In the Matrix film series, Keanu Reeves plugs his brain directly into a virtual world that sentient machines have designed to enslave mankind.
The Matrix plot may be dystopian fantasy, but University of Washington researchers have taken a first step in showing how humans can interact with virtual realities via direct brain stimulation.
In a paper published online Nov. 16 in Frontiers in Robotics and AI, they describe the first demonstration of humans playing a simple, two-dimensional computer game using only input from direct brain stimulation — without relying on any usual sensory cues from sight, hearing or touch.
The subjects had to navigate 21 different mazes, with two choices to move forward or down based on whether they sensed a visual stimulation artifact called a phosphene, which are perceived as blobs or bars of light. To signal which direction to move, the researchers generated a phosphene through transcranial magnetic stimulation, a well-known technique that uses a magnetic coil placed near the skull to directly and noninvasively stimulate a specific area of the brain.
“The way virtual reality is done these days is through displays, headsets and goggles, but ultimately your brain is what creates your reality,” said senior author Rajesh Rao, UW professor of Computer Science & Engineering and director of the Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering.
“The fundamental question we wanted to answer was: Can the brain make use of artificial information that it’s never seen before that is delivered directly to the brain to navigate a virtual world or do useful tasks without other sensory input? And the answer is yes.”
The five test subjects made the right moves in the mazes 92 percent of the time when they received the input via direct brain stimulation, compared to 15 percent of the time when they lacked that guidance.
The simple game demonstrates one way that novel information from artificial sensors or computer-generated virtual worlds can be successfully encoded and delivered noninvasively to the human brain to solve useful tasks. It employs a technology commonly used in neuroscience to study how the brain works — transcranial magnetic stimulation — to instead convey actionable information to the brain.
The test subjects also got better at the navigation task over time, suggesting that they were able to learn to better detect the artificial stimuli.
“We’re essentially trying to give humans a sixth sense,” said lead author Darby Losey, a 2016 UW graduate in computer science and neurobiology who now works as a staff researcher for the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences (I-LABS). “So much effort in this field of neural engineering has focused on decoding information from the brain. We’re interested in how you can encode information into the brain.”
The initial experiment used binary information — whether a phosphene was present or not — to let the game players know whether there was an obstacle in front of them in the maze. In the real world, even that type of simple input could help blind or visually impaired individuals navigate.
Theoretically, any of a variety of sensors on a person’s body — from cameras to infrared, ultrasound, or laser rangefinders — could convey information about what is surrounding or approaching the person in the real world to a direct brain stimulator that gives that person useful input to guide their actions.
“The technology is not there yet — the tool we use to stimulate the brain is a bulky piece of equipment that you wouldn’t carry around with you,” said co-author Andrea Stocco, a UW assistant professor of psychology and I-LABS research scientist. “But eventually we might be able to replace the hardware with something that’s amenable to real world applications.”
Together with other partners from outside UW, members of the research team have co-founded Neubay, a startup company aimed at commercializing their ideas and introducing neuroscience and artificial intelligence (AI) techniques that could make virtual-reality, gaming and other applications better and more engaging.
The team is currently investigating how altering the intensity and location of direct brain stimulation can create more complex visual and other sensory perceptions which are currently difficult to replicate in augmented or virtual reality.
“We look at this as a very small step toward the grander vision of providing rich sensory input to the brain directly and noninvasively,” said Rao. “Over the long term, this could have profound implications for assisting people with sensory deficits while also paving the way for more realistic virtual reality experiences.”
Founded in 1861, UW is one of the oldest universities on the West Coast has one of the best medical schools in the world. UW has been labeled one of the “Public Ivies,” a publicly funded university considered as providing a quality of education comparable to those of the Ivy League.
The university has three campuses: the largest in the University District (Seattle) and two others in Tacoma and Bothell. Its operating expenses and research budget for fiscal year 2012 totaled more than US$ 7.2 billion. The UW occupies over 500 buildings, with over 20 million gross square footage of space, including the latest University of Washington Plaza consisting of the 325 ft UW Tower and conference center.
Washington is an elected member of the Association of American Universities, and its research budget is among the highest in the United States.
University of Washington research articles from Innovation Toronto
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- Mapping the Genes that Increase Lifespan – October 12, 2015
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A new study of one of our closest invertebrate relatives, the acorn worm, reveals that this feat might one day be possible.
Acorn worms burrow in the sand around coral reefs, but their ancestral relationship to chordates means they have a genetic makeup and body plan surprisingly similar to ours.
A study led by the University of Washington and published in the December issue of the journal Developmental Dynamics has shown that acorn worms can regrow every major body part – including the head, nervous system and internal organs – from nothing after being sliced in half.
“This could have implications for central nervous system regeneration in humans if we can figure out the mechanism the worms use to regenerate.”
The new study finds that when an acorn worm – one of the few living species of hemichordates – is cut in half, it regrows head or tail parts on each opposite end in perfect proportion to the existing half.
Each half of the worm continues to thrive, and subsequent severings also produce vital, healthy worms once all of the body parts regrow.
The researchers also analyzed the gene expression patterns of acorn worms as they regrew body parts, which is an important first step in understanding the mechanisms driving regeneration.
It’s as if the cells are independently reading road signs that tell them how far the mouth should be from the gill slits, and in what proportion to other body parts and the original worm’s size.
Humans can regrow parts of organs and skin cells to some degree, but we have lost the ability to regenerate complete body parts.
Scientists suspect several reasons for this: Our immune systems – in a frenzy to staunch bleeding or prevent infection – might inhibit regeneration by creating impenetrable scar tissue over wounds, or perhaps our relatively large size compared with other animals might make regeneration too energy intensive.
Learn and see more: Our closest worm kin regrow body parts, raising hopes of regeneration in humans
Scientists from the University of Utah and University of Washington have developed blueprints that instruct human cells to assemble a virus-like delivery system that can transport custom cargo from one cell to another. As reported online in Nature on Nov. 30, the research is a step toward a nature-inspired means for delivering therapeutics directly to specific cell types within the body.
“We’re shifting our perception from viruses as pathogens, to viruses as inspiration for new tools,” says Wesley Sundquist, Ph.D., co-chair of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Utah School of Medicine. He is also co-senior author on the study with Neil King, Ph.D., an assistant professor at the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington.
The carefully designed instructions set forth a series of self-propelled events that mimic how some viruses transfer their infectious contents from one cell to the next.
From the blueprints tumbled out self-assembling, soccer ball-shaped “nanocages”, the structure of which was reported previously. Adding on specific pieces of genetic code from viruses caused the nanocages to be packaged within cell membranes, and then exported from cells. Like a shuttle leaving Earth to bring goods to a space station, the tiny capsules undocked from one cell, traveled to another and docked there, emptying its contents upon arrival.
In this case, the protective nanocages carried cargo that the scientists used like homing beacons to track the vessels’ journeys. Next steps are to design nanocages that hold drugs or other small molecules.
“We are now able to accurately and consistently design new proteins with tailor-made structures,” says King. “Given the remarkably sophisticated and varied functions that natural proteins perform, it’s exciting to consider the possibilities that are open to us.”
The researchers’ decision to model the microscopic shipping system after viruses was no accident. Viruses have honed their skills to effectively spread their infectious wares to large numbers of cells. Decades of research, including in-depth investigations of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) by Sundquist’s team, have led to an understanding of how the pathogens accomplish this goal with such efficiency.
A test of whether you truly understand something is to build it yourself. And that’s what Sundquist and King’s teams have done here. “The success of our system is the first formal proof that this is how virus budding works,” remarks Sundquist.
Viruses taught them that such a delivery system must include three essential properties: an ability to grasp membranes, self-assemble, and to be released from cells. Introducing coding errors into any one of those steps brought shipments to a halt.
“I was sure that this would need fine-tuning but it was clean from the very beginning,” says lead author Jörg Votteler, Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in biochemistry at the University of Utah. When electron microscopist David Belnap, Ph.D. saw that images of the cages aligned closely with computer models, he knew they had made what they set out to design. “When it’s right, you know it,” he says.
The system could be modified as long as the three basic tenets were left intact. For example, the scientists could swap in differently shaped cages, or cause another type of membranes to surround them. Modularity means the vessels can be customized for various applications.
This study is proof of principle that the systems works, but more needs to be done before it can be applied therapeutically. Researchers will need to determine whether the capsules can navigate long journeys within living animals, for instance, and whether they can deliver medicines in sufficient quantities.
“As long as we keep pushing knowledge forward we can guarantee there will be good outcomes, though we can’t guarantee what or when,” says Sundquist.
Life has always played by its own set of molecular rules. From the biochemistry behind the first cells, evolution has constructed wonders like hard bone, rough bark and plant enzymes that harvest light to make food.
But our tools for manipulating life — to treat disease, repair damaged tissue and replace lost limbs — come from the nonliving realm: metals, plastics and the like. Though these save and preserve lives, our synthetic treatments are rooted in a chemical language ill-suited to our organic elegance. Implanted electrodes scar, wires overheat and our bodies struggle against ill-fitting pumps, pipes or valves.
A solution lies in bridging this gap where artificial meets biological — harnessing biological rules to exchange information between the biochemistry of our bodies and the chemistry of our devices. In a paper published Sept. 22 in Scientific Reports, engineers at the University of Washington unveiled peptides — small proteins which carry out countless essential tasks in our cells — that can provide just such a link.
The team, led by UW professor Mehmet Sarikaya in the Departments of Materials Science & Engineering, shows how a genetically engineered peptide can assemble into nanowires atop 2-D, solid surfaces that are just a single layer of atoms thick. These nanowire assemblages are critical because the peptides relay information across the bio/nano interface through molecular recognition — the same principles that underlie biochemical interactions such as an antibody binding to its specific antigen or protein binding to DNA.
Since this communication is two-way, with peptides understanding the “language” of technology and vice versa, their approach essentially enables a coherent bioelectronic interface.
“Bridging this divide would be the key to building the genetically engineered biomolecular solid-state devices of the future,” said Sarikaya, who is also a professor of chemical engineering and oral health sciences.
His team in the UW Genetically Engineered Materials Science and Engineering Center studies how to coopt the chemistry of life to synthesize materials with technologically significant physical, electronic and photonic properties. To Sarikaya, the biochemical “language” of life is a logical emulation.
“Nature must constantly make materials to do many of the same tasks we seek,” he said.
The UW team wants to find genetically engineered peptides with specific chemical and structural properties. They sought out a peptide that could interact with materials such as gold, titanium and even a mineral in bone and teeth. These could all form the basis of future biomedical and electro-optical devices. Their ideal peptide should also change the physical properties of synthetic materials and respond to that change. That way, it would transmit “information” from the synthetic material to other biomolecules — bridging the chemical divide between biology and technology.
In exploring the properties of 80 genetically selected peptides — which are not found in nature but have the same chemical components of all proteins — they discovered that one, GrBP5, showed promising interactions with thesemimetal graphene. They then tested GrBP5’s interactions with several 2-D nanomaterials which, Sarikaya said, “could serve as the metals or semiconductors of the future.”
“We needed to know the specific molecular interactions between this peptide and these inorganic solid surfaces,” he added.
Their experiments revealed that GrBP5 spontaneously organized into ordered nanowire patterns on graphene. With a few mutations, GrBP5 also altered the electrical conductivity of a graphene-based device, the first step toward transmitting electrical information from graphene to cells via peptides.
In parallel, Sarikaya’s team modified GrBP5 to produce similar results on a semiconductor material — molybdenum disulfide — by converting a chemical signal to an optical signal. They also computationally predicted how different arrangements of GrBP5 nanowires would affect the electrical conduction or optical signal of each material, showing additional potential within GrBP5’s physical properties.
“In a way, we’re at the flood gates,” said Sarikaya. “Now we need to explore the basic properties of this bridge and how we can modify it to permit the flow of ‘information’ from electronic and photonic devices to biological systems.”
This is the focus of a new endeavor funded by the National Science Foundation’s Materials Genome Initiative. It will be led by Sarikaya and joined by UW professorsXiaodong Xu, René Overney and Valerie Daggett. Through UW’s CoMotion, he is also working with Amazon to cross that bio/nano divide for nano-sensors to detect early stages of pancreatic cancer.
Lead author on the paper is former UW postdoctoral researcher Yuhei Hayamizu, who is now an associate professor at the Tokyo Institute of Technology. Co-authors include two former UW researchers — Christopher So, now with the Naval Research Laboratory, and Sefa Dag, now with IBM — as well as graduate students Tamon Page and David Starkebaum. The research was funded by the NSF, the UW, the National Institutes of Health and the Japan Science and Technology Agency.
Sending a password or secret code over airborne radio waves like WiFi or Bluetooth means anyone can eavesdrop, making those transmissions vulnerable to hackers who can attempt to break the encrypted code.
Now, University of Washington computer scientists and electrical engineers have devised a way to send secure passwords through the human body — using benign, low-frequency transmissions generated by fingerprint sensors and touchpads on consumer devices.
“Fingerprint sensors have so far been used as an input device. What is cool is that we’ve shown for the first time that fingerprint sensors can be re-purposed to send out information that is confined to the body,” said senior author Shyam Gollakota, UW assistant professor of computer science and engineering.
These “on-body” transmissions offer a more secure way to transmit authenticating information between devices that touch parts of your body — such as a smart door lock or wearable medical device — and a phone or device that confirms your identity by asking you to type in a password.
This new technique, which leverages the signals already generated by fingerprint sensors on smartphones and laptop touchpads to transmit data in new ways, is described in a paper presented in September at the2016 Association for Computing Machinery’s International Joint Conference on Pervasive and Ubiquitous Computing (UbiComp 2016) in Germany.
“Let’s say I want to open a door using an electronic smart lock,” said co-lead author Merhdad Hessar, a UW electrical engineering doctoral student. “I can touch the doorknob and touch the fingerprint sensor on my phone and transmit my secret credentials through my body to open the door, without leaking that personal information over the air.”
The research team tested the technique on iPhone and other fingerprint sensors, as well as Lenovo laptop trackpads and the Adafruit capacitive touchpad. In tests with 10 different subjects, they were able to generate usable on-body transmissions on people of different heights, weights and body types. The system also worked when subjects were in motion — including while they walked and moved their arms.
“We showed that it works in different postures like standing, sitting and sleeping,” said co-lead author Vikram Iyer, a UW electrical engineering doctoral student. “We can also get a strong signal throughout your body. The receivers can be anywhere — on your leg, chest, hands — and still work.”
The research team from the UW’s Networks and Mobile Systems Labsystematically analyzed smartphone sensors to understand which of them generates low-frequency transmissions below 30 megahertz that travel well through the human body but don’t propagate over the air.
The researchers found that fingerprint sensors and touchpads generate signals in the 2 to 10 megahertz range and employ capacitive coupling to sense where your finger is in space, and to identify the ridges and valleys that form unique fingerprint patterns.
Normally, sensors use these signals to receive input about your finger. But the UW engineers devised a way to use these signals as output that corresponds to data contained in a password or access code. When entered on a smartphone, data that authenticates your identity can travel securely through your body to a receiver embedded in a device that needs to confirm who you are.
Their process employs a sequence of finger scans to encode and transmit data. Performing a finger scan correlates to a 1-bit of digital data and not performing the scan correlates to a 0-bit.
The technology could also be useful for secure key transmissions to medical devices such as glucose monitors or insulin pumps, which seek to confirm someone’s identity before sending or sharing data.
The team achieved bit rates of 50 bits per second on laptop touchpads and 25 bits per second with fingerprint sensors — fast enough to send a simple password or numerical code through the body and to a receiver within seconds.
This represents only a first step, the researchers say. Data can be transmitted through the body even faster if fingerprint sensor manufacturers provide more access to their software.
A new phase in the search for life elsewhere is about to begin
“WE’VE been wondering what planet we’re first going to look for life on. Now we know.” Rory Barnes, of the University of Washington, puts it nicely. Proxima Centauri, the star closest to the sun, has a planet. That planet weighs more or less the same as Earth and is therefore presumably rocky. And it orbits within its parent star’s habitable zone—meaning that its surface temperature is likely to be between 0°C and 100°C, the freezing and boiling points of water at sea level on Earth.
A prize discovery, then, for astrobiologists such as Dr Barnes. And the discoverers are a transnational team of astronomers who have been using telescopes at the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in the Atacama desert, in Chile, for planet-hunting. Though they have not seen the new planet directly (they have inferred its existence from its effect on its parent star’s light), their paper in Naturedescribes what they have been able to deduce about it.
Proxima Centauri b, as it is known, probably weighs between 1.3 and three times as much as Earth and orbits its parent star once every 11 days. This puts its distance from Proxima Centauri itself at 7m kilometres, which is less than a twentieth of the distance between Earth and the sun. But because Proxima is a red dwarf, and thus much cooler than the sun, the newly discovered planet will experience a similar temperature to Earth’s. It is not the only Earth-sized extrasolar planet known to orbit in a star’s habitable zone. There are about a dozen others. But it is the closest to Earth—so close, at four light-years, that it is merely outrageous, not utterly absurd, to believe a spaceship (admittedly a tiny one) might actually be sent to visit it. Before this happens, though, it will be subjected to intense scrutiny from Earth itself.
Eyeball to eyeball
That scrutiny will probably be led by ESO. The data which led to Proxima Centauri b’s discovery came from the observatory’s 3.6 metre telescope at La Silla, in Chile. But ESO is also building a much bigger device, the 39-metre European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT), at another site in Chile. Since the late 2000s Markus Kasper has led a team at ESO which is designing a specialised planet-spotting instrument, the Exoplanet Imaging Camera and Spectrograph (EPICS), to fit on this telescope. Dr Kasper’s camera has a price tag of €50m, and there have always been questions in the past about whether it is worth the money. But EPICS stands a better chance of producing actual pictures of Proxima Centauri b than any other camera in the world (or off it). Its future can now scarcely be in doubt.
The problem for astronomers trying to catch a glimpse of Proxima Centauri b is that, though close to the Earth by interstellar standards, it is even closer to its parent star by more or less every other standard short of that of walking down the road to the chemist. Seen from Earth, star and planet are 35 thousandths of an arc second apart (an arc second is a 3,600th of a degree). Producing a picture that separates the two objects thus requires a telescope with a resolution good enough to distinguish between the left and right headlights of an oncoming car in Denver from the distance of Berlin.
Things get worse. Dim as it is, Proxima Centauri (pictured above, as seen by the Hubble space telescope) is still more than 10m times brighter than its planet is expected to be. It is as though one of those headlights in Denver was actually the open door to a furnace, while the other was a tea light. This is what makes the E-ELT and EPICS crucial. EPICS contains a coronagraph—a tiny shield that blocks out a star’s light so that adjacent planets can be seen. Unfortunately, a coronagraph reduces a telescope’s resolution, meaning you need an even bigger one to see the target in the first place. To observe Proxima Centauri b using a coronagraph, and looking in the infrared wavelengths that are likely to provide the best information about its atmosphere, you need a telescope at least 20 metres across; 30 metres would be better.
Two other large telescopes besides E-ELT, of 27 metres and 30 metres diameter, are under construction and planned. But some suggest the first of these, the Giant Magellan Telescope, also in Chile, is not well suited to the use of a coronagraph, and the second, the Thirty Metre Telescope, is planned at the moment for Hawaii, which is in the northern hemisphere. Proxima Centauri is in the southern skies, and therefore not so easy to study from north of the equator.
There may, just possibly, be a short cut.
University of Washington researchers have introduced a new way of communicating that allows devices such as brain implants, contact lenses, credit cards and smaller wearable electronics to talk to everyday devices such as smartphones and watches.
This new “interscatter communication” works by converting Bluetooth signals into Wi-Fi transmissions over the air. Using only reflections, an interscatter device such as a smart contact lens converts Bluetooth signals from a smartwatch, for example, into Wi-Fi transmissions that can be picked up by a smartphone.
The new technique is described in a paper to be presented Aug. 22 at the annual conference of the Association for Computing Machinery’s Special Interest Group on Data Communication (SIGCOMM 2016) in Brazil.
“Wireless connectivity for implanted devices can transform how we manage chronic diseases,” said co-author Vikram Iyer, a UW electrical engineering doctoral student. “For example, a contact lens could monitor a diabetics blood sugar level in tears and send notifications to the phone when the blood sugar level goes down.”
Due to their size and location within the body, these smart contact lenses are too constrained by power demands to send data using conventional wireless transmissions. That means they so far have not been able to send data using Wi-Fi to smartphones and other mobile devices.
The team of UW electrical engineers and computer scientists has demonstrated for the first time that these types of power-limited devices can “talk” to others using standard Wi-Fi communication. Their system requires no specialized equipment, relying solely on mobile devices commonly found with users to generate Wi-Fi signals using 10,000 times less energy than conventional methods.
“Instead of generating Wi-Fi signals on your own, our technology creates Wi-Fi by using Bluetooth transmissions from nearby mobile devices such as smartwatches,” said co-authorVamsi Talla, a recent UW doctoral graduate in electrical engineering who is now a research associate in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering.
he team’s process relies on a communication technique called backscatter, which allows devices to exchange information simply by reflecting existing signals. Because the new technique enables inter-technology communication by using Bluetooth signals to create Wi-Fi transmissions, the team calls it “interscattering.”
Interscatter communication uses the Bluetooth, Wi-Fi or ZigBee radios embedded in common mobile devices like smartphones, watches, laptops, tablets and headsets, to serve as both sources and receivers for these reflected signals.
In one example the team demonstrated, a smartwatch transmits a Bluetooth signal to a smart contact lens outfitted with an antenna. To create a blank slate on which new information can be written, the UW team developed an innovative way to transform the Bluetooth transmission into a “single tone” signal that can be further manipulated and transformed. By backscattering that single tone signal, the contact lens can encode data — such as health information it may be collecting — into a standard Wi-Fi packet that can then be read by a smartphone, tablet or laptop.
“Bluetooth devices randomize data transmissions using a process called scrambling,” said lead faculty Shyam Gollakota, assistant professor of computer science and engineering. “We figured out a way to reverse engineer this scrambling process to send out a single tone signal from Bluetooth-enabled devices such as smartphones and watches using a software app.”
The challenge, however, is that the backscattering process creates an unwanted mirror image copy of the signal, which consumes more bandwidth as well as interferes with networks on the mirror copy Wi-Fi channel. But the UW team developed a technique called “single sideband backscatter” to eliminate the unintended byproduct.
“That means that we can use just as much bandwidth as a Wi-Fi network and you can still have other Wi-Fi networks operate without interference,” said co-author and electrical engineering doctoral student Bryce Kellogg.
The researchers — who work in the UW’s Networks and Mobile Systems Lab and Sensor Systems Lab — built three proof-of-concept demonstrations for previously infeasible applications, including a smart contact lens and an implantable neural recording device that can communicate directly with smartphones and watches.
“Preserving battery life is very important in implanted medical devices, since replacing the battery in a pacemaker or brain stimulator requires surgery and puts patients at potential risk from those complications,” said co-author Joshua Smith, associate professor of electrical engineering and of computer science and engineering.
“Interscatter can enable Wi-Fi for these implanted devices while consuming only tens of microwatts of power.”
Beyond implanted devices, the researchers have also shown that their technology can apply to other applications such as smart credit cards. The team built credit card prototypes that can communicate directly with each other by reflecting Bluetooth signals coming from a smartphone. This opens up possibilities for smart credit cards that can communicate directly with other cards and enable applications where users can split the bill by just tapping their credit cards together.
“Providing the ability for these everyday objects like credit cards – in addition to implanted devices – to communicate with mobile devices can unleash the power of ubiquitous connectivity,” Gollakota said.
As hazard warnings increase, experts urge better decisions on who and when to warn
A group of risk experts is proposing a new framework and research agenda that they believe will support the most effective public warnings when a hurricane, wildfire, toxic chemical spill or any other environmental hazard threatens safety. Effective warnings are a growing need as expanding global populations confront a wide range of hazards.
Right now, “the potential for errors is high” when officials decide when to issue emergency warnings, who to send them to, and what safety measures to urge the public to take, says Thomas Cova, a professor in the University of Utah geography department.
That’s because “researchers tend to focus on one or two of those questions,” Cova says. “But it’s a challenge to think about all three,” which is necessary to avoid such errors as deciding the right time and right action but wrong target group or the right group and right time but wrong protective action, he adds. Emergency managers must contend with uncertainty about how the three components interact, and have to consider how likely and how costly it might be to make “false positive” decisions to issue a warning when hazards don’t occur or “false negative” decisions to continue normally when hazards do occur.
Cova and colleagues have published a paper called “Warning triggers in environmental hazards: Who should be warned to do what and when?” that proposes a way forward in improving emergency warning by thinking constructively and critically about all three issues. The paper, published in the online version of Risk Analysis, a publication of the Society for Risk Analysis, was co-authored by Cova with colleagues Philip E. Dennison, Dapeng Li, and Frank Drews, also of University of Utah, as well as Laura K. Siebeneck of University of North Texas and Michael K. Lindell of University of Washington.
Essential to improving emergency warning practices is research into the most effective methods for alerting the public. But, currently, public warning researchers are each carving out little hazard niches (hurricanes, wildfires, hazmat), as well as single dimensions of the warning problem (timing them, delimiting risk zones, selecting protective actions). “The end result is that no one is taking on the big question of simultaneously asking: who should do what when?” Cova explains. The authors’ goal is to sound a “wake up call” that they hope will lead to an improved understanding of how warnings are formulated and implemented across hazards, which in turn could lead to improved training methods, warning system innovations, and synergy between researchers and practicing emergency managers. “We’re not proposing a new approach to warnings, we’re proposing a new approach to public warning research,” Cova says, but adds, “The results may have beneficial feedbacks into public warning improvements and innovations.”
Today’s guidance on emergency warnings is not optimal. In light of the many global environmental hazards, experts are developing new procedures to simplify the warning process, aiming to prevent casualties and increase transparency about the decision making process. Widely used “warning triggers” are a decision rule that links an environmental condition to “protective action recommendations” for a specified target group, helping answer the questions: “Who should take what action and when?” For example, fire occurrence is a common qualitative trigger condition, but a more specific indicator would be a flame front crossing a prominent ridgeline, river, or road toward a community. Rainfall rates and duration can serve to define a threshold value that, once exceeded, results in a warning for flooding or landslides. Triggers aid managers in deciding when to change from “wait and see” to “take immediate action,” thereby helping them stay ahead of the emergency’s advancing curve.
But, even though warning triggers are used often, little research has been done on how emergency managers set them or how effective they are when combined with integrated early warning systems, the authors write. In an overview of key warning trigger issues, the authors discuss the critical importance of an “unambiguous trigger condition” when deciding when to issue a warning, as well as methods for defining the condition, such as directly observed environmental cues or measurements from sensors. They also discuss issues pertaining to deciding which population to warn, including the use of “emergency planning zones” such as “everyone on Manhattan Island,” a physical feature, or “south of Central Park,” a built feature that includes apartment buildings and stores. And they review challenges of deciding on the most effective actions to recommend, such as evacuating or sheltering in place.
The problem of effective warnings “has dimensions that are geographic, temporal, cognitive, and perceptual, particularly in how the public might respond,” says Cova. “So it’s an ideal challenge for interdisciplinary research” that addresses all three of the key systems at work (natural, built, social) and their interactions across different types of hazards. Emergency managers simultaneously deal with who, what, and when issues every day, and therefore so should research to improve warnings, the authors suggest.
Scientists have identified a compound that can kill the parasites responsible for three neglected diseases: Chagas disease, leishmaniasis and sleeping sickness.
These diseases affect millions of people in Latin America, Asia and Africa, but there are few effective treatments available.
A new study, published today in Nature, suggests that a single class of drugs could be used to treat all three. Wellcome-funded researchers at the Genomics Institute of the Novartis Research Foundation (GNF) have identified a chemical that can cure all of these diseases in mice. It also does not harm human cells in laboratory tests, providing a strong starting point for drug development.
Chagas, leishmaniasis and sleeping sickness have different symptoms, but are all caused by parasites called ‘kinetoplastids’ – a type of single-celled organism. The parasites share similar biology and genetics, which led scientists to think it might be possible to find a single chemical that could destroy all three.
The team at GNF tested over 3 million different chemicals and identified a compound, GNF6702, which was effective against the parasites but did not damage human cells. They refined this starting compound to make it more potent before testing in it mice.
Senior study author Frantisek Supek from GNF said: “We found that these parasites harbour a common weakness. We hope to exploit this weakness to discover and develop a single class of drugs for all three diseases.”
Dr Stephen Caddick, Director of Innovation at Wellcome, said: “These three diseases lead to more than 50,000 deaths annually, yet they receive relatively little funding for research and drug development. We hope that our early stage support for this research will provide a basis for the development of new treatments that could reduce suffering for millions of people in the poorest regions of the world.”
Existing treatments for the three diseases are expensive, often have side effects and are not very effective. The fact that GNF6702 does not seem to have any adverse effects in mice suggests that it might have fewer side-effects than existing drugs, although this will need to be explored in human studies. GNF6702 is now being tested for toxicity before it can be moved in to clinical trials.
Ever since last summer, when Lynn Gemmell’s dog, Bela, was inducted into the trial of a drug that has been shown to significantly lengthen the lives of laboratory mice, she has been the object of intense scrutiny among dog park regulars.
To those who insist that Bela, 8, has turned back into a puppy — “Look how fast she’s getting that ball!” — Ms. Gemmell has tried to turn a deaf ear. Bela, a Border collie-Australian shepherd mix, may have been given a placebo, for one thing.
The drug, rapamycin, which improved heart health and appeared to delay the onset of some diseases in older mice, may not work the same magic in dogs, for another. There is also a chance it could do more harm than good. “This is just to look for side effects, in dogs,” Ms. Gemmell told Bela’s many well-wishers.
Technically that is true. But the trial also represents a new frontier in testing a proposition for improving human health: Rather than only seeking treatments for the individual maladies that come with age, we might do better to target the biology that underlies aging itself.
While the diseases that now kill most people in developed nations — heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cancer — have different immediate causes, age is the major risk factor for all of them. That means that even treatment breakthroughs in these areas, no matter how vital to individuals, would yield on average four or five more years of life, epidemiologists say, and some of them likely shadowed by illness.
A drug that slows aging, the logic goes, might instead serve to delay the onset of several major diseases at once. A handful of drugs tested by federally funded laboratories in recent years appear to extend the healthy lives of mice, with rapamycin and its derivatives, approved by the Food and Drug Administration for organ transplant patients and to treat some types of cancer, so far proving the most effective. In a 2014 study by the drug company Novartis, the drug appeared to bolster the immune system in older patients. And the early results in aging dogs suggest that rapamycin is helping them, too, said Matt Kaeberlein, a biology of aging researcher at the University of Washington who is running the study with a colleague, Daniel Promislow.
But scientists who champion the study of aging’s basic biology — they call it “geroscience” — say their field has received short shrift from the biomedical establishment. And it was not lost on the University of Washington researchers that exposing dog lovers to the idea that aging could be delayed might generate popular support in addition to new data.
“Many of us in the biology of aging field feel like it is underfunded relative to the potential impact on human health this could have,” said Dr. Kaeberlein, who helped pay for the study with funds he received from the university for turning down a competing job offer. “If the average pet owner sees there’s a way to significantly delay aging in their pet, maybe it will begin to impact policy decisions.”
In the quest to harvest light for electronics, the focal point is the moment when photons — light particles — encounter electrons, those negatively-charged subatomic particles that form the basis of our modern electronic lives. If conditions are right when electrons and photons meet, an exchange of energy can occur. Maximizing that transfer of energy is the key to making efficient light-captured energetics possible.
“This is the ideal, but finding high efficiency is very difficult,” said University of Washington physics doctoral student Sanfeng Wu. “Researchers have been looking for materials that will let them do this — one way is to make each absorbed photon transfer all of its energy to many electrons, instead of just one electron in traditional devices.”
In traditional light-harvesting methods, energy from one photon only excites one electron or none depending on the absorber’s energy gap, transferring just a small portion of light energy into electricity. The remaining energy is lost as heat. But in a paper released May 13 in Science Advances, Wu, UW associate professor Xiaodong Xu and colleagues at four other institutions describe one promising approach to coax photons into stimulating multiple electrons. Their method exploits some surprising quantum-level interactions to give one photon multiple potential electron partners. Wu and Xu, who has appointments in the UW’s Department of Materials Science & Engineering and the Department of Physics, made this surprising discovery using graphene.
“Graphene is a substance with many exciting properties,” said Wu, the paper’s lead author. “For our purposes, it shows a very efficient interaction with light.”
Graphene is a two-dimensional hexagonal lattice of carbon atoms bonded to one another, and electrons are able to move easily within graphene. The researchers took a single layer of graphene — just one sheet of carbon atoms thick — and sandwiched it between two thin layers of a material called boron-nitride.
“Boron-nitride has a lattice structure that is very similar to graphene, but has very different chemical properties,” said Wu. “Electrons do not flow easily within boron-nitride; it essentially acts as an insulator.”
Xu and Wu discovered that when the graphene layer’s lattice is aligned with the layers of boron-nitride, a type of “superlattice” is created with properties allowing efficient optoelectronics that researchers had sought. These properties rely on quantum mechanics, the occasionally baffling rules that govern interactions between all known particles of matter. Wu and Xu detected unique quantum regions within the superlattice known as Van Hove singularities.
“These are regions of huge electron density of states, and they were not accessed in either the graphene or boron-nitride alone,” said Wu. “We only created these high electron density regions in an accessible way when both layers were aligned together.”
When Xu and Wu directed energetic photons toward the superlattice, they discovered that those Van Hove singularities were sites where one energized photon could transfer its energy to multiple electrons that are subsequently collected by electrodes— not just one electron or none with the remaining energy lost as heat. By a conservative estimate, Xu and Wu report that within this superlattice one photon could “kick” as many as five electrons to flow as current.
With the discovery of collecting multiple electrons upon the absorption of one photon, researchers may be able to create highly efficient devices that could harvest light with a large energy profit. Future work would need to uncover how to organize the excited electrons into electrical current for optimizing the energy-converting efficiency and remove some of the more cumbersome properties of their superlattice, such as the need for a magnetic field. But they believe this efficient process between photons and electrons represents major progress.
“Graphene is a tiger with great potential for optoelectronics, but locked in a cage,” said Wu. “The singularities in this superlattice are a key to unlocking that cage and releasing graphene’s potential for light harvesting application.”