Academia, Career, Economics, Faith, Neurological Disorders, Pain, Problems to Solve, Spinal Cord Injury, Uncategorized, Writing

Grant Amazing

I  did! I posted again!

Okay, it’s been a long time since my last post. While I feel bad about not keeping up with the blog, at the same time, I have a good reason. I’ve been deep in the bowels of grant-writing.

Science, despite all it’s glorious discoveries and wonders, fails without cold-hard cash driving it forward. In our day and age, money motivates discovery. Almost all our breakthroughs in science have some kind of sponsored backing.

Sad, but true. But then, many of us who are in the field of academic science research are driven by more than simply the need for knowledge fulfillment. Personally, I believe I belong in research (for now). And I love to teach…. which in my position provides me with that opportunity.

Regarding Money

With my desire to propel my projects forward, I’ve stopped nearly all distractions from my ability to devote time and energy to getting a grant. As some of my friends know, I’ve made this a top priority. I firmly believe that the work I’m doing in the lab will have some future benefit as well provide an exciting perspective on the issues of Spinal Cord Injury and Pain. 

A metaphorical image….

So I give myself a pat on the shoulder, because just a day ago I got a phone call from the funding agency that my grant application has been award full-funding for the next two-years.

I’m a young investigator, and this is my first grant funded as the principle investigator. In the course of an academic career, this is a THE milestone toward something “bigger” or at the very least more independent. For a little bit of time, and to a point, I will have my own little research space to study something on my own. This is nice, scary, and exciting all at the same time.

As I move forward, as the quiet margins open up again, I will try my best to continue my ruminations. Writing continues to be a great outlet… no matter the topic.

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Academia, Career, Missions, Problems to Solve, Spinal Cord Injury, Time

A Neuro Nightlife: Slice and Dice

Alone in the lab on a Friday night, again. Why, oh why am I the nearly last to leave? Some might say I’m a total loser (some melodrama for kick). Others may congratulate me on my hard working ethic, my unreserved drive to produce results. (Actually, most of my friends would agree with the former).

As for why I’m in the lab alone on an evening when most of my peers are either with their families, out partying, or going out to a fancy dinner to celebrate the end of the work week; I am on the cryostat cutting spinal cord tissues into micron-thick (very small) slices.

My friend, Leica

The machine I’m using, and have temporarily taken a break to write this blog post, is basically a freezer that contains a deli-slicing machine. Instead of cold-cutting ham, I’m cold-cutting spinal cord.

The slices are melted onto glass microscope slides where, at a later date, I’ll perform a procedure that will allow me to visualize the microscopic structure of neurons. It’s similar to developing a photograph in the dark room…. but a bit more involved.

According to my calculations, I’ll be done, um, oh who cares! I’m rocking the iTunes on a Friday night, slicing and dicing. All is good.

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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.

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

Can’t wait….for Spring

It was quiet in the lab today. Though I was busy working on a presentation to my colleagues for a meeting next week, I didn’t feel very productive. I tried my best to set small goals and hit them, hoping the breaking of tasks into small steps would help me push harder. I think what it was, was my excitement for starting something new. The old unexciting parts were just holding me back.

It’s going to be really busy this Spring….

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