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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.

Wash Your Smartphone!

Posted December 02, 2016 12:00 AM by M-ReeD
Pathfinder Tags: bacteria smartphone

Every few years, we are treated to a story that sums up how filthy we are as human beings. Whether we are transferring E. coli via fecal matter to hotel room remote controls, or we are inserting our staph-infection laced fingers into bowling ball-holes, one thing is certain: We are disgusting!

And, if you think that is where the horror ends, you are mistaken.

The majority of us are creating another frightening bacteria situation with our most constant companion: our smartphones.

Long gone are the days when a book or a newspaper would suffice as reading material for a restroom visit. Want to read a book, a newspaper, check stocks, scan social media? You can do that on the conveniently-sized device in your hand, all from the comfort of your…toilet.

While you might diligently wash your hands once you have finished your business, are you also washing the phone that you just used?

Some findings about smartphones: One in six phones carries trace amounts of fecal matter; the bacteria found on one phone has 18 times more harmful bacteria on it than a public restroom handle and 10 times the bacteria than can be found on a public restroom toilet seat.

So, to answer the previous question: no. We are not washing our smartphones. Instead, every surface we have touched, both before and after washing our hands, has been transferred onto our phones.

Some of the bacteria found on lab-tested smartphones include E. coli, MRSA, and flu-causing bacteria. Although those were extreme cases, some of the more common bacteria found were those that might cause pink eye, acne, yeast infections, skin rashes, and bloodstream illnesses.

If we are exposed to all of these bacteria, then why don’t we get the corresponding illnesses more often? While most of us are immune to our own collective cocktail of bacteria, our bacteria might prove harmful to someone borrowing our phone or simply scrolling through our pictures.

Why are cell phones such a hotbed of bacterial activity? Smartphones are warm and typically enclosed in a dark place (i.e., your pants’ pocket, a purse, a case). All prime conditions for breeding dangerous bacteria.

By bringing your phone into the bathroom, you are inviting danger. Seemingly, your phone is in the most danger in public restrooms where the industrial flush of a toilet results in the spraying of fecal-matter plumes as high as 15 feet. Most bathroom surfaces have a minute layer of fecal-matter residue. Just setting your phone down on a nearby surface isn’t being cautious enough.

So the takeaway here is pretty clear: Don’t bring your phone into the bathroom!

But for those of you satisfied with maintaining a surface of your personal germ cocktail on your phone, please consider wiping it down with an alcohol pad once you have left the bathroom. Or, perhaps, don’t be so eager to share your pictures with us.

Do you (gasp) bring your smartphone in the bathroom? Do you have a method for cleaning your phone? Did I write “fecal matter” too much in this blog?

7 comments; last comment on 12/05/2016
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You Should Try Coconut Oil for That!

Posted November 21, 2016 12:00 AM by M-ReeD

No matter what your ailment, lately it seems that we are met with the same enthusiastically-offered solution: you should try coconut oil for that.

And how has it become such a recommended cure-all? Is it word of mouth? Actual science? Gwyneth Paltrow?

It seems that many of us are susceptible to this trend. Even I have tried coconut oil for oil pulling…at…well…Gwyneth Paltrow’s urging (shakes head sheepishly). According to Paltrow and some lesser known researchers, the benefits of oil pulling with coconut oil are numerous: reduced tooth sensitivity, whiter teeth, improved breath, and strengthened gums, just to name a few.

Coconut oil has been touted as a treatment for all things under the sun: psoriasis, dandruff, burns, wrinkle reduction, improved digestion, balanced hormones, reduced cellulite, balanced blood sugar, improved energy, increased HDL and decreased LDL cholesterols. It can be used as furniture polish, laundry detergent, rust reducer, and conditioner. It boosts immunity, fights inflammation, it’s an acne fighter, a sleep aid, and it allegedly defends against cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, HIV, and…it promotes world peace.

While some of the benefits of the topical use of coconut oil seem logical (i.e., smoother hair, smoother skin), some of the alleged benefits of ingesting coconut oil are less visible.

The scientific data is just starting to unfold concerning coconut oil use and disease management. According to researchers, ketones, which are produced by ingesting coconut oil, can help boost brain function in Alzheimer’s patients. Coconut oil also has an anti-carcinogenic effect, which, according to research, helps in the fight against cancer. The antimicrobial properties found in coconut oil effectively prevent the spread of cancer cells and boost the immune system.

Initial trials have found that using coconut oil might aid in the fight against HIV because coconut oil has anti-viral properties. Coconut oil is also gaining a reputation for fighting heart disease by lowering “bad” cholesterols and increasing the “good” cholesterols.

And if it seems that we live in a world that is being healed exclusively by coconut oil, the reason might be as simple as economics. Coconut oil is readily available and pretty affordable when stacked against other treatments. Another benefit is that coconut oil is non-toxic. Instead of ingesting harmful chemicals or using them topically, we can feel better about what we are putting in and on our bodies. So while claims about coconut oil come from incomplete studies, most experts agree on one thing: using coconut oil “can’t hurt.”

Have you used coconut oil for any ailments? As a cleaning product? A beauty aid?

Image credit: / CC BY-SA 2.0

13 comments; last comment on 11/24/2016
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Time Change and Depression

Posted November 14, 2016 12:00 AM by M-ReeD

We survived it. Our first full week of standard time (marking an end to daylight saving time). Sure there were bumps along the way, but we made it. Now begins the time of year where the arguments in favor of making daylight saving time permanent start. Undoubtedly, you’ve already heard all of the complaints: “I won’t see the light of day until March.” “I am so tired, I could go back to sleep.” “Everything is so dark and depressing.”

According to a study by scientists in Denmark, these complaints and the feelings surrounding time change are directly related to the actual time change itself and not to the oncoming winter months, as previously thought. The study found that there is an 8% increase in depression diagnoses occuring closely to the fall time change. Unsurprisingly, those numbers drop in time for the start of daylight saving time, which begins in March.

The arguments in favor of a permanent daylight saving time are many. Our internal clocks are thrown off, affecting both our health and our judgment; our weight can be affected (usually negatively); our feelings of despair and loneliness tend to increase; crime rates go up because most crimes take place in the dark. Researchers also argue that forcing a time change may have long-term health effects with an increased risk of strokes and heart attacks; also, the decreased visibility due to an earlier sunset lends to an increase in auto fatalities.

The shift in time leaves us with one less hour of sunlight (which is the ultimate treatment for depression, according to multiple studies). And, although we gain an extra hour of sunlight in the morning as a result of the time change, it does not effectively make up for the lost hour in the evening because most of us are preoccupied with getting ready for the day to come.

Farming and energy concerns have been previous explanations for continuing with the time change practice. But with the technology available to aid in milking cows and other farm chores, it no longer seems to be a compelling argument. Artificial light has also opened up a world of possibility in terms of activites that can take place long after the sun has set.

Another often-touted benefit of the time change is that extra hour of sleep we are “front loaded” in November when we set our clocks back. But, according to researchers, the extra hour is a myth that has no proven benefit unless you consider that disoriented feeling we have in the days following a time change beneficial.

While the study also suggests that people who are predisposed to depression were more likely to grapple with this time-change related depression, there are ways to help combat it.

Some recommended ways to stave off time-change related depression: Invest in a light box; adjust your schedule so that you can be outside for at least 30 minutes a day; exercise; eat well; establish a schedule; sit by a window with access to natural light; maximize time spent outdoors, regardless of temperature; and stay in touch with your social network.

Personally, while the practice is disorienting and endlessly aggravating what with having to fix clocks and retrain your body, there are also benefits: There is no obligation to go anywhere once you have left work for the day. (Assuming you work a 9-5 shift.) You are not obligated to leave your house to do yardwork or other outdoor activities. Also, the social expectations of you diminish considerably. So go put on some pajama pants, watch that Lifetime movie, and eat whatever you want. After all, no one is really going to be seeing much of you until March…for now.

What do you think? Are you in favor of keeping a time change?

Image credit:

Matteo Ianeselli / CC BY-SA 3.0

7 comments; last comment on 11/16/2016
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Unfit Fitbits

Posted October 25, 2016 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

So…they were probably too good to be true. Recent reports have come out showing that fitness trackers may not be making you more fit.

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that people who did not use fitness trackers lost an average of five pounds more over a 12 month period than those who used one.

The study investigated whether regular use of commercially available activity trackers is effective for producing and sustaining weight loss. The trial was 24 months long and followed 470 individuals between the ages of 18 and 35 with a body mass index between 25 and 39 at the start of the trial. Approximately 77 percent of the participants were women.

Everyone was placed on a low-calorie diet, increased physical activity, and attended group-counseling sessions on health and wellness. After 6 months half the participants were given a wearable device and half continued health-counseling sessions on a monthly basis.

Participants who utilized wearable devices reported an average weight loss of 7.7 pounds, while those who partook only in health counseling reported an average loss of 13 pounds.

Researchers concluded that while the devices allow for ease of tracking physical activity they don’t encourage people to stick to the habits of a healthy lifestyle which is the most important aspect of any weight loss regimen.

The study showed the importance of not only healthy diet and exercise, but also of group health-counseling. This conclusion is further supported by a 2013 Weight Watchers study which showed that those who attended meetings lost more weight than those who just use an app and website.

But don’t ditch your Fitbit yet – both groups did lose weight and many wearables come with a community of other wearers that can be a fun way to help each other reach goals.

11 comments; last comment on 10/26/2016
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Starve A Fever

Posted October 17, 2016 12:00 AM by Chelsey H

Everyone has heard the old adage ‘feed a cold, starve a fever.’ A recent study published in the journal Cell sheds light on what mom used to say.

Viral and bacterial infections induce different types of immune responses so our metabolism might require different fuels to prevent damage to the body.

Researchers infected a group of mice with the bacteria Listeria, a common cause of food poisoning, and another group with influenza virus. When the mice were force-fed, those with bacterial infections died – but those with viral infections were more likely to survive. Image Credit

Interestingly, researchers were able to determine that glucose (rather than protein or fats) in food was responsible for the outcome. When the team used drugs to block glucose, the mice infected with bacteria survived, while those infected with the virus died.

The findings of this study show that glucose seems to play an important role during a viral infection. However, during a bacterial infection, fasting benefited the mice by allowing them to use ketones, a different fuel that is produced when fat is broken down.

This is a very specific study looking at very specific illnesses in mice, but researchers are hoping that their research will translate into advice about how sick people should eat and how doctors can feed infected patients in intensive care units.

3 comments; last comment on 10/18/2016
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