Injuries to the central nervous system — the brain and spinal cord — are particularly devastating because the body doesn’t regenerate neurons to repair connections between vital circuits and restore function. In other words, the damage is permanent or even fatal.
A variety of early studies in animals and humans indicate the field of neural regeneration research is advancing. A 20-year-old man in Naples, Florida recently enrolled in the first clinical trial to assess the ability of stem cells to repair spinal cord injuries. But, a team of scientists from McGill University in Montreal, Canada, are working an entirely different method to inject hope into an otherwise bleak prognosis.
Working with rat neurons grown in a petri dish in the laboratory, the team artificially connected two neurons using an atomic force microscope and tiny, polystyrene spheres. Though the work is an early proof-of-concept, it could lay the foundation for novel surgeries and therapies for people with brain and spinal damage.
Atomic force microscopes drag an ultra-fine needle, or microprobe, attached to a cantilever beam across the object it is observing. The microprobe rises and falls like a record player needle as it passes over the object’s physical features. A laser measures the cantilever’s motion to build a picture of the object.
Researchers used a specialized microprobe to grab on to an axon, the part of a neuron that connects it to others in the brain, and stretch it across the dish to connect it to another neuron. Their microprobe takes advantage of minuscule forces between objects at the atomic level to grasp the polystyrene spheres, which in turn hold the axon. You can see the thin filament of the axon trailing behind the probe in the video above.
Peter Grutter, a senior author of the paper, likened the process to pulling a piece of chewing gum apart. In this case the gum, or axon, was roughly 1/100 the width of a human hair. Because of this, the researchers had to be extremely careful both when stretching the axon and when they detached it from the probe, Grutter said in an email. In all, the researchers only stretched the axon about 1 mm, a small span when compared to the size of the brain, but enough to do the trick. By using a larger dish, the researchers think they can extend their artificial neural connections out to a length of several millimeters.
Researchers tested the artificial connection by measuring the neuron’s electrical potential. It responded similarly to organic neurons, indicating the synthetic network was functional. And although the process is complicated, researchers say their method still creates neural connections 60 times faster than our bodies can.
Our brains grow in complexity and ability by forming more and more connections between the neurons they are composed of. New experiences, thoughts and memories all create their own special connections in our brains. Rewiring neural networks ourselves could give us the ability to not only repair neural networks that have been damaged by injury, but to create our own.
Functional applications of this technology remain years away, but this method could be used to treat patients who have suffered traumatic injuries that severed connections in their brain, or to treat degenerative neurological diseases by strengthening the brain’s neural circuitry. In the near-term, this approach creates opportunities to grow and test neural networks in the lab to study how the brain works.
As an added, far-out application, researchers say their neuron-stitching technique indicates it’s possible to weave electronic circuitry into the brain to construct robust brain-machine interfaces.
There’s no hiding from cockroaches. In addition to their ability to survive extreme cold, lack of air and even radioactivity, they are adept shape-shifters, contorting their shelled bodies to slip through cracks and crevices one-tenth of an inch tall — about the height of two stacked pennies.
Say what you will about cockroaches, but to engineers who design robots, these deft deformers are an inspiration.
Researchers at the University of California-Berkeley’s Poly-PEDAL lab built a palm-sized robot that mimics the movements of a cockroach in order to squeeze through confined spaces. The aptly named CRAM (Compressible Robot with Articulated Mechanisms) robot sports a tough, yet bendable, shell and flexible legs that splay to the sides under pressure. The combination of features allows CRAM to squeeze through spaces only half its body height.
A friendly trip to the beach often sparks a casual competition to see who is more skilled in the art of skipping a stone. But before the first attempt, a tactful stone-skipper will examine the inventory of seaside rocks to find a one uniquely shaped for the task.
Scientists at the aptly named Splash Lab at Utah State University have perfected the skipping stone. Through a series of experiments that applied scientific rigor to our favorite lazy beach activity, they determined that a squishy sphere will maximize the number of skips. Read More
It’s better to burn out than to fade away, according to Neil Young. And one ant species seems to embody this timeless philosophical advice.
Getting old is no fun. Failing bodies, faltering eyesight and declining health plague us as we enter the autumn of our lives. Aging for humans is as implacable as it is frightening, and despite years of research, we have made very little headway in halting our senescence.
For one species of ant, the passage of time isn’t associated with diminishing physical prowess. A team of researchers led by James Traniello, a professor in the biology department at Boston University, studied Pheidole dentata, a species of American ant, and found that the minor worker ants showed no declines in fitness or health as they aged — they even improved as they got older. They recently published their findings in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Read More
It seems unlikely that a shaggy-maned antelope from the Ice Age would have much in common with a group of dinosaurs that roamed during the Cretaceous period 145 to 66 million years ago. But, then again, science is perpetually full of surprises.
Rusingoryx atopocranion, an extinct species related to the modern wildebeest, shares a bizarre adaptation with a group of hadrosaurs: a hollow, domed ridge of bone along the front of its face called a nasal crest. Paleontologists say that a Pleistocene antelope with a bony nasal crest like that of some hadrosaur species is a surprising example of what’s called convergent evolution. Read More
Scientists in Germany successfully completed another phase of an experiment designed to one day produce nuclear fusion
Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Particle Physics heated up a small sample of hydrogen to over 170 million degrees Fahrenheit using the Wendelstein 7-X stellarator, a donut-shaped device that uses magnetic fields to suspend hydrogen gas while zapping it with powerful microwaves. They succeeded in creating a super-hot plasma, which lasted for about a quarter of a second, according to a news release from the institute. Although fleeting, this experiment successfully demonstrated that plasma can be contained while heated to such extremes, a key step in harnessing nuclear fusion. Read More
Scientists performed some heady origami in the lab.
In order to study how the brain forms its unique structure of folds and grooves, a team of scientists from Finland and the United States recreated the folding process with a 3-D printed, artificial brain. One could be forgiven for confusing their model with the real thing, and they published findings from their hyper-realistic simulation Monday in the journal Nature Physics. Read More
An arachnid encased in a shard of amber found in Burma died in a rather compromising position.
A harvestman of the species Halitherses grimaldii was discovered sporting a massive erection, a position it had been stuck in for the past 99 million years. What’s more, the creature was so uniquely endowed that scientists declared the find a brand new family of arachnids — a move based mostly on the shape of its penis. They published their findings last week in the journal The Science of Nature.
The researchers used photography and 3-D imaging to study the preserved harvestman, focusing special attention on the penis, which extended to almost half the length of the unfortunate male’s body. The erect appendage possesses a distinctively heart-shaped head and a twisted tip, meant for delivering sperm to females via a hole near their mouth.
While other arachnids such as spiders and scorpions reproduce using a modified leg to transfer sperm to the female, the harvestman, also known as a daddy longlegs, uses a bona-fide penis to carry the act out. In addition to being a remarkably well-preserved specimen, this harvestman is the first to be discovered in such a, well, unique position.
Differentiating between species using penis morphology is not a new tactic for arachnid researchers. Different species of harvestmen often look very similar to each other, with the exception of their penises, making the sexual organs indispensable to researchers. The penis is usually carried within the body, and it’s typically invisible in preserved specimens.
Surprisingly, there was no female harvestman found nearby, indicating that the two were likely separated while in the throes of passion. While it’s not clear what cruel circumstances ripped this amorous fellow from his lover, he must have fallen into the resin soon afterward, locking his passion in place for the ages.
Alternatively, researchers have suggested that the harvestman may have gotten his erection while locked in a struggle with the sticky resin, raising his hemolymph, or blood, pressure enough that his penis hardened.
Harvestmen have crawled around on this planet for at least 400 million years, and are found today on every continent except Antarctica. Although there are over 6,500 species in existence today, this particular species likely died out or evolved millions of years ago.
Up close, the sun is a roiling mass of plasma with a surface that’s whipped into a frenzy by its self-generated magnetic fields.
While invisible to us, the magnetic forces produced by the sun are responsible for massive bursts of superheated material, called solar flares, that our neighboring star periodically jettisons. Such flares are responsible for the spectacular auroras that paint the sky here on Earth. And while auroras are beautiful spectacles to behold, the solar flares that produce them could potentially knock out electrical systems across the globe if they’re powerful enough. Therefore, understanding the sun’s magnetic structure is crucial for scientists to forecast and understand these events. Read More
Regulators in the United Kingdom on Monday approved a request from scientists to use the emerging CRISPR gene editing tool to perform experiments on human embryos.
Researchers from the Francis Crick Institute in London filed a license application in September 2015 with Britain’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to perform gene editing experiments to better understand the genes that help humans develop in their earliest stages of growth. Their request was granted, which marks the first time scientists have received official permission to alter human embryos. Read More