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MU Researcher Uses Movie Magic to Diagnose Deadly Problem In Horses



COLUMBIA, Mo. - In "The Lord of the Rings," Gollum was a computer-generated creature whose movements were created by filming an actor with reflective markers attached to his body. This same technology is being used at the University of Missouri-Columbia's College of Veterinary Medicine to develop a competent test in diagnosing spinal ataxia, which is a symptom of several deadly diseases in horses and can cause lameness.

"Spinal ataxia is the inflammation of the spinal cord and makes the horse uncoordinated, making it very difficult for the horse to walk," said Kevin Keegan, associate professor of veterinary medicine and surgery. "A handful of diseases cause spinal ataxia, but the problem is that spinal ataxia is very difficult to diagnose in its early stages. That is where our computer system helps."

When a horse is admitted to the MU Veterinary Teaching Hospital, Keegan attaches small reflective markers on the horse's body and places it on a treadmill. Once on the treadmill, cameras film the horse from several angles and feed the data into a computer, which analyzes the movement at specific points designated by the markers. Depending on the positions of the markers as the horse moves, the camera can determine if the horse is exhibiting signs of ataxia.

Some of the causes of spinal ataxia include infection of the spinal cord, malformation of the neck vertebrae, the herpes virus and the West Nile virus. When a horse has a severe case of ataxia, it is not difficult for a veterinarian to diagnose the problem. However, when the horse has just started to exhibit small signs of problems, the various tests that are currently available are very expensive, may have some risk to them and may be unreliable, Keegan said.

"We need to have a good, accurate, reliable, diagnostic test as well as an ability to measure improvement," Keegan said. "This computer test we have designed is an objective analysis and takes the subjective nature out of the current testing procedures. So far, we have seen a 100 percent diagnosis rate from the computer on the horses that we have tested."

Keegan has refined the computer system so that only three markers on the horse are needed. The final stage of the project is for Keegan and his research team, composed of undergraduate and graduate students, to create a classification system. Keegan also is working with researchers in the College of Engineering to perfect the computer system. The Morris Animal Foundation is sponsoring the grant.

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