Mantis Shrimp Eyes Inspire Cameras to See Cancer

Mantis shrimp eyes helped inspire a sensor that can detect cancer based on polarized light reflections

2 min read
Mantis Shrimp Eyes Inspire Cameras to See Cancer
Photo: Alastair Pollock/Getty Images

Millions of years of evolution have given the Mantis shrimp compound eyes to spot delicious meals that it can either spear or club to death in its underwater environment. More recently, the natural design of those eyes has inspired a new camera sensor that could spot cancer cells inside patients' bodies.

Engineers developed the sensor to mimic the Mantis shrimp's ability to filter polarized light—light waves vibrating along a single plane. Sensitivity to polarized light can help with cancer detection because cancerous lesions tend to reflect light in a way that causes more depolarization than does healthy tissue. Tests in mice have already shown how the new sensor can help detect flat, depressed, cancerous lesions that might otherwise be difficult to spot during a traditional endoscopy exam.

"Nature has [been] coming up with elegant and efficient design principles, so we are combining the mantis shrimp’s millions of years of evolution—nature’s engineering—with our relatively few years of work with the technology," said Justin Marshall, a neurobiologist at the Queensland Brain Institute of the University of Queensland, Australia, in a news release.

Mantis shrimp filter polarized light through their eye cells by using microvilli that resemble tiny hair-like objects. By comparison, the new sensor uses aluminum nanowires that together act as linear polarization filters that achieve a similar effect. Marshall and his international colleagues described the new sensor in a review article published in the journal Proceedings of the IEEE.

So far, it's the only polarization imaging sensor capable of fitting on the front top of the flexible endoscopes that physicians use to snake through patients' bodies to look inside. That could prove useful for helping to identify hard-to-see lesions that don't stand out from healthy tissue.

In the tests on mice, the sensor was used alongside a fluorescence-sensitive CCD camera that is designed to spot cancerous regions because a special fluorescent dye accumulates in abnormal tissue more than it does among groups of normal cells. Several members of the international research team, including engineers at Washington University in St. Louis, also developed high-tech goggles capable of helping surgeons detect cancer via such fluorescent markers.

The polarization sensor has other uses that go well beyond cancer screening. For instance, the Proceedings of the IEEE journal article laid out the vision for creating an implantable neural recording device that could help study neural activity in awake, freely-moving animals. It also pointed to the possibility of having real-time imaging that shows the stress and strain of soft biological tissue. Marine biologists at the University of Texas at Austin have even used the new sensor to study how female swordtail fish are attracted to ornamental patterns on the tails of male swordtail fish that are only visible in polarized light.

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Are You Ready for Workplace Brain Scanning?

Extracting and using brain data will make workers happier and more productive, backers say

11 min read
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A photo collage showing a man wearing a eeg headset while looking at a computer screen.
Nadia Radic
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Get ready: Neurotechnology is coming to the workplace. Neural sensors are now reliable and affordable enough to support commercial pilot projects that extract productivity-enhancing data from workers’ brains. These projects aren’t confined to specialized workplaces; they’re also happening in offices, factories, farms, and airports. The companies and people behind these neurotech devices are certain that they will improve our lives. But there are serious questions about whether work should be organized around certain functions of the brain, rather than the person as a whole.

To be clear, the kind of neurotech that’s currently available is nowhere close to reading minds. Sensors detect electrical activity across different areas of the brain, and the patterns in that activity can be broadly correlated with different feelings or physiological responses, such as stress, focus, or a reaction to external stimuli. These data can be exploited to make workers more efficient—and, proponents of the technology say, to make them happier. Two of the most interesting innovators in this field are the Israel-based startup InnerEye, which aims to give workers superhuman abilities, and Emotiv, a Silicon Valley neurotech company that’s bringing a brain-tracking wearable to office workers, including those working remotely.

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