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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

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Health
How Promoting Handwashing Got One 19th Century Doctor Institutionalized
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Regardless of how often we actually do it, it's common knowledge that washing our hands before eating, after coughing, and after using the bathroom is good for us. But the connection between handwashing and health wasn't always accepted as fact. As Danielle Bainbridge explains in the PBS web series Origin of Everything, the first doctor to campaign for cleanliness in hospitals was not only shunned by other medical professionals, but ended up in an insane asylum.

Prior to the 19th century, handwashing primarily existed in the context of religious ceremonies and practices. It plays a role in Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, and Buddhism in some form or another. But washing up to stop the spread of disease wasn't really a thing for most of history. People weren't aware of germs, so instead of microbes, they blamed illness on everything from demons to bad air.

Then, in 1846, a Hungarian doctor named Ignaz Semmelweis made a breakthrough observation. He noticed that women giving birth with the help of midwives were less likely to die than those treated by doctors. He determined that because doctors were also performing autopsies on victims of puerperal fever (a bacterial infection also known as childbed fever), they were somehow spreading the disease to their other patients. Semmelweis started promoting handwashing and instrument sterilization in his clinic, and the spread of puerperal fever dropped as a result.

Despite the evidence to support his theory, his peers in the medical community weren't keen on the idea of blaming patient deaths on doctors. Partly due to his commitment to the controversial theory, Semmelweis was shunned from his field. He suffered a mental breakdown and ended up in a mental hospital, where he died a few weeks later.

Germ theory did eventually become more mainstream as the century progressed, and washing hands as a way to kill unseen pathogens started gaining popularity. Even so, it wasn't until the 1980s that the CDC released the first official guidelines instructing people on best handwashing practices.

If this story suddenly has you in the mood to practice good hygiene, here's the best way to wash your hands, according to experts.

[h/t Origin of Everything]

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science
Inhaling Cleaning Product Fumes Can Be as Bad for You as a Pack-a-Day Smoking Habit, Study Finds
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People who use spray cleaners on a regular basis may want to reconsider how they tackle their spring cleaning. A new study published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine [PDF] offers strong evidence that inhalation of these sterilizing and polishing chemicals may be as bad for their lungs as smoking one pack of cigarettes per day, as Newsweek highlights.

A team of scientists led by Cecile Svanes, Ph.D. at Norway’s University of Bergen tracked 6230 study subjects for two decades, looking for a correlation between diminished lung capacity and use of cleaning products. Those who regularly used chemicals for cleaning, like housekeepers, displayed worsening lung function when researchers asked them to blow air into a tube. Even using cleaners once per week was associated with reduced lung capacity.

Those who reported use of the products also had increased rates of asthma when compared to those who did not use cleaners. It’s believed the particles of the abrasive chemicals are damaging the mucus membranes, leading to steady and progressive changes. The results applied to both occupational cleaners as well as those who were responsible for cleaning at home. The study also demonstrated that women were more susceptible to the effects of the chemicals than men, although a comparatively smaller number of men took part.

What can you do to mitigate the risk? Oistein Svanes, a doctoral student who worked on the project, recommends cleaning with a damp microfiber cloth using only water. If you feel you must use a chemical agent, it's better to pour it into a bucket instead of relying on a spray nozzle—the latter is what causes the chemicals to become airborne and respirable.

[h/t Newsweek]

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