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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.


Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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