University at Buffalo students develop app to keep you out of the emergency room

In a litany of problems facing our healthcare system, one of the biggest we hear about the most is emergency room visits. The ER is expensive and meant to be used in genuine emergencies, but people who lack health care services or for a variety of other reasons will not see a conventional doctor end up filling our ERs and taxing the system, often without the means to pay for the services they received. Even if I personally think Excellus oversteps the bounds of decency when trying to convince us not to waste ER time, it is a very serious problem.

And one major component of that problem is that patients leave the ER and then fail to follow up with necessary after-visit care. The result is that they end up right back in the ER for the same problem. And ER doctors treat patients who then disappear, so there is really no way to follow up. Patients leave the ER and are cut off from their only means of education.

But a recent University of Buffalo project aims to solve that problem, and has won an award for their efforts. GE Healthcare awarded the new mobile app $25k in grants for solving the problem if readmittance with a program of follow-up measures aimed to keep the patient informed well after the visit:

Seeing an opportunity to reduce the readmission rate, the UB team conceived the app, called “Discharge Roadmap,” after the competition was announced in November.

The app allows patients and their caregivers to fully participate in the discharge planning process, Casucci said. It provides a convenient and stress free way to learn about proper health management, assess personal health care needs, and communicate care preferences to hospital and community-based care providers, she said.

The goal is to ultimately improve the hospital discharge planning process by reducing patient readmissions, she said.


Health Technology

Twistaplots for med students? They’re “in the cloud,” now.

If you’re like me (god help you), hours of your week are spent trawling through press releases from colleges and universities in the area, looking for the next big breakthrough in science news. But if you’re like me, you’re probably not reading this blog. You’re writing your own.

And if you came across the article I just read from the University of Buffalo news, you’d find yourself scratching your head, wondering how you can get some grant money. It can’t be hard. Because the latest technology news from the UB Medical School is that the AMA has granted an unspecified amount of money to the school to create “cloud-based patient simulations” that third-year medical school students can use to test out their skills:

The i-Human Patients platform is a cloud-based service for medical students that simulates a patient visit. Students use the software to interview and examine animations of patients, order and review diagnostic tests, develop diagnostic hypotheses and create a treatment plan. Online guidance and comprehensive feedback occurs at every step of the process.

Ok. So, basically CBT’s for medical students. Really?

I’m sure I’m missing… something. But this strikes me as quite possibly the least-effective possible use of money for medical research. Perhaps the article doesn’t get specific enough with what they’re building, but it seems to me that a Twistaplot book for med students would work just as well. Because you put it “In the Cloud” does not make it newer or better.

I’d love to hear from anyone with more information on this subject. Seriously: tell me I’m wrong.


Buffalo researchers think schizophrenics might be cured with anti-smoking drugs

Schizophrenia is a cypher to science. It is an inherited disease, yet it does not go strictly from one generation to the next. It may skip a few. There are even arguments that schizophrenia may be caused by environmental instead of genetic factors. But one thing most schizophrenics have in common:

They smoke. A lot.

Researchers at the University of Buffalo believe that schizophrenics smoke because nicotine is a form of self-medication, and that by working with smoking cessation drugs (nicotinic agonists, they call that), doctors may be able to help repair cognitive functions of the sufferers.

How is this possible? They believe they have discovered a single genetic pathway, or series of DNA segments that work together, that controls as many as 160 different traits, all associated with the disease:

 “How is it possible to have 100 patients with schizophrenia and each one has a different genetic mutation that causes the disorder?” asks Stachowiak. “It’s possible because INFS integrates diverse neurological signals that control the development of embryonic stem cell and neural progenitor cells, and links pathways involving schizophrenia-linked genes.

“INFS functions like the conductor of an orchestra,” explains Stachowiak. “It doesn’t matter which musician is playing the wrong note, it brings down the conductor and the whole orchestra. With INFS, we propose that when there is an alteration or mutation in a single schizophrenia-linked gene, the INFS system that controls development of the whole brain becomes untuned. That’s how schizophrenia develops.”

The link between smoking and schizophrenia is well-established. Because there is such a strong, common link between smoking and this otherwise disparately symptomatic disease, researchers believe that nicotine and nicotinic agonists may be affecting this pathway.


Will your next car be powered by water?

Researchers at the University of Buffalo have learned that adding silicon nano-particles of 10nm wide to water can yield high concentrations of hydrogen, quickly and efficiently. In fact, the hydrogen is available as a fuel source “almost immediately.”:

The reaction didn’t require any light, heat or electricity, and also created hydrogen about 150 times faster than similar reactions using silicon particles 100 nanometers wide, and 1,000 times faster than bulk silicon, according to the study.

In other words, near-perfect energy production. The group envisions this technology to be available for everything from cars to camping gear or small electronics. They note that the silicon particles are not without their own energy costs, taking, “significant energy and resources” to produce. When thinking in terms of lowering energy consumption, it is important to consider both the amount of energy produced and the amount of energy it takes to produce the producer. This has been the challenge that has dogged other alternative fuel technologies such as ethanol.

The chief problem with the idea of hydrogen fuel cells has always been the problem of safely storing hydrogen. You know. The stuff that made the Hindenburg famous.


Reconstruction and gun control: a historical perspective

For twenty-five or so years, now, I’ve been arguing one side or the other on the gun control issue. And in all that time, I do not recall the current brand of gun freedom discussion, so popular among those who try to shout me down on the issue. That is: that during the Reconstruction, white Democrats and the Ku Klux Klan actively sought out gun control as a means to control newly free black populations. The argument goes: this is what “the people in power” always want, therefore surrendering our guns now is just a huge mistake in a millennial struggle for power in democratic societies.

I cannot help but notice that an increasing number of Republican arguments against public policy seem rooted these days in a novel affection for racial history. I don’t think I am alone in finding the sight of the Party of Pat Buchanan casting the Klan as bad guys.. counter-intuitive.

Novelty notwithstanding, their argument is endowed with solid historical evidence, as University of Buffalo history professor Carole Emberton discusses in a History News Network article published on Monday. She describes a Reconstruction South that is rocked by violence and revolution. She describes this, our nation’s worst post-war reconstruction effort, having in this case, “devolved into a paramilitary contest in many areas.” In this chaotic environment, the right to bear arms and the right to vote became intertwined:

Radical Republicans paired the right to vote with the right to bear arms, citing black men’s participation in the war effort as evidence of their worthiness to cast ballots. They also cited white southerners’ determination to prevent their former bondsmen from becoming citizens by disarming them as a reason to reaffirm both voting and private gun possession as twin rights of post-emancipation citizenship.

Were we to read this article while keeping our eyes firmly cast on the players – the black citizens struggling for power and the white Southerners who took it from them – we can easily see that the black struggle was for the “right” and the Southern Democrat effort is for the “wrong.” If we keep an eye on the people who drive the narrative, we can pretty easily pick a favourite side for which we can root.

We can feel the burn of anger and resentment when “our side” loses. In every conflict, military or para, the objective is to disarm the enemy. And so they did. This isn’t a historical footnote and it isn’t the kind of injustice we would want to repeat. All very true.

If on the other hand, we focus instead on the machines that play their part, we clearly see that more guns did not yield a favourable result. The Civil War brought a flood of increasingly effective and cheap weapons to the United States. Guns during the Civil War entered their Industrial Age, suddenly becoming ubiquitous, sophisticated and brutally efficient. The demand for guns leading up to the Civil War nearly quadrupled the yearly output at the fabled Colt Company plants, as one example Professor Emberton notes.

Into this mess Radical Republicans pour a conflation of guns and democracy. White Southerners pour in their resentment and loss. “Militias” are formed and direct assaults on the institutions of our democracy begun. The result is a wound that, more even than the Civil War itself, leaves its continuing mark as evidenced by the whole argument.

History does not belong to any “side” in a political or historical argument. Certainly, not my side. But to me, the story of Reconstruction fire arms reads as a cautionary tale against allowing a build-up of dangerous weapons where they will inevitably get used. That reining in the power of the gun facilitated one sin or the next does not invalidate gun control as a worth-while public policy, any more than does the existence of street signs in Bathist Iraq make traffic law an instrument of dictatorship.


Being a loner may be bad for your brain. Like, really bad.

Blah, blah, blah. I like my stoically private nature. It helps me think.

That may seem true, but research out of the University of Buffalo may prove otherwise. A new study shows that social isolation arrests the healthy development of myelin in the brains of mice, both reinforcing the behavior and also leaving the loner open to neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s.

The brain is essentially made up of two types of “matter,” white and grey. You’ve heard the phrase “grey matter” in the past, when discussing how smart a person is. White matter is made up of myelin sheaths around brain cells, astrocytes that run between cells and more. Up until recently, the white matter of the brain has largely been ignored as unimportant.

Research into neuroplasticity – the relatively novel scientific concept that the brain actually regrows and rewires brain cells according to the needs of the moment – is showing that not only grey matter but white matter as well is affected by changes in behavior.

Mice were isolated in a lab for a period of time to observe the changes in their brain structures. The scientists found that the isolated mice, when put in contact with a normally-socialized mouse, actively avoided contact. That is: the mice who would normally be hugely social creatures suddenly became intentional introverts when given a period of forced isolation.

Even more interesting: studying the brains of the isolated mice, they discovered that myelin production had been slowed down. Myelin is a fatty sheath that surrounds brain cells, acting as insulators and preventing the signals (which are just electro-chemical jolts, you might say) from being leached out of the brain cell and away from their intended targets. Lack of myelin has been blamed for a host of neurological disorders.

The good news is that none of the effects of neuroplasticity are irreversible. The scientists in this particular study showed that reintegrating the mice into their social communities reversed all the negative trends of isolation.

So, as my parents used to say, “get out there and blow the stink off!” Stop watching The Secret of NIHM and heed the lesson of actual lab rats. That smell might just be your brain mouldering.