It’s spring, and I’m attending a luxurious seafood banquet. Platters of shellfish fill the tables: crab with limbs akimbo; shrimp ready to be peeled; miniature lobster-like langostino peering at my dinner plate as if knowing their fate. Raw oysters sit in the center of the platter, piled absurdly high and shimmering luminescent on the half shell.
Until now, I’ve never eaten a raw oyster. I apply a generous squirt of lemon juice and watch the white-grey flesh ripple ominously in reply. Tilting my head back, I down the shell’s contents in one shot of citrusy ocean. The gelatinous solid slides down my throat largely unchewed as I submit a silent prayer to the gods of food safety, asking not to become the subject of an ironic headline:
“Research scientist studying bacterium found in raw oysters falls ill after eating…a raw oyster.”
Thankfully, I walked away from the banquet without encountering Vibrio vulnificus, the bacterial subject of my Ph.D. Much as I want to be an academic expert on V. vulnificus, there are aspects of the microbe I hope never to attest to first-hand. But as the planet’s oceans heat up, the odds of a potentially fatal rendezvous will continue rise along with the temperature. Read More
There are multiple answers to the question of where we come from: early hominins, monkeys, primordial goo, or the Big Bang, to name a few. Today’s answer, though, has probably, just a split second ago, popped into many readers’ minds. Today’s answer is sexual intercourse, a.k.a. “bleeping.” So let’s go back to the beginning, hundreds of millions of years before we invented euphemisms and censorship, and let’s ask: How in the evolutionary world did sex begin?
Algae, the green gunk that runs amok in our fish tanks, as well as the seaweed that stinks up our summer beaches, include some of the simplest sexually reproducing organisms on Earth. These lineages go back nearly 2 billion years. Algae do it. Plants do it. Insects do it. Even fungi do it. Much of this sex involves releasing sperm into the wind or the water so they can be carried to nearby eggs (as in mosses), relying on a different species to carry male gametes to female ones (many flowers), or maneuvering two bodies so that the openings to the internal reproductive organs are close enough together for fluid exchange (most insects and most birds). Read More
The 100-meter dash, the pole vault, a marathon, a bike race, and any other sport under the sun have one thing in common: winning depends on pushing physical performance to the max.
The pressure on athletes to push their bodies to the limit has produced a longstanding tit-for-tat between the athletes sneaking chemical agents into their blood or body cells to gain an edge and those trying to detect them.
Recently, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that any prospective dopers had better think twice about artificially gaining a competitive advantage. The IOC isn’t talking about traditional doping tactics like getting infusions of extra red blood cells or injections of performance-enhancing hormones. Read More
While astronaut Scott Kelly spent his year on the International Space Station, he expressed frustration with the ho-hum accommodations inside the ISS — it’s dullsville.
The temperature remains exactly the same day in and day out. The décor is a sterile mix of machines and wires. Astronauts are isolated, confined to small spaces and under a considerable amount of stress. While the vistas outside their window are no doubt spectacular, humans need a hint of nature’s greens and blues to stay happy.
The monotony of space can fray the nerves of even the most seasoned astronaut, and psychological stress is a serious side effect of living in a habitat of connected tubes orbiting Earth. So scientists at Dartmouth College are experimenting with virtual reality headsets like the Oculus Rift to see if simulated environments can break the monotony of space travel, and reduce psychological stress that astronauts experience on long duration missions.
“Things can go badly if the psychosocial elements aren’t managed properly. When you talk about longer and longer missions with a small crew it becomes really critical to have that social aspect right,” he says.
Jay Buckey — a former space shuttle astronaut — is now a professor of space medicine and physiology at Dartmouth. Each space shuttle mission runs around three weeks, so Buckey’s not experienced the same monotony as Scott Kelly. Despite his pleasant trip to space, he still felt called to help. Buckey and his colleagues are using calming imagery to see if virtual scenes reduce stress levels.
“I wanted to focus on many of the issues that would serve as a barrier to long duration spaceflight,” says Buckey. “The psychosocial adaptation element is crucial to a good mission.”
His theory is that exposure to bucolic landscapes — even virtual ones — can reduce stress. To do this, Buckey and his team created two types of “escapes” for the subjects to try. The test subjects were either given a trip to the lush green hills of Ireland, or a serene beach landscape in Australia. As a control, test subjects sat in a classroom and researchers measured their heart rate and skin conductance.
“We are assuming that natural scenes will be preferred,” explains Buckey. “But, people in an isolated and confined environment might want an urban scene.”
To quantify the stress relief, Buckey’s team will measure the electrodermal activity in the skin of their test subjects to track fluctuations of psychological arousal and stress, providing insights into who is responding best to a given scene.
Buckey is also adding another twist to his experiments: shining a heat lamp on subjects viewing a beach scene to enhance their virtual experience.
“VR is an immersive world and we would like to optimize the scenes to find out what it is about these that people find the most compelling. As the tech improves and you get higher definition video you can really immerse somebody in a nature scene,” says Buckey. “Would people rather have a vista, or animals, and what other kinds of sensations would people like?”
Currently astronauts on the International Space Station use a tool called the Virtual Space Station — essentially a virtual therapy session. This VR software doesn’t provide stress reduction in the way that Buckey is exploring, but it has tools for conflict resolution, and training on how to handle interpersonal disagreements if and when they arise.
Buckey’s experiments are still ongoing, so his results aren’t finalized. However, the notion that nature is good for our brain is nothing new — dozens of scientific studies back this up. In a more recent study, researchers from South Korea used fMRI to measure subjects’ brain activity when they looked at nature scenes versus urban scenes. Urban scenes activated the amygdala, which is linked to heightened anxiety and increased stress. On the other hand, nature scenes caused more blood to flow to regions in the brain associated with empathy and altruistic behavior.
At the University of Verona in Italy, researchers showed that “being in” a natural setting improved cognitive functioning, and participants completed tasks more efficiently with less mental fatigue. Nature can also lower our blood pressure and heighten our mood.
The data from the Dartmouth lab won’t be published for several more months, but the team hopes its experiment will move one step closer to helping future astronauts, and other people who work in isolation, cope with stress.
If it turns out that the data from Buckey’s experiments show a reduction in stress, future astronauts could perhaps work a regimen of VR medicine into their weekly routine. So far, Buckey thinks the preliminary results are encouraging, but “these are highly individualized responses, and is very subjective.”
“It depends on the outcome of what we have. We haven’t really proven that it works that well yet so I think its important for us to show that there’s a tangible benefit to having this.”
In 1980 a group of scientists ventured off into the cold and isolated region of Antarctica as part of the International Biomedical Expedition. The IBEA was designed to understand how the human body would acclimate to extremely cold environments, isolation and the psychological responses to this type of stress. It dramatically highlighted the need for stress reduction for team members.
As the expedition continued, crewmembers grew homesick, isolation wore them down and they grew more and more irritable. Several scientists on the team simply walked out of the experiment before it was completed, due to these stressors.
In the 1980s, psychological stress drove a rift between cosmonaut Valentin Lebedev and his commander Anatoly Berezovoy while they were living aboard the Russian Space Station Salyut 7.
Lebedev wrote a book called Diary of a Cosmonaut where he shared stories of conflicts so severe that they sometimes went weeks without speaking to each other. In space, and especially on a longer mission to Mars, communication is key. Conflicts of this scale aren’t an option. In other words, keeping stress levels low is key to planning a successful mission.
For most people, baldness wouldn’t make it into the Top Ten Worst Things Ever; that list is more likely to be dominated by Ebola, cancer, dementia, and Kevin Federline’s Playing with Fire album.
Nonetheless, it is a condition that countless men find distressing as they endure taunts like “Mr. Clean,” “cue ball,” or “chrome dome.” Surprisingly, attempts at curing baldness do not originate in our modern, superficial society. Actually, when it comes to palliating the naturally depilated pate, strange “cures” date back thousands of years. Read More
While working as a professor in the sensory-motor systems lab at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich (ETH), Robert Riener noticed a need for assistive devices that would better meet the challenge of helping people with daily life. He knew there were solutions, but that it would require motivating developers to rise to the challenge.
So, Riener created Cybathlon, the first cyborg Olympics where teams from all over the world will participate in races on Oct. 8 in Zurich that will test how well their devices perform routine tasks. Teams will compete in six different categories that will push their assistive devices to the limit on courses developed carefully over three years by physicians, developers and the people who use the technology. Eighty teams have signed up so far.
Riener wants the event to emphasize how important it is for man and machine to work together—so participants will be called pilots rather than athletes, reflecting the role of the assistive technology.
“The goal is to push the development in the direction of technology that is capable of performing day-to-day tasks. And that way, there will an improvement in the future life of the person using the device,” says Riener.
Here’s a look at events that will be featured in the first cyborg Olympics.
Brain-Computer Interface Race
A woman sits at a computer while wearing a cap that has several electrodes attached to her head, wires cascading down her back waves. She’s playing a video game, but instead of using her hands, she’s using only her thoughts to drive a brain-computer interface system.
During the Cybathlon, participants with complete or severely impaired motor function will use their thoughts to control an avatar in a racing video game. The winner will be the first to complete the race, maneuvering an avatar over obstacles and accelerating to the finish line. An algorithm will help determine which team’s interface performed the best. Brain-computer interface devices are a key technologies that will allow people to control future prostheses with their minds.
Functional Electrical Stimulation Bike Race
Functional Electrical Stimulation (FES) is a technique that sends electrical impulses to paralyzed individuals’ muscles to trigger movement. FES can help build muscle mass, increase blood circulation and and improve cardiovascular health. At Cybathlon, paralyzed bike racers will rely on FES to complete about five laps around a racetrack, equalling about 2,200 feet — first to the finish wins. Electrodes will deliver electrical stimulation to their muscles, giving them the leg-power to pedal their bikes. The pilots can actually control how much current they send to their muscles, so balancing speed and stamina will be key to winning the race.
Generally, electrodes are placed on a persons’s skin, but one team—the Center for Advanced Platform Technology from Cleveland—will surgically implant them closer to nerves where they can reach more fiber, reduce muscle fatigue and increase precision. Members of Team Cleveland developed implants — over the course of two decades — that allow a person with paraplegia to stand, perform leg lifts and take steps. For Cybathlon, they’ll adapt their system for bike riding.
Powered Arm Prosthesis Race
The powered arm prosthesis race will show just how important performing basic, daily tasks are to Riener. Pilots with arm amputations will need to carry a tray of breakfast items, for example, and then prepare a meal by opening a jar of jam, slicing bread and putting butter on the bread — tasks that are easy to take for granted. Pinning clothing on a clothes line and putting together a puzzle with pieces that will each require a different type of grip are also challenges in this event.
A prosthetic hand created by the M.A.S.S. Impact team from Simon Fraser University in Canada is a unique design that uses sensors and algorithms to recognize a grip pattern, and users can control the bionic hand in small, precise movements. The system also generates computer models to improve function over time. Last year, organizers held a Cybathlon rehearsal last year, and Riener was especially impressed by OPRA Osseointegratio, a Swedish team that designed a surgically implanted hand controlled by a person voluntarily contracting his muscles. The technology is currently in human trials, and the team’s pilot is the first recipient.
Powered Leg Prosthesis Race
Designing prostheses for lower limbs presents an entirely different set of challenges. Riener hopes to see prosthetic legs at the Cybathlon that can handle uneven terrain, which has been a challenge in the past. During the leg prosthesis race, pilots will compete on parallel tracks through obstacle courses laden with beams, stones, stairs and slopes. Right now, only the most advanced prostheses can handle these challenges — many are heavy and aren’t powerful enough.
Team Össur will bring four different prosthetic legs to the competition. Riener says this team in particular is making incredible advancements in the field. He’s particularly impressed with their commercially available motorized knee prosthesis, as he says it’s more robust and reliable than many past devices. The team is also entering a powered leg prosthesis that is an upgrade to the powered knee and is still a prototype stage; it uses motorized joints to help achieve a natural gait.
Powered Exoskeleton Race
Exoskeletons are worn around the legs to help those with paraplegia walk or even climb stairs. While they’ve been used by physiotherapists in hospitals to improve the health of patients with paralyzed legs, Riener says many designs are still bulky and difficult to use on a daily basis. There are about six companies around the world with exoskeletons on the market, and more prototypes are being developed in research labs around the world.
The Cybathlon exoskeleton event will include tasks that are particularly difficult for people using this technology to accomplish, such as stepping over stones and walking up a slope.
“With these challenges, we’re hoping to see more lifelike exoskeletons with more movability,” says Riener.
Powered Wheelchair Race
Those who use wheelchairs encounter challenges that other people might take for granted. Riener is excited to see how powered wheelchairs are evolving, getting smaller and more capable—in some cases even climbing stairs.
“At Cybathlon, they will have to fit beneath a table, go up a steep ramp, open a door and then close it again, and go down a steep ramp,” says Riener.
Scewo, a team from ETH Zurich developed a wheelchair that balances on two wheels like a Segway and can use a chain to climb up stairs or steep ramps.
While some of the teams are entering technology that is already on the market, Riener is especially excited to see new innovations that have been created from scratch, specifically for Cybathlon.
“It’s exciting to reach a large audience to talk about issues related to people with disabilities,” he says.
Gene therapy is all the rage among researchers in several fields of medicine, and the BBC America sci-fi TV hit Orphan Black has made sure to get its own piece of the action.
As with reproductive cloning and other biotech issues hashed out over the last four years, characters in the “The Black” are making references to gene therapy with a twist that’s far-fetched, but grounded in state-of-the-art science and real-life emerging possibilities.
With the season 4 finale set to air tonight, Orphan Black fans know what’s going on with those little maggot-shaped bioelectronic cheek implants. At least for some characters, the implants are gene therapy delivery devices. The idea of an implant for gene therapy delivery is a problem scientists in the real world are working to solve, and while there’s no medical reason for using the cheek as the site of implantation, there is a location nearby the cheek where the first real-life gene therapy implants are likely to go: the ear.
Deploying Carrier Vectors
Most basic and clinical research in gene therapy uses DNA that is packaged inside carrier particles known as vectors. A vector can be a virus, a liposome (a spherical container similar to the HDL and LDL carriers that transport your “good” and “bad” cholesterol, respectively, in blood), or a variety of structures made of different chemical polymers.
Vectors have tradeoffs that differ depending on the genetic payload and the type of cells targeted. For instance, a type of viral vector called a retrovirus is good for modifying dividing cells, but not useful for diseases where non-dividing cells need to be changed.
With gene therapy today, the most commonly used vector is called the adeno-associated virus (AAV). There are various subtypes of AAV, and each subtype determines which body tissues and organs will receive the treatment. Compared with other viruses, AAV tends not to stimulate the immune system easily, particularly if the treatment is administered just once.
One more advantage of AAV is that it delivers its genetic payload into target cells as an episome – a piece of DNA that utilizes the cell’s machinery to make the needed gene product, but does not insert itself into a chromosome. This minimizes the risk of disrupting other genes, which could kill the cell or transform it into a cancer cell.
AAV can only carry a small genetic payload, however.
By injecting AAV carrying the AADC gene, a relatively small package, into a part of the brain called the putamen, neurosurgeons can restore long-term functions in Parkinson patients. It’s working, because the AADC gene just barely fits inside the AAV.
Things are different with the much larger gene that’s broken in people with Duchenne muscular dystrophy (DMD). In the latter case, advances are on the horizon because of a technology called CRISPR-Cas9, a gene editing system that does fit inside AAV, allowing for correction of the faulty gene that DMD patient’s have. But the research is still in its early stages.
Other gene therapy delivery systems rely as much on physics as they do on chemistry.
A device called a gene gun shoots tiny gold or tungsten spheres coated with the needed DNA into cells. Once inside, the genetic material detaches from the spheres.
Electroporation, using electricity to punch temporary holes in cell membranes to help naked DNA make its way into the cell, is another physical gene therapy tactic. Researchers are also studying ultrasound, hydrodynamic and magnetic methods of delivery.
DNA carries an electromagnetic charge — a negative charge, due to chemical entities called phosphate groups. This enables the molecule to be directed in an electromagnetic field, which in turn opens the possibility of merging genetic and electronic components. That’s a biophysical reality that underlies the maggot-like implants of Orphan Black, but it’s also a gene therapy implant that is emerging in the real world.
You may know someone with a cochlear implant, or you may have one yourself, and so you know that they facilitate the transference of sound waves in the air into nerve signals. But researchers have demonstrated in guinea pigs that a cochlear implant also can be used for electro-injection of DNA molecules into the nerve cells that carry impulses from the cochlea (the hearing component of the inner ear) to the brain.
These nerve cells comprise the cochlear branch of the vestibulocochlear nerve, but their degeneration leads to nerve deafness. Treating the cells with genes that make proteins called neurotrophins regenerates the nerve, so the next step is to develop similar implants for humans.
Testing of such implants has not yet begun on humans, but it may happen within a few years, certainly before you begin seeing Orphan Black style implants sending genetic payload through the body from the cheek.
The turn of the 21st century was an exciting time in the history of genetics.
The first sequencing of the human genome was completed in 2003 and it provided numerous insights to the scientific community and society in general. In 2000, during his final State of the Union Address, President Bill Clinton made a point of how all humans share 99.9 percent of our genome — it’s actually more like 99.7 percent.
By honing in on the genetic variants, or mutations, that exist for certain genes in the human population, medical geneticists achieved a capability that would have looked like science fiction to physicians of the 1970s. Deciphering the genetics that underlay our existence has so far led to measurable success in gene therapy for certain conditions, but scientists are realizing that genes do not have the final say in what happens to a cell and its owner. Read More
Every day, 730,000 comments and 420 billion statuses are posted on Facebook, 500 billion 140-character tweets are posted and 430,000 hours of new video is uploaded to YouTube.
The Internet is a goldmine of data just waiting to be analyzed.
Ever since social media crept deeper and deeper into our daily lives, governments and advertisers have been utilizing this data for myriad purposes. Now, a team of researchers at the University of Ottawa, University of Alberta and the Université de Montpellier in France is examining ways to use social media data to detect and monitor people who are potentially at risk of mental health issues. Read More
The dead, the headlines read, might soon be brought back to life.
As pop-science headlines tend to, they blew the actual research proposal out of proportion, but the premise is real: The ReAnima Project recently received “ethical permission” from the government of India to take 20 patients who’ve been declared clinically brain dead, and try to restore a limited range of brain functions using cutting-edge neuroscience techniques.
When we get past the knee-jerk references to zombies and Dr. Frankenstein, though, we’re left with the question of what this research is really about. Can scientists actually bring brain-dead patients back to life? Has anyone tried it before? And what does it mean, exactly, to resurrect a brain dead person? Read More