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What we're reading

Contributors: The Communications Team

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Happy New Year BMSA people! We are happy to be back and writing for you guys! To kick off the new semester we have brought to you some interesting, articles on new and upcoming science to provoke some great conversations. Our communications committee members have recommended some of their favourites below.

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Solving phantom limb pain — science is getting closer

Contributor Si-Cheng Dai

The amputation of a body part can leave patients dealing with unforeseen challenges. Living with phantom limb pain is one such hurdle; amputees may feel pain in a limb that’s no longer there. But how does such a phenomenon occur? And how would you even begin to treat pain in an intangible body part? The answers to both questions lie in the brain. In this article, learn about the two competing theories on the manifestation of phantom limb pain and how a new method of treatment, transcranial direct current stimulation, is providing a safe and easy new way to provide relief for amputees.

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Canada’s first face transplant

Contributor Claire Millard

National Post recently wrote an article about the first face transplant conducted in Canada, making it the 41st face transplant conducted since the first procedure in 2005 in France. The procedure took place in Montreal, Quebec and was performed by Dr. Daniel Borsuk alongside a team of over 20 specialists and more than 100 other medical staff. This transplant was planned for Maurice Desjardins, a victim of a hunting accident that destroyed his nose, lips, teeth and jaw. Desjardins needed breathing support via a tracheotomy and thus was unable to eat or close his mouth properly. Surgeons had time and time again tried to rebuild by use of hardware and bone taken from from other bones in his body, but after each attempt Desjardins was still suffering. The face transplant was proposed to him as a last resort. The procedure took five years of planning, but when a donor became available Dr. Borsuk and his team were ready. Finding a donor was very difficult, partly due to the ethics of the organ being transplanted — a person’s face is associated with their identity, which is a difficult idea to overcome as a family of a donor. Nevertheless, a donor became available and Dr. Borsuk jumped on the opportunity to successfully complete the transplant alongside his team. This success is just a stepping stone for future advancement in Canadian medicine


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Dog breeds really do have distinct personalities—and they’re rooted in DNA

Contributor Michelle Li

While we may know about the typical characteristics associated with different dog breeds, it turns out our assumptions aren’t random. In fact, these distinct traits might actually be rooted in a dog’s genes. This article focuses on a study that collected behavioural data (“pet personality quiz”) from 14, 000 dogs of 101 breeds. The scientists matched up dog breed genetic data and behavioural data, and found DNA regions that could explain fifteen per cent of the breed’s behaviour and determined the most heritable traits. Their findings even suggest that behaviour may be guided by similar genes across various species! Despite all of the advances made in this area of research, a lot more work needs to be done before their findings can be applied to a broader scale of genetics and behaviour.

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Artificial intelligence turns brain activity into speech

Contributor Ramtin Hakimjavadi

It’s 2019 but not much has changed with regards to public interest in artificial intelligence (AI). In the first week of the new year, an article about the application of AI in the production of speech surfaced on Science Magazine. The prospect of a machine-brain interface that can produce speech and perhaps even take queues for tone and inflection of voice is ground-breaking. Communication is a tremendous struggle for patients who have suffered a stroke or a disease that has taken away their ability to speak. Currently, a common communication alternative involves using eye movements to move a cursor on screen and selecting  letters to type. Needless to say, such alternatives are less than ideal and also impractical when trying to have a regularly-paced conversation. Imagine the difficulties of expressing emotions during everyday interactions for people who cannot speak. Fortunately, three teams were recently successful in converting data from electrodes in the brain into computer-generated speech. Although many roadblocks remain – such as the invasiveness of the recording process and the limited time frame for collecting data – the results have been promising. Researchers from Columbia University were successful in programming a computer to reconstruct spoken numbers from neural data alone. These recordings can be heard here. Notably, current research relies on recording brain activity during speech and listening tasks; which is quite different from the brain activity produced when one has an internal dialogue. Nevertheless, the fact that the gap between idea generation and speech production is closing holds promise for speech prosthesis in the future. This is a great read for anyone interested in the current landscape of AI research and its real-world applications.

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