Mechanisms of the special neurologic destruction caused by blast injuries

This is absolutely thrilling:
“Bioengineers identify the cellular mechanisms of traumatic brain injury; New hope for treatment of TBI in veterans wounded by explosions”
http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110722213427.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily%2Fmind_brain+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Mind+%26+Brain+News%29

These scientists discovered the answers to two frustrating questions that have been blocking effective treatment of blast-related head injuries (TBI, or Traumatic Brain Injuries.)

1. What happens to the brain’s axons? Why do the vital communication-arms of the brain’s nerve cells just disappear?

2. Why does TBI from explosions cause the brain’s blood vessels to shut down and turn themselves off, even though the the injury doesn’t seem that bad?

The horrific health cost to our soldiers on active duty has included being blasted by explosives. These cause profound and persistent brain injuries that seem too severe for the amount of shock experienced by the brain.

1. The axons are part of an interlocked structure that’s woven together by cells and intracellular “glues.” This structure is shaken apart by explosive shock. Axons have to release their connections and shrink, retreating into the body of the cell. This destroys the physical functional structure of the brain. The person instantly loses memories and processing power, as well as a pervasive host of brain tasks.

2. The vessels undergo a mechanical stretch caused by the explosive force pushing through the gelatinous mass of the brain, and then, as a result of that stretch, they become super-sensitive to the chemical messenger that tells them to snap shut and then stop acting like vessels at all.
Normally, #2 only happens in the case of severe hemorrhagic (that is, bleeding) stroke. However, we now know that it also happens in blast injuries that otherwise cause less apparent damage.
Clinical note: Blast injuries to the brain are uniquely insidious. They cause diffuse injury that’s invisibly disabling and incredibly hard to manage, let alone recover from significantly. Behavioral issues and so forth are mechanically and chemically imposed on the soldier’s brain; they are not wilful choices on the soldier’s part.

A lot of fundamental retraining has to be done, because emotional, cognitive and social skills have to be significantly rebuilt and rewired. The wiring that the soldier has built on since childhood has been torn up on duty.

Thanks to our present understanding of neuroplasticity, there’s hope and a path to develop, but it takes time. On top of psychological trauma and the damage that causes to the amygdala and sometimes the hippocampus, it’s a hell of a lot for any layperson to grasp, let alone try to handle.

One of the truly thrilling things about these findings is the discovery of a process that keeps the axons from pulling back in the first place. At present, it works in a Petrie dish if given within 10 minutes of injury; hard to see how that could work in combat.

If it could be formulated to be used in a person, it would still have to be administered extremely fast. Maybe send each soldier out with an inhaler of the stuff? Or a nose spray? A 50-cent bottle apiece to save millions in treatment, lost wages, cost of care, incidental costs on the family, for each injured soldier. Seems like a bargain!

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Chronic pain in homeless people not managed well

Today’s very promising applicant for the Dept. of the Blitheringly Obvious: “Chronic pain in homeless people not managed well”:
> http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/07/110721112613.htm?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+sciencedaily%2Fmind_brain+%28ScienceDaily%3A+Mind+%26+Brain+News%29
My cynical side is just delighted that people got paid to write that down in black and white. Smacken zie forehead.

For a change, I’m going to ignore the disingenuous and smug language putting inappropriate blame on the patient, because there’s so much basic information missing.

As anyone who has been homeless or worked with the homeless knows, indigence involves the following facts of life:

- Assuming you can even get to treatment sites …
- Doctors won’t take you.
- Hospitals don’t want you.
- Clinics can rarely fit you in.
- Pharmacies hate to see you — a gaping well of need — coming through the door.

And that’s just the medical side. In regular life,

- There’s no decent surface to lie down on.
- There’s rarely a good way to get clean.
- The concept of “good food” is irrelevant. You have to eat what you can get, regardless of whether it triggers a flare or messes with your brain, and are expected to be grateful.
- If you’re a woman or a kid alone, you’re going to wake up with some guy on top of you. This is very bad for back and hip pain, among other things.

Facts you should know:

- Being homeless is a perfect recipe for mental ill-health.
- Disabled people are over 10x more likely to be homeless than their equally-educated & -skilled cohorts.
- Chronic pain is part of most disabling conditions.
- Because of the economy, and despite the masses of money floating around in the stratosphere, disability and indigence are hitting historic highs.

Clinical take-aways:

- Take note of the link on the right to contact your political representatives. Let them know how you’d like the situation to change.
- ALWAYS ask indigents about pain: what, where, when, exacerbates, what they do about it, & most importantly, what they’d like to be able to do about it. Answers to the last will surprise you, because most of these people aren’t stupid. (Just weird.)
- Provide freebies, including toothbrushes and emesis basins. What they can’t use, they can barter with.
- When prescribing, be as generous with free samples as your drug reps’ handoffs permit. Your insured patients only need enough to get started; your impoverished patients need to get so used to feeling better that they’ll prioritize accordingly (beg, borrow & steal for their scrip instead of their booze? It happens.)

Keep in mind that a few days’ relief is just a break, but a few weeks’ relief lets them start to function for a change. Some will abuse your kindness, but big deal.

The rest will take the opportunity of having their burden lifted a little, to move forward in a way they couldn’t do before. And thus a good deed goes onward, invisible to you but not to those ahead.

Make it a habit. Eventually, you’ll see it come back to you. The feeling when it does is indescribable.

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News flash: the gut and brain are connected!

The obvious scatological humor will be left alone. Guys, you know what I mean. (Girls who were outnumbered by your brothers, you too.)

I started to blog this article because the forehead-smacking tone of the revelation that the gut might relate to the brain was a bit too much for me. On closer examination, it looks like the misplaced drama is the writer’s, not the scientists’.

One of the places where serotonin is released is in the gut, where it helps digest proteins. That’s the most obvious “duh” moment here. Moreover, as those of us who remember our embryology know, the inter-relationships and constant correspondence between neurology and gut, gut and immunity, immunity and endocrine system, endocrine and neurological system are all too intense and interlocked for words.

Most studies make brutally clear that these so-called systems are medically treated as separate and distinct, but our bodies never got that memo. It’s all the same system, as far as the body is concerned.

Much of this researcher’s recent work focuses on neurology of the gut — enteric neurology. It’s a real thing now. His prior work focused on the biological environment in the gut, or the intestinal microbiota.

// START Word geek goes wild:
Sometimes, I just love medical terminology for the way it rolls, hops, and bounces off the tongue. Enteric neurology. Intestinal microbiota. Hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis.

Maybe that last one doesn’t work so well.
// END Word geeking.

If you can stand the medical and chemical jargon, it’s worth looking into some of his work. It’s probably not a stretch to call it prescient, in that it is likely to lay the foundations for our emerging understanding of the gut as a more complex and self-managing, yet interlocked, set of systems than we’ve ever imagined before.

I can’t find the original science article, just this unsatisfactory and superficial overview. It says that intestinal microbiota affect the person’s mood and feelings, and that it’s possible to deliver specific probiotics (like yogurt species, naturally-fermented cole slaw, certain cheeses and the like) in order to have a specific benefit to the neurological system.

If you were an empiricist, like me, it would sound like “eating good, living food leads to better mental health,” which healers have been saying for millenia. But far be it from me to steal such well-researched thunder.

Link list:

Science Daily article:
A Gut-Full of Probiotics for Your Neurological Well-Being

Credentials of lead researcher, Prof. Lyte:
Mark Lyte, Ph.D., M.S., MT (ASCP)

Wikipedia’s digest (sic) of the enteric nervous system (this seems basically congruent with the uber-geeky medical studies I looked at on the subject, so I accept it as a decent primer):
Enteric Nervous System

Couldn’t find a good overview that didn’t involve more dead rodents than I could, er, stomach.

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Proportional monocytes and CRPS, translated

Today’s translation from medspeak to English: Inflammatory white blood cells and inflammatory nerve cells, in relation to CRPS.

Elevated blood levels of inflammatory monocytes (CD14+ CD16+ ) in patients with complex regional pain syndrome

Here’s what the jargon means.
// ed. note: my comments and clarifications are picked out by those two slashes and the contraction for “editorial notation.”

One important factor in CRPS is inflammation that starts in the nerves. Microglia and astrocytes, which are the inflammatory and immune cells of the nervous system, get active enough to cause worse pain by themselves.

That’s a sparking astrocyte. Pretty, eh?

// ed. note:  The inflammatory and immune responses are mixed blessings throughout the body.  An immune response is uncomfortable; think about the last time you had the flu — sucked, huh?  An inflammatory response can cause pain due solely to the inflammation, like with some kinds of arthritis.  So, for the microglia and astrocytes to make pain worse is not a surprise, since that’s what immune response and inflammation can do anywhere.

One type of immune cells normally floating in your blood, called monocytes, can get into the brain and spinal cord and turn themselves into the nervous system’s immune cells, microglia. The added level of inflammatory/immune response leads to more pain.

// ed. note: Again, not as strange as it sounds.  The body’s living cells all contain complete DNA, and they are designed to be both helpful and appropriate; heart cells transplanted into muscles become muscle cells, and muscle cells transplanted in the heart become very much like heart cells.  So, for this type of small white blood cells to turn into microglia is reasonable.

These are microglia in various active states.

// ed. note: The inflammatory response releases cytokines.  Cytokines are the chemical widgets, produced in inflammation, that serve as the chemical messengers running around the cells screaming that the sky is falling.  Some cytokines increase inflammatory pain, some cytokines reduce it.

This study looked for particular kinds of inflammatory monocytes in the blood, to test the assumption that higher levels of these particular types of monocytes (which can then turn into microglia, making the inflammation and pain worse, etc.) are related specifically to CRPS.

Now here’s the fun part.  The basic blood-borne indicators of inflammation and illness were no different in those with CRPS than in normal people. That’s why conventional lab results, like “complete” blood counts, come back normal for us.  However, the proportion of the particular types of monocytes associated with CRPS, were significantly higher in those with CRPS.  The type of cytokine that reduces inflammatory pain, was also significantly lower in people with CRPS.

That means the inflammatory process screws us coming and going, and screws specifically us, the people with CRPS, in ways that can be checked in a lab.

OK, GTK.

These are sensible scientists: they state that they don’t know if the monocyte proportions changed before or after the onset of CRPS, or both before and after.  If before, it might indicate a predisposition to CRPS, in which case surgeries and accidents have to be handled with specific care for antioxidant therapy and aggressive pain control. If after, it might be relevant in figuring out how things are going and if what the doc is doing works.

Also, some drug company could make a staggering fortune off of new meds that mess with this process. They actually mention that at the end of the article, which means someone has to fund their work.

// ed. note: Be fair. We have a profit-based health care system driven by enormous corporations that are traded on the stock exchange, and the Sarbanes-Oxley laws mean that their first obligation is to their shareholders. Not patients. Not customers. But shareholders.

Conventional medicine has to come back to profitability.  There are more direct ways to address these immune and inflammatory issues by existing means, which could be further developed, but they don’t sustain the pharma industry’s usual annual returns of 20-40% — a rate of stock profitability matched only by oil companies.

… On your pain.

If you have something to say about that, you can contact your political representatives here: http://www.usa.gov/Contact/Elected.shtml

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Hemingway: How courage and depression go together

This article is well-intended, but egregiously judgmental and woefully ignorant:

http://www.npr.org/2011/07/02/137540700/after-50-years-remembering-hemingways-farewell

If it weren’t for the inane babble puzzling over why Hemingway lived so intensely, this line would be the Winner of The Most Fatuous Statement award: 
“…in January 1961 he told his wife, Mary, that he could no longer write a single good sentence. And Hemingway would only settle for great ones.”
It wasn’t a question of settling for less than great, it was a question of how important it is to fulfill your purpose and dig some meaning out of life, even amid the unbearable. That purpose and meaning was taken from him, under the mistaken guise of treatment. 
Hemingway got electroshock therapy for his depression; a common side effect is to knock out your language abilities and cognition, sometimes for months and sometimes forever. The one thing that made his life endurable — writing like himself — was taken from him. 
Depressed people have more courage and determination than their non-depressed cohorts. Studies are finally being funded that verify this (which I’ll dig up later. Feel free to nudge me with a comment.) 
Think about that next time you curl your lip over suicide. It’s not about courage. It’s about unbearable pain and a degree of mental crippling that puts a valid life out of reach. 

Waiting and working at it until things improve is a reasonable thing to do: Hemingway waited and worked at it for  40 years, though with so little real hope for treatment. Talk about courage! It’s unthinkable how much courage he brought to bear on his life. His intensity and wild behavior were directly related to making his life bearable — and his work more compelling. Check his quoted remarks on that subject. What’s between the lines is breathtaking. 


The article’s remark about suicidal lineage is true, but poorly understood. A suicide in the family has the powerful effect of making suicide less unthinkable. There is often a genetic tweak associated with it, but that’s not all there is. The thing to know now is, we are not our predecessors; we can do more. Far more. 
Hemingway died before we developed SSRIs, SNRIs, and a tremendously improved understanding of neurochemistry, behavior, nutrition and psychodynamics. We have more options now. Lots more. Waiting and working at it is a real success path now. 
Be good to your depressed friends. You probably have no idea what they’re capable of, when they can be well again. Help them persist. 
It’s the most important thing to do: persist. A valid and bearable life is a reasonable thing to hold out for. Only death bars the door to healing. Things will change. 
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