Rise of the worm-brained machine

What may be thought of as the first cyborg, is both very dumb—worm-brained—and rather clunky—a little, wheeled robot body. After digitally mapping the neurons of the simplistic C. elegans roundworm, a research team with the OpenWorm project has simulated the worm’s brain in a comparatively complicated wheeled robot. The result, as described by the folks at SingularityHUB: the robot behaved like a C. elegans roundworm, in so far as a robot can act like a roundworm, by moving and avoiding objects without being explicitly programmed to do so.

While robots can currently be programmed to perform similar operations, this research is intended to show how, given a digital map of an organism’s brain, a robotic body may be made to behave like its organic counterpart. Now, the C. elegans’ 302 neurons and 7,000 synapses don’t quite compare to a human’s roughly 86 billon neurons and 100 trillion synapses, but this research is considered to be a single, small step toward mapping the human brain nonetheless.

All of this on the heels of public figures like Stephen Hawking and Space X’s chief executive, Elon Musk, openly discussing their fear of full artificial intelligence. While these fears bear an uncanny resemblance to those at play in the Terminator franchise—was that a neural map of Arnie’s brain controlling the Terminator?—they do bring the discussion back to a key question: how and when should technological discovery be tempered by fear?

Boozers are the Key to Evolution

alcohol Drinking alcohol is considered by many to be a vice, but this typically refers to excessive consumption. But in moderate amounts, our desire to drink and our ability to metabolize alcohol may have led to our evolution.

Humans are known to have developed fermentation processes around 9,000 years ago, so it would be reasonable to assume that it was then that we developed the vibe to imbibe. A recent study indicates, however, that drinking booze may be hardwired in the human DNA more than 10 million years ago.

Humans are able to drink significant amounts of alcohol (ethanol, primarily) because we can process it before it kills us (after making us hopelessly sloshed, of course) but not all primates can tolerate ethanol. Our presumed ancestors, gorillas and chimpanzees, were found to have developed an effective type of booze-busting proteins which includes alcohol dehydrogenase enzyme (ADH4) way back when which allowed them to digest fruit that had fallen on the ground and started to spoil (ferment). All primates actually have ADH4, but not every species has the right kind.

This is important in times of scarcity; those who could literally stomach eating the fruit from the ground survived, unlike their more fastidious counterparts without the requisite protein enzymes. It follows that because our ancestors lived, they were able to evolve; thus, humans! This will also explain why we associate drinking alcohol with having a good time; staying alive can really put you in a good mood.

The Secret to Eternal Life

jellyfishWould you believe that the key to living forever may depend on…jellyfish?

The quest for immortality has been the endgame for many people who believe that living forever is a desirable thing. This has given rise to widespread fascination with vampires and the like who never get wrinkles, never get old, and never die.

However, the quest for eternal life may be ending soon for real, and without undead consequences, either.

There is a species of jellyfish called Turritopsis dohrnii (formerly identified as Turritopsis nutricula) that has the ability not only to regenerate but to revert to an earlier stage of their development (in gamer parlance, “saved game”) when they become sick, seriously injured, old, or the environment turns hostile. The process is called transdifferentiation in which mature cells change to whatever form they need to be to promote life, which is pretty much what human stem cells do.

The “immortal jellyfish” was first observed independently in 1988 in the Italian Riviera by marine-biology student Christian Sommer and in Japan by zoologist and university professor (and karaoke singer) Shin Kubota. It is believed that T. dohrnii is the only animal known to have such abilities, and potential human applications are, as you can imagine, quite exciting.

But first, they have to figure out how it’s done. But Shibota, who is recognized as the premier authority on T. dohrnii, is certain that the time will come when humans will unlock the secret to eternal life.

Bacteria in the Brain

yogurt!We hear bacteria and we go “ewww!,” but like most things, there is a light and dark side to the coin. Just as popular culture would have us believe that there are good vampires and bad vampires, there are good bacteria and bad bacteria. Bad bacteria make us sick, while good bacteria can make us party animals. And believe it or not, you can get these good bacteria from yogurt.

That’s right folks, apparently regularly eating yogurt may actually do more than help us lose weight; it can actually alter how we socialize by messing with our brains—in a good way, of course. Researchers have found that the certain kinds of good bacteria present in yogurt (probiotics) may be influencing the production of serotonin in the brain by saying how-do to our brains through the vagus nerve, which runs from the stomach to the brain.

Serotonin is associated with mood changes; low serotonin levels usually mean anxiety and depression are frequent visitors while higher levels progressively elevate a person’s mood and make us better social creatures. Studies showed that healthy subjects who regularly ate yogurt exhibited changes in the part of the brain that handles emotions.

Does that mean that yogurt could help those suffering from major depression and anxiety disorders? Don’t throw out your prescriptive meds yet. Studies are still in the initial stages, far too soon to make any firm declarations. In the meantime, though, it wouldn’t hurt to keep scarfing down that yogurt, right?

As if We Needed Help…

brainA virus that affects green algae has been found lurking in human brains, which scientists believe make us dumber than we should be. It appears to affect our ability to contextualize and correctly process our surroundings (spatial awareness and visual perception).

It all began in the throat where researchers were studying tiny microbes that had moved in and made it their home. There are actually millions of them, of all kinds, in there, a legacy of our need to breathe, and most are considered to be relatively harmless for relatively healthy humans. They found the virus and tracked it right up to the brain, and they now have something else to blame for the stupid things people do.

The presence of the virus in the brain had not been observed before, which doesn’t mean it hasn’t been there. However, it does lead researchers to speculate about what other “harmless” microbes in our system could be screwing up the works and to what extent. Virologists point out that while each person is more or less a sum of its genetic parts, there are variations on the theme that may be attributed in some part to the interaction between our genes and microorganisms.

So instead of whining that “the dog ate my homework” you could say “the microbe in my nose made me too stupid to understand the homework.” Not as succinct, but harder to prove otherwise.

Kickstarting Evolution with the Prospect of Annihilation

evolutionIf we were invaded by 7-foot humanoids that insisted on putting food on high shelves, would we start to evolve into taller humans? Scientists say possibly, and quite quickly too (from an evolutionary standpoint, that is) — just a thousand years, or 40 generations. That’s a second in the grand scheme of things, really.

Evolution is usually observed taking in thousands, if not millions, of years, but scientists have demonstrated in a study published in the journal Nature that when push comes to shove, evolution kicks in to quickly neutralize threats on the genetic level.

They performed an experiment involving a type of lizard called Carolina anoles that were endemic to the southeastern U.S. and that appeared to have evolved larger footpads in response to the arrival of foreign Cuban anoles, which threatened their territory and food supply. With the larger footpads, Carolina anoles were able to climb higher, avoiding the invaders altogether. In their experiment, they introduced Cuban anoles to areas where Carolina anoles still had regular-sized footpads, and after 15 years (20 generations in lizard terms), the native species had indeed evolved into high-flyers.

Of course, humans are not lizards, so there’s no guaranteeing that we would have the same type of response to a serious threat to our existence. We’ll just have to wait and see.

The Doctor Will See You Now

virtual doctorGoogle is currently in the process of trying to make life easier, or more terrifying, for those of us who currently spend too many hours in the middle of the night searching our symptoms on WebMD. In an effort to try and connect people quickly with reliable medical advice, Google is currently testing a new feature that connects those searching for illnesses or symptoms to an actual doctor who can video chat with them about their questions and concerns.

When Google detects that someone is searching for a particular condition, or is searching for a cause of certain symptoms, this new feature will alert the user that there is an opportunity to directly video chat with a physician. Google says that it’s testing out this new program in the hopes that it will connect users with the most helpful information available regarding their medical concerns.

This isn’t the first example of using teleconferencing to dole out medical care. In fact, and increasingly popular trend in some areas is the virtual doctor’s office. In these offices, an individual video chats with a doctor who is in a secondary location about his or her symptoms, while a nurse or physician’s assistant is in the office physically with the patient to take his or her vitals and to facilitate any direct care that is needed.

During this initial trial stage, only certain users are being offered the chance to chat with a doctor, and Google is covering all costs. However, if the program proves successful, Google will likely expand the feature to all users, and doctors will be able to charge users whatever they want for the service. A users insurance will not be billed initially for the conversation, but those who take advantage of this service should be able to file a reimbursement for this service with their insurance provider, provided it’s covered. All transaction costs will take place through Google Wallet, making it just a little too easy for the hypochondriacs among us, myself included, to spend incredible amounts of money investigating every little cough and sneeze.

Give me a high five, but not too hard

shutterstock_124484773First off, bionic hands are an actual thing. In fact, bionic hands have been around for a little while now; it wasn’t until recently, as reported by the BBC, that the benefactors of this technology could actually feel what they were doing. In the way of bionic hands, this is quite a step forward.

Before we go any further consider this: without feeling how hard your grip is, how do you know how hard to grip someone’s hand in a handshake, or, alternatively, how tightly to grip a soft black plum? So, in order to do something like shake another person’s hand without making them cry, it turns out that it’s pretty important to be able to sense pressure.

To achieve this, the research team at Case Western Reserve University implanted sensors directly into the patients’ arms and then wrapped those sensors around their remaining nerve endings, which, still being capable of sending and receiving electronic stimulation, will then receive sensory information from sensors embedded in the prosthetic hand.

While the two benefactors of this research have both been utilizing their sensing hands for over a year now, the performance of more delicate tasks have been quite limited until now. As demonstration of their new prowess, both patients can now quite delicately pluck the stalks from a cherry.

Another research team, this one operating out of Sweden’s Chalmers University of Technology, has successfully implanted the first bone-anchored bionic arm with a technique known as osseointegration. This process allows the bionic limb to be directly connected to bone, nerve, and muscle tissues offering users greater control over their hand.

Together, the research being pursued by these two research groups envisions a bright future—one in which individuals may replace lost limbs with fully integrated, bionic systems that will restore what might have otherwise been lost.

Is it or Isn’t It? The Debate about Pluto

plutoBack in 2006, some astronomers got together and decided that Pluto wasn’t a planet after all. This was during a meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) that was held in Prague that year, when they reached a consensus about the parameters that define a planet. There were three: it had to be round (because of gravitational forces), orbits a sun, and dominates its immediate space.

Apparently, Pluto was a little too friendly with other cosmic bodies which were too big to be considered satellites (like our moon) so it didn’t make the cut. It was relegated to dwarf planet class, of which there are 44 identified in our solar system alone so far, and many more out there. In other words, it was demoted.

But it didn’t end there.

When the announcement was first made, there were quite a few strong reactions (why — we don’t really understand – does it really matter what it’s classified as?) but the uproar eventually died down. Now, astronomers who apparently thought it would be fun to stir things up a bit announced that maybe Pluto is a planet after all.

The debate has gone to what in our humble opinion is the height of absurdity. One argument seems particularly so: scientists should have nothing to do with defining what a planet is because it is subject to changes in culture. If astronomers are not the proper authority on planets, should the job of classifying them be given to a sociologist or anthropologist? You think they won’t argue forever, too?

Let’s see what happens next.

“E” is for PTSD

MDMAIf you were old enough to be at a rave in the 80s, then you may have tried “E,” that harbinger of goodwill and euphoria that made group dancing with strangers not only acceptable, but enjoyable.

“E” is short for ecstasy, which is the street name for a designer drug with a scientific name that’s a real tongue twister: 3,4-methylenedioxy-methamphetamine. Even its acronym MDMA is not much better. But ecstasy, and a purer form called “Molly” (for “molecular,” go figure) continues to bring the house down in the club scene, which is probably why it is considered an illegal drug on par with speed (amphetamine) and mescaline. However, fresh perspectives into ecstasy reveal it may be the good guy after all.

New studies into the effect of ecstasy on the brain using magnetic functional imaging suggest that ecstasy may be a viable treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and anxiety disorder. Brain scans show that the euphoric effect of ecstasy is based on a depressed communication between emotions and memories, allowing test subjects to dial down the stress associated with traumatic events while increasing the impact of pleasurable moments. In other words, ecstasy has the potential to make you feel good, something that any raver or club goer knows without the benefit of brain scans.

Studies are still ongoing, mostly to see if there any adverse long-term effects of using ecstasy to treat PTSD and anxiety, such as dependency. However, if you are constantly reliving the nightmares of a traumatic event or are unable to function normally because of heightened anxiety, a little dependency may be a small price to pay.