Tag Archives: Duke University

Nanomaterials and safety: Europe’s non-governmental agencies make recommendations; (US) Arizona State University initiative; and Japan’s voluntary carbon nanotube management

I have three news items which have one thing in common, they concern nanomaterials and safety. Two of these of items are fairly recent; the one about Japan has been sitting in my drafts folder for months and I’m including it here because if I don’t do it now, I never will.

First, there’s an April 7, 2014 news item on Nanowerk (h/t) about European non-governmental agencies (CIEL; the Center for International Environmental Law and its partners) and their recommendations regarding nanomaterials and safety. From the CIEL April 2014 news release,

CIEL and European partners* publish position paper on the regulation of nanomaterials at a meeting of EU competent authorities

*ClientEarth, The European Environmental Bureau, European citizen’s Organization for Standardisation, The European consumer voice in Standardisation –ANEC, and Health Care Without Harm, Bureau of European Consumers

… Current EU legislation does not guarantee that all nanomaterials on the market are safe by being assessed separately from the bulk form of the substance. Therefore, we ask the European Commission to come forward with concrete proposals for a comprehensive revision of the existing legal framework addressing the potential risks of nanomaterials.

1. Nanomaterials are different from other substances.

We are concerned that EU law does not take account of the fact that nano forms of a substance are different and have different intrinsic properties from their bulk counterpart. Therefore, we call for this principle to be explicitly established in the REACH, and Classification Labeling and Packaging (CLP) regulations, as well as in all other relevant legislation. To ensure adequate consideration, the submission of comprehensive substance identity and characterization data for all nanomaterials on the market, as defined by the Commission’s proposal for a nanomaterial definition, should be required.

Similarly, we call on the European Commission and EU Member States to ensure that nanomaterials do not benefit from the delays granted under REACH to phase-in substances, on the basis of information collected on their bulk form.

Further, nanomaterials, due to their properties, are generally much more reactive than their bulk counterpart, thereby increasing the risk of harmful impact of nanomaterials compared to an equivalent mass of bulk material. Therefore, the present REACH thresholds for the registration of nanomaterials should be lowered.

Before 2018, all nanomaterials on the market produced in amounts of over 10kg/year must be registered with ECHA on the basis of a full registration dossier specific to the nanoform.

2. Risk from nanomaterials must be assessed

Six years after the entry into force of the REACH registration requirements, only nine substances have been registered as nanomaterials despite the much wider number of substances already on the EU market, as demonstrated by existing inventories. Furthermore, the poor quality of those few nano registration dossiers does not enable their risks to be properly assessed. To confirm the conclusions of the Commission’s nano regulatory review assuming that not all nanomaterials are toxic, relevant EU legislation should be amended to ensure that all nanomaterials are adequately assessed for their hazardous properties.

Given the concerns about novel properties of nanomaterials, under REACH, all registration dossiers of nanomaterials must include a chemical safety assessment and must comply with the same information submission requirements currently required for substances classified as Carcinogenic, Mutagenic or Reprotoxic (CMRs).

3. Nanomaterials should be thoroughly evaluated

Pending the thorough risk assessment of nanomaterials demonstrated by comprehensive and up-to-date registration dossiers for all nanoforms on the market, we call on ECHA to systematically check compliance for all nanoforms, as well as check the compliance of all dossiers which, due to uncertainties in the description of their identity and characterization, are suspected of including substances in the nanoform. Further, the Community Roling Action Plan (CoRAP) list should include all identified substances in the nanoform and evaluation should be carried out without delay.

4. Information on nanomaterials must be collected and disseminated

All EU citizens have the right to know which products contain nanomaterials as well as the right to know about their risks to health and environment and overall level of exposure. Given the uncertainties surrounding nanomaterials, the Commission must guarantee that members of the public are in a position to exercise their right to know and to make informed choices pending thorough risk assessments of nanomaterials on the market.

Therefore, a publicly accessible inventory of nanomaterials and consumer products containing nanomaterials must be established at European level. Moreover, specific nano-labelling or declaration requirements must be established for all nano-containing products (detergents, aerosols, sprays, paints, medical devices, etc.) in addition to those applicable to food, cosmetics and biocides which are required under existing obligations.

5. REACH enforcement activities should tackle nanomaterials

REACH’s fundamental principle of “no data, no market” should be thoroughly implemented. Therefore, nanomaterials that are on the market without a meaningful minimum set of data to allow the assessment of their hazards and risks should be denied market access through enforcement activities. In the meantime, we ask the EU Member States and manufacturers to use a precautionary approach in the assessment, production, use and disposal of nanomaterials

This comes on the heels of CIEL’s March 2014 news release announcing a new three-year joint project concerning nanomaterials and safety and responsible development,

Supported by the VELUX foundations, CIEL and ECOS (the European Citizen’s Organization for Standardization) are launching a three-year project aiming to ensure that risk assessment methodologies and risk management tools help guide regulators towards the adoption of a precaution-based regulatory framework for the responsible development of nanomaterials in the EU and beyond.

Together with our project partner the German Öko-Institut, CIEL and ECOS will participate in the work of the standardization organizations Comité Européen de Normalisation and International Standards Organization, and this work of the OECD [Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development], especially related to health, environmental and safety aspects of nanomaterials and exposure and risk assessment. We will translate progress into understandable information and issue policy recommendations to guide regulators and support environmental NGOs in their campaigns for the safe and sustainable production and use of nanomaterials.

The VILLUM FOUNDATION and the VELUX FOUNDATION are non-profit foundations created by Villum Kann Rasmussen, the founder of the VELUX Group and other entities in the VKR Group, whose mission it is to bring daylight, fresh air and a better environment into people’s everyday lives.

Meanwhile in the US, an April 6, 2014 news item on Nanowerk announces a new research network, based at Arizona State University (ASU), devoted to studying health and environmental risks of nanomaterials,

Arizona State University researchers will lead a multi-university project to aid industry in understanding and predicting the potential health and environmental risks from nanomaterials.

Nanoparticles, which are approximately 1 to 100 nanometers in size, are used in an increasing number of consumer products to provide texture, resiliency and, in some cases, antibacterial protection.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has awarded a grant of $5 million over the next four years to support the LCnano Network as part of the Life Cycle of Nanomaterials project, which will focus on helping to ensure the safety of nanomaterials throughout their life cycles – from the manufacture to the use and disposal of the products that contain these engineered materials.

An April 1, 2014 ASU news release, which originated the news item, provides more details and includes information about project partners which I’m happy to note include nanoHUB and the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network (NISENet) in addition to the other universities,

Paul Westerhoff is the LCnano Network director, as well as the associate dean of research for ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and a professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment.

The project will team engineers, chemists, toxicologists and social scientists from ASU, Johns Hopkins, Duke, Carnegie Mellon, Purdue, Yale, Oregon’s state universities, the Colorado School of Mines and the University of Illinois-Chicago.

Engineered nanomaterials of silver, titanium, silica and carbon are among the most commonly used. They are dispersed in common liquids and food products, embedded in the polymers from which many products are made and attached to textiles, including clothing.

Nanomaterials provide clear benefits for many products, Westerhoff says, but there remains “a big knowledge gap” about how, or if, nanomaterials are released from consumer products into the environment as they move through their life cycles, eventually ending up in soils and water systems.

“We hope to help industry make sure that the kinds of products that engineered nanomaterials enable them to create are safe for the environment,” Westerhoff says.

“We will develop molecular-level fundamental theories to ensure the manufacturing processes for these products is safer,” he explains, “and provide databases of measurements of the properties and behavior of nanomaterials before, during and after their use in consumer products.”

Among the bigger questions the LCnano Network will investigate are whether nanomaterials can become toxic through exposure to other materials or the biological environs they come in contact with over the course of their life cycles, Westerhoff says.

The researchers will collaborate with industry – both large and small companies – and government laboratories to find ways of reducing such uncertainties.

Among the objectives is to provide a framework for product design and manufacturing that preserves the commercial value of the products using nanomaterials, but minimizes potentially adverse environmental and health hazards.

In pursuing that goal, the network team will also be developing technologies to better detect and predict potential nanomaterial impacts.

Beyond that, the LCnano Network also plans to increase awareness about efforts to protect public safety as engineered nanomaterials in products become more prevalent.

The grant will enable the project team to develop educational programs, including a museum exhibit about nanomaterials based on the LCnano Network project. The exhibit will be deployed through a partnership with the Arizona Science Center and researchers who have worked with the Nanoscale Informal Science Education Network.

The team also plans to make information about its research progress available on the nanotechnology industry website Nanohub.org.

“We hope to use Nanohub both as an internal virtual networking tool for the research team, and as a portal to post the outcomes and products of our research for public access,” Westerhoff says.

The grant will also support the participation of graduate students in the Science Outside the Lab program, which educates students on how science and engineering research can help shape public policy.

Other ASU faculty members involved in the LCnano Network project are:

• Pierre Herckes, associate professor, Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
• Kiril Hristovski, assistant professor, Department of Engineering, College of Technology and Innovation
• Thomas Seager, associate professor, School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment
• David Guston, professor and director, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes
• Ira Bennett, assistant research professor, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes
• Jameson Wetmore, associate professor, Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes, and School of Human Evolution and Social Change

I hope to hear more about the LCnano Network as it progresses.

Finally, there was this Nov. 12, 2013 news item on Nanowerk about instituting  voluntary safety protocols for carbon nanotubes in Japan,

Technology Research Association for Single Wall Carbon Nanotubes (TASC)—a consortium of nine companies and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) — is developing voluntary safety management techniques for carbon nanotubes (CNTs) under the project (no. P10024) “Innovative carbon nanotubes composite materials project toward achieving a low-carbon society,” which is sponsored by the New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO).

Lynn Bergeson’s Nov. 15, 2013 posting on nanotech.lawbc.com provides a few more details abut the TASC/AIST carbon nanotube project (Note: A link has been removed),

Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) announced in October 2013 a voluntary guidance document on measuring airborne carbon nanotubes (CNT) in workplaces. … The guidance summarizes the available practical methods for measuring airborne CNTs:  (1) on-line aerosol measurement; (2) off-line quantitative analysis (e.g., thermal carbon analysis); and (3) sample collection for electron microscope observation. …

You can  download two protocol documents (Guide to measuring airborne carbon nanotubes in workplaces and/or The protocols of preparation, characterization and in vitro cell based assays for safety testing of carbon nanotubes), another has been published since Nov. 2013, from the AIST’s Developing voluntary safety management techniques for carbon nanotubes (CNTs): Protocol and Guide webpage., Both documents are also available in Japanese and you can link to the Japanese language version of the site from the webpage.

Food and nanotechnology (as per Popular Mechanics) and zinc oxide nanoparticles in soil (as per North Dakota State University)

I wouldn’t expect to find an article about food in a magazine titled Popular Mechanics but there it is, a Feb. 19,2014 article by Christina Ortiz (Note: A link has been removed),

For a little more than a decade, the food industry has been using nanotechnology to change the way we grow and maintain our food. The grocery chain Albertsons currently has a list of nanotech-touched foods in its home brand, ranging from cookies to cheese blends.

Nanotechnology use in food has real advantages: The technology gives producers the power to control how food looks, tastes, and even how long it lasts.

Looks Good and Good for You?

The most commonly used nanoparticle in foods is titanium dioxide. It’s used to make foods such as yogurt and coconut flakes look as white as possible, provide opacity to other food colorings, and prevent ingredients from caking up. Nanotech isn’t just about aesthetics, however. The biggest potential use for this method involves improving the nutritional value of foods.

Nano additives can enhance or prevent the absorption of certain nutrients. In an email interview with Popular Mechanics, Jonathan Brown, a research fellow at the University of Minnesota, says this method could be used to make mayonnaise less fattening by replacing fat molecules with water droplets.

I did check out US grocer, Albertson’s list of ‘nanofoods’, which they provide and discovered that it’s an undated listing on the Project of Emerging Nanotechnologies’ Consumer Products Inventory (CPI). The inventory has been revived recently after lying moribund for a few years (my Oct. 28, 2013 posting describes the fall and rise) and I believe that this 2013 CPI incarnation includes some oversight and analysis of the claims made, which the earlier version did not include. Given that the Albertson’s list is undated it’s difficult to assess the accuracy of the claims regarding the foodstuffs.

If you haven’t read about nanotechnology and food before, the Ortiz article provides a relatively even-handed primer although it does end on a cautionary note. In any event, it was interesting to get a bit of information about the process of ‘nanofood’ regulation in the US and other jurisdictions (from the Ortiz article),

Aside from requiring manufacturers to provide proof that nanotechnology foods are safe, the FDA has yet to implement specific testing of its own. But many countries are researching ways to balance innovation and regulation in this market. In 2012 the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) released an annual risk assessment report outlining how the European Union is addressing the issue of nanotech in food. In Canada the Food Directorate “is taking a case-by-case approach to the safety assessment of food products containing or using nanomaterials.”

I featured the FDA’s efforts regarding regulation and ‘nanofood’ in an April 23, 2012 posting,

It looks to me like this [FDA's draft guidance for 'nanofoods'] is an attempt to develop a relationship where the industry players in the food industry to police their nanotechnology initiatives with the onus being on industry to communicate with the regulators in a continuous process, if not at the research stage certainly at the production stage.

At least one of the primary issues with any emerging technology revolves around the question of risk. Do we stop all manufacturing and development of nanotechnology-enabled food products until we’ve done the research? That question assumes that taking any risks is not worth the currently perceived benefits. The corresponding question, do we move forward and hope for the best? does get expressed perhaps not quite so baldly; I have seen material which suggests that research into risks needlessly hampers progress.

After reading on this topic for five or so years, my sense is that most people are prepared to combine the two approaches, i.e., move forward while researching possible risks. The actual conflicts seem to centre around these questions, how quickly do we move forward; how much research do we need; and what is an acceptable level of risk?

On the topic of researching the impact that nanoparticles might have on plants (food or otherwise), a January 24, 2013 North Dakota State University (NDSU) news release highlights a student researcher’s work on soil, plants, and zinc oxide nanoparticles,

NDSU senior Hannah Passolt is working on a project that is venturing into a very young field of research. The study about how crops’ roots absorb a microscopic nutrient might be described as being ahead of the cutting-edge.

In a laboratory of NDSU’s Wet Ecosystem Research Group, in collaboration with plant sciences, Passolt is exploring how two varieties of wheat take up extremely tiny pieces of zinc, called nanoparticles, from the soil.

As a point of reference, the particles Passolt is examining are measured at below 30 nanometers. A nanometer is 1 billionth of a meter.

“It’s the mystery of nanoparticles that is fascinating to me,” explained the zoology major from Fargo. “The behavior of nanoparticles in the environment is largely unknown as it is a very new, exciting science. This type of project has never been done before.”

In Passolt’s research project, plants supplied by NDSU wheat breeders are grown in a hydroponic solution, with different amounts of zinc oxide nanoparticles introduced into the solution.

Compared to naturally occurring zinc, engineered zinc nanoparticles can have very different properties. They can be highly reactive, meaning they can injure cells and tissues, and may cause genetic damage. The plants are carefully observed for any changes in growth rate and appearance. When the plants are harvested, researchers will analyze them for actual zinc content.

“Zinc is essential for a plant’s development. However, in excess, it can be harmful,” Passolt said. “In one of my experiments, we are using low and high levels of zinc, and the high concentrations are showing detrimental effects. However, we will have to analyze the plants for zinc concentrations to see if there have been any effects from the zinc nanoparticles.”

Passolt has conducted undergraduate research with the Wet Ecosystem Research Group for the past two years. She said working side-by-side with Donna Jacob, research assistant professor of biological sciences; Marinus Otte; professor of biological sciences; and Mohamed Mergoum, professor of plant sciences, has proven to be challenging, invigorating and rewarding.

“I’ve gained an incredible skill set – my research experience has built upon itself. I’ve gotten to the point where I have a pretty big role in an important study. To me, that is invaluable,” Passolt said. “To put effort into something that goes for the greater good of science is a very important lesson to learn.”

According to Jacob, Passolt volunteered two years ago, and she has since become an important member of the group. She has assisted graduate students and worked on her own small project, the results of which she presented at regional and international scientific conferences. “We offered her this large, complex experiment, and she’s really taken charge,” Jacob said, noting Passolt assisted with the project’s design, handled care of the plants and applied the treatments. When the project is completed, Passolt will publish a peer-reviewed scientific article.

“There is nothing like working on your own experiment to fully understand science,” Jacob said. “Since coming to NDSU in 2006, the Wet Ecosystem Research Group has worked with more than 50 undergraduates, possible only because of significant support from the North Dakota IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence program, known as INBRE, of the NIH National Center for Research Resources.”

Jacob said seven undergraduate students from the lab have worked on their own research projects and presented their work at conferences. Two articles, so far, have been published by undergraduate co-authors. “I believe the students gain valuable experience and an understanding of what scientists really do during fieldwork and in the laboratory,” Jacob said. “They see it is vastly different from book learning, and that scientists use creativity and ingenuity daily. I hope they come away from their experience with some excitement about research, in addition to a better resume.”

Passolt anticipates the results of her work could be used in a broader view of our ecosystem. She notes zinc nanoparticles are an often-used ingredient in such products as lotions, sunscreens and certain drug delivery systems. “Zinc nanoparticles are being introduced into the environment,” she said. “It gets to plants at some point, so we want to see if zinc nanoparticles have a positive or negative effect, or no effect at all.”

Researching nanoparticles the effects they might have on the environment and on health is a complex process as there are many types of nanoparticles some of which have been engineered and some of which occur naturally, silver nanoparticles being a prime example of both engineered and naturally occurring nanoparticles. (As well, the risks may lie more with interactions between nanomaterials.) For an example of research, which seems similar to the NDSU effort, there’s this open access research article,

Low Concentrations of Silver Nanoparticles in Biosolids Cause Adverse Ecosystem Responses under Realistic Field Scenario by Benjamin P. Colman, Christina L. Arnaout, Sarah Anciaux, Claudia K. Gunsch, Michael F. Hochella Jr, Bojeong Kim, Gregory V. Lowry,  Bonnie M. McGill, Brian C. Reinsch, Curtis J. Richardson, Jason M. Unrine, Justin P. Wright, Liyan Yin, and Emily S. Bernhardt. PLoS ONE 2013; 8 (2): e57189 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057189

One last comment, the Wet Ecosystem Research Group (WERG) mentioned in the news release about Passolt has an interesting history (from the homepage; Note: Links have been removed),

Marinus Otte and Donna Jacob brought WERG to the Department of Biological Sciences in the Fall of 2006.  Prior to that, the research group had been going strong at University College Dublin, Ireland, since 1992.

The aims for the research group are to train graduate and undergraduate students in scientific research, particularly wetlands, plants, biogeochemistry, watershed ecology and metals in the environment.  WERG research  covers a wide range of scales, from microscopic (e.g. biogeochemical processes in the rhizosphere of plants) to landscape (e.g. chemical and ecological connectivity between prairie potholes across North Dakota).  Regardless of the scale, the central theme is biogeochemistry and the interactions between multiple elements in wet environments.

The group works to collaborate with a variety of researchers, including soil scientists, geologists, environmental engineers, microbiologists, as well as with groups underpinning management of natural resources, such the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the Department of Natural Resources of Red Lake Indian Reservation, and the North Dakota Department of Health, Division of Water Quality.

Currently, WERG has several projects, mostly in North Dakota and Minnesota.  Otte and Jacob are also Co-directors of the North Dakota INBRE Metal Analysis Core, providing laboratory facilities and mentoring for researchers in undergraduate colleges throughout the state. Otte and Jacob are also members of the Upper Midwest Aerospace Consortium.

Duke University’s (North Carolina, US) Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT) wins $15M grant

A Nov. 13, 2013 news item on Azonano announces that the Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT) at Duke University has been awarded $15M,

A pioneering, multi-institution research center headquartered at Duke’s Pratt School of Engineering has just won $15-million grant renewal from the National Science Foundation and the US Environmental Protection Agency to continue learning more about where nanoparticles accumulate, how they interact with other chemicals and how they affect the environment.

Founded in 2008, the Center for Environmental Implications of NanoTechnology (CEINT) has been evaluating the effect of long-term nanomaterial exposure on organisms and ecosystems.

“The previous focus has been on studying simple, uniform nanomaterials in simple environments,” said Mark Wiesner, James L. Meriam Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering and director of CEINT. “As we look to the next five years, we envision a dramatically different landscape. We will be evaluating more complex nanomaterials in more realistic natural environments such as agricultural lands and water treatment systems where these materials are likely to be found.”

The Nov. 11, 2013 Duke University news release by Karyn Hede, which originated the news item, provides some history and context for CEINT (Note: Links have been removed),

When CEINT formed, little research had been done on how materials manufactured at the nanoscale—about 1/10,000th the diameter of a human hair—enter the environment and whether their size and unique properties render them a new category of environmental risk. For example, nanoparticles can be highly reactive with other chemicals in the environment and had been shown to disrupt activities in living organisms. Indeed, nanosilver is used in clothing precisely because it effectively kills odor-causing bacteria.

To tackle this expansive research agenda, CEINT leadership assembled a multi-institutional research team encompassing expertise in ecosystems biology, chemistry, geology, materials science, computational science, mathematical modeling and other specialties, to complement its engineering expertise. The Center has 29 faculty collaborators, as well as 76 graduate and undergraduate students participating in research. Over its first five years, CEINT has answered some of the most pressing questions about environmental risk and has learned where to focus future research.

The center also pioneered the use of a new test chamber, called a mesocosm, that replicates a small wetland environment. “Over the long term, we want to evaluate how nanoparticles bioaccumulate in complex food webs,” said Emily Bernhardt, an associate professor of biology at Duke and ecosystem ecologist who helped design the simulated ecosystems. “The additional funding will allow us to study the subtle effect of low-dose exposure on ecosystems over time, as well as complex interactions among nanoparticles and other environmental contaminants.”

Looking forward, the investigators at CEINT plan to expand the use of systems modeling and to create a “knowledge commons,” a place to store various kinds of data that can then be analyzed as a whole, said CEINT Executive Director Christine Hendren.

“Our investigators and collaborators are located across the globe,” Hendren added. “We are committed to disseminating information that can be translated into responsible regulatory frameworks and that will be available to compare with results of future research.”

Key findings from CEINT’s first five years include:

Naturally occurring nanomaterials far outnumber engineered particles. CEINT scientist Michael Hochella, a geoscientist at Virginia Tech, inventoried nanoparticles and concluded that natural nanoparticles are found everywhere, from dust in the atmosphere to sea spray to volcanoes. The environmental risks of these natural nanomaterials are difficult to separate from engineered nanomaterials.

Engineered nanoparticles change once they enter the environment. Gregory V. Lowry, deputy director of CEINT and professor at Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, along with colleagues from the University of Birmingham, U.K. and the University of South Carolina found that the relatively large surface area of nanoparticles makes them highly reactive once they enter the environment. These transformations will alter their movement and toxicity and must be considered when studying nanomaterials. Their review article on this topic was named the best feature article of 2012 by the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Nanoparticles can be visualized, even in complex environmental samples. A research team led by CEINT investigators Jie Liu, associate professor of chemistry at Duke, and CEINT Director Mark Wiesner showed that more than a dozen types of engineered nanoparticles, including silver, gold, and titanium dioxide, along with carbon nanotubes, can be surveyed using a technique called hyperspectral imaging, which measures light scattering caused by different types of nanoparticles. The new technique, co-developed by postdoctoral researcher Appala Raju Badireddy, is sensitive enough to analyze nanoparticles found in water samples ranging from ultrapurified to wastewater. It will be used in future long-term studies of how nanoparticles move and accumulate in ecological systems.

It is possible to estimate current and future volume of engineered nanomaterials. Understanding the volume of nanomaterials being produced and released into the environment is a crucial factor in risk assessment. CEINT researchers led by Christine Hendren measured the upper- and lower-bound annual U.S. production of five classes of nanomaterials, totaling as much as a combined 40,000 metric tons annually as of 2011.

Silver nanoparticles caused environmental stress in a simulated wetland environment. CEINT has developed  “mesocosms,”  open-air terrarium-like structures that simulate wetland ecosystems that can be evaluated over time. Even low doses of silver nanoparticles used in many consumer products produced about a third less biomass in a mesocosm. The researchers will now  look at how nanomaterials are transferred between organisms in a mesocosm.

I have written about CEINT and its work, including the mesocosm, many times. My August 15, 2011 posting offers an introduction to the CEINT mesocosm.

Saving lives at birth 2013: Round 3 award nominees and their technologies

As I have noted before (most recently in a Feb. 13, 2013 posting) there are at least two Grand Challenges, one is a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation program and the other, Grand Challenges Canada, is funded by the Canadian government. Both organizations along with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Government of Norway, and the U.K’s Department for International Development (DFID) have combined their efforts on maternal health in a partnership, Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development. 2013 is the third year for this competitive funding program, which attracts entries from around the world.

The organization’s July 31, 2013 news release announces the latest funding nominees,

The Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development today announced 22 Round 3 award nominees from a pool of 53 finalists – innovators who descended on Washington for three days (DevelopmentXChange) to showcase bold, new ideas to save the lives of mothers and newborns in developing countries with aspirations of international funding to realize their vision.

The award nominees cut across maternal and neonatal health, family planning, nutrition and HIV and they present not only cutting-edge technologies that can be used in resource-poor settings, but innovative approaches to delivering services and the adoption of healthy behaviors. The announcement was made at the closing forum of the DevelopmentXChange by the Saving Lives at Birth partners. The nominees will now enter into final negotiations before awards are issued. [emphasis mine]

If I read this rightly, the nominees do not receive a set amount but negotiate for the money they need to implement and/or develop their ‘solution’. The news release provides more details about the process that applicants undertake when they reach the finalist stage,

The Saving Lives at Birth DevelopmentXChange provided a platform for top global innovators to present their ideas in an open, dynamic marketplace and exchange ideas with development experts and potential funders to help meet the immense challenge of protecting mothers and newborns in the poorest places on earth, during their most vulnerable hours. Other promising ideas will be considered for “incubator awards” to assist innovators in further developing their ideas through dialogue and mentorship.

….

The Saving Lives at Birth DevelopmentXChange featured discussions focused on meeting the needs and realities of women and children in low-resource settings as well as workshops that explored business planning, market research, impact investing, and strategies for scaling their innovations.  The three-day event concluded with a forum featuring Ambassador Susan E. Rice, National Security Advisor; Dr. Rajiv Shah, Administrator, USAID; HRH Princess Sarah Zeid of Jordan; New York Times best-selling author Dan Heath and NASA astronaut Col. Ron Garan (ret.).

Leading into the DevelopmentXChange, existing Saving Lives at Birth grantees participated in a three-day, customized training program – a focal point of the global health Xcelerator.  This eight-month program, offered through a partnership between National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance (NCIIA), the Lemelson Foundation and USAID, provides grantees the tools and knowledge to scale their ideas and maximize the impact of their innovations.

Here’s the list of nominees who emerged from the process (there is one overtly nanotechnology project listed and I suspect others are also enabled by nanotechnology),

Award nominees of Saving Lives at Birth Round 3 include 4 transition-to-scale grant nominees:

· Africare – Dakar, Senegal: A collaborative community-based technology that integrates community support services with mobile and telemedicine platforms to increase demand for, and access to, quality prenatal care services in Senegal.  More: http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/232

· Epidemiological Research Center in Sexual and Reproductive Health – Guatemala City, Guatemala: An integrated approach to reduce maternal and perinatal mortality in Northern Guatemala through simulation-based training, social marketing campaigns and formal health care system engagement.  More: http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/246

· Massachusetts General Hospital – Boston, MA, USA: A next-generation uterine balloon tamponade (UBT) device to treat postpartum hemorrhage (PPH) in Kenya and South Sudan.  More: http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/255

· The Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital – Columbus, OH, USA: A low-cost paper-based urine test for early diagnosis of pre-eclampsia to reduce pre-eclampsia morbidity and mortality in resource-limited areas.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/275

And 18 seed grant nominees:

· BILIMETRIX SRL – Trieste, Italy: An inexpensive system to rapidly test for markers of hyperbilirubinemia (kernicterus)-an often fatal form of brain damage caused by excessive jaundice- in low resource settings in Nigeria, Egypt, and Indonesia.  More: http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/235

· JustMilk - Dept. of Chemical Engineering, University of Cambridge – Cambridge, UK: A low-cost system that aids the administration of drugs and nutrients to breastfeeding infants via easily disintegrating tablets housed within a modified Nipple Shield Delivery System (NSDS).  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/241

· The University of Melbourne - Melbourne, Australia: A low-cost, electricity-free oxygen concentrator suitable for providing provisional oxygen for neonates in low-resource settings.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/277

· University of Toronto - Toronto, Canada: A spray-encapsulated iron premix that will be attached to tea leaves to reduce rates of iron deficiency of pregnant women in South Asia.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/279

· University of Valencia - Valencia, Spain: A rapid point-of-care test strips for early diagnosis of sepsis in pregnancy and childbirth. More: http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/281

· Mbarara University of Science and Technology - Mbarara, Uganda: The Augmented Infant Resuscitator (AIR) which gives instant feedback to healthcare professionals performing newborn resuscitation to reduce neonatal deaths from intrapartum birth asphyxia or prematurity.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/256

· Bioceptive, Inc. – New Orleans, LA, USA: A low-cost, reusable, and intuitive intrauterine device (IUD) inserter to make the IUD insertion procedure easier and safer in low-resource settings. http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/236

· Convergent Engineering Inc. – Newberry, FL, USA: An inexpensive, easy-to-use, handheld early-warning system that detects pre-eclampsia 10-12 weeks before the onset symptoms. The system pairs a wrist strap embedded with inexpensive ECG and photoplethysmography sensors with a smart phone for processing, data aggregation, and communication.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/239

· Dimagi, Inc. (CommTrack) – Cambridge, MA, USA: An open-source distribution management system integrating mobile and GPS technology to improve transparency, supply chain functioning, communication, and the timely delivery of medicine to hard to reach, low-income areas in Africa.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/243

· Duke University- Durham, NC, USA:  Healthcare system integration of the “Pratt Pouch”-a tiny ketchup-like packet that stores antiretroviral AIDS medication for a year-to enable the pouch to be used in home-birth settings to prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child. Testing taking place in Zambia.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/244

· Emory University – Atlanta, GA, USA: A micro-needle patch that co-administers the influenza and tetanus toxoid vaccines to pregnant mothers and children in developing countries.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/245

· Nanobiosym, Inc – Cambridge, MA, USA: A nanotech platform which enables rapid, accurate and mobile HIV diagnosis at point-of-care, allowing for timely treatment with antiretroviral therapy to reduce HIV-related mortality in infants in Rwanda.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/259

· Oregon Health and Science University – Portland, OR, USA: The Xstat mini-sponge applicator for the treatment of postpartum hemorrhage (PPH).  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/260

· Population Services International – Washington DC, USA: A new inserter for immediate postpartum intrauterine device (PPIUD) insertions to increase contraceptive uptake in developing countries.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/263

· President and Fellows of Harvard College – Boston, MA, USA: A handheld vital sign monitor for the rapid diagnosis of frail and sick newborns.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/264

· Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) – Seattle, WA, USA: A heat-stable oxytocin in a fast-dissolving oral tablet to treat postpartum hemorrhage (PPH).  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/268

· Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH) – Seattle, WA, USA: A magnesium sulfate (MgSO4) gel that simplifies treatment of pre-eclampsia and eclampsia.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/267

· The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System – Madison, WI, USA: A Lactobacillus casei strain that enables the sustainable home production of beta-Carotene enriched dairy products for at-risk mothers and families in Southern Asia.  http://savinglivesatbirth.net/summaries/272

While it’s not stated explicitly, the main focus for Saving Lives at Birth appears to be the continent of Africa as per this video animation which represents the organization’s goals and focus,

Listening to an individual brain cell using a carbon nanotube ‘harpoon’

Apparently, the prime motivation for listening to individual neurons or brain cells is to “better understand the computational complexity of the brain,” according to a June 20,  2013 news item on Azonano,

The new brain cell spear is a millimeter long, only a few nanometers wide and harnesses the superior electromechanical properties of carbon nanotubes to capture electrical signals from individual neurons.

“To our knowledge, this is the first time scientists have used carbon nanotubes to record signals from individual neurons, what we call intracellular recordings, in brain slices or intact brains of vertebrates,” said Bruce Donald, a professor of computer science and biochemistry at Duke University who helped developed the probe.

The June 19, 2013 Duke University news release by Ashley Yeager, which originated the news item, provides some insight into the current state of the art and how this new technique is an improvement,

Currently, they use two main types of electrodes, metal and glass, to record signals from brain cells. Metal electrodes record spikes from a population of brain cells and work well in live animals. Glass electrodes also measure spikes, as well as the computations individual cells perform, but are delicate and break easily.”The new carbon nanotubes combine the best features of both metal and glass electrodes. They record well both inside and outside brain cells, and they are quite flexible. Because they won’t shatter, scientists could use them to record signals from individual brain cells of live animals,” said Duke neurobiologist Michael Platt, who was not involved in the study.

This is not the first time researchers have tried to use carbon nanotubes for this purpose, from the news release,

In the past, other scientists have experimented with carbon nanotube probes. But the electrodes were thick, causing tissue damage, or they were short, limiting how far they could penetrate into brain tissue. They could not probe inside individual neurons.

To change this, Donald began working on a harpoon-like carbon-nanotube probe with Duke neurobiologist Richard Mooney five years ago. The two met during their first year at Yale in the 1976, kept in touch throughout graduate school and began meeting to talk about their research after they both came to Duke.

Mooney told Donald about his work recording brain signals from live zebra finches and mice. The work was challenging, he said, because the probes and machinery to do the studies were large and bulky on the small head of a mouse or bird.

With Donald’s expertise in nanotechnology and robotics and Mooney’s in neurobiology, the two thought they could work together to shrink the machinery and improve the probes with nano-materials.

To make the probe, graduate student Inho Yoon and Duke physicist Gleb Finkelstein used the tip of an electrochemically sharpened tungsten wire as the base and extended it with self-entangled multi-wall carbon nanotubes to create a millimeter-long rod. The scientists then sharpened the nanotubes into a tiny harpoon using a focused ion beam at North Carolina State University.

Yoon then took the nano-harpoon to Mooney’s lab and jabbed it into slices of mouse brain tissue and then into the brains of anesthetized mice. The results show that the probe transmits brain signals as well as, and sometimes better than, conventional glass electrodes and is less likely to break off in the tissue. The new probe also penetrates individual neurons, recording the signals of a single cell rather than the nearest population of them.

Based on the results, the team has applied for a patent on the nano-harpoon.  Platt said scientists might use the probes in a range of applications, from basic science to human brain-computer interfaces and brain prostheses.

Donald said the new probe makes advances in those directions, but the insulation layers, electrical recording abilities and geometry of the device still need improvement.

The research paper is available in the open access journal PLoS ONE,

Intracellular Neural Recording with Pure Carbon Nanotube Probes by Inho Yoon, Kosuke Hamaguchi, Ivan V. Borzenets, Gleb Finkelstein, Richard Mooney, and Bruce R. Donald. 2013. PLOS ONE. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065715

As for calling this a ‘harpoon’, these carbon nanotube probes really do resemble harpoons,

This image, taken with a scanning electron microscope, shows a new brain electrode that tapers to a point as thick as a single carbon nanotube. Credit: Inho Yoon and Bruce Donald, Duke.  [downloaded from http://today.duke.edu/2013/06/brainharpoon]

This image, taken with a scanning electron microscope, shows a new brain electrode that tapers to a point as thick as a single carbon nanotube. Credit: Inho Yoon and Bruce Donald, Duke. [downloaded from http://today.duke.edu/2013/06/brainharpoon]

You can compare it to this harpoon from The Specialists Prop House, Traditional harpoon page,

[downloaded from The Specialists Prop House, Traditional harpoon page, http://thespecialistsltd.com/traditional-harpoon]

[downloaded from The Specialists Prop House, Traditional harpoon page, http://thespecialistsltd.com/traditional-harpoon]

I have written about some of the neuroscience work coming out of Duke University in the past, e.g., my March 4, 2013 posting about Miguel Nicolelis’ work on brain-to-brain communication.

Silver nanoparticles: we love you/we hate you

We seem to have a love/hate affair with silver nanoparticles. Long recognized as biocides capable of killing bacteria, silver nanoparticles are used both in hospital settings and in sports wear. As the use of silver nanoparticles increases, there are concerns about unintended consequences to the environment and to human health. An Apr. 12, 2013 news item on Nanowerk highlights some research done in Europe in 2011 (Note: Links have been removed),

As part of an EU funded project called Prosuite, Walser [Tobias Walser, researcher at the Institute for environmental engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zürich {ETH}] and colleagues analysed the environmental impact of nanosilver T-shirts during their entire life cycle, from raw material extraction to end-of-life disposal (“Prospective Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Nanosilver T-Shirts”). This, according to Walser, is the first of its kind for a nanomaterial. The scientists found that the T-shirt’s environmental impact during use would be reduced if they are washed less often than conventional ones, due to their antimicrobial properties. This would even compensate for a slightly higher climate footprint during production. Walser explains: “In comparison to all toxic releases during the life cycle of a T-shirt, the toxic releases from nanosilver from washing appear to be of minor relevance.” [emphasis mine]

The Apr. 11, 2013 article by Constanze Böttcher for Youris.com, which originated the news item, expands on the theme of toxicity, nanosilver, and wastewater (Note: A link has been removed),

Previous studies looked at single impacts of antibacterial textiles. For example, scientists found that nanosilver leaches into the wastewater during washing. According to other studies, this silver may not be that harmful to the environment because it is transformed into a nearly insoluble substance called silver sulphide in wastewater treatments. A study published by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency in 2012 did not find “specific risks” to health or environmental effects of nanosilver textiles available in Denmark.

This finding contrasts with more recent research at Duke University’s CEINT (Center for Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology) mesocosm project where a study did point to adverse responses (noted in my Feb. 28, 2013 posting where I highlighted two nanosilver environmental studies, a Finnish/Estonian research project and the CEINT project),

In experiments mimicking a natural environment, Duke University researchers have demonstrated that the silver nanoparticles used in many consumer products can have an adverse effect on plants and microorganisms.

The main route by which these particles enter the environment is as a by-product of water and sewage treatment plants. [emphasis] The nanoparticles are too small to be filtered out, so they and other materials end up in the resulting “sludge,” which is then spread on the land surface as a fertilizer.

The researchers found that one of the plants studied, a common annual grass known as Microstegium vimeneum, had 32 percent less biomass in the mesocosms treated with the nanoparticles. Microbes were also affected by the nanoparticles, Colman [Benjamin Colman, a post-doctoral fellow in Duke's biology department and a member of the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT)] said. One enzyme associated with helping microbes deal with external stresses was 52 percent less active, while another enzyme that helps regulate processes within the cell was 27 percent less active. The overall biomass of the microbes was also 35 percent lower, he said.

As I’ve suggested before, analysing the impact that new products and materials may have on the environment and on our health is a complex process.  From Böttcher’s 2013 article (Note: Links have been removed),

Some experts are concerned about their environmental risks, however. The study “is very relevant” because it “gives a fingerprint” about the impact of such T-shirts, Anders Baun says. But the professor in risk assessment of nanomaterials at the department of environmental engineering at the Technical University of Denmark, based in Lyngby, considers it “a bad idea to distribute silver in the environment”. He points to a study that found evidence for nanosilver accumulating in the food web based on a study of plants and animals of an experimental wetland environment. Moreover, he says, it is unknown how the coating of nanosilver influences its environmental behaviour. Baun has previously criticised the European policies regarding nanosilver and is currently enrolled in a scientific committee on the topic as invited expert. The expert group will publish its opinion later this year, he says.

There’s also the possibility that bacteria will develop resistance with increased use of silver nanoparticles in medical environments and in sportswear and in other applications.

For those who want to conduct their own investigations, here’s a link to and a citation for Walser’s 2011 paper,

Prospective Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Nanosilver T-Shirts by Tobias Walser, Evangelia Demou, Daniel J. Lang, and Stefanie Hellweg.  Environ. Sci. Technol [Environmental Science and Technology], 2011, 45 (10), pp 4570–4578 DOI: 10.1021/es2001248 Publication Date (Web): April 20, 2011
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

This paper is open access.

A description of PROSUITE (PROspective SUstaInability assessment of TEchnologies project) can be found here and the PROSUITE project website can found here.

ETA Apr. 18, 2013: An Apr. 18, 2013 news item (Barely any nanosilver from consumer products in the water) on Nanowerk provides some insight into why at least one European country views the presence of silver nanoparticles in sewage sludge without any particular alarm,

The study did not examine what happens to nanosilver in the sewage sludge thereafter. In Switzerland, it is not permissible to use sewage sludge on farmland, and most of the sludge is therefore burned. [emphasis mine] The heavy metals separated in this process should not be released into the environment in large quantities.

Here’s a link to and citation for the Swiss study,

Fate and transformation of silver nanoparticles in urban wastewater systems by Ralf Kaegia, Andreas Voegelina, Christoph Orta, Brian Sinneta, Basilius Thalmanna, Jasmin Krismerb, Harald Hagendorferc, Maline Elumelua, and Elisabeth Muellerd. Water Research, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.watres.2012.11.060 Available online 26 March 2013

The article is behind a paywall.

Prosthetics and the human brain

On the heels of research which suggests that humans tend to view their prostheses, including wheel chairs, as part of their bodies, researchers in Europe  have announced the development of a working exoskeleton powered by the wearer’s thoughts.

First, there’s the ‘wheelchair’ research, from the Mar. 6, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

People with spinal cord injuries show strong association of wheelchairs as part of their body, not extension of immobile limbs.

The human brain can learn to treat relevant prosthetics as a substitute for a non-working body part, according to research published March 6 in the open access journal PLOS ONE by Mariella Pazzaglia and colleagues from Sapienza University and IRCCS Fondazione Santa Lucia of Rome in Italy, supported by the International Foundation for Research in Paraplegie.

The researchers found that wheelchair-bound study participants with spinal cord injuries perceived their body’s edges as being plastic and flexible to include the wheelchair, independent of time since their injury or experience with using a wheelchair. Patients with lower spinal cord injuries who retained upper body movement showed a stronger association of the wheelchair with their body than those who had spinal cord impairments in the entire body.

According to the authors, this suggests that rather than being thought of only as an extension of the immobile limbs, the wheelchairs had become tangible, functional substitutes for the affected body part. …

As I mentioned in a Jan. 30, 2013 posting,

There have been some recent legal challenges as to what constitutes one’s body (from The Economist article, You, robot? [you can find the article here: http://www.economist.com/node/21560986]),

If you are dependent on a robotic wheelchair for mobility, for example, does the wheelchair count as part of your body? Linda MacDonald Glenn, an American lawyer and bioethicist, thinks it does. Ms Glenn (who is not involved in the RoboLaw project) persuaded an initially sceptical insurance firm that a “mobility assistance device” damaged by airline staff was more than her client’s personal property, it was an extension of his physical body. The airline settled out of court.

According to the Mar. 6, 2013 news release on EurekAlert from the Public Library of Science (PLoS), the open access article by Pazzaglia and her colleagues can be found here (Note: I have added a link),

Pazzaglia M, Galli G, Scivoletto G, Molinari M (2013) A Functionally Relevant Tool for the Body following Spinal Cord Injury. PLOS ONE 8(3): e58312.doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0058312

At almost the same time as Pazzaglia’s work,  a “Mind-controlled Exoskeleton” is announced in a Mar. 7, 2013 news item on ScienceDaily,

Every year thousands of people in Europe are paralysed by a spinal cord injury. Many are young adults, facing the rest of their lives confined to a wheelchair. Although no medical cure currently exists, in the future they could be able to walk again thanks to a mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton being developed by EU-funded researchers.

The system, based on innovative ‘Brain-neural-computer interface’ (BNCI) technology — combined with a light-weight exoskeleton attached to users’ legs and a virtual reality environment for training — could also find applications in there habilitation of stroke victims and in assisting astronauts rebuild muscle mass after prolonged periods in space.

The Mar. 7, 2013 news release on CORDIS, which originated the news item, offers a description of the “Mindwalker” project,

‘Mindwalker was proposed as a very ambitious project intended to investigate promising approaches to exploit brain signals for the purpose of controlling advanced orthosis, and to design and implement a prototype system demonstrating the potential of related technologies,’ explains Michel Ilzkovitz, the project coordinator at Space Applications Services in Belgium.

The team’s approach relies on an advanced BNCI system that converts electroencephalography (EEG) signals from the brain, or electromyography (EMG) signals from shoulder muscles, into electronic commands to control the exoskeleton.

The Laboratory of Neurophysiology and Movement Biomechanics at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB) focused on the exploitation of EEG and EMG signals treated by an artificial neural network, while the Foundation Santa Lucia in Italy developed techniques based on EMG signals modelled by the coupling of neural and biomechanical oscillators.

One approach for controlling the exoskeleton uses so-called ‘steady-state visually evoked potential’, a method that reads flickering visual stimuli produced at different frequencies to induce correlated EEG signals. Detection of these EEG signals is used to trigger commands such as ‘stand’, ‘walk’, ‘faster’ or ‘slower’.

A second approach is based on processing EMG signals generated by the user’s shoulders and exploits the natural arm-leg coordination in human walking: arm-swing patterns can be perceived in this way and converted into control signals commanding the exoskeleton’s legs.

A third approach, ‘ideation’, is also based on EEG-signal processing. It uses the identification and exploitation of EEG Theta cortical signals produced by the natural mental process associated with walking. The approach was investigated by the Mindwalker team but had to be dropped due to the difficulty, and time needed, in turning the results of early experiments into a fully exploitable system.

Regardless of which method is used, the BNCI signals have to be filtered and processed before they can be used to control the exoskeleton. To achieve this, the Mindwalker researchers fed the signals into a ‘Dynamic recurrent neural network’(DRNN), a processing technique capable of learning and exploiting the dynamic character of the BNCI signals.

‘This is appealing for kinematic control and allows a much more natural and fluid way of controlling an exoskeleton,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

The team adopted a similarly practical approach for collecting EEG signals from the user’s scalp. Most BNCI systems are either invasive, requiring electrodes to be placed directly into brain tissue, or require users to wear a ‘wet’ capon their head, necessitating lengthy fitting procedures and the use of special gels to reduce the electrical resistance at the interface between the skin and the electrodes. While such systems deliver signals of very good quality and signal-to-noise ratio, they are impractical for everyday use.

The Mindwalker team therefore turned to a ‘dry’ technology developed by Berlin-based eemagine Medical Imaging Solutions: a cap covered in electrodes that the user can fit themselves, and which uses innovative electronic components to amplify and optimise signals before sending them to the neural network.

‘The dry EEG cap can be placed by the subject on their head by themselves in less than a minute, just like a swimming cap,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

Before proceeding any further with details, here’s what the Mindwalker looks like,

© MINDWALKER (downladed from http://cordis.europa.eu/fetch?CALLER=OFFR_TM_EN&ACTION=D&RCN=10601)

© MINDWALKER (downloaded from http://cordis.europa.eu/fetch?CALLER=OFFR_TM_EN&ACTION=D&RCN=10601)

After finding a way to collect the EEG/EMG signals and interpret them, the researchers needed to create the exoskeleton (from the CORDIS news release),

The universities of Delft and Twente in the Netherlands proposed an innovative approach for the design of the exoskeleton and its control. The exoskeletonis designed to be sufficiently robust to bear the weight of a 100 kg adult and powerful enough to recover balance from external causes of instability such as the user’s own torso movements during walking or a gentle push from the back or side. Compared to other exoskeletons developed to date it is relatively light, weighing less than 30 kg without batteries, and, because a final version of the system should be self-powered, it is designed to minimise energy consumption.

The Mindwalker researchers achieved energy efficiency through the use of springs fitted inside the joints that are capable of absorbing and recovering some of the energy otherwise dissipated during walking, and through the development of an efficient strategy for controlling the exoskeleton.

Most exoskeletons are designed to be balanced when stationary or quasi-static and to move by little steps inside their ground stability perimeter, an approach known as ‘Zero moment point’, or ZMP. Although this approach is commonly used for controlling humanoid robots, when applied to exoskeletons, it makes them heavy and slow – and usually requires users to be assisted by a walking frame, sticks or some other support device when they move.

Alternatively, a more advanced and more natural control strategy can replicate the way humans actually walk, with a controlled loss of balance in the walking direction.

‘This approach is called “Limit-cycle walking” and has been implemented using model predictive control to predict the behaviour of the user and exoskeleton and for controlling the exoskeleton during the walk. This was the approach investigated in Mindwalker,’ Mr Ilzkovitz says.

To train users to control the exoskeleton, researchers from Space Applications Services developed a virtual-reality training platform, providing an immersive environment in which new users can safely become accustomed to using the system before testing it out in a clinical setting, and, the team hope, eventually using it in everyday life.

By the end of this year, tests with able-bodied trial users will be completed. The system will then be transferred to the Foundation Santa Lucia for conducting a clinical evaluation until May 2013 with five to 10volunteers suffering from spinal cord injuries. These trials will help identify shortcomings and any areas of performance improvement, the project coordinator says.

In the meantime, the project partners are continuing research on different components for a variety of potential applications. The project coordinator notes, for example, that elements of the system could be adapted for the rehabilitation of stroke victims or to develop easy-to-use exoskeletons for elderly people for mobility support.

Space Applications Services, meanwhile, is also exploring applications of the Mindwalker technology to train astronauts and help them rebuild muscle mass after spending long periods of time in zero-gravity environments.

There’s more about the European Commission’s Seventh Programme-funded Mindwalker project here.

Parallel with these developments in Europe, Miguel Nicolelis of Duke University has stated that he will have a working exoskeleton (Walk Again Project)  for the kickoff by a paraplegic individual for the opening of the World Cup (soccer/football) in Brazil in 2014. I mentioned Nicolelis and his work most recently in a Mar. 4, 2013 posting.

Taken together, this research which strongly suggests that people can perceive prostheses as being part of their bodies and exoskeletons that are powered by the wearer’s thoughts, we seem to be edging closer to a world where machines and humans become one.

Brain-to-brain communication, organic computers, and BAM (brain activity map), the connectome

Miguel Nicolelis, a professor at Duke University, has been making international headlines lately with two brain projects. The first one about implanting a brain chip that allows rats to perceive infrared light was mentioned in my Feb. 15, 2013 posting. The latest project is a brain-to-brain (rats) communication project as per a Feb. 28, 2013 news release on *EurekAlert,

Researchers have electronically linked the brains of pairs of rats for the first time, enabling them to communicate directly to solve simple behavioral puzzles. A further test of this work successfully linked the brains of two animals thousands of miles apart—one in Durham, N.C., and one in Natal, Brazil.

The results of these projects suggest the future potential for linking multiple brains to form what the research team is calling an “organic computer,” which could allow sharing of motor and sensory information among groups of animals. The study was published Feb. 28, 2013, in the journal Scientific Reports.

“Our previous studies with brain-machine interfaces had convinced us that the rat brain was much more plastic than we had previously thought,” said Miguel Nicolelis, M.D., PhD, lead author of the publication and professor of neurobiology at Duke University School of Medicine. “In those experiments, the rat brain was able to adapt easily to accept input from devices outside the body and even learn how to process invisible infrared light generated by an artificial sensor. So, the question we asked was, ‘if the brain could assimilate signals from artificial sensors, could it also assimilate information input from sensors from a different body?’”

Ben Schiller in a Mar. 1, 2013 article for Fast Company describes both the latest experiment and the work leading up to it,

First, two rats were trained to press a lever when a light went on in their cage. Press the right lever, and they would get a reward–a sip of water. The animals were then split in two: one cage had a lever with a light, while another had a lever without a light. When the first rat pressed the lever, the researchers sent electrical activity from its brain to the second rat. It pressed the right lever 70% of the time (more than half).

In another experiment, the rats seemed to collaborate. When the second rat didn’t push the right lever, the first rat was denied a drink. That seemed to encourage the first to improve its signals, raising the second rat’s lever-pushing success rate.

Finally, to show that brain-communication would work at a distance, the researchers put one rat in an cage in North Carolina, and another in Natal, Brazil. Despite noise on the Internet connection, the brain-link worked just as well–the rate at which the second rat pushed the lever was similar to the experiment conducted solely in the U.S.

The Duke University Feb. 28, 2013 news release, the origin for the news release on EurekAlert, provides more specific details about the experiments and the rats’ training,

To test this hypothesis, the researchers first trained pairs of rats to solve a simple problem: to press the correct lever when an indicator light above the lever switched on, which rewarded the rats with a sip of water. They next connected the two animals’ brains via arrays of microelectrodes inserted into the area of the cortex that processes motor information.

One of the two rodents was designated as the “encoder” animal. This animal received a visual cue that showed it which lever to press in exchange for a water reward. Once this “encoder” rat pressed the right lever, a sample of its brain activity that coded its behavioral decision was translated into a pattern of electrical stimulation that was delivered directly into the brain of the second rat, known as the “decoder” animal.

The decoder rat had the same types of levers in its chamber, but it did not receive any visual cue indicating which lever it should press to obtain a reward. Therefore, to press the correct lever and receive the reward it craved, the decoder rat would have to rely on the cue transmitted from the encoder via the brain-to-brain interface.

The researchers then conducted trials to determine how well the decoder animal could decipher the brain input from the encoder rat to choose the correct lever. The decoder rat ultimately achieved a maximum success rate of about 70 percent, only slightly below the possible maximum success rate of 78 percent that the researchers had theorized was achievable based on success rates of sending signals directly to the decoder rat’s brain.

Importantly, the communication provided by this brain-to-brain interface was two-way. For instance, the encoder rat did not receive a full reward if the decoder rat made a wrong choice. The result of this peculiar contingency, said Nicolelis, led to the establishment of a “behavioral collaboration” between the pair of rats.

“We saw that when the decoder rat committed an error, the encoder basically changed both its brain function and behavior to make it easier for its partner to get it right,” Nicolelis said. “The encoder improved the signal-to-noise ratio of its brain activity that represented the decision, so the signal became cleaner and easier to detect. And it made a quicker, cleaner decision to choose the correct lever to press. Invariably, when the encoder made those adaptations, the decoder got the right decision more often, so they both got a better reward.”

In a second set of experiments, the researchers trained pairs of rats to distinguish between a narrow or wide opening using their whiskers. If the opening was narrow, they were taught to nose-poke a water port on the left side of the chamber to receive a reward; for a wide opening, they had to poke a port on the right side.

The researchers then divided the rats into encoders and decoders. The decoders were trained to associate stimulation pulses with the left reward poke as the correct choice, and an absence of pulses with the right reward poke as correct. During trials in which the encoder detected the opening width and transmitted the choice to the decoder, the decoder had a success rate of about 65 percent, significantly above chance.

To test the transmission limits of the brain-to-brain communication, the researchers placed an encoder rat in Brazil, at the Edmond and Lily Safra International Institute of Neuroscience of Natal (ELS-IINN), and transmitted its brain signals over the Internet to a decoder rat in Durham, N.C. They found that the two rats could still work together on the tactile discrimination task.

“So, even though the animals were on different continents, with the resulting noisy transmission and signal delays, they could still communicate,” said Miguel Pais-Vieira, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow and first author of the study. “This tells us that it could be possible to create a workable, network of animal brains distributed in many different locations.”

Will Oremus in his Feb. 28, 2013 article for Slate seems a little less buoyant about the implications of this work,

Nicolelis believes this opens the possibility of building an “organic computer” that links the brains of multiple animals into a single central nervous system, which he calls a “brain-net.” Are you a little creeped out yet? In a statement, Nicolelis adds:

We cannot even predict what kinds of emergent properties would appear when animals begin interacting as part of a brain-net. In theory, you could imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves.

That sounds far-fetched. But Nicolelis’ lab is developing quite the track record of “taking science fiction and turning it into science,” says Ron Frostig, a neurobiologist at UC-Irvine who was not involved in the rat study. “He’s the most imaginative neuroscientist right now.” (Frostig made it clear he meant this as a complement, though skeptics might interpret the word less charitably.)

The most extensive coverage I’ve given Nicolelis and his work (including the Walk Again project) was in a March 16, 2012 post titled, Monkeys, mind control, robots, prosthetics, and the 2014 World Cup (soccer/football), although there are other mentions including in this Oct. 6, 2011 posting titled, Advertising for the 21st Century: B-Reel, ‘storytelling’, and mind control.  By the way, Nicolelis hopes to have a paraplegic individual (using technology Nicolelis is developing for the Walk Again project) kick the opening soccer/football to the 2014 World Cup games in Brazil.

While there’s much excitement about Nicolelis and his work, there are other ‘brain’ projects being developed in the US including the Brain Activity Map (BAM), which James Lewis notes in his Mar. 1, 2013 posting on the Foresight Institute blog,

A proposal alluded to by President Obama in his State of the Union address [Feb. 2013] to construct a dynamic “functional connectome” Brain Activity Map (BAM) would leverage current progress in neuroscience, synthetic biology, and nanotechnology to develop a map of each firing of every neuron in the human brain—a hundred billion neurons sampled on millisecond time scales. Although not the intended goal of this effort, a project on this scale, if it is funded, should also indirectly advance efforts to develop artificial intelligence and atomically precise manufacturing.

As Lewis notes in his posting, there’s an excellent description of BAM and other brain projects, as well as a discussion about how these ideas are linked (not necessarily by individuals but by the overall direction of work being done in many labs and in many countries across the globe) in Robert Blum’s Feb. (??), 2013 posting titled, BAM: Brain Activity Map Every Spike from Every Neuron, on his eponymous blog. Blum also offers an extensive set of links to the reports and stories about BAM. From Blum’s posting,

The essence of the BAM proposal is to create the technology over the coming decade
to be able to record every spike from every neuron in the brain of a behaving organism.
While this notion seems insanely ambitious, coming from a group of top investigators,
the paper deserves scrutiny. At minimum it shows what might be achieved in the future
by the combination of nanotechnology and neuroscience.

In 2013, as I write this, two European Flagship projects have just received funding for
one billion euro each (1.3 billion dollars each). The Human Brain Project is
an outgrowth of the Blue Brain Project, directed by Prof. Henry Markram
in Lausanne, which seeks to create a detailed simulation of the human brain.
The Graphene Flagship, based in Sweden, will explore uses of graphene for,
among others, creation of nanotech-based supercomputers. The potential synergy
between these projects is a source of great optimism.

The goal of the BAM Project is to elaborate the functional connectome
of a live organism: that is, not only the static (axo-dendritic) connections
but how they function in real-time as thinking and action unfold.

The European Flagship Human Brain Project will create the computational
capability to simulate large, realistic neural networks. But to compare the model
with reality, a real-time, functional, brain-wide connectome must also be created.
Nanotech and neuroscience are mature enough to justify funding this proposal.

I highly recommend reading Blum’s technical description of neural spikes as understanding that concept or any other in his post doesn’t require an advanced degree. Note: Blum holds a number of degrees and diplomas including an MD (neuroscience) from the University of California at San Francisco and a PhD in computer science and biostatistics from California’s Stanford University.

The Human Brain Project has been mentioned here previously. The  most recent mention is in a Jan. 28, 2013 posting about its newly gained status as one of two European Flagship initiatives (the other is the Graphene initiative) each meriting one billion euros of research funding over 10 years. Today, however, is the first time I’ve encountered the BAM project and I’m fascinated. Luckily, John Markoff’s Feb. 17, 2013 article for The New York Times provides some insight into this US initiative (Note: I have removed some links),

The Obama administration is planning a decade-long scientific effort to examine the workings of the human brain and build a comprehensive map of its activity, seeking to do for the brain what the Human Genome Project did for genetics.

The project, which the administration has been looking to unveil as early as March, will include federal agencies, private foundations and teams of neuroscientists and nanoscientists in a concerted effort to advance the knowledge of the brain’s billions of neurons and gain greater insights into perception, actions and, ultimately, consciousness.

Moreover, the project holds the potential of paving the way for advances in artificial intelligence.

What I find particularly interesting is the reference back to the human genome project, which may explain why BAM is also referred to as a ‘connectome’.

ETA Mar.6.13: I have found a Human Connectome Project Mar. 6, 2013 news release on EurekAlert, which leaves me confused. This does not seem to be related to BAM, although the articles about BAM did reference a ‘connectome’. At this point, I’m guessing that BAM and the ‘Human Connectome Project’ are two related but different projects and the reference to a ‘connectome’ in the BAM material is meant generically.  I previously mentioned the Human Connectome Project panel discussion held at the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) 2013 meeting in my Feb. 7, 2013 posting.

* Corrected EurkAlert to EurekAlert on June 14, 2013.

Silver nanoparticles, water, the environment, and toxicity

I am contrasting two very different studies on silver nanoparticles in water and their effect on the environment to highlight the complex nature of determining the risks and environmental effects associated with nanoparticles in general. One piece of research suggests that silver nanoparticles are less dangerous than other commonly used forms of silver while the other piece raises some serious concerns.

A Feb. 28, 2013 news item on Nanowerk features research about the effects that silver nanoparticles have on aquatic ecosystems (Note: A link has been removed),

According to Finnish-Estonian joint research with data obtained on two crustacean species, there is apparently no reason to consider silver nanoparticles more dangerous for aquatic ecosystems than silver ions.

The results were reported in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research late last year (“Toxicity of two types of silver nanoparticles to aquatic crustaceans Daphnia magna and Thamnocephalus platyurus”). Jukka Niskanen has utilised the same polymerisation and coupling reactions in his doctoral dissertation studying several hybrid nanomaterials, i.e. combinations of synthetic polymers and inorganic (gold, silver and montmorillonite) nanoparticles. Niskanen will defend his doctoral thesis at the University of Helsinki in April.

The University of Helsikinki Feb. 28, 2013 press release written by Minna Merilainen and which originated the new item provides details about the research,

“Due to the fact that silver in nanoparticle form is bactericidal and also fungicidal and also prevents the reproduction of those organisms, it is now used in various consumer goods ranging from wound dressing products to sportswear,” says Jukka Niskanen from the Laboratory of Polymer Chemistry at the University of Helsinki, Finland.A joint study from the University of Helsinki and the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics (Tallinn, Estonia), Toxicity of two types of silver nanoparticles to aquatic crustaceans Daphnia magna and Thamnocephalus platyurus, shows that silver nanoparticles are apparently no more hazardous to aquatic ecosystems than a water-soluble silver salt. The study compared the ecotoxicity of silver nanoparticles and a water-soluble silver salt.

“Our conclusion was that the environmental risks caused by silver nanoparticles are seemingly not higher than those caused by a silver salt. However, more research is required to reach a clear understanding of the safety of silver-containing particles,” Niskanen says.

Indeed, silver nanoparticles were found to be ten times less toxic than the soluble silver nitrate - a soluble silver salt used for the comparison.

The bioavailability of silver varies in different test media

To explain this phenomenon, the researchers refer to the variance in the bioavailability of silver to crustaceans in different tested media.

University lecturer Olli-Pekka Penttinen from the Department of Environmental Sciences of the University of Helsinki goes on to note that the inorganic and organic compounds dissolved in natural waters (such as humus), water hardness and sulfides have a definite impact on the bioavailability of silver. Due to this, the toxicity of both types of tested nanoparticles and the silver nitrate measured in the course of the study was lower in natural water than in artificial fresh water.

The toxicity of silver nanoparticles and silver ions was studied using two aquatic crustaceans, a water flea (Daphnia magna) and a fairy shrimp ( Thamnocephalus platyurus). Commercially available protein-stabilised particles and particles coated with a water-soluble, non-toxic polymer, specifically synthesised for the purpose, were used in the study. First, the polymers were produced utilising a controlled radical polymerization method. Synthetic polymer-grafted silver particles were then produced by attaching the water-soluble polymer to the surface of the silver with a sulfur bond.

Jukka Niskanen has utilised such polymerisation and coupling reactions in his doctoral dissertation. Polymeric and hybrid materials: polymers on particle surfaces and air-water interfaces, studying several hybrid nanomaterials , i.e., combinations of synthetic polymers and inorganic (gold, silver and montmorillonite) nanoparticles....

It was previously known from other studies and research results that silver changes the functioning of proteins and enzymes. It has also been shown that silver ions can prevent the replication of DNA. Concerning silver nanoparticles, tests conducted on various species of bacteria and fungi have indicated that their toxicity varies. For example, gram-negative bacteria such as Escherichia coli are more sensitive to silver nanoparticles than gram-positive ones (such as Staphylococcus aureus). The difference in sensitivity is caused by the structural differences of the cell membranes of the bacteria. The cellular toxicity of silver nanoparticles in mammals has been studied as well. It has been suggested that silver nanoparticles enter cells via endocytosis and then function in the same manner as in bacterial cells, damaging DNA and hindering cell respiration. Electron microscope studies have shown that human skin is permeable to silver nanoparticles and that the permeability of damaged skin is up to four times higher than that of healthy skin.

While this Finnish-Estonian study suggests that silver nanoparticles do not have a negative impact on the tested crustaceans in an aquatic environment, there’s a study from Duke University suggests that silver nanoparticles in wastewater which is later put to agricultural use may cause problems. From the Feb. 27, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

In experiments mimicking a natural environment, Duke University researchers have demonstrated that the silver nanoparticles used in many consumer products can have an adverse effect on plants and microorganisms.

The main route by which these particles enter the environment is as a by-product of water and sewage treatment plants. [emphasis] The nanoparticles are too small to be filtered out, so they and other materials end up in the resulting “sludge,” which is then spread on the land surface as a fertilizer.

The researchers found that one of the plants studied, a common annual grass known as Microstegium vimeneum, had 32 percent less biomass in the mesocosms treated with the nanoparticles. Microbes were also affected by the nanoparticles, Colman [Benjamin Colman, a post-doctoral fellow in Duke's biology department and a member of the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology (CEINT)] said. One enzyme associated with helping microbes deal with external stresses was 52 percent less active, while another enzyme that helps regulate processes within the cell was 27 percent less active. The overall biomass of the microbes was also 35 percent lower, he said.

“Our field studies show adverse responses of plants and microorganisms following a single low dose of silver nanoparticles applied by a sewage biosolid,” Colman said. “An estimated 60 percent of the average 5.6 million tons of biosolids produced each year is applied to the land for various reasons, and this practice represents an important and understudied route of exposure of natural ecosystems to engineered nanoparticles.”

“Our results show that silver nanoparticles in the biosolids, added at concentrations that would be expected, caused ecosystem-level impacts,” Colman said. “Specifically, the nanoparticles led to an increase in nitrous oxide fluxes, changes in microbial community composition, biomass, and extracellular enzyme activity, as well as species-specific effects on the above-ground vegetation.”

As previously noted, these two studies show just how complex the questions of risk and nanoparticles can become.  You can find out more about the Finish-Estonian study,

Toxicity of two types of silver nanoparticles to aquatic crustaceans Daphnia magna and Thamnocephalus platyurus by  Irina Blinova, Jukka Niskanen, Paula Kajankari, Liina Kanarbik, Aleksandr Käkinen, Heikki Tenhu, Olli-Pekka Penttinen, and Anne Kahru. Environmental Science and Pollution Research published November 11, 2012 online

The publisher offers an interesting option for this article. While it is behind a paywall, access is permitted through a temporary window if you want to preview a portion of the article that lies beyond the abstract.

Meanwhile here’s the article by the Duke researchers,

Low Concentrations of Silver Nanoparticles in Biosolids Cause Adverse Ecosystem Responses under Realistic Field Scenario by Benjamin P. Colman, Christina L. Arnaout, Sarah Anciaux, Claudia K. Gunsch, Michael F. Hochella Jr, Bojeong Kim, Gregory V. Lowry,  Bonnie M. McGill, Brian C. Reinsch, Curtis J. Richardson, Jason M. Unrine, Justin P. Wright, Liyan Yin, and Emily S. Bernhardt. PLoS ONE 2013; 8 (2): e57189 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057189

This article is open access as are all articles published by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) journals.

For anyone interested in the Duke University/CEINT mesocosm project, I made mention of it in an Aug. 15, 2011 posting.

‘Touching’ infrared light, if you’re a rat followed by announcement of US FDA approval of first commercial artificial retina (bionic eye)

Researcher Miguel Nicolelis and his colleagues at Duke University have implanted a neuroprosthetic device in the portion of a rat’s brain related to touch that allows the rats to see infrared light. From the Feb. 12, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

Researchers have given rats the ability to “touch” infrared light, normally invisible to them, by fitting them with an infrared detector wired to microscopic electrodes implanted in the part of the mammalian brain that processes tactile information. The achievement represents the first time a brain-machine interface has augmented a sense in adult animals, said Duke University neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis, who led the research team.

The experiment also demonstrated for the first time that a novel sensory input could be processed by a cortical region specialized in another sense without “hijacking” the function of this brain area said Nicolelis. This discovery suggests, for example, that a person whose visual cortex was damaged could regain sight through a neuroprosthesis implanted in another cortical region, he said.

Although the initial experiments tested only whether rats could detect infrared light, there seems no reason that these animals in the future could not be given full-fledged infrared vision, said Nicolelis. For that matter, cortical neuroprostheses could be developed to give animals or humans the ability to see in any region of the electromagnetic spectrum, or even magnetic fields. “We could create devices sensitive to any physical energy,” he said. “It could be magnetic fields, radio waves, or ultrasound. We chose infrared initially because it didn’t interfere with our electrophysiological recordings.”

Interestingly, the research was supported by the US National Institute of Mental Health (as per the news release).

The researchers have more to say about what they’re doing,

“The philosophy of the field of brain-machine interfaces has until now been to attempt to restore a motor function lost to lesion or damage of the central nervous system,” said Thomson, [Eric Thomson] first author of the study. “This is the first paper in which a neuroprosthetic device was used to augment function—literally enabling a normal animal to acquire a sixth sense.”

Here’s how they conducted the research,

The mammalian retina is blind to infrared light, and mammals cannot detect any heat generated by the weak infrared light used in the studies. In their experiments, the researchers used a test chamber that contained three light sources that could be switched on randomly. Using visible LED lights, they first taught each rat to choose the active light source by poking its nose into an attached port to receive a reward of a sip of water.

After training the rats, the researchers implanted in their brains an array of stimulating microelectrodes, each roughly a tenth the diameter of a human hair. The microelectrodes were implanted in the cortical region that processes touch information from the animals’ facial whiskers.

Attached to the microelectrodes was an infrared detector affixed to the animals’ foreheads. The system was programmed so that orientation toward an infrared light would trigger an electrical signal to the brain. The signal pulses increased in frequency with the intensity and proximity of the light.

The researchers returned the animals to the test chamber, gradually replacing the visible lights with infrared lights. At first in infrared trials, when a light was switched on the animals would tend to poke randomly at the reward ports and scratch at their faces, said Nicolelis. This indicated that they were initially interpreting the brain signals as touch. However, over about a month, the animals learned to associate the brain signal with the infrared source. They began to actively “forage” for the signal, sweeping their heads back and forth to guide themselves to the active light source. Ultimately, they achieved a near-perfect score in tracking and identifying the correct location of the infrared light source.

To ensure that the animals were really using the infrared detector and not their eyes to sense the infrared light, the researchers conducted trials in which the light switched on, but the detector sent no signal to the brain. In these trials, the rats did not react to the infrared light.

Their finding could have an impact on notions of mammalian brain plasticity,

A key finding, said Nicolelis, was that enlisting the touch cortex for light detection did not reduce its ability to process touch signals. “When we recorded signals from the touch cortex of these animals, we found that although the cells had begun responding to infrared light, they continued to respond to whisker touch. It was almost like the cortex was dividing itself evenly so that the neurons could process both types of information.

This finding of brain plasticity is in contrast with the “optogenetic” approach to brain stimulation, which holds that a particular neuronal cell type should be stimulated to generate a desired neurological function. Rather, said Nicolelis, the experiments demonstrate that a broad electrical stimulation, which recruits many distinct cell types, can drive a cortical region to adapt to a new source of sensory input.

All of this work is part of Nicolelis’ larger project ‘Walk Again’ which is mentioned in my March 16, 2012 posting and includes a reference to some ethical issues raised by the work. Briefly, Nicolelis and an international team of collaborators are developing a brain-machine interface that will enable full mobility for people who are severely paralyzed. From the news release,

The Walk Again Project has recently received a $20 million grant from FINEP, a Brazilian research funding agency to allow the development of the first brain-controlled whole body exoskeleton aimed at restoring mobility in severely paralyzed patients. A first demonstration of this technology is expected to happen in the opening game of the 2014 Soccer World Cup in Brazil.

Expanding sensory abilities could also enable a new type of feedback loop to improve the speed and accuracy of such exoskeletons, said Nicolelis. For example, while researchers are now seeking to use tactile feedback to allow patients to feel the movements produced by such “robotic vests,” the feedback could also be in the form of a radio signal or infrared light that would give the person information on the exoskeleton limb’s position and encounter with objects.

There’s more information including videos about the work with infrared light and rats at the Nicolelis Lab website.  Here’s a citation for and link to the team’s research paper,

Perceiving invisible light through a somatosensory cortical prosthesis by Eric E. Thomson, Rafael Carra, & Miguel A.L. Nicolelis. Nature Communications Published 12 Feb 2013 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms2497

Meanwhile, the US Food and Drug Administraton (FDA) has approved the first commercial artificial retina, from the Feb. 14, 2013 news release,

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) granted market approval to an artificial retina technology today, the first bionic eye to be approved for patients in the United States. The prosthetic technology was developed in part with support from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The device, called the Argus® II Retinal Prosthesis System, transmits images from a small, eye-glass-mounted camera wirelessly to a microelectrode array implanted on a patient’s damaged retina. The array sends electrical signals via the optic nerve, and the brain interprets a visual image.

The FDA approval currently applies to individuals who have lost sight as a result of severe to profound retinitis pigmentosa (RP), an ailment that affects one in every 4,000 Americans. The implant allows some individuals with RP, who are completely blind, to locate objects, detect movement, improve orientation and mobility skills and discern shapes such as large letters.

The Argus II is manufactured by, and will be distributed by, Second Sight Medical Products of Sylmar, Calif., which is part of the team of scientists and engineers from the university, federal and private sectors who spent nearly two decades developing the system with public and private investment.

Scientists are often compelled to do research in an area inspired by family,

“Seeing my grandmother go blind motivated me to pursue ophthalmology and biomedical engineering to develop a treatment for patients for whom there was no foreseeable cure,” says the technology’s co-developer, Mark Humayun, associate director of research at the Doheny Eye Institute at the University of Southern California and director of the NSF Engineering Research Center for Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems (BMES). …”

There’s also been considerable government investment,

The effort by Humayun and his colleagues has received early and continuing support from NSF, the National Institutes of Health and the Department of Energy, with grants totaling more than $100 million. The private sector’s support nearly matched that of the federal government.

“The retinal implant exemplifies how NSF grants for high-risk, fundamental research can directly result in ground-breaking technologies decades later,” said Acting NSF Assistant Director for Engineering Kesh Narayanan. “In collaboration with the Second Sight team and the courageous patients who volunteered to have experimental surgery to implant the first-generation devices, the researchers of NSF’s Biomimetic MicroElectronic Systems Engineering Research Center are developing technologies that may ultimately have as profound an impact on blindness as the cochlear implant has had for hearing loss.”

Leaving aside controversies about cochlear implants and the possibility of such controversies with artificial retinas (bionic eyes), it’s interesting to note that this device is dependent on an external camera,

The researchers’ efforts have bridged cellular biology–necessary for understanding how to stimulate the retinal ganglion cells without permanent damage–with microelectronics, which led to the miniaturized, low-power integrated chip for performing signal conversion, conditioning and stimulation functions. The hardware was paired with software processing and tuning algorithms that convert visual imagery to stimulation signals, and the entire system had to be incorporated within hermetically sealed packaging that allowed the electronics to operate in the vitreous fluid of the eye indefinitely. Finally, the research team had to develop new surgical techniques in order to integrate the device with the body, ensuring accurate placement of the stimulation electrodes on the retina.

“The artificial retina is a great engineering challenge under the interdisciplinary constraint of biology, enabling technology, regulatory compliance, as well as sophisticated design science,” adds Liu.  [Wentai Liu of the University of California, Los Angeles] “The artificial retina provides an interface between biotic and abiotic systems. Its unique design characteristics rely on system-level optimization, rather than the more common practice of component optimization, to achieve miniaturization and integration. Using the most advanced semiconductor technology, the engine for the artificial retina is a ‘system on a chip’ of mixed voltages and mixed analog-digital design, which provides self-contained power and data management and other functionality. This design for the artificial retina facilitates both surgical procedures and regulatory compliance.”

The Argus II design consists of an external video camera system matched to the implanted retinal stimulator, which contains a microelectrode array that spans 20 degrees of visual field. [emphasis mine] …

“The external camera system-built into a pair of glasses-streams video to a belt-worn computer, which converts the video into stimulus commands for the implant,” says Weiland [USC researcher Jim Weiland], “The belt-worn computer encodes the commands into a wireless signal that is transmitted to the implant, which has the necessary electronics to receive and decode both wireless power and data. Based on those data, the implant stimulates the retina with small electrical pulses. The electronics are hermetically packaged and the electrical stimulus is delivered to the retina via a microelectrode array.”

You can see some footage of people using artificial retinas in the context of Grégoire Cosendai’s TEDx Vienna presentation. As I noted in my Aug. 18, 2011 posting where this talk and developments in human enhancement are mentioned, the relevant material can be seen at approximately 13 mins., 25 secs. in Cosendai’s talk.

Second Sight Medical Devices can be found here.