This week we learned that a group of scientists is getting close to finding the physical seat of consciousness. And we discovered that a pair of paralyzed monkeys used a wireless device to regain the control of their legs and walk again. We also saw a paper about an AI that can surf the web and get better at finding information. We thought we’d give you a head start before it catches up. Here’s this week’s list.
Consciousness emerges from an interplay between the brain stem and two regions in the cerebral cortex, say American neuroscientists working at Harvard University and the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The scientists first studied 36 patients with brain stem legions, 12 of which led to coma. The brain stem is believed to be critical for arousal – a key component of consciousness. The researchers discovered that 10 of these coma-causing lesions involved a small area of the brain stem. Then they identified the parts of the brain’s outer cortex had previously been linked to arousal and awareness. “For the first time, we have found a connection between the brainstem region involved in arousal and regions involved in awareness, two prerequisites for consciousness,” said the BIMDC’s Michael D. Fox. “A lot of pieces of evidence all came together to point to this network playing a role in human consciousness.” The team then used magnetic resonance imaging to observe whether this brain stem-cortex network was indeed disrupted in patients with impaired consciousness. “The findings — bolstered by data from rodent studies — suggest the network between the brainstem and these two cortical regions plays a role maintaining human consciousness,” they wrote in a news release. Says Aaron Boes, Fox’s former colleague at BIMDC and a co-lead author of the study: “The added value of thinking about coma as a network disorder is it presents possible targets for therapy, such as using brain stimulation to augment recovery.” The results were published in the journal Neurology.
Computer scientists at MIT have developed an artificial intelligence that can surf the internet and extract information to improve its performance. “When you’re reading an article that you can’t understand, you’re going to go on the web and find one that you can understand,” says MIT professor Regina Barzilay. The AI is doing the same thing, the team says. It ran two tests involving data about mass shootings and food contamination. “In each case, the system was trained on about 300 documents,” the team wrote in a news release. “From those documents, it learned clusters of search terms that tended to be associated with the data items it was trying to extract. For instance, the names of mass shooters were correlated with terms like ‘police,’ ‘identified,’ ‘arrested,’ and ‘charged.’ During training, for each article the system was asked to analyze, it pulled up, on average, another nine or 10 news articles from the web.” The team found that compared with more conventional information extractors, “for every data item extracted in both tasks, the new system outperformed its predecessors, usually by about 10 percent.”
Scientists in Europe and the U.S. have built a new wireless “brain-spinal interface” that allowed a pair of monkeys to restore the movement of their temporarily paralyzed legs and walk. “The system we have developed uses signals recorded from the motor cortex of the brain to trigger coordinated electrical stimulation of nerves in the spine that are responsible for locomotion,” said David Borton, assistant professor of engineering at Brown University and one of the study’s co-lead authors. “With the system turned on, the animals in our study had nearly normal locomotion.” Borton said that there was “evidence to suggest that a brain-controlled spinal stimulation system may enhance rehabilitation after a spinal cord injury. This is a step toward further testing that possibility.” The study was published in the journal Nature.
Scientists at Imperial College London and the company DNA Analytics have developed a disposable electronic HIV test on a USB stick that can deliver results within 30 minutes, as opposed to the three days it currently can take. The test uses a mobile phone chip to detect HIV in a drop of blood. The virus “triggers a change in acidity which the chip transforms into an electrical signal,” the team wrote. “This is sent to the USB stick, which produces the result in a program on a computer or electronic device. It could be useful in remote areas and also help people manage the disease on their own since “monitoring viral load is crucial to the success of HIV treatment,” according Imperial’s Graham Cooke, senior author of the research.
Two groups of scientists working at MIT and ETH Zurich have created a strange hybrid matter once thought impossible. Called supersolid, it has a crystalline structure, like that in a piece of iron, but flows like a liquid at the same time. The team’s supersolid is also supercold, hovering just above absolute zero as a form of matter called Bose-Einstein condensate. “It’s certainly the first case where you can unambiguously look at a system and say this is both a superfluid and a solid,” Sarang Gopalakrishnan of the College of Staten Island of the City University of New York, told Science News. He was not involved in the research. The results were published in the online journal ArXiv.