Monthly Archives: June 2013

The geometry of baking with Alex Bellos and Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories

Alex Bellos has written some of my* favourite posts at the UK’s Guardian science blogs (for example, my Dec. 18,2012 posting about Bellos’ discussion of the math genius Ramanujan and my Oct. 17, 2012 posting about Bellos’ exploration of mathematics as a spiritual practice in Japan). Earlier this week in a June 26, 2013 posting Bellos wrote about a ‘new craze’, edible mathematics,  in a way that makes me wish I could revisit grade 10 geometry but with a good teacher this time (Note: Links have been removed),

When you slice a cone the surface produced is either a circle, an ellipse, a parabola or a hyperbola.

These curves are known as the conic sections.

And when you slice a scone in the shape of a cone, you get a sconic section – the latest craze in edible mathematics, a vibrant new culinary field.

On their fabulous website, the folk at Evil Mad Scientist provide a step-by-step guide to baking the sconic sections.

Here’s a sconic section image from the June 25, 2013 ‘Sconic sections’ posting by Lenore on the Evil Mad Scientist website,

To highlight the shapes even further, you can color in the cut surfaces with your favorite scone topping. Here, raspberry preserves show off a hyperbolic cut. [downloaded from http://www.evilmadscientist.com/2013/sconic-sections/]

To highlight the shapes even further, you can color in the cut surfaces with your favorite scone topping. Here, raspberry preserves show off a hyperbolic cut. [downloaded from http://www.evilmadscientist.com/2013/sconic-sections/]

Bellos highlights other edible mathematics projects including Maths on Toast and Dashing Bean but since I’ve always loved Escher I’m going to feature one of the other projects Bellos mentions, George Hart and his Möbius bagel,

After being cut, the two halves can be moved but are still linked together, each passing through the hole of the other.   (So when you buy your bagels, pick ones with the biggest holes.) [downloaded from http://georgehart.com/bagel/bagel.html]

After being cut, the two halves can be moved but are still linked together, each passing through
the hole of the other. (So when you buy your bagels, pick ones with the biggest holes.) [downloaded from http://georgehart.com/bagel/bagel.html]

Hart is serious about his Möbius bagel, from the bagel posting (Note: A link has been removed),

It is much more fun to put cream cheese on these bagels than on an ordinary bagel. In additional to
the intellectual stimulation, you get more cream cheese, because there is slightly more surface area.

Topology problem: Modify the cut so the cutting surface is a one-twist Mobius strip.
(You can still get cream cheese into the cut, but it doesn’t separate into two parts.)

Calculus problem: What is the ratio of the surface area of this linked cut
to the surface area of the usual planar bagel slice?

Note: I have had my students do this activity in my Computers and Sculpture class.  It is very successful if the students work in pairs, with two bagels per team.  For the first bagel, I have them draw the indicated lines with a “sharpie”.  Then they can do the second bagel without the lines. (We omit the schmear of cream cheese.) After doing this, one can better appreciate the stone carving of Keizo Ushio, who makes analogous cuts in granite to produce monumental sculpture.

Hope you enjoyed this mathematical ‘amuse-bouche’. If you want more, Bellos has included a few ‘how to’ videos, as well as, other images and links to websites in his posting.

* ‘my’ added to sentence on Aug. 12, 2015.

Distinguishing between left-handed and right-handed molecules with nanocubes

Learning to distinguish your left from your right isn’t all that easy for children. It’s also remarkably easy to lose the ability (temporarily) to make that distinction if you start experimenting with certain kinds of brain repatterning. However, the distinctions are important not only in daily life but in biology too according to a June 26, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

In chemical reactions, left and right can make a big difference. A “left-handed” molecule of a particular chemical composition could be an effective drug, while its mirror-image “right-handed” counterpart could be completely inactive. That’s because, in biology, “left” and “right” molecular designs are crucial: Living organisms are made only from left-handed amino acids. So telling the two apart is important—but difficult.

Now, a team of scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory and Ohio University has developed a new, simpler way to discern molecular handedness, known as chirality.

The June 26, 2013 Brookhaven National Laboratory news release, which originated the news item, describes the new technique for distinguishing left- from right-handed molecules,

They used gold-and-silver cubic nanoparticles to amplify the difference in left- and right-handed molecules’ response to a particular kind of light. The study, described in the journal NanoLetters, provides the basis for a new way to probe the effects of handedness in molecular interactions with unprecedented sensitivity.

The scientists knew that left- and right-handed chiral molecules would interact differently with “circularly polarized” light—where the direction of the electrical field rotates around the axis of the beam. This idea is similar to the way polarized sunglasses filter out reflected glare unlike ordinary lenses.

Other scientists have detected this difference, called “circular dichroism,” in organic molecules’ spectroscopic “fingerprints”—detailed maps of the wavelengths of light absorbed or reflected by the sample. But for most chiral biomolecules and many organic molecules, this “CD” signal is in the ultraviolet range of the electromagnetic spectrum, and the signal is often weak. The tests thus require significant amounts of material at impractically high concentrations.

The team was encouraged they might find a way to enhance the signal by recent experiments showing that coupling certain molecules with metallic nanoparticles could greatly increase their response to light. Theoretical work even suggested that these so-called plasmonic particles—which induce a collective oscillation of the material’s conductive electrons, leading to stronger absorption of a particular wavelength—could bump the signal into the visible light portion of the spectroscopic fingerprint, where it would be easier to measure.

The group experimented with different shapes and compositions of nanoparticles, and found that cubes with a gold center surrounded by a silver shell are not only able to show a chiral optical signal in the near-visible range, but even more striking, were effective signal amplifiers. For their test biomolecule, they used synthetic strands of DNA—a molecule they were familiar with using as “glue” for sticking nanoparticles together.

When DNA was attached to the silver-coated nanocubes, the signal was approximately 100 times stronger than it was for free DNA in the solution. That is, the cubic nanoparticles allowed the scientists to detect the optical signal from the chiral molecules (making them “visible”) at 100 times lower concentrations.

The observed amplification of the circular dichroism signal is a consequence of the interaction between the plasmonic particles and the “exciton,” or energy absorbing, electrons within the DNA-nanocube complex, the scientists explained.

“This research could serve as a promising platform for ultrasensitive sensing of chiral molecules and their transformations in synthetic, biomedical, and pharmaceutical applications,” Lu [Fang Lu, the first author on the paper] said.

“In addition,” said Gang [Oleg Gang, a researcher at Brookhaven’s Center for Functional Nanomaterials and lead author on the paper], “our approach offers a way to fabricate, via self-assembly, discrete plasmonic nano-objects with a chiral optical response from structurally non-chiral nano-components. These chiral plasmonic objects could greatly enhance the design of metamaterials and nano-optics for applications in energy harvesting and optical telecommunications.”

I last mentioned chirality in the context of work being done with controlling the chirality of carbon nanotubes at Finland’s Aalto University in an April 30 , 2013 posting.

Here’s a link to and a citation for the paper published by the Brookhaven National Laboratory and Ohio University,

Discrete Nanocubes as Plasmonic Reporters of Molecular Chirality by Fang Lu, Ye Tian, Mingzhao Liu, Dong Su, Hui Zhang, Alexander O. Govorov, and Oleg Gang. Nano Lett., Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/nl401107g Publication Date (Web): June 18, 2013
Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Human Bionic Project; amputations, prosthetics. and disabilities

Sydney Brownstone’s June 26, 2013 article about The Human Bionic Project  for Fast Company touches on human tragedy and the ways in which we attempt to cope by focusing on researcher David Sengeh’s work (Note: Links have been removed),

In the Iraq and Afghanistan wars alone, nearly 1,600 American soldiers have woken up without a limb. Fifteen survivors of the Boston marathon bombings are new amputees. And in Sierra Leone, where MIT graduate student David Sengeh is from, brutal tactics during the country’s 11-year civil war resulted in somewhere between 4,000 and 10,000 amputations in a country of less than 6 million people.

Many amputees go through the costly, lengthy process of transitioning to prosthetics, but it’s difficult even for prosthetic research specialists to gather information about the replacement parts outside their narrow fields. That’s part of the reason why, in December of last year, Sengeh and a research team began developing an interactive Inspector Gadget–a repository of all the FDA-approved [US Food and Drug Administration] replacement parts they could find.

So far, the Human Bionic Project has between 40 and 50 points of reference on its corporeal map–everything from artificial hearts to bionic jaws. In addition to photos and descriptions, the team will soon be looking to source videos of prosthetics in action from the public. Sengeh also hopes to integrate a timeline, tracking bionic parts throughout history, from the bionic toes of Ancient Egypt to the 3-D printed fingers of modern times.

“In [Haitian and Sierra Leonian] Creole, the word for disabled, like an amputee, is ‘scrap,'” Sengeh said. “I wanted to change that, because I know that we can get full functionality and become able-bodied.”

Do read Brownstone’s article as I haven’t, by any means, excerpted all the interesting bits.

There’s also more at The Human Bionic Project. Here’s a description (or manifesto) from the home page,

The Human Bionic Project begs for the fundamental redefinition of disability, illness, and disease as we have known it throughout history. It dares us to imagine the seamless interaction between the human being and machines. This interactive learning platform enables the user to visualize and learn about the comprehensive advances in human repair and enhancement that can be achieved with current technology. We can also wonder about what the human being will look like by the 22nd Century (year 2100) based on cutting edge advances in science and technology — more specifically in the fields of biomechanics, and electronics.

The Human Bionic Project serves as a call to action for technologists all around the world to think about the design of bionics in a fundamentally new way; how can we engineer all bionic elements for the human body using a similar protocol and architecture? Could we have the behaviour of the bionic knee be in sync with that of the bionic ankle of an above-knee amputee? How can we design a bionic eye that sees beyond what the biological eye can observe and use that information to help humans in critical situations? We have to imagine bionics not as singular units developed to replace or augment human parts but rather as part of a human-bionic system aimed at redefining what it means to be human.

Some of the ideas presented are already products used today, while others are prototypes explored by various research laboratories and inquisitive humans around the world. The works presented here are not ours and are publicly available. We have credited all the authors who are leading these extraordinary research initiatives.

You can find more about prosthetics, etc. on the ‘Inspector Gadget‘ page (it features an outline of a human body highlighted with red dots (click on a red dot to get details about prosthetics and other forms of augmentation). I don’t find this to be an especially friendly or intuitive interface. I think this is an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) student project and I find MIT tends to favour minimalism on its institutional and student websites. Still, there’s some fascinating information if you care to persist.

Here are more details about the folks and the funding supporting The Human Bionic Project (from the bottom of the home  page),

A project by David Moinina Sengeh. Collaborator: Reza Naeeni. Web development: Yannik Messerli. Undergraduate research assistant: Nicholas Fine. Funded by The Other Festival at MIT Media Lab (2013). Follow us on twitter: @humanbionicproj. …

I last mentioned human enhancement/augmentation in my June 17, 2013 commentary on You Are Very Star, a transmedia theatre experience taking place in Vancouver until June 29, 2013. I have written many times on the topic of human enhancement including a May 2, 2013 posting about a bionic ear; a Feb. 15, 2013 posting about a bionic eye; and a Jan. 30, 2013 posting about a BBC documentary on building a bionic man, amongst others.

You probably can’t poison yourself by eating too many nanoparticles

Researchers, Ingrid Bergin in the Unit for Laboratory Animal Medicine, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Frank Witzmann in the Department of Cellular and Integrative Physiology, at Indiana University School of Medicine, in Indianapolis, have stated that ingesting food and beverage (translated by me from the more scientific description) with nanoparticles (at today’s current levels) is unlikely to prove toxic. A June 26, 2013 Inderscience news release on EurekAlert describes the researchers’ research and their conclusions,

Writing in a forthcoming issue of the International Journal of Biomedical Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, researchers have compared existing laboratory and experimental animal studies pertaining to the toxicity of nanoparticles most likely to be intentionally or accidentally ingested. Based on their review, the researchers determined ingestion of nanoparticles at likely exposure levels is unlikely to cause health problems, at least with respect to acute toxicity. Furthermore, in vitro laboratory testing, which often shows toxicity at a cellular level, does not correspond well with in vivo testing, which tends to show less adverse effects.

Ingrid Bergin in the Unit for Laboratory Animal Medicine, at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Frank Witzmann in the Department of Cellular and Integrative Physiology, at Indiana University School of Medicine, in Indianapolis, explain that the use of particles that are in the nano size range (from 1 billionth to 100 billionths of a meter in diameter, 1-100 nm, other thereabouts) are finding applications in consumer products and medicine. These include particles such as nano-silver, which is increasingly used in consumer products and dietary supplements for its purported antimicrobial properties. Nanoparticles can have some intriguing and useful properties because they do not necessarily behave in the same chemical and physical ways as non-nanoparticle versions of the same material.

Nanoparticles are now used as natural flavor enhancers in the form of liposomes and related materials, food pigments and in some so-called “health supplements”. They are also used in antibacterial toothbrushes coated with silver nanoparticles, for instance in food and drink containers and in hygienic infant feeding equipment. They are also used to carry pharmaceuticals to specific disease sites in the body to reduce side effects. Nanoparticles actually encompass a very wide range of materials from pure metals and alloys, to metal oxide nanoparticles, and carbon-based and plastic nanoparticles. Because of their increasing utilization in consumer products, there has been concern over whether these small scale materials could have unique toxicity effects when compared to more traditional versions of the same materials.

Difficulties in assessing the health risks of nanoparticles include the fact that particles of differing materials and shapes can have different properties. Furthermore, the route of exposure (e.g. ingestion vs. inhalation) affects the likelihood of toxicity. The U.S. researchers evaluated the current literature specifically with respect to toxicity of ingested nanoparticles. They point out that, in addition to intentional ingestion as with dietary supplements, unintentional ingestion can occur due to nanoparticle presence in water or as a breakdown product from coated consumer goods. Inhaled nanoparticles also represent an ingestion hazard since they are coughed up, swallowed, and eliminated through the intestinal tract.

Based on their review, the team concludes that, “Ingested nanoparticles appear unlikely to have acute or severe toxic effects at typical levels of exposure.” Nevertheless, they add that the current literature is inadequate to assess whether nanoparticles can accumulate in tissues and have long-term effects or whether they might cause subtle alterations in gut microbial populations. The researchers stress that better methods are needed for correlating particle concentrations used for cell-based assessment of toxicity with the actual likely exposure levels to body cells. Such methods may lead to better predictive value for laboratory in vitro testing, which currently over-predicts toxicity of ingested nanoparticles as compared to in vivo testing.

The researchers focused specifically on ingestion via the gastrointestinal tract which I take to mean that they focused largely on nanoparticles in food (eaten) and liquid (swallowed).

Here’s a link to and citation for the paper,

Nanoparticle toxicity by the gastrointestinal route: evidence and knowledge gaps by Ingrid L. Bergin; Frank A. Witzmann.  Int. J. of Biomedical Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, 2013 Vol.3, No.1/2, pp.163 – 210.  DOI: 10.1504/IJBNN.2013.054515

I think the abstract further helps to understand the research focus,

The increasing interest in nanoparticles for advanced technologies, consumer products, and biomedical applications has led to great excitement about potential benefits but also concern over the potential for adverse human health effects. The gastrointestinal tract represents a likely route of entry for many nanomaterials, both directly through intentional ingestion or indirectly via nanoparticle dissolution from food containers or by secondary ingestion of inhaled particles. Additionally, increased utilisation of nanoparticles may lead to increased environmental contamination and unintentional ingestion via water, food animals, or fish. The gastrointestinal tract is a site of complex, symbiotic interactions between host cells and the resident microbiome. Accordingly, evaluation of nanoparticles must take into consideration not only absorption and extraintestinal organ accumulation but also the potential for altered gut microbes and the effects of this perturbation on the host. The existing literature was evaluated for evidence of toxicity based on these considerations. Focus was placed on three categories of nanomaterials: nanometals and metal oxides, carbon-based nanoparticles, and polymer/dendrimers with emphasis on those particles of greatest relevance to gastrointestinal exposures.

The article is behind a paywall.

I last mentioned Frank Witzmann here in a May 8, 2013 posting titled, US multicenter (Nano GO Consortium) study of engineered nanomaterial toxicology.

Canadian and Japanese researchers create new technique for using iron nanoparticles in greener hydrogenation process

McGill University’s Audrey Moores and her team’s latest green chemistry work with researchers at RIKEN (The Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, Wako, Japan) and the Institute for Molecular Science (Okazaki, Japan) is featured in a June 27, 2013 news item on Nanowerk,

Researchers from McGill University, RIKEN (The Institute of Physical and Chemical Research, Wako, Japan) and the Institute for Molecular Science (Okazaki, Japan) have discovered a way to make the widely used chemical process of hydrogenation more environmentally friendly – and less expensive.

Hydrogenation is a chemical process used in a wide range of industrial applications, from food products, such as margarine, to petrochemicals and pharmaceuticals. The process typically involves the use of heavy metals, such as palladium or platinum, to catalyze the chemical reaction. While these metals are very efficient catalysts, they are also non-renewable, costly, and subject to sharp price fluctuations on international markets.

Because these metals are also toxic, even in small quantities, they also raise environmental and safety concerns. Pharmaceutical companies, for example, must use expensive purification methods to limit residual levels of these elements in pharmaceutical products. Iron, by contrast, is both naturally abundant and far less toxic than heavy metals.

Previous work by other researchers has shown that iron nanoparticles — tiny pieces of metallic iron — can be used to activate the hydrogenation reaction. Iron, however, has a well-known drawback: it rusts in the presence of oxygen or water. When rusted, iron nanoparticles stop acting as hydrogenation catalysts. This problem, which occurs with so much as trace quantities of water, has prevented iron nanoparticles from being used in industry.

The June 27, 2013 McGill University news release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, provides details about the new technique,

The key to this new method is to produce the particles directly inside a polymer matrix, composed of amphiphilic polymers based on polystyrene and polyethylene glycol. The polymer acts as a wrapping film that protects the iron surface from rusting in the presence of water, while allowing the reactants to reach the water and react.

This innovation enabled the researchers to use iron nanoparticles as catalyst in a flow system, raising the possibility that iron could be used to replace platinum-series metals for hydrogenation under industrial conditions.

“Our research is now focused on achieving a better understanding of how the polymers are protecting the surface of the iron from water, while at the same time allowing the iron to interact with the substrate,” says Audrey Moores, an assistant professor of chemistry at McGill and co-corresponding author of the paper.

“The approach we have developed through this collaboration could lead to more sustainable industrial processes,” says Prof. Uozumi [Prof. Yasuhiro Uozumi of Riken]. “This technique provides a system in which the reaction can happen over and over with the same small amount of a catalytic material, and it enables it to take place in almost pure water — the green solvent par excellence.”

I last wrote about greener chemistry and iron nanoparticles in a March 28, 2012 posting concerning some work at the University of Toronto while the last time McGill, green chemistry, and Audrey Moores were mentioned here was in a Jan. 10, 2011 posting concerning ‘nanomagnetics.

For those who are interested in this latest work from McGill, here’s a link to and a citation for the published paper,

Highly efficient iron(0) nanoparticle-catalyzed hydrogenation in water in flow by Reuben Hudson, Go Hamasaka, Takao Osako, Yoichi M. A. Yamada, Chao-Jun Li, Yasuhiro Uozumi, and Audrey Moores.
Green Chem., 2013, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C3GC40789F

First published online 27 Jun 2013

This paper is behind a paywall.

Vaccines that are pure gold give patients breathing space

I exaggerated a little bit, the vaccine isn’t pure gold but it does have gold nanoparticles which mimic a virus. From the June 25, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists in the US have developed a novel vaccination method that uses tiny gold particles to mimic a virus and carry specific proteins to the body’s specialist immune cells.

The technique differs from the traditional approach of using dead or inactive viruses as a vaccine and was demonstrated in the lab using a specific protein that sits on the surface of the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).

The results have been published today, 26 June [2013], in IOP Publishing’s journal Nanotechnology by a team of researchers from Vanderbilt University.

The June 26, 2013 IOP [Institute of Physics] Publishing news release (perhaps the journal publishers posted their news release after it was published elsewhere?), which originated the news item, provides more details about RSV and the technique,

RSV is the leading viral cause of lower respiration tract infections, causing several hundred thousand deaths and an estimated 65 million infections a year, mainly in children and the elderly.

The detrimental effects of RSV come, in part, from a specific protein, called the F protein, which coats the surface of the virus. The protein enables the virus to enter into the cytoplasm of cells and also causes cells to stick together, making the virus harder to eliminate.

The body’s natural defence to RSV is therefore directed at the F protein; however, up until now, researchers have had difficulty creating a vaccine that delivers the F protein to the specialised immune cells in the body. If successful, the F protein could trigger an immune response which the body could ‘remember’ if a subject became infected with the real virus.

In this study the researchers created exceptionally small gold nanorods, just 21 nanometres wide and 57 nanometres long, which were almost exactly the same shape and size as the virus itself. The gold nanorods were successfully coated with the RSV F proteins and were bonded strongly thanks to the unique physical and chemical properties of the nanorods themselves.

The researchers then tested the ability of the gold nanorods to deliver the F protein to specific immune cells, known as dendritic cells, which were taken from adult blood samples.

Dendritic cells function as processing cells in the immune system, taking the important information from a virus, such as the F protein, and presenting it to cells that can perform an action against them―the T cells are just one example of a cell that can take action.

Once the F protein-coated nanorods were added to a sample of dendritic cells, the researchers analysed the proliferation of T cells as a proxy for an immune response. They found that the protein-coated nanorods caused the T cells to proliferate significantly more compared to non-coated nanorods and just the F protein alone.

Not only did this prove that the coated-nanorods were capable of mimicking the virus and stimulating an immune response, it also showed that they were not toxic to human cells, offering significant safety advantages and increasing their potential as a real-life human vaccine.

Lead author of the study, Professor James Crowe, said: “A vaccine for RSV, which is the major cause of viral pneumonia in children, is sorely needed. This study shows that we have developed methods for putting RSV F protein into exceptionally small particles and presenting it to immune cells in a format that physically mimics the virus. Furthermore, the particles themselves are not infectious.”

Due to the versatility of the gold nanorods, Professor Crowe believes that their potential use is not limited to RSV.

“This platform could be used to develop experimental vaccines for virtually any virus, and in fact other larger microbes such as bacteria and fungi.

“The studies we performed showed that the candidate vaccines stimulated human immune cells when they were interacted in the lab. The next steps to testing would be to test whether or not the vaccines work in vivo” Professor Crowe continued.

I look forward to hearing more about this new vaccine as they continue with the testing. Meanwhile, here’s a link to and a citation for the latest published work,

Gold nanorod vaccine for respiratory syncytial virus by John W Stone, Natalie J Thornburg, David L Blum, Sam J Kuhn, David W Wright, and James E Crowe Jr. Nanotechnology Volume 24 Number 29 or Nanotechnology 24 295102 doi:10.1088/0957-4484/24/29/295102

The article is open access.

Steering cockroaches in the lab and in your backyard—cutting edge neuroscience

In this piece I’m mashing together two items, both involving cockroaches and neuroscience and, in one case, disaster recovery. The first item concerns research at the North Carolina State University where video game techniques are being used to control cockroaches. From the June 25, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

North Carolina State University researchers are using video game technology to remotely control cockroaches on autopilot, with a computer steering the cockroach through a controlled environment. The researchers are using the technology to track how roaches respond to the remote control, with the goal of developing ways that roaches on autopilot can be used to map dynamic environments — such as collapsed buildings.

The researchers have incorporated Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect system into an electronic interface developed at NC State that can remotely control cockroaches. The researchers plug in a digitally plotted path for the roach, and use Kinect to identify and track the insect’s progress. The program then uses the Kinect tracking data to automatically steer the roach along the desired path.

The June 25, 2013 North Carolina State University news release, which originated the news item, reveals more details,

The program also uses Kinect to collect data on how the roaches respond to the electrical impulses from the remote-control interface. This data will help the researchers fine-tune the steering parameters needed to control the roaches more precisely.

“Our goal is to be able to guide these roaches as efficiently as possible, and our work with Kinect is helping us do that,” says Dr. Alper Bozkurt, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at NC State and co-author of a paper on the work.

“We want to build on this program, incorporating mapping and radio frequency techniques that will allow us to use a small group of cockroaches to explore and map disaster sites,” Bozkurt says. “The autopilot program would control the roaches, sending them on the most efficient routes to provide rescuers with a comprehensive view of the situation.”

The roaches would also be equipped with sensors, such as microphones, to detect survivors in collapsed buildings or other disaster areas. “We may even be able to attach small speakers, which would allow rescuers to communicate with anyone who is trapped,” Bozkurt says.

Bozkurt’s team had previously developed the technology that would allow users to steer cockroaches remotely, but the use of Kinect to develop an autopilot program and track the precise response of roaches to electrical impulses is new.

The interface that controls the roach is wired to the roach’s antennae and cerci. The cerci are sensory organs on the roach’s abdomen, which are normally used to detect movement in the air that could indicate a predator is approaching – causing the roach to scurry away. But the researchers use the wires attached to the cerci to spur the roach into motion. The wires attached to the antennae send small charges that trick the roach into thinking the antennae are in contact with a barrier and steering them in the opposite direction.

Meanwhile for those of us without laboratories, there’s the RoboRoach Kickstarter project,

Our Roboroach is an innovative marriage of behavioral neuroscience and neural engineering. Cockroaches use the antennas on their head to navigate the world around them. When these antennas touch a wall, the cockroach turns away from the wall. The antenna of a cockroach contains neurons that are sensitive to touch and smell.

The backpack we invented communicates directly to the [cockroach’s] neurons via small electrical pulses. The cockroach undergoes a short surgery (under anesthesia) in which wires are placed inside the antenna. Once it recovers, a backpack is temporarily placed on its back.

When you send the command from your mobile phone, the backpack sends pulses to the antenna, which causes the neurons to fire, which causes the roach to think there is a wall on one side. The result? The roach turns! Microstimulation is the same neurotechnology that is used to treat Parkinson’s Disease and is also used in Cochlear Implants.

This product is not a toy, but a tool to learn about how our brains work. Using the RoboRoach, you will be able to discover a number of interesting things about nature:

Neural control of Behaviour: First and foremost you will see in real-time how the brain respondes to sensory stimuli.

Learning and Memory: After a few minutes the cockroach will stop responding to the RoboRaoch microstimulation. Why? The brain learns and adapts. That is what brains are designed to do. You can measure the time to adaptation for various stimulation frequencies.

Adaptation and Habituation: After placing the cockroach back in its homecage, how long does it take for him to respond again? Does he adapt to the stimuli more quickly?

Stimuli Selection: What range of frequencies works for causing neurons to fire? With this tool, you will be able to select the range of stimulation to see what works best for your prep. Is it the same that is used by medical doctors stimulating human neurons? You will find out.

Effect of Randomness: For the first time ever… we will be adding a “random” mode to our stimulus patterns. We, as humans, can adapt easily to periodic noises (the hum a refrigerator can be ignored, for example). So perhaps the reason for adaptation is our stimulus is periodic. Now you can select random mode and see if the RoboRoach adapts as quickly.. or at all!

Backyard Brains (mentioned here in my March 28, 2013 posting about neurons, dance, and do-it-yourself neuroscience; another mashup), the organization initiating this Kickstarter campaign, has 13 days left to make its goal  of $10,000 (as of today, June 26, 2013 at 10:00 am PDT, the project has received $9,774 in pledges).

Pledges can range from $5 to $500 with incentives ranging from a mention on their website to delivery of RoboRoach Kits (complete with cockroaches, only within US borders).

This particular version of the RoboRoach project was introduced by Greg Gage at TEDGlobal 2103. Here’s what Karen Eng had to say about the presentation in her June 12, 2013 posting on the TED [technology, entertainment, design] blog,

Talking as fast and fervently as a circus busker, TED Fellow Greg Gage introduces the world to RoboRoach — a kit that allows you create a cockroach cyborg and control its movements via an iPhone app and “the world’s first commercially available cyborg in the history of mankind.”

“I’m a neuroscientist,” says Gage, “and that means I had to go to grad school for five years just to ask questions about the brain.” This is because the equipment involved is so expensive and complex that it’s only available in university research labs, accessible to PhD candidates and researchers. But other branches of science don’t have this problem — “You don’t have to get a PhD in astronomy to get a telescope and study the sky.”

Yet one in five of us will be diagnosed with a neurological disorder — for which we have no cures. We need more people educated in neuroscience to investigate these diseases. That’s why Gage and his partners at Backyard Brains are developing affordable tools that allow educators to teach electrophysiology from university down to the fifth grade level.

As he speaks, he and his partner, Tim Marzullo, release a large South American cockroach wearing an electronic backpack — which sends an electrical current directly into the cockroach’s antenna nerves — onto the table on stage. A line of green spikes appear, accompanied by a sound like rain on a tent or popcorn popping. “The common currency of the brain are the spikes in the neurons,” Gage explains. “These are the neurons that are inside of the antenna, but that’s also what your brain sounds like. Your thoughts, your hopes, your dreams, all encoded into these spikes. People, this is reality right here — the spikes are everything you know!” As Greg’s partner swipes his finger across his iPhone, the RoboRoach swerves left and right, sometimes erratically going in a full confused circle.

So why do this? “This is the exact same technology that’s used to treat Parkinson’s disease and make cochlear implants for deaf people. If we can get these tools into hands of kids, we can start the neurological revolution.”

After Gage’s talk, Chris Anderson asks about the ethics of using the cockroaches for these purposes. Gage explains that this is microstimulation, not a pain response — the evidence is that the roach adapts quickly to the stimulation. (In fact, some high school students have discovered that they can control the rate of adaptation in an unusual way — by playing music to the roaches over their iPods.) After the experiment, he says, the cockroaches are released to go back to do what cockroaches normally do. So don’t worry — no animals were irretrievably harmed in the making of this TED talk.

Anya Kamenetz in her June 7, 2013 article for Fast Company about the then upcoming presentation also mentions insect welfare,

Attaching the electronic “backpack” to an unwitting arthropod is not for the squeamish. You must sand down the top of the critter’s head in order to attach a plug, “Exactly like the Matrix,” says Backyard Brains cofounder Greg Gage. Once installed, the system relays electrical impulses over a Bluetooth connection from your phone to the cockroach’s brain, via its antennae. …

Gage claims that he has scientific proof that neither the surgery nor the stimulation hurts the roaches. The proof, according to Gage, is that the stimulation stops working after a little while as the roaches apparently decide to ignore it.

Kamenetz goes on to note that this project has already led to a discovery. High school students in New York City found that cockroaches did not habituate to randomized electrical signals as quickly as they did to steady signals. This discovery could have implications for treatment of diseases such as Parkinson’s.

The issue of animal use/welfare vis à vis scientific experiments is not an easy one and I can understand why Gage might be eager to dismiss any suggestions that the cockroaches are being hurt.  Given how hard it is to ignore pain, I am willing to accept Gage’s dismissal of the issue until such time as he is proven wrong. (BTW, I am curious as to how one would know if a cockroach is experiencing pain.)

I have one more thought for the road. I wonder whether the researchers at North Carolina State University are aware of the RoboRoach work and are able to integrate some of those findings into their own research (and vice versa).

Nanosafety in Europe: a proposed research strategy for 2015 – 2025

It looks like one of those ‘nanosafety’ days since earlier today I posted US NISOH (National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety) invites you to a meeting about nanomaterials and risk and now I have this June 25, 2013 news item on Nanowerk describing a European initiative,

The Finnish Insitute of Occupational Health, together with the members of the European Nanosafety Cluster, that is, over a hundred European nanosafety research experts, have produced a research strategy for the European Commission. [emphasis mine] The strategy outlines the focal points of nanomaterial safety research for the Commission’s 8th framework programme (Horizon 2020).

The document, Nanosafety in Europe 2015-2025: Towards Safe and Sustainable Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology Innovations, available for free, is over 200 pp. and it was presented, according to the June 20, 2013 Finnish Institute of Occupational Health press release, at the EuroNanoForum being held in Dublin, Ireland from June 18 – 20, 2013.  (The forum was last mentioned in my June 12, 2013 post about Ireland’s Nanoweek which is taking place concurrently [more or less]). From the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health and Safety (FIOH) June 20, 2013 press release,

The document outlines the requirements of strategic research. The focus should be on research that also aims to determine the characteristics of nanomaterials that may be biologically harmful to both people and the environment.

”The ultimate issue of the whole nano field is the safety of the materials and technologies used. One of the goals of the research is that in the future we will be able to group industrially produced nanomaterials easily and economically according to their characteristics, and that we will be able to anticipate the possible health risks of the materials to consumers and the workers who handle them,” stresses specialist research scientist Lea Pylkkänen from FIOH, who co-ordinated the work on the research strategy.

Nanotechnology is defined as a key enabling technology (KET) in the Horizon 2020 programme. It is also considered a significant field from the perspective of European competitiveness, for example.
Research strategy the product of over one hundred European researchers

FIOH produced the research strategy together with the members of the European Nanosafety Cluster, that is, over a hundred european nanosafety research experts. These represented, for example, exposure and risk assessment, molecular biology, toxicology, and material research. Finnish experts involved were from FIOH, the Universtiy of Eastern Finland, the Tampere University of Technology, the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency, and the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. If needed, the strategy can be later updated.

EU funding is crucial for Finnish nanotechnology and nanosafety research and for the existence of the Nanosafety Centre, for example.

”Domestic funding in this field is scarce: Finland does not have a single funding programme that focuses on nanoresearch. Only individual research projects occasionally receive funding from, for example, the Academy of Finland and the Finnish Work Environment Fund,” Savolainen says.

FIOH’s Nanosafety Research Centre is the leading European research centre for the safety of industrial nanoparticle safety, especially in the field of occupational safety.
Ceremonial presentation of the research programme

Research Professor Kai Savolainen will present the 220-page Nanosafety in Europe 2015-2025: Towards Safe and Sustainable Nanomaterials and Nanotechnology Innovations research strategy to the European Commission and the representatives of the Irish government on Thursday 20 June in Dublin, Ireland at the NanoSafety Cluster meeting, during the EuroNanoForum 2013 congress. Representing the Commission will be Herbert von Bose, European Commission Research DG Director, Industrial Technologies and Christos Tokamanis, Head of Unit, New Generation Products,  Directorate G – Industrial Technologies. Sharon McGuinness, Assistant Chief Executive of the Health and Safety Authority will represent the Irish government.

I’m trying to imagine the logistics involved in having more than 100 researchers collaborate (as per the excerpt from the news item).

Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to look at the report yet but if you manage to take a look at it, please do let me know what you think about it.