Nanoelectronic thread (NET) brain probes for long-term neural recording

A rendering of the ultra-flexible probe in neural tissue gives viewers a sense of the device’s tiny size and footprint in the brain. Image credit: Science Advances.

As long time readers have likely noted, I’m not a big a fan of this rush to ‘colonize’ the brain but it continues apace as a Feb. 15, 2017 news item on Nanowerk announces a new type of brain probe,

Engineering researchers at The University of Texas at Austin have designed ultra-flexible, nanoelectronic thread (NET) brain probes that can achieve more reliable long-term neural recording than existing probes and don’t elicit scar formation when implanted.

A Feb. 15, 2017 University of Texas at Austin news release, which originated the news item, provides more information about the new probes (Note: A link has been removed),

A team led by Chong Xie, an assistant professor in the Department of Biomedical Engineering in the Cockrell School of Engineering, and Lan Luan, a research scientist in the Cockrell School and the College of Natural Sciences, have developed new probes that have mechanical compliances approaching that of the brain tissue and are more than 1,000 times more flexible than other neural probes. This ultra-flexibility leads to an improved ability to reliably record and track the electrical activity of individual neurons for long periods of time. There is a growing interest in developing long-term tracking of individual neurons for neural interface applications, such as extracting neural-control signals for amputees to control high-performance prostheses. It also opens up new possibilities to follow the progression of neurovascular and neurodegenerative diseases such as stroke, Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases.

One of the problems with conventional probes is their size and mechanical stiffness; their larger dimensions and stiffer structures often cause damage around the tissue they encompass. Additionally, while it is possible for the conventional electrodes to record brain activity for months, they often provide unreliable and degrading recordings. It is also challenging for conventional electrodes to electrophysiologically track individual neurons for more than a few days.

In contrast, the UT Austin team’s electrodes are flexible enough that they comply with the microscale movements of tissue and still stay in place. The probe’s size also drastically reduces the tissue displacement, so the brain interface is more stable, and the readings are more reliable for longer periods of time. To the researchers’ knowledge, the UT Austin probe — which is as small as 10 microns at a thickness below 1 micron, and has a cross-section that is only a fraction of that of a neuron or blood capillary — is the smallest among all neural probes.

“What we did in our research is prove that we can suppress tissue reaction while maintaining a stable recording,” Xie said. “In our case, because the electrodes are very, very flexible, we don’t see any sign of brain damage — neurons stayed alive even in contact with the NET probes, glial cells remained inactive and the vasculature didn’t become leaky.”

In experiments in mouse models, the researchers found that the probe’s flexibility and size prevented the agitation of glial cells, which is the normal biological reaction to a foreign body and leads to scarring and neuronal loss.

“The most surprising part of our work is that the living brain tissue, the biological system, really doesn’t mind having an artificial device around for months,” Luan said.

The researchers also used advanced imaging techniques in collaboration with biomedical engineering professor Andrew Dunn and neuroscientists Raymond Chitwood and Jenni Siegel from the Institute for Neuroscience at UT Austin to confirm that the NET enabled neural interface did not degrade in the mouse model for over four months of experiments. The researchers plan to continue testing their probes in animal models and hope to eventually engage in clinical testing. The research received funding from the UT BRAIN seed grant program, the Department of Defense and National Institutes of Health.

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

Ultraflexible nanoelectronic probes form reliable, glial scar–free neural integration by Lan Luan, Xiaoling Wei, Zhengtuo Zhao, Jennifer J. Siegel, Ojas Potnis, Catherine A Tuppen, Shengqing Lin, Shams Kazmi, Robert A. Fowler, Stewart Holloway, Andrew K. Dunn, Raymond A. Chitwood, and Chong Xie. Science Advances  15 Feb 2017: Vol. 3, no. 2, e1601966 DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1601966

This paper is open access.

You can get more detail about the research in a Feb. 17, 2017 posting by Dexter Johnson on his Nanoclast blog (on the IEEE [International Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers] website).

Semi-living gloves as sensors

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are calling it a new ‘living material’ according to a Feb. 16, 2017 news item on Nanowerk,

Engineers and biologists at MIT have teamed up to design a new “living material” — a tough, stretchy, biocompatible sheet of hydrogel injected with live cells that are genetically programmed to light up in the presence of certain chemicals.

Researchers have found that the hydrogel’s mostly watery environment helps keep nutrients and programmed bacteria alive and active. When the bacteria reacts to a certain chemical, the bacteria are programmed to light up, as seen on the left. Courtesy of the researchers

A Feb. 15, 2017 MIT news release, which originated the news item, provides more information about this work,

In a paper published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the researchers demonstrate the new material’s potential for sensing chemicals, both in the environment and in the human body.

The team fabricated various wearable sensors from the cell-infused hydrogel, including a rubber glove with fingertips that glow after touching a chemically contaminated surface, and bandages that light up when pressed against chemicals on a person’s skin.

Xuanhe Zhao, the Robert N. Noyce Career Development associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT, says the group’s living material design may be adapted to sense other chemicals and contaminants, for uses ranging from crime scene investigation and forensic science, to pollution monitoring and medical diagnostics.

“With this design, people can put different types of bacteria in these devices to indicate toxins in the environment, or disease on the skin,” says Timothy Lu, associate professor of biological engineering and of electrical engineering and computer science. “We’re demonstrating the potential for living materials and devices.”

The paper’s co-authors are graduate students Xinyue Liu, Tzu-Chieh Tang, Eleonore Tham, Hyunwoo Yuk, and Shaoting Lin.

Infusing life in materials

Lu and his colleagues in MIT’s Synthetic Biology Group specialize in creating biological circuits, genetically reprogramming the biological parts in living cells such as E. coli to work together in sequence, much like logic steps in an electrical circuit. In this way, scientists can reengineer living cells to carry out specific functions, including the ability to sense and signal the presence of viruses and toxins.

However, many of these newly programmed cells have only been demonstrated in situ, within Petri dishes, where scientists can carefully control the nutrient levels necessary to keep the cells alive and active — an environment that has proven extremely difficult to replicate in synthetic materials.

“The challenge to making living materials is how to maintain those living cells, to make them viable and functional in the device,” Lu says. “They require humidity, nutrients, and some require oxygen. The second challenge is how to prevent them from escaping from the material.”

To get around these roadblocks, others have used freeze-dried chemical extracts from genetically engineered cells, incorporating them into paper to create low-cost, virus-detecting diagnostic strips. But extracts, Lu says, are not the same as living cells, which can maintain their functionality over a longer period of time and may have higher sensitivity for detecting pathogens.

Other groups have seeded heart muscle cells onto thin rubber films to make soft, “living” actuators, or robots. When bent repeatedly, however, these films can crack, allowing the live cells to leak out.

A lively host

Zhao’s group in MIT’s Soft Active Materials Laboratory has developed a material that may be ideal for hosting living cells. For the past few years, his team has come up with various formulations of hydrogel — a tough, highly stretchable, biocompatible material made from a mix of polymer and water. Their latest designs have contained up to 95 percent water, providing an environment which Zhao and Lu recognized might be suitable for sustaining living cells. The material also resists cracking even when repeatedly stretched and pulled — a property that could help contain cells within the material.

The two groups teamed up to integrate Lu’s genetically programmed bacterial cells into Zhao’s sheets of hydrogel material. They first fabricated layers of hydrogel and patterned narrow channels within the layers using 3-D printing and micromolding techniques. They fused the hydrogel to a layer of elastomer, or rubber, that is porous enough to let in oxygen. They then injected E. coli cells into the hydrogel’s channels. The cells were programmed to fluoresce, or light up, when in contact with certain chemicals that pass through the hydrogel, in this case a natural compound known as DAPG (2,4-diacetylphloroglucinol).

The researchers then soaked the hydrogel/elastomer material in a bath of nutrients which infused throughout the hydrogel and helped to keep the bacterial cells alive and active for several days.

To demonstrate the material’s potential uses, the researchers first fabricated a sheet of the material with four separate, narrow channels, each containing a type of bacteria engineered to glow green in response to a different chemical compound. They found each channel reliably lit up when exposed to its respective chemical.

Next, the team fashioned the material into a bandage, or “living patch,” patterned with channels containing bacteria sensitive to rhamnose, a naturally occurring sugar. The researchers swabbed a volunteer’s wrist with a cotton ball soaked in rhamnose, then applied the hydrogel patch, which instantly lit up in response to the chemical.

Finally, the researchers fabricated a hydrogel/elastomer glove whose fingertips contained swirl-like channels, each of which they filled with different chemical-sensing bacterial cells. Each fingertip glowed in response to picking up a cotton ball soaked with a respective compound.

The group has also developed a theoretical model to help guide others in designing similar living materials and devices.

“The model helps us to design living devices more efficiently,” Zhao says. “It tells you things like the thickness of the hydrogel layer you should use, the distance between channels, how to pattern the channels, and how much bacteria to use.”

Ultimately, Zhao envisions products made from living materials, such as gloves and rubber soles lined with chemical-sensing hydrogel, or bandages, patches, and even clothing that may detect signs of infection or disease.

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

Stretchable living materials and devices with hydrogel–elastomer hybrids hosting programmed cells by Xinyue Liu, Tzu-Chieh Tang, Eléonore Tham, Hyunwoo Yuk, Shaoting Lin, Timothy K. Lu, and Xuanhe Zhao. PNAS February 15, 2017 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1618307114 Published online before print February 15, 2017

This paper appears to be open access.

Brown recluse spider, one of the world’s most venomous spiders, shows off unique spinning technique

Caption: American Brown Recluse Spider is pictured. Credit: Oxford University

According to scientists from Oxford University this deadly spider could teach us a thing or two about strength. From a Feb. 15, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily,

Brown recluse spiders use a unique micro looping technique to make their threads stronger than that of any other spider, a newly published UK-US collaboration has discovered.

One of the most feared and venomous arachnids in the world, the American brown recluse spider has long been known for its signature necro-toxic venom, as well as its unusual silk. Now, new research offers an explanation for how the spider is able to make its silk uncommonly strong.

Researchers suggest that if applied to synthetic materials, the technique could inspire scientific developments and improve impact absorbing structures used in space travel.

The study, published in the journal Material Horizons, was produced by scientists from Oxford University’s Department of Zoology, together with a team from the Applied Science Department at Virginia’s College of William & Mary. Their surveillance of the brown recluse spider’s spinning behaviour shows how, and to what extent, the spider manages to strengthen the silk it makes.

A Feb. 15, 2017 University of Oxford press release, which originated the news item,  provides more detail about the research,

From observing the arachnid, the team discovered that unlike other spiders, who produce round ribbons of thread, recluse silk is thin and flat. This structural difference is key to the thread’s strength, providing the flexibility needed to prevent premature breakage and withstand the knots created during spinning which give each strand additional strength.

Professor Hannes Schniepp from William & Mary explains: “The theory of knots adding strength is well proven. But adding loops to synthetic filaments always seems to lead to premature fibre failure. Observation of the recluse spider provided the breakthrough solution; unlike all spiders its silk is not round, but a thin, nano-scale flat ribbon. The ribbon shape adds the flexibility needed to prevent premature failure, so that all the microloops can provide additional strength to the strand.”

By using computer simulations to apply this technique to synthetic fibres, the team were able to test and prove that adding even a single loop significantly enhances the strength of the material.

William & Mary PhD student Sean Koebley adds: “We were able to prove that adding even a single loop significantly enhances the toughness of a simple synthetic sticky tape. Our observations open the door to new fibre technology inspired by the brown recluse.”

Speaking on how the recluse’s technique could be applied more broadly in the future, Professor Fritz Vollrath, of the Department of Zoology at Oxford University, expands: “Computer simulations demonstrate that fibres with many loops would be much, much tougher than those without loops. This right away suggests possible applications. For example carbon filaments could be looped to make them less brittle, and thus allow their use in novel impact absorbing structures. One example would be spider-like webs of carbon-filaments floating in outer space, to capture the drifting space debris that endangers astronaut lives’ and satellite integrity.”

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

Toughness-enhancing metastructure in the recluse spider’s looped ribbon silk by
S. R. Koebley, F. Vollrath, and H. C. Schniepp. Mater. Horiz., 2017, Advance Article DOI: 10.1039/C6MH00473C First published online 15 Feb 2017

This paper is open access although you may need to register with the Royal Society of Chemistry’s publishing site to get access.

Why do objects feel solid when atoms are mostly empty space?

Roger Barlow (professor at University of Huddersfield, UK) has written a Feb. 16, 2017 essay for The Conversation explaining why objects feel solid (Note: A link has been removed),

Chemist John Dalton proposed the theory that all matter and objects are made up of particles called atoms, and this is still accepted by the scientific community, almost two centuries later. Each of these atoms is each made up of an incredibly small nucleus and even smaller electrons, which move around at quite a distance from the centre.

If you imagine a table that is a billion times larger, its atoms would be the size of melons. But even so, the nucleus at the centre would still be far too small to see and so would the electrons as they dance around it. So why don’t our fingers just pass through atoms, and why doesn’t light get through the gaps?

To explain why we must look at the electrons. Unfortunately, much of what we are taught at school is simplified – electrons do not orbit the centre of an atom like planets around the sun, like you may have been taught. Instead, think of electrons like a swarm of bees or birds, where the individual motions are too fast to track, but you still see the shape of the overall swarm.

In fact, electrons dance – there is no better word for it. …

Electrons are like a swarm of birds. John Holmes/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA

Here’s one more excerpt from Barlow’s essay,

So why does a table also feel solid? Many websites will tell you that this is due to the repulsion – that two negatively charged things must repel each other. But this is wrong, and shows you should never trust some things on the internet. It feels solid because of the dancing electrons.

Do enjoy!

Making wearable technology more comfortable—with green tea for squishy supercapacitor

Researchers in India have designed a new type of wearable technology based on green team. From a Feb. 15, 2017 news item on,

Wearable electronics are here—the most prominent versions are sold in the form of watches or sports bands. But soon, more comfortable products could become available in softer materials made in part with an unexpected ingredient: green tea. Researchers report in ACS’ The Journal of Physical Chemistry C a new flexible and compact rechargeable energy storage device for wearable electronics that is infused with green tea polyphenols.

A Feb. 15, 2017 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release, (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides a little more information about the squishy supercapacitors (Note: Links have been removed),

Powering soft wearable electronics with a long-lasting source of energy remains a big challenge. Supercapacitors could potentially fill this role — they meet the power requirements, and can rapidly charge and discharge many times. But most supercapacitors are rigid, and the compressible supercapacitors developed so far have run into roadblocks. They have been made with carbon-coated polymer sponges, but the coating material tends to bunch up and compromise performance. Guruswamy Kumaraswamy, Kothandam Krishnamoorthy and colleagues wanted to take a different approach.

The researchers prepared polymer gels in green tea extract, which infuses the gel with polyphenols. The polyphenols converted a silver nitrate solution into a uniform coating of silver nanoparticles. Thin layers of conducting gold and poly(3,4-ethylenedioxythiophene) were then applied. And the resulting supercapacitor demonstrated power and energy densities of 2,715 watts per kilogram and 22 watt-hours per kilogram — enough to operate a heart rate monitor, LEDs or a Bluetooth module. The researchers tested the device’s durability and found that it performed well even after being compressed more than 100 times.

The authors acknowledge funding from the University Grants Commission of India, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (India) and the Board of Research in Nuclear Sciences (India).

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

Elastic Compressible Energy Storage Devices from Ice Templated Polymer Gels treated with Polyphenols by Chayanika Das, Soumyajyoti Chatterjee, Guruswamy Kumaraswamy, and Kothandam Krishnamoorthy. J. Phys. Chem. C, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/acs.jpcc.6b12822 Publication Date (Web): January 26, 2017

Copyright © 2017 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Making graphene cheaply by using soybeans

One of the issues with new materials is being able to produce them in a commercially viable fashion and it seems that researchers in Australia may have helped  to do that with graphene. From a Feb. 15, 2017 news item on,

A breakthrough by CSIRO-led [Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation] scientists has made the world’s strongest material more commercially viable, thanks to the humble soybean.

From a Feb. 15, (?) 2017 CSIRO press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, expands on the theme (Note: A link has been removed),

Graphene is a carbon material that is one atom thick.

Its thin composition and high conductivity means it is used in applications ranging from miniaturised electronics to biomedical devices.

These properties also enable thinner wire connections; providing extensive benefits for computers, solar panels, batteries, sensors and other devices.

Until now, the high cost of graphene production has been the major roadblock in its commercialisation.

Previously, graphene was grown in a highly-controlled environment with explosive compressed gases, requiring long hours of operation at high temperatures and extensive vacuum processing.

CSIRO scientists have developed a novel “GraphAir” technology which eliminates the need for such a highly-controlled environment.

The technology grows graphene film in ambient air with a natural precursor, making its production faster and simpler.

“This ambient-air process for graphene fabrication is fast, simple, safe, potentially scalable, and integration-friendly,” CSIRO scientist Dr Zhao Jun Han, co-author of the paper published today in Nature Communications said.

“Our unique technology is expected to reduce the cost of graphene production and improve the uptake in new applications.”

GraphAir transforms soybean oil – a renewable, natural material – into graphene films in a single step.

“Our GraphAir technology results in good and transformable graphene properties, comparable to graphene made by conventional methods,” CSIRO scientist and co-author of the study Dr Dong Han Seo said.

With heat, soybean oil breaks down into a range of carbon building units that are essential for the synthesis of graphene.

The team also transformed other types of renewable and even waste oil, such as those leftover from barbecues or cooking, into graphene films.

“We can now recycle waste oils that would have otherwise been discarded and transform them into something useful,” Dr Seo said.

The potential applications of graphene include water filtration and purification, renewable energy, sensors, personalised healthcare and medicine, to name a few.

Graphene has excellent electronic, mechanical, thermal and optical properties as well.

Its uses range from improving battery performance in energy devices, to cheaper solar panels.

CSIRO are looking to partner with industry to find new uses for graphene.

Researchers from The University of Sydney, University of Technology Sydney and The Queensland University of Technology also contributed to this work.

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

Single-step ambient-air synthesis of graphene from renewable precursors as electrochemical genosensor by Dong Han Seo, Shafique Pineda, Jinghua Fang, Yesim Gozukara, Samuel Yick, Avi Bendavid, Simon Kwai Hung Lam, Adrian T. Murdock, Anthony B. Murphy, Zhao Jun Han, & Kostya (Ken) Ostrikov. Nature Communications 8, Article number: 14217 (2017) doi:10.1038/ncomms14217 Published online: 30 January 2017

This is an open access paper.

New iron oxide nanoparticle as an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) contrast agent

This high-resolution transmission electron micrograph of particles made by the research team shows the particles’ highly uniform size and shape. These are iron oxide particles just 3 nanometers across, coated with a zwitterion layer. Their small size means they can easily be cleared through the kidneys after injection. Courtesy of the researchers

A Feb. 14, 2017 news item on ScienceDaily announces a new MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) contrast agent,

A new, specially coated iron oxide nanoparticle developed by a team at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology] and elsewhere could provide an alternative to conventional gadolinium-based contrast agents used for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) procedures. In rare cases, the currently used gadolinium agents have been found to produce adverse effects in patients with impaired kidney function.

A Feb. 14, 2017 MIT news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical detail,


The advent of MRI technology, which is used to observe details of specific organs or blood vessels, has been an enormous boon to medical diagnostics over the last few decades. About a third of the 60 million MRI procedures done annually worldwide use contrast-enhancing agents, mostly containing the element gadolinium. While these contrast agents have mostly proven safe over many years of use, some rare but significant side effects have shown up in a very small subset of patients. There may soon be a safer substitute thanks to this new research.

In place of gadolinium-based contrast agents, the researchers have found that they can produce similar MRI contrast with tiny nanoparticles of iron oxide that have been treated with a zwitterion coating. (Zwitterions are molecules that have areas of both positive and negative electrical charges, which cancel out to make them neutral overall.) The findings are being published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, in a paper by Moungi Bawendi, the Lester Wolfe Professor of Chemistry at MIT; He Wei, an MIT postdoc; Oliver Bruns, an MIT research scientist; Michael Kaul at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf in Germany; and 15 others.

Contrast agents, injected into the patient during an MRI procedure and designed to be quickly cleared from the body by the kidneys afterwards, are needed to make fine details of organ structures, blood vessels, and other specific tissues clearly visible in the images. Some agents produce dark areas in the resulting image, while others produce light areas. The primary agents for producing light areas contain gadolinium.

Iron oxide particles have been largely used as negative (dark) contrast agents, but radiologists vastly prefer positive (light) contrast agents such as gadolinium-based agents, as negative contrast can sometimes be difficult to distinguish from certain imaging artifacts and internal bleeding. But while the gadolinium-based agents have become the standard, evidence shows that in some very rare cases they can lead to an untreatable condition called nephrogenic systemic fibrosis, which can be fatal. In addition, evidence now shows that the gadolinium can build up in the brain, and although no effects of this buildup have yet been demonstrated, the FDA is investigating it for potential harm.

“Over the last decade, more and more side effects have come to light” from the gadolinium agents, Bruns says, so that led the research team to search for alternatives. “None of these issues exist for iron oxide,” at least none that have yet been detected, he says.

The key new finding by this team was to combine two existing techniques: making very tiny particles of iron oxide, and attaching certain molecules (called surface ligands) to the outsides of these particles to optimize their characteristics. The iron oxide inorganic core is small enough to produce a pronounced positive contrast in MRI, and the zwitterionic surface ligand, which was recently developed by Wei and coworkers in the Bawendi research group, makes the iron oxide particles water-soluble, compact, and biocompatible.

The combination of a very tiny iron oxide core and an ultrathin ligand shell leads to a total hydrodynamic diameter of 4.7 nanometers, below the 5.5-nanometer renal clearance threshold. This means that the coated iron oxide should quickly clear through the kidneys and not accumulate. This renal clearance property is an important feature where the particles perform comparably to gadolinium-based contrast agents.

Now that initial tests have demonstrated the particles’ effectiveness as contrast agents, Wei and Bruns say the next step will be to do further toxicology testing to show the particles’ safety, and to continue to improve the characteristics of the material. “It’s not perfect. We have more work to do,” Bruns says. But because iron oxide has been used for so long and in so many ways, even as an iron supplement, any negative effects could likely be treated by well-established protocols, the researchers say. If all goes well, the team is considering setting up a startup company to bring the material to production.

For some patients who are currently excluded from getting MRIs because of potential side effects of gadolinium, the new agents “could allow those patients to be eligible again” for the procedure, Bruns says. And, if it does turn out that the accumulation of gadolinium in the brain has negative effects, an overall phase-out of gadolinium for such uses could be needed. “If that turned out to be the case, this could potentially be a complete replacement,” he says.

Ralph Weissleder, a physician at Massachusetts General Hospital who was not involved in this work, says, “The work is of high interest, given the limitations of gadolinium-based contrast agents, which typically have short vascular half-lives and may be contraindicated in renally compromised patients.”

The research team included researchers in MIT’s chemistry, biological engineering, nuclear science and engineering, brain and cognitive sciences, and materials science and engineering departments and its program in Health Sciences and Technology; and at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf; Brown University; and the Massachusetts General Hospital. It was supported by the MIT-Harvard NIH Center for Cancer Nanotechnology, the Army Research Office through MIT’s Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, the NIH-funded Laser Biomedical Research Center, the MIT Deshpande Center, and the European Union Seventh Framework Program.

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

Exceedingly small iron oxide nanoparticles as positive MRI contrast agents by He Wei, Oliver T. Bruns, Michael G. Kaul, Eric C. Hansen, Mariya Barch, Agata Wiśniowsk, Ou Chen, Yue Chen, Nan Li, Satoshi Okada, Jose M. Cordero, Markus Heine, Christian T. Farrar, Daniel M. Montana, Gerhard Adam, Harald Ittrich, Alan Jasanoff, Peter Nielsen, and Moungi G. Bawendi. PNAS February 13, 2017 doi: 10.1073/pnas.1620145114 Published online before print February 13, 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

From flubber to thubber

Flubber (flying rubber) is an imaginary material that provided a plot point for two Disney science fiction comedies, The Absent-Minded Professor in 1961 which was remade in 1997 as Flubber. By contrast, ‘thubber’ (thermally conductive rubber) is a real life new material developed at Carnegie Mellon University (US).

A Feb. 13, 2017 news item on makes the announcement (Note: A link has been removed),

Carmel Majidi and Jonathan Malen of Carnegie Mellon University have developed a thermally conductive rubber material that represents a breakthrough for creating soft, stretchable machines and electronics. The findings were published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week.

The new material, nicknamed “thubber,” is an electrically insulating composite that exhibits an unprecedented combination of metal-like thermal conductivity, elasticity similar to soft, biological tissue, and can stretch over six times its initial length.

A Feb.13, 2017 Carnegie Mellon University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail (Note A link has been removed),

“Our combination of high thermal conductivity and elasticity is especially critical for rapid heat dissipation in applications such as wearable computing and soft robotics, which require mechanical compliance and stretchable functionality,” said Majidi, an associate professor of mechanical engineering.

Applications could extend to industries like athletic wear and sports medicine—think of lighted clothing for runners and heated garments for injury therapy. Advanced manufacturing, energy, and transportation are other areas where stretchable electronic material could have an impact.

“Until now, high power devices have had to be affixed to rigid, inflexible mounts that were the only technology able to dissipate heat efficiently,” said Malen, an associate professor of mechanical engineering. “Now, we can create stretchable mounts for LED lights or computer processors that enable high performance without overheating in applications that demand flexibility, such as light-up fabrics and iPads that fold into your wallet.”

The key ingredient in “thubber” is a suspension of non-toxic, liquid metal microdroplets. The liquid state allows the metal to deform with the surrounding rubber at room temperature. When the rubber is pre-stretched, the droplets form elongated pathways that are efficient for heat travel. Despite the amount of metal, the material is also electrically insulating.

To demonstrate these findings, the team mounted an LED light onto a strip of the material to create a safety lamp worn around a jogger’s leg. The “thubber” dissipated the heat from the LED, which would have otherwise burned the jogger. The researchers also created a soft robotic fish that swims with a “thubber” tail, without using conventional motors or gears.

“As the field of flexible electronics grows, there will be a greater need for materials like ours,” said Majidi. “We can also see it used for artificial muscles that power bio-inspired robots.”

Majidi and Malen acknowledge the efforts of lead authors Michael Bartlett, Navid Kazem, and Matthew Powell-Palm in performing this multidisciplinary work. They also acknowledge funding from the Air Force, NASA, and the Army Research Office.

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

High thermal conductivity in soft elastomers with elongated liquid metal inclusions by Michael D. Bartlett, Navid Kazem, Matthew J. Powell-Palm, Xiaonan Huang, Wenhuan Sun, Jonathan A. Malen, and Carmel Majidi.  Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) doi: 10.1073/pnas.1616377114

This paper is open access.

International Women’s Day March 8, 2017 and UNESCO/L’Oréal’s For Women in Science (Rising Talents)

Before getting to the science, here’s a little music in honour of March 8, 2017 International Women’s Day,

There is is a Wikipedia entry devoted to Rise Up (Parachute Club song), Note: Links have been removed<

“Rise Up” is a pop song recorded by the Canadian group Parachute Club on their self-titled 1983 album. It was produced and engineered by Daniel Lanois, and written by Parachute Club members Billy Bryans, Lauri Conger, Lorraine Segato and Steve Webster with lyrics contributed by filmmaker Lynne Fernie.

An upbeat call for peace, celebration, and “freedom / to love who we please,” the song was a national hit in Canada, and was hailed as a unique achievement in Canadian pop music:

“ Rarely does one experience a piece of music in white North America where the barrier between participant and observer breaks down. Rise Up rises right up and breaks down the wall.[1] ”

According to Segato, the song was not written with any one individual group in mind, but as a universal anthem of freedom and equality;[2] Fernie described the song’s lyrics as having been inspired in part by West Coast First Nations rituals in which young girls would “rise up” at dawn to adopt their adult names as a rite of passage.[3]

It remains the band’s most famous song, and has been adopted as an activist anthem for causes as diverse as gay rights, feminism, anti-racism and the New Democratic Party.[4] As well, the song’s reggae and soca-influenced rhythms made it the first significant commercial breakthrough for Caribbean music in Canada.

L’Oréal UNESCO For Women in Science

From a March 8, 2017 UNESCO press release (received via email),

Fifteen outstanding young women researchers, selected
among more than 250 candidates in the framework of the 19th edition of
the L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science awards, will receive the
International Rising Talent fellowship during a gala on 21 March at the
hotel Pullman Tour Eiffel de Paris. By recognizing their achievements at
a key moment in their careers, the _For Women in Science programme aims
to help them pursue their research.

Since 1998, the L’Oréal-UNESCO _For Women in Science programme [1]
has highlighted the achievements of outstanding women scientists and
supported promising younger women who are in the early stages of their
scientific careers. Selected among the best national and regional
L’Oréal-UNESCO fellows, the International Rising Talents come from
all regions of the world (Africa and Arab States, Asia-Pacific, Europe,
Latin America and North America).

Together with the five laureates of the 2017 L’Oreal-UNESCO For Women
in Science awards [2], they will participate in a week of events,
training and exchanges that will culminate with the award ceremony on 23
March 2017 at the Mutualité in Paris.

The 2017 International Rising Talent are recognized for their work in
the following five categories:


Fundamental medicine
In a coma: is the patient conscious or unconscious?     * ASSOCIATE

Clinical medicine
Recognizing Alzheimer’s before the first signs appear.


Biological Sciences
Neurodegenerative diseases: untangling aggregated proteins.
* DOCTOR NAM-KYUNG YU, Republic of Korea
Biological Sciences
Rett syndrome: neuronal cells come under fire
Biological Sciences
Better understanding the immune system.
Biological Sciences
Better tissue healing.

Finding potential new sources of drugs

Biological Sciences
New antibiotics are right under our feet.
Biological Sciences
Unraveling the secrets of entangled proteins.


* MS NAZEK EL-ATAB, United Arab Emirates
Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering
Miniaturizing electronics without losing memory.
Piercing the secrets of cosmic radiation.
Material Sciences
Trapping radioactivity.
Unlocking the potential of energy resources with nanochemistry.


Biological Sciences
Predicting how animal biodiversity will evolve.
* DOCTOR SAM GILES, United Kingdom
Biological Sciences
Taking another look at the evolution of vertebrates thanks to their
Astronomy and Space Sciences
Looking at the birth of distant suns and planets to better understand
the solar system.

Congratulations to all of the winners!

You can find out more about these awards and others on the 2017 L’Oréal-UNESCO For Women in Science Awards webpage or on the For Women In Science website. (Again in honour of the 2017 International Women’s Day, I was the 92758th signer of the For Women in Science Manifesto.)

International Women’s Day origins

Thank you to Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),

International Women’s Day (IWD), originally called International Working Women’s Day, is celebrated on March 8 every year.[2] It commemorates the movement for women’s rights.

The earliest Women’s Day observance was held on February 28, 1909, in New York and organized by the Socialist Party of America.[3] On March 8, 1917, in the capital of the Russian Empire, Petrograd, a demonstration of women textile workers began, covering the whole city. This was the beginning of the Russian Revolution.[4] Seven days later, the Emperor of Russia Nicholas II abdicated and the provisional Government granted women the right to vote.[3] March 8 was declared a national holiday in Soviet Russia in 1917. The day was predominantly celebrated by the socialist movement and communist countries until it was adopted in 1975 by the United Nations.

It seems only fitting to bookend this post with another song (Happy International Women’s Day March 8, 2017),

While the lyrics are unabashedly romantic, the video is surprisingly moody with a bit of a ‘stalker vive’ although it does end up with her holding centre stage while singing and bouncing around in time to Walking on Sunshine.

High-performance, low-energy artificial synapse for neural network computing

This artificial synapse is apparently an improvement on the standard memristor-based artificial synapse but that doesn’t become clear until reading the abstract for the paper. First, there’s a Feb. 20, 2017 Stanford University news release by Taylor Kubota (dated Feb. 21, 2017 on EurekAlert), Note: Links have been removed,

For all the improvements in computer technology over the years, we still struggle to recreate the low-energy, elegant processing of the human brain. Now, researchers at Stanford University and Sandia National Laboratories have made an advance that could help computers mimic one piece of the brain’s efficient design – an artificial version of the space over which neurons communicate, called a synapse.

“It works like a real synapse but it’s an organic electronic device that can be engineered,” said Alberto Salleo, associate professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford and senior author of the paper. “It’s an entirely new family of devices because this type of architecture has not been shown before. For many key metrics, it also performs better than anything that’s been done before with inorganics.”

The new artificial synapse, reported in the Feb. 20 issue of Nature Materials, mimics the way synapses in the brain learn through the signals that cross them. This is a significant energy savings over traditional computing, which involves separately processing information and then storing it into memory. Here, the processing creates the memory.

This synapse may one day be part of a more brain-like computer, which could be especially beneficial for computing that works with visual and auditory signals. Examples of this are seen in voice-controlled interfaces and driverless cars. Past efforts in this field have produced high-performance neural networks supported by artificially intelligent algorithms but these are still distant imitators of the brain that depend on energy-consuming traditional computer hardware.

Building a brain

When we learn, electrical signals are sent between neurons in our brain. The most energy is needed the first time a synapse is traversed. Every time afterward, the connection requires less energy. This is how synapses efficiently facilitate both learning something new and remembering what we’ve learned. The artificial synapse, unlike most other versions of brain-like computing, also fulfills these two tasks simultaneously, and does so with substantial energy savings.

“Deep learning algorithms are very powerful but they rely on processors to calculate and simulate the electrical states and store them somewhere else, which is inefficient in terms of energy and time,” said Yoeri van de Burgt, former postdoctoral scholar in the Salleo lab and lead author of the paper. “Instead of simulating a neural network, our work is trying to make a neural network.”

The artificial synapse is based off a battery design. It consists of two thin, flexible films with three terminals, connected by an electrolyte of salty water. The device works as a transistor, with one of the terminals controlling the flow of electricity between the other two.

Like a neural path in a brain being reinforced through learning, the researchers program the artificial synapse by discharging and recharging it repeatedly. Through this training, they have been able to predict within 1 percent of uncertainly what voltage will be required to get the synapse to a specific electrical state and, once there, it remains at that state. In other words, unlike a common computer, where you save your work to the hard drive before you turn it off, the artificial synapse can recall its programming without any additional actions or parts.

Testing a network of artificial synapses

Only one artificial synapse has been produced but researchers at Sandia used 15,000 measurements from experiments on that synapse to simulate how an array of them would work in a neural network. They tested the simulated network’s ability to recognize handwriting of digits 0 through 9. Tested on three datasets, the simulated array was able to identify the handwritten digits with an accuracy between 93 to 97 percent.

Although this task would be relatively simple for a person, traditional computers have a difficult time interpreting visual and auditory signals.

“More and more, the kinds of tasks that we expect our computing devices to do require computing that mimics the brain because using traditional computing to perform these tasks is becoming really power hungry,” said A. Alec Talin, distinguished member of technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories in Livermore, California, and senior author of the paper. “We’ve demonstrated a device that’s ideal for running these type of algorithms and that consumes a lot less power.”

This device is extremely well suited for the kind of signal identification and classification that traditional computers struggle to perform. Whereas digital transistors can be in only two states, such as 0 and 1, the researchers successfully programmed 500 states in the artificial synapse, which is useful for neuron-type computation models. In switching from one state to another they used about one-tenth as much energy as a state-of-the-art computing system needs in order to move data from the processing unit to the memory.

This, however, means they are still using about 10,000 times as much energy as the minimum a biological synapse needs in order to fire. The researchers are hopeful that they can attain neuron-level energy efficiency once they test the artificial synapse in smaller devices.

Organic potential

Every part of the device is made of inexpensive organic materials. These aren’t found in nature but they are largely composed of hydrogen and carbon and are compatible with the brain’s chemistry. Cells have been grown on these materials and they have even been used to make artificial pumps for neural transmitters. The voltages applied to train the artificial synapse are also the same as those that move through human neurons.

All this means it’s possible that the artificial synapse could communicate with live neurons, leading to improved brain-machine interfaces. The softness and flexibility of the device also lends itself to being used in biological environments. Before any applications to biology, however, the team plans to build an actual array of artificial synapses for further research and testing.

Additional Stanford co-authors of this work include co-lead author Ewout Lubberman, also of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, Scott T. Keene and Grégorio C. Faria, also of Universidade de São Paulo, in Brazil. Sandia National Laboratories co-authors include Elliot J. Fuller and Sapan Agarwal in Livermore and Matthew J. Marinella in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Salleo is an affiliate of the Stanford Precourt Institute for Energy and the Stanford Neurosciences Institute. Van de Burgt is now an assistant professor in microsystems and an affiliate of the Institute for Complex Molecular Studies (ICMS) at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands.

This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Keck Faculty Scholar Funds, the Neurofab at Stanford, the Stanford Graduate Fellowship, Sandia’s Laboratory-Directed Research and Development Program, the U.S. Department of Energy, the Holland Scholarship, the University of Groningen Scholarship for Excellent Students, the Hendrik Muller National Fund, the Schuurman Schimmel-van Outeren Foundation, the Foundation of Renswoude (The Hague and Delft), the Marco Polo Fund, the Instituto Nacional de Ciência e Tecnologia/Instituto Nacional de Eletrônica Orgânica in Brazil, the Fundação de Amparo à Pesquisa do Estado de São Paulo and the Brazilian National Council.

Here’s an abstract for the researchers’ paper (link to paper provided after abstract) and it’s where you’ll find the memristor connection explained,

The brain is capable of massively parallel information processing while consuming only ~1–100fJ per synaptic event1, 2. Inspired by the efficiency of the brain, CMOS-based neural architectures3 and memristors4, 5 are being developed for pattern recognition and machine learning. However, the volatility, design complexity and high supply voltages for CMOS architectures, and the stochastic and energy-costly switching of memristors complicate the path to achieve the interconnectivity, information density, and energy efficiency of the brain using either approach. Here we describe an electrochemical neuromorphic organic device (ENODe) operating with a fundamentally different mechanism from existing memristors. ENODe switches at low voltage and energy (<10pJ for 103μm2 devices), displays >500 distinct, non-volatile conductance states within a ~1V range, and achieves high classification accuracy when implemented in neural network simulations. Plastic ENODes are also fabricated on flexible substrates enabling the integration of neuromorphic functionality in stretchable electronic systems6, 7. Mechanical flexibility makes ENODes compatible with three-dimensional architectures, opening a path towards extreme interconnectivity comparable to the human brain.

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

A non-volatile organic electrochemical device as a low-voltage artificial synapse for neuromorphic computing by Yoeri van de Burgt, Ewout Lubberman, Elliot J. Fuller, Scott T. Keene, Grégorio C. Faria, Sapan Agarwal, Matthew J. Marinella, A. Alec Talin, & Alberto Salleo. Nature Materials (2017) doi:10.1038/nmat4856 Published online 20 February 2017

This paper is behind a paywall.

ETA March 8, 2017 10:28 PST: You may find this this piece on ferroelectricity and neuromorphic engineering of interest (March 7, 2017 posting titled: Ferroelectric roadmap to neuromorphic computing).