Monthly Archives: April 2009

Scientists Discover a Hidden “Memory” Switch in Our Brains

If you’ve e ver been educated, and the fact that you’re reading this means that you either have or are extremely good at guessing, you’ve tried to find a way to enhance your memory. Reading things ten times, flash cards, enough coffee to accelerate an elephant to eighty-eight miles an hour – and none of them work. Now scientists may have found an all-purpose “memory on” switch hiding in your head.

A team of German an UK researchers have applied magnetoencephalographic techniques to look inside the very living brain of dozens of people, and if that fact doesn’t impress you chalk one up to “humans can get used to anything.” These people have machines that can scan your mind and draw maps! Sure, those maps are like urban planners trying to document a computer chip, not really sure of which does what or how to represent it, but we can still see some general functions from all the data acquired.

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Slowing Our Aging Clock -World’s Leading Expert Tells How

Just Say NO To Old Age: Professor X isn’t the only one with incredible mental powers: recent research says that you might be even better at brain-boosting, helping heal yourself with the power of a positive attitude – while he can’t even summon up the mental energy to stand.

The power of positive thinking might make us sound infinity percent more likely to wear hemp and say “man” an inappropriate number of times for science reporters (i.e. ever), but it’s real research at Harvard. Professor Ellen Langer has conducted several studies into “mindfulness theory”, researching just how much your attitude affects your actual body. The answer: quite a bit.

One of Benjamin Button’s many stories-within-stories in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, involves the tale of a clock built for the New Orleans train station that is designed to run backwards, in the hope that it will resurrect the First World War dead.

With a similar result in mind, in one experiment Langer shut several septuagenarians in a hotel that had been redecorated in mid-eighties style, eliminating all evidence of the last two decades. Subjects were instructed to act as if they’d really gone all Doctor Who, and after only seven days they were faster, stronger, better than before. Stronger for seventy-year olds, anyway, and certainly stronger than a control group who didn’t get this amateur time-travel and were basically left to think about how damn old they were.

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New Nano-Beads Laced With Venom Slow Cancer Spread

They’re not quite as efficient as Borg technology. But new “nanoprobes” made by combining scorpion venom with tiny metal beads are giving the fight against cancer a big performance boost.

Previous work had shown that chlorotoxin, a chemical derived from the giant Israeli scorpion, affects a protein on the outside of brain tumor cells called MMP-2. This protein is thought to help the cancer cells spread.

Chlorotoxin binds to MMP-2 like a key fitting in a lock. When the chemical latches on, both it and the protein get sucked into the cell.

Fewer MMP-2 sites on a cell surface make it harder for the cancer cell to travel to new regions in the brain.

In a new study, scientists chemically bonded iron oxide nanoparticles with a lab-made version of chlorotoxin to create tiny nanoprobes, each carrying up to 20 chlorotoxin molecules.

“So when a tumor cell uptakes a single nanoparticle, it is absorbing quite a few chlorotoxin molecules at once,” said study leader Miqin Zhang of the University of Washington.

The researchers found that the nanoprobes can halt the spread of brain tumors in mice by 98 percent, compared to 45 percent with the scorpion venom alone.

A company called Transmolecular Inc. is already testing chlorotoxin by itself as a brain cancer therapy for humans.

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Medicine goes digital

The convergence of biology and engineering is turning health care into an information industry. That will be disruptive, says Vijay Vaitheeswaran (interviewed here), but also hugely beneficial to patients.

Innovation and medicine go together. The ancient Egyptians are thought to have performed surgery back in 2750BC, and the Romans developed medical tools such as forceps and surgical needles. In modern times medicine has been transformed by waves of discovery that have brought marvels like antibiotics, vaccines and heart stents.

Given its history of innovation, the health-care sector has been surprisingly reluctant to embrace information technology (IT). Whereas every other big industry has computerised with gusto since the 1980s, doctors in most parts of the world still work mainly with pen and paper.

But now, in fits and starts, medicine is at long last catching up. As this special report will explain, it is likely to be transformed by the introduction of electronic health records that can be turned into searchable medical databases, providing a “smart grid” for medicine that will not only improve clinical practice but also help to revive drugs research. Developing countries are already using mobile phones to put a doctor into patients’ pockets. Devices and diagnostics are also going digital, advancing such long-heralded ideas as telemedicine, personal medical devices for the home and smart pills.

The first technological revolution in modern biology started when James Watson and Francis Crick described the structure of DNA half a century ago. That established the fields of molecular and cell biology, the basis of the biotechnology industry. The sequencing of the human genome nearly a decade ago set off a second revolution which has started to illuminate the origins of diseases.

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Blind to be cured with stem cells

British scientists have developed the world’s first stem cell therapy to cure the most common cause of blindness. Surgeons predict it will become a routine, one-hour procedure that will be generally available in six or seven years’ time.

The treatment involves replacing a layer of degenerated cells with new ones created from embryonic stem cells. It was pioneered by scientists and surgeons from the Institute of Ophthalmology at University College London and Moorfields eye hospital.

This week Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical research company, will announce its financial backing to bring the therapy to patients.

The treatment will tackle age-related macular degeneration (AMD), the most common cause of blindness. It affects more than 500,000 Britons and the number is forecast to increase significantly as people live longer. The disease involves the loss of eye cells.

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‘Instant on’ computing

Materials researchers say rebooting soon may be a thing of the past

The ferroelectric materials found in today’s “smart cards” used in subway, ATM and fuel cards soon may eliminate the time-consuming booting and rebooting of computer operating systems by providing an “instant-on” capability as well as preventing losses from power outages.

Researchers supported by a National Science Foundation (NSF) nanoscale interdisciplinary research team award and three Materials Research Science and Engineering Centers at Cornell University, Penn State University and Northwestern University recently added ferroelectric capability to material used in common computer transistors, a feat scientists tried to achieve for more than half a century. They reported their findings in the April 17 journal Science.

Ferroelectric materials provide low-power, high-efficiency electronic memory. Smart cards use the technology to instantly reveal and update stored information when waved before a reader. A computer with this capability could instantly provide information and other data to the user.

Researchers led by Cornell University materials scientist Darrell Schlom took strontium titanate, a normally non-ferroelectric variant of the ferroelectric material used in smart cards, and deposited it on silicon–the principal component of most semiconductors and integrated circuits–in such a way that the silicon squeezed it into a ferroelectric state.

“It’s great to see fundamental research on ordered layering of materials, or epitaxial growth, under strained conditions pay off in such a practical manner, particularly as it relates to ultra-thin ferroelectrics” said Lynnette Madsen, the NSF program director responsible for the Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team award.

The result could pave the way for a next-generation of memory devices that are lower power, higher speed and more convenient to use. For everyday computer users, it could mean no more waiting for the operating system to come online or to access memory slowly from the hard drive.

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Cold Fusion Is Hot Again

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Twenty years ago it appeared, for a moment, that all our energy problems could be solved. It was the announcement of cold fusion – nuclear energy like that which powers the sun – but at room temperature on a table top. It promised to be cheap, limitless and clean. Cold fusion would end our dependence on the Middle East and stop those greenhouse gases blamed for global warming. It would change everything.

But then, just as quickly as it was announced, it was discredited. So thoroughly, that cold fusion became a catch phrase for junk science. Well, a funny thing happened on the way to oblivion – for many scientists today, cold fusion is hot again.

“We can yield the power of nuclear physics on a tabletop. The potential is unlimited. That is the most powerful energy source known to man,” researcher Michael McKubre told 60 Minutes correspondent Scott Pelley.

McKubre says he has seen that energy more than 50 times in cold fusion experiments he’s doing at SRI International, a respected California lab that does extensive work for the government.

McKubre is an electro-chemist who imagines, in 20 years, the creation of a clean nuclear battery. “For example, a laptop would come pre-charged with all of the energy that you would ever intend to use. You’re now decoupled from your charger and the wall socket,” he explained.

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Simulated brain closer to thought

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A detailed simulation of a small region of a brain built molecule by molecule has been constructed and has recreated experimental results from real brains.

The “Blue Brain” has been put in a virtual body, and observing it gives the first indications of the molecular and neural basis of thought and memory.

Scaling the simulation to the human brain is only a matter of money, says the project’s head.

The work was presented at the European Future Technologies meeting in Prague.

The Blue Brain project launched in 2005 as the most ambitious brain simulation effort ever undertaken.

While many computer simulations have attempted to code in “brain-like” computation or to mimic parts of the nervous systems and brains of a variety of animals, the Blue Brain project was conceived to reverse-engineer mammal brains from real laboratory data and to build up a computer model down to the level of the molecules that make them up.

The first phase of the project is now complete; researchers have modeled the neocortical column – a unit of the mammalian brain known as the neocortex which is responsible for higher brain functions and thought.

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Scientists on track to erase your worst fears

Washington: Scientists are on track to block your worst fears after identifying the most prominent neurotransmitter in the brain that plays a key role in the process of “unlearning.”

It could eventually help develop therapies to treat a variety of Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including phobias and anxiety.

PTSD is an anxiety disorder that can develop after exposure to a terrifying event or ordeal in which grave physical harm occurred or was threatened.

According to researchers at California’s Salk Institute for Biological Studies, a receptor for glutamate, the most prominent neurotransmitter in the brain, plays a crucial role in the process of “unlearning”.

“Most people agree that failure to ‘unlearn’ is a hallmark of post-traumatic stress disorders and if we had a drug that affects this gene it could help soldiers returning from war to ‘unlearn’ their fear memories,” said Stephen F. Heinemann, a professor at Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, who led the study, published in the current issue of the Journal of Neuroscience.

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Building a Brain on a Silicon Chip

An international team of scientists in Europe has created a silicon chip designed to function like a human brain. With 200,000 neurons linked up by 50 million synaptic connections, the chip is able to mimic the brain’s ability to learn more closely than any other machine.

Although the chip has a fraction of the number of neurons or connections found in a brain, its design allows it to be scaled up, says Karlheinz Meier, a physicist at Heidelberg University, in Germany, who has coordinated the Fast Analog Computing with Emergent Transient States project, or FACETS.

The hope is that recreating the structure of the brain in computer form may help to further our understanding of how to develop massively parallel, powerful new computers, says Meier.

This is not the first time someone has tried to recreate the workings of the brain. One effort called the Blue Brain project, run by Henry Markram at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland, has been using vast databases of biological data recorded by neurologists to create a hugely complex and realistic simulation of the brain on an IBM supercomputer.

FACETS has been tapping into the same databases. “But rather than simulating neurons,” says Karlheinz, “we are building them.” Using a standard eight-inch silicon wafer, the researchers recreate the neurons and synapses as circuits of transistors and capacitors, designed to produce the same sort of electrical activity as their biological counterparts.

A neuron circuit typically consists of about 100 components, while a synapse requires only about 20. However, because there are so much more of them, the synapses take up most of the space on the wafer, says Karlheinz.

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