The human whipworm, which infects 500 million people and can damage physical and mental growth, is killed at egg and adult stage by a new drug class developed at the Universities of Manchester and Oxford and University College London.
Current treatments for human whipworm are based on 1960s drugs initially developed for livestock and have a low success rate in people. There are also no vaccines available.
As a result there’s a desperate need for new treatments. The team from the three UK universities, whose results have been published in the journal PLOS Neglected Tropical Diseases, studied a class of dihydrobenzoxazepinones, not previously associated with controlling whipworms.
The researchers found that the compounds kill the adult stages of the whipworm much more effectively than existing drugs.
Parasite immunologist, Professor Kathryn Else from The University of Manchester said: “Eradicating the whipworm requires more effective drugs, improving hygiene and vaccine development. The compounds we have discovered could address the first two of these.”
Although we rarely see whipworm infection in the UK, it is a serious and damaging problem in many parts of the world and if we can develop this treatment, the lives of many people could be improved
Professor Kathryn Else
Whipworm eggs are also affected by the compounds. Whipworm eggs are passed from infected faeces into people by hand to mouth contact. This often happens in unsanitary toilets or areas where people live close together. The eggs are highly resistant to extreme temperature changes and ultraviolet radiation and can remain viable in the environment for many years.
However the new compounds are effective against the eggs and could be developed into a spray which can stop infection at source.
The researchers are now modifying their compounds to make them effective enough for a treatment in humans, and one that can be turned into a product used in the developing countries most affected.
Professor Else said: “This team brought expertise from immunology, medicinal chemistry and neurobiology and really shows how combining across disciplines and institutions can lead to important new discoveries.
“Although we rarely see whipworm infection in the UK, it is a serious and damaging problem in many parts of the world and if we can develop this treatment, the lives of many people could be improved.”
Founded in 1826, UCL was the first university institution to be founded in London and the first in England to be established on an entirely secular basis, to admit students regardless of their religion and to admit women on equal terms with men. UCL became one of the two founding colleges of the University of London in 1836. It is regarded as being one of the world’s most prestigious universities.
UCL’s main campus is located in the Bloomsbury area of central London, with a number of institutes and teaching hospitals located elsewhere in central London, and satellite campuses in Adelaide, Australia and Doha, Qatar. UCL is organised into 10 constituent faculties, within which there are over 100 departments, institutes and research centres. UCL has around 26,700 students and 11,025 staff and had a total income of £937 million in 2012/13, of which £335 million was from research grants and contracts. UCL has around 4,000 academic and research staff and 650 full professors, the highest number of any British university.
University College London research articles from Innovation Toronto
- Biodiversity falls below ‘safe levels’ globally – July 15, 2016
- Meet RobERt, the dreaming detective for exoplanet atmospheres – June 29, 2016
- An accurate emotion detector: Is this the kind of world we actually want? – May 12, 2016
- Mars’ surface revealed in unprecedented detail via revolutionary image technique – April 27, 2016
- Antimatter changed physics, and the discovery of antimemories could revolutionise neuroscience – April 2, 2016
- Scientists call for a shake-up in the way we record biodiversity – March 9, 2016
- Researchers take giant step towards ‘holy grail’ of silicon photonics – March 8, 2016
- Breakthrough in cancer research could spawn new treatments – March 4, 2016
- Researchers synthesize a rare critical mineral for first time – February 23, 2016
- Nature inspired nano-structures mean no more cleaning windows plus 40% energy saving – February 16, 2016
- New inexpensive hardware to expand fast fiber-to-the-home – February 15, 2016
- Record for fastest data rate set at 50,000 times greater than 24 megabits per second (Mb/s) – February 13, 2016
- The recipe for painlessness – December 5, 2015
- Stem cell op could bring back sight for millions: AMD Breakthrough – September 28, 2015
- Artificial intelligence improves fine wine price prediction – August 9, 2015
- New paint makes tough self-cleaning surfaces – March 11, 2015
- New technique doubles the distance of optical fibre communications – February 12, 2015
- Paralysed man walks again after cell transplant – October 21, 2014
- New web privacy system could revolutionise the safety of surfing – October 8, 2014
- Are you as old as what you eat? Researchers learn how to rejuvenate aging immune cells – August 26, 2014
- Pairing old technologies with new for next generation electronic devices – August 14, 2014
- Cancer breakthrough as scientists discover how cells spread for the first time paving the way for new treatments to halt disease in its tracks – July 8, 2014
- Hunt for extraterrestrial life gets massive methane boost – June 18, 2014
- New epilepsy treatment offers ‘on demand’ seizure suppression – June 2, 2014
- Light-activated neurons from stem cells restore function to paralysed muscles
- Scientists develop world’s first light-activated antimicrobial surface that also works in the dark
- Patient’s own bone-marrow stem cells could treat resistant TB
- For London Youth, Down and Out Is Way of Life
- Electrical control of single atom magnets
- Is it right to waste helium on party balloons?
- New radar system inspired by dolphins to detect hidden surveillance and explosive devices
- Predictive policing: Don’t even think about it
- ‘Big leap’ towards curing blindness in stem cell study
- Sugar makes cancer light-up in MRI scanners
- Danish scientists ‘close’ to HIV cure
- Can Synthetic Biology Save Wildlife?
- LabSkin gets the thumbs up from UCL expert
- In Lab Lit, Fiction Meets Science of the Real World
- Virtual reality ‘beaming’ technology transforms human-animal interaction
- New Property of Flames Sparks Advances in Technology
- Goodbye Flash Memory – Hello ReRAM – Faster, Cheaper, Much Less Energy and Space Use
- Possibility of Temporarily Reversing Aging in the Immune System
- Bee decline could be down to chemical cocktail interfering with brains
- Study of Volcanoes in the Outer Solar System Produces Unexpected Bonus for Nanotechnology
- Antarctic glacier ‘thinning fast’
- Spinal implant assists paraplegics to exercise
- ‘Living’ carbon-negative material could be used to protect buildings
- Environmentally Friendly Acrylic Glass Made Of Sugar: New Enzyme Could Revolutionize Production Of Plastics
- Alzheimer’s Disease: new research offers hope
- Big beats bolster solar cell efficiency
- This breakthrough drug relieves depression in just one dose
- Maths study of photosynthesis clears the path to developing new super-crops
- Ultrashort Laser Pulses Squeezed Out of Graphene
- Dream Lab project offers taste of food of the future
- Scientists make old muscles young again in attempt to combat aging
- New flu gene found hiding in plain sight, and affects severity of infections
- Ultra-sensitive biosensor could detect diseases in their earliest stages
- Harvard, MIT Will Bring Classes To The Masses With Their ‘edX’ Online Learning Initiative
- Tackle Fungal Forces to Save Crops, Forests and Endangered Animals
- Cloaking breakthrough makes objects magnetically undetectable
- Event-hiding “temporal cloak” demonstrated
- Coral may be a vital ingredient in sunscreen pill
- Researchers overcome size hurdle in quest for invisibility cloak
- Unpaid Work, but They Pay for Privilege
- Tabletop X-ray device rivals world’s largest machines
- CPT’s auto exhaust gas energy recovery system
- Scientists Outline a 20-Year Master Plan for the Global Renaissance of Nuclear Energy
- Nose scanner identity verification developed
- No Implants Needed: Movement-Generating Brain Waves Detected and Decoded Outside the Head
- Hybrid System Of Human-Machine Interaction Created
- Invisibility Cloak And Ultra-powerful Microscopes: New Research Field Promises Radical Advances In Optical Technologies
A new non-surgical treatment for low-risk prostate cancer can effectively kill cancer cells while preserving healthy tissue, reports a new UCL-led phase III clinical trial in 413 patients.
The trial was funded by STEBA Biotech which holds the commercial license for the treatment.
The new treatment, ‘vascular-targeted photodynamic therapy’ (VTP), involves injecting a light-sensitive drug into the bloodstream and then activating it with a laser to destroy tumour tissue in the prostate. The research, published in The Lancet Oncology, found that around half (49%) of patients treated with VTP went into complete remission compared with 13.5% in the control group.
“These results are excellent news for men with early localised prostate cancer, offering a treatment that can kill cancer without removing or destroying the prostate,” says lead investigator Professor Mark Emberton, Dean of UCL Medical Sciences and Consultant Urologist at UCLH. “This is truly a huge leap forward for prostate cancer treatment, which has previously lagged decades behind other solid cancers such as breast cancer. In 1975 almost everyone with breast cancer was given a radical mastectomy, but since then treatments have steady improved and we now rarely need to remove the whole breast. In prostate cancer we are still commonly removing or irradiating the whole prostate, so the success of this new tissue-preserving treatment is welcome news indeed.”
At the moment, men with low-risk prostate cancer are put under ‘active surveillance’ where the disease is monitored and only treated when it becomes more severe. Radical therapy, which involves surgically removing or irradiating the whole prostate, has significant long-term side effects so is only used to treat high-risk cancers.
Radical therapy causes lifelong erectile problems and around one in five patients also suffer from incontinence. By contrast, VTP only caused short-term urinary and erectile problems which resolved within three months, and no significant side-effects remained after two years.
In the trial only 6% of patients treated with VTP needed radical therapy compared with 30% of patients in the control arm who were under active surveillance. The chances of cancer progressing to a more dangerous stage were three times lower for patients on VTP, and the treatment doubled the average time to progression from 14 months to 28 months.
The trial involved 47 treatment sites from ten different European countries, most of which were performing VTP for the first time.
“The fact that the treatment was performed so successfully by non-specialist centres in various health systems is really remarkable,” says Professor Emberton, who is supported by the National Institute for Health Research University College London Hospitals Biomedical Research Centre. “New procedures are generally associated with a learning curve, but the lack of complications in the trial suggests that the treatment protocol is safe, efficient and relatively easy to scale up. We would also expect the treatment to be far more precise if we repeated it today, as technology has come a long way since the study began in 2011.
“We can now pinpoint prostate cancers using MRI scans and targeted biopsies, allowing a much more targeted approach to diagnosis and treatment. This means we could accurately identify men who would benefit from VTP and deliver treatment more precisely to the tumour. With such an approach we should be able to achieve a significantly higher remission rate than in the trial and send nearly all low-risk localised prostate cancers into remission. We also hope that VTP will be effective against other types of cancer – the treatment was developed for prostate cancer because of the urgent need for new therapies, but it should be translatable to other solid cancers including breast and liver cancer.”
The VTP therapy approach was developed by scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel in collaboration with STEBA Biotech, and the European phase I, II and III trials were all led by UCL. The drug used in the procedure, WST11, is derived from bacteria at the bottom of the ocean. To survive with very little sunlight, they have evolved to convert light into energy with incredible efficiency. This property has been exploited to develop WST11, a compound that releases free radicals to kill surrounding cells when activated by laser light.
One of the first people to be treated with VTP was UCLH patient Gerald, a man in his sixties who took part in the latest trial under the care of Professor Emberton. He says:
“When I was diagnosed with early prostate cancer, I had the option of active surveillance but I didn’t want to wait until it got worse so when I was offered a place on the trial I signed up straight away. Some men prefer to delay treatment, but I couldn’t live with the fear of the cancer spreading until it either couldn’t be treated or needed a treatment that would stop me living a normal life.
“The treatment I received on the trial changed my life. I’m now cancer-free with no side-effects and don’t have to worry about needing surgery in future. I feel so lucky to be in this position. I’ve met other men who had surgery – they had to stay in hospital for days whereas I could go home the next day, and one suffered from terrible incontinence which he found very distressing. I had some minor side-effects for a few weeks after the operation, but I’m back to normal now. I am incredibly grateful to Professor Mark Emberton and his team for the excellent care that I received, and I hope that other patients will be able to benefit from this treatment in future.”
The VTP treatment is currently being reviewed by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), so it is likely to be a number of years before it can be offered to patients more widely.
Launched in July this year, Pokémon Go has become a global phenomenon, reaching 500 million downloads within two months of release.
The augmented reality game, designed for mobile devices, allows users to capture, battle and train virtual creatures called Pokémon that appear on screen as if part of the real-world environment.
But can the game’s enormous success deliver any lessons to the fields of natural history and conservation?
A new paper by a group of researchers from the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, and University College London (UCL) explores whether Pokémon Go’s success in getting people out of their homes and interacting with virtual ‘animals’ could be replicated to redress what is often perceived as a decline in interest in the natural world among the general public.
Or, could the game’s popularity pose more problems than opportunities for conservation?
Study author Leejiah Dorward, a doctoral candidate in Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, said: ‘When Pokémon Go first came out, one of the most striking things was its similarity with many of the concepts seen in natural history and conservation. The basic facts and information about Pokémon Go make it sound like an incredibly successful citizen science project, rather than a smartphone game.
‘We wanted to explore how the success of Pokémon Go might create opportunities or challenges for the conservation movement.’
Co-author John C Mittermeier, a doctoral candidate in Oxford’s School of Geography and the Environment, said: ‘There is a widespread belief that interest in natural history is waning and that people are less interested in spending time outside and exploring the natural world.
‘Pokémon Go is only one step removed from natural history activities like bird watching or insect collecting: Pokémon exist as “real” creatures that can be spotted and collected, and the game itself has been getting people outdoors. What’s going on here, and can we as conservationists take advantage of it?’
In the paper, the researchers explain that Pokémon Go has been shown to inspire high levels of behavioural change among its users, with people making significant adjustments to their daily routines and to the amount of time spent outside in order to increase their chances of encountering target ‘species’. There is also evidence that users are discovering non-virtual wildlife while playing Pokémon Go, leading to the Twitter hashtag #Pokeblitz that helps people identify ‘real’ species found and photographed during play.
Pokémon Go, the researchers write, exposes users first hand to basic natural history concepts such as species’ habitat preferences and variations in abundance. ‘Grass Pokémon’, for example, tend to appear in parks, while water-related types are more likely to be found close to bodies of water. There are also four regional species that are continent restricted: Tauros to the Americas, Mr Mime to Western Europe, Farfetch’d to Asia, and the marsupial-like Kangaskhan to Australasia. This differentiation captures a fundamental aspect of natural history observation – that exploring new habitats and continents will lead to encounters with different species.
And hundreds of people congregated near New York’s Central Park one night over the summer to try to find a rare Vaporeon – something that will sound familiar to birdwatchers used to similar gatherings to see a rare species.
The authors write: ‘The spectacular success of Pokémon Go provides significant lessons for conservation. Importantly, it suggests that conservation is continuing to lag behind Pokémon in efforts to inspire interest in its portfolio of species.
‘There is clear potential to modify Pokémon Go itself to increase conservation content and impact above and beyond simply bringing gamers into closer physical proximity to non-human wildlife as a by-product of the game. Pokémon Go could be adapted to enhance conservation benefits by: a) making Pokémon biology and ecology more realistic; b) adding real species to the Pokémon Go universe to introduce those species to a huge number of users, and creating opportunities to raise awareness about them; c) deliberately placing Pokémon in more remote natural settings rather than urban areas to draw people to experience non-urban nature; or d) adding a mechanism for users to catalogue real species, building on the popularity of the “Pokeblitz” concept.
‘Less directly, lessons from Pokémon Go could be applied to conservation through the development of new conservation-focused augmented reality (AR) games. Following the model of Pokémon Go, games that encourage users to look for real species could provide a powerful tool for education and engagement. AR could also be used in zoos and protected areas to provide visitors with information about species and their habitats.’
However, the researchers caution that the success of Pokémon Go could also bring challenges: for example, it may be that this type of augmented reality – featuring engaging, brightly coloured fictional creatures – could replace people’s desire to interact with real-world nature, or the focus on catching and battling Pokémon may encourage exploitation of wildlife. There has also been controversy in the Netherlands, where Pokémon Go players have been blamed for damage caused to a protected dune system south of The Hague.
Co-author Dr Chris Sandbrook, a senior lecturer at UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre, said: ‘Just getting people outside does not guarantee a conservation success from Pokémon Go. It might actually make things worse – for example, if interest in finding a rare Vaporeon replaces concern for real species threatened with extinction. Real nature could be seen as just a mundane backdrop for more exciting virtual wildlife.’
Leejiah Dorward added: ‘One of the positive things about Pokémon Go is that there’s a very low barrier for entry. As long as you have a smartphone, you can play – and the game itself does a lot of things for you. Finding ways to break down barriers to engagement with real-life nature is a priority for conservation. Pokémon are also relatable “characters”, whereas modern conservation tends to frame itself purely in scientific terms, which may be off-putting to many.
‘There is something called the biophilia hypothesis, which suggests that people have an in-built affinity with nature and a desire to explore the natural world. If that’s one of the reasons Pokémon Go has proved to be so popular – because it’s a natural history proxy – then that could be a huge boost to conservation. It’s possible that the desire to connect with nature is there and to get people to engage with conservation we just need to “sell” it correctly.’
Treating bees with light therapy can counteract the harmful effects of neonicotinoid pesticides and improve survival rates of poisoned bees, finds a new UCL study.
“Neonicotinoid pesticides are a persistent threat to global bee populations, which play a critical role in agriculture,” says Professor Glen Jeffery (UCL Institute of Ophthalmology), the senior author of the PLOS ONE paper. “My team is working to develop a small device that can be fitted into a commercial hive, which could be an economic solution to a problem with very widespread implications.”
The pesticides undermine mitochondrial function and compromise the production of ATP, the currency for energy that drives cellular function. This results in reduced mobility among bees exposed to neonicotinoids, leading them to die of starvation, unable to feed themselves.
The researchers used four groups of bees from commercial hives, with more than 400 bees in each colony. Two groups were exposed to a neonicotinoid, Imidacloprid, for ten days, with one group also being treated with light therapy over the same period – 15 minutes of near infrared light (670nm) was shone into the hive twice daily.
The mobility of the bees that were poisoned but not treated with light therapy dropped off rapidly, as did their ATP levels, and their survival rate declined accordingly. The bees that were poisoned but also treated with light therapy had significantly better mobility and survival rates, living just as long and functioning just as well as bees that had not been poisoned. One group was given light therapy without being poisoned, and their survival rate was even better than the control group. The researchers found the deep red light did not interfere with bee behaviour as they cannot see it.
“Long-wavelength light treatments have been shown in other studies to reduce mitochondrial degeneration which results from aging processes. It’s beneficial even for bees that aren’t affected by pesticides, so light therapy can be an effective means of preventing loss of life in case a colony becomes exposed to neonicotinoids. It’s win-win,” Professor Jeffery says.
While light therapy works best as a preventative measure, the researchers found it can also be helpful as treatment in response to an incident of pesticide exposure, as long as the treatment is started within a couple days of exposure.
“We found that by shining deep red light on the bee which had been affected by the toxic pesticides that they could recover, as it improved mitochondrial and visual function, and enabled them to move around and feed again,” says lead author Dr Michael Powner (City, University of London).
Researchers at UCL Ophthalmology have been studying near-infrared light therapy because of its benefits not only for bees, but also for other animals including humans, particularly to counteract effects of aging and a range of neurological diseases.
“When a nerve cell is using more energy than other cells, or is challenged because of a lack of energy, red light therapy can give it a boost by improving mitochondrial function. Essentially, it recharges the cell’s batteries,” Professor Jeffery explains.
A new low-cost and non-invasive eye test could detect Parkinson’s disease before symptoms including tremors and muscle stiffness develop, according to new research in rats led by scientists at UCL.
Researchers at the UCL Institute of Ophthalmology have discovered a new method of observing changes in the retina which can be seen in Parkinson’s before changes in the brain occur and the first symptoms become evident.
Using ophthalmic instruments that are routinely used in optometrists and eye clinics, the scientists were able to use the new imaging technique to observe these retinal changes at an early stage.
This method, published in Acta Neuropathologica Communications, would allow earlier diagnosis of Parkinson’s and also could be used to monitor how patients respond to treatment. The technique has already been tested in humans for glaucoma and trials are due to start soon for Alzheimer’s.
“This is potentially a revolutionary breakthrough in the early diagnosis and treatment of one of the world’s most debilitating diseases,” said Professor Francesca Cordeiro, UCL Professor of Glaucoma & Retinal Neurodegeneration Studies, who led the research.
“These tests mean we might be able to intervene much earlier and more effectively treat people with this devastating condition.”
Parkinson’s disease affects 1 in 500 people and is the second most common neurodegenerative disease worldwide. Symptoms typically become apparent only once over 70 percent of the brain’s dopamine-producing cells have been destroyed.
The condition results in muscle stiffness, slowness of movement, tremors and a reduced quality of life.
Following the observation of retinal changes in the experimental model, Professor Cordeiro and her team treated the animals with a newly formulated version of the anti-diabetic drug Rosiglitazone, which helps to protect nerve cells. After using this drug, there was clear evidence of reduced retina cell death as well as a protective effect on the brain which suggests that it could have potential as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease.
“These discoveries have the potential to limit and perhaps eliminate the suffering of thousands of patients if we are able to diagnose early and to treat with this new formulation,” said first author Dr Eduardo Normando, Consultant Ophthalmologist at Western Eye Hospital and UCL.
“The evidence we have strongly suggests that we might be able to intervene much earlier and more effectively in treating people with this devastating condition, using this non-invasive and affordable imaging technique”, said Dr Normando.
Levels of global biodiversity loss may negatively impact on ecosystem function and the sustainability of human societies, according to UCL-led research.
“This is the first time we’ve quantified the effect of habitat loss on biodiversity globally in such detail and we’ve found that across most of the world biodiversity loss is no longer within the safe limit suggested by ecologists” explained lead researcher, Dr Tim Newbold from UCL and previously at UNEP-WCMC.
“We know biodiversity loss affects ecosystem function but how it does this is not entirely clear. What we do know is that in many parts of the world, we are approaching a situation where human intervention might be needed to sustain ecosystem function.”
The team found that grasslands, savannas and shrublands were most affected by biodiversity loss, followed closely by many of the world’s forests and woodlands. They say the ability of biodiversity in these areas to support key ecosystem functions such as growth of living organisms and nutrient cycling has become increasingly uncertain.
The study, published today in Science, led by researchers from UCL, the Natural History Museum and UNEP-WCMC, found that levels of biodiversity loss are so high that if left unchecked, they could undermine efforts towards long-term sustainable development.
“It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum, London, who also worked on the study. “Decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences – and the biodiversity damage we’ve had means we’re at risk of that happening. Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.”
Machine-learning techniques that mimic human recognition and dreaming processes are being deployed in the search for habitable worlds beyond our solar system. A deep belief neural network, called RobERt (Robotic Exoplanet Recognition), has been developed by astronomers at UCL to sift through detections of light emanating from distant planetary systems and retrieve spectral information about the gases present in the exoplanet atmospheres.
RobERt will be presented at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) 2016 in Nottingham by Dr Ingo Waldmann on Tuesday 28th June.
“Different types of molecules absorb and emit light at specific wavelengths, embedding a unique pattern of lines within the electromagnetic spectrum,” explained Dr Waldmann, who leads RobERt’s development team. “We can take light that has been filtered through an exoplanet’s atmosphere or reflected from its cloud-tops, split it like a rainbow and then pick out the ‘fingerprint’ of features associated with the different molecules or gases. Human brains are really good at finding these patterns in spectra and label them from experience, but it’s a really time consuming job and there will be huge amounts of data.
We built RobERt to independently learn from examples and to build on his own experiences. This way, like a seasoned astronomer or a detective, RobERt has a pretty good feeling for what molecules are inside a spectrum and which are the most promising data for more detailed analysis. But what usually takes days or weeks takes RobERt mere seconds.”
A 3D printed image of the Voight-Kampff machine with camera and ear-piece
An emotion detector which, potentially, can tell whether a person really finds you attractive on a first date has been created by researchers at Lancaster University.
The inspiration for the device came from a gadget featured in the 1982 sci-fi fantasy film, Blade Runner, starring Harrison Ford and directed by Ridley Scott.
Replicating the Voight-Kampff machine, a fictional interrogation tool, the Lancaster team have created a device that mimics this emotion-detector.
But the plausibly real device is, at this stage, still pure fiction and, while creating it has sparked imaginative design skills and a little fun, it has been built to convey a serious message.
The design team, which includes the Centre for Spatial Analysis (CASA) at UCL, are keen to get people to think about the ethical implications of a world in which we use computers to monitor or even manipulate our emotions.
The polygraph-like Voight-Kampff machine was used by the Blade Runners police force to determine if an individual was a biorobotic android, detected by means of a test in which emotional responses were provoked.
It measured body functions such as blush response, respiration, heart rate and eye movement in response to questions dealing with empathy.
Designers at Lancaster are now researching technologies for their own Voight-Kampff machine including an ear-piece which measures skin and heart rate responses and a pupil-dilation measure.
The team’s fictional speculative device is set against an online dating backdrop and is designed, in theory, to determine if it’s love and sincerity at first sight or sound.
The machine takes on a whole new 21st century appearance – neat, bright and compact – and simply clips onto the bottom of a smartphone or tablet.
The research team, headed by Lancaster University’s design fiction expert Professor Paul Coulton, are set to present a paper on 11 May in San Jose at CHI, the world’s premier conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, the place to see, discuss and learn about the future of how people interact with technology.
“This machine looks and feels very real and has even prompted a film-making company in the States to request filming us manufacturing the device,” said Professor Coulton. “But this is actually a tool for creating some pretty serious discussions.”
Design fiction is, in broad terms, speculative design which heralds what might come about in the future world of human computer interaction, explains Professor Coulton.
“The factor that differentiates and distinguishes design fiction from other approaches is its novel use of ‘world building’ and, in this paper, we consider whether there is value in creating fictional research worlds through which we might consider future interactions.”
“As an example, we built this world in which rules for detecting empathy will become a major component of future communications. We take inspiration from the sci-fi film ‘Blade Runner’to consider what a plausible world, in which it is useful to build a Voight-Kampff machine, might be like.
“People are working towards this kind of thing,” he added. “What we are doing is questioning whether it has a place in our society – what kind of uses they have and what the world would actually be like with them. We want people to think about the ethical implications of what we do. Technically a lot of this is possible but is it actually what we want?”
The surface of Mars – including the location of Beagle-2 – has been shown in unprecedented detail by UCL scientists using a revolutionary image stacking and matching technique.
Exciting pictures of the Beagle-2 lander, the ancient lakebeds discovered by NASA’s Curiosity rover, NASA’s MER-A rover tracks and Home Plate’s rocks have been released by the UCL researchers who stacked and matched images taken from orbit, to reveal objects at a resolution up to five times greater than previously achieved.
A paper describing the technique, called Super-Resolution Restoration (SRR), was published in Planetary and Space Science in February but has only recently been used to focus on specific objects on Mars. The technique could be used to search for other artefacts from past failed landings as well as identify safe landing locations for future rover missions.
It will also allow scientists to explore vastly more terrain than is possible with a single rover.
One of the most intriguing physics discoveries of the last century was the existence of antimatter, material that exists as the “mirror image” of subatomic particles of matter, such as electrons, protons and quarks, but with the opposite charge. Antimatter deepened our understanding of our universe and the laws of physics, and now the same idea is being proposed to explain something equally mysterious: memory.
When memories are created and recalled, new and stronger electrical connections are created between neurons in the brain. The memory is represented by this new association between neurons. But a new theory, backed by animal research and mathematical models, suggests that at the same time that a memory is created, an “antimemory” is also spawned – that is, connections between neurons are made that provide the exact opposite pattern of electrical activity to those forming the original memory. Scientists believe that this helps maintain the balance of electrical activity in the brain.
The growth of stronger connections between neurons, known as an increase in excitation, is part of the normal process of learning. Like the excitement that we feel emotionally, a little is a good thing. However, also like emotional excitement, too much of it can cause problems.
In fact, the levels of electrical activity in the brain are finely and delicately balanced. Any excessive excitation in the brain disrupts this balance. In fact, electrical imbalance is thought to underlie some of the cognitive problems associated with psychiatric and psychological conditions such as autism and schizophrenia.
In trying to understand the effects of imbalance, scientists reached the conclusion that there must be a second process in learning that acts to rebalance the excitation caused by the new memory and keep the whole system in check. The theory is that, just as we have matter and antimatter, so there must be an antimemory for every memory. This precise mirroring of the excitation of the new memory with its inhibitory antimemory prevents a runaway storm of brain activity, ensuring that the system stays in balance.
While the memory is still present, the activity it caused has been subdued. In this way, antimemories work to silence the original memory without erasing it.
Gaps in our information about biodiversity means we are at risk of focussing our conservation efforts in the wrong places.
New research from Newcastle University, UK, University College London (UCL) and the University of Queensland, Australia, highlights the uncertainty around our global biodiversity data because of the way we record species sightings.
The study explains how a lack of information about a species in a particular location doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not there and that recording when we don’t see something is as important as recording when we do.
Publishing their findings today in the academic journal Biology Letters, the team say we need to change the way we record sightings – or a lack of them – so we can better prioritise our conservation efforts in light of the Convention on Biological Diversity.
Dr Phil McGowan, one of the study’s authors and a Senior Lecturer in Biodiversity and Conservation at Newcastle University, said:
“Where there is no recent biodiversity data from an area then we might assume a species is no longer found there, but there could be a number of other possible reasons for this lack of data.
“It could be that its habitat is inaccessible – either geographically or due to human activity such as ongoing conflict – or perhaps it’s simply a case that no-one has been looking for it.
“Unless we know where people have looked for a particular species and not found it then we can’t be confident that it’s not there.”
To test the research, the team used the rigorously compiled database of European and Asian Galliformes – a group of birds which includes the pheasant, grouse and quail.
“Our long-standing love of the Galliformes goes back hundreds of years which means we have records that are likely to be much better than for other groups of animals or plants,” explains Dr McGowan.
“Not only have these birds been hunted for food, but their spectacular colours made them valuable as trophies and to stock the private aviaries of the wealthy. In the late 1800s and the turn of the last century, the Galliformes were prized specimens in museum and private collections and today they are still a favourite with bird watchers.”
Analysing 153,150 records dating from 1727 to 2008 and covering an area from the UK to Siberia and down to Indonesia, the team found that after 1980, there was no available data at 40% of the locations where Galliformes had previously been present.
The study suggests two possible scenarios.
Dr Elizabeth Boakes, the study’s lead author and a teaching fellow at University College London, said:
“We have no evidence of populations existing past 1980 in 40% of our locations. However, absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.
“One scenario is that populations have been lost from these areas, probably due to hunting or habitat loss. The other scenario is that the species are still locally present but that nobody has been to look for them.
“Our study shows that which scenario you choose to believe makes a huge difference to measures used in conservation priority-setting such as species richness and geographic range. It’s important that we make the right call and that means a big shake up in the way we currently monitor biodiversity.
“We need to record what we don’t see as well as what we do see and we need to be recording across much wider areas.”