Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Lithium and longevity?

Seems like a long shot since we still don't know how lithium works in the body, but according to Science Daily:

Nematode worms treated with lithium show a 46 percent increase in lifespan, raising the tantalizing question of whether humans taking the mood affecting drug are also taking an anti-aging medication.
Lithium is a medication that has been used to treat bipolar disorder for over 50 years. We still don't really know how it works, despite numerous studies and hypotheses.

The study above, by Buck Institute's Gordon J. Lithgow, PhD hypothesize that the process of normal aging in humans is intrinsically linked to the onset of neurodegenerative disease. They are studying hundreds of compounds for their anti-aging properties, and in the case of lithium, exploring the neuroprotective effects of lithium.

I hope they find their Fountain of Youth, but more importantly, there better be ethicists around who can wisely implement the use of it.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Girl Genius Online

After a week of dense brain-related articles, it's time for something fun and light.

I highly recommend Girl Genius Online. It's a science fiction steampunk style series, available for free online, or you can buy it in comic book or .pdf format.

It's a comic book featuring the art of Phil Foglio, best known for his MythAdventures artwork, Magic: The Gathering cards, and other comics.

This series has been around for about five years, and he continues to release three pages a week (on M, W, F).
Thanks to Brad for the link.

Friday, October 26, 2007

A brain region for addiction?

From physorg:
An animal study released Thursday bolsters the notion that drug cravings can be "switched off" by shutting down a key part of the brain, a finding that could have implications for treating addicts. Researchers have previously shown that damage to the insula can dramatically extinguish a smoker's need for nicotine.
The obvious next step is to see if this holds true for other addictions, such as as alcohol, overeating, and other drugs. Surprisingly, what researchers found in rat studies is that anesthetizing the insula also decreased unwanted medication side effects.
Chilean researchers have shown that temporarily "silencing" the insula suppresses cravings in drug-addicted rats and insulates them from the unpleasant side effects of medication, according to the study published in Science.
They hypothesize that this may be the brain region responsible for drug cravings, and that future treatments for addiction should target the insula.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

The brain area for optimism...

Is called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC).

From physorg:
The more optimistic a person is, the brighter the [rACC] area showed up in brain scans, the scientists reported in a small study published online Thursday in the journal Nature. That same part of the brain, called the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC), seems to malfunction in people suffering depression, said the study co-authors, Elizabeth Phelps of New York University and Tali Sharot of University College London.
Researchers gave 15 people functional magnetic resonance imaging scans while they thought about future possibilities. When the participants thought about good events both the rACC and amygdala, which is involved in emotional responses including fear, were activated. But the correlation with optimism was biggest with the cingulate cortex.
Makes me wonder what other personality characteristics may be hard wired, or are heavily based on brain chemistry. That, then also leads to deeper philosophical questions around the nature of free will, and how much of our hopes, fears, and choices are influenced by brain chemistry and various brain regions, and how much is due to conscious choice.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Brain waves found that sort real memories from false

From Science Daily:
For the first time, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are able to pinpoint brain waves that distinguish true from false memories, providing a better understanding of how memory works and creating a new strategy to help epilepsy patients retain cognitive function.
Researchers measured gamma waves and observed the following:
While patients performed the memory game, scientists observed electrical activity in their brains to determine whether specific brain waves were associated with successfully storing and retrieving memories. Researchers found that a fast brain wave, known as the gamma rhythm, increased when participants studied a word that they would later recall. The same gamma waves, whose voltage rises and fall between 50 and 100 times per second, also increased in the half-second prior to participants correctly recalling an item...
Gamma waves actually predicted whether or not an item that was about to be recalled was previously studied, said Michael Kahana, a professor of psychology
in Penns School of Arts and Sciences and lead investigator. In other words, one could see a difference in brain activity just prior to remembering something that had and had not actually happened.
I wonder how useful this could be as a lie detector?
The study will be published in November 2007's journal Psychological Science.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Sleep deprivation mimics psychiatric disorders

From Science Daily:

In the first neural investigation into what happens to the emotional brain without sleep, results from a brain imaging study suggest that while a good night's rest can regulate your mood and help you cope with the next day's emotional challenges, sleep deprivation does the opposite by excessively boosting the part of the brain most closely connected to depression, anxiety and other psychiatric disorders.
Anyone who's experienced a sleepless night can tell you how much harder it is for them to concentrate on basic tasks the next day, not to mention emotional regulation. Researchers at UC Berkeley's Sleep and Neuroimaging Laboratory studied the following:

Using functioning Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), Walker and his team found that the amygdala, which is also a key to processing emotions, became hyperactive in response to negative visual stimuli - mutilated bodies, children with tumors and other gory images - in study participants who stayed awake for 35 hours straight. Conversely, brain scans of those who got a full night's sleep in their own beds showed normal activity in the amygdala. "The emotional centers of the brain were over 60 percent more reactive under conditions of sleep deprivation than in subjects who had obtained a normal night of sleep," Walker said.
I wonder if someday we'll give most people a prescription for a good night's rest before starting them on antidepressants? Hopefully we'll eventually have a test we can give to patients to determine whether their psychiatric illness will get better with sleep and a vacation, or whether we need psychotropic medicatons.
Either way, here's at least another study that supports my encouragement of a good night's sleep for everyone.

Reference: Yoo et al.: "The human emotional brain without sleep -- a prefrontal amygdale disconnect." Publishing in Current Biology, Vol. 17, No. 20, R877-R878, Oct. 23, 2007

Monday, October 22, 2007

Video: Domino Pool Final

Thanks to Hui for the link.
Not exactly a Rube Goldberg, but still very impressive.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Fentix cube: complete with accelerometers and multi-touch screen surfaces

Beautiful cube, loosely styled after the rubik's cube, but with so much more complexity and artistry! Designed by Andrew Fentem, this cube is just fun to watch. His website is full of other amazing electronic toys and art.

Small quantities of this cube will be available for purchase at the Kinetica Museum, but no word on price or availability yet.

Treat your hard drives like floppy disks!

Finally, someone's come up with a device that lets you quickly and easily connect up your hard drive to just about any computer.
For those of us who may have a small pile of internal hard drives lying around, having to swap them in and out of external hard drive enclosures gets to be a hassle.

This device, being sold at for $46.79 lets you just plug it in, much like inserting a floppy disk into its drive.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Online health records, brought to you by Google or Microsoft

The idea of online health records is not surprising, but definitely not reassuring.

From Computerworld:

Less than two weeks after Microsoft Corp. announced plans to support online personal health information records, Google unveiled plans to follow suit.

Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president of search products and user experience, said Wednesday here at the Web 2.0 Summit that Google plans to support the "storage and movement" of people's health records.

...Google became interested in the personal health record market as it watched Hurricane Katrina take aim at the Gulf Coast and all the paper-based records stored in various medical offices and hospitals in the region. "In that moment, it was too late for us to mobilize," Mayer said. "It doesn't make sense to generate this volume of information on paper. It should be something that is digital. People should have control over their own records."

I'm definitely mixed about this. Your personal health records should be something you have access to, and probably even have copies of. Having a copy of x-rays, MRI images, and other objective data could be very useful information for your new health care provider. What worries me is the confidentiality of these records if they become hackable and findable on the internet, and all the fraud that this could propagate. Medicare fraud is already a pretty uncontrolled problem. NPR has a wonderful segment on this.

Here's what I found most striking about the article:

Medicare fraud has now become a favorite career path of many former drug dealers. The FBI has interviewed drug dealers and asked them why they're moving from cocaine to wheelchairs and walkers.

Why the Shift? Malcolm Sparrow of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government says former drug dealers give three reasons.

"There's more money, there's much less chance of being caught and if I do get caught, I'll be treated like a white-collar criminal, not like a drug dealer," Sparrow says. There's also a fourth reason: They're less likely to be killed in a drive-by shooting.

If there was some secure, untamperable way to have access to these records, it could definitely help the health care industry save money by not needing to run the same tests over and over every time a patient goes to a new provider. Of course, there would also need to be some way to guarantee this data does not get into the wrong hands, which is much harder to do. I hear about stolen laptops with employee or customer data almost daily. Fortunately, credit card numbers, bank accounts, and even social security numbers can be changed with effort. How much worse would it be if that laptop also contained your medical files?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

RIAA suing Usenet. Goodbye newsgroups?

Strange but apparently true.

According to cnet news:

The Recording Industry Association of America has found a new legal target for a copyright lawsuit: Usenet.

In a lawsuit filed on October 12, the RIAA says that Usenet newsgroups contain "millions of copyrighted sound recordings" in violation of federal law.

Only is named as a defendant for now, but the same logic would let the RIAA sue hundreds of universities, Internet service providers, and other newsgroup archives. AT&T offers Usenet, as does Verizon, Stanford University and other companies including Giganews.

That's what makes this lawsuit important. If the RIAA can win against, other Usenet providers are at legal risk, too.

One of the reasons Usenet was singled out in this lawsuit is because of some of their advertising language to potential subscribers: boasts that signing up for an account "gives you access to millions of MP3 files and also enables you to post your own files the same way and share them with the whole world."

The future's not looking too bright for Usenet right now. If the RIAA somehow does win, then their slippery slope puts everyone at risk. The big winner in all this will be the legal system, who will have enough lawsuits to sustain several generations of lawyers and bureaucrats.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

The Depression Report

Left: Summary table from the Depression Report

According to SAMHSA, 7% of full time workers have clinical depression. They interviewed 107,000, using questionnaires based on DSM-IV depression criteria to determine episodes of major depression in the last year.

Here's the study.


Combined data from 2004 to 2006 indicate ... highest rates of past year MDE among full-time workers aged 18 to 64 were found in the personal care and service occupations (10.8 percent) and the food preparation and serving related occupations (10.3 percent)
l The highest rates of past year MDE among female full-time workers aged 18 to 64 were found in the food preparation and serving related occupations (14.8 percent), and the highest rates among male full-time workers aged 18 to 64 were found in the arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations (6.7 percent)
The study concludes that depression results in a loss of revenue estimated at $30-44 billion annually.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Celebrating the Rotary Engine

I've always had a soft spot for the Wankel rotary engine (cool toys as child help with that). As a competitor to our standard four cylinder engines, it has many features that are superior, but has a very small following.

The car manufacterer Mazda has been using rotary engines in their RX-7s (and now the new Rx-8) for decades, and is celebrating the 40th anniversary of the rotary engine.
They even have a video about it, which touts their new hydrogen burning rotary engine.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Surf the internet with your voice

Doctoral student Brandi House uses Vocal Joystick to control the movement of a robotic arm. The screen on the lower right shows how the software analyzes her vocalizations to create instructions for the arm's movement. (Credit: Image courtesy of University of Washington)

From Science Daily:

Vocal Joystick detects sounds 100 times a second and instantaneously turns that sound into movement on the screen. Different vowel sounds dictate the direction:
"ah," "ee," "aw" and "oo" and other sounds move the cursor one of eight directions. Users can transition smoothly from one vowel to another, and louder sounds make the cursor move faster. The sounds "k" and "ch" simulate clicking and releasing the mouse buttons.

Versions of Vocal Joystick exist for browsing the Web, drawing on a screen, controlling a cursor and playing a video game. A version also exists for operating a robotic arm, and Bilmes believes the technology could be used to control an electronic wheelchair.

It's a great idea, using the musical/sounds quality of vowels rather than of actual words. I wonder if someday speech therapists could use this for kids as well?

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

High tech mousetrap, complete with laser beams and text messaging!

Those poor mice don't have a chance!

Like something out of James Bond's Q's laboratory, the high-tech Rodent Activated Detention and Riddance Unit (Radar unit, for us civvies), uses infrared beams and carbon dioxide to catch, and then gas the mice dead within 45 seconds. That's not all though, as when the little critter has floated off to mouse-heaven, a text message is sent to the homeowner's mobile, alerting them to the corpse residing in the unit.
No information on price, though the website says these are available now, on a custom order basis.

Monday, October 8, 2007

Now your iPod can translate too?

It's called Vcommunicator Mobile, and it's a beefed up iPod with Arabic phrases.

You’re at a checkpoint and you need the Iraqi to get out of the vehicle and open the trunk. Scroll the iPod wheel over to “Vehicle Checkpoint” mission library and it’ll show a list of phrases: “peace be upon you;” “we need to search your vehicle;” “turn off your car;” “open the door;” etc. The iPod will show the words in phonetics and in Arabic so you can try the phrase yourself or show it to an Iraqi to read.
But click on the “Arabic script” and the phrase plays through a miniature speaker plugged into your iPod (Vcom salespeople had some nifty arm bands to attach both the iPod and speaker within reach). There’s even a primer on the right gestures to make when saying the phrase.
So far the Vcom software incorporates around 300 vocabulary words and 400 phrases in Arabic and Kurdish – with Pashto and Dari dictionaries on the way. The software includes a phrase and gesture-builder module so you can design your own specific mission phrases as needed.
I wonder how clunky this is in real life, or how hard it is to follow the gestures on such a tiny screen?

Friday, October 5, 2007

Better wearable sensors for athlete training and medical rehab

(Pic): A sensor worn behind the ear of an athlete can measure posture, stride length, step frequency, and acceleration using a triaxial accelerometer and activity-recognition software. The data is collected and wirelessly transmitted to a computer in real time. Credit: Imperial College London

Guang-Zhong Yang, Ph.D, and his colleagues at Imperial College in London have been developing a sensor worn behind the ear that tracks a variety of user information, and transfers it to a computer for real time analysis. They hope it may will mass-produced within 12 to 18 months. It's currently being tested in atheletes, and individuals recovering from surgery.

From MIT's Technology Review:

The sensor is about the size of a cuff link and measures the posture, stride length, step frequency, and acceleration of an individual. In addition to being used in applications for training athletes, the device could be employed to monitor a patient's recovery after surgery, such as orthopedic, or injury, such as a fracture. In those cases, an individual will often compensate for the affected area, which impinges movements, says Yang. The device could also be used to monitor an individual suffering from a progressive illness, such as a neurodegenerative disease: it could detect telltale changes in the person's movements.

The sensor uses an accelerometer that allows it to measure motion in three dimensions. For example, when a runner hits the ground, a shock wave is transmitted through his body from his foot. The accelerometer is able to pick up these waves and sense the balance of the body and the changes in the runner's gait, such as the length of strides and the frequency of steps.

This information is processed within the sensor and wirelessly transmitted to a computer...

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Computer controlled anti-snoring pillow

Designed by Daryoush Bazargani, professor of computer science at the University of Rostock (pic, left frame), this pillow has compartements that will inflate or deflate, depending on how loudly the user snores.

"The pillow is attached to a computer, which is the size of a book, rests on a bedside table, and analyses snoring noises," Bazargani told Reuters. "The computer then reduces or enlarges air compartments within the pillow to facilitate nasal airflow to minimize snoring as the user shifts during sleep," he said.
Another fringe benefit is that this pillow gives neck massages.
I wonder how effective it actually is?

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Meth detecting gun

Designed by CDEX, this gun uses UV light to scan surfaces for methamphetamine.

Projected to cost around $600, it might be available as early as the end of 2007.

For more of the story and a video, go here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Mind reading computers?

It's a long way off, but the framework is beginning.

From Science Daily:
Tufts University researchers are developing techniques that could allow computers to respond to users' thoughts of frustration -- too much work -- or boredom--too little work. Applying non-invasive and easily portable imaging technology in new ways, they hope to gain real-time insight into the brain's more subtle emotional cues and help provide a more efficient way to get work done.
They are using:

functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) technology that uses light to monitor brain blood flow as a proxy for workload stress a user may experience when performing an increasingly difficult task...

The fNIRS device, which looks like a futuristic headband, uses laser diodes to send near-infrared light through the forehead at a relatively shallow depth--only two to three centimeters--to interact with the brain's frontal lobe. Light usually passes through the body's tissues, except when it encounters oxygenated or deoxygenated hemoglobin in the blood. Light waves are absorbed by the active, blood-filled areas of the brain and any remaining light is diffusely reflected to the fNIRS detectors. "fNIRS, like MRI, uses the idea that blood flow changes to compensate for the increased metabolic demands of the area of the brain that's being used," said Erin Solovey, a graduate researcher at the School of Engineering.

So far, all they have been able to measure reliably is no workload, low workload, or high workload. However, if they are able to fine tune this tool, it could someday be used to control workflow based on the user's brain patterns. It should at least make for a nice biofeedback tool.