Pachyderm Prosthetics

After my last post, about injured animals outfitted with prosthetics, several people wrote me asking why I didn’t write about a famous pair of prosthetic-wearing elephants in Thailand. Unfortunately, I didn’t have room to cover these pachyderms in the Wired piece–space was extremely limited–but my correspondents are right: the animals do deserve more attention.

The elephants in question are Motala and Mosha–both lost their legs when they stepped on land mines. The animals were lucky enough to come into the care of Soraida Salwala, the founder of the Friends of the Asian Elephant Hospital in Lampang, Thailand. Though the recovery process was lengthy, both elephants are now tramping around on prosthetic legs, an amazing feat when you consider the weight that their artificial limbs must bear.

Of course, there’s much more to this remarkable story. Fortunately, Mosha and Motala have found an able chronicler, in the form of Windy Borman, who is making a documentary about the animals and the Friends of the Asian Elephant hospital. The film, called The Eyes of Thailand, is currently in post-production, and Borman hopes it will debut on the festival circuit next year. When the film’s premiere gets closer, I’ll be doing a Q&A with Borman–which will appear right here on this blog. So stay tuned. Until then, check out the trailer, below, and head on over to the film’s website to learn more.

“The Eyes of Thailand” trailer (2011) from Windy Borman on Vimeo

Category: Animals, Biotechnology, Medicine | 5 Comments

How Animal Prosthetics are Spurring Innovation

My Wired piece about the weird and wacky world of animal prosthetics is finally out! And it looks stunning! (Thanks to the photographer and the Wired design team, not to me. I’m just the word girl.) In the actual hard copy of the magazine, the four-page photo spread, features three animals with prosthetics, but the online version is slightly extended–and depicts two extra animals not seen in the magazine. So be sure to check out the online bonus material.

The piece provides a quick glimpse into the veterinarians and prosthetists who are designing artificial limbs and body parts for injured animals. The piece grew out of my interviews with Kevin Carroll, Vice President of Hanger Prosthetics and Orthotics based in Austin, Texas and one of the world’s leading human prosthetists. (He consulted on the case of Oscar Pistorius, the controversial double-amputee sprinter from South Africa, and many of his patients are Paralympic Games medalists.)

Carroll, however, spends his night and weekends treating—for free—another class of patients: amputee animals. Over the years he has designed prosthetics for dogs, ducks, ostriches, storks, “whatever comes our way,” he says. He’s not the only one. There are now several animal-only prosthetic companies and clinics; one, the Denver-based OrthoPets, outfits an average of 150 animals a month with an orthotic or prosthetic. Material scientists have now created a prosthetic eagle beak; turtle shell; kangaroo foot and hundreds of dog and cat paws.

Animal bodies, of course, are radically different from our own, which is precisely what makes the wild kingdom such a hotbed of prosthetic innovation. With injured fauna, engineers are no longer bound by convention and tradition—in fact, success often requires ingenuity. Unable to just pop a human leg onto a kangaroo, for instance, or an elephant, or a crane, Carroll and his colleagues have to custom-design and individually
engineer each prosthetic. This sometimes involves creating new materials, joints, or structures that have never been used in prosthetics before. Add to that the fact that veterinarians can implement a new idea nearly instantaneously, without having to wade through the lengthy and costly clinical trials required for humans, and you have a recipe for innovation.
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Category: Animals, Biotechnology, Medicine, Technology | 3 Comments

Neuroscience for Everyone!

Erin Biba has a great story in the new issue of Wired about the latest DIY movement: do-it-yourself biotech. The feature peeks into the growing universe of “biohackers”–curious science enthusiasts who are finding ways to tinker with genes, brains, and bodies in basements or garages and on shoestring budgets.

One set of subjects, in particular, caught my eye: Greg Gage and Tim Marzullo. The pair,  former neuroscience post-docs who met at the University of Michigan, run a company called Backyard Brains, which provides low-cost equipment that allows students and amateurs to become neuroscientists for a day (or month!). By pure coincidence, I had met the Backyard Brains boys just days before coming across the Wired article. One chapter of my upcoming book is about cyborg animals, and Gage and Marzullo’s latest product is the RoboRoach, a small kit of electronics that allow any interested amateur turn a living cockroach into a remote-controlled toy.

But the company’s first–and most successful–product is a little contraption known as the SpikerBox. On sale for $90, the device allows customers to observe neurons firing in a cockroach in real time. The SpikerBox has electrodes that can pick up on the electrical activity in a roach’s leg; this neural activity can then be transmitted through a speaker, as sound, or to the screen of an attached iPhone, as that characteristic visual pattern of peaks and valleys.

Gage and Marzullo came up with the idea for the SpikerBox–and their company in general–after being frustrated by the high barrier of entry to neuroscience. In some ways, Gage says, neuroscience is the opposite of astronomy, a field that amateurs can really sink their teeth into. You often have to be an advanced undergraduate to even observe the electrical activity of neurons. “It’s the equivalent of only being able to look at the moon through a telescope if you get a PhD in astronomy,” Gage told me.

The pair hopes that by allowing kids and students to really dig in there and interact with the brain–and see and hear–neurons in action, they can inspire new generations of neuroscientists. (The company’s motto, emblazoned on its custom-made circuit boards, and elsewhere, is “Neuroscience for Everyone!”)

The sentiment really resonates with me. For years, I wanted to be a neuroscientist, and I slogged through hours of organic chemistry lab in hopes that one day, I might get to do something like listen in on neurons or hijack an insect’s nervous system. I gave up on neuroscience before I got within miles of a brain. Perhaps, if I’d been able to play around with a SpikerBox, it would have gotten me excited enough about a career in laboratory neuroscience to prompt me to just grit my teeth through all those interminable hours of orgo.

Category: Biotechnology, Citizen Science, Neuroscience | Comments Off

Small Wonders: Aug. 29, 2011

In this edition: racism and mental illness, a former president’s veganism, and sleeping ostriches.

* Upbringing influences behavior. Plant behavior.

* Are extreme racists mentally ill?

* How butterfly wings could help fight crime.

* The trouble with twin studies.

* Holy chicken fried steak! President Bill Clinton is a vegan.

* Two great pieces on pseudoscience in media coverage of the London riots.

* What scientists can learn from studying “sightings” of mysterious monsters, from Nessie to Yeti.
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Learning to Speak Like a Woman

Back in June, Eliza Gray, a reporter at The New Republic, had a remarkable cover story on transgender rights, which she called  “America’s next great civil rights struggle. (Yes, I know I’m late in covering this, but I’ve been out of commission for most of the summer. And now that I’m back, I don’t want to miss the chance to talk about the story.)

The entire story is remarkable–and eye-opening and gut-wrenching look at the vast struggles still faced by transgendered and transsexual Americans, who have largely been excluded from much of the progress made in the realm of gay rights.

But I am, of course, a science writer, and one part of the story, in particular, really caught my eye. Eliza spent a lot of time with 56-year-old Caroline Temmermand, who is transitioning from male to female. One part of Caroline’s transition, it turns out, involved speech therapy.

…Every week, Caroline also attends voice lessons at a clinic in Washington, D.C. When it comes to vocal adjustment, transitioning male-to-females have a tough time, because estrogen does not make the voice higher. And there is a lot more to speech than hormones. Men speak in monotones, using volume instead of pitch to emphasize different syllables, with their heads perpendicular to their shoulders, while women tilt and move their heads and speak in rising and falling pitches. Male voices originate in the chest, female voices in the throat. This is the difference between a man who speaks in falsetto and a man who learns how to really speak like a woman.

I watched from an observation room as a clinician sat at a computer that monitors pitch and asked Caroline to hold certain vowel sounds for as long as she could. To me, her voice sounded quite feminine, but Caroline was tough on herself: After one assessment, she guessed that her pitch was 145. (Anything between 145 and 165 is considered gender neutral.) The clinician reassured her: The real number was 198, very close to the average range of feminine pitch of 210-220. Caroline then read a passage selected to contain all the sounds in the English language. This time, her average pitch was 177, just above gender neutral. “I still can’t find my voice,” says Caroline, disappointed. She also had work to do on her laugh, her cough, and her sneeze.

I know Eliza socially, and she told me that the story, in fact, began as a piece focused on speech therapy for transgendered people. Ultimately, the story became something broader and more ambitious–and wonderful–but it left me wanting more about the science of speech therapy for people who are transitioning. Eliza has generously agreed to field some questions on the topic. An edited version of our discussion follows.
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Category: Medicine, Men, Psychology, Sex, Women | 10 Comments

Ramadan: Holy month and field experiment

Ramadan, the Islamic holy month during which Muslims fast during daylight hours, began last week. But Ramadan is more than a holiday–it’s also a unique research opportunity. The month provides a large population of people who are fighting against their normal circadian rhythms, eating and being active mostly when it’s dark. Back in 2007, I wrote a story for The Boston Globe about what scientists were learning by studying how the body adjusts to this topsy-turvy month. In honor of Ramadan, here’s a good chunk of that story:

During Ramadan, Muslims eat and get more active just when their bodies are used to winding down, creating sleep disruptions, hormonal changes, and sometimes mood impacts.

“Their biological clocks are no longer in harmony with their watches,” said Yvan Touitou, a chronobiologist at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris. “Ramadan is capable of desynchronizing people.”

Touitou’s research has illustrated that Ramadan can alter the usual circadian patterns of cortisol, a stress hormone, and testosterone, with sharper decreases of these hormones in the morning and later rises at night – though the impact of these rhythm disruptions is unclear.

The holiday also changes the schedule of the release of leptin, a hormone that regulates appetite and weight, and decreases the peak levels of melatonin, a hormone released at night to induce sleep. Interestingly, despite the disruption in leptin and in daily eating patterns, Ramadan rarely causes significant changes in body weight. Investigating why this is the case could yield useful insights into human energy metabolism, said Tom Reilly, a sports scientist at Liverpool John Moores University in England who has studied circadian rhythms and Ramadan.
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Category: Medicine, Neuroscience, Psychology | 2 Comments

Animal Photo Extravaganza

Now that I’m writing a book about animals, I get to pretend that perusing cute critter photos online counts as productive work. And I don’t know what’s in the water, but lately, the world’s animal photographers have been churning out some brilliant work. Below, some of my favorite finds:

Elderly Animals

These photographs of creatures nearing the end of their lives are surprisingly moving. (Photographer Isa Leshko has more on her website.)

The Exultant Ark

The New York Times has put together a slideshow of images from the new book The Exultant Ark: A Pictorial Tour of Animal Pleasure. Wired also has an excerpt from the book.

Life in Antarctica

These early 20th century images of Antarctic expeditions include some great shots of penguins, elephant seals, and sled dogs.

Ape Portraits

Volker Gutgesel takes candid shots of the simian residents of the Frankfurt Zoo.

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Small Wonders: July 13, 2011

In this week’s edition: human echolocation, sex and athletic performance, and ancient medicines discovered on a shipwreck. (I haven’t done one of these in a while, so it’s longer than usual. But hey–more is more, right?)

* An art installation will transform the brain’s reaction to certain cocktails into images.

* The problem with calling some medical procedures “elective” and others “necessary.”

* One lonely penguin turns up on the shores of New Zealand.

* And whales, it turns out, practically surround New York City. They were detected by underwater microphones.

* Garage inventors tackle biotech.

* The Japanese mob is cashing in on disaster relief.

* An exploration of the remarkable phenomenon of human echolocation.

* The science of the hamburger. ‘Nuff said.
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Invasive Species: They’re What’s For Dinner

The New York Times has a story about one of my favorite subjects: the suggestion that we combat invasive species by eating them. The story focuses, in particular, on the lionfish, an improbable looking creature that is taking over tropical reefs in Florida and the Caribbean. But it’s just one of many articles that have appeared about the so-called “invasivore” movement. I would guess that the actual size of the movement is incredibly small, but the topic seems to be a media darling. (Full disclosure: I, myself, have written about this topic. Click here to check out the slideshow I put together for Discover in 2009.)

Here’s just a small sampling of the coverage.

Not only are we all writing the same story over and over again, but many of us are using the exact same seemingly clever phrase: If you can’t beat ‘em, eat ‘em. In fact, I used it in my own story and am now duly embarrassed. In the future, I will strive to avoid such cliches like the plague.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Christian Mehlführer

Category: Animals, Food, Journalism | 1 Comment

Stem Cell Therapies for Injured Animals

First up in my return to blogging: A link to a story I wrote recently about stem cell therapy in animals.

While much of the hubbub surrounding stem cells is about the potential for curing devastating, life-threatening illnesses or injuries, veterinarians have begun using stem cell therapies to treat more common, everyday ailments–orthopedic problems, such as tendinitis and cartilage degeneration, in particular.

Of course, this is still early days for these interventions, and some of the enthusiasm might be a wee bit ahead of scientific consensus. But encouraging evidence is beginning to trickle out, and the potential human applications are thoroughly exciting. Find out more by reading the full story.

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