In the UMC Utrecht a brain implant has been placed in a patient enabling her to operate a speech computer with her mind.
The researchers and the patient worked intensively to get the settings right. She can now communicate at home with her family and caregivers via the implant. That a patient can use this technique at home is unique in the world. This research was published in the New England Journal of Medicine.
Because she suffers from ALS disease, the patient is no longer able to move and speak. Doctors placed electrodes in her brain, and the electrodes pick up brain activity. This enables her to wirelessly control a speech computer that she now uses at home.
“This is a major breakthrough in achieving autonomous communication among severely paralyzed patients whose paralysis is caused by either ALS, a cerebral hemorrhage or trauma,” says Professor Nick Ramsey, professor of cognitive neuroscience at the University Medical Center (UMC) Utrecht. “In effect, this patient has had a kind of remote control placed in her head, which enables her to operate a speech computer without the use of her muscles.”
The patient operates the speech computer by moving her fingers in her mind. This changes the brain signal under the electrodes. That change is converted into a mouse click. On a screen in front of her she can see the alphabet, plus some additional functions such as deleting a letter or word and selecting words based on the letters she has already spelled. The letters on the screen light up one by one. She selects a letter by influencing the mouse click at the right moment with her brain. That way she can compose words, letter by letter, which are then spoken by the speech computer. This technique is comparable to actuating a speech computer via a push-button (with a muscle that can still function, for example, in the neck or hand). So now, if a patient lacks muscle activity, a brain signal can be used instead.
The patient underwent surgery during which electrodes were placed on her brain through tiny holes in her skull. A small transmitter was then placed in her body below her collarbone. This transmitter receives the signals from the electrodes via subcutaneous wires, amplifies them and transmits them wirelessly. The mouse click is calculated from these signals, actuating the speech computer. The patient is closely supervised. Shortly after the operation, she started on a journey of discovery together with the researchers to find the right settings for the device and the perfect way to get her brain activity under control. It started with a “simple” game to practice the art of clicking. Once she mastered clicking, she focused on the speech computer. She can now use the speech computer without the help of the research team.
The UMC Utrecht Brain Center has spent many years researching the possibility of controlling a computer by means of electrodes that capture brain activity. Working with a speech computer driven by brain signals measured with a bathing cap with electrodes has long been tested in various research laboratories. That a patient can use the technique at home, through invisible, implanted electrodes, is unique in the world.
If the implant proves to work well in three people, the researchers hope to launch a larger, international trial. Ramsey: “We hope that these results will stimulate research into more advanced implants, so that some day not only people with communication problems, but also people with paraplegia, for example, can be helped.”
Simple system can recognize sixty percent of human touches
A SQUEEZE IN THE ARM, A PAT ON THE SHOULDER, OR A SLAP IN THE FACE – TOUCH IS AN IMPORTANT PART OF THE SOCIAL INTERACTION BETWEEN PEOPLE. SOCIAL TOUCH, HOWEVER, IS A RELATIVELY UNKNOWN FIELD WHEN IT COMES TO ROBOTS, EVEN THOUGH ROBOTS OPERATE WITH INCREASING FREQUENCY IN SOCIETY AT LARGE, RATHER THAN JUST IN THE CONTROLLED ENVIRONMENT OF A FACTORY.
Merel Jung is conducting research at the University of Twente CTIT research institute into social touch interaction with robots. Using a relatively simple system – a mannequin’s arm with pressure sensors, connected to a computer – she has succeeded in getting it to recognize sixty percent of all touches. The research is being published in the Journal on Multimodal User Interfaces scientific journal.
Robots are becoming more and more social. A well-known example of a social robot is Paro, a robot seal that is used in care homes, where it has a calming effect on the elderly residents and stimulates their senses. Positive results have been achieved with the robot for this target group, but we still have a long way to go before robots can correctly recognize, interpret, and respond to different types of social touch in the way that people can. It is a relatively little explored area in science, but one in which much could be achieved in the long term. Examples that come to mind are robots that assist children with autism in improving their social contacts, or robots that train medicine students for real-life situations.
Merel Jung is therefore carrying out research at the University of Twente into social touch interaction between humans and robots. In order to enable a robot to respond in the correct manner to being touched, she has identified four different stages. The robot must perceive, be able to recognize, interpret, and then respond in the correct way. In this phase of her research, Jung focused on the first two stages – perceiving and recognizing. With a relatively simple experiment, involving a mannequin’s arm fitted with 64 pressure sensors, she has succeeded in distinguishing sixty percent of almost 8,000 touches (distributed over fourteen different types of touch at three levels of intensity). Sixty percent does not seem very high on the face of it, but it is a good figure if you bear in mind that there was absolutely no social context and that various touches are very similar to each other. Possible examples include the difference between grabbing and squeezing, or stroking roughly and rubbing gently. In addition, the people touching the mannequin’s arm had been given no instructions on how to ‘perform’ their touches, and the computer system was not able to ‘learn’ how the individual ‘touchers’ operated. In similar circumstances, people too would not be able to correctly recognize every single touch. In her follow-up research, which Jung is currently undertaking, she is concentrating on how robots can interpret touch in a social context. It is expected that robots, by interpreting the context, will be better able to respond to touch correctly, and that therefore the touch robot will be one step closer to reality.
Learn more: First Steps Towards The Touch Robot
Thousands of new immune system signals have been uncovered with potential implications for immunotherapy, autoimmune diseases and vaccine development.
The researchers behind the finding say it is the biological equivalent of discovering a new continent.
It’s as if a geographer would tell you they had discovered a new continent, or an astronomer would say they had found a new planet in the solar system. And just as with those discoveries, we have a lot of exploring to do.
– Professor Michael Stumpf
Our cells regularly break down proteins from our own bodies and from foreign bodies, such as viruses and bacteria. Small fragments of these proteins, called epitopes, are displayed on the surface of the cells like little flags so that the immune system can scan them. If they are recognised as foreign, the immune system will destroy the cell to prevent the spread of infection.
In a new study, researchers have discovered that around one third of all the epitopes displayed for scanning by the immune system are a type known as ‘spliced’ epitopes.
These spliced epitopes were thought to be rare, but the scientists have now identified thousands of them by developing a new method that allowed them to map the surface of cells and identify a myriad of previously unknown epitopes.
The findings should help scientists to better understand the immune system, including autoimmune diseases, as well as provide potential new targets for immunotherapy and vaccine design.
The research was led by Dr Juliane Liepe from Imperial College London and Dr Michele Mishto from Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin in Germany in collaboration with the LaJolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology and Utrecht University, and it is published today in Science.
Co-author of the study Professor Michael Stumpf from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial said: “It’s as if a geographer would tell you they had discovered a new continent, or an astronomer would say they had found a new planet in the solar system.
“And just as with those discoveries, we have a lot of exploring to do. This could lead to not only a deeper understanding of how the immune system operates, but also suggests new avenues for therapies and drug and vaccine development.”
Prior to the new study, scientists thought that the machinery in a cell created signalling peptides by cutting fragments out of proteins in sequence, and displaying these in order on the surface of the cell.
However, this cell machinery can also create ‘spliced’ peptides by cutting two fragments from different positions in the protein and then sticking them together out of order, creating a new sequence.
Scientists knew about the existence of the spliced epitopes, but they were thought to be rare. The new study suggests that spliced epitopes actually make up a large proportion of signalling epitopes: they make up around a quarter of the overall number of epitopes, and account for 30-40 per cent of the diversity – the number of different kinds of epitopes.
PROS AND CONS
These extra epitopes give the immune system more to scan, and more possibilities of detecting disease. However, as the spliced epitopes are mixed sequences, they also have the potential to overlap with the sequences of healthy signallers and be misidentified as harmful.
This could help scientists understand autoimmune diseases, where the immune system turns against normal body tissues, such as in Type 1 diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
The study’s lead author, Dr Juliane Liepe from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial, said: “The discovery of the importance of spliced peptides could present pros and cons when researching the immune system.
“For example, the discovery could influence new immunotherapies and vaccines by providing new target epitopes for boosting the immune system, but it also means we need to screen for many more epitopes when designing personalised medicine approaches.”
Utrecht University (Dutch: Universiteit Utrecht, formerly Rijksuniversiteit Utrecht) is a university in Utrecht, the Netherlands.
It is one of the oldest universities in the Netherlands and one of the largest in Europe. Established March 26, 1636, it had an enrollment of 30,449 students in 2012, and employed 5,295 faculty and staff. In 2011, 485 PhD degrees were awarded and 7,773 scientific articles were published. The 2013 budget of the university was €761 million.
The university is rated as the best university in the Netherlands by the Shanghai Ranking of World Universities 2013, and ranked as the 13th best European university and the 52nd best university of the world.
The university’s motto is “Sol Iustitiae Illustra Nos,” which means “Sun of Justice, shine upon us.” This motto was gleaned from a literal Latin Bible translation of Malachi 4:2. (Rutgers University, having a historical connection with Utrecht University, uses a modified version of this motto.) Utrecht University is led by the University Board, consisting of prof. dr. Bert van der Zwaan (Rector Magnificus) and Hans Amman.