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The Vanguard

5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Tomas Kellner
March 31, 2017
A paralyzed man used a brain chip to move his arm, a supercomputer is getting good at spotting depression, and scientists found a way to make fast-growing cancer self-destruct. Read on and finish the week on a positive note.


No More Wishful Thinking

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Bill Kochevar, who has been quadriplegic for a decade, is moving his arm and hand again thanks to a new computer-brain interface that bypasses his spinal cord injury and reroutes the brain’s electrical signals to move the limb. It works through two chips embedded under Kochevar’s skull that record brain commands for the limb to move. These commands are normally sent through a person’s nervous system as electrical impulses to the limb, where muscles contract and relax to execute the directive. But, in cases of spinal cord injury, the communication link is broken. The team connected the chips — each about the size of a baby aspirin — to an electrical stimulation system implanted in Kochevar’s arm that made his muscles flex. The system has enabled him to bring a drinking cup to his lips and feed himself, marking the first time a paralyzed person has successfully used such technology to regain movement. “For somebody who’s been injured eight years and couldn’t move, being able to move just that little bit is awesome to me,” Kochevar said. “It’s better than I thought it would be.”


Good News About Depression

 width= Region of anterior thalamic radiation that revealed significantly lower axial diffusivity and mean diffusivity values in those with major depressive disorder relative to healthy control participants. From the top left clockwise – coronal, sagittal, 3D render and axial projections. Image credit: David M Schnyer, Peter C. Clasen, Christopher Gonzalez and Christopher G. Beevers

Scientists from the University of Texas at Austin and other U.S. schools have used software to analyze MRI brain images and detect depression. They reported that their “machine learning approach” was able to “classify individuals with major depressive disorder with roughly 75 percent accuracy.” The team trained software running on the Texas Advanced Computing Center’s Stampede supercomputer to sift through MRI brain scans, genomics data and other information to “identify commonalities among hundreds of patient” and “provide accurate predictions of risk for those with depression and anxiety.” Matching brain scans to brain function isn’t new. But "one difficulty with that work is that it's primarily descriptive,” says David Schnyer, a cognitive neuroscientist and professor of psychology at The University of Texas at Austin. “The brain networks may appear to differ between two groups, but it doesn't tell us about what patterns actually predict which group you will fall into. We're looking for diagnostic measures that are predictive for outcomes like vulnerability to depression or dementia."


This Cool Thing Is Hot

 width= Iowa State engineers don't need a plow to clear snow from the heated test slabs they installed at the Des Moines International Airport. Top and above images credit: Halil Ceylan.

This technology is so hot, it could keep winter weather at bay, at least at the airports. Engineers at Iowa State University started testing an electrically conductive concrete at nearby Des Moines International Airport. They controlled the 15-by-13.5 feet slabs, which are made of a mix of 1 percent carbon fiber, cement, sand and rocks, via a smartphone app, and melted snow and ice this past winter. They contain a number of sensors measuring temperature, strain, and humidity, as well as electrodes that draw power from a nearby hangar. Amazingly, each slab used only 333 watts per square meter, about the same energy used by three incandescent lightbulbs. "Our goal is to keep airports open, safe and accessible,” said Halil Ceylan, a civil, construction and environmental engineering professor leading the project.


A Killer Cancer Treatment

 width= "According to the mechanism we discovered, the faster cancer cells proliferate, the faster and more efficiently they will be eradicated,” says professor Malka Cohen-Armon. Cancer are green in this picture. Image credit: Getty Images.

Researchers at Tel Aviv University found a way to make cancer cells commit suicide. They unleashed this “natural killing mechanism” by tweaking three proteins “in killing fast-duplicating cancer cells while they're dividing.” The approach destroys cancer cells but spares healthy ones. "According to the mechanism we discovered, the faster cancer cells proliferate, the faster and more efficiently they will be eradicated,” says professor Malka Cohen-Armon from the university’s Sackler School of Medicine. “The mechanism unleashed during mitosis may be suitable for treating aggressive cancers that are unaffected by traditional chemotherapy.”


A Golden Opportunity

 width= Researcher Le Yang holds one of the most efficient OLED devices, developed in Cambridge. Image credit: University of Cambridge

Chemists from the University of East Anglia have used insights from quantum mechanics to develop a new material that binds molecules used to create Organic Light-Emitting Diodes (OLEDs) with gold or copper atoms. This change causes the molecules to produce light nearly 100 percent of the time. OLEDs are not new. Today, they are widely used in TVs, smartphones and consumer electronics. They produce light when electricity passes through carbon-based molecules. The problem is that light emanates from only a quarter of these interactions. The rest of the time electrons produce only heat. "It's amazing that the very first demonstration of this new kind of material already beats the performance of technologies which have taken decades to develop,” said corresponding author Dan Credgington working at the University of Cambridge's Cavendish Laboratory. “If the effect we have discovered can be harnessed across the spectrum, it could change the way we generate light."