August 17, 2012
We know so much more about our brains than we once did. Some would suggest too much.
Because neuroscience, once a subject confined to academia and research labs, now belongs to all of us. Every day, it seems, there’s a story in the mainstream media about a study providing fresh insights on how our brain functions or what we do to make it perform better or worse. Scientists can caution all they want that this is a maddeningly complex subject, but in our search to understand why we do the things we do, we more often look for overly simple answers deep inside our heads.
So we tend to take quite seriously any neurological evidence that would seem to explain behavior. Just yesterday, in fact, the journal Science published a study which found that judges–not juries, but judges–presented with a hypothetical case gave lighter sentences to a man convicted of a vicious beating if his file included a statement from a neurobiologist that he had a genetic predisposition to violent behavior.
Most neuroscientists aren’t happy that brain scans are now routinely used to help convicted murderers try to avoid death sentences. The science isn’t that clearcut, they’ll argue. And they’re right.
But the more we learn about the brain, the more captivated we become. This is where science gets personal, where it helps us make sense of ourselves. These days you don’t hear many people say, “The devil made me do it.” More likely they’ll blame their amygdala.
To get a sense of how much brain science is weaving into our daily lives, here are 10 studies published in just the past month:
1) Never gonna give you up: A new study suggests that hoarding is a brain disorder all its own. It long had been characterized as a variant of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). But no more. When hoarders in the study were asked to keep or destroy an object belonging to them–in this case junk mail–the region of their brains associated with decision-making became unusually active. That’s a different part of the brain than what’s usually activated with OCD.
2) Send grandpa a vat of chocolate: Here’s yet another reason chocolate is awesome. Italian researchers have found that a cocoa drink rich in flavanols–the antidioxidants found in chocolate–can help sharpen the brains of people with memory problems. The antidioxidants are believed to protect brain cells and improve blood flow.
3) But make sure he lays off the microwave popcorn: According to another study, this one at the University of Minnesota, the chemical that provides the fake butter taste in microwave popcorn may actually speed up the mental decline of Alzheimer’s disease. The chemical, diacetyl, can lead to the same kind of clumping of beta-amyloid proteins in the brain that causes Alzheimer’s.
4) Why the nose is king of the face: When you have a bad head cold or allergy and your nose is stuffed up, your brain kicks into gear to make sure your sense of smell snaps back to normal as soon as your health does. The brain isn’t able to do that with other senses–when sight is lost temporarily, for instance, it takes much longer for it to be restored.
5) Teenage wasteland: New research concludes brain scans may help predict if a teenager will become a problem drinker. Experts say the findings suggest that heavy drinking may affect young people’s brains right at the time when they need to be working efficiently.
6) And while we’re on the bottle: Alcoholism apparently affects women’s brains differently than it does men’s. A team of researchers in Boston found that heavy drinking over a number of years destroys white brain matter in a different part of the brain for women than it does for men. They also found that women’s brains recover more quickly when they quit drinking than men’s do.
7) Pep talk is cheap: No matter how good your intentions may be, you won’t necessarily help someone by giving him or her encouragement before they make a big decision. In fact, according to a study at Queen Mary University in London, when people received either positive or negative feedback about their performance on complex decision-making tasks, they made worse decisions. Put simply, it’s too much information for their brain to process under stress. So just keep quiet.
8) Thinking small: New research has confirmed that stress and depression actually makes your brain smaller. Yale scientists found that deactivation of a single genetic switch can instigate a cascading loss of brain connections and that’s more likely to happen in brains of depressed people.
9) At last, something good about migraines: As painful and debilitating as they can be, migraines do not cause the kind of cognitive decline that often leads to dementia or Alzheimer’s. That’s according to a new study at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, which gathered data gathered from more than 6,300 women.
10) Who knew brains packed a punch?: And finally, research suggests that the punching power of karate black belts has more to do with how their brain functions than how strong their bodies are. The key, says scientists at Imperial College London, is the fine tuning of neural connections in the cerebellum, allowing them to synchronize their arm and trunk movements more precisely.
Video bonus: Dr. Charles Limb is a surgeon. He’s also a musician. So it probably was inevitable that he wanted to find out how the brain works during improvisation. He shares what he learned about the science of creativity in this TED talk.
More on Smithsonian.com
May 2, 2012
Let’s start by agreeing that nanotechnology is magical science. Most of us know that it’s about scientists operating at a molecular level. Many of us understand that it usually involves the tiniest of “machines” assembling themselves through chemical interactions. But when researchers start talking about creating molecule-sized robots that can repair cells inside our bodies, they’ve moved so far beyond my comprehension that I’m reduced to blubbering, “Sounds good…keep ‘em coming.”
One thing even I can understand, though, is how profoundly nanotech can transform medicine and health care–whether it’s cell-sniffing nanobots that can seek and destroy cancer cells with no collateral damage or replace abnormal genes with normal ones or help broken bones heal faster.
Other nano-driven medical advances, while not as dramatic as detonating chemo bombs inside tumors may actually be more far-reaching in that they transform something as basic as how disease is diagnosed. Take two inventions announced last week.
The first, called Domino, is a small plastic chip that can perform 20 different genetic tests from a single drop of blood. It was created by a team at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and it works like this:
The blood flows into 20 separate tiny compartments, each filled with a gel. Then the chip gets put into a small portable lab about the size of a toaster where a molecular test is run on each compartment. From that one drop of blood, the doctor can determine if the patient has breast cancer and if so, whether she is resistant to cancer drugs. Or it can determine if she has malaria, even what type of malaria.
The second innovation, developed at UCLA, combines nanotechnology, a cell phone and Google Maps to create a device that reads Rapid Diagnostic Tests–strips that change color if there’s infection–with much more precision than a human can out in the field. The strips are inserted into the device, a reader that clips on to a smart phone. Then the phone’s camera, working with a mobile app, converts the strip into a digital image.
From that, the app determines if the results of the test–for HIV or malaria or TB, for example–are positive or negative. And here’s where Google Maps comes in. If positive, the device wirelessly transmits the results to a map that tracks the spread of diseases around the world.
What these nanotests mean for most of us, ultimately, is an end to those long, and often stressful waits for results to come back from the lab. Increasingly, doctors will be able to do DNA and other diagnostic testing right in their offices, with results available within the hour. Plus, $100 lab tests could end up costing only a dollar or two.
Not that these mini-labs are brand new. Harvard professor George Whitesides, for one, has been working on “diagnostic stamps” for several years now. But these “labs on a chip” have become such a popular field of research that there’s now a website called simply “Lab-on-a-Chip”, which reports on the latest developments. Most, however, are still in the trial stage.
“Lab tests are fine,” says David Alton, one of Domino’s creators. “But we need to show that it works. We need to show the results from a thousand tests. Then people start saying `OK, this is real.”
Then there’s the dark side
Of course, as with any cutting edge science, questions arise about how the wizardry of nanotechnology could go wicked. As useful as they can be, nanoscale forms of materials like silver, carbon, zinc and aluminum can be ingested, inhaled and perhaps, absorbed through the skin. No one’s sure how harmful that may be. About two weeks ago, the FDA issued a draft of guidelines suggesting that companies using nanoparticles in food or cosmetics may have to do extra tests to show the products are safe.
And just last week a paper by Kathleen Eggleson, a scientist at Notre Dame, raised the novel kind of ethical dilemma nanotechnology can stir up. She notes that in an effort to fight infections in hospitals, medical supply companies have taken to coating nearly everything–door knobs, bed rails, sheets, curtains–with nano-sized particles of silver, a material known for blocking the spread of microbes.
But, as Eggleson points out, the vast majority of bacteria and other microorganisms are actually neutral, or even beneficial. Some bacteria, for instance, are needed to maintain necessary levels of nitrogen in the air; others help us digest food.
So covering every surface with tiny flecks of silver, she argues, could end up doing more harm than good.
Yes, even in a world we can’t see, life is complicated.
Where the small things are
Here are other recent nanotech developments. These are outside the world of medicine.
- Stop squeezing the fruit!:An MIT chemistry professor has developed a way to attach tiny sensors to boxes that, when scanned, will reveal how ripe the food is inside.
- And it beats rock and scissors: A scientist in Genoa, Italy has found a process for making paper waterproof, magnetic and antibacterial.
- When a nanotree falls, does it make a sound?: Engineers at the University of California at San Diego are building a forest of tiny nanowire trees with the goal of capturing solar energy and converting it to hydrogen fuel.
- But they only pick up nature shows: A Utah company has devised a way to spray nanoparticles on trees and turn them into high-powered antenna.
Video bonus: The National Cancer Institute makes its case for how nanotechnology could be the cancer-fighting weapon we’ve been waiting for.
January 23, 2012
Someday, probably sooner than we think, much of our lives will be recorded by sensors. Whether it’s armbands tracking our heartbeats or dashboards monitoring our driving or smart phones pinpointing where we are at all times, we, as defined by our preferences and habits, are becoming part of the staggering swirl of data already out there in cyberspace.
With so much personal information now in play, a lot of people are nervous about who owns it and what they’ll do with it. As they should be. But there’s also the question of how to make sense of it all. Can all this seemingly random data be reconfigured into patterns that not only do the obvious–allow businesses to zero in on customers–but also help deal with ridiculously complex matters, such as slashing health care costs or forecasting the stock market?
Consider the possibilities in health care. In the past, anyone analyzing who gets ill and why had to rely on data skewed heavily toward sick people–statistics from hospitals, info from doctors. But now, with more and more healthy people collecting daily stats on everything from their blood pressure to their calorie consumption to how many hours of REM sleep they get a night, there’s potentially a trove of new health data that could reshape what experts analyze. As Shamus Husheer, CEO of the British firm Cambridge Temperature Concepts, told the Wall Street Journal, “You can compare sleep patterns from normal people with, say, pain sufferers. If you don’t know what normal sleep looks like, how do you tease out the data?”
In Austin, Texas, Seton Health Care is using Watson–that’s right, the IBM supercomputer that humiliated its human competitors on “Jeopardy!” last year–to comb through tons of patient information with the goal of helping hospitals identify behavior that drives up costs. For instance, Watson is now focusing on patients with congestive heart failure, but it’s looking at much more than what appears on patients’ charts, such as doctors’ notes. And it’s finding that factors that wouldn’t ordinarily show up in medical analysis–like patients not having transportation to get to a doctor for checkups–can be a big reason for repeat trips to the ER, which of course, is the sort of thing that sends health care costs through the roof.
Twitter tells all
Now that we have both tools to crunch so much data and so much data to crunch, it makes finding patterns that predict the future less daunting. “We’re finally in a position where people volunteer information about their specific activities, often their location, who they’re with, what they’re doing, how they feel about what they’re doing, what they’re talking about,” Indiana University professor Johan Bollen told the Boston Globe. ”We’ve never had data like that before, at least not at that level of granularity.”
There are outfits that analyze Twitter traffic for financial services companies and even a hedge fund in London that uses a secret Twitter-based formula to make investment decisions.
Bollen is such a believer that he says he’s found a correlation between the level of anxiety expressed on Twitter and the performance of the stock market. Seriously. Based on his analysis, when there’s a high level of anxiety of Twitter, three days later, the stock market goes down.
So remember, keep your tweets sweet.
We’ll be watching you
Here are just a few of the new ways sensors are tapping into our daily lives:
- The beat goes on: A North Carolina startup has created earbuds with sensors that monitor your heart rate and other biometric data.
- Smarty pants: Soon American soldiers could be wearing underwear that tracks their respiration, heart rate, body posture and skin temperature and relays the info back to a central system.
- Another reason to watch your weight: A Japanese engineering professor has developed an ultra-sensitive sheet that fits over the driver’s seat and, by reading the contours of your butt, can determine if you’re one of the car’s approved drivers.
- Some like it hot, some don’t: Thanks to researchers at MIT, you may one day wear a wristband that allows you to control the temperature and lighting in your part of the office.
- And now, a pill for your pills: Later this year a smart pill with sensors that track if people are using their medications correctly will go on the market in the United Kingdom.
- Your clothes just called: Apple has received a patent for a system through which your running shoes or your clothing will send suggestions to your iPhone about how you can improve your workout.
Video bonus: Check out how OmniTouch can turn your hand, or any other flat surface, into a touch screen.
January 18, 2012
Tracking the eye movements of people as they peruse an item or advertisement or web page has long been a staple of marketers. The goal, of course, is to see where their eyes move and where they linger and then devise ways to get them to linger longer. It’s always felt a little creepy to me.
So it curbed my inner curmudgeon to read recently about research showing you can learn a few things about someone by watching where they’re looking. For instance, a study published in Cognition magazine this month suggests that who a person is relates to how they move their eyes. In this case, the scientists found that people they identified as more “curious”–based on their answers to survey questions–also were more likely to be the ones whose eyes moved freely around photos they were asked to view. Their eyes, it seemed, were true to their curious nature.
Not impresssed? Okay, how about this: Another study done a a few years ago by psychologists Elizabeth Grant and Michael Spivey found that people whose eyes tended to focus on a particular part of a diagram were most likely to solve a problem–in this case how to use a laser to destroy a tumor in a patient’s stomach. Then, after the researchers highlighted that section of the diagram, twice as many people figured out how to do it. By having their eyes directed to the right place, their brains were able to gather the information they needed.
But what if you tracked the eye movements of an expert, say a surgeon, and then used that as a teaching tool? That’s exactly what researchers at the University of Exeter in Great Britain did last year. First, they recorded where and for how long the eyes of an experienced surgeon were fixed during a simulated surgery. Then novice surgeons were trained to mimic those eye movements. Those who mastered the technique were able to learn technical surgical skills much more quickly–and were less stressed–than those who didn’t use it as part of their training.
Wonder if this would work on teenage drivers. (See below).
Judging from the reports from last week’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES), reviewers weren’t exactly dazzled by most of the thousands of gizmos and gadgets on display. But one demo that did seem to fire off some sparks featured a system called Gaze from the Swedish company Tobii Technology.
Gaze uses a web cam to track your eyes and essentially turn them into a cursor. It works like this: To calibrate your eyes, you first look at an application on the screen, then tap the touch pad to launch it. Infrared lights illuminate your pupils, then two cameras take rapid-fire photos and use them to make 3-D models of your eyes that can follow their movement.
Once your eyes take over, you no longer have to physically scroll down a page. Just move your eyes down the screen and the text rolls up in response. Or you can scroll horizontally through photos, again just by shifting your eyes. And then there are the video game possibilites. The demo at CES allowed you to blast asteroids out of the sky simply by staring at them.
I am retina, hear me roar.
The eyes have it
Here are more things scientists are learning by looking into people’s eyes:
- Read my lips: “Go to sleep”: Researchers at Florida Atlantic University say that starting at six months of age, babies learn to talk by gazing at your lips instead of your eyes.
- Puppy love: A study published in the latest issue of Current Biology concludes that dogs play close attention to our eye movements and they’re more responsive if you first make eye contact.
- Could it be because they’re teenagers?: Scientists at Montana State University received 1 $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to use eye-tracking sensors to help determine why young drivers have a hard time recognizing traffic hazards.
- Eye spy: A device called an EyeBrain tracker is being tested in France to see if it can help diagnose early symptoms of Parkinson’s disease.
- Don’t judge a friend by his cover: An eye-tracking study of the new Facebook Timeline found, among other things, that while people noticed the big cover photos first, they spent more time looking at the smaller profile photos. Oh, and also more people noticed the ads in the new format.
Video Bonus: See for yourself how to play Asteroids with your eyes.
November 15, 2011
A week or so ago I asked my 20-year-old son why there was so much hype around the latest shootapalooza game, “Call of Duty, MW3.”
“You have no idea,” he said.
He was right. Within a day of its release last Tuesday, Activision sold 6.5 million games in North America and the U.K., prompting the company to declare the first-day take of $400 million as the “biggest entertainment launch of all time,” bigger than the openings of Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.
For the uninitiated, the MW stands for Modern Warfare, although it’s more like World War II with 21st century weapons. The battlegrounds are mainly European cities—London, Paris, Berlin—although it also does provide an opportunity to blast away at Wall Street. In some ways, “MW3″ isn’t all that much like modern warfare—the enemy is the Russian army, not tribesmen hiding in the mountains. And while the game allows players to use drones, they don’t do collateral damage.
Don’t overthink this, I told myself, it’s only a game. But then, the day after the “MW3″ launch, I read a piece in the Washington Post by Amy Fraher, a retired U.S. Navy commander, in which she contended that the most critical asset of military leaders of the future won’t be technical skills, but rather emotional intelligence.
Personally, I can’t imagine Gen. George Patton telling anyone, “I feel your pain.” But Fraher’s point is that as both the makeup of the U.S. military and the situations in which it operates become more complex and nuanced, what a leader really will need is old-fashioned social skills.
Dealing with terror
That’s not to say the Defense Department will stop investing billions in fresh firepower (although looming budget cuts could slice into weapons programs.) But much of the innovative thinking coming out of the Pentagon has to do with helping soldiers deal with the ugliness and unpredictability of modern terror tactics.
In a recent article in National Defense Magazine, “10 Technologies the Military Needs for the Next War,” there’s little mention of weapons. Instead the list focuses on such things as robot pack mules that would relieve soldiers of lugging food, ammo and heavy batteries, high-speed mobile broadband anywhere and—yes, gamers—non-lethal weapons, to reduce civilian casualties.
Nor is it surprising that the military is putting a lot of energy into finding more effective ways to detect roadside bombs, terribly harmful and destructive devices whose threat it didn’t fully anticipate before invading Iraq. Among the bomb-spotting options are a laser being developed at Michigan State and a sensing device using terahertz radiation. And just last week the Defense Department said it was in the market for a long-distance paintball gun that could shoot suspicious objects with bomb-detecting paint.
The other deadly threat in Iraq and Afghanistan have been snipers. One promising defense being developed by a Hawaii firm is a device called FLASH, which uses infrared sensors and high-speed processors to pinpoint not only where shots are coming from, but also what kind of weapon is firing them.
National Defense Magazine didn’t mince words. “Innovation is not helpful if it’s not assisting troops at war,” the article said. “As many senior Pentagon officials have noted, an 80-percent solution that can be available in months is better than a perfect outcome that could takes years or decades to achieve.”
Here are other inventions that could be in the military’s future:
- You and your bright idea: The Defense Department has been relying more and more on crowdsourcing—holding online competitions, with prizes, to encourage outsiders to solve problems. The latest success story is something called the “Vehicle Stopper.” Proposed by a retired mechanical engineer in Peru, it’s a remote-controlled vehicle that can chase down a fleeing car and then deploy an airbag under it and bring it to a halt.
- This is a job for PETMAN: The latest invention from Boston Dynamics, which has already supplied the military with several robot models, is a two-legged, six-foot-tall machine called PETMAN. That’s stands for Protection Ensemble Test Mannequin, and it’s main role would be to test uniforms and headgear designed to protect soldiers from chemical weapons.
- When Humvees fly: The Defense Department wants someone to build a four-seat, off-road vehicle that flies like a helicopter.
- Spy network: To speed up the process for getting spy satellites airborne, the Pentagon is looking to develop airplanes that can launch them into orbit.
Bonus video: Okay, not everything is a good idea. Hungry Beast rolls out some of the “stupidest military inventions in history.”