Month: February 2016

The Four Seasons for Brain research

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Next month, on Easter Sunday 27th March, RIDT will be presenting Vivaldi’s famous violin concertos The Four Seasons in aid of brain research, featuring internationally acclaimed violinist Carmine Lauri under the direction of Michael Laus. RIDT CEO Wilfred Kenely speaks about the relationship between art and fundraising for research. (This article featured in First Magazine, February 2016)

Wilfred KenelySome months ago, researchers and academics from a number of departments and faculties of the University of Malta set up the Malta Neuroscience Network. This includes scientists working in pathology, anatomy, clinical medicine, psychology, ICT, cognitive science and other areas related to brain activity. These people are conducting research in their respective area of brain study. Some of the research covers more than one area, thus cutting across multiple departments and faculties.

The brain is perhaps the most complex machine that we can find in the entire world, and scientists all over the world have always been keen to decipher how it works. Science has come a long way in this regard and today we know much more than, say, 50 years ago, but there is still a lot that we don’t know and that’s why we need to keep investing in research.

Between the 14 and 20 March, the Malta Neuroscience Network joins the international community to celebrate the Brain Awareness WeekTogether with the other activities to be held during this week, RIDT is organising this concert as part of the awareness raising for brain research.

We believe that in order to promote top-notch science and research we should have top-
notch events and so we asked two internationally acclaimed artists – violinist Carmine Lauri and conductor Michael Laus – to support our event and are very honoured that they obliged. The performance will be supported by a 14-piece string ensemble that is also made up of some of the best musicians currently based in Malta.

Through this fund raising event we would like to Poster 4 seasons Carmine Laurigive people the opportunity to enjoy a lovely evening of the beautiful music of The Four Seasons performed by some of our best talent, and at the same time contributing to our cause. I believe this is a win-win opportunity.

This concert is supported by APS Banks and the ADRC Foundation. They have given their financial support through which we can cover all our organisational expenses, making it possible for all our proceeds to go towards our goal. We also received the support of the Malta Philharmonic Orchestra, who is providing the harpsichord to be used in the concert together with logistical support.

The RIDT is continuously reaching out to attract more and more funding for research. We would like to reach a stage where all sectors – industry NGO’s and individuals – will consider supporting research when considering making a philanthropic contribution. Similarly, we would like to see more and more companies include support for research in their CSR programmes.

There is no arguing about the fact that we, as a country, are always ready to support a good cause. The RIDT strongly believes that university research deserves to be considered as another good cause that merits our support. What lies ahead is not for the RIDT but for the whole nation. An investment in research is an investment in our future.

Booking for The Four Seasons is open. Tickets are available from St James Cavalier tel: 21223216 or online by clicking here.



The Power of ‘Sahhtek’ – a national survey on diabetes

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With the third-ever national diabetes survey now underway, the Head of the Department of Public Health at the University of Malta, Dr Julian Mamo, explains just how important the data collected will be to the nation’s well-being.

Julian Mamo
Dr Julian Mamo

Diabetes is a metabolic disease many of us have heard of and discussed. That should come as no surprise since Malta has among the highest prevalence of diabetes in the Mediterranean, with around 38,000 people estimated to suffer from the affliction at any one time – more than 9% of the population and growing, in fact.

Even so, surveys about the disease are rare and, to date, only two large ones have been performed: One in 1963, which was coordinated by Dr Joe Zammit Maempel and funded by the Royal University of Malta, and another between 1981 and 1982, backed by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“The first one was an early attempt at measuring how common the disease was, though the methodology that followed does not allow one to conclude this,” explains Dr Julian Mamo, the Head of the Department of Public Health at the University of Malta. “The second had more recent science behind it as well as the backing of the WHO. This provided better information.

“However, since 1982, the population of Malta has changed in many ways. We have become more multicultural, with many people of different ethnicities and from various countries living here. In addition, recent years have seen Malta’s population become increasingly older and more overweight – both of which affect the frequency of diabetes,” he continues.

Now, Dr Sarah Cuschieri, under the supervision of Dr Mamo, has undertaken the titanic task of conducting a national survey and to determine the most recent prevalence of the disease in Malta (proportion at each age and gender group) and understand how gender, lifestyle, diet, blood pressure, being overweight, genetics and other factors affect the disease. (View an earlier blog  dedicated to Dr Cuschieri on the The Quest to Quantify Diabetes).

“Dr Cuschieri showed me her initial PhD proposal four years ago, and seeing the determination and capacity of her will, the idea behind Saħħtek was born,” says Dr Mamo. “Our first problem, so to speak, was that of getting different experts onboard. Now, apart from myself working on epidemiology, there is Professor Josanne Vassallo working on diabetes and Dr Neville Calleja working on medical statistics. Professor Alex Felice and Dr Nikolai Pace from the databank are our experts from the genetics side

“The pilot for this project was launched in September 2014,” adds Dr Mamo, “and we’ve just made our changes and set off on the main fieldwork.  Dr Cuschieri finished the data collection phase last November with a total of 47% of the selected applicants (or approximately 1,800 people) responding to the call. That’s 7% more than the expected average – which was very good, especially given the fact that blood is also taken and that this puts many off.”

Sarah Cuschieri
Dr Sarah Cuschieri

In order to ensure that the study truly reflects the population of Malta, Dr Cuschieri and her team went to numerous local clinics all over Malta and Gozo, calling up selected applicants from the locality to attend for their appointment.

“One thing that hasn’t changed since 1963 is the reliance on University rather than national resources,” explains Dr Mamo. “Dr Zammit Maempel’s survey was funded mostly by the (then Royal) University of Malta – as is ours. We did, however, get the support of the hospital lab and the use of the local clinics all over Malta (the Bereġ). In fact, because funding is not easy, Dr Cuschieri is conducting the Oral Glucose Tolerance tests, as well as much of the genetic tests herself.

“Thankfully, this project has been greatly supported by medical students at UoM, who helped us collect the data. In fact, Dr Cuschieri has had a dedicated group who remained with her for a year and a half. We are also very grateful to several companies who have donated money to make this possible.”

As Dr Mamo tells us, this project has cost in access of €330,000; €200,000 of which came directly from University (various sources) and with the Alf Mizzi Foundation as a major funder. Several others lent their support, headed by the Atlas Insurance investing heavily in the project. Even so, this still wasn’t enough to completely fund the project, but following a meeting with Mr Wilfred Kennely, the CEO of RIDT, Dr Mamo and Dr Cuschieri got the final amount that was required to kick-start this project.

“While I feel happy to have set things off by appointing Dr Cuschieri in this direction, it is still a dream come true for me. This epidemiological project will be a great gift to Malta in the years to come, particularly for the healthcare sector, as we need to make policies based on up-to-date evidence and this project is a step in that direction.

“Dr Sarah Cuschieri has very ably led the survey and, together, we have overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles to see it through. I believe that public health in Malta owes much to the sheer strength, determination, energy and perseverance of Dr Sarah Cuschieri,” Dr Mamo concludes.

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research through the Research Trust (RIDT).


The Real Telekinesis

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What would have once seemed like an object straight out of a sci-fi film, is now a device that could help millions. Here, Professor Kenneth P Camilleri gives us an exclusive insight into the Brain-Machine Interface and how Malta is furthering the study.

Prof Ing Kenneth Camilleri

The human body is an amazing machine; one that does so much with very little thought or effort. Yet some of the things that are crucial in shaping and defining our individual reality, are often the things we take for granted.

Think for a second about the fact that you can read this. Your eyes are bending light and creating an image that your brain can read without a second thought. Think, also, of the fact that you are now breathing, thinking, digesting and pumping blood without making much of it. But how often do we stop and think what would happen if that had to stop?

Much like the aforementioned examples, communication and control are two devices most of us use in our daily lives. We pick things up, get dressed, hold a fork and clean ourselves, all this by using our hands which we have the the ability to control through our brain. And what about putting our point across? We talk, type and gesticulate continually.

For some people, however, that is impossible. But a new machine is now set to change all that.

“A Brain-Machine Interface (BMI) gives a person the ability to communicate with and control machines using brain signals instead of peripheral muscles,” explains Professor Kenneth P Camilleri, from the Department of Systems and Control Engineering who, along with his team, has been working on developing new algorithms to extract useful information from the brain signals.

“BMIs allow people with severely restricted mobility to control devices around them, increasing the level of independence and improving their quality of life,” he continues. “Moreover, BMIs may also be used by healthy individuals in various industries, such as in gaming, as an alternative means of communication and control. And they are expected to become ubiquitous in the future, too.”

The way these machines work is quite simple in theory: By acquiring the electrical brain activity using electroencephalography (EEG) electrodes (such as those evoked by flickering visual stimuli), BMIs can then translate that information into a concrete actions, such as switching on a television set, or typing on a computer.

“We have developed BMIs whereby flickering visual stimuli are associated to commands, and the EEG signals are processed to detect the command associated to the brain pattern,” continues Professor Camilleri. “We have applied our BMI work totechnology_04_1_temp-1335791250-4f9e8e92-620x348 three different practical applications that demonstrate their effectiveness, namely as a Brain-Controlled Music Player (dubbed the ‘Walnut’), a brain-controlled motorised bed, and a brain-controlled keyboard.

“Moreover, Maltese researchers’ experience and growing interest in BMIs provide an opportunity to innovate and break new ground in this area,” he adds. “We have been studying computational methods to process brain signals acquired from the scalp for over 12 years, and we have developed new algorithms that may extract useful information from the brain’s signals.”

Among the many individuals working with Professor Camilleri, are Dr Tracey Camilleri and Dr Owen Falzon, both of whom are contributing to this work on Brain-Machine Interfaces. In addition, Dr Tracey Camilleri also supervised Ms Rosanne Zerafa, who worked on the brain-controlled music player, while Dr Owen Falzon supervised Mr Norbert Gauci on the brain-controlled motorised bed.

As RIDT, we are now trying to get funding for this fantastic research because, as Professor Camilleri puts it, “Projects such as these require a lot of money, particularly for more research resources for this activity and to recruit doctoral students and postdoctoral researchers to work in this area.”

The work now continues, but one thing’s for certain: No one knows what the future of BMIs will hold, but if the past is of any guarantee, we can safely assume that it will be extraordinary.

You too can be part of this fascinating world of research by supporting researchers in all the faculties of the University of Malta. Please click here for more information on how to donate to research of this kind through the Research Trust (RIDT).