New Exoskeleton Helps Children With Spinal Muscular Atrophy Walk

About 1 in 10,000 children is affected by spinal muscular atrophy (SMA), a genetic, degenerative disease that attacks the nervous system and weakens muscles, often leading to serious mobility issues. While there's no cure for SMA, scientists at the El Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas (CSIC) in Madrid have recently unveiled a project designed to give children with the disease the ability to stand and walk again.

The adjustable, robotic exoskeleton is made out of aluminum and titanium, and attaches to the body with a harness and straps at various points on the legs. A computer is connected to five motors in each leg of the device that work in tandem as the user's artificial muscles. The wearer controls the exoskeleton, thanks to highly sensitive sensors that detect and respond to the wearer's smallest muscular movements, and then execute them. The exoskeleton's battery lasts for five hours on a single charge, which can provide more time for muscle training therapy.

"The number one drawback in developing this type of pediatric exoskeleton is that the symptoms of neuromuscular illnesses—such as spinal muscular atrophy—change over time, as much in the articulations as in the body," Elena Garcia of CSIC said in a statement. "It’s fundamental to have an exoskeleton capable of independently adapting to these changes. Our model includes intelligent joints, which alter the brace’s rigidity automatically and adapt to the symptoms of each individual child at whenever required."

The patented technology is currently in the preclinical phase, so it's not available to everyone just yet. But with the project, the team hopes to begin to help patients with SMA stand upright and walk—an ability that not only helps in an immediate sense, but also serves to stave off scoliosis and other complications common to those who've lost mobility. 

[h/t Laughing Squid]

Images courtesy of CSIC

Live Smarter
A New Law Could Require Hospitals to Post Their Standard Prices Online

Try shopping around for affordable hospital care like you would for a car or a house, and you'll surely hit a wall. Hospital bills are a huge expense in America, but the prices for specific services are often obscure until patients check out. Now, PBS reports that Medicare may soon require hospitals to post their standard prices and share medical records online.

Hospitals are already required to disclose their prices to the public, but actually tracking down a number can suck up more time and effort than customers have to invest. While making a video for Vox, it took reporter Johnny Harris two weeks and 30 phone calls to get an estimate for how much his wife's delivery of their child would cost. Under the new rules, such prices would be made clearly available on the internet so that third-party app developers could access them.

The change wouldn't automatically make shopping for hospitals as easy as comparing airfare prices. Patients would still be responsible for getting in touch with their health insurance provider to see how much of a hospital's listed price is covered and how much of it falls on them. Even then, the numbers patients get will likely be more of an estimate than a hard figure.

In additional to making pricing more transparent to customers, the proposed rule aims to make personal medical records more accessible as well. The hospitals that make the effort to present this information clearly, possibly by organizing bills from multiple providers into a single app, would receive benefits from Medicare.

The U.S. has some of the most expensive healthcare in the world: In 2016, Americans collectively spent $3.4 trillion on medical costs. For many people, high medical bills are unavoidable, but if the proposed rule goes in to effect (most likely in 2019), it could at least make them less of a surprise.

[h/t PBS]

Women Suffer Worse Migraines Than Men. Now Scientists Think They Know Why

Migraines are one of medicine's most frustrating mysteries, both causes and treatments. Now researchers believe they've solved one part of the puzzle: a protein affected by fluctuating estrogen levels may explain why more women suffer from migraines than men.

Migraines are the third most common illness in the world, affecting more than 1 in 10 people. Some 75 percent of sufferers are women, who also experience them more frequently and more intensely, and don't respond as well to drug treatments as men do.

At this year's Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, researcher Emily Galloway presented new findings on the connection between the protein NHE1 and the development of migraine headaches. NHE1 regulates the transfer of protons and sodium ions across cell membranes, including the membranes that separate incoming blood flow from the brain.

When NHE1 levels are low or the molecule isn't working as it's supposed to, migraine-level head pain can ensue. And because irregular NHE1 disrupts the flow of protons and sodium ions to the brain, medications like pain killers have trouble crossing the blood-brain barrier as well. This may explain why the condition is so hard to treat.

When the researchers analyzed NHE1 levels in the brains of male and female lab rats, the researchers found them to be four times higher in the males than in the females. Additionally, when estrogen levels were highest in the female specimens, NHE1 levels in the blood vessels of their brains were at their lowest.

Previous research had implicated fluctuating estrogen levels in migraines, but the mechanism behind it has remained elusive. The new finding could change the way migraines are studied and treated in the future, which is especially important considering that most migraine studies have focused on male animal subjects.

"Conducting research on the molecular mechanisms behind migraine is the first step in creating more targeted drugs to treat this condition, for men and women," Galloway said in a press statement. "Knowledge gained from this work could lead to relief for millions of those who suffer from migraines and identify individuals who may have better responses to specific therapies."

The new research is part of a broader effort to build a molecular map of the relationship between sex hormones and NHE1 expression. The next step is testing drugs that regulate these hormones to see how they affect NHE1 levels in the brain.


More from mental floss studios