July 28, 2010

Wednesday, July 28, 2010
Recently, Professor Noam Sobel, electronics engineers Dr. Anton Plotkin and Aharon Weissbrod and research student Lee Sela of the Weizmann Institute's Neurobiology Department, have invented a device that could allow persons with disabilities to navigate wheelchairs or communicate simply by inhaling and exhaling through the nose. In addition, this sniffing technology could be useful in assisting health surgeons or pilots perform certain procedures as their nose could act as a third hand.

How exactly can our breaths achieve such feats? “The new system identifies changes in air pressure inside the nostrils and translates these into electrical signals.” Testing was completed with volunteers and quadriplegics and results proved to be very promising. The subjects were able to manoeuvre a wheelchair or play a computer game with as much ease and precision as with a mouse or joystick.
Sniffing is a precise motor skill that is controlled, in part, by the soft palate […] the soft palate is controlled by several nerves that connect to it directly through the braincase. This close link led Sobel and his scientific team to theorize that the ability to sniff -- that is, to control soft palate movement -- might be preserved even in the most acute cases of paralysis. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) lent support to the idea, showing that a number of brain areas contribute to soft palate control. This imaging revealed a significant overlap between soft palate control and the language areas of the brain, hinting to the scientists that the use of sniffing to communicate might be learned intuitively.
From this theory, a device that measures changes in air pressure was created with a sensor that fits into the opening of the nostrils. Furthermore, an alternate version that diverts air into the nostrils was produced for patients on respirators. Interestingly, roughly 75% of those on respirators could control and operate the device.

Still, the most striking is that individuals with locked-in syndrome, a state in which their cognitive functions are intact but their bodies are completely paralyzed so that they are “locked” inside their bodies, were able to communicate effectively with their loved ones on account of this new invention. Finally, these patients were able to share their thoughts and feelings with their families for the first time in a very long time.
“One patient who had been locked in for seven months following a stroke learned to use the device over a period of several days, writing her first message to her family. Another, who had been locked in since a traffic accident 18 years earlier wrote that the new device was much easier to use than one based on blinking. Another ten patients, all quadriplegics, succeeded in operating a computer and writing messages through sniffing.”
Moreover, wheelchair navigation can be done effortlessly with this technology. A certain number of inhales or exhales instruct the chair to navigate in certain directions. Two successive sniffs will make the wheelchair advance forward and two exhales will reverse the chair. One inhale followed by an exhale will steer to the left, while an exhale followed by an inhale steers to the right.

Consequently, the technology has received such acclaim that four of the research subjects are still using the device to communicate. Researchers’ claim that this system is fairly inexpensive to manufacture, not to mention easy for people to learn and operate in comparison to other types of similar technology already in use. Yeda Research and Development Company are currently looking to develop and distribute the technology to the general public, therefore it may not be long until this technology is put to good use.

Invention Enables People With Disabilities Communicate and Steer a Wheelchair by Sniffing

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July 18, 2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010
New research has studied the effects of Buddhist meditation on attention span when focusing on a specific task that requires a person to distinguish small differences on a computer screen.
"You wonder if the mental skills, the calmness, the peace that they express, if those things are a result of their very intensive training or if they were just very special people to begin with," says Katherine MacLean, who worked on the study as a graduate student at the University of California, Davis.
A group of 60 people were hand-picked from readers of Buddhist-themed magazines or via word of mouth. Half of the participants were selected to attend a 3 month meditation retreat in Colorado with the study’s co-author and meditation teacher/Buddhist scholar B. Alan Wallace, while the remainder awaited their retreat. Every subject had previously attended a minimum of three 5-10 day meditation retreats in the past.
At three points during the retreat, each participant took a test on a computer to measure how well they could make fine visual distinctions and sustain visual attention. They watched a screen intently as lines flashed on it; most were of the same length, but every now and then a shorter one would appear, and the volunteer had to click the mouse in response.
The assignment, which lasted about 30 minutes, was quite boring making focusing a difficult task. MacLean explains that this type of task is ideal for assessing meditation training since meditation is not about peaceful relaxation; rather it is more demanding to be so focused without distraction.

Evidently, subjects improved their ability to distinguish short lines from the long ones with more meditation training. The study suggests that this occurs because of the participants are more capable of sustaining their attention, which in turn improved their performance on the task at hand. “This improvement persisted five months after the retreat, particularly for people who continued to meditate every day.”

A few obvious questions come to mind regarding the reliability and validity of this study. How did the participants meditate? How did eyesight affect results of the study? Are results similar for participants that have no background in meditation? Have participants improved because of increased ability to focus via meditation or because they’ve practiced the same task again and again? Was the task always the same or did it vary? How did the improvements for those that continued to meditate after the retreat compare to those that did not?

Although the researchers have studied this same group of participants in many studies, this experiment is the most comprehensive study of intensive meditation to date. “Future analyses of these same volunteers will look at other mental abilities, such as how well people can regulate their emotions and their general well-being.”

Meditation Helps Increase Attention Span

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July 11, 2010

Sunday, July 11, 2010
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