Archive for July, 2018

Ensuring your loved ones’ safety doesn’t hang in the balance

Imagine this: You have lots of confidence in your ability to stand on a chair and reach into a cabinet without falling. Now, imagine being even a little bit too confident in that ability.

You could be pretty dangerous, according to Dr. Susan Robinson.

“That’s the person who really has a great risk for falling and injury,” she said.

The perfect thing is the person who has appropriate confidence in their balance and actual abilities.

Robinson, a professor of physical therapy, focuses her research on a variety of areas within the field.

She looks for ways to prevent falls in older adults. Robinson’s also partnering on several projects that examine balance and gait of individuals with vestibular dysfunction, Parkinson’s disease and a variety of other mobility impairments.

Robinson has published 20 articles and abstracts on balance- or rehabilitation-related topics and presented at more than 15 conferences.

Her research includes helping injured musicians who play string instruments get back to performing. She’s also helped people find technology that improves their gait. But helping people improve their balance – and ultimately their safety – is where her work really shines.

Dr. Susan Robinson working with a patient

Dr. Susan Robinson fits a patient in a harness for the Bertec Balance Advantage, which uses virtual reality to measure balance. Photo by Kevin White

Stopping expensive accidents before they happen

The vestibular system is part of the inner-ear system.  It works with your vision and proprioception, or awareness of body position, to maintain your balance.

If a person loses some of the information provided by these three systems, it can lead to falls. That can lead to expensive stays in hospitals due to hip fractures or other injuries.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), falls cost Medicare more than $31 billion in 2015. The average hospital cost for fall-related injuries is more than $30,000 and the estimated lifetime cost of a hip fracture is more than $80,000.

It’s so valuable if you can see that someone’s at risk for falling and do something to intervene. You can prevent a fall and a hip fracture, which costs the health system an incredible amount.

Robinson and Dr. Jason Shaw, an assistant professor of physical therapy, took their show on the road to help people improve their balance.

For the past eight years, Robinson, other MSU physical therapy faculty members, and MSU physical therapy students have participated in a nationwide annual Fall Prevention Awareness Day at local senior citizen centers and independent living facilities in the Springfield area. One stop led to an interesting discovery.

“I looked over, and Dr. Shaw had the physical therapy student holding onto the gait belt while guarding the person being tested,” Robinson said, noting that caregivers place a gait belt on patients with balance or mobility issues as they transfer from one location or position to another. “I told him, ‘Don’t let them hold the gait belt. That’ll change the score.’ And he says, ‘I don’t think it’ll change the score.’” 

They performed the gait assessment with hands-on and off the gait belt.  

In this study, participants’ perceptions of their balance and actual balance scores agreed. There was not a significant difference between Shaw guarding the person while holding and not holding onto the gait belt.

“Her work could have a profound effect on patient safety when testing balance,” Shaw said.

Dr. Susan Robinson listening to patient

Using technology, like the Bioness system, Dr. Susan Robinson has seen great improvements in those with impaired gait. Photo by Kevin White

What lies ahead

The meaning of the project is significant. As a result, it warrants further study, Robinson said. She and Shaw will take the experiment further.

They want to know if there’s a difference in balance scoring between guarding by a physical therapist with Shaw’s expertise, and a physical therapy student doing the same.

“When you’re a physical therapist in a clinic and don’t know a patient’s abilities, you’re going to be safer if you have a hand on the gait belt while guarding a patient,” Robinson said. “But you don’t want to change their score, so I think that’s really an interesting project.”

Read the leaves: How plants respond to the world

At Bull Shoals Field Station, Dr. Alexander Wait examines the forest floor. He looks for flowers, leaves and acorns. They reveal trends in temperature fluctuation and precipitation as well as the effects of prescribed burning, which tells him about the health of a forest.

Wait, professor of biology, studies how plants respond to environmental variation. It’s been his focus for 20 years.

“We learn about how fire, temperature and light affect physiological processes – like photosynthesis,” said Wait. “And ultimately we can show how multiple factors affect not just this tree, but an entire forest or the whole ecosystem.”

Small research team walking along a path in the woods

Photo by Kevin White


His research team investigates many variables that affect plant growth. He said, at its core, the research is important because plants are the base of all terrestrial food chains.

Usually when I’m coming into a project, it’s because somebody wants to know the why.

For example, 25 percent of all consumer products now contain materials referred to as engineered nanomaterials, ENMs. So in 2013, Wait joined other faculty from Missouri State University’s College of Natural and Applied Sciences to develop the Carbon Nanotube Life Cycle Working Group.

One of his collaborators is Dr. Laszlo Kovacs, geneticist and biology professor. They are investigating how nanoparticles – which will enter systems through the landfills or when washed down the drain – may be toxic to plants and insects.

“While these materials may have been proven safe as integrated components of electronics, cosmetics or clothing, their physicochemical characteristics change when they are released to the environment,” said Kovacs. “Their safety to plants, animals and microbes may not be guaranteed any longer.”

Wait notes that insurance companies are driving this need to know.

Aerial view of people walking along a path in the woods

Photo by Chris Nagle

Mustard and moths

To understand the impact, Wait and Kovacs used Arabidopsis, a plant in the mustard family that is commonly used in plant genetic and physiological research. They grew the plants in media containing engineered carbon nanotubes.

Then Wait measured the plants’ physiological responses using a gas exchange system. He tested to discover if the ENMs caused an imbalance in the plants’ carbon and nitrogen ratio, whether the stomates closed up (making photosynthesis impossible) or otherwise affected a plant’s physiology.

In the gas exchange chamber, which mimics the exact environmental conditions of the growth chamber, the plants showed only minimal signs of reduced photosynthesis and growth from engineered carbon nanoparticles.

“I measure the plants’ photosynthetic rates. Then I change the light carbon dioxide concentration and elucidate the mechanisms affecting photosynthesis,” said Wait.

Then Wait studied how diamondback moths are affected by directly feeding on the ENMs or how they were affected when exposed to the Arabidopsis grown in the nanoparticles.

The carbon nanotubes didn’t deter the insects from the food – Arabidopsis is the feast of choice for this type of moth – and didn’t kill them either. Wait noted that the moths continued to go through metamorphosis and grow into adults.

But the moths’ reproductive abilities were reduced by 50 percent. Also, the moths ate more but weren’t growing as well due to diminished food quality.

The entire genome of both the Arabidopsis and diamondback moth have been sequenced, which means Wait and Kovacs were able to identify how genes were affected by the exposure.

“We expect to identify a set of genes that change their expression when the plants are exposed to engineered nanomaterials,” Kovacs added, “and at what concentrations these ENMs are harmful to plants.”

Person holding a densiometer

Photo by Kevin White

Setting the standard

Previous studies of how these nanoparticles decompose and affect plants have yielded inconsistent results.

“There was a study that showed that if you put carbon nanotubes in the soil, you could increase the size of a melon like 20 or 30 percent. Others have shown that it’s toxic at the seedling stage, but the concentrations vary a lot,” said Wait.

Wait hopes their experiments establish a standard protocol for evaluating toxicity. He and Kovacs are writing standard operating procedures for screening nanoparticles for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Wait has had three graduate students complete theses on this research, and they are in the process of submitting their research results to scientific journals.

Dr. Alexander Wait with research team

Photo by Kevin White

The silver tests

Now, Wait and Kovacs are conducting similar experiments using silver nanotubes, which are often found in antibiotics.

Even in the early stages of the experiment, it was obvious the silver nanotubes were having a much more detrimental impact and turning on and off genes in the plant and moth.

“The silver nanotubes are found in antibiotics and silver kills bacteria, which is good,” said Wait. “We’re trying to find out at what concentration consumption is affected? Growth? Does it affect pupation? Does it affect survivorship?”

With an estimated 100,000 tons of waste in the landfill containing nanomaterials, this research of engineered nanoparticles in the environment is growing in importance.

“It is not only important to know that products are safe during their service life to consumers,” said Kovacs, “but that they are safe after they are disposed or released to the environment.”

Further reading

Explore courses in biology