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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

NASA is planning to bring a swarm or robotic Marsbees to the Red Planet, engineers in Berkeley figured out how to 3D print liquids inside liquids, their pals at USC developed retinal implants that could help us see better in our dotage, and MIT researchers have found a way to take the words right out of your mouth. This week’s developments leave us speechless.

 

The Shape Of Water

What is it? Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory have 3D printed a structure made entirely of liquids.

Why does it matter? 3D-printed liquid electronics for powering flexible devices and tools for chemical synthesis are among the possible application for the technology. “It’s a new class of material that can reconfigure itself, and it has the potential to be customized into liquid reaction vessels for many uses, from chemical synthesis to ion transport to catalysis,” said Tom Russell, a visiting faculty scientist at the Berkeley Lab.

How does it work? The team stabilized thin streams of water by sheathing them in a soap-like surfactant made of gold nanoparticles, polymer ligands, water and oil. “These supersoaps jam together and vitrify, like glass, which stabilizes the interface between oil and water and locks the liquid structures in position,” the lab said in a news release. Next, the scientists rejiggered a 3D printer, replacing its usual components with a syringe and needle. Then they used this printer to inject the sheathed streams into silicone oil, creating liquid-within-liquid tubes. “We can squeeze liquid from a needle, and place threads of water anywhere we want in three dimensions,” said Joe Forth, a postdoctoral researcher who worked on the project. “We can also ping the material with an external force, which momentarily breaks the supersoap’s stability and changes the shape of the water threads. The structures are endlessly reconfigurable.”

 

Stem Cell-Based Retinal Implants

Researchers are working on a stem cell-based retinal implant that could be used for people with with advanced dry age-related macular degeneration. Image and caption credits: Britney O. Pennington/USC.

What is it? Researchers in California have created a retinal implant made from stem cells for combatting vision loss associated with a type of age-related macular degeneration (AMD), a common eye disorder that affects the central vision, which we need for driving, reading, writing and other “straight-ahead”activities.

Why does it matter? AMD is the leading cause of severe visual impairment among those 65 and older. More than 1.75 million people in the U.S. have AMD, according to the National Eye Institute at the National Institutes of Health, and health statisticians expect that number to increase to nearly 3 million by 2020.

How does it work? In “dry” AMD, small deposits called drusen collect under the macula, resulting in thinning and drying of the retina, and ultimately loss of vision. To counter this degeneration, a USC Roski Eye Institute surgeon implanted four patients’ reintas with a thin layer of retinal cells derived from embryonic stem cells. A year later, none of the eyes with implants showed vision loss, according to the team’s paper in Science. “This is the first human trial of this novel stem cell-based implant, which is designed to replace a single-cell layer that degenerates in patients with dry age-related macular degeneration,” said Amir H. Kashani, assistant professor of clinical ophthalmology at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and lead author on the study. “This implant has the potential to stop the progression of the disease or even improve patients’ vision. Proving its safety in humans is the first step in accomplishing that goal.”

 

Speak Softly And Carry A Big Earpiece

What is it? Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists have created a headset and software that can “hear” and transcribe words that the wearer “verbalizes internally but does not actually speak aloud.” The system also includes headphones that can send vibrations through the facial bones and into the ear “to convey information to the user without interrupting conversation or otherwise interfering with the user’s auditory experience.” The full system enables the user to ask the computer a question silently and receive responses no one else can hear.

Why does it matter? While various James Bond subplots might immediately spring to mind, MIT is billing this device as a less disruptive answer to cellphones. “If I want to look something up that’s relevant to a conversation I’m having, I have to find my phone and type in the passcode and open an app and type in some search keyword, and the whole thing requires that I completely shift attention from my environment and the people that I’m with to the phone itself,” said lead researcher Arnav Kapur. “Our idea was: Could we have a computing platform that’s more internal, that melds human and machine in some ways and that feels like an internal extension of our own cognition?”

How does it work? The researchers determined several locations on the face and jaw that produce distinct neuromuscular signals during “subvocalization.” Then, using a neural network, they identified correlations between these signals and sets of words. Once the machine-learning system learned the words, it could respond to queries containing them. Its vocabulary is fairly limited for now — it can follow arithmetic commands, for example — but the researchers are working to expand it. “I think we’ll achieve full conversation some day,” said Kapur.

 

Marsbees in NASA’s Bonnet

Above: “Marsbees are robotic flapping wing flyers of a bumblebee size with cicada sized wings,” NASA said. Images credit: NASA. Top image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? NASA scientists have proposed the development of robotic insects that would help humans explore Mars. “Marsbees are robotic flapping wing flyers of a bumblebee size with cicada sized wings,” the agency reported. These minidrones would work in conjunction with a rover that would serve as their base, a recharging station and a communication center.

Why does it matter? NASA reported that a Marsbee swarm could “significantly enhance the Mars exploration mission by “facilitating reconfigurable sensor networks,” creating “resilient systems,” and sampling and gathering data with “single or collaborative Marsbees.” The Marsbee offered “many benefits over traditional aerospace systems,” the agency said. “The smaller volume, designed for the interplanetary spacecraft payload configuration, provides much more flexibility. Also, the Marsbee inherently offers more robustness to individual system failures. Because of its relatively small size and the small volume of airspace needed to test the system, it can be validated in a variety of accessible testing facilities.”

How does it work? The Marsbees will rely on “insect-like” wings equipped with “a torsional spring mounted at the wing root to temporarily store otherwise wasted energy and reduce the overall inertial power at resonance,” NASA said. “Whereas rotary wing concepts are much more mature in both design and control, these two innovations are uniquely suited to bioinspired flapping vehicles and provide flying near the Martian terrain as a viable means of mobility.”

 

The Road To Total Recall

Neurons with amyloid plaques. The plaques are characteristic features of Alzheimer’s disease. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina have successfully tested a DARPA-funded “prosthetic memory system” that “uses a person’s own memory patterns to facilitate the brain’s ability to encode and recall memory.” The technology was able to improve short-term memory performance by 35 to 37 percent over baseline measurements in humans. “We showed that we could tap into a patient’s own memory content, reinforce it and feed it back to the patient,” said Robert Hampson, the study’s lead author and a professor of physiology, pharmacology and neurology at Wake Forest Baptist. “Even when a person’s memory is impaired, it is possible to identify the neural firing patterns that indicate correct memory formation and separate them from the patterns that are incorrect. We can then feed in the correct patterns to assist the patient’s brain in accurately forming new memories, not as a replacement for innate memory function, but as a boost to it.”

Why does it matter? The study focused on “improving episodic memory, which is the most common type of memory loss in people with Alzheimer’s disease, stroke and head injury,” the center reported. “To date we’ve been trying to determine whether we can improve the memory skill people still have,” Hampson said. “In the future, we hope to be able to help people hold onto specific memories, such as where they live or what their grandkids look like, when their overall memory begins to fail.”

How does it work? The team worked with epilepsy patients who had surgically implanted electrodes in various parts of their brains. The researchers recorded brain signals while the subjects were trying to memorize and recall an image on a computer screen and then analyzed the data. Next, they developed a code based on the correct responses and used it to stimulate neurons in the patients’ hippocampus, part of the brain involved in making new memories. “Even when a person’s memory is impaired, it is possible to identify the neural firing patterns that indicate correct memory formation and separate them from the patterns that are incorrect,” Hampson said. “We can then feed in the correct patterns to assist the patient’s brain in accurately forming new memories, not as a replacement for innate memory function, but as a boost to it.”

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