All posts by Tori Indivero

Tackling concussions

woman fitting EEG cap on volunteer
Research and services coordinator Katie Finelli fits a test subject with an EEG cap to help determine brain structure and function.

Concussions are scary and yet fairly common. My brother and I both experienced concussions before turning 18 — and given the numbers I’ve found, we are not an unusual family (at least not when it comes to head injuries). The CDC estimates that nearly 4 million concussions occur in the United States every year. And the NIH says that of those 4 million, about 1.5 million concussions occur in children.

This past spring Penn State formally opened the Center for Sport Concussion Research and Service. They are equipped with a virtual-reality facility as well as brain-imaging technology, including an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and an EEG (electroencephalograph).

The new center has two main goals: to advance research in sport-related concussions and to provide services to local collegiate and child athletes by performing baseline assessments, which can help diagnose a concussion.

While working on an article for the Nov. 24 edition of the Beaver Stadium Pictorial football program, I learned that many athletic leagues are now requiring a doctor to sign off before a player is allowed back on the field after he or she sustains any head injury. This is not to say that 10 years ago, when my brother and I were in high school, concussions weren’t taken as seriously — but the importance of giving a traumatic brain injury enough time to heal is better understood now.

This understanding is in part due to the research that Sam Slobounov and Wayne Sebastianelli have been enmeshed in for many years. Slobounov is the director of the Center, as well as a professor of kinesiology and of orthopedics and medical rehabilitation. Sebastianelli is the principal investigator of the Center, and also serves as the director of athletic medicine and team physician for the Nittany Lions.

In a study published last December, Slobounov and colleagues reported that testing athletes for concussions may induce mental fatigue, whether or not the subject has a head injury. The results of the study advocate for baseline testing, something that the Center is providing for local athletes.

“Testing for a long period of time can induce fatigue,” Slobounov told me. “But at the same time, fatigue is a symptom of concussion. How do you rule out fatigue if you get fatigued while taking the test?”

As well as learning how quickly an athlete may become mentally fatigued, baseline testing includes gathering images of the brain so that a physician can compare the images pre- and post-concussion. The physician can then make an assessment of the injury and create a concussion management plan. This helps to minimize the athlete’s chances of suffering permanent brain damage by returning to play to soon.

Check out the full feature this Saturday in the football program when the Nittany Lions take on the Wisconsin Badgers!

Tobacco: An unlikely lifesaver

tobacco plants in greenhouse
Tobacco plants in Medicago greenhouse. Credit: DARPA

I recently had the opportunity to visit Research Triangle Park in North Carolina, when I attended the National Association of Science Writers annual conference. There are many perks to attending the NASW conference — including meeting amazing science writers and learning about the great research going on at other universities around the country. But one of my favorite perks is the field trips!

This year as part of the field trip portion of the conference, I visited the newest facility built by Medicago Inc. with 20 or so other science writers. While I had a general idea of what I was getting into — checking out a flu vaccine plant — I was in for a treat at this super-efficient greenhouse and laboratory.

When we rolled up on our tour bus, we were quickly escorted into a conference room where I swear a version of the cast of The Big Bang Theory awaited us. Everyone was friendly and seemingly eager to tell us all about what they do. And no wonder. They’re pretty much going to save the world.

Medicago — rhymes with Chicago — was basically given a challenge by DARPA (the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency): create and perfect a process to produce 10 million doses of a pandemic influenza vaccine. Oh wait, and not just that — the process needs to take no more than a month.

My new Medicago friends rose to the challenge.

The most common way to develop a flu vaccine is to incubate the virus in a fertilized chicken egg. Medicago is using tobacco plants. The plants can be created more quickly and the virus incubation time in the tobacco plant is less than in the egg.

Medicago succeeded, and received a $21 million dollar grant from DARPA. So should the nation face a flu pandemic anytime soon, DARPA will call on them to produce these vaccines, stat.

We got a tour of their very new facilities — they were completed about a year ago — and saw the greenhouse and the equipment used to infiltrate the tobacco plants with the virus.

I might have been exaggerating a bit when I said Medicago is going to save the world, but their technology is pretty neat. And I think it’s awesome that we can do something healthy and possibly even life-saving with tobacco.

What will researchers come up with next?

Logic on the rocks

Flickr – Creative Commons

Last week my boyfriend and I were discussing how to stay cool while attending an upcoming outdoor wedding and reception, on a day that was forecasted to be about 93 degrees and something like 80-percent humidity. He wondered if drinking alcohol would help us stay cool — as there would be an open bar at the reception.

“You lose body heat when you drink alcohol,” he said. “That’s why you’re not supposed to go outside without a coat during the winter when you’re drinking.”

This coming from a guy who only wears a coat if the temperature is subzero. Maybe.

“What? Does drinking alcohol make you lose heat?” I hadn’t heard this before. And while my boyfriend acts as if he knows more than he does quite often, sometimes he does actually know what he’s talking about. (Don’t tell him. It might go to his head.)

He found several web pages, like this one, that supported his argument and said, “If it makes you lose heat in the cold, wouldn’t that be a good thing in hot weather?”

Well, this is a compelling argument, but I’m not quite sold. We both agreed that finding an expert to verify or refute this urban legend of sorts is the best course of action.

As this summer is turning out to be pretty hot no matter where you are, I thought this could be great barbecue conversation fodder. If the boyfriend was right, we could be heroes among our friends by telling them that their cold alcoholic beverages were indeed keeping them cooler — science says so! If he wasn’t right, then I could enjoy yet one more situation where he was proven wrong — and this time with science.

Enter Dr. W. Larry Kenney. He is a professor of physiology and kinesiology at Penn State, and is particularly interested in human thermoregulation and the biophysics of heat exchange. Perfect!

I wrote him a note with our dilemma. He quickly got back to me.

“It is actually a myth that alcohol causes you to lose body heat, winter or summer,” Kenney replied. “Alcohol sometimes leads to hypothermia in winter months because it leads people to make poor decisions about clothing, shelter, etc. Physiologically [there is] little impact.”

Kenney pointed me to a study that was done in 1980 where participants consumed the equivalent of “five bar whiskey drinks” and had their body heat loss measured. As Kenney told me, the researchers found that the subjects’ heat loss was not affected by their alcohol consumption. Slightly more interesting, I thought, was that the researchers tested three groups of participants — heavily clothed, seminude and nude — for whom the results were the same.

I’ll let that sink in for a second… Who says research can’t be fun?

OK. Back to what Kenney had to say about alcohol and summertime imbibing.

“The water content of most alcoholic beverages helps maintain hydration similar to other fluids, at least up through moderate consumption,” he says.

Boyfriend says he knew that. Of course he did.

So I leave you with this thought: whether you are heavily clothed, seminude or nude, you will not lose body heat because you are consuming alcohol. You might lose body heat because you are nude. Or you might just get strange looks for being heavily clothed in July.

If you drink, do so responsibly and no matter what always stay hydrated! Your drinks will only keep you as cold as you serve them.

Wonder and Lightning

My dad has a habit of calling to tell me about random things he sees on TV. It is (usually) endearing because I know it means he’s thinking about me. Sometimes it’s to tell me about the awesome play Jimmy Rollins made in last night’s Phillies game; when I lived in Philadelphia it was often to tell me about the latest crime that happened somewhere in the city and to make sure I was still carrying the pepper spray he bought me.

The latest thing he called about was a tidbit he heard on the news: apparently your car is not necessarily a safe place to be during a thunderstorm. Cars have steel-belted radials! he tells me. Like I have any idea what a radial is. So Dad continues to explain — some tires have steel belts in them. If you’re driving while there is lightning outside, your tires might not be grounded because of these steel belts.

We were both a bit skeptical of this. But hey, it was on the news. It must be true, right? Since Penn State has an excellent department of meteorology right here on campus, I decided to investigate further.

I contacted Nels Shirer, an associate professor of meteorology, who has done some lightning research — including mapping lightning clusters.

“The answer is not a simple one,” Shirer starts. No, of course not.

It depends on lots of things, he says, like “the make of the car, whether or not it is wet, and whether or not you are in contact with any electronic devices, such as iPods plugged into the cigarette lighter.”

It never even occurred to me that my iPod could hurt me. In fact, according to the super-helpful web site Shirer directed me to, the National Lightning Safety Institute, you’re not supposed to touch any metal objects in your car during a lightning storm, like a metal door handle or metal radio dials. This makes perfect sense . . . I just never thought about it.

Shirer said, and the web site points out, the best thing to do during a lightning storm is to pull over, turn your vehicle off, and put your hands in your lap.

So the moral of the story is that whether or not you have steel-belted radial tires, your car is probably as safe as it can be, with metal accoutrements. This reassured my father, when I reported back. And I got to hear the story (again) about the time he was working for the New York state highway department and his truck got hit by lightning. But I guess when you’re a dad you have some prerogative to tell your stories as many times as you like. And he was fine, by the way — just a scorch mark in the bed of the pick-up truck.

I wonder what he’ll call about next.

Also, a shout-out to Paul Knight, the Pennsylvania State Climatologist and a senior lecturer in the department of meteorology, for directing me to Shirer. Thank you!

The neighbors upstairs

A gray squirrel has a snack on campus.

For the past year, my boyfriend and I have shared our home with another couple. They lived above us. We could hear them walking around up there, and we suspect we heard them copulating above our own bed. The problem we had with this couple, though, was that they never paid rent. This is probably because they were squirrels.

The situation came to a head a couple of weeks ago. We had been away for the weekend, and came home to discover one of our upstairs neighbors lounging on our couch underneath an afghan. How did he get there, you ask? He fell into a wall, wasn’t able to climb back up into the rafters, and decided to chew his way out through the wall.

Once I got past the trauma of having a squirrel running around my house digging through the aloe plants and cuddling under the blanket my mom crocheted for me, I began to wonder how and why these squirrels chose our attic — of all places — to be. Was this normal? And did we need to worry about squirrel diseases or something haunting our house now?

Who better to ask than our resident squirrel expert, Carolyn Mahan?

A professor of biology at Penn State Altoona, Mahan’s specific area of study is the behavioral ecology of flying squirrels. Nonetheless she was game to talk with me for about half an hour on a Friday afternoon about my Squirrel Situation.

I learned that all species of squirrels either make a drey — a bowl- or ball-nest — or find a cavity to build their nests in — like our house.

“There was probably a gap,” said Mahan, of how the squirrels got into the attic in the first place. “They don’t need a lot of space to get through.”

According to Mahan, squirrels will readily chew through vinyl siding or wood if there is some sort of hole or gap started there already. And in the case of the insulation the squirrels were pulling out of our roof and throwing onto the deck, it most likely was simply in their way.

An important answer I got from the gracious Dr. Mahan: there will be no squirrel diseases haunting our house. The most danger a squirrel poses, Mahan said, is its habit of chewing through plastic coating on wires — which could in turn lead to either an electrocuted squirrel or a fire hazard in the house.

The good news is the squirrel didn’t do much damage in our house — aside from the nice squirrel-sized hole in our bedroom wall. There doesn’t appear to be any wire damage, and we have since patched up the hole that the squirrels were using as their front door.

There are plenty of nice trees in our neighborhood. Maybe they can hang out in one of those?

Tell me about critter escapades in your own home/office/other personal space in the comments section below. I’m sure we’re not the only ones with a ridiculous story to tell!