A huge neuron that wraps around the brain like a “crown of thorns” could hold a key to consciousness, artificial synapses could lead to brain-like computers, and solid-state batteries could revolutionize how we store energy. We are so charged up about science that we turned this week’s column into a podcast on GE Reports Radio. Listen to it and don’t forget to subscribe!
Researchers at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle discovered three massive neurons that “seem to connect to most or all of the outer parts of the brain that take in sensory information and drive behavior,” according to the journal Nature. One of the neurons encircles the brain like a “crown of thorns,” neuroscientist Christof Koch, the institute’s president, told the journal. The team used genetically engineered mice and 3D brain imaging to make the discovery. The large neurons are connected to a thin sheet of cells called the claustrum, an area with “the highest connectivity in the brain by regional volume” and “a primary contributor to global brain network architecture” according to research published in PubMed. The layer could be the seat of consciousness. “The claustrum is a thin, irregular, sheet-like neuronal structure hidden beneath the inner surface of the neocortex in the general region of the insula. Its function is enigmatic,” Koch said in a Royal Society paper co-written earlier with DNA co-discoverer Francis Crick. “We here briefly summarize what is known about the claustrum, [and] speculate on its possible relationship to the processes that give rise to integrated conscious percepts,” they wrote.
Meanwhile, researchers at Stanford University and Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico created “a high-performance, low-energy artificial synapse for neural network computing,” according to Stanford News. A synapse is the tiny gap between neurons that allows them to communicate. The human brain has more than 100 trillion synapses. “It works like a real synapse, but it’s an organic electronic device that can be engineered,” Alberto Salleo, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford and senior author of the paper, told the News. “It’s an entirely new family of devices because this type of architecture has not been shown before. For many key metrics, it also performs better than anything that’s been done before with inorganics.” The synapse could become a building block for computer applications mimicking the brain’s voice and visual functions. The synapses could also serve as an alternative to power-hungry AI algorithms and memory. “Deep learning algorithms are very powerful, but they rely in processors to calculate and simulate the electrical states and store them somewhere else, which is inefficient in terms of energy and time,” said Yoeri va de Burght, Salleo’s former student and lead author of the paper. “Instead of simulating a neural network, our work is trying to make a neural network.” The research was reported in the journal Nature Materials.
Scientists at the University of Minnesota are no stargers to cold. Now they used a combination of nanoparticles and noninvasive electromagnetic waves to rapidly thaw pig heart valves and blood vessels frozen above minus 200 degrees Celsius (minus 328 Fahrenheit). “The iron oxide nanoparticles act as tiny heaters around the tissue when they are activated using noninvasive electromagnetic waves to rapidly and uniformly warm tissue at rates of 100 to 200 degrees Celsius per minute, 10 to 100 times faster than previous methods,” according to a new release. “This is the first time that anyone has been able to scale up to a larger biological system and demonstrate successful, fast, and uniform warming hundreds of degrees Celsius per minute of preserved tissue without damaging the tissue,” said John Bischof, the senior author of the study and a mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering professor at the University of Minnesota. The researchers are planning to scale up the process to whole organs. The team wrote that “more than 60 percent of the hearts and lungs donated for transplantation must be discarded each year because these tissues cannot be kept on ice for longer than four hours.” If successful, it could allow physicians freeze donated organs and preserve them for later use. It could also help thaw people who were frozen, or “cryogenically suspended,” after their death.
Scientists at Lund University in Sweden have found a way to rejuvenate aging blood stem cell in aging mice for the first time. The team says that as we age, blood stem cells’ ability to produce new blood cells declines. “This type of age-related change can have major consequences as it can lead to an imbalance in stem cell production,” said David Bryder, who headed the Lund study. “For example, a reduced production of immune cells or excessive production of other types of cells can be a precursor to leukemia.” To get the around the problem, Bryder’s team reprogrammed another kind of cells, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS), which can theoretically turn into any type of cell once they start specializing in the body. The team instructed the iPS cells to turn into new blood stem cells. “We found that there was no difference in blood-generating capacity when we compared the reprogrammed blood stem cells with healthy blood stem cells from a young mouse. This is, as far as we know, the first time someone has directly succeeded in proving that it is possible to recreate the function of young stem cells from a functionally old cell,” said Martin Wahlestedt, the first author of the study.
John Goodenough, the 94-year-old co-inventor on the lithium battery, is looking to solidify his legacy. He and his team at The University of Texas at Austin developed for the first time “all-solid-state battery cells that could lead to safer, faster-charging, longer-lasting rechargeable batteries for handheld mobile devices, electric cars and stationary energy storage.” Goodenough told UT News: “Cost, safety, energy density, rates of charge and discharge and cycle life are critical for battery-driven cars to be more widely adopted. We believe our discovery solves many of the problems that are inherent in today’s batteries.” The UT site wrote that “the researchers demonstrated that their new battery cells have at least three times as much energy density as today’s lithium-ion batteries.”