Do scientists from a variety of disciplines share their latest research data often enough with others outside their own fields? Have you ever wondered how skin is wired for touch? Compared to our other senses, scientists don’t know much about how our skin is wired for the sensation of touch. And when holistic health studies are reported in various journals, do scientists in a medley of disciplines share their own data with one another across discplines? Do scientists communicate effectively with physicians and physicians with their patients when new data is validated by peer reviews in fields such as health?
A few years ago scientists reported their research in the December 23, 2011 issue of the journal Cell. That research provides the first picture of how specialized neurons feel light touches, like a brush of movement or a vibration, are organized in hairy skin.
Looking at these neurons in the hairy skin of mice, the researchers observed remarkably orderly patterns, suggesting that each type of hair follicle works like a distinct sensory organ, each tuned to register different types of touches
Each hair follicle sends out one wire-like projection that joins with others in the spinal cord, where the information they carry can be integrated into impulses sent to the brain. This network of neurons in our own skin allows us to perceive important differences in our surroundings: a raindrop versus a mosquito, a soft fingertip versus a hard stick.
“We can now begin to appreciate how these hair follicles and associated neurons are organized relative to one another and that organization enables us to think about how mechanosensory information is integrated and processed for the perception of touch,” says David Ginty of The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, according to the December 22, 2011 news release, “How skin is wired for touch.”
Mice have several types of hair follicles with three in particular that make up their coats
Ginty’s team made a technical breakthrough by coming up with a way to label distinct populations of known low-threshold mechanoreceptors (LTMRs). Before this study, there was no way to visualize LTMRs in their natural state. The neurons are tricky to study in part because they extend from the spinal cord all the way out to the skin. The feeling in the tips of our toes depends on cells that are more than one meter long.
The images show something unexpected and fascinating, Ginty says in the news release. Each hair follicle type includes a distinct combination of mechanosensory endings. Those sensory follicles are also organized in a repeating and stereotypical pattern in mouse skin.
The neurons found in adjacent hair follicles stretch to a part of the spinal cord that receives sensory inputs, forming narrow columns
Ginty says there are probably thousands of those columns in the spinal cord, each gathering inputs from a particular region of the skin and its patch of 100 or so hairs, according to the news release. So how do humans benefit by this information?
Of course, we don’t have hair like a mouse. And it’s not yet clear whether some of these mechanosensory neurons depend on the hairs themselves to pick up on sensations and whether others are primarily important as scaffolds for the underlying neural structures.
The research results are about having good genetic access so genes can be turned on or off
Researchers don’t know either how these inputs are integrated in the spinal cord and brain to give rise to perceptions. But now they have the genetic access they need to tinker with each LTMR subtype one by one, turning them on or off at will and seeing what happens to the brain and to behavior.
Intriguingly, one of the LTMR types under study is implicated as “pleasure neurons” in people, Ginty notes, according to the news release.
At this point, he says they have no clue how these neurons manage to set themselves up in this way during development. The neurons that form this sensory network are born at different times, controlled by different growth factors, and “yet they assemble in these remarkable patterns.” And for Ginty that leads to a simple if daunting question to answer: “How does one end of the sensory neuron know what the other end is doing?”
Aspiring scientists, including health professionals, geneticists, and others doing studies need to communicate more and share information with one another across different fields. Transparency and sharing of research findings among people in different fields, especially in the science professions is a problem.
Why are so many peer-reviewed scientific papers for various studies not reproducible again?
The goal is to teach scientific reproducibility, start young, says a new study from Duke University. It’s about introducing the concept to undergraduates which could lead to more transparency in science. You can check out the paper, “R Markdown: Integrating A Reproducible Analysis Tool into Introductory Statistics.” Authors are Ben Baumer, Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel, et al. The work is published in the journal Technological Innovations in Statistics Education, published online, Feb. 25, 2014.
The ability to duplicate an experiment and its results is a central tenet of the scientific method, says the abstract of the new paper. But recent research has shown an alarming number of peer-reviewed papers are irreproducible. Nolan and Temple Lang argue that “the ability to express statistical computations is an es- sential skill.”
A key related capacity is the ability to conduct and present data analysis in a way that another person can understand and replicate. The copy-and-paste workflow that is an artifact of antiquated user-interface design makes reproducibility of statistical analysis more difficult, especially as data become increasingly complex and statistical methods become increasingly sophisticated.
R Markdown is a new technology that makes creating fully-reproducible statistical analysis simple and painless
It provides a solution suitable not only for cutting edge research, but also for use in an introductory statistics course. We present experiential and statistical evidence that R Markdown can be used effectively in introductory statistics courses, and discuss its role in the rapidly-changing world of statistical computation.
A team of math and statistics professors has proposed a way to address one root of that problem by teaching reproducibility to aspiring scientists, using software that makes the concept feel logical rather than cumbersome
Researchers from Smith College, Duke University and Amherst College looked at how introductory statistics students responded to a curriculum modified to stress reproducibility. Their work is detailed in a paper published Feb. 25, 2014 in the journal Technological Innovations in Statistics Education.
In 2013, on the heels of several retraction scandals and studies showing reproducibility rates as low as 10 percent for peer-reviewed articles, the prominent scientific journal Nature dedicated a special issue to the concerns over irreproducibility.
Nature’s editors announced measures to address the problem in its own pages, and encouraged the science community and funders to direct their attention to better training of young scientists. “Too few biologists receive adequate training in statistics and other quantitative aspects of their subject,” the editors wrote. “Mentoring of young scientists on matters of rigor and transparency is inconsistent at best.”
The authors of the present study thus looked to their own classrooms for ways to incorporate the idea of reproducibility. “Reproducing a scientific study usually has two components: reproducing the experiment, and reproducing the analysis,” said Ben Baumer, according to the February 28, 2014 news release, “To teach scientific reproducibility, start young.” Bauer is a visiting assistant professor of math and statistics at Smith College. “As statistics instructors, we wanted to emphasize the latter to our students.”
Show your work as in show and tell so people in other fields can share the data
The grade school maxim to “show your work” doesn’t hold in the average introductory statistics class, said Mine Cetinkaya-Rundel, according to the news release. Cetinkaya-Rundel is an assistant professor of the practice in the Duke statistics department. In a typical workflow, a college-level statistics student will perform data analysis in one software package, but transfer the results into something better suited to presentation, like Microsoft Word or Microsoft PowerPoint.
Though standard, this workflow divorces the raw data and analysis from the final results, making it difficult for students to retrace their steps. The process can give rise to errors, and in many cases, the authors write, “the copy-and-paste paradigm enables, and even encourages, selective reporting.”
“Usually, a data analysis report, even a published paper, isn’t going to include the code,” Cetinkaya-Rundel said in the news release. “But at the intro level, where this is the first time students are exposed to this workflow, it helps to keep intact both the final results and the code used to generate them.”
Enter R Markdown, a statistical package that integrates seamlessly with the programming language R. The team chose R Markdown for its ease of use — students wouldn’t have to learn a new computer syntax — and because it combines the raw data, computing and written analysis into one HTML document. The researchers hoped a single HTML file would give students a start-to-finish understanding of assignments, as well as make studying and grading easier.
The study introduced R Markdown to 417 introductory statistics students (272 from Duke University, 145 from Smith College) during the 2012-2013 school year. Instructors emphasized the lesson of reproducibility throughout each course and surveyed 70 students about their experience using R Markdown for homework assignments.
The survey, conducted once at the beginning of the semester and once at the end, showed gradual gains in student preference for R Markdown
The percentage of respondents who indicated they found R Markdown to be frustrating at first but eventually got the hang of it jumped from 51 to 75 percent. The students vastly preferred it to the alternative, with 70 percent strongly disagreeing that they’d rather use the copy-and-paste method.
The research team also found that even when students had no prior computing experience or expressed negative attitudes toward R Markdown, their grades did not appear to suffer. Future surveys will ask more pointed questions about how much of the lesson on reproducibility students absorb from the modified curricula. As the use and analysis of big data becomes increasingly sophisticated, the team writes, the ability of researchers to retrace steps and achieve the same statistical outcomes will only grow in significance.
Other authors on the paper included Andrew Bray and Linda Loi of Smith College and Nicholas Horton of Amherst College. This researched received partial support from Project MOSAIC and the National Science Foundation (grant DUE-0920350).
When research results in new inventions or designs for affordable devices that can help those who need the gadgets most, sharing information with the public is important and happens frequently because there are products that need to get into the hands of patients who can benefit most by the devices
Lift Labs, based in San Francisco, developed a special shake-canceling spoon for people who’s hands shake with tremors, making it difficult to get food from plate, cup, glass or spoon to mouth. The new device resembles an extra-large electronic toothbrush base. The “Liftware Spoon” can adjust rapidly to the shaking of the user’s hand, keeping a detachable spoon or other eating or drinking utensil steady. In other words, it shakes the spoon in exactly the opposite way that the person’s hand shakes.
For those interested in building a better device that is eagerly needed in the community when it comes to eating, high up on the list is such a shake-canceling spoon. On numerous occasions we’ve eaten in Sacramento buffet restaurants with our social group of older adults whose hands shake so rapidly, that the food flies off the dish as they try to manage spooning small amounts buffet items onto their plate. It becomes more complicated once at the table trying to spoon the food from plate to mouth.
For years, these friends had to be assisted in carrying the plate to the table and often when eating. But finally, scientists have designed a stable spoon for shaky hands. The device helps essential tremor patients. Finally, the University of Michigan (U-M) engineering alumni’s company developed a shake-canceling device. The concept is called ACT, or active cancellation of tremor.
For people whose hands shake uncontrollably due to a medical condition, just eating can be a frustrating and embarrassing ordeal – enough to keep them from sharing a meal with others. But a small new study conducted at the University of Michigan Health System suggests that a new handheld electronic device can help such patients overcome the hand shakes caused by essential tremor, the most common movement disorder. Imagine how many people it can help who have movement disorders where their hands shake so violently that the food flies off the spoon or fork between the plate or bowl and their mouth.
In a clinical trial involving 15 adults with moderate essential tremor, the device improved patients’ ability to hold a spoon still enough to eat with it, and to use it to scoop up mock food and bring it to their mouths
The researchers measured the effect three ways: using a standard tremor rating, the patients’ own ratings, and digital readings of the spoon’s movement. The results are recently published online in the journal Movement Disorders by a research team that includes University of Michigan neurologist and essential tremor specialist Kelvin Chou, M.D., as well as three people from the small startup company, Lift Labs,, that makes the device, called Liftware. The study was funded by a Small Business Innovation Research grant from the National Institutes of Health that the researchers applied for together. Check out the site, “Liftware by Lift Labs.” Or see the YouTube videos, “Liftware Spoon 12-16-13” or “Getting Started with Liftware.”
Public-private partnership – with a Michigan difference
The technology came full circle to its test in the University of Michigan (UMHS clinic. The company’s CEO, Anupam Pathak, Ph.D., received his doctorate from the University of Michigan (U-M) College of Engineering – where he first worked on tremor-cancelling advanced microelectronic technologies for other purposes.
The concept is called ACT, or active cancellation of tremor. It relies on tiny electronic devices that work together to sense movement in different directions in real time, and then make a quick and precise counter-motion. But to truly test whether their prototype device could help essential tremor patients overcome their condition’s effects, the Lift Labs team turned to Chou, who with his colleagues sees hundreds of essential tremor patients a year.
UMHS offers comprehensive care for the condition as part of its Movement Disorders Center
Chou and his colleagues have experience in prescribing a range of medication to calm tremors, and evaluating which patients might benefit from advanced brain surgery to implant a device that can calm the uncontrollable nerve impulses that cause tremor. “Only about 70 percent of patients respond to medication, and only about 10 percent qualify for surgery, which has a high and lasting success rate,” says Chou, according to the February 28, 2014 news release, “Shaky hand, stable spoon: U-M study shows device helps essential tremor patients.”
Chou is an associate professor in the University of Michigan’s Medical School’s departments of Neurology and Neurosurgery. “People get really frustrated by tremor, and experience embarrassment that often leads to social isolation because they’re always feeling conscious not just eating but even drinking from a cup or glass.”
The trial, Chou says, according to the news release, showed that the amplitude of movement due to the tremor decreased measurably, and that patients could move the spoon much more normally. Though the trial did not include patients with hand tremors caused by other movement disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, the device may be useful to such patients too, he notes.
“A key aspect of Liftware is a design with empathy. We hear of people struggling every day, and decided to apply technology in a way to directly help. We hope the final product is something people can feel proud of using, and allow them to regain independence and dignity,” says Anupam Pathak, Ph.D, the Lift Labs CEO, according to the news release.
How the study was done
The researchers tested the device’s impact both with the microelectronics turned on, and with them turned off so there was no correction for movement. Patients and Chou could not tell by feeling the device whether it was on or off.
All three measures – objective rating by Chou, subjective rating by patients, and digital data from the device’s connection to a computer – showed improvement for eating and transferring items when the device was turned on, compared to when it was off.
When the patients were asked to simply hold the spoon halfway between the table and their mouth, the two objective measures showed improvement when the device was on, though the patients didn’t report a significant difference themselves.
“Our data show this device has very good potential to assist those who have tremor and aren’t candidates for surgery,” Chou says, according to the news release. “Compared with other devices designed to limit tremor by weighting or constraining limbs, this approach allows movement and is easier to use.”
The study included 15 adults between the ages of 59 and 80 whose tremor caused them to spill food or drink. They had experienced tremor for anywhere from 5 years to 57 years. All of the patients stopped taking their medication temporarily before testing the Liftware device. Five of the patients had undergone deep brain stimulation, but turned off their tremor-controlling implant for the study.
Imagine if parts of your body moved when you didn’t want them to, and you’re trying to eat a nutritious meal
If you have a movement disorder, you experience these kinds of impaired movement. Dyskinesia is abnormal uncontrolled movement and is a common symptom of many movement disorders. Tremors are a type of dyskinesia.
Nerve diseases cause many movement disorders, such as Parkinson’s disease. Other causes include injuries, autoimmune diseases, infections and certain medicines. Many movement disorders are inherited, which means they run in families. At last there’s a spoon that lets you eat without assistance.
Lift Labs is now developing other attachments for the Liftware device, and working with the International Essential Tremor Foundation to raise money to give devices to people with essential tremor who cannot afford the $295 price of a base unit.
In addition to Chou, who does not have a business relationship with Lift Labs, and Pathak, who co-holds two U-M patents with others who developed the ACT approach, the research team included Lift Labs’ John A. Redmond, Ph.D., and Michael Allen. The research was funded by NIH SBIR grant 5R44NS070438. Chou is the Thomas H. and Susan C. Brown Early Career Professor of Neurology. For more information on essential tremor care at UMHS, visit its website, UM Health. More information on the Liftware product, see the Lift Labs Design site.
You also may be interested in taking a look at the PDF format article, “Nutrition After Fifty: Tips and Recipes” from the American Institute for Cancer Research. Or see the report, “Food, Nutrition, Physical Activity, and the Prevention of Cancer: A Global Perspective,” published by the American Institute for Cancer Research.