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RESEARCH ROUNDUP: Tackling Concussions With Software, Grandma Lizard, Stomaching Cancer

Last year, Dr. Hashem Ashrafiuon watched three of his young son's teammates sustain possible concussions. But concussions – a concern for everyone from Little Leaguers to soldiers – remain among the medical profession's slipperiest diagnoses.
Fortunately, this Villanova University Professor of Mechanical Engineering is helping to develop software that analyzes our brainwaves via an electroencephalogram (EEG) to definitively diagnose concussions.
"It's quick and it's simple, because it's really not intrusive in any way," says Dr. Ashrafiuon, who is also the Director of Villanova's Center for Nonlinear Dynamics and Control. During a routine check-up, a doctor could record your normal brainwaves. "Then when you have an accident, you do the same recording." Versus current diagnostic measures involving subjective question-and-answer tests of cognitive function, "it gives you a more accurate assessment in terms of whether you have a concussion or how severe it is."
Dr. Ashrafiuon notes that while having a personal brain-wave sample is ideal (perhaps conducted during routine physicals of the future), a concussion may cause a distinctive enough brain-wave signature for diagnosis without a previous scan.
The software, which Dr. Ashrafiuon and his team began developing in 2009, receives a signal from a single-electrode EEG scanner in a simple headset. In 2010, tests proved that by analyzing brain waves, the software could predict whether subjects had their eyes opened or closed. The next year, it was successful in determining Alzheimer's patients from healthy individuals. This year, research involves the diagnosis of concussions, and Dr. Ashrafiuon also hopes the software will aid the proper diagnosis of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
"Concussions are progressively damaging," he says. "Four concussions would be enough to force a professional athlete to retire." On the other hand, for all the trouble concussions cause, "we can't be absolutely sure that a concussion has happened. We don't really know how many kids are getting them."
His software would change that. Athletes, skiers, soldiers and anyone else who risks concussions could be constantly monitored for brain injuries while in action. This could lead to earlier warnings before small but cumulative damages become serious. And a new awareness of how prevalent these brain injuries are could lead to better use of protective gear.

Grandma Lizard
Tonia Hsieh, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Temple University's College of Science and Technology, is taking an even more surprising approach to human health. She asks what a lizard has in common with Grandma.
Neither of them wants to slip and fall.
Basilisk lizards and their astonishing ability to run across water, a habit that has earned them the nickname "Jesus lizard," occupied Hsieh's graduate studies.
"One of the funny things I found out is that when the lizards are running on water, they're actually slipping as they're running," she says. As her interest grew in how the surfaces we navigate affect our balance, years later Hsieh wondered how the lizards, which prefer keeping on four feet, recover from slips so well while running on their hind legs.
Similarly, "how do people trip on things without bashing their faces into the sidewalk?" she asks. If we found out, could we prevent the kind of falls that plague the elderly?
Her latest research got underway three years ago. Now, with the help of about 130 basilisk lizards and Australian baby frilled dragons, Hsieh is finding out what keeps these extraordinary reptiles upright. She tags her lizards with reflective markers and, with a puff of air, sends them running down an eight-foot track in her lab while filming them with 500-frame-per-second infrared cameras.
Her research, combined with similar studies on lizards running over sand, has surprising applications for our own bodies.
It turns out part of the secret to the lizards' balance is their springy tendons. Hsieh's research points to the little-known importance of our tendons and ligaments, not only as connective tissue and for the storage and release of kinetic energy, but as shock absorbers.
The elasticity of these tissues is "the first line of response before our nerves or reflexes even play a role in helping to stabilize the body."
This means that in addition to bone health for fall-prone senior citizens (who will top record numbers as the Baby Boomers age), equal attention should be paid to the health of tendons and ligaments, perhaps through physical therapy or nutritional supplements.
Her study's breakdown of the lizards' movement has also shown that "it's harder for the body to control instabilities in certain directions." For lizards, it's when their feet slip to the sides.
Thanks to data from the lizards, developing this information among humans could lead to environmental modifications, or even specially-designed shoes, to help vulnerable people stay upright.

Cancer Prevention Weapon 
In other Philadelphia research news, Dr. Scott Waldman, chair of Thomas Jefferson University's Department of Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics and director of Jefferson's Gastrointestinal Cancer Program, is leading a team that has discovered a possible new weapon in the prevention of cancer.
We know that a hormone receptor of the intestines known as guanylyl cyclase C (GC-C), which works to suppress tumors, also helps strengthen the natural barrier between our bodies and our intestines' contents.
But a new study in mice has found that silencing CG-C made their intestines more permeable, leading to inflammation, DNA damage and cancer of the liver, lung and lymph nodes, while stimulating CG-C led to a strengthened intestinal barrier and fewer health problems. Applied to humans, this hormonal therapy could play an important role in preventive health.

ALAINA MABASO, a Philadelphia-based freelance journalist, has landed squarely in what people tell her is the worst possible career of the 21st century. So she makes Pennsylvania her classroom, covering everything from business to theater to toad migrations. After her editors go to bed, she blogs here. Send feedback here.  
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