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The Vanguard

The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

Amanda Schupak
March 30, 2022

Communicating through thought, sniffing out cancer and looking for hidden signs of depression. This week’s coolest things reach into the unseen.


Unlocked Potential


Brain communication


What is it? Brain scientists in Germany enabled a paralyzed man to communicate with his doctors and family in full sentences through a brain-computer interface.

Why does it matter? Brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are emerging technologies that convert patients’ neural signals into computer commands, allowing them to control prosthetic devices or answer questions with simple responses. This was the first time a completely paralyzed person used a BCI to form full sentences with only the power of thought.

How does it work? The BCI recipient is suffering from ALS and unable to move even his eyes. The scientists, from the University of Tubingen and biomedical nonprofit ALS Voice gGmbH, implanted two microelectrodes — each just 1.5 millimeters across — into the man’s motor cortex, the part of the brain that controls movement, and connected him to a computer. They trained him to control an audio tone by increasing his brain activity: An increase in activity played a rising tone for “yes,” a decrease played a descending tone for “no.” Then, using an alphabet system the man’s family had devised when he still could move his eyes, he was able to use the tones to spell out what he wanted to say, letter by letter. A completely locked-in patient “who was unable to express his wishes and desires is employing the BCI system to express himself,” the team wrote in a new study in Nature Communications.


It’s Always Sunny Or Windy In Texas


wind farm


What is it? Civil engineers at Rice University published a study showing that a combination of wind and solar power in Texas could easily replace coal in the state.

Why does it matter? “This paper is really about how we can transition away from coal as quickly as possible,” said senior author Daniel Cohan. As he and his team wrote in Renewables: Wind, Water, and Solar: “Simply put, it’s not always windy and not always sunny, but it’s almost always windy or sunny somewhere in Texas.”

How does it work? The researchers calculated the impacts of proposed renewable projects across Texas and determined that just a third of them could generate enough electricity to displace nearly all coal energy in the state. The key will be connecting the windiest and sunniest parts of the state with high-voltage transmission power lines, to ensure steady supply. Their previous work showed that wind and solar power are generated at complementary times: West Texas winds blow most strongly at night, while in south Texas, sea breezes peak on summer afternoons and solar power peaks at midday, they explained.


Smell Test


worm on a chip


What is it? Researchers in South Korea developed a lung cancer test using tiny worms that are attracted to the smell of cancerous cells.

Why does it matter? Lung cancer can be difficult to diagnose, and early detection is critical for treatment to be most effective. This test could screen patients’ urine, saliva or even breath for cancer, offering an easy alternative to imaging tests and invasive biopsies that often cannot find lung cancer in the early stages.

How does it work? The test harnesses the acute sense of smell of a tiny 1-millimeter worm called a nematode, which acts like a drug-sniffing dog for certain odors. “Lung cancer cells produce a different set of odor molecules than normal cells,” said Shin Sik Choi, of Myongji University in Seoul, South Korea. The team made a plastic chip with three wells connected by a central channel. In the middle well, they placed nematodes. They put cultured lung cancer cells on one side and healthy lung cells on the other. More worms moved toward the cancer cells, with 70% accuracy. They reported their findings at a meeting of the American Chemical Society.


Protecting The Protectors


Depression Getty images


What is it? A cognitive screening program from DARPA aims to detect early warning signs that military personnel could be at risk for suicide.

Why does it matter? More than 30,000 active-duty members and veterans have died by suicide since September 11, 2001 — four times as many as those killed in combat over the same period, NPR reported. The Neural Evidence Aggregation Tool (NEAT) is intended to identify those most at risk for self-harm, so they can get the help and support they need.

How does it work? The test would measure preconscious brain activity, automatic reactions to questions before a person has a chance to consciously filter their answers. “Using the preconscious will hopefully enable us to detect signs of depression, anxiety, or suicidal ideation earlier and more reliably than ever before,” said Greg Witkop, a former Army surgeon and current program manager in DARPA’s Defense Sciences Office. The agency will select technology development proposals for the two-year proof-of-concept phase, which will be followed by an 18-month operation and validation phase.


PET Project


tpado enzyme


What is it? Researchers in the U.K. and the U.S. discovered a bacterial enzyme that can break down one of the building blocks of common plastics.

Why does it matter? Using bacterial enzymes to decompose synthetic plastics is a promising natural solution to help tackle the 400 million tons of plastic waste produced each year. Scientists are trying to hone the nascent technology to break down materials more efficiently into chemicals that can be recycled into valuable products.

How does it work? In previous work, John McGeehan led a University of Portsmouth team that engineered a new version of a naturally occurring enzyme to more easily break down PET plastics into ethylene glycol, a useful chemical found in antifreeze, and terephthalate (TPA), which has few industrial uses and is not broken down easily in nature. The new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, takes the process to the next step. Collaborating with scientists at Montana State University, McGeehan identified another enzyme from the same bacteria that can deconstruct TPA. “This provides researchers with a blueprint for engineering faster and more efficient versions of this complex enzyme,” he said.