Category: Science


Mushroom

A mushroom-shaped sea animal discovered off the Australian coast has defied classification in the tree of life. A team of scientists at the University of Copenhagen says the tiny organism does not fit into any of the known subdivisions of the animal kingdom. Such a situation has occurred only a handful of times in the last 100 years.

The organisms, which were originally collected in 1986, are describedin the academic journal Plos One. The authors of the article note several similarities with the bizarre and enigmatic soft-bodied life forms that lived between 635 and 540 million years ago – the span of Earth history known as the Ediacaran Period.

These organisms, too, have proven difficult to categorise and some researchers have even suggested they were failed experiments in multi-cellular life. The authors of the paper recognise two new species of mushroom-shaped animal: Dendrogramma enigmatica and Dendrogramma discoides. Measuring only a few millimetres in size, the animals consist of a flattened disc and a stalk with a mouth on the end.

During a scientific cruise in 1986, scientists collected organisms at water depths of 400m and 1,000m on the south-east Australian continental slope, near Tasmania. But the two types of mushroom-shaped organisms were recognised only recently, after sorting of the bulk samples collected during the expedition. “Finding something like this is extremely rare, it’s maybe only happened about four times in the last 100 years,” said co-author Jorgen Olesen from the University of Copenhagen.

He told BBC News: “We think it belongs in the animal kingdom somewhere; the question is where.”

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For the first time, an international team of neuroscientists has transmitted a message from the brain of one person in India to the brains of three people in France.

telepathy

The team, which includes researchers from Harvard Medical School’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, the Starlab Barcelona in Spain, and Axilum Robotics in France, has announced today the successful transmission of a brain-to-brain message over a distance of 8,000 kilometres. 

“We wanted to find out if one could communicate directly between two people by reading out the brain activity from one person and injecting brain activity into the second person, and do so across great physical distances by leveraging existing communication pathways,” said one of the team, Harvard’s Alvaro Pascual-Leone in a press release. “One such pathway is, of course, the Internet, so our question became, ‘Could we develop an experiment that would bypass the talking or typing part of internet and establish direct brain-to-brain communication between subjects located far away from each other in India and France?’”

The team achieved this world-first feat by fitting out one of their participants – known as the emitter – with a device called an electrode-based brain-computer (BCI). This device, which sits over the participant’s head, can interpret the electrical currents in the participant’s brain and translate them into a binary code called Bacon’s cipher. This type of code is similar to what computers use, but more compact. 

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Love me for my brain, not just my body <i>(Image: Gerard Lacz/Getty Images)</i>

Think crayfish and you probably think supper, perhaps with mayo on the side. You probably don’t think of their brains. Admittedly, crayfish aren’t known for their grey matter, but that might be about to change: they can grow new brain cells from blood.

Humans can make new neurons, but only from specialised stem cells. Crayfish, meanwhile, can convert blood to neurons that resupply their eyestalks and smell circuits. Although it’s a long way from crayfish to humans, the discovery may one day help us to regenerate our own brain cells.

Olfactory nerves are continuously exposed to damage and so naturally regenerate in many animals, from flies to humans, and crustaceans too. It makes sense that crayfish have a way to replenish these nerves. To do so, they utilise what amounts to a “nursery” for baby neurons, a little clump at the base of the brain called the niche.

In crayfish, blood cells are attracted to the niche. On any given day, there are a hundred or so cells in this area. Each cell will split into two daughter cells, precursors to full neurons, both of which migrate out of the niche. Those that are destined to be part of the olfactory system head to two clumps of nerves in the brain called clusters 9 and 10. It’s there that the final stage of producing new smell neurons is completed.

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BRAIN

A fake brain that looks a bit like a jam-filled donut has been grown for the first time by bio-engineers.

The complex brain structure has already demonstrated its ability to give researchers insights into the damage caused by head injuries.

And scientists hope the laboratory-grown tissue, which contains both grey and white matter, will help in the study of dementia and strokes, and as a test bed for new drugs.

“This work is an exceptional feat,” said Dr Rosemarie Hunziker, program director of Tissue Engineering at the National Institute of Biomedical Imaging and Bioengineering, which funded the project . “It combines a deep understanding of brain physiology with a large and growing suite of bioengineering tools to create an environment that is both necessary and sufficient to mimic brain function.”

The 3D-tissue cultures, made from rat cells, which have been kept alive for up to two months “could lead to an acceleration of therapies for brain dysfunction, as well as offer a better way to study normal brain physiology,” said Dr David Kaplan, director of the tissue engineering resource centre atTufts University in Boston and lead author of the story in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

It could also answer more fundamental questions about human brains, the most complex structures in the universe.

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sound-from-video-vibrations.jpg

Researchers at MIT are able to successfully recreate conversations by analyzing the vibrations in a bag of potato chips and use an algorithm to reconstruct the sound waves that caused them.

When sound hits an object, it makes distinct vibrations. “There’s this very subtle signal that’s telling you what the sound passing through is,” said Abe Davis, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science at MIT and first author on the paper. But the movement is tiny – sometimes as small as thousandths of a pixel on video. It’s only when all of these signals are averaged, Davis said, that you can extract sound that makes sense. By observing the entire object, you can filter out the noise. The results are certainly impressive (and a little scary). In one example shown in a compilation video, a bag of chips is filmed from 15 feet away, through sound-proof glass. The reconstructed audio of someone reciting “Mary Had a Little Lamb” in the same room as the chips isn’t crystal clear. But the words being said are possible to decipher.

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The field of audio is so mature and saturated that coming up with a genuinely novel approach to speakers is a rather steep challenge.

But a new product created by a team in Oakland, California, takes audiophiles into new territory by delivering a speaker that levitates — no, really, it levitates. Using the now well-known idea of magnetic levitation, the speaker floats about an inch off its base, allowing the user to spin it around in mid-air while listening to the audio.

After we had a chance to test the Bluetooth speaker out in person, we can confirm that the product does indeed work as described.

The Om/One device also contains a microphone, allowing the levitating orb to take calls, too. On its surface, which looks something like cross between the Death Star and a soccer ball, is a hidden sensor that allows you to turn the device on and off as well as pair it with your audio source, such as asmartphone.

OK, so it looks cool. But aside from the novelty factor, why would you need a levitating speaker?

“The fact that it levitates gives us an angle on some audio techniques that make the speaker a lot better,” David DeVillez, the co-founder and CEO of Om Audio.

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GT6

As we all now know, the science is in on climate change.  It is happening, and it is man-made…the debate is over.  Humans burn fossil fuels, which releases CO2 into the atmosphere, which retains heat and warms our planet.  Pretty simple to understand, but until recently, the solutions have been a bit more difficult to wrap our heads around.

We know we need to decrease our current carbon footprint by weaning off of fossil fuels, and onto more sustainable and renewable energy sources.  Okay, so thats a way to slow down the release of CO2 into the atmosphere, but what about all the CO2 that we have already pumped into our air?  Can we capture it?  Can we reverse the damage that we have done?

One company thinks they have a solution.  Started in 2010, Global Thermostat (GT) developed a proprietary technology that can literally grab the carbon out of the surrounding atmosphere and sell it back to other companies as a power source.  Essentially, they found a way to recycle the waste products that other energy companies blow right into our air.  Their technology may one day keep up with the worlds demand for energy, while at the same time reduce greenhouse gases.

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A gamma wave is a rapid, electrical oscillation in the brain. A scan of the academic literature shows that gamma waves may be involved with learning memory and attention—and, when perturbed, may play a part in schizophrenia, epilepsy Alzheimer’s, autism and ADHD. Quite a list and one of the reasons that these brainwaves, cycling at 25 to 80 times per second, persist as an object of fascination to neuroscientists.

Despite lingering interest, much remains elusive when trying to figure out how gamma waves are produced by specific molecules within neurons—and what the oscillations do to facilitate communication along the brains’ trillions and trillions of connections. A group of researchers at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California has looked beyond the preeminent brain cell—the neuron— to achieve new insights about gamma waves.

At one time, neuroscience textbooks depicted astrocytes as a kind of pit crew for neurons,  providing metabolic support and other functions for the brain’s rapid-firing information-processing components. In recent years, that picture has changed as new studies have found that astrocytes, like neurons, also have an alternate identity as information processors. This research demonstrates astrocytes’ ability to spritz chemicals known as neurotransmitters that communicate with other brain cells. Given that both neurons and astrocytes perform some of the same functions, it has been difficult to tease out what specifically astrocytes are up to. Hard evidence for what these nominal cellular support players might contribute in forming memories or focusing attention has been lacking.

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Implanted neurons become part of the brain

Scientists at the Luxembourg Centre for Systems Biomedicine (LCSB) of the University of Luxembourg have grafted neurons reprogrammed from skin cells into the brains of mice for the first time with long-term stability. Six months after implantation, the neurons had become fully functionally integrated into the brain. This successful, because lastingly stable, implantation of neurons raises hope for future therapies that will replace sick neurons with healthy ones in the brains of Parkinson’s disease patients, for example. The Luxembourg researchers published their results in the current issue of ‘Stem Cell Reports’.

The LCSB research group around Prof. Dr. Jens Schwamborn and Kathrin Hemmer is working continuously to bring cell replacement therapy to maturity as a treatment for neurodegenerative diseases. Sick and dead neurons in the brain can be replaced with new cells. This could one day cure disorders such as Parkinson’s disease. The path towards successful therapy in humans, however, is long. “Successes in human therapy are still a long way off, but I am sure successful cell replacement therapies will exist in future. Our research results have taken us a step further in this direction,” declares stem cell researcher Prof. Schwamborn, who heads a group of 15 scientists at LCSB.

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Luis Hernan is like a modern day ghost hunter. Only instead of searching for lost souls, he’s looking for the technological apparitions that surround us every day. InDigital Ethereal, Hernan, a PhD student at Newcastle University’s School of Architecture, has been investigating the invisible wireless infrastructures in order to glean a better understanding about how these wireless systems are designed and how we interact with them.

Digital Ethereal is part art, part industrial design and part technological inquiry. He began by designing a gadget called the Kirlian Device, named after Semyon Davidovich Kirlian, a 20th century scientist who developed the Kirlian photography technique. This technique, which visualizes electrical coronal discharges, has been used for various scientific purposes, but it’s most commonly associated with paranormal activities like reading auras.

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Human beings have long since been looking up at space, wondering when mankind will finally be technologically-advanced enough to colonize space. While staring heavenwards recently, we stumbled across this jaw-dropping development by RCA graduate Julian Melchiorri. A synthetically developed leaf, this concept called the Silk Leaf Project, is capable of absorbing water and carbon dioxide to produce oxygen, just the way a real plant does! Quoting Melchiorri, “NASA is researching different ways to produce oxygen for long-distance space journeys to let us live in space. This material could allow us t0 explore space much further than we can now.”

The Silk Leaf Project was developed as part of the Royal College of Art’s Innovation Design Engineering course in collaboration with Tufts University silk lab. Made from chloroplasts suspended in a matrix made out of silk protein, the leaf “as an amazing property of stabilizing molecules.” Not unlike real plants, these leaves created by Melchiorri also require light and a small amount of water to produce oxygen. This is the first man-made biological leaf in the history of mankind and an idea as such could help us step beyond boundaries, in terms of technology and lifestyle. Melchiorri sure deserves a pat on his back for his brilliance!

http://newlaunches.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/silk-leaf-1.jpg

dna-repair-machinery

When it comes to genetic engineering, we’re amateurs. Sure, we’ve known about DNA’s structure for more than 60 years, we first sequenced every A, T, C, and G in our bodies more than a decade ago, and we’re becoming increasingly adept at modifying the genes of a growing number of organisms.

But compared with what’s coming next, all that will seem like child’s play. A new technology just announced today has the potential to wipe out diseases, turn back evolutionary clocks, and reengineer entire ecosystems, for better or worse. Because of how deeply this could affect us all, the scientists behind it want to start a discussion now, before all the pieces come together over the next few months or years. This is a scientific discovery being played out in real time.

Today, researchers aren’t just dropping in new genes, they’re deftly adding, subtracting, and rewriting them using a series of tools that have become ever more versatile and easier to use. In the last few years, our ability to edit genomes has improved at a shockingly rapid clip. So rapid, in fact, that one of the easiest and most popular tools, known as CRISPR-Cas9, is just two years old. Researchers once spent months, even years, attempting to rewrite an organism’s DNA. Now they spend days.

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defense-large

Scientists funded by the Defense Department have just announced a breakthrough that could allow researchers to create in 220 days an extremely detailed picture of the brain that previously would have taken 80 years of scans to complete.

The military has been looking to build better brain hacks for decades with results that ranged form the frightening to the comical. This latest development could revolutionize the study of the brain but also the national security applications of neuroscience.

Scientists at Stanford University who developed the new way to see the brain in greater detail, outlined in the journal Nature Protocols, said that it could mark a new era of rapid brain imaging, allowing researchers to see in much greater detail not only how parts of the brain interact on a cellular level but also to better understand those interactions across the entire brain.

“I absolutely believe this is going to transform the way that we study the brain and how we perform neuroscience research,” said Justin Sanchez, program manager for the Neuro Function, Activity, Structure, and Technology, or Neuro-FAST, program at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, which funded the research. “What we’re saying here today is that we can develop new technology that changes how we observe and interact with the circuits of the brain.”

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magnetic resonance imaging, xray

Brain scans are now starting to peer down to the molecular level, revealing what brain cells are telling one another, researchers say.

This new technique could illuminate the behavior of the human brain at its most fundamental level, yielding insights on disorders such as addiction, the scientists added. Right now the technique has been tested only on rats.

“This demonstrates a new way to study the brain — no one has ever mapped brain activity in this way before,” said study author Alan Jasanoff, a bioengineer and neuroscientist at MIT.

One of the key ways researchers use to scan brains is magnetic resonance imaging, or MRI. These scanners immerse people in strong magnetic fields and then hit them with radio waves, encouraging atoms — usually hydrogen atoms — to emit signals that yield insights on the body.

By using MRIs to look at the hydrogen atoms in water, scientists can follow the flow of blood in the brain, shedding light on brain activity. However, this strategy, known as functional MRI, or fMRI, essentially reveals only what parts of the brain are talking, not what different areas of the brain are saying to each other.

Now scientists are using novel molecules that can help them use fMRI to see what specific messages brain cells are sending each other.

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This image shows an astrocyte.

Scientists studying brain diseases may need to look beyond nerve cells and start paying attention to the star-shaped cells known as “astrocytes,” because they play specialized roles in the development and maintenance of nerve circuits and may contribute to a wide range of disorders, according to a new study by UC San Francisco researchers.

In a study published online April 28, 2014 in Nature, the researchers report that malfunctioning astrocytes might contribute to neurodegenerative disorders such as Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), and perhaps even to developmental disorders such as autism and schizophrenia.

David Rowitch, MD, PhD, UCSF professor of pediatrics and neurosurgery and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator, led the research.

The researchers discovered in mice that a particular form of astrocyte within the spinal cord secretes a protein needed for survival of the nerve circuitry that controls reflexive movements. This discovery is the first demonstration that different types of astrocytes exist to support development and survival of distinct nerve circuits at specific locations within the central nervous system.

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Okay, we’re slightly kidding about the bad 3D movie thing. But British researchers really did get a million dollar grant to outfit praying mantises with tiny little 3D glass to try and figure out how the insects’ stereoscopic 3D vision works.

Mantis are the only invertebrates (with the exception of the mantis shrimp, I think) who can see in stereo, so part of the point of this research is to try and figure out how this capability evolved in the insects, and whether it’s similar to how stereo vision works in us vertebrates. If this research reveals that the mantis has stereo vision that works differently somehow, it could lead to new techniques for perceiving depth in computer vision and robotics.

The testing itself involves using beeswax to glue the world’s smallest pair of polarized glasses to the mantis’ face, and then showing them 3D movies of moving objects to see how they react. The insect brains are fooled into thinking that the movies are in 3D, just like humans are, so you can imagine that if the mantis flinches at virtual 3D objects coming at them (like we do), the researchers can then make inferences about whether they’re seeing things the same way that humans are.

And for all you bug lovers out there, rest assured that the glasses are removable without any harm to the insects, and after every test they’re put back in a special mantis pleasure palace where they’re fed and pampered. So basically, their lives consist of eating, relaxing, and watching 3D movies. We should all be so lucky.

ravenous_brain_rect

Scientists have developed an “off-switch” for the brain to effectively shut down neural activity using light pulses.

In 2005, Stanford scientist Karl Deisseroth discovered how to switch individual brain cells on and off by using light in a technique he dubbed ‘optogenetics’.

Research teams around the world have since used this technique to study brain cells, heart cells, stem cells and others regulated by electrical signals.

However, light-sensitive proteins were efficient at switching cells on but proved less effective at turning them off.

Now, after almost a decade of research, scientists have been able to shut down the neurons as well as activate them.

Mr Deisseroth’s team has now re-engineered its light-sensitive proteins to switch cells much more adequately than before. His findings are presented in the journal Science.

Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health, which funded the study, said this improved “off” switch will help researchers to better understand the brain circuits involved in behavior, thinking and emotion.

“This is something we and others in the field have sought for a very long time,” Mr Deisseroth, a senior author of the paper and professor of bioengineering and of psychiatry and behavioural sciences said.

“We’re excited about this increased light sensitivity of inhibition in part because we think it will greatly enhance work in large-brained organisms like rats and primates.”

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Illustration by Jamie Cullen.

Sitting in a small, computer-lined room trying to remember a succession of different-coloured words scrolling past on a screen doesn’t sound like the cutting edge of scientific research. However, academics at the University of East London are using word tests to assess the impact synaesthesia can have on memory – and the potential it might have to ward off the decline in cognitive function that can affect the elderly.

Synaesthesia, the neurological condition that causes a blending of the senses – colours can be connected to letters and numbers, smells and tastes to music or touch to vision – has long been linked to creativity: famous synaesthetes include Sibelius and more recently Pharrell Williams.

But among the wider population it has remained a mysterious condition, although it is known to affect at least 4.4% of adults across its many forms.

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Railguns aren’t the only thing the U.S. Navy is bragging about this week. Scientists at the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C. announced they have successfully turned seawater into fuel.

When your car runs out of gas, you find a gas station and fill it up. For ships and planes, however, there aren’t any stations out in the middle of the ocean. Instead, the Navy’s vessels are refueled by oil tankers that come to them.

All of that will change in the future. By extracting carbon dioxide and hydrogen gas simultaneously from seawater, and then using a catalytic converter, scientists created fuel that looks and smells pretty much the same as regular ol’ petroleum-based fuel.

The advantages of seawater-based fuel is twofold. First, the ships don’t need to be redesigned in order to use the new seawater-based fuel since it’s basically the same. Second, the ability to create fuel from all that water around aircraft carriers means less dependence on oil. The U.S. Navy envisions ships will be able to create their own fuel for themselves and for planes. So long oil tankers!

“Game-changing” as the breakthrough is, the U.S. Navy says ships that generate their own fuel from seawater aren’t going to start sailing the seas anytime soon — they’re at least ten years away. For now, the U.S. Navy’s scientists are focusing on how to produce larger quantities of seawater-based fuel.

Illustration of an astrocyte

Everything we do — all of our movements, thoughts and feelings – are the result of neurons talking with one another, and recent studies have suggested that some of the conversations might not be all that private. Brain cells known as astrocytes may be listening in on, or even participating in, some of those discussions. But a new mouse study suggests that astrocytes might only be tuning in part of the time — specifically, when the neurons get really excited about something. This research, published in Neuron, was supported by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS), part of the National Institutes of Health.

For a long time, researchers thought that the star-shaped astrocytes (the name comes from the Greek word for star) were simply support cells for the neurons.

It turns out that these cells have a number of important jobs, including providing nutrients and signaling molecules to neurons, regulating blood flow, and removing brain chemicals called neurotransmitters from the synapse. The synapse is the point of information transfer between two neurons. At this connection point, neurotransmitters are released from one neuron to affect the electrical properties of the other. Long arms of astrocytes are located next to synapses, where they can keep tabs on the conversations going on between neurons.

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