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Nature on Edge

Worldwide Study Finds that Fertilizer Destabilizes Grasslands

February 17th 2014

Small Farm

 Fertilizer could be too much of a good thing for the world's grasslands, according to study findings to be published online Feb. 16 by the journal Nature.

The worldwide study shows that, on average, additional nitrogen will increase the amount of grass that can be grown. But a smaller number of species thrive, crowding out others that are better adapted to survive in harsher times. It results in wilder swings in the amount of available forage.

"More nitrogen means more production, but it's less stable," said Johannes M.H. Knops, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln biologist and one of the paper's international co-authors. "There are more good years and more bad years. Not all years are going to be good and the bad years are going to be worse."

The three-year study monitored real-world grasslands at 41 locations on five continents. The sites included alpine grasslands in China, tallgrass prairies in the United States, pasture in Switzerland, savanna in Tanzania and old fields in Germany. Two sites in Nebraska were part of the study, the Cedar Point Biological Station near Ogallala and the Barta Brothers Ranch in the Sandhills near Valentine. Read more ..


The Edge of Terrorism

'Mask' Malware Called 'Most Advanced' Cyber-espionage Operation

February 16th 2014

Shadowy Computer User

Researchers at the Internet security firm Kaspersky Lab say they have uncovered what they’re calling “one of the most advanced global cyber-espionage operations to date.”

The malware is called “Careto,” which roughly means face or mask in Spanish. Since at least 2007, it has netted 380 unique victims in 31 countries, Kaspersky said.

Kaspersky called the Mask  “an extremely sophisticated piece of malware,” which is very hard to detect. The malware predominantly targets government institutions, diplomatic offices and embassies, energy, oil and gas companies, research organizations and activists, Kaspersky said.

Countries where Mask infections have been observed include several in Latin America, including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela. Additional countries included China the United States, Turkey, Egypt, France, Germany, Belgium, Poland, South Africa, Spain, Switzerland, Tunisia and the United Kingdom. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Robitic Construction Crew Needs No Foreman

February 15th 2014

Lego robots

On the plains of Namibia, millions of tiny termites are building a mound of soil—an 8-foot-tall "lung" for their underground nest. During a year of construction, many termites will live and die, wind and rain will erode the structure, and yet the colony's life-sustaining project will continue.

Inspired by the termites' resilience and collective intelligence, a team of computer scientists and engineers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has created an autonomous robotic construction crew. The system needs no supervisor, no eye in the sky, and no communication: just simple robots—any number of robots—that cooperate by modifying their environment.

Harvard's TERMES system demonstrates that collective systems of robots can build complex, three-dimensional structures without the need for any central command or prescribed roles. The results of the four-year project were presented this week at the AAAS 2014 Annual Meeting and published in the February 14 issue of Science. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Amputee 'Feels' Objects With Prototype Bionic Hand

February 14th 2014

Vet w/Bionic Arm

When Dennis Aabo Sorensen lost his left hand 10 years ago while handling fireworks, it was safe to assume its sense of touch went with it.

But with the aid of new bionic technology, the 36-year-old once again knows what it feels like to grasp a ball, or pick up an object using his left hand.

Sorensen, a real-estate developer in the Danish city of Aalborg, recently made headlines when he became the first in the world to test a prototype prosthetic hand that allowed him to identify objects he was touching while blindfolded.

"I was totally amazed because suddenly I could feel something that I hadn't been feeling for almost 10 years," Sorensen says. "The first thing was this baseball that they put in the prosthetic hand, and suddenly I could tell that I was holding a round piece -- a kind of a hard ball. So that was so incredible to have that feeling again." Read more ..


Edge of Sports

Crash Test Dummies Help to Predict Football Head Injuries

February 13th 2014

Click to select Image

The head of a crash-test dummy wore a football helmet as it hung upside-down on a laboratory drop tower. James Eckner, M.D., stood on a ladder next to it holding its tether. He counted to five and let go.

The bust smacked into another just like it three feet below – with about the force of two linemen colliding at the start of a play.

How hard was the hit? Where was it centered? And what reactions did it cause in the defensive dummy head? Sensors sent answers to a laptop across the room.

It’ll take weeks for the University of Michigan-based researchers to fully analyze the data from several days of drops – part of an effort in Michigan Engineering’s Biomechanics Research Lab to help improve understanding of how the head and brain react to impacts. It’s a ripe field, as the sports and science communities are becoming aware of the devastating long-term effects that decades’ worth of concussions and head hits can have on players. Read more ..


The Leftovers of War

Colombian Designers Develop Landmine-defeating Shoe

February 12th 2014

Land Mine

Landmines are one of the more controversial weapons of war. Hidden from sight, they maim and kill and remain long after conflicts end. According to the United Nations, 110 million active landmines are scattered over 70 countries.

For five decades, Colombia has been plagued by insurgencies and countless, planted landmines.  But, one company there may have found a way to defeat the explosives our eyes can’t see.

After decades of armed conflict, landmines remain buried all over Colombia. De-miners use high-tech gear to find these explosives, but that does little for civilians.
  
“What we wanted was to come up with an idea for a product that could greatly benefit the soldiers and farmers that are affected by these explosives,” said Jose Ivan Perez, creative director of Lemur Studio, an industrial design firm in Bogota.  He’s been developing an insole that alerts the wearer of nearby landmines.

“The concept is a metal detector with a planar coil [sensor] made of conductive material that sends a signal to a device on the user’s wrist,” he said. Perez says the signal will help the wearer either avoid or remove the explosive device.  The Colombian government is welcoming the technology.

“If we are a country so affected by the mine problem, it is clearly justifiable and necessary that we develop our own national capabilities: research and technological development that allows for the de-miners, for example, to more safely go out to the fields to do their work,” said Daniel Avila Camacho, director of Colombia’s Mine Action Program.   Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Juggling Study May Shed Light on How Our Senses Help Us Run

February 11th 2014

Olympic Runners

Juggling may sound like mere entertainment, but a study led by Johns Hopkins engineers has used this circus skill to gather critical clues about how vision and the sense of touch help control the way humans and animals move their limbs in a repetitive way, such as in running. The findings eventually may aid in the treatment of people with neurological diseases and could lead to prosthetic limbs and robots that move more efficiently.

Johns Hopkins engineers, led by Noah Cowan, studied a juggling task to learn how the sense of touch contributes to rhythmic movement such as running.

In their paper, the team led by Johns Hopkins researchers detailed the unusual jump from juggling for fun to serious science. Jugglers, they explained, rely on repeated rhythmic motions to keep multiple balls aloft. Similar forms of rhythmic movement are also common in the animal world, where effective locomotion is equally important to a swift-moving gazelle and to the cheetah that’s chasing it.

“It turns out that the art of juggling provides an interesting window into many of the same questions that you try to answer when you study forms of locomotion, such as walking or running,” said Noah Cowan, an associate professor of mechanical engineering who supervised the research. “In our study, we had participants stand still and use their hands in a rhythmic way. It’s very much like watching them move their feet as they run. But we used juggling as a model for rhythmic motor coordination because it’s a simpler system to study.” Read more ..


Healthy Edge

Discovery of Virus Replication Leads to Advances on Dengue & West Nile Fever

February 10th 2014

Dengue fever and West Nile fever are mosquito-borne diseases that affect hundreds of millions of people worldwide each year, but there is no vaccine against either of the related viruses.

A team of scientists at the University of Michigan and Purdue University has discovered a key aspect both to how the viruses replicate in the cells of their host and how they manipulate the immune system as they spread. In a study published online in the journal Science, researchers led by Janet Smith of the U-M Life Sciences Institute describe for the first time the structure of a protein that helps the viruses replicate and spread infection. "Seeing the design of this key protein provides a target for a potential vaccine or even a therapeutic drug," Smith said.

The protein, NS1, is produced inside infected cells, where it plays a key role in replication of the virus. NS1 is also released into the bloodstream, where it may help disguise the infection from the patient's immune system and may play a role in the hemorrhage that is seen in severe dengue virus infection. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Cochlear Implants: With No External Hardware

February 9th 2014

Man cupping his ear

A cochlear implant that can be wirelessly recharged would use the natural microphone of the middle ear rather than a skull-mounted sensor

Cochlear implants — medical devices that electrically stimulate the auditory nerve — have granted at least limited hearing to hundreds of thousands of people worldwide who otherwise would be totally deaf. Existing versions of the device, however, require that a disk-shaped transmitter about an inch in diameter be affixed to the skull, with a wire snaking down to a joint microphone and power source that looks like an oversized hearing aid around the patient's ear.

Researchers at MIT's Microsystems Technology Laboratory (MTL), together with physicians from Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary (MEEI), have developed a new, low-power signal-processing chip that could lead to a cochlear implant that requires no external hardware. The implant would be wirelessly recharged and would run for about eight hours on each charge. Read more ..


Edge of Climate Change

Cause of Greenland Ice Loss Remains Elusive

February 8th 2014

Over the past two decades, ice loss from the Greenland Ice Sheet increased four-fold contributing to one-quarter of global sea level rise. However, the chain of events and physical processes that contributed to it has remained elusive. One likely trigger for the speed up and retreat of glaciers that contributed to this ice loss is ocean warming.

A review paper by physical oceanographers Fiamma Straneo at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and Patrick Heimbach at MIT published in Nature explains what scientists have learned from their research on and around Greenland over the past 20 years and describes the measurements and technology needed to continue to move the science forward. Read more ..


Ancient Days

RNA Sequencing of Barley Virus Reveals Crusader History

February 8th 2014

Scientists have for the first time sequenced an ancient RNA genome of a barley virus once believed to be only 150 years old. The discovery would set its origin back at least 2,000 years and revealing how intense farming at the time of the Crusades contributed to its spread.

Researchers at the University of Warwick in the UK have detected and sequenced the RNA genome of Barley Stripe Mosaic Virus (BSMV) in a 750-year-old barley grain found at a site near the River Nile in modern-day Egypt. Their study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

This new find challenges current beliefs about the age of the BSMV virus, which was first discovered in 1950 with the earliest record of symptoms just 100 years ago. Read more ..


The Edge of Materials Science

Graphene Called Amazing, Versatile Material of the Future

February 7th 2014

graphene

In 2004, two scientists at the University of Manchester in England isolated a carbon-based material called graphene, with some unusual properties. Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov hailed it as 'the wonder material of the 21st century,' and they were awarded the 2010 Nobel Prize in physics. Scientists now say that someday, graphene may change the way we live.

Graphene is the first man-made two-dimensional material. It is actually only a one-atom-thick layer of pure carbon. It is closely related to nanotubes, and microscopic graphite balls called fullerenes. Graphene is basically graphite, like the core of pencils, but its neatly-arranged and tightly-woven atoms make it 200 times stronger than a steel sheet of the same thickness. The leader of the graphene research team at Manchester University, Aravind Vijayaraghavan, said incredible strength is not its only quality. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Can Power of the Mind Control Chronic Pain?

February 6th 2014

Boy in pain

Utah researchers say they’ve developed a technique that allows patients to use the power of their minds to help treat chronic pain.

One in five people worldwide suffers from daily chronic pain, according to a 2004 report. A 2011 paper from the Institute of Medicine (IOM) showed that one in three U.S. adults is affected by this condition.

The University of Utah’s Eric Garland said his team’s technique not only helps relieve pain, but can also decrease prescription opioid misuse among chronic pain patients.

A variety of therapies are used to treat chronic pain including over-the-counter pain relievers,   exercise and diet, alternative medical therapies such as acupuncture, and prescription opiate-based pain medications, which can have serious side effects and lead to dependency.

Garland calls his new intervention technique Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) and said it is designed to train people to react differently to pain, stress and opioid-related cues. “Mental interventions can address physical problems, like pain, on both psychological and biological levels because the mind and body are interconnected,” Garland said. “Anything that happens in the brain happens in the body—so by changing brain functioning, you alter the functioning of the body.” Read more ..


Edge of Biology

Herbicide Use May Not be Sole Cause of Decline in Plant Diversity

February 4th 2014

The increasing use of chemical herbicides is often blamed for the declining plant biodiversity in farms. However, other factors beyond herbicide exposure may be more important to species diversity, according to Penn State researchers.

If herbicides are a key factor in the declining diversity, then thriving species would be more tolerant to widely used herbicides than rare or declining species, according to J. Franklin Egan, research ecologist, USDA-Agricultural Research Service.

"Many ecotoxicology studies have tested the response of various wild plant species to low dose herbicide exposures, but it is difficult to put these findings in context," said Egan. "Our approach was to compare the herbicide tolerances of plant species that are common and plant species that are rare in an intensively farmed region. We found that rare and common plant species had roughly similar tolerances to three commonly used herbicides." Read more ..


The Way We Are

New Canadian Study Analyzes Nightmares and Bad Dreams

February 3rd 2014

sleeping person

Waking up in the morning after having a bad dream at night might not be the best way to start the day, but, a terrifying nightmare can rock you awake from a sound sleep, leaving you scared and confused.

A new study released by psychology researchers Geneviève Robert and Antonio Zadra at the University of Montreal has revealed that nightmares indeed pack a much bigger emotional punch than simply having a bad dream.

Yes there is a difference between nightmares and bad dreams.  Zadra sums up the difference between the two in terms of intensity.

Nightmares, according to Zadra are disturbing dreams that actually wake you up and the awakening is directly tied into what was going on in the nightmare.  Having a bad dream can also be disturbing, but you continue to sleep and wake up as you normally would.  You may also remember the content of the bad dream as soon as you wake up or perhaps later in the day but, “there’s no temporal relationship between the content of the (bad) dream and us waking up from it,” said Zadra. Read more ..


Ancient Days

A Jordanian Connection to Europe Discovered

February 2nd 2014

Swedish archaeologists in Jordan led by Professor Peter M. Fischer from the University of Gothenburg have excavated a nearly 60-metre long well-preserved building from 1100 B.C. in the ancient settlement Tell Abu al-Kharaz. The building is from an era characterised by major migration.

New finds support the theory that groups of the so-called Sea Peoples emigrated to Tell Abu al-Kharaz. They derive from Southern or Eastern Europe and settled in the Eastern Mediterranean region all the way to the Jordan Valley.

Pottery from one of the rooms from 1100 B.C.‘We have evidence that culture from present Europe is represented in Tell Abu al-Kharaz. A group of the Sea Peoples of European descent, Philistines, settled down in the city,’ says Peter Fischer. ‘We have, for instance, found pottery resembling corresponding items from Greece and Cyprus in terms of form and decoration, and also cylindrical loom weights for textile production that could be found in central and south-east Europe around the same time.’ Read more ..


The Healthy Edge

Revealed: the Cause of Devastating Pandemics

February 2nd 2014

An international team of scientists has discovered that two of the world's most devastating plagues – the plague of Justinian and the Black Death, each responsible for killing as many as half the people in Europe—were caused by distinct strains of the same pathogen, one that faded out on its own, the other leading to worldwide spread and re-emergence in the late 1800s. These findings suggest a new strain of plague could emerge again in humans in the future.

"The research is both fascinating and perplexing, it generates new questions which need to be explored, for example why did this pandemic, which killed somewhere between 50 and 100 million people die out?" questions Hendrik Poinar, associate professor and director of the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre and an investigator with the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research.

The findings are dramatic because little has been known about the origins or cause of the Justinian Plague– which helped bring an end to the Roman Empire – and its relationship to the Black Death, some 800 years later. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

NIST Cell Membrane Model Studied as Future Dagnostic Tool

January 31st 2014

yeast cell membranes

Researchers at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and in Lithuania have used a NIST-developed laboratory model of a simplified cell membrane to accurately detect and measure a protein associated with a serious gynecological disease, bacterial vaginosis (BV), at extraordinarily low concentrations. The work illustrates how the artificial membrane could be used to improve disease diagnosis.

Caused by the bacteria Gardnerella vaginalis, BV is a very common health problem in women and has been linked to infertility, adverse pregnancy outcomes, post-surgery infections and increased risk for acquiring sexually transmitted diseases. Current diagnosis relies on time-consuming, labor-intensive and somewhat inconsistent laboratory cultures or immunological assays.

In a recent paper in the journal PLoS One,* researchers at NIST and Vilnius University (Vilnius, Lithuania) reported that they were able to reveal the presence of G. vaginalis by rapidly detecting and quantifying vaginolysin (VLY), a protein toxin produced exclusively by the bacteria, using the NIST model of cell membranes known as a tethered bilayer lipid membrane (tBLM).  Read more ..


The Glass Edge

Glass that Bends but Doesn't Break

January 29th 2014

glass water

Normally when you drop a drinking glass on the floor it shatters. But, in future, thanks to a technique developed in McGill’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, when the same thing happens the glass is likely to simply bend and become slightly deformed. That’s because Prof. François Barthelat and his team have successfully taken inspiration from the mechanics of natural structures like seashells in order to significantly increase the toughness of glass.

“Mollusk shells are made up of about 95 per cent chalk, which is very brittle in its pure form,” says Barthelat. “But nacre, or mother-of-pearl, which coats the inner shells, is made up of microscopic tablets that are a bit like miniature Lego building blocks, is known to be extremely strong and tough, which is why people have been studying its structure for the past twenty years.”

Previous attempts to recreate the structures of nacre have proved to be challenging, according to Barthelat. “Imagine trying to build a Lego wall with microscopic building blocks. It’s not the easiest thing in the world.” Instead, what he and his team chose to do was to study the internal ‘weak’ boundaries or edges to be found in natural materials like nacre and then use lasers to engrave networks of 3D micro-cracks in glass slides in order to create similar weak boundaries. The results were dramatic.

The researchers were able to increase the toughness of glass slides (the kind of glass rectangles that get put under microscopes) 200 times compared to non-engraved slides. By engraving networks of micro-cracks in configurations of wavy lines in shapes similar to the wavy edges of pieces in a jigsaw puzzle in the surface of borosilicate glass, they were able to stop the cracks from propagating and becoming larger. They then filled these micro-cracks with polyurethane, although according to Barthelat, this second process is not essential since the patterns of micro-cracks in themselves are sufficient to stop the glass from shattering. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Researchers Create New Flexible, Transparent Conductor

January 28th 2014

Smart phone

University of Houston researchers have developed a new stretchable and transparent electrical conductor, bringing the potential for a fully foldable cell phone or a flat-screen television that can be folded and carried under your arm closer to reality.

Zhifeng Ren, a physicist at the University of Houston and principal investigator at the Texas Center for Superconductivity, said there long has been research on portable electronics that could be rolled up or otherwise easily transported. But a material that is transparent and has both the necessary flexibility and conductivity has proved elusive – some materials have two of the components, but until now, finding one with all three has remained difficult.

The gold nanomesh electrodes produced by Ren and his research associates provide good electrical conductivity as well as transparency and flexibility, the researchers report in a paper. The material also has potential applications for biomedical devices, said Ren, lead author on the paper. The researchers reported that gold nanomesh electrodes, produced by the novel grain boundary lithography, increase resistance only slightly, even at a strain of 160 percent, or after 1,000 cycles at a strain of 50 percent. The nanomesh, a network of fully interconnected gold nanowires, has good electrical conductivity and transparency, and has "ultrahigh stretchability," according to the paper. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Electricity From Organ Movement Powers Body Implants

January 26th 2014

Pacemaker

Someday, implanted medical devices such as a heart pacemaker may be powered by the movement of the body’s organs. Researchers have demonstrated the potential of natural organ motion to do just that.

So-called piezoelectric materials produce electrical current when they are stressed or squeezed. Imagine, for example, electricity being created by stretching a rubber band.

John Rogers and colleagues at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have created a low-level current device by attaching piezoelectric materials to flexible ribbons of plastic. When the device was applied to moving organs, Rogers said it generated little bursts of electric current. 

“And that turns out to be a useful characteristic because when mounted on an organ like the heart, or the lung or the diaphragm, the natural motion of the organ then creates this bending motion," he said. "And that current can be stored in a battery, a tiny chip-scale battery, and then be used to power biomedical implants like cardiac pacemakers.” Read more ..


Nature's Edge

Skipping Pesticides, Farmers Control Weeds with Plants

January 25th 2014

Small Farm

A deep green field of rye swayed in a gentle breeze at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Beltsville, Maryland, research station last May, blissfully ignorant of its impending doom.

Two-meter-tall stalks sported budding seed heads that would never ripen into amber waves of grain.

With a rattle and a screech, a tractor rolled through the field, knocking the grass flat with a giant red rolling pin. Metal bars curving around the rolling pin crushed the rye and killed it.

Left behind was a solid carpet of flattened rye. It’s the latest in chemical-free weed control, explained USDA ecologist Steve Mirsky.

“It covers the ground,” he said. “It reduces the amount of light that gets down to the soil surface. And by keeping the ground cooler, it also inhibits the germination of weeds.” And that’s important, he added, because “weeds are becoming much more of an issue in agriculture again.” Read more ..


The Medical Edge

Can Fish Oil Help Preserve Brain Cells?

January 24th 2014

Alzheimers brain cells

People with higher levels of the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil may also have larger brain volumes in old age equivalent to preserving one to two years of brain health, according to a study published in the January 22, 2014, online issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Shrinking brain volume is a sign of Alzheimer’s disease as well as normal aging.

For the study, supported by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the levels of omega-3 fatty acids EPA+DHA in red blood cells were tested in 1,111 women who were part of the Women’s Health Initiative Memory Study. Eight years later, when the women were an average age of 78, MRI scans were taken to measure their brain volume. Those with higher levels of omega-3s had larger total brain volumes eight years later. Those with twice as high levels of fatty acids (7.5 vs. 3.4 percent) had a 0.7 percent larger brain volume. Read more ..


The Future of Food

Aquaponics Offers a Vision of Sustainable Food Production for the Future

January 24th 2014

Rob Handler is about to harvest his research. Typically, that means the gigantic kale and nice-sized onions and basil he’s growing nine stories up in the Dow Environmental Science and Engineering greenhouse. Today, though, it means the key ingredient for fish tacos, to be served at a residence hall.

“We have been growing tilapa,” he says. “They are a hardy fish that grows well in a controlled environment.”

They are also the key ingredient in his aquaponics project, where fish waste fertilizes the plants and plants keep fish healthy by cleaning the water.

“It’s the same interaction that happens in the natural world,” says Handler, operations manager of the Sustainable Futures Institute at Michigan Technological University. “We are just managing things with tanks and pipes.” Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Bio-Sensors in 'Smart' Clothes May Soon Give Warning Signs of Illness

January 23rd 2014

Click to select Image

As the country settles in for yet another winter full of colds and flu, imagine if your undershirt or socks not only kept you warm but also warned you about an oncoming infection. A $400,000 National Science Foundation CAREER Award granted to Michigan State University’s Assistant Professor Peter Lillehoj may someday make that a reality.

Lillehoj will spend the next five years advancing research on innovative wearable biosensors that can be used to detect illnesses and monitor health. “This technology will lead to lightweight and unobtrusive sensing systems that can be directly integrated onto fabrics and garments,” Lillehoj said. He teaches mechanical engineering at the East Lansing-based institution. Read more ..


EnteThe Edge of Nature

Study: Plants Might Lack Traits Needed to Cope With Climate Change

January 22nd 2014

Sunrays through trees

A new study suggests that modern flowering plants, trees and agricultural crops may not have the characteristics, or the time, to respond to rapid human-induced climate change.

The report in Nature looks at how plants evolved to cope with cold in the past, but finds these same mechanisms may not provide the same defense against human-induced climate change.

Survival traits

Flowering plants lived in warm tropical climates 243 million years ago. Since then, they have spread across the planet into much harsher places. George Washington University ecologist Amy Zanne and her colleagues wanted to understand how the plants survived in a colder environment. Read more ..


The Edge of Medicine

Training Your Brain Using Neurofeedback

January 21st 2014

Brain Waves

A new brain-imaging technique enables people to ‘watch’ their own brain activity in real time and to control or adjust function in pre-determined brain regions. The study from the Montreal Neurological Institute and Hospital – The Neuro, McGill University and the McGill University Health Centre, published in NeuroImage, is the first to demonstrate that magnetoencephalography (MEG) can be used as a potential therapeutic tool to control and train specific targeted brain regions. This advanced brain-imaging technology has important clinical applications for numerous neurological and neuropsychiatric conditions.

MEG is a non-invasive imaging technology that measures magnetic fields generated by nerve cell circuits in the brain. MEG captures these tiny magnetic fields with remarkable accuracy and has unrivaled time resolution - a millisecond time scale across the entire brain. “This means you can observe your own brain activity as it happens,” says Dr. Sylvain Baillet, acting Director of the Brain Imaging Centre at The Neuro and lead investigator on the study. “We can use MEG for neurofeedback – a process by which people can see on-going physiological information that they aren’t usually aware of, in this case, their own brain activity, and use that information to train themselves to self-regulate. Our ultimate hope and aim is to enable patients to train specific regions of their own brain, in a way that relates to their particular condition. For example neurofeedback can be used by people with epilepsy so that they could train to modify brain activity in order to avoid a seizure.” Read more ..


The Edge of Space

Milky Way May Have Formed 'Inside-Out'

January 20th 2014

Milky Way spine structure

A breakthrough using data from the Gaia-ESO project has provided evidence backing up theoretically predicted divisions in the chemical composition of the stars that make up the Milky Way's disc – the vast collection of giant gas clouds and billions of stars that give our Galaxy its 'flying saucer' shape.

By tracking the fast-produced elements, specifically magnesium in this study, astronomers can determine how rapidly different parts of the Milky Way were formed. The research suggests that stars in the inner regions of the Galactic disc were the first to form, supporting ideas that our Galaxy grew from the inside-out.

Using data from the 8-m VLT in Chile, one of the world's largest telescopes, an international team of astronomers took detailed observations of stars with a wide range of ages and locations in the Galactic disc to accurately determine their 'metallicity': the amount of chemical elements in a star other than hydrogen and helium, the two elements most stars are made from. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Energy Storage in Miniaturized Capacitors May Boost Green Energy Technology

January 19th 2014

computer board

The capacitors of electronic circuits function something like batteries – storing electrical charge that can be quickly dumped to power devices like camera flashes. So-called "supercapacitors" take the energy-storing abilities of capacitors a step further, storing a far greater charge in a much smaller package.

In a paper published in the journal AIP Advances researchers describe the possibility of fabricating a new class of high heat-tolerant electronics that would employ supercapacitors made from a material called calcium-copper-titanate, or CCTO, which the researchers have identified for the first time as a practical energy-storage material.

Devices using CCTO supercapacitors could compete with similar devices currently in use and could operate at much higher temperatures than standard silicon circuits, "more like the temperature in an engine," says William Stapleton. CCTO had been identified as a promising supercapacitor material before, but its development for practical applications faced unexpected hurdles. Read more ..


The Edge of Speed

Smooth Sailing: Rough Surfaces That Can Reduce Drag

January 18th 2014

Cargo Ship

From the sleek hulls of racing yachts to Michael Phelps' shaved legs, most objects that move through the water quickly are also smooth. But researchers from UCLA have found that bumpiness can sometimes be better.

"A properly designed rough surface, contrary to our intuition, can reduce skin-friction drag," said John Kim, a professor in the mechanical and aerospace engineering department at UCLA. Kim and his colleagues modeled the fluid flow between two surfaces covered with tiny ridges. They found that even in turbulent conditions the rough surface reduced the drag created by the friction of flowing water. The researchers report their findings in the journal Physics of Fluids.

The idea of using a rough surface for reduced drag had been explored before, but resulted in limited success. More recently scientists have begun experimenting with rough surfaces that are also extremely difficult to wet, a property called superhydrophobicity. In theory this means that the surfaces can trap air bubbles, creating a hydrodynamic cushion, but in practice they often lose their air cushions in chaotic flows. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Network Neutrality Debate May Be Headed Back to FCC

January 16th 2014

computer keyboard woman hands

Despite reports to the contrary, the debate over network neutrality is far from over. An appeals court recently overturned rules that bar broadband providers from blocking or slowing Internet traffic. But the court also suggested that the Federal Communications Commission can take another shot at the issue by reconsidering how it regulates the Internet.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to require broadband providers to treat online content equally -- leaving them free to manipulate online traffic or charge companies such as Netflix Inc. a premium for faster delivery.

If the FCC decides to take up the issue again, it will face some of the most formidable lobbyists in town. Three Internet service providers were among the top 20 lobbying spenders in the first nine months of 2013. Combined they hired more than 350 lobbyists, 14 of whom were former members of Congress. Read more ..


The Safety Edge

Carbon Nanotubes Promise Improved Flame-Resistant Coating

January 15th 2014

Fire Engine

Using an approach akin to assembling a club sandwich at the nanoscale, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) researchers have succeeded in crafting a uniform, multi-walled carbon-nanotube-based coating that greatly reduces the flammability of foam commonly used in upholstered furniture and other soft furnishings.

The flammability of the nanotube-coated polyurethane foam was reduced 35 percent compared with untreated foam. As important, the coating prevented melting and pooling of the foam, which generates additional flames that are a major contributor to the spread of fires.

Nationwide, fires in which upholstered furniture is the first item ignited account for about 6,700 home fires annually and result in 480 civilian deaths, or almost 20 percent of home fire deaths between 2006 and 2010, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Read more ..


The Medical Edge

Scientists Develop Cancer-Killing Protein

January 13th 2014

RUTH breast cancer detection device

Some 90 percent of people who die from cancer do so, say experts, because the disease has metastasized, or spread.  Researchers say they believe they can dramatically reduce the mortality rate with a protein combination that kills cancer cells on contact. 

Surgery, radiation and chemotherapy are often effective at treating people with a solid tumor, but once the cancer has spread and formed tiny tumors at distant sites, chances for a successful recovery are dismal.

Now researchers at Cornell University in New York have isolated a protein that goes by the acronym of TRAIL that causes metastasizing cancer cells to implode on contact. The biomedical engineers led by Mike King have attached TRAIL to immune system white blood cells so it circulates throughout the body, ready to destroy. Read more ..


The Digital Edge

Slew of New Products Unveiled at Consumer Electronics Show

January 12th 2014

3D tv

For a glimpse into the future, look no further than the International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.  Self-driving shuttles and solar cars are on display this year.  And while 3D printers are a relatively well-known new technology, this year’s show offers a fresh spin - 3D-printed food.

You can find just about anything at CES. Automobile enthusiasts are in luck this year.  Renault revealed an electric race car.

Audi unveiled a self-driving A7 - the cars park themselves.  Last year, the technology needed for their driver-less sedan took up the entire rear end of the car.  This year, the computer fits on a card about the size of an iPad.

Induct showed off its self-piloted shuttle, called the Navia. The company's Max LeFevre says it's also 100 percent electric. "It's a shuttle, so it's for public transport for eight to 10 passengers. It works with lasers which work kind of like a bat," he said. "It sends out beams that bounce off the walls and other things in the environment. That way the vehicle can create the map of the environment." Read more ..


The Edge of Healthcare

Stem Cells Injected into Nerve Guide Tubes Repair Injured Periferal Nerve

January 11th 2014

Docs and Tech

Using skin-derived stem cells (SDSCs) and a previously developed collagen tube designed to successfully bridge gaps in injured nerves in rat models, the research team in Milan, Italy that established and tested the procedure has successfully rescued peripheral nerves in the upper arms of a patient suffering peripheral nerve damage who would have otherwise had to undergo amputations.

"Peripheral nerve repair with satisfactory functional recovery remains a great surgical challenge, especially for severe nerve injuries resulting in extended nerve defects," said study corresponding author Dr. Yvan Torrente, of the Department of Pathophysiology and Transplantation at the University of Milan. "However, we hypothesized that the combination of autologous (self-donated) SDSCs placed in collagen tubes to bridge gaps in the damaged nerves would restore the continuity of injured nerves and save from amputation the upper arms of a patient with poly-injury to motor and sensory nerves." Read more ..


Healthcare on Edge

Sex Matters for Sleeping Sickness Microbes

January 10th 2014

Research and Development Chemistry

Scientists are keeping a close eye on the mating habits of microscopic organisms, including those that cause African sleeping sickness. They say what happens between two parasites can have major consequences for humans.

Researcher Wendy Gibson said when it comes to single-cell parasites known as trypanosomes, sex matters. They had once been thought to reproduce by splitting in half. But scientists say they have a sex life.

“This is important because if they can mate, it means that they can swap genes around. For example, if you’ve got a strain of parasite that’s resistant to a drug and it mates with one that isn’t, then it can swap that gene into the one that’s sensitive to the drug. And then, of course, you’ve got a new parasite, effectively, that is also resistant to the drug. That’s dangerous,” she said. Gibson is professor of protozoology at the University of Bristol. Read more ..


The Edge of Health

Wearable ECG Recorder Measures Heart Data Together With Patient’s Physical Activity

January 9th 2014

Baby Boomer

It doesn't matter if the doctor suspects cardiac arrhythmia, myocarditis or a heart attack, whenever the heart's health is at stake the reading, recording and analysis of the electrocardiogram (ECG) is the most important examination method to obtain indications of coronary diseases. Patients typically consult their doctor or remain in hospital under observation for a longer period of time after an operation. To alleviate such procedures, researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Photonic Microsystems IPMS in Dresden have developed a comfortable ECG recorder that reads and analyses long-term ECGs at home in everyday conditions and then transmits the results to the doctor in real-time by radio.

During an ECG the doctor only sees the temporal course of the electrical stimulation of the heart. In order to be able to draw conclusions about the function of the organ and thus find indications of possible coronary diseases he has to interpret the resulting pattern of the changes in tension of the heart. Read more ..


The Edge of Healthcare

Bio-Inspired Glue Keeps Hearts Securely Sealed

January 8th 2014

echocardiogram on child

When a child is born with a heart defect such as a hole in the heart, the highly invasive therapies are challenging due to an inability to quickly and safely secure devices inside the heart. Sutures take too much time to stitch and can cause stress on fragile heart tissue, and currently available clinical adhesives are either too toxic or tend to lose their sticking power in the presence of blood or under dynamic conditions, such as in a beating heart.

"About 40,000 babies are born with congenital heart defects in the United States annually, and those that require treatment are plagued with multiple surgeries to deliver or replace non-degradable implants that do not grow with young patients," says Jeffrey Karp, co-senior study author of a new study that may improve how surgeons treat congenital heart defects.

In the preclinical study, researchers from Boston Children's Hospital, BWH and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) developed a bio-inspired adhesive that could rapidly attach biodegradable patches inside a beating heart—in the exact place where congenital holes in the heart occur, such as with ventricular heart defects. Read more ..


The Cellular Edge

The Microscopic 'Spooky Action' of Water in Cellular Structures

January 7th 2014

In a sort of biological "spooky action at a distance," water in a cell slows down in the tightest confines between proteins and develops the ability to affect other proteins much farther away, University of Michigan researchers have discovered.

On a fundamental level, the findings show some of the complex and unexpected ways that water behaves inside cells. In a practical sense, they could provide insights into how and why proteins clump together in diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's. Understanding how proteins aggregate could help researchers figure out how to prevent them from doing so. Read more ..


The Healthcare Edge

Chinese Plant Ingredient Eases Chronic Pain

January 6th 2014

Boy in pain

Researchers have discovered a natural ingredient in an ancient Chinese plant that relieves chronic pain, including backache.  The compound comes from the roots of the flowering Corydalis herb, which the Chinese have used for centuries to treat pain.

The Corydalis plant is grown primarily in central eastern China. For thousands of years, people in the Asian country have harvested the plant’s roots or tubers, ground them up and boiled them in vinegar.  The concoction, often processed into a tea, was given to treat pain.  Although it is effective in easing all types of pain, including temporary and inflammatory joint pain, it may have its greatest benefit in treating long-term nagging pain, for which experts say there is no good medicine.
 
A researcher with the University of California Davis, Olivier Civelli, says the active compound in Corydalis identified by researchers is dehydrocorybulbine or DHCB. In animal experiments, DHCB appears to work well in easing low-level chronic pain. The plant is a member of the poppy family.

Civelli explains so-called opiod drugs like morphine are often given to treat chronic pain when they should only be prescribed for a short period of time because of their addictive properties. But DHCB, says Civelli, appears to be both effective and non-addictive in the treatment of persistent pain. Read more ..



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