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Sick women communicating with a doctor on her computer

UV Gadgets and Virtual Docs Take On a Very Bad Flu Season

Hand sanitizer just isn’t cutting it this winter. Much of the US remains in the throws of its worst flu season this decade, according to federal officials. One out of every 13 doctor visits during the second week of February was for fever, cough and other flu-like symptoms, matching the peak levels during the 2009 swine flu pandemic, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported this month.

We wondered if there was any new technology out there that might help. It turns out some engineers are on it, with new software and sanitizing gadgets. In the hope that it might inspire further ingenuity or provide a resource for consumers, here’s our short list of the latest trends in flu fighting tech.​

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Illustration of DNA with binary information.

DNA Data Storage Gets Random Access

DNA data storage just got bigger and better. Scientists have reported the first random-access storage system from which they can recover individual data files, error free, from over 200 megabytes of digital information encoded into DNA.

Random access is key for a practical DNA-based memory, but until now, researchers have been able to achieve it with only up to 0.15 megabytes of data.

Since submitting their research, published in Nature Biotechnology, the team from Microsoft Research and the University of Washington has already improved on what they reported. Their storage system now offers random access across 400 megabytes of data encoded in DNA with no bit errors, says Microsoft Research’s Karin Strauss, who led the new work with Luis Ceze from the University of Washington.

Microsoft and other tech companies are seriously considering the possibility of archiving data in DNA. Current data storage technologies are not keeping up with the breakneck pace at which we generate digital content, Strauss says. Synthetic DNA is an attractive storage medium because it can, in theory, store 10 million times as much data as magnetic tape in the same volume, and it survives for thousands of years. Technology Review reports that Microsoft Research aims to have an operational DNA-based storage system working inside a data center toward the end of this decade.

DNA data storage involves translating the binary 0s and 1s of digital data into sequences of the four bases A, C, G, and T that make up DNA. The encoded sequences are synthesized and stored in vials. A DNA sequencing machine then decodes the data by recovering the sequences from DNA molecules. But it has been hard to access specific data files. Most research efforts until now have sequenced and decoded the entire bulk of the information stored in a vial. “It is not economical to sequence all the data you have stored every time you want to read a portion of it,” Strauss says. 

To make a random access system, Strauss, Ceze, and their colleagues devised clever coding algorithms and turned to the polymerase chain reaction, a well-known lab technique used to make thousands of copies of DNA strands, called amplifying DNA.

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Retinal image showing severe diabetic retinopathy captured by the fundus camera.

AI Diagnostics Move Into The Clinic

True to form, artificial intelligence continues to equal and even surpass doctors in the prediction and diagnosis of condition after condition. Most of this work, however, has occurred in carefully controlled laboratory experiments, with clean databases and images acquired and reviewed by experts.

Now, companies are making a concerted push to bring AI into real healthcare settings, where things are messier and far less controlled.

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Person receiving direct current stimulation

Electric Jolt to the Brain Helps Stop Stutters

Their tongues might trip up over the name of the treatment, but people who stutter perform better on a speech test after receiving a daily jolt of transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS).

That’s according to the results of a British trial, which found that coupling brain zapping with a five-day course of speech therapy helps those with stutters make positive, lasting changes in their communication skills.

Hobbyists and athletes are already using tDCS to boost their memory, learning, and creativity. And there’s a growing body of evidence that the neurostimulation can ease the symptoms of pain and depression, as well as promote recovery in stroke victims, including in their language skills.

But the new report, which will appear in the April 2018 issue of the journal Brain, is the first from a randomized clinical trial—the gold standard in medical research—to show that the technique can improve speech fluency in people who have not suffered any major insult to the brain but instead have a developmental speech condition.

“It’s a big deal,” says Rick Arenas, a speech scientist who runs the University of New Mexico Stuttering Lab and was not involved in the study. Neurostimulation, he says, “really looks extremely promising.”

Why it’s helping, however, remains unclear. It’s thought that the tDCS augments the brain’s ability to reorganize itself, thereby strengthening the new neural connections formed during behavioral speech therapy. But as Elizabeth Galletta, a speech-language pathologist at NYU Langone’s Rusk Rehabilitation, readily admits: “It’s still a black box.”

For the study, Jen Chesters, a speech and language therapist at the University of Oxford, worked with 30 stuttering speakers, spending five straight days training the men to read aloud and converse at a normal pace. (All were male to reduce variability between subjects.) During each day’s 20-minute therapy session, the participants all wore electrical caps on their heads, but only half actually received tDCS; the others received only sham stimulation—a brief buzz to trick people into thinking they were getting the real deal—and neither Chesters nor the participants knew who was getting what.

The tDCS device delivered a weak electric current through a credit card–sized electrode to the brain’s left frontal cortex, the key region for speech planning and production. The stimulation involved a constant current of just 1 milliamp—less than what’s needed to power a typical LED. Yet, that tiny tingle made all the difference.

Participants who received the tDCS showed significant reductions in their stuttering severity, both one week and six weeks after the intervention, whereas those who got the sham treatment experienced little to no change. “The tDCS is working to boost the effects of the behavioral intervention,” Chesters says.

That electric boost only helped modify certain measures of stuttering, though. It had lasting effects on participants’ abilities to declaim a written passage, but the increased conversational fluency that the men experienced one week after the intervention disappeared by week six. Outward improvements in speech smoothness also didn’t translate into improvements in the psychosocial aspects of stuttering, as measured by a self-assessment tool of participants’ own experiences.

So, while Galletta describes the Oxford team’s results as “very exciting,” she also thinks that tDCS researchers “need to look at stuttering in a more holistic way.”

Looking ahead, Chesters and her Oxford colleagues, led by neuropsychologist Kate Watkins, are planning to gather a wide range of metrics in their next study, a 40-person follow-up called INSTEP that is currently open for enrollment. In that trial, the researchers are pairing a 20-minute stimulation protocol in speech regions from both halves of the brain with a 40-minute speech-training paradigm (to be closer to a true clinical session), and then testing participants 12 weeks out from their weeklong intervention to see how long the benefits persist.

Meanwhile, across the pond at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, speech neurophysiologist Soo-Eun Chang and her colleagues are running their own tDCS trial for stuttering, but it differs from the Oxford group’s INSTEP study in a number of ways. It’s using high-definition tDCS, with electrodes smaller than a dime, to deliver 1.5 milliAmps of localized stimulation to a region in the brain involved in speech timing called the supplementary motor area.

Chang and her team are also putting study subjects in a brain scanner, applying functional magnetic resonance imaging before the intervention, right afterwards, and then at two later follow-up times. “The whole point is to see if we can increase their fluency level,” says Chang. “But on top of that, we are aiming to increase brain connectivity patterns with tDCS that may help sustain fluent speech for longer periods."

Given the ease with which amateur enthusiasts can now build their own tDCS rigs, there may be a temptation among people who stutter to shoot currents through their own heads as they engage in their fluency homework—but Arenas, who himself talks with a stutter and has tried tDCS for his own speech impediment, cautions against doing so. “This is extremely early on,” he says, “and there’s still a lot of work that should be done.”

Among the variables to be tested: where to place the electrodes, how much current to use, how long to deliver stimulation, and what kinds of behavioral tasks best pair with tDCS. “A lot of methodological research will be necessary to find out what the optimal parameters are, because there are a lot of choices you can make,” says Dirk den Ouden, a neurolinguist at the University of South Carolina.

Peggy Conner, a speech-language pathologist from CUNY’s Lehman College, has another concern about the technology. As she and other experts hone in on the optimal way deliver tDCS for persistent stutterers, there’s a risk that they may inadvertently further medicalize and stigmatize a condition that many think should instead be embraced as part of the normal neurodevelopmental spectrum.

“The danger of the pursuit of fluency for people who stutter,” Conner says, “is we may mitigate a greater societal need for stuttering acceptance.”

White mouse on a white background looking up

Nanoparticles in Mice Brains Light Up, Trigger Memories

No optical fibers, no headgear, no implants: This is the new optogenetics, systems that enable scientists to control cell behavior using simple flashes of visible light. Researchers today reported that they had successfully manipulated deep brain cells in mice using a light-based tool without an invasive surgical procedure.

The achievement is a first in mammals, according to the report, which was published today in journal Science. “It was exceptionally well executed,” says Polina Anikeeva, a professor of materials science and engineering at MIT who was not involved in the report. 

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Person wearing an Empatica Epilepsy Watch

This Seizure-Detecting Smartwatch Could Save Your Life

U.S. regulators have approved the first piece of consumer tech for a neurological condition: a medical-grade smartwatch that monitors for dangerous seizures and sends an alert to summon a caregiver’s help.

The wrist-worn sensor tracks many of the same things as a FitBit or an Apple Watch, but the new device has one important feature that other wearables do not: It also detects surges in skin conductance, an indicator of disturbances in the nervous system that are triggered during an epileptic attack.

These spikes in electrical activity originate in the brain, but can be measured noninvasively on the surface of the skin. The Embrace smartwatch records these electrical signals along with 3-axis accelerometer data, and uses a proprietary algorithm to signal when someone is having a convulsive seizure.

During an attack, the device’s square face vibrates, a ring of LEDs spins, and an alert gets sent via Bluetooth to a smartphone in the wearer’s pocket. The app then sends a distress signal—either a text message or phone callto one or more pre-specified caregivers.

Subscription plans for the service start at about US $9 per month, and the hardware itself costs $249. Embrace comes in five colors, two of which have quickly become bestsellers: “Bright pink and bright blue are very popular with kids,” says Matteo Lai, CEO and cofounder of Empatica, which announced its device’s regulatory clearance this week.

For now, Embrace is only proven to accurately detect generalized clonic-tonic seizures, also known as grand mal seizures. When tested on 135 patients who were monitored for a collective total of more than 6,500 hours, the device correctly identified nearly every single seizure, with a false alarm rate below that of the seizure frequency for most individuals. Empatica scientists published much of their clinical data last year.

The company is also currently validating the technology for “partial” seizures, and for tracking stress levels that might trigger an attack. But according to Lai, the company chose to start with monitoring convulsive seizures because they’re the most deadly.

Around one-third of all people with epilepsy cannot currently manage their attacks with anti-seizure medications. These are the people that Embrace is aimed at because an unexpected seizure while driving or swimming can lead to disastrous outcomes if no one is there to notice. And in fact, even someone who’s doing little more than lying in bed—as Morgan McGrath was doing one fateful day in November 2016—can still experience a fatal complication called “sudden unexpected death in epilepsy,” or SUDEP.

McGrath was almost one of the estimated 3,000 lives lost each year in the United States because of this poorly understood phenomenon. Fifteen months ago, the 26-year-old teacher from Fulton, Mo., suffered an epileptic seizure that left her unresponsive, frothing at the mouth, with blue lips, and not breathing. McGrath’s wristworn Embrace device sent her mother an alert. Her mother called the paramedics. And thanks to a timely response, McGrath is alive and well today.

“It was and will probably always be the best purchase I’ve ever made,” McGrath writes in a testimonial on the Empatica website.

Not all Embrace users are as fortunate, though. In a case report published last year, Empatica co-founder and chief scientist Rosalind Picard and her colleagues described a 20-year-old who was wearing the device. It went off one morning, altering his family of a probable convulsive seizure. Yet, it took 15 minutes for anyone to show up, at which point the young man was dead.

This shows the limitations of any technological fix to a challenging medical problem. “Embrace was successful,” says Picard, an electrical engineer at the MIT Media Lab. The problem was that no doctor had ever told this man’s parents about the risk of SUDEP: “They didn't even know that minutes mattered,” she says.

Rob Gronkowski #87 of the New England Patriots falls into the end zone after catching a touchdown pas

In Super Bowl of Startups, NFL Looks to Tackle Football Safety

In the world of tech startups, some say it’s best to “fail fast, fail often”—and it’s a mantra that WWE founder Vince McMahon might have had on his mind when he announced last week that he was bringing back the XFL. The gimmicky football league failed spectacularly when it first launched, flaming out in 2001 after only one season, and many are already predicting that McMahon’s 2020 reboot will fail again.

There are, however, nine other innovate startups on display this week, any number of which could have far more lasting impacts on the game of football. And in Minneapolis tomorrow, the day before the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles square off in Super Bowl LII, these nine companies will compete across three categories in the National Football League’s third annual “1st & Future” pitch competition, an event designed to spur new technologies that promote athlete safety and performance on the gridiron.

One winner from each category will receive a US $50,000 check from the league, two tickets to Sunday’s big game, and bragging rights for taking home what could be thought of as the “Heisman of Health-Tech.”

“There’s lots of amazing technology out there,” says Jennifer Wethe, lead neuropsychologist for the Mayo Clinic Arizona Concussion Program and one of the competition judges. But not everything is necessary impactful, novel, practical, and carries the science to back it up—all things Wethe will be looking for at Saturday’s startup showdown. “Hopefully, some of best ideas and research projects will come to the top,” she says.

The Mayo Clinic, with its flagship Minnesota hospital located fewer than 100 miles from the site of Sunday’s action, is co-sponsoring the event alongside the NFL and Comcast-NBCUniversal.

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Bungee jumper in action off the Europa Bridge in Austria.

Measuring Free Will of Bungee Jumpers

The 19-year-old stood on the lip of Austria’s Europa Bridge, 192 meters in the air, with a bungee cord strapped to his ankles, and, after overcoming his fear, dived head first off the platform. 

It was the ultimate act of free will. The bungee jumper had to internally command himself to “jump” despite his body’s strong instinct to back away from the ledge. Yet before that moment—as much as one whole second prior to becoming aware of his intention to jump—his brain had already given the command.

That command comes in the form of a distinct rising of electrical potential in the brain’s supplementary motor area. And understanding more about how it is associated with the mind’s intentions may help engineers improve mind-controlled devices. 

To that end, researchers in Germany and Austria this week described a set of experiments in which they measured the brain activity associated with bungee jumpers’ free will. 

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Illustration of the soft, smart contact lens to monitor glucose levels in tears.

Smart Contact Lens Doubles as Blood-Sugar Monitor

Smart contact lenses with embedded electronics just got a lot more practical. Korean researchers have designed a stretchable contact lens that can monitor glucose without distorting the wearer’s vision, according to a report published today in Science Advances.

The device contains all the electronic components needed to wirelessly receive power, monitor glucose levels, and generate an LED display, while maintaining the soft, stretchable, and transparent qualities of a contact lens that people might actually be willing to wear. 

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Photograph of a man wearing the HAL for Medical Use.

Cyberdyne's Medical Exoskeleton Strides to FDA Approval

Cyberdyne, the Japanese robotics company with the slightly suspicious name, has just gotten approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to begin offering its HAL (Hybrid Assistive Limb) lower-body exoskeleton to users in the United States through licensed medical facilities. HAL is essentially a walking robot that you strap to your own legs; sensors attached to your leg muscles detect bioelectric signals sent from your brain to your muscles telling them to move, and then the exoskeleton powers up and assists, enhancing your strength and stability.

The version of HAL that the FDA has approved is called HAL for Medical Use, and it's designed to help people with lower limb disabilities get better at walking on their own. There are other exoskeletons that help rehabilitate people through physical walking motions, but HAL is unique in the way that it relies on a mixture of voluntary control and autonomous control, using the wearer's own nervous system to signal the robot when and how to move. According to Cyberdyne, this makes the rehabilitation process more effective, because it's not just the robot moving— it's you.

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The Human OS

IEEE Spectrum’s biomedical engineering blog, featuring the wearable sensors, big data analytics, and implanted devices that enable new ventures in personalized medicine.

Eliza Strickland
New York City
Emily Waltz
Megan Scudellari

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