Spinal Injuries, disorders of the nervous system, and Brain Repair

10 October 2004
Presented by Chris Smith, Kat Arney


In this show consultant neurologist Dr Roger Barker, and developmental biologist Dr Adrian Pini, join us to discuss the problem of spinal injury, disorders of the nervous system, and ways to repair the damaged brain through the use of embryonic and other stem cell grafts.

In this episode

Country Music Exposure Linked To Suicide

This year's Ig Nobel prize for medicine - one of a series of awards intended to recognise slightly more unusual research said to make people laugh, then think - has been awarded to 2 American doctors who have discovered an unusual cause of suicide - country music ! Steven Stack, from Wayne State University, Michigan, and James Gundlach, of Auburn University, Alabama, found that cities in which radio stations play an above-average amount of country music have higher than average suicide rates ! Apparently, however, black people seem to be immune to the effect - the suicide rates among African Americans was not affected by the country music market, say the researchers !

Termite Designs Could Enable Us To Live on The Moon

Famous for breaking down buildings, termites could reveal new ways to build homes in the future. African termites live in very complex mounds, which form a very stable environment for the little bugs. The whole structure can respond to changes in conditions both inside and outside the mound. Now a team of engineers and insect specialists are taking termite design principles and trying to apply them to human buildings. The team are based at Leicester, but will be travelling to Namibia to digitally scan the structure of the mounds and map them in three-dimensional details. Termite mounds have a complex array of tunnels and air channels which maintain air quality, temperature and moisture in Termite Towers. For example, they use special tunnels which capture the wind to ventilate their home. They are also farmers, using a fungus to digest chewed up wood fibre to provide the termites with food. Scientists hope to design human homes based on the termite prototypes that have these kinds of characteristics- meeting all their energy, waste management and other needs on site. Such building might be useful in inhospitable environments like deserts or even on the moon! And if you're itching to see these termites up close and personal, you'll be able to catch up with the termite spotters in a new David Attenborough series, due to be screened in 2006.

World's First Gorilla Pacemaker Inserted

On 25th September a team of vets, cardiologists and surgeons from the University of Alabama have successfully inserted the first cardiac resynchronisation therapy (CRT) device in a Gorilla at Birmingham Zoo, US. The lucky recipient of the device was Babec, the zoo's 24 year old western lowland gorilla, who began to shows the symptoms of heart failure last year. The heart is essentially a dual pump. The right side receives blood from the body and pumps it around the lungs. The left side collects the blood from the lungs and then pumps it back around the body. But if one side of the heart begins to pump less efficiently than the other, as occurs in heart failure, then blood 'backs up' and causes problems including tiredness, inability to exercise and difficulty breathing. The CRT inserted into Babec is an advanced form of pacemaker that allows both the right and left sides of the heart to be controlled by the pacemaker, which can greatly improve the heart's pumping efficiency. According to the zoo, who are monitoring his progress around the clock, he is resting well and beginning to return to some of his typical mannerisms - which presumably means eating a lot of bananas and beating his chest (although hopefully not hard enough to damage the pacemaker !). The zoo hope to have him back on show within 2-4 weeks.

Frisky Koalas To Receive Birth Control Measures

It's almost the classic conundrum - "what do you do if you see an endangered animal eating an endangered plant" - but that's exactly what's happening in Mount Eccles National Park in Victoria, southern Australia. The growth of the koala population is putting too much strain on the eucalyptus trees which form their staple diet. The long term preservation of the species depends as much upon the preservation of their habitat as upon the preservation of the animals itself, so conservationists plan to put 2000 of their koalas 'on the pill' to slow down the population boom. According to Ian Walker, the project manager, the method that has been chosen is to use a matchstick-sized hormone implant that is inserted under the skin between the shoulder blades. The implant, which is also used by women all over the world, releases small amounts of female hormones to prevent pregnancy. The implants last about 6 years. The benefit of using this approach is that it is minimally invasive and completely reversible. Full fertility is restored once it is removed. Victoria is home to the largest number of wild Koalas of all states in Australia. Koala numbers in Australia have plummeted from around 7 million at the time when Europeans first arrived in Australia in the late 1700's, to as few as 100,000 now. As recently as the 1920's 3 million were shot for their fur.

White handkerchief

- Allergy To Common Fungus The Cause of Constant Sniffles

Do you wake up in the morning all bunged up? Are you one of nature's snotty people? Always sniffing, looking for a tissue?

Allergy To Common Fungus The Cause of Constant Sniffles

Do you wake up in the morning all bunged up? Are you one of nature's snotty people? Always sniffing, looking for a tissue?

I certainly am, and if you are too, you could be suffering from chronic sinus inflammation.

Nearly 30 million people a year are diagnosed with chronic sinusitis in the USA, and the disease costs over 5 billion Dollars a year in total, but no-one really knows what causes the illness, or how it can be cured or prevented.

At last, scientists may have tracked down the cause - and the bad news is that it's everywhere.

Scientists in America took blood and mucus (snot) samples from both healthy people and those with sinusitis.They found that people with sniffles had very dramatic immune reactions to certain fungus proteins, compared to the non-sniffers.

These fungi aren't like the mushrooms you see in the shops, they are everywhere: their microscopic spores are found all over the place, borne on the air, and you may commonly see them growing as moulds in damp corners or window frames.

So it looks like although we are all exposed to the same levels of fungal spores, the unfortunate snivellers amongst us my react more severely to them, causing sinusitis.

The American team are currently testing anti-fungal drugs in people with chronic sinusitis, but for me it could be a message to clean my window frames and scrub the damp patch in the bathroom.

- Why is the sky blue in the day and red at sunset?

I'd like to know why the sky is blue normally, but red at sunset?

Why is the sky blue in the day and red at sunset?

The answer is that sunlight is a spectrum - when you see white light it's actually made up of lots of different wavelengths of light. You can split them with a prismto reveal all of the different colours which make up white light. When that light comes from the sun and hits the earth's atmosphere, the atmosphere is made up of a lot of nitrogen and oxygen, and this nitrogen and oxygen strongly bounces around, or scatters, light which is at the blue end of the spectrum - the wavelength is about 480 - 500nm. The blue light bounces around all over the place like bullets ricocheting around a room. But light which has a much longer wavelength towards the red, green and yellow, goes straight through the atmosphere without being scattered about, and reaches your eye directly. So what you see is light from the sun, with some of the blue taken out because it's bounced all over the place. Because your eye can't work out exactly where the blue light have come from (because it is coming from all directions) your brain interprets it as the whole sky being blue, rather than just one spot. So that's why you see a blue sky. Now what happens at sunset is that because the earth has moved (rotated), the sun has moved towards the horizon and its light is now coming through a lot more of the atmosphere than when it was directly overhead. So because it's coming through more atmosphere even more at the blue light is taken away, making the sky look even more red than it was before. So that's why you get the red colouration of the sunset. The other thing that affects this is how many particles there are in the atmosphere, so you tend to see much redder sunsets and yellower moons at harvest time, and at times when there's been big volcanic eruptions. So when Mount Pinatubo blew up on the Philippines a few years ago, you saw beautiful sunsets, and very very orange coloured moons, and that was because of the dust in the atmosphere adding to the effect we've just described.

- Do developing embryos recreate human evolution?

I read somewhere that if you were to follow the human embryo from conception to birth, it goes through every stage of evolution that has ...

Do developing embryos recreate human evolution?

Well, this is the old argument which is known as ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny - a rather pompous scientific term. Ontogeny is the development of the individual, and phylogeny is the development of the species. This whole idea that we've come from the sea, and we've come through a process of evolution which has gone from simple single celled organisms right through fish and amphibia - it's basically Darwinism. But the actual stage of an embryo within its mother doesn't actually pass through those phases. What happens is that we resemble past evolution, but we're not actually going through the stages one after the other to get to the stage where we are born.

- What causes hydrocephalus in babies, babies with large heads ?

what causes hydrocephalus in babies, babies with large heads?

What causes hydrocephalus in babies, babies with large heads ?

Hydrocephalus is where there's excessive amount of fluid in the skull cavity, within the brain, and that can be due to a number of problems. In children the commonest cause is normally is that there's either been some damage to the brain, that the fluid filled cavities have got bigger as a result or that there's an obstruction to flow. We make fluid within our brain all the time, and it circulates around a series of chambers in the brain. If there is an obstruction to that then clearly the production doesn't stop, there's a blockage and the pressure goes up, hence you get hydrocephalus. In children what happens is because the skull hasn't yet fused the head gets bigger so you actually get these large heads with hydrocephalus in childhood. Whereas in adulthood you've obviously got a thick skull and what tends to happen if you've got a blockage in the system is that you tend to get raised pressure inside the head which gives you a very severe headache and you need to do something about it fairly urgently. To treat it you first need to find what is causing it. Normally you either then remove the blockage, or to put in a drain, called a shunt, so that you take the high pressure out of the system. You drain the fluid to another cavity, normally the abdomen.

- Are there stem cell treatments for strokes?

my father had a stroke 6 years ago, I'm very interested in cell transplant treatments. How far has this treatment gone?

Are there stem cell treatments for strokes?

There's a number of approaches which people are taking with stroke. In the first instance, people are very keen in trying to reverse the acute problems that happen in stroke. There's a big move now, that if people have a stroke, if you can catch it in the first 3 hours, you can try and remove the clot with various drugs to do that. If you can't do that then there is the issue of how you can help the brain to repair itself and so there's a lot of work that gone on to try and encourage recovery - in the case of your father that's the scene, the brain has past its most plastic, it can do most things when it's young, when it's older it still has an amazing capacity for recovery up to a certain extent. Then there is this new idea, which is to put back the bit of the brain that has been damaged with the stroke, by a transplant. Now the problem with that is that if you have had a stroke you've damaged a whole series of different cells which have made different connections n the brain, and what you would hope to do is to put back cells which are going to turn into right type of cells and the right numbers and make the right connections and at the moment that is some way off. We can put back cells in certain conditions if we want them to make one type and make one connection but the complexity of trying to repair the brain in stroke is actually rather more complicated than that. In terms of further recovery, generally speaking in neurology, we always talk about 2 years and say that what people have done after two years is pretty much how they're going to do after that. But having said that, obviously people like your father are always telling us that we're not always right with these general statements and recovery can happen many years after the initial insult.

- What is a stitch, what causes it and how can we deal with it?

what is a stitch, what causes it and how can we deal with it?

What is a stitch, what causes it and how can we deal with it?

Well the answer is Clive, a stitch is not due to muscle paralysis or anything like that, it's actually because of things tugging on your diaphragm which is the domed muscle which sits above your stomach and below your lungs, and contracts to expand your chest and pull air in. It has some ligaments, which attach it to the organs underneath it, including the liver which is very heavy, and the stomach. When you get running those organs start to bounce up and down a bit and when they tug on those ligaments they can make them quite uncomfortable and that's why you tend to get a worse stitch when you're running having just eaten, because the stomach is much heavier and puts a lot more pressure on your diaphragm. One cure, I'm told, is if you change step - switch so that you breathe in when the other foot hits the ground. This can reduce the stretch applied to the ligaments, and reduce the discomfort.

- How do whales hunt and eat prey without swallowing gallons of water?

How do whales hunt and eat prey without swallowing gallons of water?

How do whales hunt and eat prey without swallowing gallons of water?

They filter the water. If you've ever seen a baleen whale, they have a big floppy sack under their jaw, called a baleen, which works like a giant tea strainer. The whale takes a mouthful of water and then squirts it out again through the baleen, trapping all the plankton they want to eat in there so they swallow just plankton and not mouthfuls of water.

- An alternative to aspirin. I was wondering if it's safe to take it all the time?

an alternative to aspirin. I was wondering if it's safe to take it all the time?

An alternative to aspirin. I was wondering if it's safe to take it all the time?

it's a relatively new drug. So there is no long term (decades) data available to say it is safe to take. But, generally speaking, most drugs by the time they come into regular clinical use, have gone through extensive trials across many countries, with many thousands of patients being involved and so one can be pretty confident that this new drug, which works like aspirin, is safe, and I'm sure will be safe in the long term.

- If your eyes respond to light, then how can you see black ?

If your eyes respond to light, then how can you see black?

If your eyes respond to light, then how can you see black ?

Actually the answer Ken is quite clever, because your eye sees light by switching off its activity when light goes into the eye, and switching on its activity when it doesn't receive any light. So there's a thing called the dark current, nothing to do with Star Wars, so when you close your eyes your retina becomes more active than when they're open. So in other words what you're seeing is actually inactivity rather than activity !

- What causes bad breath? I had a bad stomach and bad breath yesterday - could they be linked?

What causes bad breath? I had a bad stomach and bad breath yesterday - could they be linked?

What causes bad breath? I had a bad stomach and bad breath yesterday - could they be linked?

It's possible in incredibly extreme cases, but for most people halitosis arises mainly in the mouth and the so-called oropharynx, the early part of the throat. I think people like to think that they have really serious terrible problems, when in fact all they have to do is clean their teeth. There is a guy in Israel who has actually started a halitosis research institute, and he wanted to know if bad breath was in the eye, or nose even, of the beholder, or whether it was a psychological thing where people think they've got bad breath, and they haven't - delusional halitosis as it is known. He went round sniffing the breath of 200 people or so, in order to define what kinds of bad breath there are and what causes it.

- Could you just close your eyes on a UV sunbed?

I came back from holiday and thought it would be nice to keep the suntan topped up. Although you're advised to wear goggles or eye protec...

Could you just close your eyes on a UV sunbed?

Well unfortunately these sunbeds deliver ultraviolet radiation, that's how they tan, and the way they work is by delivering ultraviolet radiation of sufficient intensity that it damages your skin. It's the injury to the skin that causes the tan and that's why your skin ages, and that's why you get skin cancer. This is a very dangerous industry because it's unregulated and some sunbeds deliver radiation that's 5 times the strength of the noonday sun on an Australian beach. Given that Australia is the sunniest place on earth, you get a hefty dose of UV. Now, if you close your eyes the ultraviolet can still penetrate through your eyelids and can get into your eyes, where it can cause cataracts and it can damage your retina. So it's much safer always to use the goggles and the guidelines are that you shouldn't ever go for more than 20 sessions a year, because if you have more than 10 sessions a year, your risk of skin cancer goes up to between 10 and 20% so it's quite a big boost over a 20 year period. So probably better to lay of the sunbed and buy some fake tan if you want to get browned off.


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