Pulse 45: Spectacular Advances for Brain Monitoring and Stimulation

18 December 2017
Giulio Prisco

Brain Monitor

This is a double issue of Pulse: I skipped last week’s issue. I have this to say in my defense: I wrote last week’s Pulse, but forgot sending it to our esteemed editor. I guess the time has come for me to start taking nootropics to combat cognitive decline. I should also play more video games (see below), while impatiently waiting for advanced neurotechnology.

Brain science and neurotechnology news feature prominently in recent science and human enhancement headlines. "That may sound like an outtake from 'The Matrix,'" notes The New York Times. "But now two neuroscientists at the University of Rochester [see below] say they have managed to introduce information directly into the premotor cortex of monkeys."

An Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithm learned to identify patterns of brain activity associated with the onset of a seizure (see below). "IBM runs the neural networks on TrueNorth, its ultra-low power neuromorphic computing chip," notes IEEE Spectrum. "At the size of a postage stamp, the chip could be used in a wearable device for people with epilepsy, or connected to a mobile device."

"The hope is that one day this could be applied as a wearable seizure warning system, meaning patients could be alerted via text message or an app that a seizure is likely to occur. This could mean they could take measures such as ensuring they are in a safe environment for the seizure, family or friends could be alerted, or a patient could choose to take medication to prevent a seizure," an IBM spokesperson told ZDNet.

Rewiring the brain with electrical stimulation. Scientists at the the University of Rochester Medical Center Department of Neurology and the Del Monte Institute for Neuroscience have found a way to harness the brain’s plasticity to rewire lost neural connections, an advance that could accelerate the development of neuro-prosthetics. A study published in Neuron shows that, in experiments with monkeys, very low levels of electrical stimulation delivered directly to an area of the brain responsible for motor function can instruct an appropriate response or action, essentially replacing sensory signals. According to the researchers, the findings could have significant implications for the development of brain-computer interfaces and neuro-prosthetics, which would allow a person to control a prosthetic device by tapping into the electrical activity of their brain.

Predicting epileptic seizures with neuromorphic chips and deep learning. Researchers at the University of Melbourne and IBM Research-Australia have used a mobile, brain-inspired processor, running deep learning Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms, to analyze brain signals from retrospective patient data recorded under the skull, successfully predicting an average of 69 per cent of seizures across all patients. The system is based on IBM’s neuromorphic computing chips that, taking inspiration from how the brain processes data, permit running deep learning algorithms in an extremely power efficient way. The research has been presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Epilepsy Society and detailed in a study titled “Epileptic Seizure Prediction using Big Data and Deep Learning: Toward a Mobile System,” to be published in EBioMedicine.

Video game training is good for the older brain. Scientists at the University of Montreal have found that seniors could benefit from playing games like Super Mario 64 to stave off mild cognitive impairment and perhaps even prevent Alzheimer's disease. A study published in PLoS ONE reports that patients between 55 and 75 years old, who participated in video game training, saw increases in gray matter volume in the hippocampus and cerebellum. Their short-term memory also improved.

Synthetic, evolving protein assemblies could permit better delivery of therapies. Researchers at the University of Washington have created computationally designed protein assemblies, which display some functions normally associated with living things. The research work, published in Nature, shows how synthetic protein assemblies that encapsulate their own genetic materials, and evolve new traits in complex environments, could permit developing ways to transport therapeutic cargos into specific types of cells without using viruses as vehicles.

3D printing living tissue for low-cost tissue engineering. Scientists at Penn State have found a way to create the structural framework for growing living tissue using an off-the-shelf 3D printer. A research paper published in Advanced Healthcare Materials shows how the researchers, using a combination of 3D printing and electrospinning (a method that uses electric charge to spin nanometer threads), have developed a low-cost and efficient method to fabricate high-resolution and repeatable 3D polymer fiber patterns on nonconductive materials for tissue engineering with available hobbyist-grade 3D printers.

Precision nanomaterials could  selectively kill cancer cells. Researchers at Sweden’s Royal Institute of Technology (KTH) have advanced toward using man-made nanoscale compounds in the fight against cancer. A recent proof-of-concept study published in Journal of the American Chemical Society shows  that dendrimers, organically synthesized large molecules that match nature's peptides and proteins with respect to size and structure, may be used to introduce compounds that essentially trick cancer cells into performing self-destructive tasks.

Toward programmable cancer immunotherapy. Scripps Research Institute researchers have discovered that a protein called “Runx3” programs killer T cells to establish residence in tumors and infection sites. The research results, published in Nature, indicate that Runx3 works on chromosomes inside killer T cells to program genes in a way that enables the T cells to accumulate in a solid tumor, and also plays a role in directing white blood cells that attack solid tumors in mouse melanoma models. The scientists expressed confidence that Runx3 could open new opportunities for improving cancer immunotherapy.

Modified CRISPR technology treats diabetes, kidney disease, muscular dystrophy in mice. Scientists at Salk Institute have created a new version of the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technology that allows activation of genes without creating breaks in the DNA, potentially circumventing a major hurdle to using gene editing technologies to treat human diseases. As a proof of concept, the Salk group used their new approach to treat several diseases, including diabetes, acute kidney disease, and muscular dystrophy, in mouse models. The research results have been published in Cell.

Self-assembling DNA nanotech with 3D DNA bricks. Researchers at Harvard’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering and around the world have developed ways to allow DNA strands to self-assemble into increasingly complex 3D structures such as scaffolded DNA origamis. A study published in Nature describes how the scientists improved 100-fold on their own previously published results, enabling next-generation DNA bricks to self-assemble into 3D nanostructures with more than 10,000 unique components, which are 100 times more complex than those created with existing methods. The researchers noted that these “DNA bricks,” able to carry out assembly and enzymatic processes, could be converted into powerful tools for commercial and biomedical nanofabrication processes on a new scale.

3D-printing lifelike artificial organs. Scientists at the University of Minnesota have built 3D-printed lifelike artificial organ models that mimic the exact anatomical structure, mechanical properties, and look and feel of real organs. A study published in Advanced Materials Technologies describes patient-specific organ models built with a custom 3D-printer. The artificial organs, which include integrated soft sensors, can be used for practice surgeries to improve surgical outcomes in thousands of patients worldwide.

Protein confirmed to act against cancer metastases. Researchers at the VIB-KU Leuven Center for Cancer Biology have confirmed that the protein Caveolin-1 has high potential in the fight against cancer. The research results, published in Cell Reports, confirm that the protein has has both tumor-promoting and tumor-suppressive functions, and indicate that Caveolin-1 acts as an anti-metastatic regulator in mouse models of lung and breast cancer pulmonary metastasis. Since metastases cause 90 percent of human cancer deaths, the scientists are persuaded that the protein could offer promising therapeutic perspectives.

Programmable drug delivery systems combats diseased cells at genetic level. Scientists at the University of Connecticut have developed a new drug delivery system that uses a synthetic-biological hybrid nanocapsule. A study published in Bioconjugate Chemistry describes a programmable, modular delivery platform that combines synthetic peptides, surfactants, and nucleic acids to form a nanocapsule that allows time-appropriate, enzyme-specific co-release of a given pharmaceutical and an oligonucleotide (DNA or RNA), and can be tailored to combat new disease challenges as they emerge.The researchers are persuaded that the findings could provide a smart technology for targeted treatment of a variety of serious diseases at the genetic level.

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