Existence, Food, Humor, Problems to Solve, Relationships, Wisdom, Writing

Dude, that’s boring!

It’s that time of day again. Lunch break. I’ll just feed the blank page some litter before I head out.

I eat hospital food, nearly everyday; honestly though, it ain’t so bad. Only problem is that it doesn’t change.

The same! 

Oh, how ridiculous we are, humans! Yes, I’ll pose the question of why this is so; this tendency to avoid boredom and tedium we have. It is our desire for

–wait, no! It is more an unbridled, burning need for adventure. We need adventure so badly. If we can’t get it by traveling into outer space, climbing to the top of a mountain, then by any means necessary, we’ll get it–through our taste, smell, sight, and sound.

Adventure: this is the undiscovered country, or the story that has yet to begin and has no ending. We seek it and don’t even know what it is. It is an unnamed journey for things unseen. Why do we crave such intangibles in our lives, an infinite motivation that drives us to break routines. Adventure compels us to leave safety and security.

Maybe, I’m a bit melodramatic. But, we do love stories, fact or fiction, or somewhere in between. We’ll gobble it up and spit it out in favor of the next one. Actors and actresses appear on a screen, and live out a fallacious life, and we praise them as heros, worshipping with our limited attention.

The inner drive…. for something new. I’m about to head to the hospital cafeteria. Same old, same old. Time to find me some adventure in a bottle, Tabasco!

Academia, Missions, Neurological Disorders, Pain, Problems to Solve, Spinal Cord Injury

Digging for treasure

I suppose it’s time to write something about my day. Just a quick note, a slice  of my 24 hours.

I’m now in the laboratory, sitting at my desk, thinking that I need to do more research. After my talk yesterday, I received a few questions and critiques regarding my next steps for my project.

The run down: I’ve built a firm foundation that I can rest my thoughts upon. The foundation are a series of papers I published that demonstrate a structural substrate, or medium, for the abnormal sensory sensations processed by the nervous system after injury (or disease).

Now that I’ve built this ‘floor’, I’ve been encouraged to explore targets that could test that foundation. Find the cracks, as it were. In order for me to do that, I have to go back to the drawing board; find out where there is a gap in my knowledge in my conceptual model.

To do this, I need to read. I need to read the plethora of literature regarding the possible mechanisms, or machinery, that may control what is happening inside the injured spinal nervous system. There is so much.

In the past, I’ve been able to focus my quest by the simple method of asking simple questions. So, now I will pose one as I dig into the netherworld of the internet databases, where decades of published work may reveal something useful for me.

I’m on a scavenger hunt, but I don’t know what I’m looking for. Not yet, anyway. How exciting….

Academia, Coffee, Compassion, Missions, Neurological Disorders, Problems to Solve, Spinal Cord Injury, Writing

Steadfast, moving forward

I failed to meet my goal to maintain a posting frequency of one per day. I knew it was unrealistic given the workload I have in the lab. My well-being improves when I’m away from a computer as well (i.e., long-term desk work is bad for your health). Don’t get me wrong, I can be a prolific writer. I can dump my thoughts on a page and have you all read my freely associated mind boggles straight-up like a shot glass of 200 proof ethanol. Yes.

In other news, I’ll just say that drinking coffee chronically and then stopping abruptly is dumb. I couldn’t keep my head above my shoulders for more than 20 minutes this weekend. I’m back though.

In the lab today…

I presented my research to about 20 of my peers, including the director of the research Center. I’m happy to report that I’m alive with my ego intact. I’m at peace with my ideas; the tearing and gnashing of my conceptual approach did not happen. So, now that I’ve got the proverbial green light to continue moving forward, I shall.  I’d like to thank my friend, mswestfall who authors the blog My Unplanned Life, for her moral support over the weekend.

Now, I’m moving forward with writing a cover letter to an editor of an academic journal. I’d like to submit my report for publication in this journal. It would be really kind of them to accept my work there, because that would get the word out about what I do in the lab. It’s such a pleasure when people hear what you have to say, understand it, and then somehow apply it. Feels good to know my thinking is relevant and useful and that people agree. We’ll see….


I had a thought about how I had become steadfast in my work. Not always like this; not really. When I was younger, just a few years ago, I used to become anxious that I wasn’t doing a good enough job. I’d work hard, then I’d feel that I had done, inadequately. That was what drove me. It was a feeling of fear or anxiety in my job.

No longer true. I’m more confident than before, hence, I feel more “free” to explore my ideas, and know that should I choose, I have the technical capability to execute. This is maturity, I think, and what a silly ladder we climb. I’m not even sure I need to consider this stuff anymore. Just go. Step. This is how I live now I suppose; within this routine of work, rest, work, and final rest. Bad things happen in my job, failure in an experiment, but I keep moving.

A lesson of wisdom, perhaps. I’m pedaling a bicycle, up and down, but the end result is forward motion. I know I’m moving forward, metaphorically, because I see the anchors and milestones behind me. Alas, as a scientist, as a human, I’m steadfast, moving forward.

Academia, Career, Economics, Grants, Philosophy, Problems to Solve, Spinal Cord Injury, Writing

Bricks and Straw

MY situation…is daunting

I’ve been preparing a manuscript that will describe a series of experiments I performed, aimed at characterizing an issue of abnormal pain after spinal cord injury. This is the hardest part, at least for me, where I have to decide what to include in the report. I’m planning on submitting it for publication before the end of the month.


You spend days working on analyzing data, only to realize that it doesn’t fit into the entire scheme of the project. You’ve spent a lot of time gathering data that doesn’t make sense. There’s that extra data point that winks at you and says: “Ha, now where are you going to put me?”

Ethically, I’m obligated to talk about that piece of esoteric, nonsensical data. The trouble is, I don’t know what to make of it. It’s that werid cousin you have in the family. You don’t know what to do with him when he’s over for dinner, cuz’ he doesn’t eat meat.

Constructing progress: tactics

Trial-and-error, or careful pre-experimental planning? This is a unique challenge. How much time to spend planning, rather than performing the actual experiment is a tactical choice. I could spend weeks and months reading about and planning for a project, or I can perform the project with a few ideas in mind and see where it takes me. Both have their advantages.

Trial-and-error, or the “fishing-expedition”, is used frequently, but not looked upon highly by scientists as the best way to make progress. It’s risky and has a low return of success for the amount of time invested. However, this approach allows a scientist freedom to be creative and innovative.

For example, in the movie “Dolphin Tale“, the scientist in charge of engineering a new prosthetic tail for the dolphin amputee ends up utilizing a trial-and-error approach. Though the scientist studies what he can from the literature and theorizes how the tale ought to function, he doesn’t know until he tries several prothetic flipper-tail designs. Many of these contraptions fail….(see the movie).

Pre-experimental planning is probably the most used approach. It provides a plan for all the potential scenarios for what might happen within an experimental project. It even has an exit strategy, of when to stop the experiment. The time invested is primarily upfront, and once executed, all labor runs through a workflow designed to meet specific objectives.

Now, I’ll admit, I do prefer to start with the strategy of planning just a little bit, then flying by the seat of my pants the rest of the way. I won’t hesitate to try new ideas or different designs, and do so without planning. If it perks my curiosity, I’ll try it for a while. In this way, I work from a solid framework, but I’m not so rigidly held to that plan that I won’t deviate if something interesting pops up that might require more investigation.

Of course, there’s the bottleneck — scientific progress requires two basic resources: time and money. Without these, it doesn’t matter how motivated, creative or talented you are. You don’t make bricks without straw. Another tactic: good funding. 

Academia, Hyperreflexia, Memory, Missions, Neurological Disorders, Pain, Problems to Solve, Spasticity, Spinal Cord Injury, Writing

Spinal cord memory: a next step forward?

I study spinal cord injury (SCI). It’s been a journey I’ve taken for myself these past many years, 8 or so. There are some ideas that don’t leave you; they get stuck up there in the dark crevices, like a bit of juice in a city gutter. It’s a mix of all stuff you’ve read, heard, or thought about.

Here I am. I need to start somewhere with this. But, this has been on my mind for 2-3 years…. trying to flesh it out.

The brain is a computer.

As a computer, the brain has the biological mechanisms for storing information. We call this memory. The idea that the brain is a memory machine is old, ancient, really. It’s part of our everyday understanding of what the brain does. It takes information, processes it, then stores it for recollection (remembering) later.

Now, what most people don’t know is that the spinal cord also “remembers”. The spinal cord also contains the same machinery that the brain has when it comes to forming and storing information (i.e., memories).

I’ve been exploring the idea that memory can go wrong.

‘Memory is linked to pain’ is well understood, if you think about it. Do you remember what it’s like to get a paper-cut? More interesting, do you remember what it’s like to be betrayed by a friend, or feel guilty, forms of emotional pain?

Inside the spinal cord are memory systems. Injury or disease, like SCI, can disrupt these systems, putting them into a kind of over-drive. The neurons no longer process and output electrical information normally. Turn on the radio, you hear music. Switch to a channel that has no information, or poorly received information, and you get static. That’s what we call neuropathic pain in the most basic sense: the absence of good information and amplify whatever noise is left.

Maybe, the same thing is happening there in the motor system, the machine parts that control movement. While some people with SCI don’t feel any ability to move, they are weak or even paralyzed; there are other individuals with SCI that have too much movement. Their muscles do not react voluntarily, moving or twitching on their own (some may call this “dystonia” or “myoclonus”). The intensity of these muscle contractions, or twitchings, could be of such great intensity that it’s actually painful or uncomfortable. There’s no relaxation posture or state of the muscle; it’s constantly active.

Here’s what I think is going wrong. Like the analogy I used for neuropathic pain (see above), the electrical activity in the neurons that control muscles is abnormally activated. They are over-excitable, as we like to say in the field.

Why are they over-excitable, which causes them to make muscles contract involuntarily, even painfully?

So many reasons. No laundry lists here. Here’s my take on it the problem….

The body is alive. It is constantly healing itself against insults the world throws at it. Your skin regenerates automatically when you cut yourself. When you break a bone, the doctor doesn’t “heal” you, your body does. All the doctor does is make sure your bones heal themselves, correctly.

I tell you this so you know that the spinal cord does heal itself. We call this spontaneous regeneration. This happens all the time after SCI. For example, after the initial injury, a patient (or in my case, a rodent) undergoes a period of dramatically lost function, also known as spinal shockThis can be painful, uncomfortable (I’m using really weak adjectives, forgive me).

Overtime, however, the subject regains some function. This is due to two major things happening, we mostly think. First, balances of chemicals and electrical properties of the nervous system slowly return to a state where things that aren’t cut-off can function (albiet not 100%) and transmit information again. Second, those neuron that do survive and not directly injured by the SCI have an internal ability to spontaneously grow. Some types of cells are more capable than others, and certain chemicals need to be available, but generally, all neurons in the spinal cord have some capability, even in the adult, to grow or spontaneously regenerate.

Spontaneous regeneration, also known as reactive neuronal plasticity, appears to be a good thing. 

And it is. It’s the body’s self-healing process. But sometimes, it can go wrong. In my studies, I examine how the internal capability of neurons to spontaneously form new connections and regrow can lead to serious disorders after SCI. Using a broad brush explanation, for example, if a pain cell receives too many connections from the wrong place, then excess pain can be a result. The same is true for muscle function. If a cell receives too much information from a spontaneously regenerated nerve, then we might expect those muscles to have too much stimulation.

What bursts my mind is that this all happens internally, deep in the bowels of the spinal cord. Unlike a broken bone, in which a doctor can intervene by making a cast to hold the broken parts close together, allowing them to regenerate and heal back into the normal, original shape, we can’t do that with the broken spinal cord. Not yet.

It’s a musical orchestra in there….

There are many circuits that are impacted by SCI. We, as the research field, are struggling to dissect what wires go where. Let’s say…I take my laptop and throw it on the floor. It doesn’t break, not entirely, but the keyboard doesn’t work anymore. How do I know how to fix it, if I don’t know where all the wires are supposed to go?

I’m now looking at how my studies in neuropathic (nerve) pain are similar to what goes wrong in the motor system that leads to really annoying, painful, or uncomfortable problems. Many bodily systems require a huge orchestra of neurons working in concert with each other. I’m basically taking apart the orchestra, starting with the flute section.

Yes. Let’s play on.

Compassion, Philosophy, Relationships, Wisdom, Writing

A Change Within

I’ve changed.

I woke up and checked the news as I do every morning. There is so much bad news amidst the daily stories posted on CNN or FoxNews. Oddly enough, it has begun to affect me. In the past, I would glance through these stories and happen upon one that I thought was interesting. I’d read it, then walk away.

Now I’ll go through the stories and a feeling of disgust or revulsion would wash over me. I will consciously say to myself that there is so much bad news. Where’s the good stuff?

I don’t know what has happened within me. I’ve changed. I know it’s me and not the world. The content of the news hasn’t changed.

No such thing as new “…news, just old news to new people”, I recall someone saying.  Perhaps it has gotten worse, but not so much that the bad news would alone move me. No, I think something clicked on the inside not too long ago.

I’m now more sensitive to these stories of trauma and human suffering. The world is broken into small glass shards, and I’ve finally felt what it’s like to be cut and bloody.

Some may say this is a sign of maturity. I’ve identified with the world around me and I can see our reality, a flickering high-contrast picture, flesh and blood. I don’t like it, yet there is no escape. Try as I may, I’m here now. I suppose my job is to be still and know this is it, until a new day comes.