A World Without Pain

In an immersive virtual reality environment called “Snow World,” burn patients distract themselves from their pain by tossing snow balls, building snowmen and interacting with penguins. Credit: Ari Hollander and Howard Rose, copyright Hunter Hoffman, UW, www.vrpain.com Exit icon.

You glide across an icy canyon where you meet smiling snowmen, waddling penguins and a glistening river that winds forever. You toss snowballs, hear them smash against igloos, then watch them explode in vibrant colors.

Back in the real world, a dentist digs around your mouth to remove an impacted tooth, a procedure that really, really hurts. Could experiencing a “virtual” world distract you from the pain? NIGMS grantees David Patterson Exit icon and Hunter Hoffman Exit icon show it can.

Patterson, a psychologist at the University of Washington (UW) in Seattle, and Hoffman, a UW cognitive psychologist, helped create the virtual reality program “Snow World” in an effort to reduce excessive pain experienced by burn patients. However, the researchers expect Snow World to help alleviate all kinds of pain, including pain experienced during dental procedures. Continue reading

Cool Image: A Circadian Circuit

Clock neurons (middle right, right corner and edge), leucokinin (LK) neurons (top left, top right and bottom middle), leucokinin receptor (LK-R) neurons (top left, top right and bottom middle)

This image, taken with a confocal microscope, shows how time-of-day information flows through the fruit fly brain. Clock neurons (stained in blue) communicate with leucokinin (LK) neurons (stained in red at the top left, top right and bottom middle), which, in turn, signal to leucokinin receptor (LK-R) neurons (stained in green). This circuit helps regulate daily activity in the fly. Credit: Matthieu Cavey and Justin Blau, New York University.

Feeling sleepy and dazed after the switch to daylight savings time this weekend? Your internal clocks are probably a little off and need some time to adjust.

Researchers have been studying biological clocks for decades to figure out how they control circadian rhythms, the natural 24-hour pattern of physical, mental and behavioral changes that affect sleep, appetite and metabolism. Knowing more about what makes our clocks tick could help researchers develop better therapies for sleep problems, metabolic conditions and other disorders associated with mistimed internal clocks. Continue reading

The Simple Rules Bacteria Follow to Survive

Left: Football stadium. Right: Colored contoured lines showing the periodic stops in the growth of a bacterial colony
Football image credit: Stock image. The colored contoured lines show the periodic stops in the growth of a bacterial colony. Credit: Süel Lab, UCSD.

What do these images of football fans and bacterial cells have in common? By following simple rules, each individual allows the group to accomplish tasks none of them could do alone—a stadium wave that ripples through the crowd or a cell colony that rebounds after antibiotic treatment.

These collective behaviors are just a few examples of what scientists call emergent phenomena. While the reasons for the emergence of such behavior in groups of birds, fish, ants and other creatures is well understood, they’ve been less clear in bacteria. Two independent research teams have now identified some of the rules bacterial cells follow to enable the colony to persist. Continue reading

Food for Thought: Nutrient-Detecting Brain Sensor in Flies

If you participated in a cupcake taste test, do you think you’d be able to distinguish a treat made with natural sugar from one made with artificial sweetener? Scientists have known for decades that animals can tell the difference, but what’s been less clear is how.

Fruit fly neurons in the brain (red) with nerve fibers (white) that extend to the gut.
For fruit flies, nutritive sugars activate a set of neurons in the brain (red) with nerve fibers (white) that extend to the gut. Credit: Jason Lai and Greg Suh, New York University School of Medicine.

Now, researchers at the New York University School of Medicine have identified a collection of specialized nerve cells in fruit flies that acts as a nutrient-detecting sensor, helping them select natural sugar over artificial sweetener to get the energy they need to survive.

“How specific sensory stimuli trigger specific behaviors is a big research question,” says NIGMS’ Mike Sesma. “Food preferences involve more than taste and hunger, and this study, which was done in an organism with many of the same cellular components as humans, gives us a glimpse of the complex interplay among the many factors.”

The study, described in the July 15 issue of Neuron, builds on the researchers’ earlier studies of feeding behavior that showed hungry fruit flies, even ones lacking the ability to taste, selected calorie-packed sugars over zero-calorie alternatives. The scientists, led by Greg Suh Exit icon and Monica Dus Exit icon, suspected that the flies had a molecular system for choosing energy-replenishing foods, especially during periods of starvation. Continue reading

Meet Alfred Atanda Jr.

Alfred Atanda Jr.
Credit: Cynthia Brodoway, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont
Hospital for Children
Alfred Atanda Jr.
Fields: Pediatric orthopedic surgery, sports medicine
Works at: Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children
Blogs: as Philly.com’s Sports Doc at http://bit.ly/sportsdoc Exit icon
Family fact: Youngest of seven children
Musical skills: Piano and trumpet
Kitchen talent: Baking chocolate desserts for his pediatrician wife and their two young children

As a kid, Alfred Atanda loved science, sports and tinkering. He dreamed of being a construction worker or an engineer. Today, he works on one of the most complex construction projects of all: the human body.

As a pediatric orthopedic surgeon, Atanda focuses on sports medicine and injuries to children. He has a special passion for young baseball pitchers who have torn the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in the elbow of their throwing arm.

This sort of injury is most often caused by overuse. Many small tears accumulate over a long period, resulting in pain and slower, less accurate pitches. Decades ago, this sort of damage occurred almost exclusively in elite athletes. Now, Atanda sees it in children as young as 12 years old. He aims not only to study and treat these injuries, but also to find ways to prevent them.

His Findings

Atanda was first introduced to research on UCL injuries while working alongside team physicians for the Phillies, the professional baseball team in Philadelphia. The physicians wanted to determine whether ultrasound imaging could detect early warning signs—slight anatomical changes in the ligament—before the damage became severe enough to warrant an operation known as Tommy John surgery.

The research focused on Phillies pitchers who had no pain or other symptoms of injury. The multi-year project showed that the UCL in the throwing elbows of these players got progressively thicker and weaker compared to the same ligament in the players’ nonthrowing elbows. The scientists concluded that these physical changes are caused by prolonged exposure to professional-level pitching.

Alfred Atanda Jr. with Joe Piergrossi
Atanda examines the elbow of a young patient. Courtesy: Cynthia Brodoway, Nemours/Alfred I. duPont Hospital for Children

Atanda wondered whether ultrasound imaging could also detect early signs of UCL damage in young pitchers—those in Little League through high school. There has been a dramatic rise in the number of young pitchers who are experiencing the same injuries and undergoing the same surgery as the pros.

Atanda secured funding for this project from an Institutional Development Award (IDeA). The IDeA program builds research capacities in states like Delaware, where Atanda works, that historically have received low levels of funding from the National Institutes of Health.

Atanda’s project began about a year ago, and has examined 55 young athletes so far.

“We found similar results to what we found with the Phillies,” Atanda says, indicating that the UCL in the throwing elbows of young athletes was noticeably thicker than the UCL in the nonthrowing elbows. And the damage seems progressive, he says: “We saw that these ligaments got thicker as the pitchers got older and had more pitching experience.”

The immediate goal of this project, which he hopes to continue for another 3 years, is prophylaxis. “We’re trying to prevent any kind of overuse elbow injuries and the need for Tommy John surgeries later on,” Atanda says. He also hopes to establish quantitative correlations between pitching behavior and anatomical changes.

Atanda also has longer-term aspirations. “My goal is to change the culture in sports for young athletes in general,” he says. “I want to show there are downsides to pitching so much.”

In addition to championing pitch count limits recommended by the American Sports Medicine Institute, Atanda advises a focus away from excess competition and toward getting exercise, enjoying social inter­action, building self-confidence and having fun.

Atanda’s research is funded by the National Institutes of Health through grant P20GM103464

Content adapted from the NIGMS Findings magazine article Game Changer

Cool Image: Denying Microbial Moochers

V. cholerae and V. cholerae

Productive V. cholerae (yellow) and exploitive V. cholerae (red). Credit: Carey Nadell, Princeton University.

What looks like an abstract oil painting is actually an image of several cholera-causing V. cholerae bacterial communities. These communities, called biofilms, include productive and exploitive microbial members. The industrious bacteria (yellow) tend to thrive in denser biofilms (top) while moochers (red) thrive in weaker biofilms (bottom). In an effort to understand this phenomenon, Princeton University researchers led by Bonnie Bassler Exit icon discovered two ways the freeloaders are denied food. They found that some V. cholerae cover themselves with a thick coating to prevent nutritious carbon- and nitrogen-containing molecules from drifting over to the scroungers. In addition, the natural flow of fluids over biofilms can wash away any leftovers. Encouraging such bacterial fairness could boost the efficient breakdown of organic materials into useful products, such as biofuels. On the other hand, counteracting it could lead to better treatment of illnesses, like cholera, by starving the most productive bacteria and thereby weakening the infection.

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