Scientists have developed a highly sensitive sensor to detect tiny changes in strong magnetic fields. The sensor may find widespread use in medicine and other areas.
Researchers from the Institute for Biomedical Engineering, which is operated jointly by ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich, have succeeded in measuring tiny changes in strong magnetic fields with unprecedented precision. In their experiments, the scientists magnetised a water droplet inside a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scanner, a device that is used for medical imaging. The researchers were able to detect even the tiniest variations of the magnetic field strength within the droplet. These changes were up to a trillion times smaller than the seven tesla field strength of the MRI scanner used in the experiment.
“Until now, it was possible only to measure such small variations in weak magnetic fields,” says Klaas Prüssmann, Professor of Bioimaging at ETH Zurich and the University of Zurich. An example of a weak magnetic field is that of the Earth, where the field strength is just a few dozen microtesla. For fields of this kind, highly sensitive measurement methods are already able to detect variations of about a trillionth of the field strength, says Prüssmann. “Now, we have a similarly sensitive method for strong fields of more than one tesla, such as those used, inter alia, in medical imaging.”
Newly developed sensor
The scientists based the sensing technique on the principle of nuclear magnetic resonance, which also serves as the basis for magnetic resonance imaging and the spectroscopic methods that biologists use to elucidate the 3D structure of molecules.
However, to measure the variations, the scientists had to build a new high-precision sensor, part of which is a highly sensitive digital radio receiver. “This allowed us to reduce background noise to an extremely low level during the measurements,” says Simon Gross. Gross wrote his doctoral thesis on this topic in Prüssmann’s group and is lead author of the paper published in the journal Nature Communications.
Eliminating antenna interference
In the case of nuclear magnetic resonance, radio waves are used to excite atomic nuclei in a magnetic field. This causes the nuclei to emit weak radio waves of their own, which are measured using a radio antenna; their exact frequency indicates the strength of the magnetic field.
As the scientists emphasise, it was a challenge to construct the sensor in such a way that the radio antenna did not distort the measurements. The scientists have to position it in the immediate vicinity of the water droplet, but as it is made of copper it becomes magnetised in the strong magnetic field, causing a change in the magnetic field inside the droplet.
The researchers therefore came up with a trick: they cast the droplet and antenna in a specially prepared polymer; its magnetisability (magnetic susceptibility) exactly matched that of the copper antenna. In this way, the scientists were able to eliminate the detrimental influence of the antenna on the water sample.
Broad applications expected
This measurement technique for very small changes in magnetic fields allows the scientists to now look into the causes of such changes. They expect their technique to find use in various areas of science, some of them in the field of medicine, although the majority of these applications are still in their infancy.
“In an MRI scanner, the molecules in body tissue receive minimal magnetisation – in particular, the water molecules that are also present in blood,” explains doctoral student Gross. “The new sensor is so sensitive that we can use it to measure mechanical processes in the body; for example, the contraction of the heart with the heartbeat.”
The scientists carried out an experiment in which they positioned their sensor in front of the chest of a volunteer test subject inside an MRI scanner. They were able to detect periodic changes in the magnetic field, which pulsated in time with the heartbeat. The measurement curve is reminiscent of an electrocardiogram (ECG), but unlike the latter measures a mechanical process (the contraction of the heart) rather than electrical conduction. “We are in the process of analysing and refining our magnetometer measurement technique in collaboration with cardiologists and signal processing experts,” says Prüssmann. “Ultimately, we hope that our sensor will be able to provide information on heart disease – and do so non-invasively and in real time.”
Development of better contrast agents
The new measurement technique could also be used in the development of new contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging: in MRI, the image contrast is based largely on how quickly a magnetised nuclear spin reverts to its equilibrium state. Experts call this process relaxation. Contrast agents influence the relaxation characteristics of nuclear spins even at low concentrations and are used to highlight certain structures in the body.
In strong magnetic fields, sensitivity issues had previously restricted scientists to measurement of just two of the three spatial nuclear spin components and their relaxation. They had to rely on an indirect measurement of relaxation in the important third dimension. For the first time, the new high-precision measurement technique allows the direct measurement of all three dimensions of nuclear spin in strong magnetic fields.
Direct measurement of all three nuclear spin components also paves the way for future developments in nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectroscopy for applications in biological and chemical research.
Aducanumab, an antibody developed by the University of Zurich, has been shown to trigger a meaningful reduction of harmful beta-amyloid plaques in patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
These protein deposits in the brain are a classic sign of Alzheimer’s disease and contribute to the progressive degeneration of brain cells. The researchers furthermore demonstrated in an early stage clinical study that, after one year of treatment with Aducanumab, cognitive decline could be significantly slowed in antibody-treated patients as opposed to the placebo group.
Although the causes of Alzheimer’s disease are still unknown, it is clear that the disease commences with progressive amyloid deposition in the brains of affected persons between ten and fifteen years before the emergence of initial clinical symptoms such as memory loss. Researchers have now been able to show that Aducanumab, a human monoclonal antibody, selectively binds brain amyloid plaques, thus enabling microglial cells to remove the plaques. A one-year treatment with the antibody, as part of a phase Ib study, resulted in almost complete clearance of the brain amyloid plaques in the study group patients. The results, which were realized by researchers at UZH together with the biotech company “Biogen” and the UZH spin-off “Neurimmune,” have been published in the renowned science journal “Nature.”
Reduction of brain amyloid plaque is dependent on treatment duration and dosage
“The results of this clinical study make us optimistic that we can potentially make a great step forward in treating Alzheimer’s disease,” says Roger M. Nitsch, professor at the Institute for Regenerative Medicine at UZH. “The effect of the antibody is very impressive. And the outcome is dependent on the dosage and length of treatment.” After one year of treatment, practically no beta-amyloid plaques could be detected in the patients who received the highest dose of the antibody.
The antibody was developed with the help of a technology platform from “Neurimmune.” Using blood collected from elderly persons aged up to one hundred and demonstrating no cognitive impairment, the researchers isolated precisely those immune cells whose antibodies are able to identify toxic beta-amyloid plaques but not the amyloid precursor protein that is present throughout the human body and that presumably plays an important role in the growth of nerve cells. The good safety profile of Aducanumab in patients may well be attributed to the antibody’s specific capacity to bond with the abnormally folded beta-amyloid protein fragment as well as the fact that the antibody is of human origin.
Investigational treatment also curbs cognitive decline
165 patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease were treated in the phase 1b clinical trial. Although not initially planned as a primary study objective, the good results encouraged researchers to additionally investigate how the treatment affected the symptoms of disease. This was evaluated via standardized questionnaires to assess the cognitive abilities and everyday activities of the patients. “Aducanumab also showed positive effects on clinical symptoms,” is how Nitsch sums up the findings. “While patients in the placebo group exhibited significant cognitive decline, cognitive ability remained distinctly more stable in patients receiving the antibody.”
Some of the trial participants temporarily suffered from amyloid-related imaging abnormality (ARIA), an adverse effect that can be detected via magnetic resonance imaging. In a minority of cases, this was accompanied by temporary mild to moderate headaches. The UZH researchers believe that ARIA is a measurable biological effect of amyloid clearance.
The promising effects of Aducanumab are currently being investigated in two large phase three clinical studies to further evaluate safety and efficacy. Involving over 300 centers in 20 countries throughout North America, Europe, and Asia, these studies are evaluating the effectiveness and safety of the antibody on a total of 2,700 patients with early-stage Alzheimer’s disease.
When rain falls on a lotus leaf, the leaf doesn’t get wet. Thanks to its special structure, the water drops roll off without wetting the surface. Artificial materials can be made water-repellent, too. It is, however, extremely challenging to produce a surface with switchable wetting. Now, a research team from TU Wien, KU Leuven and University of Zürich has managed to manipulate a surface of a single layer of boron nitride in such a way that it can be switched back and forth between states with high and low wetting and adhesion.
Hexagons making waves
One of the most interesting physical properties of a surface is its stiction or static friction” says Stijn Mertens (Institute of Applied Physics at the Vienna University of Technology, and associated with KU Leuven in Belgium). „This force has to be overcome for an object on the surface to start sliding.” The nanostructure of the surface determines its stiction to a large extent: the details of the contact between the surface and another object (for example, a drop of liquid) depend on the geometry of its atoms and other properties. This in turn is crucial for adhesion, stiction and wetting. The relationship between stiction and wetting, however, is so far only poorly understood.
“Just as the material graphene consists of only one layer of carbon atoms, our boron nitride — which contains as many boron as nitrogen atoms — has a thickness of only one atomic layer”, explains Thomas Greber from the Physics Institute at the University of Zürich. This ultrathin layer can be grown on a rhodium single crystal. The atoms on the rhodium surface and in the boron nitride form a hexagonal pattern, but the distances between the atoms in the two materials are different. Thirteen atoms in boron nitride take the same space as twelve rhodium atoms, so that the two crystals do not fit together perfectly. Because of this mismatch, the boron nitride hexagons must bend, they appear as a frozen wave with a wavelength of 3.2 nanometres and a height of about 0.1 nanometres.
Precisely this two-dimensional nanowave influences the wetting of the surface by water”, says Stijn Mertens. In any case, the boron nitride superstructure can be made flat with a simple trick: by putting the material in acid and applying an electrical voltage, hydrogen atoms creep under the boron nitride layer and change the bond between nitrogen and rhodium. This makes the boron nitride flat. Suddenly the adhesion of a water drop on the surface changes dramatically – even though the drop is 100’000 times bigger than the tiny waves in the boron nitride. If the voltage is decreased, this effect is reversed: „We can switch the surface again and again between these two states”, explains Stijn Mertens.
The University of Zurich (UZH, German: Universität Zürich), located in the city of Zurich, is the largest university in Switzerland, with over 26,000 students.
It was founded in 1833 from the existing colleges of theology, law, medicine and a new faculty of philosophy.
Currently, the university has faculties of arts, chiropractic medicine economics, law, medicine, science, theology and veterinary medicine. The university claims to offer the widest range of subjects and courses at any Swiss higher education institution.
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University of Zurich research articles from Innovation Toronto
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- Empathy with strangers can be learned – December 24, 2015
- Extinctions during human era worse than thought – September 6, 2014
- Psychotherapy via internet as good as if not better than face-to-face consultations
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Our excitement with and rapid uptake of technology – and the growing opportunities for artificial brain enhancement – are putting humans more firmly on the path to becoming cyborgs, according to evolution experts from the University of Adelaide.
In their new book The Dynamic Human, authors Professor Maciej Henneberg and Dr Aurthur Saniotis chart the full scope of human evolution, with a look at the past, present and future development of our species.
And while they believe that future humans will more readily combine their own organic material with technology, the authors caution that such enhancements must not ignore humans’ highly complex biology.
Professor Henneberg and Dr Saniotis are members of the Biological Anthropology and Comparative Anatomy Research Unit in the University of Adelaide’s School of Medicine. They are also associates of the Institute of Evolutionary Medicine at the University of Zurich, Switzerland.
Professor Henneberg says their underlying approach to the book is that the human species continues to evolve: “There is still a tendency by some to view the current form of human beings as static, and that we will stay as such into the future unless some catastrophe causes our extinction,” he says.
Nicotinamide riboside rejuvenates stem cells, allowing better regeneration processes in aged mice
Nicotinamide riboside (NR) is pretty amazing. It has already been shown in several studies to be effective in boosting metabolism. And now a team of researchers at EPFL’s Laboratory of Integrated Systems Physiology (LISP), headed by Johan Auwerx, has unveiled even more of its secrets. An article written by Hongbo Zhang, a PhD student on the team, was published today in Science and describes the positive effects of NR on the functioning of stem cells. These effects can only be described as restorative.
As mice, like all mammals, age, the regenerative capacity of certain organs (such as the liver and kidneys) and muscles (including the heart) diminishes. Their ability to repair them following an injury is also affected. This leads to many of the disorders typical of aging.
Mitochondria: also useful in stem cells
Hongbo Zhang wanted to understand how the regeneration process deteriorated with age. To do so, he teamed up with colleagues from ETH Zurich, the University of Zurich and universities in Canada and Brazil. Through the use of several markers, he was able to identify the molecular chain that regulates how mitochondria – the “powerhouse” of the cell – function and how they change with age. The role that mitochondria play in metabolism has already been amply demonstrated, “but we were able to show for the first time that their ability to function properly was important for stem cells,” said Auwerx.
Under normal conditions, these stem cells, reacting to signals sent by the body, regenerate damaged organs by producing new specific cells. At least in young bodies. “We demonstrated that fatigue in stem cells was one of the main causes of poor regeneration or even degeneration in certain tissues or organs,” said Hongbo Zhang.