laurie-breen

Laurie Breen

Laurie Breen is a freelance writer well-versed in research communications and grant writing. She received her Bachelors Degree in Psychology from Smith College and has worked previously at the University of Queensland's Centre for Clinical Research in Brisbane, Australia. Her favorite conversational topic is "antibiotic-resistant bacteria," making her a big hit at parties.

The Flu Shot: It’s Not Just About You

It’s that time of year again. The powers that be (a.k.a. the CDC) have hedged their bets on this year’s flu vaccine components, and they will be encouraging patients to get vaccinated before the end of October, so that the body has plenty of time to develop resistance before flu season sets in. For the 2017-2018 flu season, the CDC has recommended that three-component flu vaccines contain the following: – an A/Michigan/45/2015 (H1N1)pdm09-like virus (updated), – an A/Hong Kong/4801/2014 (H3N2)-like virus, and – a B/Brisbane/60/2008-like (B/Victoria lineage) virus. Four-component vaccines are recommended to contain a B/Phuket/3073/2013-like (B/Yamagata lineage) virus. In a deviation from previous years, the CDC recommends against using a nasal spray flu vaccine, also known as the live attenuated flu vaccine (LAIV) due to concerns about effectiveness. Sure, a shot can be a few seconds of pain, but it’s better than being laid out for days if you do contract the flu. For the first time, the CDC has approved a true cell-based candidate vaccine virus, in addition to those traditionally produced using fertilized chickens’ eggs. Many medical practitioners will likely get the flu vaccine, but how do we encourage more patients to get it too? Because the flu is not a reportable disease, the CDC uses modelling to estimate the number of infections each year. They currently estimate that in the U.S., the number of cases has been somewhere between 9.5 million and 35.6 million every year...

Want to Improve Fitness? Make it a Game

From studying, to exercising, to cleaning up, and yes, fitness – how do you make yourself do something that you don’t want to do? Make it a game! Even Mary Poppins tells us that “in every job that must be done, there is an element of fun,” and apps like Streaks are popping up all over the place to make a game out of any mundane activity. But does it work? Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania and Boston University set out to test the theory that participants could be incentivized to increase their physical activity through the gamification of exercise. All participants in the study wore step counters to measure their daily activity and received feedback each day on their achievements. However, those in the intervention group were given the opportunity to earn points and progress through reward levels as they increased their physical activity. Image: Fitbit by Hamaza Butt / CC by 2.0 The designers of the study took special care to incorporate principles from behavioral economics to augment social incentives and overcome participation barriers. Studies have shown that people tend to be more motivated to avoid losses, and that good habits are better sustained with variable reinforcement. Participants were enrolled with their entire families, and asked to sign a commitment pledge to do their best during the trial. Each week the family was awarded 70 points,...

Robot Therapy: Can a Software Program Treat Depression?

Although traditional talk-therapy sessions are conducted face-to-face, advances in smartphone technology and video-calling have significantly altered the age old “therapy couch” model and brought talk therapy into the lives of people who aren’t able to visit a therapist regularly. Further advances in artificial intelligence may mean that someday patients might not need a therapist at all – just a computer program. Image: The Doctor Is In Your Pocket by Juhan Sonin /CC by 2.0 Researchers at Northeastern University in Boston have developed and tested a computer program that directly interacts with patients, in between their regular therapy sessions, that helps to reinforce outcomes from the group therapy and teach techniques to manage stress. Advances in conversational artificial intelligence have enabled computer scientists to develop software programs that interact with patients, either through voice or text, in such a natural way that some patients’ brains respond to these programs the same way they would when talking to a human. These programs are known as “conversational agents,” and they have been particularly successful at psychological evaluations, as studies have shown that patients may be more likely to give open and honest responses when they believe they are speaking to a computer program rather than a human. The researchers at Northeastern found that, when combined with group therapy visits, patients who used the conversational agent along with their group sessions had significantly better...

Drastic Times Call for Drastic Measures: The Opioid Epidemic and the Electronic Health Record

The over-prescription of medication has reached epidemic proportions. While politicians give speeches and draft legislature to address the opioid epidemic, the improper use of prescription medication impacts our society in many ways. For example, when a patient presents with a cold virus and is prescribed an antibiotic “just in case,” not only does the antibiotic cost the patient money, but it will have no effect on the cold virus. On a larger scale, these unnecessary antibiotics may encourage the evolution of antibiotic-resistant superbugs. Most medical practices in America have adopted some sort of electronic health record system, but Americans have resisted a national electronic health record database, citing valid concerns about privacy and government overreach. However, Rumball-Smith et al., argue in JAMA that if carefully implemented and used wisely, the electronic health record (EHR) could address systematic problems when it comes to prescription drugs and “be a powerful vehicle for measurement and intervention around low-value care.” Image by mcfarlandmo / CC by 2.0 So why not implement a national database for electronic health records? The main advantage of this system is also the biggest threat – the ability to track information down the to the individual level presents an opportunity to intervene. But at what cost to privacy? A national EHR could show if a patient was soliciting pain medication from multiple doctors and flag that patient’s record. Or,...

What You Know About Blood Pressure May Be Wrong

Blood pressure measurement is a routine part of nearly every medical examination. Hypertension is one of the biggest cardiovascular risk factors for heart disease, stroke and death. Around 85 million people in the United States have it, which may show no symptoms and go undetected until it is too late. While blood pressure varies throughout the day, a reading of 180 over 110 mmHG or higher could be a sign of hypertensive crisis. Image: Source The most common method for measuring blood pressure around the world is the “brachial cuff method,” which was invented over a century ago. Before 1855, physicians had to puncture an artery and calculated the pressure if the flowing blood using a mercury sphygmomanometer. The first non-invasive technique was invented by Samuel Siegfried Karl Ritter von Basch around 1881, when he came up with the idea to use water, and later air, to restrict blood flow through the arm.  It was further refined by Scipione Riva-Rocci who published “Un nuovo sfigmomanometro” in 1896, which re-incorporated the mercury manometer to von Basch’s technique. Finally, Russian surgeon Nikolai Korotkov added the stethoscope in 1905. The same general technique is used today, either manually or with a digital cuff. However, recent research published in the Journal of American College of Cardiology has found that the cuff method may not accurately measure blood pressure in the mid-range. This study included...

Suffering From Swallowing Disorders? 3D Printing Food Can Help

For those who suffer from swallowing disorders, the options for nutrition are severely limited. In many cases, patients may only tolerate specific textures to ensure adequate nutritional intake and safety. Approximately 1 in 20 Americans have a swallowing disorder, with over 10 million being evaluated for swallowing difficulties each year, according to the National Foundation for Swallowing Disorders. Image: Rainbow 2013-055, Frédérique Voisin-Demery/ CC by 2.0 Speech pathologists generally recommend that patients with dysphagia eat mostly pureed, minced and moist, or soft and bite sized foods, depending on the severity of their condition. Unfortunately, this limits people to foods that may look unappealing, and there is no doubt that eating pureed food all the time can be very boring and repetitive. But the 3D printing industry has a solution – 3D printing food that both looks and tastes appealing. Image: www.wasproject.it  Food created by 3D printers is having a bit of a moment, with restaurants that are incorporating 3D printers into their kitchens, and even some shops and pop-ups serving solely 3D-printed food. However, doctors and speech pathologists envision an entirely different opportunity for 3D-printed food: helping those with dysphagia improve their diet by offering a wider variety of experiences that still suit their condition. Image: Foodink.io By using 3D printers, clinicians see an opportunity to add colors, flavors and an infinite number of ways to present the food at...

Ketamine: The New “Miracle” for Depression?

Although it is known among the general population mostly as a popular party drug, ketamine was originally invented in a commercial laboratory in 1962.  In 1970, it was approved by the FDA for use as an anesthetic among soldiers in the Vietnam War. Non-medical use of ketamine began in the U.S. at roughly the same time, but it wasn’t until 1999 that ketamine became a federally controlled substance in the U.S. Despite its bad rap as a dangerous post-party drug, ketamine is listed as a “core” medicine in the WHO’s Essential Drugs List, as it is produced very cheaply around the world and is fast and effective as an anesthetic for minor procedures. Image: Source However, ketamine is having a new heyday as patients and clinicians are looking to the drug to help treat severe depression. Although it is still considered an “off-label” use of the medication, researchers from the University of New South Wales, in Sydney, Australia, have just completed clinical trials using ketamine to treat depression. Although the initial trial consisted of just 16 senior citizens, the researchers are extremely optimistic about the emerging results, published in the American Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry. Lead Professor Colleen Woo reported to ABC News in Australia that “all the symptoms of depression across the board disappeared. So [the patients] felt better, they were able to enjoy things, they were interested in...

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