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Scientists develop an 'EpiPen' for brain and spinal cord injuries

This new research could help individuals recover from one of the most dreaded types of injury.

  • Brain and spinal cord injuries are notoriously difficult to treat, with many existing methods of treatment provoking undesirable side effects.
  • Now, new research demonstrated a novel technique using nanoparticles to "program" the body's immune cells such that they don't cause any unintended damage and promote healing.
  • Since they don't involve any pharmaceuticals, the use of nanoparticles circumvents the dangerous side effects of other treatments.


Let's say you're painting your house. You're doing this by yourself because, let's face it, you don't want to pay for professional painters, and nobody really wants to help you paint your house. You reach out to get that one spot that's just a little bit out of reach because climbing down to move the ladder is just too much of a hassle, but it turns out you may have overestimated just how far away that spot was because now the ladder's tipping a bit. You try to swing back, but it's too late — you're falling through the air 20 feet down to your concrete driveway. You land on your back, hearing a sickening crack before losing consciousness.

Things could get very bad. Depending on the extent of the damage, you might not be able to walk anymore. However, new research has demonstrated a potential method of treatment that might make this hypothetical accident less grievous: an "EpiPen" for spinal cord injuries.

Researchers from the University of Michigan recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that describes an incredible device capable of mitigating — and potentially preventing — spinal cord and brain injuries. "In this work," said researcher Lonnie Shea in a statement, "we demonstrate that instead of overcoming an immune response, we can co-opt the immune response to work for us to promote the therapeutic response." By injecting nanoparticles that reduce the body's immune response, these researchers claim that the severity of such an injury can be significantly reduced, potentially preventing paralysis.

How do spinal cord injuries happen?

Lifeguards learn what to do in case of a spinal injury at an in-service emergency training class at the Woodland Pool, Shaw Air Force Base, S.C., May 31, 2012. The 20th Medical Operations Squadron instructed this exercise.

Image source: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman Nicole Sikorski / Released

Most people think of paralysis as occurring when the connection between your brain and spinal cord is severed, that when you break your back, you also sever the spinal cord. This can happen, but often, the culprit is the body's own inflammatory response to an injury. The brain and spinal cord are normally surrounded by a barrier — commonly known as the blood-brain barrier, but it covers the spinal cord as well — that blocks the central nervous system off from most molecules, including immune cells. The nervous system is an extremely sensitive part of the body, so it can be easily damaged by the immune system's inflammatory response.

During a traumatic injury to the spinal cord, however, this barrier can be broken, allowing access to the body's immune cells. These cells aren't supposed to have access to the nervous system, and the inflammation they produce can kill the sensitive neurons within, damage the myelinated sheaths that allow neurons to send signals to one another, and cause scar tissue that prevents the regeneration of the spinal cord. The result is loss of sensation and reduced function in parts of the body below the injury, sometimes to the extent of paralysis.

How does this new treatment work?

Previously, doctors used a steroid called methylprednisolone to tamp down the immune response, much like how EpiPens are used to avert an allergic reaction. This method had some serious side effects though, causing blood clots, pneumonia, and other effects at a rate that made it too dangerous to rely on.

That's why Shea and colleagues tested out their new solution of nanoparticles on mice at the University of Michigan. The benefit of using nanoparticles is that there are no pharmaceuticals involved, cutting down on the possibility of side effects.

After injecting the injured mice, the researchers observed as the nanoparticles bound to the inflammatory immune cells and redirected them away from the injury site, where they could cause grievous harm. Not only did this prevent damaging inflammation, this approach also allowed non-inflammatory immune cells that support regeneration to reach the injury site. Without the inflammation and the subsequent formation of scar tissue, these cells could support the regrowth of the damaged nervous system.

While this nanoparticle-based treatment was targeted at spinal injuries, it may have other applications as well. "Hopefully, this technology could lead to new therapeutic strategies not only for patients with spinal cord injury but for those with various inflammatory diseases," said Jonghyuck Park, who also worked on the project.

Inflammation is an important part of the immune response. It causes blood vessels to dilate, allowing more blood and immune cells to reach the targeted site. These cells release chemical signals that attract more immune cells which work to clear the body of foreign material. But this process often goes awry and can contribute to many other conditions.

"The immune system underlies autoimmune disease, cancer, trauma, regeneration — nearly every major disease," Shea said. "Tools that can target immune cells and reprogram them to a desired response have numerous opportunities for treating or managing disease."

So, this new method of treating spinal cord injuries might make any hypothetical ladder accidents much less dangerous. Not only that, but it has the potential to seriously change the way that we treat some of humanity's deadliest diseases.


Is the universe a graveyard? This theory suggests humanity may be alone.

Ever since we've had the technology, we've looked to the stars in search of alien life. It's assumed that we're looking because we want to find other life in the universe, but what if we're looking to make sure there isn't any?

According to the Great Filter theory, Earth might be one of the only planets with intelligent life. And that's a good thing (NASA, ESA, and the Hubble Heritage Team [STScI/AURA]).
Surprising Science

Here's an equation, and a rather distressing one at that: N = R* × fP × ne × f1 × fi × fc × L. It's the Drake equation, and it describes the number of alien civilizations in our galaxy with whom we might be able to communicate. Its terms correspond to values such as the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets on which life could emerge, the fraction of planets that can support intelligent life, and so on. Using conservative estimates, the minimum result of this equation is 20. There ought to be 20 intelligent alien civilizations in the Milky Way that we can contact and who can contact us. But there aren't any.

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The key to better quality education? Make students feel valued.

Building a personal connection with students can counteract some negative side effects of remote learning.

Future of Learning
  • Not being able to engage with students in-person due to the pandemic has presented several new challenges for educators, both technical and social. Digital tools have changed the way we all think about learning, but George Couros argues that more needs to be done to make up for what has been lost during "emergency remote teaching."
  • One interesting way he has seen to bridge that gap and strengthen teacher-student and student-student relationships is through an event called Identity Day. Giving students the opportunity to share something they are passionate about makes them feel more connected and gets them involved in their education.
  • "My hope is that we take these skills and these abilities we're developing through this process and we actually become so much better for our kids when we get back to our face-to-face setting," Couros says. He adds that while no one can predict the future, we can all do our part to adapt to it.
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Study details the negative environmental impact of online shopping

Frequent shopping for single items adds to our carbon footprint.

A truck pulls out of a large Walmart regional distribution center on June 6, 2019 in Washington, Utah.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • A new study shows e-commerce sites like Amazon leave larger greenhouse gas footprints than retail stores.
  • Ordering online from retail stores has an even smaller footprint than going to the store yourself.
  • Greening efforts by major e-commerce sites won't curb wasteful consumer habits. Consolidating online orders can make a difference.
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Personal Growth

Childhood sleeping problems may signal mental disorders later in life

Chronic irregular sleep in children was associated with psychotic experiences in adolescence, according to a recent study out of the University of Birmingham's School of Psychology.

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