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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Sam Worley
August 31, 2018
Scientists have designed a material that can morph into preprogrammed states in response to heat, a self-healing liquid membrane that filters small objects while letting larger objects pass through, and a 3D-printed “bridge” that can help heal injured spinal cords. Step right up into the future.

Shape Shifter

What is it? The University of Colorado Boulder reports that some of its scientists have figured out a way to fit a square peg into a round hole. They've created a shape-shifting material that morphs into the necessary shape and then morphs back again. The  material, which changes into “complex, pre-programmed shapes via light and temperature stimuli,” is described in Science Advances.

Why does it matter? Researchers, working out of the university’s department of chemical and biological engineering, say a shape-shifting material that’s flexible, responsive and adaptive could find many uses in medicine — think biomedical devices and artificial muscles — as well as in robotics and additive manufacturing.

How does it work? By using liquid crystal elastomers, or LCEs —polymer networks used in modern television technology — which can be programmed to respond to a given heat stimulus. The university offers the example of an origami swan made out of the new material, which would remain folded at room temperature: “When heated to 200 degrees Fahrenheit, however, the swan relaxes into a flat sheet. Later, as it cools back to room temperature, it will gradually regain its pre-programmed swan shape.”


Insane Liquid Membrane

Top image credit: Tak-Sing Wong Lab.

What is it? A team of mechanical engineers at Penn State has designed a self-healing “reverse filter” — it lets large objects through while excluding small objects. And also unlike what you use to make coffee in the morning, this filter is liquid; it’s a membrane that separates objects not by size but by kinetic energy.

Why does it matter? The reverse membrane — described in Science Advances — has all sorts of trippy, and valuable, potential applications. Researchers say it could be used in battlefield surgery situations, for instance, or anyplace where a clean operating room is impossible. Tak-Sing Wong, a professor of mechanical and biomedical engineering, explained in a Penn State release, “The membrane filter could potentially prevent germs, dust or allergens from reaching an open wound, while still allowing a doctor to perform surgery safely.” And on the less cerebral end of things, graduate student Birgitt Boschitsch said, “One billion people in the world still openly defecate for many reasons, one being that latrines smell bad. But if this could be applied to those toilets, it could allow solid waste to pass through the membrane, while the odor-causing gases will remain trapped.”

How does it work? The team created the membrane with water and “a substance that stabilizes the interface between liquid and air,” according to Penn State. Smaller objects are “associated with lower kinetic energy,” as Wong put it, and larger objects with higher kinetic energy — so this membrane is able to hold onto objects with lower kinetic energy while allowing objects with higher energy to pass through. The membrane — which, again, heals itself after objects pass through it — can also be modified to fit the needs of a given situation. Boschitsch said, “You could add components that make the membrane last longer or components that allow it to block certain gases. There are endless potential additives to choose from to tailor a membrane to the application of interest.”


Scientists Get Hip To Brain Function With Newly Discovered Neuron

 width= A newly discovered type of neuron, dubbed the "rose hip neuron" because of its resemblance to the fruit of the rose plant, appears only to be present in humans. This could unlock new understanding of the brain.  Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Two teams of scientists working independently — and then in collaboration — came across a new kind of neuron in the human brain, which they’ve dubbed the rose hip neuron because of its bushy shape. Results of their joint investigation (one team was from Hungary, the other from Seattle) appear in Nature Neuroscience.

Why does it matter? Besides that this is a part of our anatomy we hadn’t previously known existed? One thing that’s notable about the rose hip neuron is that so far it’s been found only in humans — and not in the brains of rodents, which neuroscientists frequently use when they’re modeling treatments or trying to understand neurological disorders. The difference could explain why some treatments that work well in animal trials don’t achieve the same success in humans. As Joshua Gordon, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, told NPR, “It may be that in order to fully understand psychiatric disorders, we need to get access to these special types of neurons that exist only in humans.”

How does it work? Researchers came across the rose hip neuron while cataloging tissue samples from the neocortex — the most recently evolved part of the brain — of two male adults. The cell has a distinctive shape reminiscent of a rose bush's fruit, but its role in the brain function is still pretty hazy — NPR reports that rose hip neurons “appear to be involved in controlling the flow of information in specific areas of the brain.” As a type of “inhibitory neuron,” the cells might have something to do with mental illness. Stay tuned.


A Bridge To Healing For Spinal Cord Patients

What is it? Scientists at the University of Minnesota have created a 3D-printed device that could form a “bridge” between living nerve cells on either side of a spinal cord injury — potentially helping injured patients restore some function.

Why does it matter? According to the university, about 285,000 people in the U.S. have spinal cord injuries, with another 17,000 added every year. Neurosurgery professor Ann Parr, co-author of the study published in Advanced Function Materials, explained, “Currently, there aren’t any good, precise treatments for those with long-term spinal cord injuries.”

How does it work? With two main parts: A silicone guide, custom-printed to fit the patient’s spinal cord, serves as a kind of platform for cells, which are the second part. The team uses the same 3D printer as the guide the cells and drawn from the patient’s own body, so the spine won’t reject them. Using the latest bioengineering technology, researchers are able to take mature cells from the body and “reprogram” them into neuronal stem cells of the kind they can use to treat the spine. Once implanted, the guide helps the cells stay alive and grow into healthy neurons. Researchers hope it will help spinal-injury patients regain muscle control and experience less pain.


Start Your Algorithms: The Race Is On For Better Pneumonia Detection

 width= Diagnosing pneumonia takes a keen eye and thorough patient history. The Radiological Society of North America is hoping artificial intelligence can speed up the process so that doctors can more quickly administer the right treatment. Image credit: GE Reports

What is it? As part of its Pneumonia Detection Machine Learning Challenge, the Radiological Society of North America is looking for teams capable of creating an algorithm to better suss out signs of pneumonia in chest X-rays.

Why does it matter? Pneumonia is the most common infection in the world and, according to Kaggle — which is providing the platform for RSNA’s competition — it accounts for more than 15 percent of deaths of children under 5 worldwide. Even in countries with access to advanced medical technology, detection is a hassle, requiring a highly trained specialist to take a patient’s history and interpret a complicated chest X-ray. The challenge is to see whether AI might be able to make the process more efficient — just as AI is being used elsewhere to better detect eye disease.

How does it work? The teams vying for the $30,000 prize from Kaggle (a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google) will have access to a publicly available, annotated data set published by the National Institutes of Health — they can use the lung images in it to train algorithms to detect abnormalities, and will be judged on their results in an evaluation phase beginning in October. Think you’ve got what it takes?