Conference Coverage

Conference News Roundup—American Association for the Advancement of Science


Stretchable Electronics Could Aid Stroke Recovery Treatment

A device designed to be worn on the throat could aid stroke rehabilitation, researchers said.

John A. Rogers, PhD, Louis Simpson and Kimberly Querrey Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Neurological Surgery at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, developed the device in partnership with Shirley Ryan AbilityLab, a research hospital in Chicago. The sensor is the latest in Dr. Rogers’s portfolio of stretchable electronics that are appropriate for use in advanced medical care and portable enough to be worn outside the hospital and during exercise.

Dr. Rogers’s sensors stick directly to the skin, moving with the body and providing measurements, including heart function, muscle activity, and quality of sleep.

“Stretchable electronics allow us to see what is going on inside patients’ bodies at a level traditional wearables simply cannot achieve,” said Dr. Rogers. “The key is to make them as integrated as possible with the human body.”

The new bandage-like throat sensor measures patients’ swallowing ability and patterns of speech. The sensors aid in the diagnosis and treatment of aphasia.

The tools that speech-language pathologists have traditionally used to monitor patients’ speech function, such as microphones, cannot distinguish between patients’ voices and ambient noise.

“Our sensors solve that problem by measuring vibrations of the vocal cords,” Dr. Rogers said. “But they only work when worn directly on the throat, which is a sensitive area of the skin. We developed novel materials for this sensor that bend and stretch with the body, minimizing discomfort to patients.”

Shirley Ryan AbilityLab uses the throat sensor in conjunction with electronic biosensors, also developed in Dr. Rogers’s laboratory, on the legs, arms, and chest to monitor stroke patients’ recovery progress. The intermodal system of sensors streams data wirelessly to clinicians’ phones and computers, providing a quantitative picture of patients’ advanced physical and physiologic responses in real time.“One of the biggest problems we face with stroke patients is that their gains tend to drop off when they leave the hospital,” said Arun Jayaraman, PhD, research scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. “With the home monitoring enabled by these sensors, we can intervene at the right time, which could lead to better, faster recoveries for patients.”

Because the sensors are wireless, they eliminate barriers posed by traditional health monitoring devices in clinical settings. Patients can wear them after they leave the hospital, allowing doctors to understand how their patients are functioning in the real world.

“Talking with friends and family at home is a completely different dimension from what we do in therapy,” said Leora Cherney, PhD, research scientist at the Shirley Ryan AbilityLab. “Having a detailed understanding of patients’ communication habits outside of the clinic helps us develop better strategies with our patients to improve their speaking skills and speed up their recovery process.”

Data from the sensors will be presented in a dashboard that is easy for clinicians and patients to understand. It will send alerts when patients are underperforming on a certain metric and allow them to set and track progress toward their goals.

Inhibiting an Enzyme May Aid Memory Creation

Aging or impaired brains can once again form lasting memories if an enzyme that impedes the function of a key gene too strongly is inhibited, according to neurobiologists at the University of California, Irvine.

“What we have discovered is that if we free up that DNA again, now the aging brain can form long-term memories normally,” said senior author Marcelo Wood, PhD, Francisco J. Ayala Chair in Neurobiology and Behavior at the university. “To form a long-term memory, you have to turn specific genes on. In most young brains, that happens easily, but as we get older and our brains get older, we have trouble with that.”

That is because the six feet of DNA spooled into every cell in our bodies has a harder time releasing itself as needed, he explained. Like many body parts, “it is no longer as flexible as it used to be,” said Dr. Wood. The stiffness in this case is due to a molecular brake pad called histone deacetylase 3 (HDAC3), that has become “overeager” in the aged brain and is compacting the material too hard, blocking the release of a gene called Period1, said Dr. Wood. Removing HDAC3 restores flexibility and allows internal cell machinery to access Period1 to begin forming new memories.

Researchers had previously theorized that the loss of transcription and encoding functions in older brains resulted from deteriorating core circadian clocks. But Dr. Wood and his team found that the ability to create lasting memories was linked to a different process—the enzyme blocking the release of Period1—in the hippocampus.

“New drugs targeting HDAC3 could provide an exciting avenue to allow older people to improve memory formation,” said Dr. Wood.

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