Science X Newsletter Week 44

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Here is your customized Science X Newsletter for week 44:

Neural network reconstructs human thoughts from brain waves in real time

Researchers from Russian corporation Neurobotics and the Moscow Institute of Physics and Technology have found a way to visualize a person's brain activity as actual images mimicking what they observe in real time. This will enable new post-stroke rehabilitation devices controlled by brain signals. The team published its research as a preprint on bioRxiv and posted a video online showing their "mind-reading" system at work.

Researchers uncover an anomaly in the electromagnetic duality of Maxwell Theory

Researchers at the Kavli Institute for the Physics and Mathematics of the Universe (WPI) and Tohoku University in Japan have recently identified an anomaly in the electromagnetic duality of Maxwell Theory. This anomaly, outlined in a paper published in Physical Review Letters, could play an important role in the consistency of string theory.

Lithium ion battery design can charge an electric vehicle in 10 minutes

Scientist have developed a lithium ion battery that charges at an elevated temperature to increase reaction rate but keeps the cell cool during discharge, showing the potential to add 200 miles of driving range to an electric car in 10 minutes. If scaled, the design is one potential strategy to alleviate concerns that all-electric vehicles lack sufficient cruise range to safely reach a destination without stalling mid-journey. The Pennsylvania State University researchers present the work October 30 in the journal Joule.

Scientists may have discovered whole new class of black holes

Black holes are an important part of how astrophysicists make sense of the universe—so important that scientists have been trying to build a census of all the black holes in the Milky Way galaxy.

New study sheds light on conditions that trigger supernovae explosions (Update)

Understanding the thermonuclear explosion of Type Ia supernovae—powerful and luminous stellar explosions—is only possible through theoretical models, which previously were not able to account for the mechanism that detonated the explosion.

Worldwide observations confirm nearby 'lensing' exoplanet

Researchers using telescopes around the world confirmed and characterized an exoplanet orbiting a nearby star through a rare phenomenon known as gravitational microlensing. The exoplanet has a mass similar to Neptune, but it orbits a star lighter (cooler) than the Sun at an orbital radius similar to Earth's orbital radius. Around cool stars, this orbital region is thought to be the birth place of gas-giant planets. The results of this research suggest that Neptune-sized planets could be common around this orbital region. Because the exoplanet discovered this time is closer than other exoplanets discovered by the same method, it is a good target for follow-up observations by world-class telescopes like the Subaru Telescope.

Living skin can now be 3-D-printed with blood vessels included

Researchers at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have developed a way to 3-D print living skin, complete with blood vessels. The advancement, published online today in Tissue Engineering Part A, is a significant step toward creating grafts that are more like the skin our bodies produce naturally.

A new method of extracting hydrogen from water more efficiently to capture renewable energy

A new method of extracting hydrogen from water more efficiently could help underpin the capture of renewable energy in the form of sustainable fuel, scientists say.

Two million-year-old ice provides snapshot of Earth's greenhouse gas history

Two million-year old ice from Antarctica recently uncovered by a team of researchers provides a clearer picture into the connections between greenhouse gases and climate in ancient times and will help scientists understand future climate change.

Researchers create quantum chip 1,000 times smaller than current setups

Researchers at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have developed a quantum communication chip that is 1,000 times smaller than current quantum setups, but offers the same superior security quantum technology is known for.

Why plants panic when it rains

An international team of scientists involving The University of Western Australia's School of Molecular Sciences, the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology and Lund University has made the surprising discovery that a plant's reaction to rain is close to one of panic.

Insect decline more extensive than suspected

Compared to a decade ago, today the number of insect species in many areas has decreased by about one-third. This is the result of a survey of an international research team led by scientists from the Technical University of Munich (TUM). The loss of species mainly affects grasslands in the vicinity of intensively farmed land—but also applies to forests and protected areas.

OmniVision announces world record for smallest image sensor

OmniVision, a developer of advanced digital imaging solutions, has announced that it has won a place in the Guinness Book of World Records with the development of its OV6948 image sensor—it now holds the record for the smallest image sensor in the world. Along with the sensor, the company also announced the development of a camera module based on the sensor called the CameraCubeChip.

Climate-fuelled flooding to imperil 300 million by 2050

Coastal areas currently home to 300 million people will be vulnerable by 2050 to flooding made worse by climate change, no matter how aggressively humanity curbs carbon emissions, scientists have warned.

Air Force's mystery space plane lands, ends 2-year mission

The Air Force's mystery space plane is back on Earth, following a record-breaking two-year mission.

Twisted physics: Magic angle graphene produces switchable patterns of superconductivity

Last year, scientists demonstrated that twisted bilayer graphene—a material made of two atom-thin sheets of carbon with a slight twist—can exhibit alternating superconducting and insulating regions. Now, a new study in the journal Nature by scientists from Spain, the U.S., China and Japan shows that superconductivity can be turned on or off with a small voltage change, increasing its usefulness for electronic devices.

Eye damage linked to popular over-the-counter vitamin that lowers cholesterol can be reversed

In a first-of-its-kind clinical report, retina specialists at the New York Eye and Ear Infirmary of Mount Sinai (NYEE) have shown that severe vision loss from a self-prescribed high dose of over-the-counter niacin is linked to injury of a specific cell type in a patient's eye. The experts report that discontinuing the vitamin led to reversal of the condition and have published their findings in the fall issue of Journal of VitreoRetinal Diseases.

Use of neonicotinoids on rice paddies linked to fishery collapse in Japan

A team of researchers with members affiliated with several institutions in Japan has found what they describe as compelling evidence of two fisheries collapsing due to use of neonicotinoid pesticides by nearby rice farmers. In their paper published in the journal Science, the team describes their study of fishery water quality data over two decades and what they learned from it. Olaf Jensen with Rutgers University has published a Perspective piece discussing the work by the team in the same journal issue.

Anti-inflammatory agents can effectively and safely curb major depressive symptoms

Anti-inflammatory agents, such as aspirin/paracetamol, statins, and antibiotics, can safely and effectively curb the symptoms of major depression, finds a pooled analysis of the available evidence, published online in the Journal of Neurology Neurosurgery & Psychiatry.

Study suggests acetaminophen in pregnancy linked to higher risk of ADHD, autism

Exposure to acetaminophen in the womb may increase a child's risk for attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and autism spectrum disorder, suggests a study funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Agency for Health Care Research and Quality. The study was conducted by Xiaobing Wang, M.D., of the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, and colleagues. It appears in JAMA Psychiatry.

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New technologies promise sharper artificial vision for blind people

By Kelly Servick
A grid of photodiodes, implanted in the eye of a person with macular degeneration, is one of several devices under development to restore vision.
CHICAGO, ILLINOIS—In 2014, U.S. regulators approved a futuristic treatment for blindness. The device, called Argus II, sends signals from a glasses-mounted camera to a roughly 3-by-5-millimeter grid of electrodes at the back of eye. Its job: Replace signals from light-sensing cells lost in the genetic condition retinitis pigmentosa. The implant’s maker, Second Sight, estimates that about 350 people in the world now use it. Argus II offers a relatively crude form of artificial vision; users see diffuse spots of light called phosphenes. “None of the patients gave up their white cane or guide dog,” says Daniel Palanker, a physicist who works on visual prostheses at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. “It’s a very low bar.”
But it was a start.
He and others are now aiming to raise the bar with more precise ways of stimulating cells in the eye or brain. At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience here last week, scientists shared progress from several such efforts. Some have already advanced to human trials—“a real, final test,” Palanker says. “It’s exciting times.”
Several common disorders steal vision by destroying photoreceptors, the first cells in a relay of information from the eye to the brain. The other players in the relay often remain intact: the so-called bipolar cells, which receive photoreceptors’ signals; the retinal ganglion cells, which form the optic nerve and carry those signals to the brain; and the multilayered visual cortex at the back of the brain, which organizes the information into meaningful sight.
Because adjacent points in space project onto adjacent points on the retina, and eventually activate neighboring points in an early processing area of the visual cortex, a visual scene can be mapped onto a spatial pattern of signals. But this spatial mapping gets more complex along the relay, so some researchers aim to activate cells as close to the start as possible.
Palanker’s team has designed a retinal implant of about 400 photodiodes or “pixels” that replace some of the retina’s spatial map. A video stream of the outside world is shown on the inside of a pair of glasses in near-infrared light, which the implant’s pixels convert into electrical signals to stimulate the retina’s bipolar cells. The Paris-based company Pixium Vision is testing the device in five people who have the photoreceptor-destroying disease macular degeneration. At last week’s meeting, Palanker presented videos showing that participants who had been implanted with the prosthesis for about 1 year could recognize objects on a table and read printed or on-screen letters. The artificial vision is good enough to make out the title of a book, Palanker says, though not the words on its pages. His team is now working to shrink the photodiodes—creating finer pixels and sharper vision—without losing too much signal strength.
To push to higher precision than electrical stimulation of the eye can achieve, other teams are turning to optogenetics, a technique for activating cells with light. In a clinical trial by Paris-based GenSight Biologics, researchers have injected a harmless virus carrying the gene for a light-sensitive protein into the eyes of five people with retinitis pigmentosa. Retinal ganglion cells that take up the gene can then respond to red light projected into the eye. Whether the trial participants will gain useful vision should become clear next year, says José-Alain Sahel, an ophthalmologist and neuroscientist testing the technology at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in Pennsylvania and the Vision Institute in Paris.
But therapies targeting retinal cells won’t help people who have lost much of their eye to injury or have severe damage to the optic nerve from conditions such as glaucoma.
Second Sight aims to treat these patients with Orion, an implant of 60 electrodes that sits directly on the visual cortex and feeds the brain signals from a glasses-mounted video camera. Four of five blind patients who have had the implant for about 1 year could better locate a roughly fist-size white square on a black screen. All five were better able to detect the direction in which a white bar moved across the screen. “We’re encouraged,” says Jessy Dorn, director of scientific research at the company in Sylmar, California.
Electrodes that sit on the brain’s surface have drawbacks. Because it takes a relatively strong current to activate the target neurons in the tissue below, activating multiple electrodes at once risks triggering a seizure. And activating neighboring electrodes can stimulate the tissue between them, fusing two discrete visual points into a blob. But at the meeting, Second Sight’s collaborators at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas, presented evidence that the 60 electrodes could create phosphenes at more than 60 locations. The scientists employed a technique known as current steering, which is already used to enhance pitch perception with cochlear implants.
Electrodes that penetrate deeper into the visual cortex could get closer to target neurons and use a lower current to activate smaller, more precise points in the tissue. Last week, Xing Chen, a neuroscientist in Pieter Roelfsema’s lab at the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience in Amsterdam, presented tests of implants containing 1000 of these penetrating electrodes in two sighted monkeys. The animals could distinguish between different letters the researchers flashed into their visual field by activating 10 to 15 electrodes at a time. Roelfsema hopes to start human trials by 2023.
Stephen Macknik, a neuroscientist at the State University of New York’s Downstate Health Sciences University in New York City, cautions that the brain will eventually form a scar around implanted wires, walling them off from their target neurons. Such implants are “ruining the cortex for all other implants in the future,” he says, “and at best, [the user is] not going to see much.” He contends that optogenetics promises sharper vision, making penetrating electrodes unethical. At the meeting, Macknik presented plans for a technology called OBServ, which would add a light-sensitive opsin gene to neurons that reach into the visual cortex from a signal waystation at the base of the brain. Those cells, he explained, could be activated with light shined from the brain’s surface.
Cortical optogenetic systems such as OBServ won’t reach the clinic anytime soon. Researchers still need to demonstrate that a virus can safely and reliably endow particular neurons with an opsin gene that sticks around for years. They’ll also need to implant a highly precise, yet compact, device under the skull that flashes light into the brain while reading out neural activity to calibrate stimulation on the fly.
But one of the biggest barriers to beaming ultraprecise vision into the brain, many researchers say, is much more fundamental: discovering which stimulation patterns the brain will be able to interpret. “We don’t think that just because you had, say, a million electrodes or perfect spatial optogenetic activation, everything is just solved,” says Baylor neuroscientist William Bosking. “We need to learn how to talk to the cortex.”