Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Let’s talk about Epilepsy

Sometimes I flail about randomly, my arms and legs awkwardly spasming as though I’m a puppet and the puppet master is on acid. This is what I call “dancing”. Accordingly, I don’t do that much.

But sometimes all of those things happen without me having any say in it at all. It’s alarming how much my “moves” and my seizures resemble each other, but I blame that mostly on the fact that I am phenomenally uncoordinated on the dance floor.

I so wish I was this good
Image courtesy of “Love Actually” movie, copyright Universal Pictures, 2003

Depending on how you look at it, I either have the crappy lot in life of living with epilepsy OR I’m lucky to have it. I’ll elaborate.

Epilepsy sucks. It is always present, even when under control medically. It is unwelcome and limiting, and when I’m exhausted or angry I sometimes start to feel sorry for myself. I don’t know anybody else with it, and it can get lonely.

What sucks MOST about having epilepsy though is the strange taboo around it. We’ve come leaps and bounds in the last hundred years or so, moving past the perception of epilepsy as some kind of demon-possession-psychosis thing, but even still people get very uncomfortable if I tell them that I’m epileptic.

Actually that sucks second-most. First-most is that I can’t scubadive. I’m still angry about that.

sadface 🙁
Image licensed under creative commons

I was very hesitant to write this blog, because it’s so personal, but I think communication about medical conditions is really important, and this forum is a good place to start.

The basic science:

A mutation in a gene (GABRA1) means there is less than normal of particular receptor protein, GABAA, which permits the crossing of chloride ions across the cell membrane in neurons. This crossing usually inhibits over-activation of neuronal signals in the brain, so having less capacity to do this means the neurons can easily be over-stimulated. The overstimulation manifests physiologically in seizures.  There are many, many other abnormalities that cause epilepsy but this is the primary one in my particular sub-category, Juvenile Myoclonic Epilepsy (and yes, I resent the name. I’m 24, not a juvenile!!) A more thorough explanation can be found here.

… it happens somewhere in there
Image licensed under creative commons

Moving along.

When it comes down to it I’m completely useless at holding grudges, even against my neurons, and I just like life too much to be resentful most of the time.

neurons are just so gorgeous! who could hate them for long eh?
Image licensed under creative commons

I’m lucky – my epilepsy is under control. I have one of those nana AM/PM weekly pillboxes which looks like a pharmacy (it took about 2 years to work out a combo of drugs that didn’t cause nasty side effects but did control the seizures) and the colour combination is very pretty. Seriously, I get a lot of joy out of the fact that my meds are aesthetically pleasing.

meet my friends Keppra, Epilim, Lamictal and Folic Acid

Yehhhh ok maybe I am a bit nuts 😛

ANYWAY.

It’s under control unless I forget my meds or there are other extenuating circumstances, and although remembering to take 4 pills twice a day can be a pain, the fact that I am suitably medicated means I can appreciate the positive things that have come of having what Hippocrates described as “The Sacred Disease”.

I *like* this guy!
Image licensed under creative commons

I can sit in classes and feel connected to subject material that may seem boring to other people. So far I’ve come across epilepsy when I’ve been studying psychology, biology, physiology, pharmacology and a breadth subject called “Body, Mind, and Medicine”. There is a LOT of talk about epilepsy in that last one. Weird.

So, some of the positives:

  • I have a really good excuse to avoid trance clubs etc. which some of my friends frequent (WHY I will never know!) because of the strobe lights.
  • I don’t do drugs. The mum in Almost Famous would be proud. I’m a “try everything once” kind of a person, so finding out I had epilepsy before I got too far into my early-20s experimental phase was probably really good for my health. I can’t do stimulants or psychotropic drugs because whatever effect they would have on a regular person could give me brain damage, cause psychosis or kill me, and the chance isn’t really as small as you’d think. Not worth it.
  • Recent studies have revealed a possible like between Keppra, one of the epilepsy medications I take, and reversing memory loss in mice with Alzheimer’s. This is super cool because I’m petrified of Alzheimer’s and if there’s even a little chance that I’m already taking a medication that could help, then I’m rapt about that!

Mostly though, I can talk about it from a first-person perspective. I’m pretty open, but a lot of people with epilepsy are afraid of the stigma so they never talk about it. There are a lot of discussion boards on the web for epileptics to get together and support one another, which is fantastic, but I also think there should be more frank discussion between people with epilepsy and “regular” people to shake off the remaining taboo.

Actually, I think open communication about all sorts of medical conditions is very important.  I think if people weren’t so afraid of what others would think of them should they be diagnosed with a condition, people would be more likely to get tested and feel more supported if they do have to live with an illness. I was pretty sure I had epilepsy for about 4 years before I was diagnosed, I just didn’t want to face reality. Turns out I had it for much longer than that, but I hid it from everybody well. It was only when the seizures got really bad, obvious and frequent that I relented and talked to a doctor.

I’m not sure if anyone will have reached the end of this (it’s a rather long one!) but if you have, and you’re curious, I’d be really happy for you to ask me any questions you want – no holds barred – and I’ll reply to your comments. Ask me openly, then maybe other people will read it, and be a bit more informed. I will answer everything to the best of my knowledge.


Information Is Beautiful

I am a visual learner – you can verbally explain something to me until you’re blue in the face and I might not quite get it. Show me a diagram, graph or some kind of visualisation of the same information and it clicks. Ooooh, that’s what you meant!

Visualisation can be a powerful communication tool, especially when it comes to large handfuls of data, or complex interactions. The first thing many people look at when they open an article, whether online or in print, are the pictures. A good figure in a journal paper can explain the entire study – aims, results and all – in a few seconds. And of course the opposite is equally true – we’ve all looked at a graph of a paper we thought we were understanding and thought…huh? But I thought…? Wait, green represents which treatment level again?

I’m also, like most scientists I suspect, a bit of a nerd for interesting statistics, facts and figures. I always participate in those telephone market research surveys, because the thought of all that information being gathered is just so exciting! I even volunteered my place for one of those Nielsen ratings boxes that takes down information about which TV shows you’re watching each night. The box broke five times and I cancelled two work shifts to stay home for the technician before I finally gave up.

This is where Informationisbeautiful.net comes in (off whom I have stolen the title of this post, because, well, I couldn’t think of a more succinct way of putting it!). This website is everything you, or I, could want from clean, informative and interesting visualisations. One of their most popular, and frivolous, is this graph of peak break up times on Facebook:

(Obtained from informationisbeautiful.net)

They also have some more serious, and seriously interesting, ones – mostly related to science or politics.  A lot of them are too big to post up here but below are some links to some of my favourites. You can access all their visualisations here.

  • This one won a design competition for redesigning blood test results for patients to make them more meaningful. If that’s not science communication, I don’t know what is! The output is really simple, but displays the numbers from the test alongside real life impacts on your health.
  • This one is about corporate fines over the last seven years. It’s simplicity is it’s strength – it’s two rectangles, one within the other. One represents the companies’ income for the year of the fine. The other represents the fine, as a percentage of total income. It’s fascinating, and quite depressing, to see how some of the biggest corporate crimes in recent years are barely punishments to these multimillion-dollar companies. There’s also a disturbing amount of pharmaceutical industry crimes!
  • This one shows the scientific evidence of various health supplements for various ailments.

Effective visualisations of data can give you perspective on topics that are reported on with bias, such as this diagram representing the proportion of infected people who die from certain diseases. It’s easy to see from this that the dangers of swine flu were blown hugely out of proportion in the mainstream media.

(Obtained from informationisbeautiful.net)

There are lots of places where you can access things like this. Google Ngram is one – you can search all Google books for the past 500 years for keywords and plot them against each other. Such as love versus hate:

Graph of frequency of love (blue) versus hate (red) appearing throughout literature (Created with, and courtesy of, Google Ngram).

Awww! Isn’t that nice!

I even tried pitting my own name against my boyfriend’s (which was quite unsuccessful from my point of view!):

Frequency of mentions of Natasha (blue) versus Jeremy (red) throughout literature (Created with, and courtesy of, Google Ngram).

Good visualisation of data is essential in getting your point across, especially when people have limited time or understanding for your topic. So when you write up your paper, spend some time thinking about the clearest, simplest way to present your information – it’ll be worth your time. And remember…NO PIE CHARTS!


Ah, sugar sugar

So I think it’s safe to say that most of us have at least a little bit of a sweet-tooth. Whether it’s a piece of chocolate, a can of soft drink or a piece of fruit, most of us like to indulge in something sweet. But could eating a mere sugary treat be doing us harm?

If that sugar is fructose, then the answer is yes.


Image from http://www.growingyourbaby.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/12/pile-of-sugar.jpg

As we’re all aware, many developed countries, especially the United States, is in the grip of an obesity epidemic, with the proportion of the population becoming clinically obese being on the rise. And it just so happens that our partiality to sweet treats is a large part of the problem.

Most of the sugar in processed foods used to come from corn syrup, a large proportion of which was glucose, which is the main sugar our bodies use for energy.

Converting glucose to energy for cells in the body involves the processes of glycolysis, the Krebs cycle and oxidative phosphorylation. At the end of this metabolic pathway, one molecule of glucose produces 32 molecules of ATP, the ‘energy currency’ of cells.

When we eat a meal and there is a certain level of glucose in the blood, the pancreas is signaled by glucose-6-posphate (a metabolic product of glucose) to produce the hormone insulin, which tells the liver to absorb glucose from the bloodstream and store it as glycogen until we need to use it for energy.  Of course, if we eat too much and the liver can’t store any more glycogen, then the glucose can undergo a series of reactions to be converted to fatty acids, which are stored in the body as fat.

This release of insulin also acts on the brain to tell it to reduce our appetite, so we don’t keep feeling the need to eat for a while. This is due to suppression of ghrelin, a hormone which increases hunger and appetite.

Society’s increased desire for sweeter-tasting foods, however, led to high fructose corn syrup being used in processed foods in place of regular corn syrup, especially in the U.S. This is because fructose tastes between 2 and 3 times sweeter than glucose, and glucose can be easily and cheaply converted to fructose by adding the enzyme glucose isomerase to the glucose.

While it’s all well and good that people get the sweeter taste they wanted, fructose isn’t metabolised in the body in the same way as glucose. Whilst fructose can enter cells through the same transporter as glucose, the GLUT 2 transporter, fructose does not elicit the release of insulin from the pancreas like glucose does. This means that ghrelin is still produced, meaning we have the ‘munchies’ and keep snacking since our appetite is still telling us to eat!

On top of this, the excess products of fructose metabolism that aren’t needed for glycolysis to make energy are rapidly converted into glycerol, which then goes on to form the backbones of fatty acids.


Image from http://www.medbio.info/horn/time%201-2/carbohydrate_metabolism.htm

And so the effect snowballs: we still feel hungry, so eat more food that often contains fructose, the fructose is converted to more fat and since the fructose doesn’t give the off signal for our appetites, we still feel hungry! It’s easy to see how the replacement of glucose-containing corn syrup with fructose-containing high fructose corn syrup is a major contributor to the obesity epidemic!

Coincidentally, not only was 1980 the year that high fructose corn syrup was introduced in the U.S, it was after 1980 that the previously stable obesity rates in the U.S began to rise…

So next time you have that craving for a sweet treat, work with your metabolism and avoid the high-fructose snacks! It mightn’t taste as sweet, but your waistline will thank you later!!


Artificially intelligent education

When we hear the words “artificial intelligence”, the first images that come to our mind will probably be of robots, sci-fi-like characters, or possibly that lovable, yet rather creepy, little robot boy from the such titled movie.

However, artificial intelligence is something that we are surrounded by in our everyday lives, from video games to automatic soap dispensers. It is basically present in any technology that can perform tasks which would usually require human brainpower.

The non-profit artificial intelligence centre at SRI International has contributed to the development of technologies such as the computer mouse, speech recognition software, and Siri – the virtual iPhone assistant that is there to help you, unless you live outside the US and need directions to… well, anywhere.

One of their newest projects has been the development of Inquire – an iPad app comprising of a prototype of world’s first artificially intelligent textbook!

Inquire includes pop-up definitions, glossary pages, and links to further information. The main feature that makes Inquire special however, is that it gives students the ability to ask the textbook questions in their own language, and receive an answer.

Image licensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia Commons

The technology uses material from the classic textbook Campbell Biology to create a knowledge base. A reasoning system can then interpret the language of a student’s question to formulate an answer page that contains only relevant information at the student’s level… Making accessing information as easy as lifting a finger!

A study conducted early this year on biology students revealed that those who used Inquire averaged much higher results than those using e-books or paper textbooks.

The Inquire app is a contribution to Project Halo, conducted by the company Vulcan Inc. This project aims to expand the type of reasoning system used in Inquire into a so-called “Digital Aristotle,” which would be used to educate students in science through the use of intelligent technology.

We’ve already seen a shift into the digital age of education, with schools progressing towards computers, iPads and eBooks in replacement of paper books, and the introduction of SMART boards, putting some old whiteboards and blackboards into retirement. Could artificial intelligence be the next step into the future of education?

For more information: http://inquireproject.com/


Physics and music, a money saving mix

So, here’s one for all you musicians out there. When choosing your new electric guitar you choose one that’s crafted in the perfect shape out of the finest wood to produce that great rock sound right? These luxuries do tend to come at a premium, so for all you guitarists out there that are picking up double shifts at the local supermarket and living on tinned tuna to afford your new ten grand ESP, I have good news; new research from honours student Matthew Angove is suggesting that neither shape nor material changes the sound produced by guitars.

Image licensed under creative commons via Wikipedia creative commons

A LITTLE BIT ABOUT SOUND…

When a piano and a flute play the same note they don’t sound the same… why is this?

When we hear a note, we tend to attribute the sound just to one frequency, this is known as the fundamental  frequency. What we don’t tend to notice is that a note is actually made up of many different frequencies that are both higher and lower in pitch. It is these more subtle frequencies that add the depth  and tone to a  note that we know as timbre.  This so called timbre is what creates the differences in the sound of a piano and a violin playing the same note.

Without timbre, instruments would all sound the same! How boring! If your looking for a more in depth explanation of timbre I encourage you to look at this website, it explains the concept really well:

http://www.physics.uiowa.edu/~umallik/adventure/music.htm

WHAT DOES THIS HAVE TO DO WITH  GUITAR BRANDS?

Well, for one guitar to sound better than another they have to sound different right? We’ve already determined that timbre is the reason that any two instruments sound different, so if we want to know whether Van Halen’s ‘Frankenstein’ is really better than the cheapest guitar on the market we need to measure if there is any difference in the timbre of each instrument.

SO WHAT DOES THE RESEARCH SAY?

When different guitars varying in shape and material were tested, the frequencies were examined and, surprisingly, when the pickups and strings were identical there was no difference in the pitch or loudness of these extra frequencies. In other words, there was no difference in timbre at all! This suggests that every electric guitar has an equal capacity to produce a great sound.

MONEY SAVING TIPS FOR GUITARISTS

Want to sound like Petrucci or Satriani? Don’t spend your life savings on perfectly rounded rosewood piece of perfection, put in some good practice.

For more info on the research check out this article:

http://www.theage.com.au/national/education/does-a-10000-guitar-sound-better-than-a-300-one-20120723-22k7b.html


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