Armchair Scientist Digest #1

A Giant Step Away From Paraplegia

In what could be described as one of the most exciting developments in the history of physical therapy, Swiss researchers have managed to repair the severed spinal cords of paralyzed rats.

After less than a month of neurorehabilitation, scientists injected these paraplegic rats with a chemical cocktail mimicking some of the neurotransmitters released by the brainstems of healthy subjects to cause coordinated movement.

After five to ten minutes, the researchers electrically stimulated the rats’ spines and placed them in a robotic harness which aids balance without encouraging movement in any direction. These rats not only walked toward a treat, they eventually ran and evaded obstacles.

Over time, the researchers noted certain nerve fibers quadrupled in regions of the rats’ brain and spine. These new fibers grew past the severed region of the spine and returned function and mobility to the once-paralyzed animals, resulting in what some of the involved researchers described as full rehabilitation. Human trials should be starting in the next two years. More on this is available in the June 1st issue of Science.

The Good Kind of Extinction

The only disease humankind has eradicated so far is smallpox, but we’re on the path to eliminating another one, and we can all thank Jimmy Carter for it.

Guinea worm, a parasitic roundworm that has afflicted humankind for thousands of years, is the only disease transmitted exclusively through tainted drinking water. It once affected millions of people in several continents, but is currently relegated to rural Africa. Humans are its only host, and it spreads when people drink water containing guinea worm eggs. After a year with no symptoms, the host will notice a small string dangling from their foot accompanied by a painful burning sensation. The string is about the size of a cooked spaghetti noodle, and that’s the mature guinea worm peeking out in preparation for the conclusion of its life cycle. The host, desperate for relief from this horrible burning, will do the logical thing and submerge their foot in water, which brings relief to the host as the guinea worm expels thousands of new eggs, and the nightmarish circle of life begins anew as a new body of water is now tainted.

Accolades for this immense undertaking go to the Carter Center, which has lead efforts to eliminate this fiendish parasite. There have only been five cases in the first few months of 2012. It’s a sharp drop from 1,060 cases in 2011 and 3.5 million in 1986. So long, guinea worm. You will not be missed.

Getting Fresh Water With Nano Science

Water is important. Living in the first world with it coming out of our taps only steps away, it can be easy to forget that almost 884 million people worldwide lack access to clean drinking water. Desalination, the process by which salt water can be made potable, is not quite efficient enough to solve this problem just yet; But it may get there soon, thanks to a pair of MIT scientists who published a study in a recent issue of Nano Letters.

The study claimed a nanoporous mesh made from a highly adaptable element called graphene could allow us to filter salt from salinated water at a rate that’s 100 to 1,000 times faster than current technology allows; that kind of jump in efficiency could save a lot of lives. The principle behind the idea is that as the desalinizing filters grow in size, efficiency drops. Graphene can be made into sheets as thin as an atom thick, which, with the proper spacing, would simply allow water molecules to pass through without pesky sodium atoms.

There are still roadblocks before the technology can be implemented. In order to desalinate reliably, the pores necessary for the process would require a level of regularity that isn’t feasible in widespread production just yet; But we’re getting closer all the time.

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