Baxter

Brain-controlled robots. CSAIL system enables people to correct robot mistakes using brain signals.

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Sick Genius

  • CRISPR-Cas9 is a unique technology that enables geneticists and medical researchers to edit parts of the genome by removing, adding or altering sections of the DNA sequence.
  • It is currently the simplest, most versatile and precise method of genetic manipulation and is therefore causing a buzz in the science world.

How does it work? That’s how. Amazing stuff, really. However… Editing genes to eliminate cancer or Schizophrenia could stop the rise of geniuses, scientist warns.

 If you haven’t followed the link, the article sums up the following: Dr. James Kozubek, the author of ‘Modern Prometheus: Editing the Human Genome with Crispr-Cas9’ suggests that the gene-editing technology Crispr-Cas9 — which is being tested in the US and China to curb the spread of cancer — is not completely a positive.

In 'Modern Prometheus,' Kozubek says the gene-editing technology Crispr-Cas9 ¿ which is being tested in the US and China to curb the spread of cancer ¿ is not  completely a positive thing‘Before we begin modifying our genes with gene editing tools such as Crispr-Cas9, we’d be smart to recall that genetic variants that contribute to psychiatric conditions may even be beneficial depending on the environment or genetic background.’

In a word, while gene modification technique is being tested in the US and China to curb the spread of cancer and it may also erase depression or Schizophrenia, it could eliminate geniuses — as high intelligence are often associated with such disorders.

  • Writers are 10 times more likely to have Bipolar Disorder.
  • Poets are diagnosed with it 40 times more often than the general population.
  • Thomas Edison was ‘addled’ and kicked out of school.
  • Tennessee Williams, as a teenager on the boulevards of Paris felt afraid of the process of thought and came within a hairsbreadth of going quite mad.
  • Scientists tend to think of variations in life as problems to be solved, deviations and abnormalities outside of a normal curve.
  • In reality, Darwin showed us that evolution does not progress toward an ideal concept or model, but rather is a work of tinkering toward adaptation in local niches.

Go and figure…

An Alien Construction Project?

kic.PNGWhat in the name of the Holy Universe are they building over there?

Where? 

On KIC 8462852

Who are THEY? 

Aliens.

You are seriously kidding, right?

No. It’s all over the media…

Over the course of days, this star [KIC 8462852] can dim by more than 20%, something that ordinary stars never do. Then it will brighten, followed by a relapse of darkening weeks or months later. The amount of dimming is variable, and doesn’t occur with the regular cadence that would mark the presence of an orbiting planet.

When this odd behavior was first recognized, several possible explanations were offered by Boyajian’s team. The most favored was the presence of large clouds of dust from disintegrated comets around Tabby’s star. The orbiting detritus would occasionally mask its light.

But a more intriguing explanation was also proffered: perhaps this star shelters a planet boasting a civilization older and more technically adept than our own. And perhaps these advanced beings have embarked on a massive engineering project, building phalanxes of orbiting solar panels to supply the energy needs of their society. This space-borne construction could cause the dimming.

Robotics: Biohybrids

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have combined tissues from a sea slug with flexible 3-D printed components to build “biohybrid” robots that crawl like sea turtles on the beach.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have combined tissues from a sea slug with flexible 3-D printed components to build “biohybrid” robots that crawl like sea turtles on the beach. Photo by Vickie Webster.

“We’re building a living machine—a biohybrid robot that’s not completely organic—yet,” said Victoria Webster, a PhD student at CWRU who is leading the research.

Interesting development in robotic was reported in CWRU’s The Daily: Researchers build a crawling robot from sea slug parts and a 3-D printed body.

Oh god, don’t let my wild, unscientific imagination run amok. Is “not completely organic—yet” robot-slug just the beginning of  yet another branch of robotics — completely organic robots?

3D Zika

zika.PNGZika virus is an unexpected new threat to mankind, that appeared suddenly. seemingly out of nowhere. Data on this virus is still very limited. Nevertheless, studio experts at Biomedical Imaging Visual Science have created a 3D-model of the virus Zika at atomic resolution.
zika1.pngFounder of Studio Visual Science Ivan Konstantinov and scientific consultant of the project Yury Stefanov answered questions related to their work. Excerpt of the interview, in my translation, is below. The entire article, in Russian, is here.

What is needed in order to create a model of the virus with such amazing level of detail?

— The development involves several steps. We begin with an overview, analysis and systematization of the available scientific information on the structure of the virus. It is important to understand what is known about the size and morphology of the particles, the types of proteins and other molecules included therein, the number, structure and interaction. There is often necessary to consult with structural virologists who deal with this particular virus directly. Moreover, we often use data cryoelectron microscopy and 3D-reconstruction of structures on its basis. This is a very powerful tool.zika2 Still, Zika virus only fairly recently become the subject of scientific interest. The reason was an epidemic caused by Zika and its previously unheard of consequence — microcephaly in infants born to infected mothers. Do you have enough data for a detailed Zika model? 

— At this time, Zika virus is still poorly researched from the structural point of view. However, many of Zika  “relatives” such as Dengue virus, for instance, is rather well researched.on the basis of which data can be modeled with good reliability Zika virus proteins. In such situations, particularly in demand possibilities of Biomedical Imaging and Modeling.zika3Is it possible to somehow verify that your model does, indeed, reflect the actual structure of the virus?

— Our models are scientific surveys carried out in graphical form. The more information is accumulated by scientists — the more accurate and more complete is our model. As soon as new data become available, our models will be updated, thus creating new versions. adeno Are you planning to publish the results of you work in scientific magazines? After all, by the look of them, your results are quite impressive.

— Thus far, what we have is a scientific overview rather than an independent study. The ultimate goal of a solid scientific work is solid practical result. In the case of viruses, for instance, such result would be a study of the interaction of viral proteins with ligands that might become a potential drug to conquer the virus. (In biochemistry and pharmacology, a ligand is a substance that forms a complex with a biomolecule to serve a biological purpose. VG)

How long, time-wise, it takes you to develop a single model of virus?

— Time depends on many factors. There are small and simple viruses that can be visualized and modeled in two or three weeks. But then there are huge and very sophisticated ones, of which very little is known from the structural point of view. It is difficult to predict the length of time it takes to model them.

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Visual Science is an award-winning scientific design studio that creates scientifically accurate and eye-catching 3D models, illustrations and animations for pharmaceutical, medical device, biotech, and nanotechnology companies, as well as scientific institutions, laboratories, educational organizations, museums, publishing and advertising agencies around the world. Interesting site, in English, for those who likes visuals.

visual

visual one

 

 

Springtime Science

Spring is almost here. Love is in the air…  Birds are (or will soon be) courting, mating calls heard (or soon to be) heard from every bog and field. The two scientific discoveries I selected for this post are nature and, well, mating related.finch.jpg

Courtship is a spectator sport.

Take Australian zebra finches, for instance. Biologists describe an amazing “audience effect” in their mating habits. Namely, when a male finch is courting a finch-girl in front of another male or is being watched by an audience of his peers while at it, he is more likely to choose a more beautiful, catchy, brighter-colored girl. Specifically, researchers noticed, females with bright red crests on their heads have more chance to be courted while there is an audience of sympathetic but critically inclined friends.  zebra-finch.jpgLone male finch, however, follows “his heart’s desire” and a glamorous chick isn’t necessarily his first choice of mate. Interesting that this same effect has not been observed in female finches — girls, as a rule, seem oblivious to being observed by peers and chose boys despite their “trendy outfits,” completely disregarding other girls “opinions.” Go and figure.  The article Sex-Specific Audience Effect in the Context of Mate Choice in Zebra Finches explains it in scientific terms.sn-frog_0.jpg

Love to the last croak.

In my earlier post, Infectious Courage, the subject was Toxoplasma gondii, known to change the host’s behavior. (Studies showed the capability for the parasite to make rats fearless of cats, only to be eaten by them, so that to get inside of felines, their primary and preferable hosts.)

There is another in a series of examples where the parasite changes the behavior of the host in order to spread more effectively.  Those who are interested in nature, must have heard about the epidemic fungal disease in amphibians that destroyed a huge number of frogs and salamanders in some parts of the world (especially in Australia) over the last twenty years. Close to a hundred rare species are either extinct or soon to disappear.

A fungal disease that has killed amphibians worldwide may be spreading by making the mating calls of infected males more attractive to females. The finding—one of the first—to show that the pathogen can alter a species’s reproductive behavior could explain why frogs and related animals continue to disappear across the globe.

The name of the killer is  a pathogenic fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), that causes chytridiomycosis (also known as chytrid fungus disease.)POTD_Smiling-Frogs.jpgIn what way the reproductive behavior of sick frogs change? It’s their mating call. Scientists noticed that a mating croak of an infected male frog differs in tone from that of a healthy one. And — surprise! — this sound is more attractive to unsuspecting girl-frogs. They become literally mesmerized by these differently tuned songs and choose lethargic, barely moving from the disease gentlemen-frogs as their mates. As a result, the infection is transmitted from males to females and continues to offspring. Hear the frogs croak here: Fungus turns frogs into sexy zombies.

 

 

Memories Of Cheeseburgers Past

cheeseburger.png

It hardly comes as a surprise that we’re our own worst enemies, but new research appears to conclusively prove that our brain is the biggest saboteur of success, and leads to self-deception on a grand scale. The culprit?

Dopamine, the chemical that gives us pleasure whenever we receive a reward.pleasure-priciple-brain-352

Dopamine  is our main focus neurotransmitter. This is the chemical responsible for our drive or desire to acquire – be that food, sex, an achievement, or a drug. When you drink coffee or receive a text message, dopamine is being released. It tends to make people more talkative and excitable, which often leaves them wanting more. With dopamine and high dopamine individuals, desire begets desire.

Memories of past pleasures we experienced are alluring because the dopamine in our brains keeps the memory very real. All we need is a reminder of that past reward. Even without the promise of new, similar experiences, the image in the mind is enough to render self-control ineffective, if altogether useless. According to new research from Johns Hopkins University, none of this really matters, because the memory of something much sweeter always lingers in the brain.

This fine fellow below  obviously has brains, though no “brain chemistry” left in him. Curiously, this image is used as an illustration to nearly every article on the subject. God knows why, perhaps because he looks rather impressive. I simply couldn’t resist a temptation to use it, too.

Francois Lenoir / Reuters

Francois Lenoir / Reuters

Now back to dopamine and addictions. Study makes an unsettling conclusion: the more we deprive ourselves of the subject of our craving, the more likely our nervous system is to fire off memories whenever an irritant manifests itself. Аddiction cycles are notoriously hard to break precisely because of these lingering memories of “cheeseburgers past.”

How the Johns Hopkins people arrived to their conclusions? They played a little computer game with 20 participants. The game involved a small financial reward every time the respondent located a red or green object on a screen filled with a myriad of other colored objects. Spot a red object — get $1.50, spot green one — get only 25 cents.

The respondents then slept on it, and were asked to play another game the following day. But this time, they were asked to locate particular shapes – color and size did not matter. There was also no reward involved. Interestingly, participants zeroed in on the red objects before any other.dopamine.PNGWhile they took part in the exercise, the researchers conducted PET scans on the participants and found that the part of the brain associated with attention lit up with dopamine. Additionally, those who focused on the red objects more than others experienced higher levels of dopamine release. Apparently,  past reward association still causing a dopamine release. That stimulus is incorporated into the reward system.

Interesting that people prone to addictive behavior and those who are depressed, will show entirely different responses. The first group (those with addictive personalities) generally can’t help but feel more exhilarated, while the people prone to depression tend to pay much less attention to rewards.

Well, then, where do we stand, those of us depressives and others, prone to displaying addictive behavior?  My own personality tends toward being addictive. In view of the recent studies, it makes me terribly depressed.

Source: Our brain sabotages all efforts at breaking bad habits, Johns Hopkins study finds

XVIVO: Love Your Bacteriophages

Bacteriophages (From Greek "devour") are viruses that selectively affect the bacterial cells. The most common bacteriophages multiply inside bacteria. The particle size of from about 20 to 200 nm, where 1 nm = one billionth of a meter.

This fine fellow is a bacteriophageBacteriophages (from Greek “devour”)  are viruses that selectively affect the bacterial cells. The most common bacteriophages multiply inside bacteria. The particle size of from about 20 to 200 nm, where 1 nm = one billionth of a meter.xvivoAnd this one is pericyte. Pericytes (green) on the capillary (red) — a small blood vessel. Pericytes play a key role in the maintenance of blood capillaries of the brain. They are key components of the neurovascular unit.xvivo.jpgHematopoietic stem cells in the marrow cavity — cells that form all other blood cells.

This and so much more is a creation of XVIVO. Well, creation of Mother Nature, to be precise. What XVIVO created is a scientific animation, marrying, in their own words, science and art.

One of the most exciting parts about creating medical animation is the front row seat we get interviewing the scientists that push discovery forward. In exchange, they appreciate our ability to understand their science and tell their stories in ways that are simple to comprehend. 


A bunch of amazing video clips (the whole playlist of them on YouTube XVIVO-Biology and on XVIVO website) is, indeed, an amalgamation of art and science. Should I have had  a visual aid like this as I studied biology in school… god knows, I might’ve become a biologist, intimately acquainted with at least a square millimeter of bacteriophages.

From Russia With Robot

It seems I got stuck on robot theme.

A few months ago, the 2045 Initiative  movement (previously known as Russia 2045) unveiled the first realistic Russian android head, based on its founder, Russian media enterpreneur Dmitry Itskov. Three years back, I blogged about Russia 2045 and an immortality seeking Mr Itskov2045_avatar_project-2

Itskov is a big believer in the prophetic technological singularity, and claims that by 2045 we will have developed the means to transplant our minds into computers and android bodies.2045_avatar_project

His android surrogate, built and programmed by Moscow-based Neurobotics, has been dismantled and turned into the country’s first female android. Her name is Alissa. Here she is:neurobotics-alissa-android-0

Alissa’s face may look somewhat realistic at first glance, since the silicone mask was made from one of Neurobotics’ employees.

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However, while some other more advanced heads have more than 30 points of articulation, Alissa has only 8. This works out to be just enough to add movement to its eyes and mouth, which are controlled with a standard game pad. The head is mounted to a mannequin, which stands on a wheel base for mobility.

And this is how she talks in more than one language:

In telepresence mode, the operator uses Skype to communicate with the outside world. The cameras in Alissa’s eyeballs provide a video feed, while the operator uses a headset. The company is experimenting with a relatively simple EEG (electroencephalography) set-up to allow the operator to drive the robot’s base using thoughts alone.

Neurobotics is working closely with the 2045 Initiative, which claims androids will be commonplace by the end of the decade. However, given the humbling reality of the current state-of-the-art in countries like Japan, such predictions should be taken with a heavy grain of salt.

Sources: Neurobotics (Russian) via Habrahabr (Russian) and an article in Gizmag,  Russia builds its first realistic female android (English)

Read My Mind

read My MindNeuroscientists from the University of Washington have decoded brain signals in real-time and with astounding accuracy, as revealed in a recent study published in PLOS Computational Biology. Researchers attached electrodes to the temporal lobes of seven epilepsy patients for roughly one week. The implants were part of a program that aimed to locate the sources of these patients’ seizures, but while the electrodes were active, the patients also participated in this brain-wave study. read My Mind

The participants viewed a series of houses and faces that appeared on a screen for 400 milliseconds at a time, and were instructed to look for the upside-down building. An algorithm tracked the brain waves of their temporal lobes. (Temporal lobes in our brain deal in sensory input.) By the end of each session, the program was able to pinpoint, in real time and with roughly 96 percent accuracy, what images the patients were observing.  Within 20 milliseconds of actual perception, the program was capable of determining the exact objects patient was seeing, be it a house, a face or a gray screen.

“Clinically, you could think of our result as a proof of concept toward building a communication mechanism for patients who are paralyzed or have had a stroke and are completely locked-in,” UW computational neuroscientist Rajesh Rao said.

At about the same time, Russian scientists from the Moscow-based company Neurobotics created and tested technology that allows to do the household chores with the help of the power of thought. The project “Smart Home” introduced technology that allows a person to turn the lights, TV set or a tea kettle on and off, using only the power of thought.

чистка-мозга

According to the official representative of the organization Christine Utkina, the technology works on the principle of neurointerface.

Researchers call the process  brain-computer interface. The principle is rather straightforward: electromagnetic sensor reads and amplifies brain waves and then a special devise converts those signals into commands to operate various Smart Home gadgets or robots. This technology will be particularly useful to people with disabilities and patients who are recovering from injury, enabling them to operate electric wheelchairs and other electronic rehabilitation equipment.

The Russian newspaper Rossiyskaya Gazeta ran an article about the Neurobotics  reserch. Read it here, in Russian. It is titled Московские ученые вскипятили чайник силой мысли” (Moscow Scientists boiled a tea cattle using power of thoughts.)