Monthly Archives: March 2008

Rat Brain Simulation Taken To New Level

Out of the Blue

In the basement of a university in Lausanne, Switzerland sit four black boxes, each about the size of a refrigerator, and filled with 2,000 IBM microchips stacked in repeating rows. Together they form the processing core of a machine that can handle 22.8 trillion operations per second. It contains no moving parts and is eerily silent. When the computer is turned on, the only thing you can hear is the continuous sigh of the massive air conditioner. This is Blue Brain.

The name of the supercomputer is literal: Each of its microchips has been programmed to act just like a real neuron in a real brain. The behavior of the computer replicates, with shocking precision, the cellular events unfolding inside a mind. “This is the first model of the brain that has been built from the bottom-up,” says Henry Markram, a neuroscientist at Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the director of the Blue Brain project. “There are lots of models out there, but this is the only one that is totally biologically accurate. We began with the most basic facts about the brain and just worked from there.”

The Blue Brain project is now at a crucial juncture. The first phase of the project—”the feasibility phase”—is coming to a close. The skeptics, for the most part, have been proven wrong. It took less than two years for the Blue Brain supercomputer to accurately simulate a neocortical column, which is a tiny slice of brain containing approximately 10,000 neurons, with about 30 million synaptic connections between them. “The column has been built and it runs,” Markram says. “Now we just have to scale it up.” Blue Brain scientists are confident that, at some point in the next few years, they will be able to start simulating an entire brain. “If we build this brain right, it will do everything,” Markram says. I ask him if that includes selfconsciousness: Is it really possible to put a ghost into a machine? “When I say everything, I mean everything,” he says, and a mischievous smile spreads across his face.

When listening to Markram speculate, it’s easy to forget that the Blue Brain simulation is still just a single circuit, confined within a silent supercomputer. The machine is not yet alive. And yet Markram can be persuasive when he talks about his future plans. His ambitions are grounded in concrete steps. Once the team is able to model a complete rat brain—that should happen in the next two years—Markram will download the simulation into a robotic rat, so that the brain has a body. He’s already talking to a Japanese company about constructing the mechanical animal. “The only way to really know what the model is capable of is to give it legs,” he says. “If the robotic rat just bumps into walls, then we’ve got a problem.”

See a presentation of Markrams work here.

‘Star Wars’ arm opens up new world for NH amputee

‘Star Wars’ arm opens up new world for NH amputee


A state-of-the-art robotic arm being developed at DEKA Research and Development in Manchester has enabled double amputee Chuck Hildreth to perform feats he never thought he would be able to accomplish again.

Hildreth, 44, lost both arms 26 years ago while painting a power substation; 15,000 volts of electricity surged through his body. His right arm was burned so badly doctors had to remove the shoulder blade and were able to save only a stub of his less-damaged left arm. He also lost three toes on each foot.

After years of using and discarding a number of clumsy and uncomfortable prosthetic devices, Hildreth is now one of three men taking part in the testing of the new prosthetic device known as the “Luke Arm” for its resemblance to the one Luke Skywalker was fitted with in the second “Star Wars” movie.

“I’m very fortunate to be part of this project. It’s one of the things I never thought I’d see in my lifetime,” Hildreth said.

Within hours of being outfitted with the arm, he was able to pick up pieces of wood, use a cordless power drill and even pick up a sheetrock screw and use the drill to put it into a sheetrock board.

See the video.

Astronomers discover largest dark matter structures, spanning 270M light-years

Astronomers discover largest dark matter structures, spanning 270M light-years

A University of British Columbia astronomer with an international team has discovered the largest structures of dark matter ever seen. Measuring 270 million light-years across, these dark matter structures criss-cross the night sky, each spanning an area that is eight times larger than the full moon.

“The results are a major leap forward since the presence of a cosmic dark matter web that extends over such large distances has never been observed before,” says Ludovic Van Waerbeke, an assistant professor in the Dept. of Physics and Astronomy.

To glimpse the unseen structures, the team of French and Canadian scientists “X-rayed” the dark matter, an invisible web that makes up more than 80 per cent of the mass of the universe.

The team used a recently developed technique called “weak gravitational lensing,” which is similar to taking an X-ray of the body to reveal the underlying skeleton. The study relied on data gathered from the world’s largest digital camera.

“This new knowledge is crucial for us to understand the history and evolution of the cosmos,” says Van Waerbeke. “Such a tool will also enable us to glimpse a little more of the nature of dark matter.”

Hatemail – The First One After Three Years

Pretty amusing. Especially considering the fact I mostly quote and hardly write anything on here myself.

from: David Appell
date: Sat, Mar 15, 2008 at 3:40 AM

I have been reading your blog for about three months, but… I am going
to stop and have taken you out of my RSS feed.

Your optimism is without limits. You think every little scientific
advance is a great thing, without analysis of the downsides or even
whether the development will pan out. You throw all kinds of numbers
around with no context whatsoever. You think *everything* will pan out.
That’s a joke. Almost everything peters out and amounts to nothing.
You’re exactly what’s wrong with so much of futurism.

You don’t seem to understand this.

Your blind cheerleading is useless. It’s certainly not informative. It’s
a waste of time.

David Appell, freelance science journalist

China’s Solar Hot Water Capacity Will Soon be Equivalent to 40 Nuclear Plants

China’s Solar Hot Water Capacity Will Soon be Equivalent to 40 Nuclear Plants

  • A solar water heater in China costs less than $200. Without one, a family wanting hot water would have to buy an electric water heater for about the same price and pay up to $120 per year for electricity. The payback is almost instantaneous.
  • By relying on the sun, the citizens of Rizhao have cut carbon dioxide emissions by almost 53 thousand tons per year. Air quality has remained much better than in most urban areas of China, luring foreign investors and increasing tourism.
  • Experts project that by 2010 the number of solar water heaters installed in China will equal the thermal equivalent of the electrical capacity of 40 large nuclear power plants. Globally, solar water heaters have the capacity to produce as much energy as more than 140 nukes.

Solar collectors installed on the rooftops.

An Assistant Who May Need the Occasional Battery

An Assistant Who May Need the Occasional Battery


POINT-AND-CLICK devices have long controlled computer screens. But soon they may also control some household robots that can trundle around living rooms, doing useful jobs.

One robot in development at an Atlanta laboratory is commanded by humans with an ordinary laser pointer, the same kind used by lecturers presenting slide shows. Here, though, the pointer tells a robot what to fetch. Shine its bright light on a dropped medicine bottle on the floor, and the robot will go to the spot, retrieve the bottle and roll back with it.

The robot doesn’t yet say, “Your medicine bottle, sir,” but that may also happen someday, said Charlie Kemp, an assistant professor and roboticist in the department of biomedical engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He created the robot with support from graduate students and colleagues.

World’s Most Compact Neurosurgical Microscope with Horizontal Optics

World’s Most Compact Neurosurgical Microscope with Horizontal Optics


Leica Microsystems has made a significant appearance in the history of optics design by the introduction of horizontal optics technology. The optics carrier is so compact that the surgeon naturally adopts a healthy working posture, this allows hours of fatigue-free work. The Leica M720 OH5 supports the surgeon as he works; he can see more and see better, work even more safely and generally benefit from the perfect ergonomics. Neurosurgeons will love this gadget.

Yale Lab Engineers Virus That Can Kill Deadly Brain Tumors

Yale Lab Engineers Virus That Can Kill Deadly Brain Tumors

A laboratory-engineered virus that can find its way through the vascular system and kill deadly brain tumors has been developed by Yale School of Medicine researchers, it was reported this week in the Journal of Neuroscience.

Each year 200,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with a brain tumor, and metastatic tumors and glioblastomas make up a large part of these tumors. There currently is no cure for these types of tumors, and they generally result in death within months.

Anthony van den Pol, professor of neurosurgery at Yale, said current treatments include chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, which can prolong life for a few months, but generally fail because they don’t eliminate all of the cancer cells.

To test their tumor-targeting virus, van den Pol and his team transplanted tumor tissue from human or mouse brains into the brains of mice. They then inoculated the mice with a lab-created vesicular stomatitis virus, a replicating virus distantly related to the rabies virus.