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Electrical Spine Stimulation Helps Paralyzed Patients Regain Some Movement

Four individuals diagnosed as having complete paralysis of the legs were able to intentionally move their knees, ankles, and toes while undergoing electrical stimulation of the spinal cord, according to a study published yesterday in the journal Brain. The novel therapy has the potential to change the grim prognosis of people who have been paralyzed for years, say the researchers involved in the study based out of the University of Louisville in Kentucky.

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Game Controller Senses Players' Excitement Levels

Video games capable of detecting player boredom could someday ratchet up the excitement by sending in a new wave of virtual zombies or triggering an on-screen ambush by enemy soldiers. That intriguing possibility comes from Stanford University's experimentation with a video game controller that can detect a gamer's heart rate, blood flow, breathing rate, and other physiological signs.

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Tiny Microbial Fuel Cell Runs On Spit

Researchers have made a fingernail-sized microbial fuel cell that runs on saliva. The cell generates 1 microwatt of power, enough to power lab-on-a-chip diagnostic devices in rural settings or battlefields, the researchers say.

Conventional microbial fuel cells contain a cathode and anode chamber separated by a proton-exchange membrane. At the anode, anaerobic bacteria break down organic matter from liquids, releasing carbon dioxide, electrons and protons. The electrons flow to the cathode through an external circuit while the protons go through the membrane. Employed at factories or wastewater treatment plants, microbial fuel cells could produce clean water and electricity while significantly cutting down sludge produced.

The new cells are nothing like their liter-size cousins, though. These 25-microliter devices have a radically different design featuring unique, carefully chosen electrodes and fuel sources, says Muhammad Hussain, a professor of electrical engineering at the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia. Hussain and his colleagues at KAUST and Penn State University published their results recently in the journal Nature Asia Materials.

Conventional microbial fuel cells contain carbon-based anodes and cathodes made of carbon brushes or carbon cloth. The essential requirement for the electrodes is that they be conductive and have a high surface-to-volume ratio so that most of the bacteria have access to the waste material.

Graphene meets both of those conditions, so the KAUST researchers used that for their anode. They went with an air cathode, which is commonly used in large-scale microbial fuel cells. Most importantly, the researchers got rid of the expensive membrane. “We figured you don’t need the membrane, you just need to bring anode and cathode as close as possible, which becomes much easier on the micro scale,” says Hussain. “At the same time, current generation depends on the internal resistance of the whole fuel cell. Without the membrane you reduce resistance.”

The team starts with a 1-by-1-centimeter sheet of graphene film. They place a rubber spacer with the same dimensions on top and cut a 5-by-5-millimeter hole in the center of the spacer. The hole acts as the anode chamber. The researchers loaded the device with bacteria from wastewater and then added saliva via syringe tips inserted into both sides of the rubber. The device can easily be built on plastic, Hussain points out.

Acetate is a common fuel source for microbial fuel cells. But Hussain and his colleagues wanted an easily accessible fuel, so they tested saliva. “Soldiers in a battlefield don’t have time to put chemicals in fuel cells to make it operational,” he says. “People in rural areas might not have access to specialty chemicals. So the easiest thing is saliva. Saliva’s organic content is much higher than known chemicals like acetate, making it a good fuel source.”

The device generates higher current densities than other micron-sized microbial fuel cells made so far. The graphene anode also generates 40 times as much power as its carbon cloth counterpart.

The researchers are now exploring ways to increase their device’s power output by making more efficient electrodes and stringing multiple cells in series.

Computers Learn and Teach Each Other by Playing Pac-Man

Video games can be educational—for computers.  Researchers at Washington State University developed an algorithm that helps computers learn and teach each other by playing Pac-Man, an iconic video game that has eaten up the spare time of gamers since the 1980s. Advances in robot intelligence could potentially lead to robots teaching humans. Matthew E. Taylor, an expert in artificial intelligence at WSU, published these findings online in the journal Connection Science.   

The virtual robots, nicknamed "student agent" and "teacher agent," learn from each other as the student agent navigates through a dizzying maze trying to outrun four colorful ghosts all while gobbling up pellets. When the teacher agent detects its disciple is in trouble, it jumps in to give advice.

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NASA Cuts Russian Ties Over Crimea in Favor of Resuming U.S. Human Spaceflight

A spirit of scientific cooperation has long existed between U.S. and Russian space agencies even when the two countries faced off as hostile adversaries during the Cold War. So NASA's recent decision to suspend some ties with its Russian counterpart seems to come as a blow to those who take pride in placing space exploration above politics.

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Small Robot Surgeon Designed to Work Inside Astronauts' Bodies

Tiny medical robots capable of operating inside an astronaut's body could someday provide emergency surgery in space without the mess. A fist-sized robot is scheduled for its first zero-gravity test in the next several months—one small step toward enabling robotic medical attention for humans stuck on deep-space missions lasting for months.

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DARPA Boosts Funding for All Things Biological

DARPA, the U.S. defense agency devoted to high-risk, high-reward research, has traditionally dedicated its resources to the physical sciences: nuclear bomb test detection, the stealth fighter, and the Internet are just a few of the technologies that DARPA pioneered. Today, however, the agency announced a new emphasis on biology with the establishment of its Biological Technologies Office, BTO. 

The agency began taking a greater interest in the life sciences over the last decade, spurred in particular by the needs of veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with missing limbs and neural problems. The new office will incorporate existing bio-related programs, and plans to start others across a wide range of scales—from individual cells to humans to global ecosystems.

Geoff Ling, director of the BTO, says that biological research is a natural complement to the agency's existing engineering knowhow. For example, he says, warfighters' capabilities must match those of their tools. "There’s a recognition that our technology is improving, but there still remains a human in the loop," he says. Ling sees an obligation to ensure that "the human can perform optimally in that entire system."

BTO has three announced research areas. The first will focus on restoring and maintaining warfighter abilities, and will further DARPA's recent efforts on advanced prosthetics and neural engineering. Its successful Revolutionizing Prosthetics program has already developed several sophisticated mechatronic arms, including prosthetics that can be wired into the wearer's remaining nerves or muscles. The next step may come from the HAPTIX program, currently open to proposals, which calls for prosthetics that can send sensory information back to the user. The neural engineering programs will include the recently announced SUBNETS, which will investigate deep brain stimulation therapies for neural and psychiatric disorders, and RAM, which will develop implantable memory prosthetics. 

The second research area covers synthetic biology programs like the Battlefield Medicine effort. "Can we develop a capability so that warfighters can make the medication they need on the spot?" Ling asks. DARPA imagines a bacterium that could be reprogrammed to make the necessary pharmaceutical molecules on the fly, but Ling says that basic research must lead the way. "To do that, you of course need deep knowledge of the genetic machinery," he says. 

BTO's final concentration calls for research to better understand the dynamics of ecosystems. This component seems the least well-defined at the moment, but its sketchy description, with references to the microbiome that resides in each human's gut and to disease epidemics, suggest a health focus. 

Electronic Skin Patch With Memory and Drug Delivery Capability Could Treat Parkinson’s

Researchers have made an electronic skin patch that can monitor muscle movement, store the data it collects, and use stored data patterns to decide when to deliver medicine through the skin. The patch could be useful for monitoring and treating Parkinson’s disease and epilepsy, its creators say.

Wearable devices that continuously monitor physiological cues can help doctors understand and treat diseases such as epilepsy, heart failure, and Parkinson’s. A few research groups have been trying to develop discreet health monitoring devices based on flexible, stretchable electronics that can be plastered on the skin, heart or brain.

But the new system is the first that can store data and deliver drugs, says Dae-Hyeong Kim, a chemical and biological engineering professor at Seoul National University and one of the device’s creators. In the "closed-loop feedback system," says Kim, the stored data is used for statistical pattern analysis, which helps to track symptoms and drug response. "For more quantitative tracking of progression of symptoms and responses to medications, wearable healthcare devices that monitor important cues, store recorded data, and deliver feedback therapeutic agents via the human skin in a controlled way are highly required," he says.

Kim and his collaborators at the University of Texas at Austin and wearable health-monitoring device-maker MC10 integrated the sensors, memory, and drug-delivery components, all made of nanomaterials, onto a stretchable polymer substrate that is soft and flexible like human skin. They reported their design in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

On the topside of the skin-like polymer patch, the research team printed three things: silicon nanomembrane strain sensor arrays; serpentine chromium-and-gold nanowires that act as both heaters and temperature sensors; and drug-loaded porous silica nanoparticles. The strain sensors detect motion such as Parkinson’s tremors. The heater controls the temperature of the polymer, which in turn controls the diffusion of the drugs into the skin (heat degrades the physical bonding between the nanoparticles and the drugs). The temperature sensors monitor skin temperature during drug delivery to prevent burns.

What’s most unique about the new electronic patch is the stretchable memory. Researchers have previously made resistive random access memory, an up-and-coming class of nonvolatile memory, using metal oxide nanomembranes. Those devices were stiff and brittle. Here, the researchers have made stretchable memory devices by sandwiching three layers of gold nanoparticles between ultra-thin titanium oxide nanomembranes printed on aluminum electrodes.

The memory device can be bent and twisted, it works when stretched to 125 percent of its original length, and works well even after 1000 stretching cycles.

As a simple demonstration, the researchers placed the wearable patch on the wrist. The motion sensors measured frequency of simulated tremors by sensing tension and compression of the muscle. The frequency was recorded and fed through a control circuit that recognizes characteristic patterns of Parkinson’s disease. This, in turn, triggered drug release.

Right now, the memory element requires a power supply and a data transmitter. The researchers say that they will need batteries or wireless power transmission and wireless communication in stretchable formats to make a truly wearable and wireless patch.

Photo: Donghee Son and Jongha Lee


Quantum Computing Experiment Adds "Control Knob" for D-Wave Machine

D-Wave's claim to having built the world's first commercial quantum computers depends upon the workings of helium-cooled machines chilled to just 20 millikelvin (-273 degrees C).That frigid temperature is necessary to prevent thermal "noise" from overwhelming any quantum effects that might be present in the machines. But now researchers have come up with a "tunable noise knob" that allows them to collect a wider range of experimental data to test whether D-Wave's machines actually harness the spooky effects of quantum mechanics in their computing processes.

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Intel Jumpstarts its Move Into Wearables With Acquisition of Basis Science

Intel may be inside a lot of computers these days, but it’s not on a lot of wrists. And that’s where the action has been in technology this year, as consumers embrace wristbands—including no-tech Rainbow Loom bracelets, simple-tech fitness trackers, and sensor-laden health trackers.

At the International Consumer Electronics Show in January, Intel General Manager of Perceptual Computing Mooley Eden made no secret about Intel’s ambitions to get into the wearables game.

The devices of the future, Eden said at CES, you will “carry on you, not with you.”

Eventually, he predicted, “we’ll see implantable devices, we’ll get constant information about our health that will interface directly with our brain.”

Eden expects he’ll live to see implantable technology in use. But before Intel gets inside your brain, it needs to get on your wrist. But it’s been having some trouble achieving that goal. As a huge variety of wristbands and watches come on the market, Intel’s attempts to fill them with chips have been lagging behind competitors like STMicroelectronics and Qualcomm.

Intel is spending a reported $100 million-plus to catch up by acquiring health-tracker company Basis Science Inc., maker of a sensor-laden watch. The Basis watch is not cheap, at $200. And it’s not the market leader, trailing far behind Fitbit and Jawbone, according to research firm Canalyst. But it does far more than the typical $100 fitness tracker, adding heart rate, skin temperature, and perspiration sensors to the standard accelerometers. With all these extra sensors, it goes beyond counting steps and hours of sleep to automatically detecting the difference between walking, running, and biking, charting sleep cycles, and detecting moments of stress.

Intel says it does not plan to market wearables itself (though Basis will continue to do so for the foreseeable future), but rather plans “to create wearable reference devices, SoCs [Systems on Chips] and other technology platforms ready to be used by customers in development of wearable products.”  Basis is clearly the kind of sensor-laden gizmo any chipmaker wishes would become standard.

Follow me on Twitter @TeklaPerry


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Textbooks: The New Digital File Sharing Frontier

The music industry, which for years has been complaining about unauthorized copying and distribution of their intellectual property, now has company. Sharing their piracy misery are textbook publishers. An increasing number of book titles are showing up on peer-to-peer file sharing sites, as students, with Napster as a historical blueprint, copy then digitize hundreds of pages in order to make them available over the Web for free. What would motivate a college kid to stand at a photocopier for hours? Revenge. Many students feel that they're being fleeced by publishers who, aided and abetted by professors, force new and ever …

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