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Monday, 17 November 2008

Exciting news-in all senses of the word

In today's edition:

  1. Man 'roused from coma' by a magnetic field
  2. A phantom penis, and how to remove it
  3. Chimps: Not Human, But Are They People?
The jokes aside, I think the first article is extremely important since coma is a state of the brain that is so little understood. And now, we see a treatment that if not else, is showing signs that it's working. Now, I don't mean to provoke unrealistic optimism, but as I mentioned in my comment-it's a good direction to work on.

P.S. In case you wonder what happened with the looong posts, I decided to cut them a little because I think it wasn't very polite to the visitors to expect them to read pages and pages.

Man 'roused from coma' by a magnetic field

  • 15 October 2008
  • Linda Geddes

JOSH VILLA was 26 and driving home after a drink with a friend on 28 August 2005 when his car mounted the kerb and flipped over. Villa was thrown through the windscreen, suffered massive head injuries and fell into a coma.

Almost a year later, there was little sign of improvement. "He would open his eyes, but he was not responsive to any external stimuli in his environment," says Theresa Pape of the US Department of Veterans Affairs in Chicago, who helped treat him.

Usually there is little more that can be done for people in this condition. Villa was to be sent home to Rockford, Illinois, where his mother, Laurie McAndrews, had volunteered to care for him.

But Pape had a different suggestion. She enrolled him in a six-week study in which an electromagnetic coil was held over the front of his head to stimulate the underlying brain tissue. Such transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) has been investigated as a way of treating migraine, stroke, Parkinson's disease and depression, with some promising results, but this is the first time it has been used as a potential therapy for someone in a coma-like state.

The rapidly changing magnetic fields that the coil creates can be used either to excite or inhibit brain cells - making it easier or harder for them to communicate with one another. In Villa's case, the coil was used to excite brain cells in the right prefrontal dorsolateral cortex. This area has strong connections to the brainstem, which sends out pulses to the rest of the brain that tell it to pay attention. "It's like an 'OK, I'm awake' pulse," says Pape.

At first, there was little change in Villa's condition, but after around 15 sessions something happened. "You started talking to him and he would turn his head and look at you," says McAndrews. "That was huge."

Villa started obeying one-step commands, such as following the movement of a thumb and speaking single words. "They were very slurred but they were there," says Pape, who presented her findings this month at an international meeting on brain stimulation at the University of Göttingen, Germany. "He'd say like 'erm', 'help', 'help me'."

After the 30 planned sessions the TMS was stopped. Without it, Villa became very tired and his condition declined a little, but he was still much better than before. Six weeks later he was given another 10 sessions, but there were no further improvements and he was sent home, where he remains today.

Villa is by no means cured. But he is easier to care for and can interact with visitors such as his girlfriend, who has stuck by him following the accident. "When you talk to him he will move his mouth to show he is listening," McAndrews says. "If I ask him, 'Do you love me?' he'll do two slow eye blinks, yes. Some people would say it's not much, but he's improving and that's the main thing."

John Whyte of the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, cautions that as intriguing as Villa's case is, it alone does not show that TMS is a useful treatment. "Even after eight months, it is not uncommon for patients to transition from the vegetative to the minimally conscious state without any particular intervention," he points out. He says TMS merits further investigation, along with other experimental treatments such as drugs which have temporarily roused three men from a coma, and deep brain stimulation, an invasive technique that roused a man out of a minimally conscious state.source

My comment: I find this article very very intriguing. If you think about it, if there are programs that can use bineural beats to put you in trance or to excite you, why couldn't they be used to heal your neurons or to remind them what they are supposed to do. Even if it's just temporary effect, the fact that the person trapped in the body will regain control for a while can give very important hope to the patient and to give him/her the strength to fight that condition.

A phantom penis, and how to remove it

The Neurotopia blog draws our attention to an intriguing paper in Acta Medica Okayama. Titled "Phantom erectile penis after sex reassignment surgery", it's a report by a group of surgeons at Okayama University in Japan.

They describe a twist on "phantom limb" syndrome, in which people who have lost a limb still experience sensation in it. Their patient experienced a phantom erect penis.

Phantom penises were first observed in 1951, and a 1999 review concluded that they were extremely rare. So what happened here?
Well, essentially this is a snapshot of how much sexual reassignment surgery has advanced in recent years.

The surgeons carried out vaginoplasty, an operation to convert a penis into a vagina, on several male-to-female transsexuals.

They used a new variant on the operation, using skin from the scrotum (rendered hairless by laser treatment beforehand) to make the interior of the vagina. This is normally done using skin from the penis, but this often means there isn't enough skin to make a suitably-sized vagina - not something the new technique suffers from.

After the operations, several patients reported phantom penises, but these disappeared within weeks. This is what we would expect if the brain is reorganising itself to respond correctly to the new genitals.

However, one patient was less lucky. Her phantom penis persisted for 6 months, and was always in a state of erection. That's perhaps not surprising, as many people with phantom limbs report fairly strong sensations, like itching or pain.

The surgeons wondered whether the phantom penis was related to several components (specifically the bulbospongiosus muscle and corpus spongiosum penis), which they had left in place in the operation. These sections are involved in various aspects of erection, including the accompanying sensations.

Accordingly, they went back in and, in a second operation, removed both the offending bits, and this time the phantom penis was gone. source
My comment: Ok, this is certainly fun. I mean, seriously. First, they obviously found a way to make nice vaginas for all the people in need, which is generally nice. But what's even nicer that the dudes/dudettes are having a vagina and a phantom penis in the same time. If that's not fun, I don't know what it is.

Chimps: Not Human, But Are They People?

By Brandon Keim EmailOctober 14, 2008

As a population of West African chimpanzees dwindles to critically endangered levels, scientists are calling for a definition of personhood that includes our close evolutionary cousins.

Just two decades ago, the Ivory Coast boasted a 10,000-strong chimpanzee population, accounting for half of the world's population. According to a new survey, that number has fallen to just a few thousand.

News of such a decline, published today in Current Biology, would be saddening in any species. But should we feel more concern for the chimpanzees than for another animal — as much concern, perhaps, as we might feel for other people?

"They are a people. Non-human, but definitely persons," said Deborah Fouts, co-director of the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute. "They haven't built a rocket ship to the moon. But we're not that different."

Fouts is one of a growing number of scientists and ethicists who believe that chimpanzees — as well as orangutans, bonobos and gorillas, a group colloquially known as great apes — ought to be considered people.

It's a controversial position. If being a person requires being human, then chimpanzees, our closest primate relative, are still only 98 percent complete. But if personhood is defined more broadly, chimpanzees may well qualify. They have self-awareness, feelings and high-level cognitive powers. Hardly a month seems to pass without researchers finding evidence of behavior thought to belong solely to humans.

Some even suggest that chimpanzees and other great apes should be granted human rights. So argued advocates for Hiasl, a chimpanzee caught in an Austrian custody battle, and the framers of an ape rights resolution passed by the Spanish parliament. The question of rights is practically thorny — how could a chimp be held responsible for, say, attacking another chimp? — but the fundamental question isn't practical, but rather scientific and ethical.

"They have been shown to have all kinds of complex communication and cognitive powers that are similar to humans," said Yerkes National Primate Research Center researcher Jared Taglialatela. "They have feelings, they have ideas, they have goals."

The capacity of chimpanzees to feel, vividly illustrated when primatologist Jane Goodall documented the grief of a chimp named Flint for his mother, is the least ambiguous of chimpanzee characteristics. More ambiguous is their ability to think abstractly and empathically.

But Fouts, who has trained her chimpanzees to use sign language, disagrees. "They do remember the past. When people come that they haven't seen in many years, they use their name signs," she said.

Taglialatela has shown that chimpanzees utilize parts of their brain similar to our own Broca's and Wernicke's areas, which in humans are considered central to speech production and processing. When communicating, chimpanzees choose circumstance-appropriate forms: gesturing by hand to someone who looks at them, or calling out to someone who looks away.

"We're seeing this rich communicative repertoire. It's not simply, 'I see a piece of food and make some emotional sound,'" he said. "They're using different perspectives to communicate."

Researchers have also found that chimps use hand gestures that vary according to context. The same gesture can be used for purposes as diverse as requesting sex or reconciling after a fight, a linguistic subtlety that suggests a capacity for high-level abstraction.

Chimpanzees even appear capable of altruism, being willing to help strangers in the absence of anticipated reward. But their empathy, said Gagneux, who proposes treating research chimps in the manner of human subjects incapable of giving informed consent, does not translate to compassion.

And Fouts, who said that chimpanzees "feel pain and anger and love and affection and the kinds of feelings we feel," said that her sign language-trained chimpanzees can indeed inquire about the well-being of their handlers.

"They don't use it very often, but it doesn't mean they don't understand," she said.source

My comment: I follow the issue for a while. I'm not sure we can call chimpanzees persons and give them human rights, because in that case, we must give human rights to all the animals-something that isn't entirely useless. I have a dog and he has personality. I see other dogs-they also have a personality. I wouldn't call them persons-but they definitely are capable of feeling more complex emotions than simply natural needs. They are capable to think about consequences and even to manipulate people. I'm not giving them more brain than they have, I'm saying only that we tend to underestimate them, because it's easier for us to deal with them this way. But for me, they must be regarded more like kids, than like inferior species. They may not have potential to become humans, but neither do many brain-damaged children. And we don't regard them as animals-we regard them as living creatures that deserve respect, care and sympathy if not love. And by the way, if you read the comments on the source-site, you can enjoy some black humor.

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