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Animal Prosthetics: A Leg Up on a Bad Break

Amputee animals have a hard life. In the last few years, more and more disabled creatures of different species are being helped by modern technology, and by the researchers and volunteers who go the extra mile.

Fuji's Rubber Tail

Fuji is a dolphin who lives in an aquarium in Okinawa. A mysterious illness in 2002 caused her tail to rot, and it was amputated to stop the spread of the disease. Without a tail, a dolphin can't swim. Engineers from Bridgestone Tire Company worked to design a new rubber tail for Fuji. The first designs did not work properly or had some other drawback. Finally, Fuji accepted the third tail design, made of silicon rubber with a foam padding, and was able to swim almost as well as an intact dolphin.

Uzonka and Beauty and their New Beaks

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When a bird's beak is damaged, it may not be able to eat, drink, or hunt properly and could die as a result. Uzonka the stork had her bill damaged by human assault. She received a prosthetic beak after five preparatory operations and is in the care of an animal hospital in Uzon, Romania.

beauty.jpgBeauty is an Alaskan bald eagle whose beak was shot off several years ago. She was found in 2005, unable to properly hunt or eat. She was taken to a refuge, but her beak did not grow back. Beauty will receive a nylon-composite beak next month. A new beak attached with screws would enable her to hunt, but the animal experts in charge of the surgery decided against it, because the screws would have to be dangerously close to her eyes and brain. Instead, her prosthetic beak will be attached with glue. Beauty must stay in human custody, where she will be fed and protected.

George Bailey's Implanted Leg

prosthesis.jpgA cat named George Bailey was born with only stumps for hind legs. He got around by dragging his rear end. Veterinarians and engineers from North Carolina State University tackled the problem in a new way. Instead of attaching a limb over a stump, they attached an artificial limb to his bones. The hope was that the existing bone tissue would grow around the prosthetic, a process called osseointegration. Using a cat scan of the cat, they created a model of George's pelvis and leg bones and designed a lower leg and foot. In 2005, the team implanted a titanium post into George's stump, to which the prosthetic leg could be attached. George was soon running and jumping on his new leg. Animals that normally walk on four legs usually get along just fine with three. George took great advantage of his new mobility, and was so rambunctious that in two months, he broke the titanium nails that were holding his leg in place. The prosthetic limb had to be removed.

Storm's Carbon Fiber Paw

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A Belgium shepherd named Storm had a similar surgery performed in England in 2007. Storm had lost a front paw due to a tumor. A titanium rod was implanted in the dog's radius, and a carbon fiber paw was later plugged into the rod.

Stumpy the Kangaroo

MFstumpyKangaroo.jpgStumpy the red kangaroo lives in Ohio, at the International Kangaroo Society's sanctuary. She only has one leg. Veterinarians at Ohio State University created an artificial limb for her. Dr. David E. Anderson, Associate Professor of Surgery, Food Animal, of the College of Veterinary Medicine and Richard Nitsch, a licensed prosthesis orthotist for American Orthopedics, made sure it included a spring to replicate the natural movement of a kangaroo.

Allison the Triple Amputee Sea Turtle

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Allison is a three-year-old Atlantic Green sea turtle. She was found in south Texas with only one fin, bleeding from where the other three should be. She was taken to Sea Turtle Inc, a turtle conservation facility, where she healed up against the odds. Allison can swim with just one fin, but only in circles. In February, medical and veterinary volunteers announced they would fit her with a prosthetic flipper on her left rear, where she has enough one to support one. There have been no updates, so the procedure probably hasn't taken place yet.

George the Pegleg Parrot

georgeparrot.jpgGeorge the African Gray parrot lost a leg 18 months ago when he was attacked by an unidentified wild animal. Since then, he's had a hard time getting any sleep, as he tries to balance on one foot. It even drove him to swearing! But Dr. Glyn Heath of the University of Salford's School of Health Care Professions designed an artificial leg for George. Although Dr. Heath has made many false limbs for animals, this was his first prosthetic for a bird. This particular leg wasn't fitted on George himself, but attached to his perch. The idea was that George could sit on it and balance himself enough to get some sleep. However, George wasn't impressed with his prosthetic. In fact, he ate it.

Tahi the Kiwi

MFtahi.jpgKiwi birds do not fly; they walk on two legs. So when Tahi lost a leg in a trap, he could do nothing but hop. The New Zealand zoo where the kiwi lived turned to the Wellington Artificial Limb Board and Weta Workshop, the team responsible for the special effects in the Lord of the Rings movies. The Weta crew made a mold of the bird's stump, and the Limb Board made an articulated (bendable) limb, the smallest they've ever made. Tahi can now stand, and is learning to run with his new leg.

Motala and Mocha Survive Land Mines

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Motala the elephant stepped on a land mine near the Thai-Burma border in 1999. Veterinarians were able to repair her front leg, but it was left much shorter than the others. At Friends of the Asian Elephant's hospital in Thailand, Motala began using a prosthetic leg in 2005. The prosthesis is a bag filled with wood shavings, which makes her damaged leg as long as the others. She accepted the attachment, and is still using the same kind of prosthetic leg. You can follow Motala's life in pictures at her webpage.

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A very young elephant named Mocha found herself in the much the same situation after an encounter with a land mine near the border with Burma. Mocha was fitted with a new leg earlier this year, also from the Friends of the Asian Elephant organization in Thailand.

Artificial limbs have been fitted on horses, llamas, and cows, and probably plenty of other animals.

Other prosthetics are available, too. A group of students are opening a business to produce dentures for cats. But the strangest prosthetics are Neuticles, which are implanted testicles for dogs who has been neutered. It's purely for cosmetic reasons.

It may seem extravagant to fit prosthetics on animals that have a relatively short life span, but it makes a big difference in the quality of life for that particular animal. It also enhances the quality of life for the animal's owner. The experience of fitting artificial limbs to animals leads to innovations in human prosthetics. And after all, most of these animals are missing their natural parts because of humans.

PS: Here is one reaction to this story that you must read for its incredible cuteness.

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Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
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Medicine
Bill Gates is Spending $100 Million to Find a Cure for Alzheimer's
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation
Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Not everyone who's blessed with a long life will remember it. Individuals who live into their mid-80s have a nearly 50 percent chance of developing Alzheimer's, and scientists still haven't discovered any groundbreaking treatments for the neurodegenerative disease [PDF]. To pave the way for a cure, Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates has announced that he's donating $100 million to dementia research, according to Newsweek.

On his blog, Gates explained that Alzheimer's disease places a financial burden on both families and healthcare systems alike. "This is something that governments all over the world need to be thinking about," he wrote, "including in low- and middle-income countries where life expectancies are catching up to the global average and the number of people with dementia is on the rise."

Gates's interest in Alzheimer's is both pragmatic and personal. "This is something I know a lot about, because men in my family have suffered from Alzheimer’s," he said. "I know how awful it is to watch people you love struggle as the disease robs them of their mental capacity, and there is nothing you can do about it. It feels a lot like you're experiencing a gradual death of the person that you knew."

Experts still haven't figured out quite what causes Alzheimer's, how it progresses, and why certain people are more prone to it than others. Gates believes that important breakthroughs will occur if scientists can understand the condition's etiology (or cause), create better drugs, develop techniques for early detection and diagnosis, and make it easier for patients to enroll in clinical trials, he said.

Gates plans to donate $50 million to the Dementia Discovery Fund, a venture capital fund that supports Alzheimer's research and treatment developments. The rest will go to research startups, Reuters reports.

[h/t Newsweek]

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Eye Doctors Still Use This 100-Year-Old Test for Color Blindness

You may have seen them at your ophthalmologist's office: large circular diagrams made up of colored dots. People with normal vision are able to discern a number among the dots of contrasting colors. People who are color blind might see only a field of spots.

These elegant, deceptively modern drawings were published 100 years ago by a Japanese ophthalmologist, Shinobu Ishihara. Thanks to the designs' simplicity and diagnostic accuracy, the Ishihara test is still the most popular and efficient way to identify patients with color vision deficiencies.

Born in Tokyo in 1879, Ishihara studied medicine at the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University on a military scholarship, which required him to serve in the armed forces. After graduating in 1905, he worked for three years as a physician specializing in surgery in the Imperial Japanese Army, and then returned to the university for postgraduate studies in ophthalmology. In his research, Ishihara focused on identifying and recruiting soldiers with superior vision, thereby increasing the overall effectiveness of the military. And that became of prime importance to Japan beginning in 1914.

As World War I spread across Europe, Asia, and the Pacific, the Japanese army asked Ishihara to develop a better way to screen draftees for color vision problems. The most popular method at the time was the Stilling test, invented by German ophthalmologist Jakob Stilling in 1878 as the first clinical color vision test. (Previous tools had asked patients to identify the colors of wool skeins or illuminated lanterns—useful skills for sailors and railway conductors, but an imprecise method for diagnosing vision issues.)

"Though popular, 'the Stilling' retained a distinctly 19th-century flavor, more treatise-like and less diagnostically incisive," according to Eye magazine.


Shinobu Ishihara
Wellcome Images // CC BY 4.0

Japanese army officials requested a new diagnostic tool that was easier to administer and interpret. The test Ishihara began to develop was based, like Stilling's, on the principle of pseudo-isochromatism—a phenomenon in which two or more colors are seen as the same (or isochromatic) when they're actually different. A person with normal vision could easily see the difference, while people with red-green deficiency, the most common form of color blindness, would have difficulty distinguishing those two opposing colors. Those with blue-yellow color blindness, a less common type, would have a hard time discerning reds, greens, blues, or yellows.

Ishihara hand-painted circular designs comprised of small dots of different areas and colors so that variations in the design could be discerned only by color and not shape, size, or pattern. Hidden in the field of dots was a figure of a contrasting color that people with normal vision could see, while those with deficiencies could not. Other plates in the series were designed to show figures that would be visible only to people with deficiencies. When physicians displayed the diagrams, patients said or traced the visible figure within the circle without needing to use ambiguous color names, which standardized the possible results.

The earliest sets of Ishihara plates, produced in 1916, were reserved exclusively for the army's use and featured Japanese characters within the diagrams. In 1917, in an effort to sell the series internationally, Ishihara redesigned it with the now-familiar Arabic numerals and published a set of 16 plates as Tests for Colour Deficiency.

The tests were adopted throughout the world beginning in the early 1920s, and eventually grew into a set of 38 plates. But their popularity almost led to their undoing. Unauthorized publishers printed their own version of the plates to meet demand, throwing the accuracy of the diagnostic colors into doubt. "The plates have been duplicated along with an easily memorized key by cheap color processes in the tabloid press, and exposed in public places, reducing the fifth edition [of the collection] to a parlor game," one psychologist warned in the Journal of the Optical Society of America in 1943.

Despite those obstacles, the tests proved indispensable for both practicing physicians and researchers. Ishihara continued to refine the designs and improve the color accuracy of the images into the late 1950s, while he also served as the chair of the ophthalmology department and then dean of the medical school at Tokyo Imperial University. In addition to Tests for Colour Deficiency, he also published an atlas, textbook, lectures, and research studies on eye diseases. But he is remembered most for the iconic charts that seamlessly blend art and science.

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