U Team Creates Outdoor Fun for Quadriplegics
University of Utah researchers and physicians have collaborated to create new outdoor recreation equipment, including kayaks and bicycles, designed to get spinal cord injury patients back into the great outdoors. The equipment is the product of a unique collaboration between University rehabilitation physicians and the U’s Department of Mechanical Engineering. “These pieces are fresh out of the engineering lab,” says Dr. Jeffrey Rosenbluth, medical director of University of Utah Health Care’s Spinal Cord Injury Acute Rehabilitation Program. “We’re really concentrating on the hardest people to get into active living and sports. When coming up with these design plans, we asked, ‘How can we give these individuals the ultimate experience?’ ”
Rosenbluth coordinated with mechanical engineering professor Andrew Merryweather to make his vision a reality, and the Craig H. Neilsen Foundation financially backed the projects. (The late Neilsen MBA’64 JD’67, a casino executive who became a quadriplegic after a 1985 automobile accident, established the foundation in 2002 to fund spinal cord injury research and rehabilitation.) Describing some of the innovative features of the team’s new hand-cycle, Rosenbluth notes that typical handbikes are close to the ground, so getting into them from a wheelchair is simple, but it’s almost impossible to get back in the wheelchair from that position. The U design features a seat that adjusts up and down, allowing users to get back into wheelchairs with relative ease. Rosenbluth also pointed out revolutionary features like electronic gear shifts located near the elbows, a chest piece braking system that is much more reliable and easy to use, and a power assist hub that measures the torque applied, then adds up to 300 percent.
For the kayak, the team fashioned a sip and puff system to steer, giving virtually anyone the ability to captain the vessel. “Being able to paddle traditionally is a difficult thing if you don’t have much in terms of hand function or grip,” he says. “We took this device and made it fully accessible and usable by someone with really no hand function whatsoever. If you can move your head and mouth a little bit, you can actually sail and kayak with this device.”
Last summer, quadriplegic patients at the University of Utah got the chance to sail the vessel on a reservoir near Salt Lake City. Both Rosenbluth and Merryweather were on hand to see how the equipment worked and hear how it was received. “First of all, most people don’t believe they can do it… and they don’t believe it will work as advertised,” Rosenbluth says. “But there’s something therapeutic about being on the water. When people think they’ll never get back on the water again and they do, I think you see their old personality come back. It’s amazing.”
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No ‘Left-brained’ or ‘Right-brained,’ U study finds
Chances are, you’ve heard of being a “right-brained” or “left-brained” thinker. Logical, detail-oriented, and analytical? That’s left-brained behavior. Creative, thoughtful, and subjective? Your brain’s right side functions stronger—or so longheld assumptions have suggested. But University of Utah neuroscientists have found that there is no evidence within brain imaging to indicate some people are right-brained or left-brained.
The terms left-brained and rightbrained have come to refer to personality types, with an assumption that some people use the right side of their brain more, while some favor the left. Following a two-year study, U researchers have debunked that myth through identifying specific networks in the left and right brain that process lateralized functions.
Lateralization of brain function means that there are certain mental processes that are mainly specialized to one of the brain’s left or right hemispheres. During the course of the study, researchers analyzed resting brain scans of 1,011 people between the ages of seven and 29. In each person, they studied functional lateralization of the brain measured for thousands of brain regions—finding no relationship that individuals preferentially use their left-brain network or right-brain network more often.
“It’s absolutely true that some brain functions occur in one or the other side of the brain. Language tends to be on the left, attention more on the right. But people don’t tend to have a stronger left- or right-sided brain network. It seems to be determined more connection by connection,” says Dr. Jeffrey S. Anderson, U associate professor of radiology and lead author of the study.
“Everyone should understand the personality types associated with the terminology ‘left-brained’ and ‘right-brained’ and how they relate to him or her personally,” says Jared Nielsen, a graduate student in neuroscience who carried out the study as part of his coursework. “However, we just don’t see patterns where the whole left-brain network is more connected or the whole right-brain network is more connected in some people. It may be that personality types have nothing to do with one hemisphere being more active, stronger, or more connected.”
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Immunodeficiency Disorder Mutation Identified
A 30-year-old woman with a history of upper respiratory infections had no idea she carried a gene for an immunodeficiency disorder, until her six-year-old son was diagnosed with the same illness. Now, a test available as early as this spring may make it easier for others to discover whether they have the disorder.
After learning she has common variable immunodeficiency, a disorder characterized by recurrent infections such as pneumonia and by decreased antibodies, the woman, her husband, their three children, and parents joined a multidisciplinary University of Utah study, and researchers identified a novel gene mutation that caused the disease in the mom and two of her children. The researchers discovered that a mutation in the NFKB2 gene impairs a protein from functioning properly, which interferes with the body’s ability to make antibodies and fight infection.
The disorder typically doesn’t present with symptoms until adulthood, and it’s not uncommon for someone to reach their 20s, 30s, or beyond before being diagnosed, according to Dr. Karin Chen, co-first author of the study published in the American Journal of Human Genetics online. Identifying the NFKB2 mutation will make it easier to recognize and treat the disorder, particularly after a test developed in conjunction with the study by ARUP Laboratories becomes available as early as May.
“If we can screen patients for genetic mutations, we can identify disease complications associated with that gene, start looking for them and treating them sooner,” says Chen, instructor of pediatric immunology at the University’s School of Medicine.