August 2008





Finally, paralyzed people may be able to walk among us. According to an article I found on Rueters online, a new robotic suit may help keep the paralyzed wearer upright and propel them forward.

The device, called ReWalk, is the brainchild of engineer Amit Goffer, founder of Argo Medical Technologies, a small Israeli high-tech company.

Something of a mix between the exoskeleton of a crustacean and the suit worn by comic hero Iron Man, ReWalk helps paraplegics — people paralyzed below the waist — to stand, walk and climb stairs.

This new device may be a godsend in helping paraplegics boost their overall health – both physically and mentally. Physically, it helps use muscles that normally require intensive physical therapy to prevent atrophy. Mentally, it give the user a chance to be on eye level with everyone else and become less dependent on others to help them navigate through a world built for walking upright. To see more of the challenges facing people in wheel chairs, you should watch the FX series 30 Days with Morgan Spurlock where former NFL player Ray Crockett is confined to a wheelchair for 30 days! It is a great episode and really makes you think.


An Astrocyte

A Koosh Ball

When a brain is injured, cells called astrocytes change their shape (and probably their function too). An astrocyte is a cell in the brain that has many processes (think of a Koosh Ball) and these “arms” may help repair damage to your brain. In a “normal” injury, such as trauma or stroke, these astrocytes become enlarged and their arms grow in size and number. However, in an article published by PLosOne today Dr. Lowenstein, from Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and UCLA, and his collaborators demonstrate a new reaction by astrocytes to immunological insults in the brain (they looked at what happens during your body’s response to viral infections and autoimmunity in the brain).

This group of researchers demonstrates that when our own body’s cells attack astrocytes, instead of getting bigger, astrocytes, pull in all of their arms and form one large protrusion to interact with the attacking cell, called a T cell which is part of your immune system. This is a dramatic change in the shape of an astrocyte and may indicate a dramatic change in function as well. In the paper, the authors suggest that this change in shape may help fend off the attacking cell, either by blocking its way or even by engulfing the cell.

 Although there is only speculation at this point as to what this finding means, astrocytes have many functions in your brain; including protecting the barrier to your brain, helping transmit signals through your brain, promoting myelinating activity (health of your brain), as well as possibly regulating stem cells in your brain. All of these functions play a major role in your brain activity and, thus, your overall health. Understanding the interactions between immune cells and brain cells is an important part of treating immune responses in the brain, such as with Multiple Sclerosis, brain tumors, or viral infections in the brain (like West Nile Virus or HIV).

I know that this wasn’t a big-ticket news items today, but I work on the mechanisms of T cell activation during Multiple Sclerosis (an autoimmune disorder that attacks the myelin sheath protecting the nerves in your brain and spinal cord). So, I thought that this was pretty interesting and has many implications!

Just to update you on the new and exciting “exercise pill”….

Frank Booth, a University of Missouri expert on the science of inactivity, says in a news release that the “exercise pill” study did not test all of the commonly known benefits of exercise and taking the pill cannot be considered a replacement for exercise. In fact, he lists a number of benefits derived from exercise that were not tested after use of the “exercise pill” that I talked about in my previous post. This list includes:

• Decreased resting and submaximal exercise heart rate
• Increased heart stroke volume at all exercise work loads
• Increased maximal exercise cardiac output
• Lower blood pressure and arterial stiffness
• Increased aerobic capacity
• Increased strength and cross-sectional area of skeletal muscle
• Delayed loss of muscle mass and strength with aging and physical frailty
• Improved balance and coordination
• Improved flexibility
• Reduced osteoporosis
• Reduced joint stress and back pain
• Decreased gallstone disease
• Improved endothelial function
• Decreased incidence of myocardial ischemia
• Less myocardial damage from ischemia
• Decreased oxidative stress
• Decreased inflammation
• Improved immune function
• Decreased liver steatosis and fatty liver disease
• Improved insulin sensitivity and reduced risk of type 2 diabetes
• Less likelihood of depression, anxiety, stress and poor psychological well-being
• Ameliorating hyperlipidemia: lower total cholesterol, higher HDL, and decreased blood triglycerides
• Improved cognitive function in the elderly
• Increased blood flow and neurogenesis in the dentate gyrus of the hypothalamus
• Prevention of the loss of brain volume in the elderly
• Delay in decline of physiological reserve in organ systems with aging

I’m glad someone has stepped up and highlighted some of the benefits of exercise not gained from a pill. However, I am still waiting to see what side-effects (if any, and I bet there are some) these pills carry with them.