the_newsbeagle writes: Yesterday Facebook announced that it's working on a "typing by brain" project, promising a non-invasive technology that can decode signals from the brain's speech center and translate them directly to text (see the video beginning at 1:18:00). What's more, Facebook exec Regina Dugan said, the technology will achieve a typing rate of 100 words per minute.
Here, a few neuroscientists are asked: Is such a thing remotely feasible? One neuroscientist points out that his team set the current speed record for brain-typing earlier this year: They enabled a paralyzed man to type 8 words per minute, and that was using an invasive brain implant that could get high-fidelity signals from neurons. To date, all non-invasive methods that read brain signals through the scalp and skull have performed much worse.
the_newsbeagle writes: Elon Musk has set out to change the world with SpaceX's reusable rockets and Tesla's electric cars, and now he plans to change your brain. His new company, Neuralink, will reportedly build delicate brain implants called "neural lace" to help people with neuropsychiatric disorders and to give healthy people strange new mental abilities.
But the news announcements about the company contained scant details about what kind of hardware Neuralink might actually build, and what engineering challenges the company will have to overcome in pursuit of miniaturized and safe brain implants. Here, five neuroscience experts describe those challenges, and give hints on what to expect from Musk's neural dust.
the_newsbeagle writes: Rwanda's combination of hilly terrain, poor roads, and extensive rainy seasons create a serious problem when something needs to be delivered fast—like a blood pack that could save the life of a new mom with postpartum hemorrhaging or a kid with malaria-induced anemia. Remote hospitals have long dealt with blood shortages and doctors have waited in frustration for urgent ground deliveries, which often didn't arrive in time. A drone delivery startup called Zipline came to Rwanda to solve that problem with its fleet of fixed-wing drones. When a doctor texts the company with a request, a drone takes flight with its payload. Within 30 minutes the doctor receives a message and goes outside to receive a package that comes parachuting down.
the_newsbeagle writes: If we want to have robotic minions work inside our bodies to keep our biological systems running smoothly, we'll have to make those robots soft and squishy. Researchers are working with a variety of materials to devise soft bots that won't cause damage inside our bodies and can fulfill important functions. Here are three malleable machines that could help a failing heart keep pumping, dispense drugs on command, and help a surgeon hold on to slippery organs.
the_newsbeagle writes: Silicon Valley bigwig Mary Lou Jepsen needed a good reason to walk away from a cushy job at Facebook—and she found one in a new imaging technique that she says will produce MRI-level resolution in a cheap wearable device. Such a gadget could be used to cheaply detect tumors or for continuous monitoring of neuropsychiatric disorders (for the latter, she imagines tucking the gear into a ski hat). She also says this high-quality brain imaging can enable consumer telepathy devices. Her startup, Openwater, apparently already has working prototypes to explore the constraints of physics, and is now deciding on its first products.
the_newsbeagle writes: In the fast-growing field of synthetic biology, researchers and startups need ways to rapidly edit the DNA sequences of organisms. Then they can synthesize the DNA to spec and insert it into living organisms to see how it affects their life functions. They might do that based on scientific curiosity or a profit motive—imagine, for example, if a bacteria could be rejiggered to naturally exude a biofuel or a vaccine.
One group of researchers is trying to build a completely synthetic organism—a single-celled yeast—by building synthetic versions of its 16 chromosomes and putting them into a cell. To design this weird new critter, they had to invent a software program called BioStudio that make editing the genetic code as easy as cut & paste. It also has a feature akin to track changes, so genetic edits that turn out to be "bugs" and make the yeast malfunction can be rolled back. It's the kind of tool geneticists will need as they explore this new design frontier—the design of life itself.
the_newsbeagle writes: This isn't old-school brain zapping: It's not electroshock therapy, in which doctors flood a depressed patient's brain with some 900 milliamps of current to cause a seizure and something like a mood reset. This is tDCS (transcranial direct current stimulation), which would let psychiatrists send their depressed patients home with a brain-zapping headband that sends perhaps 2 milliamps of current through specific portions of their brains. A doctor's prescription might call for the patient to do a 20-minute stimulation session daily for a few weeks, then less frequent maintenance sessions.
While tDCS is being investigated as a treatment for all sorts of neuropsychiatric disorders, many researchers and doctors think depression may be the killer app. A South Korean company called Ybrain thinks its consumer-friendly headband for depression will be the product that makes this treatment mainstream — first in Korea, then in Europe, then in the United States and around the world.
the_newsbeagle writes: Crowdfunding campaigns that fail to deliver may be all too common, but some flameouts merit examination. Like this brain-scanning gadget for dogs, which promised to translate their barks into human language. It's not quite as goofy as it sounds: The campaigners planned to use standard EEG tech to record the dogs' brainwaves, and said they could correlate those electrical patterns with general states of mind like excitement, hunger, and curiosity.
The campaign got a ton of attention in the press and raised twice the money it aimed for. But then the No More Woof team seemed to vanish, leaving backers furious. This article explains what went wrong with the campaign, and what it says about the state of neurotech gadgets for consumers.
the_newsbeagle writes: By showing that human cells naturally engulf minuscule silicon nanowires, a material scientist from the University of Chicago has opened the way to intracellular electronics. Applications could include very specialized drug delivery, electrically stimulating the organelles inside the cell, or recording the signals that pass between those internal structures.
the_newsbeagle writes: A seriously wounded person can bleed out within minutes. So first responders, battlefield medics, and surgeons will all be interested in this new technology: a "neural tourniquet" that stops blood loss by zapping a nerve. The handheld device stimulates the vagus nerve to send an electrical signal through the nerve to the spleen, where the blood cells responsible for forming clots receive instructions. This signal primes the cells so that they form clots faster if they encounter a wound anywhere in the body; a study in pigs showed 40% less bleeding time and 50% less blood loss. A startup called Sanguistat is testing the device first as a treatment for postpartum hemorrhage.
the_newsbeagle writes: The big problem with treating glioblastoma, the most aggressive type of brain tumor, is that nothing really works. Surgeons cut out the tumor as soon as it's detected and blast left-behind cells with radiation and chemo, but it always comes back. Most glioblastoma patients live only one or two years after diagnosis.
The Optune system, which bathes the brain tumor in an AC electric field, is the first new treatment to come along that seems to extend some patients' lives. New data on survival rates from a major clinical trial showed that 43% of patients who used Optune were still alive at the 2-year mark, compared to 30% of patients on the standard treatment regimen. At the 4-year mark, the survival rates were 17% for Optune patients and 10% for the others.
The catch: Patients have to wear electrodes on their heads around the clock, and they're wired to a bulky generator/battery pack that's carried in a shoulder bag.
the_newsbeagle writes: Harvard scientists have invented a nifty lab robot that can smoke 10 cigarettes at a time, lighting up for the benefit of medical research on chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). The bot channels smoke into a "lung on a chip," a small device with microfluidic channels lined by human lung cells. This setup enables researchers to realistically replicate the action of taking regular pulls from a cigarette, and to watch the effects on the lung cells. Researchers can't achieve the same realism with cells cultured in a petri dish or with lab mice--which, interestingly, are "obligate nasal breathers" that typically take in air through their noses.
the_newsbeagle writes: In a stadium in Zurich last Saturday, a new athletic competition showcased the possibilities when machine and muscle work in tandem. The Cybathlon, billed as the world's first cyborg Olympics, starred paraplegic people racing in robotic exoskeleton suits and amputees completing race courses with motorized prosthetic limbs. While the competitors struggled with mundane tasks like climbing stairs, those exertions underlined the point:
"Like the XPrize Foundation, the Cybathlon’s organizers wanted to harness the motivating power of competition to spur technology development. By filling the races with everyday activities, they hoped to encourage inventors to make devices that can eventually provide winning moves beyond the arena."
the_newsbeagle writes: Engineers know how to iterate. Whether they're working in hardware or software, they use the design-build-test cycle to get from an idea to a satisfactory product. Now synthetic biologists are applying this approach to inventing strange new life forms. Ginkgo Bioworks, a hip Boston startup that recently raised $100 million, considers itself an "organism factory." The company's bioengineers use synthetic DNA and a highly automated lab to create novel organisms, trying out thousands of variants as they work toward one that has useful properties—like a yeast that spits rose oil, which Ginkgo is developing for a French perfume company.