Who knew that scientists are curing paralysis with olfactory mucosa transplantation, or that those afflicted with bipolar disorder tend to demonstrate high levels of creativity?
During a recent science colloquium, students presented information about those two topics, and another student spoke about Savant Syndrome, in which people demonstrate unusual aptitudes such as effortlessly computing lengthy calculations in their minds.
Payson High School physics teacher Andrew Fiala organized the three-day event that featured nine presentations.
On Thursday, about 30 students attended, many of them for extra credit, but teachers said they were pleased with the attendance.
“I was thrilled to have so many people out to support their fellow students,” said Fiala. Teachers said they will continue the program next year.
Students found current research that interested them, and then developed 15-minute presentations including videos and power points, and handed out an informational pamphlet.
Senior Aman Sharma spoke first about the research involving stem cells, which scientists are now using to cure paralysis and even grow hearts.
Stem cells divide infinitely, and can evolve into any type of cell. Of two types, embryonic stem cells are more controversial because they come from embryos.
However, the embryos used come from eggs fertilized in vitro, and Sharma said the embryos would be discarded if not used for science.
The other type, adult stem cells, divide on a more limited basis, and so researchers are working to find better ways to grow and manipulate them.
With the embryonic cells, scientists have built a heart using a rat heart as a base. Current research is focused on building a pig heart, which has four chambers like a human heart, and could be used for transplants.
Ultimately, researchers hope the cells could be used to grow other organs — a liver, pancreas, kidney or lung.
“It’s really been science fiction in the past,” said a voice on a video Sharma showed. But yesterday’s science fiction is tomorrow’s reality.
To cure paralysis, scientists in other countries have converted nasal stem cells into nerve cells. The procedure, called olfactory mucosa transplantation, has not been approved in the United States because of the stem cell controversy. However, Sharma said the government could approve it in another five or six years.
Elizabeth Luna presented on Savant Syndrome, and showed a video where a gentleman with the disorder multiplied 37 by itself four times in his head. Then, he divided 13 by 97 and rattled off more decimal places than even the computer provided.
“Who wouldn’t want to be a genius, right?” Luna asked. Three types of savants exist, one of them so-called prodigious savants in which people are considered brilliant in comparison to a person without a disability. Just 100 of these individuals exist worldwide. Most savants have a disability.
About half of savants have autism, but just one-tenth of autistics are savants.
Another gentleman named Stephen Wiltshire, who Luna profiled, could fly over a city for 40 minutes, and then draw what he saw in detail — including the exact number of buildings with the correct number of windows.
Savants can have musical or artistic gifts, they might be able to tell which day of the week random dates fall on, or exhibit special mechanical skills. The talents are effortless, and don’t require classes, education or practice.
Michelle Daniels presented the link between mental illness and creativity. People with affective disorders have been shown to be 120 percent more creative in studies, and bipolar disorder and clinical depression were the prevailing disorders.
Many famous creators, including Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of Nirvana who killed himself; F. Scott Fitzgerald, who penned The Great Gatsby; and John Nash, who inspired the film “A Beautiful Mind,” all had mental illness. Daniels said authors are most susceptible to mental illness.
Daniels mentioned one study that studied people after putting them in both socially accepting situations and in rejecting situations. After each scenario, the people created something, and judges ultimately found the pieces created after the rejecting situation more creative.
“They’ve already been rejected by society,” said Daniels. Once rejected, the people just create.
Artists feel the link between mental illness and creativity so intensely that many refuse to take medication for fear of killing the muse.
“Take Vincent Van Gogh,” said Daniels. “He cut off his ear. That’s crazy.” But had Van Gogh taken medication and saved his ear, perhaps the world would not have “Starry Night” to admire.