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Saturday, 23 May 2009

Robotics extreme, may, 2009

Today:

  1. Robot scientist becomes first machine to discover new scientific knowledge
  2. Researchers Develop Wireless Method of Brain Stimulation
  3. Researchers regenerate axons necessary for voluntary movement
  4. Coming soon: An artificial skin!
Short stories:
  1. Artificial 'baby butter' accelerates healing
  2. Artificial cartilage performs better than the real thing
  3. Hand transplants seize back lost brain territory

Robot scientist becomes first machine to discover new scientific knowledge

April 2nd, 2009

Scientists have created a Robot Scientist which the researchers believe is the first machine to have independently discovered new scientific knowledge. The robot, called Adam, is a computer system that fully automates the scientific process.

Prof Ross King, who led the research at Aberystwyth University, said: "Ultimately we hope to have teams of human and scientists working together in laboratories".

The scientists at Aberystwyth University and the University of Cambridge designed Adam to carry out each stage of the scientific process automatically without the need for further human intervention. The robot has discovered simple but new about the genomics of the baker's yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an organism that scientists use to model more complex life systems. The researchers have used separate manual experiments to confirm that Adam's were both novel and correct.

"Because biological organisms are so complex it is important that the details of biological experiments are recorded in great detail. This is difficult and irksome for human scientists, but easy for Robot Scientists."

Using artificial intelligence, Adam hypothesised that certain genes in baker's yeast code for specific enzymes which catalyse biochemical reactions in yeast. The robot then devised experiments to test these predictions, ran the experiments using laboratory robotics, interpreted the results and repeated the cycle.

Adam is a still a prototype, but Prof King's team believe that their next robot, Eve, holds great promise for scientists searching for new drugs to combat diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis, an infection caused by a type of parasitic worm in the tropics. source

My comment: (the NewScientist article) Of course, Eve is the next evolutionary link. For you sexists :) Anyway, I find this new robot marvellous. Yes, there is something scary about machines doing the job that we connect with the ultimate level of humanity-creativity, intuition and invention, but in the end, it's scary how much we depend on machines at all. If you ask me, the worst thing is that instead of stimulating humans to explore more of the world while machines are working for them, we use machines to work on the place of humans while leaving humans to figure how to make a living. There is a leap our society simply refuses to make and that's very troubling. I mean, according to current economy, the cheaper workforce will replace the more expensive (and demanding) human workforce. If we're talking about agriculture, one may speculate that humans should re-qualify and find a more qualified work. But if robots can do science, well, that's like the top level of job you can do (in the sense of complexity and education and experience needed to do it). Then what humans should do? Well, I can tell you what they will do-they will oppose robots in any way they can, so that they can still make a living. Well, that's obviously not the most productive way to think. What we have to do is to figure how to adapt our society to the new opportunities robotics offer and to make sure that people can enjoy their life. After all, it's with humans money that the robots were researched, if we have to be fair, each and every one of us has to profit from patents rights for every robots manifactured. Of course, that's never going to happen. But it doesn't mean it has to be fair. After all, machines should be made to make our life easier not harder. And there must be a way to do it. A way that will make people use robots more and more, without leaving people worthless.

Researchers Develop Wireless Method of Brain Stimulation

March 16th, 2009
(PhysOrg.com) -- A new, wireless method of brain stimulation has the potential to activate specific regions of the brain or restore function to damaged or cut nerves, according to a study by Case Western Reserve University researchers.

Ben Strowbridge, an associate professor in the neurosciences department at Case Western Reserve’s School of Medicine, and Clemens Burda, an associate professor in chemistry, collaborated on the project. They say that by using as very tiny solar cells they can excite neurons in single cells or groups of cells with visible, or infrared, light.

In their study, the researchers embedded light-activated nanoparticles, which require neither wires nor electrical power, directly into non-human tissue and were able to activate neurons. A next step would be to use the technology to activate dispersed groups of neurons at the same time. This would represent a new way of re-creating the complex activity patterns that normally occur in the brain.

In contrast, the researchers say, traditional electrical stimulation of the brain requires arrays of metal electrodes to be implanted. The closer the traditional metal technique gets to re-creating “real” patterns, the more invasive it becomes. Burda adds that with conventional electrodes can have potentially damaging side effects, ranging from simple of cells to chemical reactions from exposure to the electrode materials.

The researchers expect to be able to implant nanoparticles next to nerves, eliminating the need for wired connections. They can then use light to activate the particles.

Clinical development of the technology could lead numerous biomedical applications. source

My comment: It's interesting how many applications of nanoparticles in human body scientists discover, while they seem not to care how safe those methods are. In the sense, they of course, account for the immediate dangers to the tissues and so on, but they seem to leave aside the problem of the circulation of those particles in the body and the accumulation of them in certain body organs. And I'm worried by this. If we have to leave to FDA to assess this danger, I think we're all as good as dead. This research has to be done and people simply have to stop avoiding it.

Researchers regenerate axons necessary for voluntary movement

April 6th, 2009

For the first time, researchers have clearly shown regeneration of a critical type of nerve fiber that travels between the brain and the spinal cord and which is required for voluntary movement. The regeneration was accomplished in a brain injury site in rats by scientists at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.

"This finding establishes a method for regenerating a system of nerve fibers called corticospinal motor axons. Restoring these axons is an essential step in one day enabling patients to regain voluntary movement after injury," said Mark Tuszynski, MD, PhD, professor of neurosciences, director of the Center for Neural Repair at UC San Diego and neurologist at the Veterans Affairs San Diego Health System.

The corticospinal tract is a massive collection of nerve fibers called axons - long, slender projections of neurons that travel between the of the and the spinal cord, carrying signals for movement from the brain to the body. Voluntary movement occurs through the activation of the upper motor neuron that resides in the frontal lobe of the brain and extends its axon down the spinal cord to the lower motor neuron. The lower motor neuron, in turn, sends its axon out to the muscle cells. In spinal cord injuries, the axons that run along the corticospinal tract are severed so that the lower , below the site of injury, are disconnected from the brain.

The UC San Diego team achieved corticospinal regeneration by genetically engineering the injured neurons to over-express receptors for a type of nervous system growth factor called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). The growth factor was delivered to a brain lesion site in injured rats. There, the axons - because they now expressed trkB, the receptor for BDNF- were able to respond to the growth factor and regenerate into the injury site. In the absence of overexpression of trkB, no regeneration occurred.

Although functional recovery in the animals was not assessed, the new study shows for the first time that regeneration of the corticospinal system - which normally does not respond to treatment - can be achieved in a brain lesion site.

"The next step will be to try this in a spinal cord injury site, once we get the injured neurons to send the growth factor receptor all the way down the axon and into the spinal cord," said Tuszynski, adding that the UC San Diego research team is now working on this. source

My comment: Erm, are they talking about gene therapy, because it certainly did sound like this to me. And as we know, gene therapy isn't really mastered at the moment. In any case, it's cool to think that one day, even people with major damages, as those on the spinal cord, can become once again independent.

Coming soon: An artificial skin!

19 May 2009, 1101 hrs IST, PTI

LONDON: Skin from a factory has long been the dream of dermatologists. Now, scientists are on track to develop what they claim is the "artificial
skin"

A team from four Fraunhofer institutes in Germany is developing the first fully automatic production system for two-layer "skin models" -- an almost perfect copy of human skin or artificial skin.

According to the scientists, in a multi-stage process, first small pieces of skin are sterilized. Then they are cut into small pieces, modified with specific enzymes, and isolated into two cell fractions, which are then propagated separately on cell culture surfaces.

The next step in the process combines the two cell types into a two-layer model, with collagen added to the cells that are to form the flexible lower layer, or dermis. This gives the tissue natural elasticity, they said.

In a humid incubator kept at body temperature, it takes the cell fractions less than three weeks to grow together and form a finished skin model with a diameter of roughly one centimetre.

The technique has already proven its use in practice, but until now it has been too expensive and complicated for mass production, according to the scientists.

The team is now handling the development of the biological fundamentals and validation of the machine and its sub-modules, taking care of prototype development, automation and integration of the machine into a complete system. source

My comment: Well, as anyone suffered from burns, I can be only extremely happy about this new situation. Although I have some doubts about the prices and the availability of this artificial skin I still find it awesome that they are so close to mass production.

Short stories:

Artificial 'baby butter' accelerates healing

  • 27 March 2009

AN ARTIFICIAL version of the buttery coating that protects and nurtures a fetus's developing skin could find a use outside the womb, in speeding up wound healing and treating eczema.

Natural vernix caseosa contains a mixture of fatty compounds that waterproof the fetus. Crucially, it also contains dead cells called corneocytes, which store large amounts of water and ensure that the fetus does not get dehydrated. Vernix may also act as a barrier to infections.

To mimic this versatile substance, Joke Bouwstra and Robert Rissman at Leiden University in the Netherlands mixed a range of fatty compounds including lanolin, fatty acids, ceramides and cholesterol with particles made of a water-storing hydrogel. When they rubbed this white cream on mice missing a patch of their outer skin, the mice healed three times faster than untreated ones, Bouwstra says. source

Artificial cartilage performs better than the real thing

The smooth cartilage that covers the ends of long bones provides a level of lubrication that artificial alternatives haven't been able to rival – until now. Researchers say their lubricating layers of "molecular brushes" can outperform nature under the highest pressures encountered within joints, with potentially important implications for joint replacement surgery.

With every step we take, bones at the knee and hip rub against each other. That would quickly wear them away if it wasn't for the protection afforded by the thick layer of smooth and slippery cartilage that covers their ends.

Like bone, artificial joints must be covered with a cartilage-like layer. However, while it's possible to match cartilage's slick properties at low pressure, at the high pressures found in joints synthetic alternatives "seize up".

Now Klein has discovered a possible solution. Working with colleagues in the UK, he's developed molecular brushes that slide past each other with friction coefficients that match those of cartilage. In some respects, they perform even better: the brushes remain highly effective even at pressures of 7.5 megapascals. Cartilage performs well only up to around 5 megapascals – a natural limit because joint pressure only rarely exceeds that level.

Each 60-nanometre-long brush filament has a polymer backbone from which small molecular groups stick out. Those synthetic groups are very similar to the lipids found in cell membranes, says Klein – although they're neutral overall, they are positively charged at one end and negatively charged at the other.

In a watery environment, each of these molecular groups attracts up to 25 water molecules through electrostatic forces, so the filament as a whole develops a slick watery sheath. These sheathes ensure that the brushes are lubricated as they rub past each other, even when firmly pressed together to mimic the pressures at bone joints.

Klein adds that it's not yet clear when the new brushes might be used in a clinical setting. source

Hand transplants seize back lost brain territory

Hand transplants are eventually "accepted" by the brain, a study shows, raising the prospect of full movement being recovered. Surprisingly, it seems that in right-handed people, the left hand is accepted sooner.

The motor cortex – the part of the brain responsible for muscular movement – maintains a physical map of the body, with different areas registering sensations in different body parts. When the brain is deprived of sensory input from a limb, such as after a hand amputation, that region goes unused. To stop prime real estate going to waste, the brain rewires itself, with areas representing the face and upper arm "creeping in" to take over the region formerly dominated by the hand.

To find out if a transplanted hand can reclaim these brain regions, Angela Sirigu and colleagues at the Institute for Cognitive Science in Lyon, France, used magnetic pulses to stimulate these areas in two people who had undergone double hand transplants. They found that muscles in the new hands responded to the stimulation, suggesting that the brain had fully accepted them.

Previous research had shown that stroking a transplanted hand triggered brain activity in the same region as in non-amputees, but this is the first demonstration that the hand muscles are actually represented in the brain. "We can see the brain directly activating the new transplanted muscles," says Sirigu.

In both patients, the left hand was quicker to get this space back – and regain movement – than the right. In one case, the left hand re-acquired a significant "presence" in the brain after 10 months; the right hand took 26 months.

One explanation, say the researchers, is the varying flexibility of the brain regions responsible for each hand.

Amputees waiting for a transplant should still use prosthetic limbs, though. Before the Връзкаtransplant, both patients had prosthetics, which Sirigu believes helped to keep the original brain representation of the hand alive. source


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