DNA test for freshmen

Here's a link to the NY Times article.

A DNA sample as a "unifying experience for freshman"? Riiiggght....Rather than assigning incoming students to read a particular book the University of California, Berkeley has decided to distribute cotton swabs and collect DNA samples from all new freshmen - well, it's voluntary so students don't have to participate if they don't want to - to analyze for genes coding for the metabolism of three things: alcohol, lactose and folates. While this may be an interesting point of discussion among the freshmen and does give us all a look at where medicine is likely headed in the future, if the school is attempting to unify students and get them to "lead healthier lives by drinking less, avoiding dairy products, or eating more leafy greens" as the article suggests I highly doubt they will be successful.....

College is all about freedom and trying new things; what freshman is going to cut back on the chicken fritters and fries or drink less alcohol simply because of the results of a DNA test? On second thought, maybe it will successfully replace the old unifying book-reading experience: "Dude! I have the alcohol gene!" "Haha awesome. Wanna go to the bars?" "Yeah let's see who gets more wasted tonight!"


Art That Was Once Alive

In a strange mix of taxidermy and art these pieces represent a unique compilation of modern creations. I particularly like the skull made out of cockroach pieces - I know, sounds really gross - but the end result is strangely beautiful (below). It's also nice to see an anatomically correct skull in modern art.....take a look at the other pieces here: Art That Was Once Alive

"The Impossibility of Storage for the Soul I (Self-Portrait)"
Fabian Pena


Einstein - The Smallest Horse In The World

This is just incredible....Born the size of a human baby at only 7 pounds and standing around 14 inches tall, little Einstein is just about the cutest thing ever! He was carried full term so his small size is not due to being born premature, and according to the experts he is entirely proportionate in terms of normal horse measurements and does not reflect any signs of dwarfism. He's just a very tiny miniature horse. A mini mini!


Modern Day DaVincis

UIC's Biomedical Visualization program was in the news today! CBS did an evening special highlighting our program here in Chicago and the unique things we are able to do with a background in art, science and technology. Check it out here:

By the way, that is our own program director, Scott Barrows, in the picture talking about the many projects we are currently involved with here in teh BVIS program including the creation of various applications for iPhones and the iPad, medical modeling and prosthetics and virtual imaging and diagnostics. Way to go BVIS!

Sleeping and Light Therapy

A few days ago the New York Times published an interesting article about the enormous effects a simple thing like light can have on our Circadian rhythms. I've already been aware of studies that link light with depression - or our "night owl" tendencies with the fact that we have so much artificial light in our modern lives that we are tricking our bodies into not knowing when it is nighttime - but this is the first I'd heard of the effectiveness of light therapy on actually reversing an internal clock and re-establishing an appropriate Circadian rhythm. Like magic! It seems such a commonsense natural solution, it's a wonder we didn't come up with it before....especially with how popular "organic" and "natural" living has become (although I realize its not exactly the same argument). Personally, I would much rather get a "natural" prescription for light than one for some unknown, artificially manufactured medication! (See link below)

Sleeping (or Not) by the Wrong Clock


Animal body worlds

Add this one to my must-see list: Animal Body worlds. Gunther von Hagens, creator of the human version of Body Worlds, has done it again this time using animals in a plastination exhibit opening in Germany. I thoroughly enjoyed the human version - in fact I got to see it twice, both here in the States and while overseas in Ireland - and as an animal and medical enthusiast I really can't wait for this one to start touring the world.

Living Paintings

Now here's a twist on an old past time: instead of painting on a canvas to make something look 3D, Alexa Meade paints real people to look like flat oil paintings! I still can't wrap my head around it; I mean I understand the idea and process but to see the images my brain just has a hard time reconciling it, especially when photographs are taken of her "masterpieces" out in the real world. Simply amazing! Check it out here: Telegraph UK: Alexa Meade Living Paintings.


Phar Lap lives again

This is kinda creepy...but kinda cool, in a morbid sort of way:
Dead Horse Lives

In the late 1920s, during the height of the great age of American horse racing, Phar Lap was one of the biggest celebrities with four legs. Winning 37 of his 51 races and becoming renowned throughout his home country of Australia as well as here in America he inspired many people and gave them hope during the difficult times of the Great Depression before dying unexpectedly in 1932. His owner, understandably devastated, decided that while he would send the big horse's heart back to Melbourne  he wanted his hide to be mounted and preserved by a taxidermist.

Now, I don't think I'd like my horse - or any pet for that matter - put back together again no matter how good a taxidermist may be; it's just a little creepy if you ask me. However I have to admit that when I read this old article from a 1932 edition of Popular Science I was a intrigued and while I couldn't imagine having it done today I can definitely appreciate the skillful attention and care that must have gone in to the restoration to bring back to life such a wonderful American icon.


Brain rewiring

As I turned on the TV this morning the Today show was featuring a story about a little girl named Cameron Mott. Cameron was born perfectly healthy but began having serious seizures when she was three and a half years old which increased in severity and frequency to the point where she was having up to 10 seizures a day and had to wear a helmet to protect her head. After many incorrect diagnoses she was eventually diagnosed with Rasmussen's Syndrome, a disease that would have continued to spread throughout her brain destroying cognitive and physical functions along the way and leaving her with a wildly firing set of neurons that would cause seizures for the rest of her life. In 2007 her family made the decision to bring her to John's Hopkins Children's Hospital in Baltimore to undergo a hemispherectomy. In this procedure half of her brain was removed to get rid of the damaged brain tissue while preserving the remaining half. What amazed me was seeing her interview on the Today show and watching videos of her talking, walking, running and playing just like any normal nine-year-old. Within a month of the surgery, which initially left her completely paralyzed on the left side of her body (since they removed the entire right side of her brain), her remaining hemisphere was able to rewire itself to control the left side of her body as well as the right to the point where she was able to walk out of the hospital of her own accord. It simply amazes me not only what the brain can do but how quickly it can rewire to compensate for the missing pieces. I wonder if she is at any higher risk of getting a concussion since she's missing half of her brain. They say the right side of her skull would fill with cerebrospinal fluid to fill the empty space but I wonder if the fact that it is fluid, rather than a solid object, would make it easier for the remaining side of her brain to move around. Anyway, here's the video clip from the Today Show:

On a cool little side note, the man who invented hemispherectomy that cured this little girl was Dr. Ben Carson, a world-renowned neurosurgeon who also is well known for separating a pair of Siamese twins who were joined at the head. This same Dr. Carson spoke at Lafayette's commencement last year and I got to hear him since I had gone back to watch a few friends graduate (I graduated the year before). He was a very interesting person to listen to and I'm glad I got a chance to hear him speak, especially with me studying neuroscience and all :)


Great Photoshop tip! How to (easily) eliminate all the white from an image

As I was working on my website today I found the need to get rid of all the white space in one of my illustrations in order to use it as a background image. I knew that saving it as a png, rather than a jpg, would allow for transparency, and that by using the magic wand I could select the white background and simply hit delete.

Unfortunately the image I was working with has a ton of tiny little white spaces in addition to the regular background so when placed against a non-white surface, like on my website, it didn't look so hot (I put gray behind it here to illustrate the difference). To get rid of all of those would have meant hours of painstakingly zooming in and clicking on each and every little white area separately...

So I began researching online and lo and behold there was an easier way! Maybe people more experienced with Photoshop than I am already know this trick but for those of you who don't, it is a lifesaver!
  1. First press Cmd+A then Cmd+C to select and copy the image from your Photoshop layer (make sure it is in an unlocked, editable layer)
  2. Click on the Channels tab and create a new Alpha channel
  3. Then click Cmd+V to paste the selection in this channel. (You might have to turn off the visibility on your other channels and click the eye icon next to this new channel to see it)
  4. Press Cmd+I to invert the image and then hold down the command key and click the channel layer
  5. Go back to your normal Layers tab and click the layer with your image, then hit Cmd+C and Cmd+V. This will select all the colored in regions in that image and place them in a new layer.
  6. Turn off the original layer and voila! Now all the white is gone and your image can easily be added to a colored background:

If you go to the original post by ValuedResource.com on Web Design Library (thank you!) there are more images with the step-by-step instructions. Overall, this method saves so much time and I am a much happier camper knowing I won't be staring at the computer screen for the next few hours...now instead I can go enjoy my Friday night pizza dinner :)


Serotonin and SIDS

A study by Boston Children's Hospital published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association seems to have found a correlation between serotonin levels and SIDS. Babies who have died of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome appear to have lower than normal levels of serotonin in their brains. Since serotonin regulates many processes within the body, including sleep and wakefulness, a deficiency of this chemical would suggest that these SIDS babies were unable to recognize warning signs and wake themselves up when they entered a situation where oxygen levels were decreased (such as during stomach sleeping when they are more likely to work themselves into a corner or become surrounded by too much fluffy bedding).

Serotonin is a widespread neurotransmitter, contributing to many processes other than sleep including appetite, learning ability and - probably most famously - mood. While there is currently no way to test if a baby has low serotonin levels it makes me wonder how many babies who died of SIDS would  have continued to have serotonin-related issues later in life. Had they survived, would they have been plagued by learning disabilities or depression or would the body have found a way to right itself over time? How many people who suffer from depression now had a serotonin deficiency right from the beginning as an infant and were just lucky enough to escape SIDS?

As tempting as this research is, even if we could test a baby's serotonin levels we likely wouldn't be able to do anything to change the situation medically. Although parents naturally would want a "cure" it is highly unlikely this research would be able to provide one. What could we do? Prescribe antidepressants? Not a healthy choice when you consider the extreme delicacy of an infant brain that is growing and wiring itself together at the fastest rate it ever will, making connections that will last throughout it's life. Considering the side effects that these drugs have in adults alone, the result could be devastating on such a malleable infant brain. Besides, there is rarely "one cause" of any condition and even it is serotonin in this case, this neurotransmitter affects so many other life processes that to alter it in the hopes of solving one problem could cause ten other much more complicated issues. The most we could hope is that parents might be able to receive a SIDS-probability "heads up" in the future, but it is still an interesting find and gives us a bit more insight into this baffling condition.


Study linking MMR with autism RETRACTED

Breaking medical news today as the Lancet - the medical journal that originally published the 1998 study linking the MMR vaccine with autism - retracted the paper and accepted the claims as false. While the reason for retraction was the study's unethical conduction of research (conflict of interest, non-randomized participants, etc.), this points to flaws within the experimental design itself which are likely to have influenced the results. The possibility of unethical experimental techniques and confounded results becomes even more likely when we realize that funding for the study came from families who believed their children were harmed in some way by the MMR vaccine. All in all, we can not say for sure that the results of this study held any truth or not, but most doctors today do not support the link between MMR and autism. Additionally, to have a study retracted from public record is a very rare occurrence and is only done if there is a great amount of evidence against it.


The VisualMD

This is a great video clip highlighting Alexander Tsiaras and his work creating beautiful educational videos and interactives from real medical data. Beginning with a New York based company called Anatomical Travelogue, Tsiaras now has branched off and created TheVisualMD, an online database of interactives and articles for the medical education of the general public. He has also published several books, two of which live on my reference shelf: The Invision Guide to a Healthy Heart and The Invision Guide to Lifeblood. The images are really beautiful and I especially love how he takes real photographs and superimposes actual medical data on top to show relationships between the internal body and what you see happening on the outside.  Everything he uses is from real data; nothing is made up or the consequence of artistic license. Here are just a few examples of some of his work:
Alexander Tsiaras, Anatomical Travelogue and TheVisualMD
Alexander Tsiaras, Anatomical Travelogue 

And for an interesting comparison, take a look at this modern image by Alexander Tsiaras (from his book "The Architecture and Design of Man and Woman") constrasted with a piece done in 1774 by Jan van Rymsdyk entitled "The Anatomy of a Human Gravid Uterus":



Alexander Tsiaras, from"The Architecture and Design of Man and Woman"


Smart parasites

Last week Fox's hit edge-of-real-science show Fringe featured a virus that was able to manipulate its host's behavior to ensure it's own survival and dispersal among other individuals. For example, the virus was able to realize when it was being contained and could "think" it's way out of the quarantine by directing it's host to jump out of a window or kill other individuals in an attempt to escape into the outside world. This seemed a little far-fetched at the time, but today I discovered that it really isn't all that far from the truth....

Robert Sapolsky, a professor and biological researcher from Stanford University, has studied many different aspects of neuroscience and the body's response to stress for the past 25 years or so and in this interview goes in to detail about real life parasites that are capable of controlling their host's behavior to a remarkable degree. Maybe they can't make anyone jump off tall buildings but Toxoplasma, for example, which found only n the gut of a cat and in their feces is able to cause rats to suddenly not only ignore their innate fear of the smell of a cat but to actually be attracted to it. Quite an interesting interview. Even though it is a little long, it is worth setting aside 30 min of your day to listen to this guy talk.

As a side note, I saw him speak about "why zebras don't get ulcers" when he came to Lafayette a few years ago. He is an amazing and entertaining public speaker and really seems to do research for the love of discovering new and cool things. In his own words: "I love science, and it pains me to think that so many are terrified of the subject or feel that choosing science means you cannot also choose compassion, or the arts, or be awed by nature. Science is not meant to cure us of mystery, but to reinvent and reinvigorate it."


Incredible high jump

Don't worry about not being able to understand the French. Just watch this video for a minute or so and you will see one of the most incredible horse jumps ever. This fence was set at 2.28 m (nearly 7.5 ft)! If you go to 2:25 minutes in you will see a view from the opposite side of the fence as the horse approaches and you really get a sense for how tall this thing is as the horse and rider nearly disappear and then suddenly rise up and over the fence. Unbelievable!


War Horse

What amazing equine art! The show is called "War Horse" and is based on a book of the same name by Michael Morpurgo which tells the story of WWI through a horse's eyes, a horse who was raised on a private farm, got recruited for the British Cavalry and then was captured by the Germans. The way they created these horses for the stage is really incredible; I can't believe all the coordination involved and how realistic they look when it all comes together. Maybe if the show does well enough in London we'll be lucky enough to see it come to the US. Here's another video that shows a little more behind the scenes: War Horse.

Back in the saddle

Yesterday I went riding for the first time in a week and a half. I actually can't believe it's only been that long, it feels like so much longer. It was only me and Agnes (who was working in the office at the time) so I was free to ride the horses on my own for a few hours and I can honestly say that after only 5 minutes I could feel myself relaxing and feeling much happier. It's amazing what a horse can do :)

On a different note one of the mares, a big black thoroughbred, sliced her hind leg open right above the hoof while in turnout earlier in the day so the vet had to come out and stitch her up while I was there. Now, I would never hope that a horse would get hurt and require vet care, but when it does happen - which, let's admit, happens fairly often since for such big animals they are awfully delicate and accident prone - I am fascinated being there and watching everything.

Once again, I was amazed at how quickly a few cc's of anesthetic can drop a 1300-lb animal; within a minute Ginny was swaying on her feet and had to be supported. I then watched as the vet performed a nerve block and proceeded to wash, shave, wash, shave some more, rinse, poke around (luckily, despite all the blood and chunky tissue, the damage didn't reach the joint) and finally suture up the wound before wrapping it up with gauze and lavender oil (supposedly great for promoting healing, minimizing scars and keeping deep as well as superficial tissues clean and healthy). It made me think that maybe I should go to vet school after all. I'd love to learn all of this stuff and be able to actually get my hands dirty and help. Besides, if I knew how to do it myself I wouldn't have to fork over $500 every time my future horses play a little too rough in the field :)


Goose Island's New Brew

In mid-February Chicago's Goose Island Brewery is introducing a new green beer, and no I don't mean color. It's called Green Line Pale Ale and its goal is to raise awareness about making our planet more "green" and reducing Goose Island's own carbon footprint. I'll be anxious to try the "bright and citrusy" ale, even if it means taking another brewery tour since it is likely this beer will take a little while to debut in most bars. The tour, by the way, I highly recommend. Tours run every Sunday at 3:00 and 4:30 and are a pretty hot commodity (reservations required), but that's not unexpected when you consider that $5 buys you a tour of the brewery, tastings of a selection of quality Goose Island beers and a keepsake pint glass. Definitely on my list of "Things you must do in Chicago." Anyway, if my past experience with Goose Island is any basis for comparison I am sure this new addition to the family will meet expectations, although it will be hard to replace the great all-around 312.

Crazy Chicago

Ok, so this is a bit off topic but as I was waiting for my cup of tea and sandwich at Barista today and skimming through the local paper when I came across an interesting headline: Man bit off cop's nipple. Hmmm. I've heard of the infamous Mike Tyson incident and about irate women who bit off their husbands' penises, but nipples are a new one.

As it turns out there wasn't much more to this story than the headline revealed: upon trying to arrest a Chicago man for inappropriate and drunken behavior a struggle broke out and the man decided his best option for escape was to attack the poor officer with his teeth, effectively slicing through the man's right nipple. Ouch. Although it was still partially (barely) attached when the officer reached the hospital, nipples are such complex little buggers that there was no hope of reattachment without plastic surgery so unfortunately this officer will be left with one less nipple for the rest of his life. Even if it wasn't as small a structure as a nipple, any kind of bite wound makes it infinitely more difficult to reattach a severed body part due to the irregular tearing pattern from teeth and the amount of bacteria that is transferred to the wound from the human mouth.

In the long run, though, does it really matter if this man gets his nipple back? I mean, guys don't really need them....At the very least it will make for an interesting story the next time the man makes an appearance on the beach.


Mona Lisa

Leonardo DaVinci is one of my favorite men in history and I am continually amazed at his contributions and achievements in science and art. The Mona Lisa, perhaps one of his most famous pieces, has been the subject of countless investigations and debates over the years and still remains the center of many unanswered questions. However, one question about her peculiarly enigmatic smile has recently been put to rest: Why does she appear to smile one moment but then that smile fades as soon as you try to examine it up close? Scientists from the Institute of Neuroscience in Alicante, Spain have looked closely into this phenomenon and arrived at a conclusion we all should have expected (after all, this is Leonardo we are talking about): it's science!

When Leonardo painted the image of Mona Lisa, he deliberated painted the edges of her smile in a slightly blurred method known as sfumato while leaving the rest of her mouth in sharp focus. The end result is meant to play with our eyes and the differences between our peripheral vision and central vision within the retina. While the retina allows us to focus directly on objects of interest and thus see them in very high detail, our peripheral vision developed as a way for us to take a general scope of our surroundings. Able to pick up slight movements and changes in our environment as well as general shapes, peripheral vision alerts our brain as to where we should look next but doesn't provide any great focusing ability. By painting the center of Mona Lisa's mouth in clear detail but leaving the edges fuzzy, Leonardo effectively prevents us from seeing the smile when we view the face head on (using our central retinal vision) but allows it to sneak back in when we focus on some other aspect of the piece thus allowing our peripheral vision to take over. Pretty sneaky Leo....

It's too bad that I'm not a professional neuroscientist. These findings were just presented in October of last year at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting in Chicago, and it would have been interesting to go. Click here for more information.


In an attempt to find an article on horse anatomy and conformation that I had read a few months ago, I happened to stumble across these illustrations by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins by accident. They come from a book entitled A Comparative view of the Human and Animal Frame which was published in 1860 and which has now been scanned into a web collection by the University of Wisconsin. I was most interested in the two images involving the horse, shown below, but there are many other interesting illustrations including some comparing humans to elephants, lions, antelope and bears within the collection.

 Source: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections

Of course, browsing through that collection led me to another wonderful find as the University also has a great collection of veterinary illustrations by Hermann Dittrich, a German medical/veterinary illustrator from the early 1900s who I've admired for quite awhile (after all, veterinary illustration is one of my interests). A few of my favorites are shown below but it is definitely worth browsing through the entire collection, especially for anyone interested in veterinary illustration. In addition to the horse, the collection includes illustrations of cows, dogs, lions and deer in some of the most detailed and beautiful veterinary illustrations I've seen (click on the images to view larger).

Source: University of Wisconsin Digital Collections


Eye tests and Alzheimer's

According to a new study by scientists at the University College London, retinal cells may be able to offer an early peek at Alzheimer's disease. Since the retina is a direct extension of the brain these scientists believe that by visualizing dying cells in the retina they may be able to extrapolate what's going on in terms of cell death within the brain. It is an interesting idea, although I'm curious to see what happens once human trials start later this year. Since Alzheimer's doesn't affect the same area of the brain in every individual I wonder how accurate it will be. Also, what about people with conditions like macular degeneration, a common eye disease causing retinal cell death in individuals over 50? If the dyes in this new test for Alzheimer's target dead and dying cells in the retina, couldn't this lead to false positives especially since many older people who would be at risk of Alzheimer's also tend to have retinal degeneration as a result of their age?


Blogger #21,758,493...or something like that

Well I've done it. Like becoming a member of the now ubiquitous Facebook (which I was able to successfully ignore, if only for the first six months of it's existence) I have joined the masses and decided to start a blog. Why did I wait so long (and cringe when anyone would bring it up)?
A) I didn't want a diary.
B) Anti-Peer Pressure. If that's a word. Definitely not one of those to join simply because "everyone else is doing it."
C) I'd rather spend my free time riding horses.

And yet, like Facebook, here I am. Hey, it's networking right?

So I am a medical illustrator, or soon will be, as I plan to graduate in May from the University of Illinois Chicago's program in Biomedical Visualization (MS). I am also an equestrian, a neat freak, a musician, a neuroscience major, an animal-lover, and, frankly, a bit of a nerd. So it will be interesting to see how this turns out. A little of this, a little of that, some art, some humor, some science....Happy reading!