Innovation & Technology Weekly Roundup

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This week's headlines:

Brain decoder can eavesdrop on your inner voice
October 29, 2014

Researchers from the University of California have eavesdropped on our internal monologue for the first time. The achievement is a step towards helping people who cannot physically speak communicate with the outside world.

In a previous study the team recorded brain activity in people who already had electrodes implanted in their brain to treat epilepsy, while they listened to speech. The team found that certain neurons in the brain's temporal lobe were only active in response to certain aspects of sound, such as a specific frequency. The team hypothesised that hearing speech and thinking to oneself might spark some of the same neural signatures in the brain. They supposed that an algorithm trained to identify speech heard out loud might also be able to identify words that are thought. To test the idea, they recorded brain activity in another seven people undergoing epilepsy surgery, while they looked at a screen that displayed a text.

Each participant was asked to read the text aloud, read it silently in their head and then do nothing. While they read the text out loud, the team worked out which neurons were reacting to what aspects of speech and generated a personalised decoder to interpret this information. The decoder was used to create a spectrogram. As each frequency correlates to specific sounds in each word spoken, the spectrogram can be used to recreate what had been said. The team then applied the decoder to the brain activity that occurred while the participants read the passages silently to themselves.

Despite the neural activity from imagined or actual speech differing slightly, the decoder was able to reconstruct which words several of the volunteers were thinking, using neural activity alone.

Full story: New Scientist / PLoS Biology Back to top

Scientists build 'mini-stomachs' in lab
October 29, 2014

Scientists have built the world's first 'mini-stomachs' - tiny clusters of human gastric tissue that could spur research into cancer, ulcers and diabetes. Called gastric organoids, the lab-dish tissue comprises buds of cells that are miniature versions of the stomach, the researchers said. They were made from pluripotent stem cells which were coaxed into developing into gastric cells.

Youthful and versatile, pluripotent stem cells have excited huge interest as a dreamed-of source for transplant tissue grown in a lab. Sources for them include stem cells derived from early-stage embryos and adult cells reprogrammed to their juvenile state, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS). But the field has encountered many problems, led by the challenge of getting cells to 'differentiate', or become cells for specific organs.

The exploit entailed identifying the chemical steps that occur during embryonic development, when cells differentiate into the specific types that form the stomach. These steps were then replicated in a Petri dish so that pluripotent stem cells developed into endoderm cells, the building blocks of the respiratory and gastro-intestinal tracts. These were then biochemically nudged into becoming cells of the antrum, the stomach region that secretes mucus and hormones.

Still at a preliminary stage, the organoids are a long way from being replacement tissue or a fully-fledged stomach. Early tests on mice, though, suggest they could one day be a 'patch' for holes caused by peptic ulcers. The organoids also mark an important step forward in how to tease stem cells into becoming 3-D structure, the scientists say. And, as 'mini-stomachs', they also provide a testbed for studying diseases such as cancer, diabetes and obesity, according to the team.

Full story: Yahoo! / AFP / Nature Back to top

Biological litmus paper detects Ebola strains
October 24, 2014

Discs of souped-up filter paper could change how we diagnose infections. Its developers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, have successfully used it to identify two strains of Ebola.

The key to the technology is the ability to print sequences of DNA on paper, then freeze-dry and store the discs at room temperature. The DNA is reactivated by adding water. Once active, it enables the paper to change colour if a chosen target - such as a segment of Ebola viral RNA - is present in the water. The target fragment binds to a gene switch in the DNA, which triggers the production of a colourful substance such as the protein that gives jellyfish a green glow under ultraviolet light, or proteins from bacteria that produce colour changes visible to the naked eye. The colour the paper changes to indicates which of the target pathogens has been detected.

The test was improved by inserting tailor-made gene switches that prevent any colour change happening unless a very specific target molecule is present. Called toeholds, the synthetic switches enabled the paper to simultaneously test for 24 distinct regions of viral RNA - many more than would have been possible using only naturally occurring DNA sequences. This provided a means to distinguish between a synthetic version of the Zaire strain of Ebola - the one responsible for the west African epidemic - and a synthetic version of the Sudan strain.

The test identified the strains within 30 minutes, rivalling the speed of more expensive and complex tests that use antibodies. The estimated cost to develop the litmus sensor is just USD 21, which could eventually come down to just 2 to 4 cents per sensor, according to the team.

Full story: New Scientist / Cell Back to top

New microscope gives clear view inside cells
October 23, 2014

A new microscope sweeps lattices of light over samples to give scientists sneak peeks inside living cells without hurting them.

Scientists have previously devised ways to glimpse the hidden machinery of cells, but spying the tiny nuts and bolts in action is tricky. Shining light on cells for too long can bleach their colour and even kill them.

An international team of researchers led by led by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute in Virginia tweaked a technique to see cells' innards. Instead of shooting a focused beam of light at a developing embryo or a virus infecting a cell, the scientists spread the beam out into a grid. Breaking up the beam dials down the light's intensity and protects cells, the researchers report.

The researchers used their optical-lattice microscope to gain new insights into a variety of biological processes, such as the behaviour of mitochondrial fragments and chromosomes during cell division and the development of fly and worm embryos. By adjusting the frame rate of their microscope, the researchers were able to monitor both slow embryonic processes such as the localization of a particular protein as the embryo divides and grows, and faster processes that occur just before it hatches.

Full story: Science News / Physics World / Science Back to top

Google working on pill that searches for illnesses
October 28, 2014

Google is working on a cancer-detecting pill in its latest effort to push the boundaries of technology. Still in the experimental stage, the pill is packed with tiny magnetic particles, which can travel through a patient's bloodstream, search for malignant cells and report their findings to a sensor on a wearable device.

As many as 2,000 of these microscopic 'nanoparticles' could fit inside a single red blood cell to provide doctors with better insights about what is happening inside their patients.

Google believes the cancer-detecting nanoparticles can be coated with antibodies that bind with specific proteins or cells associated with various maladies. The particles would remain in the blood and report back continuously on what they find over time, while a wearable sensor could track the particles by following their magnetic fields and collecting data on their movement through the body.

The goal is to get a fuller picture of the patient's health than the snapshot that's obtained when a doctor draws a single sample of blood for tests that aren't comprehensive enough to spot the early stages of many forms of cancer. Data from the sensor could be uploaded or stored on the internet until it can be interpreted by a doctor.

Full story: Washington Post / AP Back to top

UK to build world's biggest weather supercomputer
October 28, 2014

It will weigh as much as 11 London buses, give accurate weather forecasts a week ahead of time, and ultimately allow meteorologists to say whether freak weather events are down to nature or climate-altering human activity. When built next year at the UK Meteorological Office's headquarters in Exeter, the 140-tonne Cray XC40 computer will be the biggest, most powerful computer devoted solely to climate science and weather forecasting.

Unlike other supercomputers, such as the larger 'Titan' machine at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, the Cray XC40 will be devoted exclusively to climate science. With a capacity of 16 petaflops it will be more than twice as powerful as its nearest climate-dedicated rival, the Hornet machine, which is being built at the University of Stuttgart in Germany.

Advances in computing mean that today, four-day weather forecasts are as accurate as one-day forecasts were 30 years ago. The new machine's huge computing power is expected to extend this accuracy further, to around five or six days ahead. The computer is also intended to boost the accuracy, scale and reliability of forward-looking climate simulations and models, to better assess how climate change will impact weather systems.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top

Fibre breakthrough pushes data speed limit by over 20X
October 30, 2014

Scientist at Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) in the Netherlands and the University of Central Florida (CREOL) have demonstrated data transmission record of 255 terabits/s over a new type of fibre which could push the limit of communication networks.

The researchers say the new method of data transmission could push the bandwidth limit 21 times more than the currently available in communication networks.

The new fibre has seven different cores through which the light can travel, instead of one in current fibre networks. According to scientists the data will travel in seven-lane highway compared to an existing one way road which can transmit 4-8 Terabits/s.

Full story: CBR Online / Nature Photonics Back to top

White noise for your nose cancels pungent aromas
October 30, 2014

Has someone burned the toast and stunk out the kitchen again? Fire up the smell canceller and sniff freely. That's the proposal from two researchers who are applying the principle behind noise cancelling headphones to noses.

Aural and visual signals are easy to manipulate because they are both based on waves, which can be described mathematically, leading to a huge variety of ways to manipulate a signal, like compression, filtering, and so on. It's much harder to write down equations for the complex chemistry behind smells, which is why you can't download the tempting waft of a bacon sandwich.

Now researchers at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign say they have cracked it. The pair have created a mathematical model that predicts how humans perceive the smell of a particular substance based on its physical and chemical properties, by matching a database of compounds to another of perceived smells. One compound could smell 5.6 chalky, -3.2 celery and 0.8 cedar wood, for example, on a rating system from -5 to 10.

To cancel out a smell, they calculate which compounds provide the opposite ratings, giving a zero score across the board. Previous research has shown that an equal blend of around 30 compounds creates 'white smell', the neutral olfactory equivalent of white light or white noise. The team's simulations show a blend of 38 compounds could almost completely cancel out the odours of onion, sauerkraut, Japanese fermented tuna and durian fruit, achieving white smell even in the presence of these notoriously pungent food.

The pair haven't built a smell cancelling device yet, but they are confident the maths will check out and it should be possible.

Full story: New Scientist Back to top