Tag Archives: Emory University

Two bits about the brain: fiction affects your brain and the US’s BRAIN Initiative is soliciting grant submissions

As a writer I love to believe my words have a lasting impact and while this research is focused on fiction, something I write more rarely than nonfiction, hope springs eternal that one day nonfiction too will be proved as having an impact (in a good way) on the brain. From a Jan. 3, 2014 news release on EurekAlert (or you can read the Dec. 17, 2013 Emory University news release by Carol Clark),

Many people can recall reading at least one cherished story that they say changed their life. Now researchers at Emory University have detected what may be biological traces related to this feeling: Actual changes in the brain that linger, at least for a few days, after reading a novel.

“Stories shape our lives and in some cases help define a person,” says neuroscientist Gregory Berns, lead author of the study and the director of Emory’s Center for Neuropolicy. “We want to understand how stories get into your brain, and what they do to it.”

His co-authors included Kristina Blaine and Brandon Pye from the Center for Neuropolicy, and Michael Prietula from Emory’s Goizueta Business School.

Neurobiological research using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has begun to identify brain networks associated with reading stories. Most previous studies have focused on the cognitive processes involved in short stories, while subjects are actually reading them while they are in the fMRI scanner.

All of the study subjects read the same novel, “Pompeii,” a 2003 thriller by Robert Harris that is based on the real-life eruption of Mount Vesuvius in ancient Italy.

“The story follows a protagonist, who is outside the city of Pompeii and notices steam and strange things happening around the volcano,” Berns says. “He tries to get back to Pompeii in time to save the woman he loves. Meanwhile, the volcano continues to bubble and nobody in the city recognizes the signs.”

The researchers chose the book due to its page-turning plot. “It depicts true events in a fictional and dramatic way,” Berns says. “It was important to us that the book had a strong narrative line.”

For the first five days, the participants came in each morning for a base-line fMRI scan of their brains in a resting state. Then they were fed nine sections of the novel, about 30 pages each, over a nine-day period. They were asked to read the assigned section in the evening, and come in the following morning. After taking a quiz to ensure they had finished the assigned reading, the participants underwent an fMRI scan of their brain in a non-reading, resting state. After completing all nine sections of the novel, the participants returned for five more mornings to undergo additional scans in a resting state.

The results showed heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments. “Even though the participants were not actually reading the novel while they were in the scanner, they retained this heightened connectivity,” Berns says. “We call that a ‘shadow activity,’ almost like a muscle memory.”

Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.

“The neural changes that we found associated with physical sensation and movement systems suggest that reading a novel can transport you into the body of the protagonist,” Berns says. “We already knew that good stories can put you in someone else’s shoes in a figurative sense. Now we’re seeing that something may also be happening biologically.”

The neural changes were not just immediate reactions, Berns says, since they persisted the morning after the readings, and for the five days after the participants completed the novel.

“It remains an open question how long these neural changes might last,” Berns says. “But the fact that we’re detecting them over a few days for a randomly assigned novel suggests that your favorite novels could certainly have a bigger and longer-lasting effect on the biology of your brain.”

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

Short- and Long-Term Effects of a Novel on Connectivity in the Brain by Gregory S. Berns, Kristina Blaine, Michael J. Prietula, and Brandon E. Pye. Brain Connectivity. 2013, 3(6): 590-600. doi:10.1089/brain.2013.0166.

This is an open access paper where you’ll notice the participants cover a narrow range of ages (from the Materials and Methods section of the paper,

A total of 21 participants were studied. Two were excluded from the fMRI analyses: one for insufficient attendance, and the other for image abnormalities. Before the experiment, participants were screened for the presence of medical and psychiatric diagnoses, and none were taking medications. There were 12 female and 9 male participants between the ages of 19 and 27 (mean 21.5). Emory University’s Institutional Review Board approved all procedures, and all participants gave written informed consent.

It’s always good to remember that university research often draws from student populations and the question one might want to ask is whether or not those results will remain the same, more or less, throughout someone’s life span.In any event, I find this research intriguing and hope they follow this up.

Currently known as the BRAIN (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies), I first wrote about the project under its old name BAM (Brain Activity Map) in two postings, first in a March 4, 2013 posting featuring brain-to-brain communication and other brain-related tidbits, then again, in an April 2, 2013 posting featuring an announcement about its federal funding. Today (Jan. 6, 2014), I stumbled across some BRAIN funding opportunities for researchers, from the BRAIN Initiative funding opportunities webpage,

NIH released six funding opportunity announcements in support of the President’s BRAIN Initiative. Collectively, these opportunities focus on building a new arsenal of tools and technologies for helping scientists unlock the mysteries of the brain. NIH [US National Institutes of Health] plans to invest $40 million in Fiscal Year 2014 through these opportunities, contingent upon the submission of a sufficient number of scientifically meritorious applications.

The opportunities currently available are as follows:

For the interested, in the near future there will be some informational conference calls regarding these opportunities,

Informational Conference Calls for Prospective Applicants

NIH will be hosting a series of informational conference calls to address technical questions regarding applications to each of the RFAs released under the BRAIN Initiative.   Information on dates and contacts for each of the conference calls is as follows:

January 10, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-215, Transformative Approaches for Cell-Type Classification in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Andrea Beckel-Mitchener at [email protected].

January 13, 2014, 2:00-3:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-216, Development and Validation of Novel Tools to Analyze Cell-Specific and Circuit-Specific Processes in the Brain

For call-in information, contact Michelle Freund at [email protected].

January 15, 2014, 1:00-2:00 PM EST
RFA-MH-14-217, Planning for Next Generation Human Brain Imaging

For call-in information, contact Greg Farber at [email protected].

February 4, 2014, 1:00-2:30 PM EST
RFA-NS-14-007, New Technologies and Novel Approaches for Large-Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-008, Optimization of Transformative Technologies for Large Scale Recording and Modulation in the Nervous System
RFA-NS-14-009, Integrated Approaches to Understanding Circuit Function in the Nervous System

For call-in information, contact Karen David at [email protected].
In addition to accessing the information provided in the upcoming conference calls, applicants are strongly encouraged to consult with the Scientific/Research Contacts listed in each of the RFAs to discuss the alignment of their proposed work with the goals of the RFA to which they intend to apply.

Good luck!

It’s kind of fascinating to see this much emphasis on brains what with the BRAIN Initiative in the US and the Human Brain Project in Europe (my Jan. 28, 2013 posting announcing the European Union’s winning Future and Emerging Technologies (FET) research projects, The prizes (1B Euros to be paid out over 10 years to each winner) had been won by the Human Brain FET project and the Graphene FET project, respectively

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,

Emory University’s Shuming Nie discusses Iron Man 3 and nanotechnology and researchers develop an injectable nano-network

I have written about Iron Man 3 before (my May 11, 2012 posting) in the context of its nanotechnology inspirations, specifically, the Extremis Armor. For anyone not familiar with the story, I have a few bits which will bring you up to speed before getting to Shuming Nie’s commentary and some recent research into injectable nano-networks, which seems highly relevant to the Iron Man 3 discourse. First, here’s an excerpt from my May 11, 2012 posting,

In a search for Extremis, I found out that this story reboots the Iron Man mythology by incorporating nanotechnology and alchemy to create a new armor, the Extremis Armor, from the Extremis Armor website (I strongly suggest going to the website and reading the full text which includes a number of illustrative images if you find this sort of thing interesting),

When a bio-tech weapon of mass destruction was unleashed, Tony Stark threw himself onto the bleeding edge between science and alchemy, combining nanotechnology and his Iron Man armor.  The result, which debuted in Iron Man, Vol. IV, issue 5, was the Extremis Armor, Model XXXII, Mark I, which made him the most powerful hero in the world–but not without a price.

There were two key parts to this Extremis-enhanced suit.  The first part is the golden Undersheath, the protective interface between Stark’s nervous system and the second chief part, the External Suit Devices (ESDs), a.k.a. the red armor plating.

The Undersheath to the Iron Man suit components was super-compressed and stored in the hollows of Stark’s bones. The sheath material exited through skeletal pores and slid between all cells to self-assemble a new “skin” around him.  This skin provides a complete interface to the Iron Man suit components and can perform numerous other functions. (The process in reverse withdrew the Undersheath back into these specially modified areas of Tony Stark’s bone marrow tissue.)

The Undersheath is a nano-network that incorporates peptide-peptide logic (PPL), a molecular computational system made of superconducting plastic impregnated molecular chains. [my emphasis added for May.6.13 posting]  The PPL handles, among other things: memory, critical logic paths, comparative “truth” tables, automatic response look-up tables, data storage, communication, and external sensing material interface.

The lattice assembly is a stress-compression truss with powered interstitial joints.  This can surround the PPL material and guide it through Stark’s body.  This steerable, motile lattice framework is commanded by the PPL molecule computational mentality.  The metallic component to the lattice is a controlled mimetic artifact that can take on the characteristics of most elements.  Even unusual combinations of behaviors such as extreme hardness and flexibility.

The combination of the two nano-scale materials allows for a very dense non-traditional computer that can change the fabric of its design in very powerful ways. The incorporation of the Undersheath in Stark’s entire nervous system renders reflex-level computer responses to pan-spectrum stimuli.

Anthony Stark’s Bio/Metalo-Mimetic Material concept is a radical departure from the traditional solid-state underpinnings of his prior Iron Man suit designs.  Making use of nano-scale assembly technology, “smart” molecules can be made atom by atom. The design allows for simple computers to be linked into a massive parallel computer that synthesizes human thought protocols.

The External Suit Devices (ESDs), the red armor plates, were made via mega-nano technology that has assembled atoms into large, discreet effectors.  This allows for the plates to be collapsable to very small volumes for easy storage and carried in Stark’s briefcase. The ESDs were commanded by the Undersheath and were self-powered by high-capacity Kasimer plates.  They were equipped with large arrays of nano-fans that allow flight.  Armoring-up was done by drawing the suit to Stark via a vectored repulsor field, just lightly pushing them from different angles.

The armor’s memory-metal technology renders it lightweight and flexible while not in use, but extremely durable when polarized.  The armor was strong, of course, but it could be made even stronger by rerouting repulsor input to reinforce the armor’s mass.

Stark’s skin is now a part of the suit, when engaged.  [emphasis mine] Comfort is relative because the suit rapidly responds to any discomfort, from impacts to high temperatures, from itching to scratching.  The suit’s protocols include semi-autonomy when needed.  Where Stark ends and the suit begins is flexible.  The exact nature of the artificial Extremis Virus is not known (especially because Stark recompiled the dose, then tweaked the nutrients and suspended metals, radically altering Maya Hansen’s [the character Rebecca Hall will reputedly play] formulations).  The effect it has had on Stark’s body is to allow the presence of so much alien material within his body without trauma.

Because of the bio-interface between Tony and the armor, he could utilize the suit to its fullest potential and also instantly access computers and any digital system worldwide at the speed of thought.  He was biologically integrated with his armor, one with it, imbued with unprecedented powers and abilities.  He channeled and processed data, emergency signals, and satellite reconnaissance from every law enforcement, military, and intelligence service in the world–in his head.  He could send electronic signals and make phone calls with his mind.  He could see through satellites.  Plus he had the ability to transmit whatever he saw (from his visual cortex) to other people’s display screens.  The computer’s cybernetic link enables him to operate all of the armor’s functions, as well as providing a remote link to other computers (as Stark is now part of the armor this connection is seamless).  The armor’s system was connected to the global mainframe via StarkTech servers.

I also like this more generalized description of the technology in the Wikipedia essay on Extemis Comics (Note: A link has been removed),

Extremis has been referred to as a “virus” constantly since the story. The verbatim description offered by its inventor Maya Hansen, goes: “…Extremis is a super-soldier solution. It’s a bio-electronics package, fitted into a few billion graphite nanotubes and suspended in a carrier fluid. [emphasis mine] A magic bullet, like the original super-soldier serum—all fitted into a single injection. It hacks the body’s repair center—the part of the brain that keeps a complete blue print of the human body. When we’re injured, we refer to that area of the brain to heal properly. Extremis rewrites the repair center. In the first stage, the body essentially becomes an open wound. The normal human blueprint is being replaced with the Extremis blueprint. The brain is being told the body is wrong. Extremis protocol dictates that the subject be placed on life support and intravenously fed nutrients at this point. For the next two or three days, the patient remains unconscious within a cocoon of scabs. (…) Extremis uses the nutrients and body mass to grow new organs. Better ones…”

A Postmedia movie reviewer, Katherine Monk noted this about the plot in her May 3, 2013 review of Iron Man 3 ,

Apparently, back in the early days of genetic engineering, a brilliant, zit-faced scientist (Guy Pearce) offered Tony a piece of a lucrative patent that had the potential to alter the human body, and even regenerate amputated limbs.

Tony walked away from the offer as well as the pretty girl (Rebecca Hall) who worked for the genetic engineer, but in the opening sequence, we see the technology was successfully developed and tested. It makes people superhuman, but it can also make them spontaneously combust, leaving great craters and human casualties behind.

Now for the video commentary, Dr. Shuming Nie, Biomedical Engineering at Emory University, offers some scientific insight into the science and the fiction of ‘extremis’ as per Iron Man 3 in his YouTube video,

Keeping on the science theme,  researchers at North Carolina State University (NCSU) and other institutions announced an injectable nano-network for diabetics in a May 3, 2013 news release on EurekAlert,

In a promising development for diabetes treatment, researchers have developed a network of nanoscale particles that can be injected into the body and release insulin when blood-sugar levels rise, maintaining normal blood sugar levels for more than a week in animal-based laboratory tests. The work was done by researchers at North Carolina State University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Children’s Hospital Boston.

“We’ve created a ‘smart’ system that is injected into the body and responds to changes in blood sugar by releasing insulin, effectively controlling blood-sugar levels,” says Dr. Zhen Gu, lead author of a paper describing the work and an assistant professor in the joint biomedical engineering program at NC State and UNC Chapel Hill. “We’ve tested the technology in mice, and one injection was able to maintain blood sugar levels in the normal range for up to 10 days.”

Here’s how the smart system is achieved,

The new, injectable nano-network is composed of a mixture containing nanoparticles with a solid core of insulin, modified dextran and glucose oxidase enzymes. When the enzymes are exposed to high glucose levels they effectively convert glucose into gluconic acid, which breaks down the modified dextran and releases the insulin. The insulin then brings the glucose levels under control. The gluconic acid and dextran are fully biocompatible and dissolve in the body.

Each of these nanoparticle cores is given either a positively charged or negatively charged biocompatible coating. The positively charged coatings are made of chitosan (a material normally found in shrimp shells), while the negatively charged coatings are made of alginate (a material normally found in seaweed).

When the solution of coated nanoparticles is mixed together, the positively and negatively charged coatings are attracted to each other to form a “nano-network.” Once injected into the subcutaneous layer of the skin, the nano-network holds the nanoparticles together and prevents them from dispersing throughout the body. Both the nano-network and the coatings are porous, allowing blood – and blood sugar – to reach the nanoparticle cores.

“This technology effectively creates a ‘closed-loop’ system that mimics the activity of the pancreas in a healthy patient, releasing insulin in response to glucose level changes,” Gu says. “This has the potential to improve the health and quality of life of diabetes patients.”

For anyone who’s interested in researching further, heres’ a citation for and a link to the paper,

Injectable Nano-Network for Glucose-Mediated Insulin Delivery by Zhen Gu, Alex A. Aimetti, Qun Wang, Tram T. Dang, Yunlong Zhang, Omid Veiseh, Hao Cheng, Robert S. Langer, and Daniel G. Anderson. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nn400630x Publication Date (Web): May 2, 2013

Copyright © 2013 American Chemical Society

The paper is behind a paywall. Meanwhile, there are discussions about moving these injectable nano-networks into human clinical trials. As Nie notes, Iron Man 3 hints at new medical technologies which will be achievable in the next 10 or so years, although we may have to wait 100 to 150 years for  Extremis armor.

Ramanujan—a math genius who left behind math formulas that took 90 years to decode

1920, the year mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan died, is also the year he left behind mathematical formulas that may help unlock the secrets of black holes (from the Dec. 11, 2012 posting by Carol Clark for Emory University’s e-science commons blog),

“No one was talking about black holes back in the 1920s when Ramanujan first came up with mock modular forms, and yet, his work may unlock secrets about them,” Ono [Emory University mathematician Ken Ono] says.

Expansion of modular forms is one of the fundamental tools for computing the entropy of a modular black hole. Some black holes, however, are not modular, but the new formula based on Ramanujan’s vision may allow physicists to compute their entropy as though they were.

Ramanujan was on his death bed (at the age of 32) when he devised his last formulas (from the Clark posting),

Accessed from http://esciencecommons.blogspot.ca/2012/12/math-formula-gives-new-glimpse-into.html

Accessed from http://esciencecommons.blogspot.ca/2012/12/math-formula-gives-new-glimpse-into.html

… A devout Hindu, Ramanujan said that his findings were divine, revealed to him in dreams by the goddess Namagiri.

While on his death-bed in 1920, Ramanujan wrote a letter to his mentor, English mathematician G. H. Hardy. The letter described several new functions that behaved differently from known theta functions, or modular forms, and yet closely mimicked them. Ramanujan conjectured that his mock modular forms corresponded to the ordinary modular forms earlier identified by Carl Jacobi, and that both would wind up with similar outputs for roots of 1.

No one at the time understood what Ramanujan was talking about. “It wasn’t until 2002, through the work of Sander Zwegers, that we had a description of the functions that Ramanujan was writing about in 1920,” Ono says.

This year (2012) a number of special events have been held to commemorate Ramanujan’s accomplishments (Note: I have removed links), from the Clark posting,

December 22 [2012] marks the 125th anniversary of the birth of Srinivasa Ramanujan, an Indian mathematician renowned for somehow intuiting extraordinary numerical patterns and connections without the use of proofs or modern mathematical tools. ..

“I wanted to do something special, in the spirit of Ramanujan, to mark the anniversary,” says Emory mathematician Ken Ono. “It’s fascinating to me to explore his writings and imagine how his brain may have worked. It’s like being a mathematical anthropologist.”

Ono, a number theorist whose work has previously uncovered hidden meanings in the notebooks of Ramanujan, set to work on the 125th-anniversary project with two colleagues and former students: Amanda Folsom, from Yale, and Rob Rhoades, from Stanford.

The result is a formula for mock modular forms that may prove useful to physicists who study black holes. The work, which Ono recently presented at the Ramanujan 125 conference at the University of Florida, also solves one of the greatest puzzles left behind by the enigmatic Indian genius.

Here’s a trailer for the forthcoming movie (a docu-drama) about Ramanujan, from the Clark posting,

Here’s a description of Ramanujan from Wikipedia, which gives some insight into the nature of his genius (Note: I have removed links and a footnote),

Srinivasa Ramanujan FRS (…) (22 December 1887 – 26 April 1920) was an Indian mathematician and autodidact who, with almost no formal training in pure mathematics, made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory, infinite series, and continued fractions. Living in India with no access to the larger mathematical community, which was centered in Europe at the time, Ramanujan developed his own mathematical research in isolation. As a result, he sometimes rediscovered known theorems in addition to producing new work. Ramanujan was said to be a natural genius by the English mathematician G.H. Hardy, in the same league as mathematicians like Euler and Gauss.

There is a little more to Ono’s latest work concerning Ramanujan’s deathbed math functions (from the Clark posting),

After coming up with the formula for computing a mock modular form, Ono wanted to put some icing on the cake for the 125th-anniversary celebration. He and Emory graduate students Michael Griffin and Larry Rolen revisited the paragraph in Ramanujan’s last letter that gave a vague description for how he arrived at the functions. That one paragraph has inspired hundreds of papers by mathematicians, who have pondered its hidden meaning for eight decades.

“So much of what Ramanujan offers comes from mysterious words and strange formulas that seem to defy mathematical sense,” Ono says. “Although we had a definition from 2002 for Ramanujan’s functions, it was still unclear how it related to Ramanujan’s awkward and imprecise definition.”

Ono and his students finally saw the meaning behind the puzzling paragraph, and a way to link it to the modern definition. “We developed a theorem that shows that the bizarre methodology he used to construct his examples is correct,” Ono says. “For the first time, we can prove that the exotic functions that Ramanujan conjured in his death-bed letter behave exactly as he said they would, in every case.”

Ono is now on a mathematicians’ tour in India (from the Clark posting),

Ono will spend much of December in India, taking overnight trains to Mysore, Bangalore, Chennai and New Dehli, as part of a group of distinguished mathematicians giving talks about Ramanujan in the lead-up to the anniversary date.

“Ramanujan is a hero in India so it’s kind of like a math rock tour,” Ono says, adding, “I’m his biggest fan. My professional life is inescapably intertwined with Ramanujan. Many of the mathematical objects that I think about so profoundly were anticipated by him. I’m so glad that he existed.”

Between this and the series developed by Alex Bellos about mathematics in Japan (my Oct. 17, 2012 posting), it seems that attention is turning eastward where the study and development of mathematics is concerned. H/T to EurekAlert’s Dec. 17, 2012 news release and do read Clark’s article if you want more information about Ono and Ramanujan.

Looking at glass on the molecular scale

Glass isn’t transparent (at the molecular scale) as it’s cooling and scientists have been curious about this transition from liquid to glass state. According to an Oct. 15, 2012 posting by Carol Clark for Emory University’s eScienceCommons, a team from Emory University (and New York University)  has cracked this mystery. First, here’s more about the mystery (from Clark’s article)

Scientists fully understand the process of water turning to ice. As the temperature cools, the movement of the water molecules slows. At 32 F, the molecules lock into crystal lattices, solidifying into ice. In contrast, the molecules of glasses do not crystallize.The movement of the glass molecules slows as the temperature cools, but they never lock into crystal patterns. Instead, they jumble up and gradually become glassier, or more viscous. No one understands exactly why.

The phenomenon leaves physicists to ponder the molecular question of whether glass is a solid, or merely an extremely slow-moving liquid.

This purely technical physics question has stoked a popular misconception: That the glass in the windowpanes of some centuries-old buildings is thicker at the bottom because the glass flowed downward over time.

“The real reason the bottom is thicker is because they hadn’t yet learned how to make perfectly flat panes of glass,” Weeks says [Emory physicist Eric Weeks]. “For practical purposes, glass is a solid and it will not flow, even over centuries. But there is a kernel of truth in this urban legend: Glasses are different than other solid materials.”

Speaking more technically about the transition,

“Cooling a glass from a liquid into a highly viscous state fundamentally changes the nature of particle diffusion,” says Emory physicist Eric Weeks, whose lab conducted the research. “We have provided the first direct observation of how the particles move and tumble through space during this transition, a key piece to a major puzzle in condensed matter physics.”

Weeks specializes in “soft condensed materials,” substances that cannot be pinned down on the molecular level as a solid or liquid, including everyday substances such as toothpaste, peanut butter, shaving cream, plastic and glass.

The scientists have prepared a video animation of what they believing is occurring as glass cools (no sound),

Here’s what the movie depicts (from the Clark article),

The movie and data from the experiment provide the first clear picture of the particle dynamics for glass formation. As the liquid grows slightly more viscous, both rotational and directional particle motion slows. The amount of rotation and the directional movements of the particles remain correlated.

“Normally, these two types of motion are highly coupled,” Weeks says. “This remains true until the system reaches a viscosity on the verge of being glass. Then the rotation and directional movements become decoupled: The rotation starts slowing down more.”

He uses a gridlocked parking lot as an analogy for how the particles are behaving. “You can’t turn your car around, because it’s not a sphere shape and you would bump into your neighbors. You have to wait until a car in front of you moves, and then you can drive a bit in that direction. This is directional movement, and if you can make a bunch of these, you may eventually be able to turn your car. But turning in a crowded parking lot is still much harder than moving in a straight line.”

There’s more about the work and team in Clark’s article. H/T to the Oct. 16, 2012 news item on Nanowerk for alerting me to this work. You can find the article the researchers have written at the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS),

Decoupling of rotational and translational diffusion in supercooled colloidal fluids by Kazem V. Edmond, Mark T. Elsesser, Gary L. Hunter, David J. Pine, and Eric R. Weeks. Published online before print October 15, 2012, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1203328109 PNAS October 15, 2012

The article is behind a paywall.

Water, water, everywhere in cages, prisms, and books according to new study

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) and at Emory University (Georgia, US) have a better understanding of hexamers found in the smallest of water droplets. From the Aug.16, 2012 news item on Nanowerk,

A new study by researchers at the University of California, San Diego, and Emory University has uncovered fundamental details about the hexamer structures that make up the tiniest droplets of water, the key component of life – and one that scientists still don’t fully understand.

The Aug. 15, 2012 news release by Jan Zverina for UCSD offers an explanation for why scientists would put effort into understanding the structure of tiny water droplets,

“About 60% of our bodies are made of water that effectively mediates all biological processes,” said Francesco Paesani, one of the paper’s corresponding authors who is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UC San Diego and a computational researcher with the university’s San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC). “Without water, proteins don’t work and life as we know it wouldn’t exist. Understanding the molecular properties of the hydrogen bond network of water is the key to understanding everything else that happens in water. And we still don’t have a precise picture of the molecular structure of liquid water in different environments.”

Researchers know that the unique properties of water are due to its capability of forming a highly flexible but still dense hydrogen bond network which adapts according to the surrounding environment. As described in the JACS [Journal of the American Chemical Society] paper, researchers have determined the relative populations of the different isomers of the water hexamer as they assemble into various configurations called ‘cage’, ‘prism’, and ‘book’.

Here in more technical terms is a discussion about the importance of water hexamers,

The water hexamer is considered the smallest drop of water because it is the smallest water cluster that is three dimensional, i.e., a cluster where the oxygen atoms of the molecules do not lie on the same plane. As such, it is the prototypical system for understanding the properties of the hydrogen bond dynamics in the condensed phases because of its direct connection with ice, as well as with the structural arrangements that occur in liquid water.

This system also allows scientists to better understand the structure and dynamics of water in its liquid state, which plays a central role in many phenomena of relevance to different areas of science, including physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and climate research. For example, the hydration structure around proteins affects their stability and function, water in the active sites of enzymes affects their catalytic power, and the behavior of water adsorbed on atmospheric particles drives the formation of clouds.

The scientists have provided an illustration of two water hexamer structures,

Three-dimensional representations of the prism (left) and cage (right) structures of the water hexamer, the smallest drop of water. The mesh contours represent the actual quantum-mechanical densities of the oxygen (red) and hydrogen (white) atoms. The small yellow spheres represent the hydrogen bonds between the six water molecules. Characterizing the hydrogen-bond topology of the water hexamer at the molecular level is key to understanding the unique and often surprising properties of liquid water, our life matrix. Images courtesy of Volodymyr Babin and Francesco Paesani, UC San Diego.

Here’s the full citation for the research paper if you want to follow up on it or you can read more in either the news item or news release,

The Water Hexamer: Cage, Prism, or Both. Full Dimensional Quantum Simulations Say Both; Yimin Wang, Volodymyr Babin, Joel M. Bowman, and Francesco Paesani; J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2012, 134 (27), pp 11116–11119 DOI: 10.1021/ja304528m

The article is behind a paywall.

Public opinion doesn’t shake easily; Wilson talk on Artificial Intelligence

Over on the Framing Science blog, Matthew C. Nisbet has posted about the impact that ClimateGate has not had on public opinion about climate change. From the post,

The full report [by Jon Krosnick, professor at Stanford University, on most recent public opinion poll about cljmate change and ClimateGate] should be read, but below I feature several key conclusions. Despite alarm over the presumed impact of ClimateGate, Krosnick’s  analysis reveals very little influence for this event. More research is likely to come on this issue and this is just the first systematic analysis to be released.

Yet there is an even more interesting question emerging here than the impact of ClimateGate on public opinion: If communication researchers have difficulty discerning a meaningful impact for ClimateGate, why do so many scientists and advocates continue to misread public opinion on climate change and to misunderstand the influence of the news media? As I argue below, an additional object of study in this case should be the factors shaping the perceptions of scientists and advocates.

—>Krosnick’s analysis estimates that the percentage of Americans who believe in global warming has only dropped 5% since 2008 and that ClimateGate has had no meaningful impact on trust in climate scientists which stands at 70% (essentially the same as the 68% level in 2008).

A 5% drop isn’t to be sneezed at but taken into perspective it is predictable and, assuming these are ‘good’ figures, then in the short term, there has not been an appreciable impact. Makes sense, doesn’t it? After all, most people don’t change their opinions that easily. Oh they might have a crisis of confidence or a momentary hysterical response (I confess) but most of our opinions about important issues tend to persist over time and in the face of contradictory evidence.

Nisbet’s post makes reference to some other work, this time on scientists’ ideologies (liberal or conservative [not the Canadian political parties]) done by the Pew Research Center and released in July 2009. (Nisbet’s comments on ideology and scientists here and the Pew Research Center study here) Intriguingly, there’s a larger percentage of scientists (50%) self-identified as liberal than members of the general public (20%).

According to work published shortly after and mentioned on this blog here in a comment about the public’s focus on the benefits of nanotechnology while scientists focus on risks and economic value, by Elizabeth Corley (Arizona State University), this difference in focus may have something to do with ideology,  from the news release,

Decision-makers often rely on the input of scientists when setting policies on nanotechnology because of the high degree of scientific uncertainty – and the lack of data – about its risks, Corley says.

“This difference in the way nanoscientists and the public think about regulations is important for policymakers (to take into consideration) if they are planning to include both groups in the policymaking process for nanotechnology,” says Corley.

The study also reveals an interesting divide within the group of nanoscientists. Economically conservative scientists were less likely to support regulations, while economically liberal scientists were more likely to do so.

This suggests that a more nuanced approach to measuring public perception may be emerging despite  the rather disappointing meta analysis by Dr. Terre Satterfield of public perceptions about nanotechnology benefits and risks (mentioned on this blog here).

On a completely other note, I recently attended a lecture/presentation by Elizabeth Wilson, professor of Women’s Studies at Emory University (Atlanta, Georgia, US) given at the Green College at the University of British Columbia about artificial intelligence circa the early 1960s, titled, “Extravagance of affect:; How to build an artificial mind. I’m not sure who this lecture was aimed at. While I was deeply thankful for her detailed explanations of basic concepts, presumably people in the field of Women’s Studies wouldn’t have needed so much explanation.  Conversely, her presentation had some gaps where she jumped over things which you can only do if your audience is well versed on the topic.

I haven’t seen much about emotions and artificial intelligence prior to this talk so maybe Wilson is forging into new territory and over time will get better at presenting her material to audiences who are not familiar with her specialty. In the meantime, I’m not sure what to make of her work.

Later this week, I’m hoping to be publishing an interview with Peter Julian the NDP member of Parliament (Canada) who recently tabled a member’s bill on nanotechnology.