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The 5 Coolest Things On Earth This Week

This week’s coolest scientific discoveries go to the stars and back, as scientists study the long-term effects of space flight on the human brain. They also used precisely targeted electrical charges to help paraplegic patients walk again. Plus: The rise of the machines continues apace.



Do Space Travelers Suffer Brain Drain?

Top and above: The impact of space flight on the body is a nascent field of study, but it’s necessary to know more if we’re someday going to set out for Mars or beyond. Images credit: Getty Images.

What is it? A new letter to the New England Journal of Medicine details changes in brain tissue observed in cosmonauts who spent a long time on the International Space Station, bolstering scientists’ suspicions that “long-duration spaceflight has detrimental effects in several physiological systems.”

Why does it matter? The impact of space flight on the body is a nascent field of study, but it’s necessary to know more if we’re someday going to set out for Mars or beyond. The understanding of any detrimental effects is the first step toward figuring out how to mitigate them. 

How does it work? An international team of researchers studied MRI scans from 10 cosmonauts who’d each spent, on average, 189 days on the ISS; they imaged their brains preflight, after a short trip, and after a long stay, looking at gray matter, white matter and cerebrospinal fluid, or CSF. They found that the gray matter of the cortex shrunk in places up to 3.3 percent, while CSF increased up to 12 percent. Follow-up imaging revealed that gray matter rebounded somewhat, though not all the way; and that CSF levels continued to increase, suggesting that the effects of microgravity continue after travelers have returned to Earth. The Smithsonian summed it up pithily: “Space brain is a real phenomenon.”


Mars Or Bust

SpaceX’s Starman and its Tesla Roadster have now crossed the red planet’s orbit. Image credit: Getty Images.

What is it? Speaking of Mars, SpaceX’s Starman and its Tesla Roadster have now crossed the red planet’s orbit. “Next stop, the restaurant at the end of the universe,” the rocket builder tweeted on Friday.

Why does it matter? Starman and its ride sailed to space in February atop SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket, “the most powerful operational rocket in the world by a factor of two, with the ability to lift into orbit nearly 64 metric tons (141,000 pounds) — a mass greater than a 737 jetliner loaded with passengers, crew, luggage and fuel,” according to the company. The only rocket more powerful was NASA’s Saturn V used by the Apollo Program for manned moon landings.

How does it work? SpaceX said that “demonstration missions like this one typically carry steel or concrete blocks as mass simulators, but SpaceX decided it would be more worthwhile to launch something fun and without irreplaceable sentimental value: a red Roadster for the red planet. Following launch, Falcon Heavy’s second stage will attempt to place the Roadster into a precessing Earth-Mars elliptical orbit around the sun.” That plan seems to be working.


The Machines Advance

The rise of the machines continues apace. Images credit: Getty Images.

 What is it? Just this past week alone in our ongoing documentation of the rise of the machines: Now we’re seeing artificial intelligence used in lie detectors at border crossings and beating lawyers in their own game of analyzing legal documents. (AI is also learning language like children do.)

Why does it matter? Admittedly, the border-guard AI is problematic both in terms of methodology — it asks travelers questions and tries to determine the veracity of their answers by analyzing facial gestures, with a thus-far-shaky success rate — and politically, as some civil liberties groups have expressed concerns. But the lawyers vs. robots trick is pretty cool, and further opens the possibility that machines can be trained to do menial professional tasks, like data entry and analysis, freeing up the human professionals for more complex and interesting pursuits.

How does it work? In sort of an administrative version of Deep Blue vs. Garry Kasparov, a study by LawGeex set up a machine-learning AI against 20 lawyers, giving each side four hours to study nondisclosure agreements and suss out possible risks. As TechSpot reports, the lawyers took an average 92 minutes and scored a mean accuracy rate of 85 percent, while the bots achieved 94 percent accuracy — in 26 seconds. Sounds promising, but wait’ll you hear what they bill.


Mobility Technology As Finely Tuned As A Swiss Watch

What is it? In Switzerland, a wireless implant that creates electric stimulation is helping patients with paraplegia walk again.

Why does it matter? The project, called Stimulation Movement Overground, or STIMO, was a collaboration between scientists at the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne and the Lausanne University Hospital, and offers a promising avenue to recovery for patients who’ve incurred spinal cord injuries — the next step is making the tech available to hospitals and clinics everywhere to help with rehabilitation. The scientists behind it hope it can be used shortly after injury, before muscle atrophy occurs. 

How does it work? The scientists intensively studied the electrical activity of the brain and spinal cord to determine where and how to precisely aim their electrical charges. As neurosurgeon Jocelyn Bloch explained, ”The targeted stimulation must be as precise as a Swiss watch. In our method, we implant an array of electrodes over the spinal cord which allows us to target individual muscle groups in the legs. Selected configurations of electrodes are activating specific regions of the spinal cord, mimicking the signals that the brain would deliver to produce walking.” In patients who tried the protocol, effects lasted even after the juice was turned off.


Hope For Burn Patients Comes From Lab-Grown Skin Grafts

Embryonic stem cells (ESCs), colored scanning electron micrograph (SEM). ESCs are pluripotent. They are able to differentiate into any cell type. The type of cell they mature into depends upon the biochemical signals received by the immature cells. Image and caption credit: Getty Images.

 What is it? A collaboration between Singapore-based Duke-NUS Medical School and Singapore General Hospital has yielded a way to culture human skin cells in a lab that could be used as safe, effective skin grafts.

Why does it matter? The development could improve options for patients suffering from severe burns and other skin defects. For decades, as Duke-NUS notes, the closest technology doctors have had access to are skin cells from a “combined human-animal culture system,” which can sometimes lead to infection, or rejection by the human immune system. The FDA has approved them only for severe burns or in compassionate-use cases. Alvin Chua, the co-lead author of a study published in Nature Communications, said, “This new method provides a robust yet safer system for our burn patients.” 

How does it work? The cultured skin cells used for grafts are called keratinocytes, and the new method the Singapore team devised relies on a promising class of proteins called laminins, which “are used as a supportive cell culture matrix,” according to Duke-NUS, “and have been found to support the growth of human keratinocytes in a similar way” as the human-animal method. “Laminins have been transforming cell biology and are known to maintain stem cells and tissues architecture and function in a way that mimics the situation in the human body,” said the other lead author, Karl Tryggvason. “Our method of using biologically relevant laminins in their pure forms to develop a fully human cell culture system for growing skin keratinocytes in the laboratory is a first and is likely to translate into novel treatments for many different skin disorders and wounds.”




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