath of 5-Azacytidine (AZA) and a platelet-derived growth factor. AZA is known to induce cell plasticity and helps "relax" the hard-wiring of the cell. The growth factor expands the cell transforming it into iMS cells. When the stem cells are inserted into the damaged tissues site, they multiply, promoting growth and healing.

Salamander limb regeneration also depends on the plasticity of differentiated cells. Image Credit

The technique has been successfully demonstrated in mice and human trials are expected to start in late 2017. Dr Ralph Mobbs, Neurosurgeon and Conjoint Lecturer with UNSW's Prince of Wales Clinical School, will lead the trials.

"The therapy has enormous potential for treating back and neck pain, spinal disc injury, joint and muscle degeneration and could also speed up recovery following complex surgeries where bones and joints need to integrate with the body," Dr Mobbs said.

5 comments; last comment on 05/05/2016
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Did You Inherit Your Sweet Tooth?

Posted April 19, 2016 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

"No thanks, I'm not a dessert person."

I don't know about you, but not much else inspires me to hate someone as much as that statement does. Who doesn't like dessert?! Why are some people able to resist the bowl of Hershey Kisses on the conference table but they eat an entire bag of Sour Patch Kids in one sitting?

Scientist have discovered that some humans have genes that make them more sensitive to bitter compounds, suggesting that there might be differences in how the other four tastes - sweet, sour, salt, and umami - are genetically wired. Image credit

The study of perception of sweetness was done comparing identical and fraternal twins with non-twin siblings and unpaired twins. Twins are helpful for studying genetic factors since identical twins share almost all their genes and fraternal twins share about half.

The researchers at Monell Chemical Senses Center gave the twins and other subjects two natural sugars (glucose and fructose) and two artificial sweeteners (aspartame and NHDC) and then asked them to rate the perceived intensity of the solution.

The study found that a single set of genes account for about 30 percent of the variance in sweet taste perception between people for both natural and artificial sugars.

Much to my dismay (who doesn't want to blame genes for bad habits), the findings do not mean that people who have a weaker ability to taste sweet necessarily dislike sugar or vice versa. The researchers still need to see whether the results have implications on people's food behavior. This is a challenge to study because researchers rarely get an accurate picture of what a person eats every day.

Danielle Reed, the lead researcher for this study, says the variation in taste may have to do with the fact that humans evolved in so many different geographies and around so many different types of food.

These days, I would love to be more sensitive to sugar since it's found in everything and has become a serious health risk. But as I sit and enjoy a hot cocoa, I think I'll just wait for my genes to change. J

The full study appears in the journal Twin Research and Human Genetics.

4 comments; last comment on 04/20/2016
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Revolutionizing the Prosthetic Hand to Teach It New Tasks

Posted April 13, 2016 12:00 AM by Engineering360 eNewsletter

Engineers are working to develop a prosthetic hand that will give users a sense of feedback and a realistic sense of touch.

Read more.


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Five Design Flaws in Humans

Posted April 12, 2016 2:54 PM by Chelsey H

While the human brain is the most advanced of any mammal, our bodies are less than properly designed for the daily wear-and-tear they experience.

1. An unsound spine

When our ancestors walked on all fours, their spines arched, like a bow and like a dog's. The single bow curve allows the spine to withstand the weight of suspended organs and reduces pressure on the lower vertebrae. But then we had to stand up and walk on two legs (AKA bipedalism). The spine was forced to become a column with a curve at the lower back and, to stay balanced, a curve in the upper spine in the opposite direction. This puts tremendous pressure on the lower back causing lower back pain. Image Credit

2. An inflexible knee

The knee is a very complex joint between two huge levers - the femur and the tibia. While this is really all we need to walk, it does lead to some serious injuries, which is why every major sport makes it illegal to hit an opponent's knee from the side.

3. Crowded teeth

While teeth in general are pretty critical to humans, we don't need as many molars as we grow. Humans typically have three molars on each side of the upper and lower jaw. When our brains expanded in size, the jaw grew wider and shorter, crowding out the back molars. These wisdom teeth, so named because they appear later in adulthood when you're "wise", may have been useful before we learned to cook, now they are mostly just a nuisance that need to be removed.

4. A backward retina

The design of the retina forces light to travel the length of each cell, as well as through blood and tissue, to reach the equivalent of a receiver on the cell's backside. Because of this, the retina can detach from its supporting tissue causing blindness. It also created a blind spot where cell fibers converge at the optic nerve - making the brain refill the hole. Fun fact - the octopus has a flipped retina.

5. Meandering arteries

We've all hit the ironically named funny bone. The awful tingling sensation is the result of a human design flaw. The blood flow into each of our arms and legs from one main artery, which enters the limb on the front sides of the body by the biceps or hip flexors. The supply blood tissue at the limb's back side the artery branches out, bundling itself with nerves. At the elbow, an artery branch meets up with the ulnar nerve, which animates your little finger and is very close to the skin. That's why when it's it your arm goes numb or "funny."

The list was adapted from a list of 10 human design flaws!

Do you have any experience with the design flaws listed? Any ideas for redesign?

15 comments; last comment on 04/15/2016
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Is Altruism Predetermined?

Posted March 26, 2016 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

A new study by researchers at UCLA looked at altruism in the human brain. The researchers, Leonardo Christov-Moore and Marco Iacoboni, found that altruism may be more hard-wired in the brain than previously believed.

The first study had 20 participants. The participants were shown a video of a hand being poked with a pin and then they were asked to imitate photographs of faces displaying a range of emotions - happy, sad, angry, and excited. The researchers scanned participants' brains with functional MRIs, noting which areas showed activity.

The MRIs showed activity in the amygdala, associated with experiencing emotion and pain as well as the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for regulating behavior and controlling impulses. Image credit

In the second activity of this study participants played the dictator game. This game is used to study decision-making: each participant is given a certain amount of money to keep for themselves or share with a stranger. After each participant had completed the game, researchers compared their payouts with brain scans.

Participants who showed the strongest responses in the areas of the brain associated with perceiving pain and emotion were the most generous, giving away an average of 75 percent of their money. "Researchers referred to this tendency as 'prosocial resonance' or mirroring impulse, and they believe the impulse to be a primary driving force behind altruism."

The second study had 58 participants. Each was subjected to 40 seconds of a noninvasive procedure which temporarily dampens activity in specific regions of the brain. Twenty participants were in the control group and others had either the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex or the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex dampened. Combined, this blocks impulses of all varieties.

According to Chistov-Moore, "if people really were inherently selfish, weakening those areas of the brain would free people to act more selfishly." In fact, though, the participants with disrupted activity in the brain's impulse control center were 50 percent more generous than members of the control group.

This demonstrates that lessening the activity of these areas frees an individual's ability to feel for others.

Another interesting note was that the recipient of the generosity changed based on which part of the brain was altered. Participants whose dorsomedial prefrontal cortex was dampened were more generous overall but those whose dorsolateral prefrontal cortex was dampened tended to give more money to recipients with higher incomes - people who appeared to be less in need of a handout.

This may be because with that area of the brain dampened, participants temporarily lost the ability for social judgments to affect their behavior.

The findings of both studies suggest potential avenues for increasing empathy, which is especially critical in treating people who have experienced desensitizing situations like prison or war.

University of California - Los Angeles. "Your brain might be hard-wired for altruism: Neuroscience research suggests an avenue for treating the empathically challenged." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 18 March 2016. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/03/160318102101.htm>.

8 comments; last comment on 03/28/2016
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