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There Is Cheaper Alternative to MRI Scanning

Sometimes scientific advances sound so incredible, that people think they must be from a sci-fi story. But the boundaries of medical progress are constantly being pushed back as scientists use ever more dynamic technology to help humanity.

In an age when digital technology has become almost commonplace, surprise should no longer be a standard response. Progress goes on apace. No more is this so than in the field of medical technology.

With the darker nights and the long haul still to go before spring, many people suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder). Usually confined to the Northern Hemisphere, this winter depression affects 2% of the population, with a further 10% feeling somewhat down in the winter.

Symptoms include tendency to overeat (especially carbohydrates), difficulty of waking in the mornings, lack of energy, withdrawal from friends and family and inability to finish any tasks.

Light Into the Brain

It is thought the lack of light causes a chemical reaction in the brain, and a Finnish company, Valkee, has devised a gizmo that projects different light quantities into the brain. How? Through the ears!

Yes, via the auditory canal into some 18 parts of the brain that react to light by three different proteins and set the human body clocks. The brain is even more sensitive to daylight than the eyes.

Tests in development cured depression, boosted intellectual capacity and energy levels. The device is now on the market at £185, and it provides a daily dose of artificial sunshine from tiny torches embedded in earbud headphones.  Between eight and twelve minutes each day are sufficient.

The Blind Can See

Long the favourite of sci-fi books and films, the bionic eye is now a reality. In 2009 the Dobelle Artificial Vision System, after Dr William Dobelle who spent 30 years researching and developing his new medical technology, was announced.

Miniature TV cameras mounted on the lens of a patient’s sunglasses send video images to a microcomputer worn on a belt. The data is processed before going to a stimulator and on to electrodes surgically implanted on the visual cortex areas of the brain through two wires protruding through a hole in the skull. The brain receives dot matrix images.

So sight cells are artificially stimulated by tiny electric pulses. It isn’t suitable for any person blind through brain damage or chronic infection. The whole procedure is in three parts: medical, technical and rehabilitation. It takes time for the brain and the patient to make the adjustments needed to restore full vision.

The actual technology is at least five decades old, yet the surgery and process is still a rare operation. Artificial vision will now pick up and be a huge in-demand device for the independence it brings to the blind and those of limited sight.

Estimates count 42 million people worldwide unable to see naturally. Even if sight is restored in only half of them, and even if it’s not perfect 20-20 vision, what a difference it will make to their lives.

Brain Activity

New studies have shown that some people in a ‘permanent vegetative state’ (PVS) can understand exactly what is being said to them and with a simple device can carry on ‘two way conversations’. Such ability is still some way off, but it looks promising. Brain function may be present, but they are not fully conscious.

The condition is different from ‘locked in syndrome’, and goes way beyond eyeblinks that can be taught to such victims. Scientists believe many PVS patients can ‘repeatedly and reliably’ imagine moving their limbs. Their brainwaves are monitored using an EEG machine (electro-encephalography) to record neuron activity through an electrode-wired skull cap.

EEG is cheaper and more portable than MRI scanning, and it will allow for better bedside assessment, which in turn will open up the inner worlds of patients, their needs/wants and experiences of treatments. That it can switch from a one-way, sometimes hope-for-the-best or assume there is no activity, is a big step forward and yet another example of the happy marriage between medical science and technology.

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Photo: Paul Wicks