Tag Archives: Switzerland

A ‘sweat’mometer—sensing your health through your sweat

At this point, it’s more fitness monitor than diagnostic tool, so, you’ll still need to submit blood, stool, and urine samples when the doctor requests it but the device does offer some tantalizing possibilities according to a May 15, 2015 news item on phys.org,

Made from state-of-the-art silicon transistors, an ultra-low power sensor enables real-time scanning of the contents of liquids such as perspiration. Compatible with advanced electronics, this technology boasts exceptional accuracy – enough to manufacture mobile sensors that monitor health.

Imagine that it is possible, through a tiny adhesive electronic stamp attached to the arm, to know in real time one’s level of hydration, stress or fatigue while jogging. A new sensor developed at the Nanoelectronic Devices Laboratory (Nanolab) at EPFL [École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland] is the first step toward this application. “The ionic equilibrium in a person’s sweat could provide significant information on the state of his health,” says Adrian Ionescu, director of Nanolab. “Our technology detects the presence of elementary charged particles in ultra-small concentrations such as ions and protons, which reflects not only the pH balance of sweat but also more complex hydration of fatigues states. By an adapted functionalization I can also track different kinds of proteins.”

A May 15, 2015 EPFL press release by Laure-Anne Pessina, which originated the news item, includes a good technical explanation of the device for non-experts in the field,

Published in the journal ACS Nano, the device is based on transistors that are comparable to those used by the company Intel in advanced microprocessors. On the state-of-the-art “FinFET” transistor, researchers fixed a microfluidic channel through which the fluid to be analyzed flows. When the molecules pass, their electrical charge disturbs the sensor, which makes it possible to deduce the fluid’s composition.

The new device doesn’t host only sensors, but also transistors and circuits enabling the amplification of the signals – a significant innovation. The feat relies on a layered design that isolates the electronic part from the liquid substance. “Usually it is necessary to use separately a sensor for detection and a circuit for computing and signal amplification,” says Sara Rigante, lead author of the publication. “In our chip, sensors and circuits are in the same device – making it a ‘Sensing integrated circuit’. This proximity ensures that the signal is not disturbed or altered. We can thereby obtain extremely stable and accurate measurements.”

But that’s not all. Due to the size of the transistors – 20 nanometers, which is one hundred to one thousand times smaller than the thickness of a hair – it is possible to place a whole network of sensors on one chip, with each sensor locating a different particle. “We could also detect calcium, sodium or potassium in sweat,” the researcher elaborates.

As to what makes the device special (from the press release),

The technology developed at EPFL stands out from its competitors because it is extremely stable, compatible with existing electronics (CMOS), ultra-low power and easy to reproduce in large arrays of sensors. “In the field of biosensors, research around nanotechnology is intense, particularly regarding silicon nanowires and nanotubes. But these technologies are frequently unstable and therefore unusable for now in industrial applications,” says Ionescu. “In the case of our sensor, we started from extremely powerful, advanced technology and adapted it for sensing need in a liquid-gate FinFET configurations. The precision of the electronics is such that it is easy to clone our device in millions with identical characteristics.”

In addition, the technology is not energy intensive. “We could feed 10,000 sensors with a single solar cell,” Professor Ionescu asserts.

Of course, there does seem to be one shortcoming (from the press release),

Thus far, the tests have been carried out by circulating the liquid with a tiny pump. Researchers are currently working on a means of sucking the sweat into the microfluidic tube via wicking. This would rid the small analyzing “band-aid” of the need for an attached pump.

While they work on eliminating the pump part of the device, here’s  a link to and a citation for the paper,

Sensing with Advanced Computing Technology: Fin Field-Effect Transistors with High-k Gate Stack on Bulk Silicon by Sara Rigante, Paolo Scarbolo, Mathias Wipf, Ralph L. Stoop, Kristine Bedner, Elizabeth Buitrago, Antonios Bazigos, Didier Bouvet, Michel Calame, Christian Schönenberger, and Adrian M. Ionescu. ACS Nano, Article ASAP DOI: 10.1021/nn5064216 Publication Date (Web): March 27, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

As for the ‘sweat’mometer in the headline, I was combining sweat with thermometer.

Measuring a singular spin of a biological molecule

I gather there are some Swiss scientists excited about obtaining experimental proof for room temperature detection of a  biological molecule’s spin. From a May 11, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Physicists of the University of Basel and the Swiss Nanoscience Institute were able to show for the first time that the nuclear spins of single molecules can be detected with the help of magnetic particles at room temperature.

In Nature Nanotechnology (“High-efficiency resonant amplification of weak magnetic fields for single spin magnetometry at room temperature”), the researchers describe a novel experimental setup with which the tiny magnetic fields of the nuclear spins of single biomolecules – undetectable so far – could be registered for the first time. The proposed concept would improve medical diagnostics as well as analyses of biological and chemical samples in a decisive step forward.

A May 11, 2015 University of Basel press release, which originated the news item, explains why the researchers are excited about a ‘room temperature’ approach to measuring a nuclear spin,

The measurement of nuclear spins is routine by now in medical diagnostics (MRI). However, the currently existing devices need billions of atoms for the analysis and thus are not useful for many small-scale applications. Over many decades, scientists worldwide have thus engaged in an intense search for alternative methods, which would improve the sensitivity of the measurement techniques.

With the help of various types of sensors (SQUID- and Hall-sensors) and with magnetic resonance force microscopes, it has become possible to detect spins of single electrons and achieve structural resolution at the nanoscale. However, the detection of single nuclear spins of complex biological samples – the holy grail in the field – has not been possible so far.

Diamond crystals with tiny defects

The researchers from Basel now investigate the application of sensors made out of diamonds that host tiny defects in their crystal structure. In the crystal lattice of the diamond a Carbon atom is replaced by a Nitrogen atom, with a vacant site next to it. These so-called Nitrogen-Vacancy (NV) centers generate spins, which are ideally suited for detection of magnetic fields. At room temperature, researchers have shown experimentally in many labs before that with such NV centers resolution of single molecules is possible. However, this requires atomistically close distances between sensor and sample, which is not possible for biological material.

A tiny ferromagnetic particle, placed between sample and NV center, can solve this problem. Indeed, if the nuclear spin of the sample is driven at a specific resonance frequency, the resonance of the ferromagnetic particle changes. With the help of an NV center that is in close proximity of the magnetic particle, the scientists can then detect this modified resonance.

Measuring technology breakthrough?

The theoretical analysis and experimental techniques of the researchers in the teams of Prof. Daniel Loss and Prof. Patrick Maletinsky have shown that the use of such ferromagnetic particles can lead to a ten-thousand-fold amplification of the magnetic field of nuclear spins. „I am confident that our concept will soon be implemented in real systems and will lead to a breakthrough in metrology“ [science of measurement], comments Daniel Loss the recent publication, where the first author Dr. Luka Trifunovic, postdoc in the Loss team, made essential contributions and which was performed in collaboration with colleagues from the JARA Institute for Quantum Information (Aachen, Deutschland) and the Harvard University (Cambridge, USA).

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

High-efficiency resonant amplification of weak magnetic fields for single spin magnetometry at room temperature by  Luka Trifunovic, Fabio L. Pedrocchi, Silas Hoffman, Patrick Maletinsky, Amir Yacoby, & Daniel Loss. Nature Nanotechnology (2015) doi:10.1038/nnano.2015.74 Published online 11 May 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

The shorter, the better for cellulose nanofibres

Cellulose nanomaterials can be derived from any number of plants. In Canada, we tend to think of our trees first but there are other sources such as cotton, bananas, hemp, carrots, and more.

In anticipation that cellulose nanofibres will become increasingly important constituents of various products and having noticed a resemblance to carbon nanotubes, scientists in Switzerland have investigated the possible toxicity issues according to a May 7, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Plant-based cellulose nanofibres do not pose a short-term health risk, especially short fibres, shows a study conducted in the context of National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” (NRP 64). But lung cells are less efficient in eliminating longer fibres.

Similar to carbon nanotubes that are used in cycling helmets and tennis rackets, cellulose nanofibres are extremely light while being extremely tear-resistant. But their production is significantly cheaper because they can be manufactured from plant waste of cotton or banana plants. “It is only a matter of time before they prevail on the market,” says Christoph Weder of the Adolphe Merkle Institute at the University of Fribourg [Switzerland].

A May 7, 2015 Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

In the context of the National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” (NRP 64), he collaborated with the team of Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser to examine whether these plant-based nanofibres are harmful to the lungs when inhaled. The investigation does not rely on animal testing; instead the group of Rothen-Rutishauser developped a complex 3D lung cell system to simulate the surface of the lungs by using various human cell cultures in the test tube.

The shorter, the better

Their results (*) show that cellulose nanofibres are not harmful: the analysed lung cells showed no signs of acute stress or inflammation. But there were clear differences between short and long fibres: the lung cell system efficiently eliminated short fibres while longer fibres stayed on the cell surface.

“The testing only lasted two days because we cannot grow the cell cultures for longer,” explains Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser. For this reason, she adds, they cannot say if the longer fibre may have a negative impact on the lungs in the long term. Tests involving carbon nanotubes have shown that lung cells lose their equilibrium when they are faced with long tubes because they try to incorporate them into the cell to no avail. “This frustrated phagocytosis can trigger an inflammatory reaction,” says Rothen-Rutishauser. To avoid potential harm, she recommends that companies developing products with nanofibres use fibres that are short and pliable instead of long and rigid.

National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” (NRP 64)

The National Research Programme “Opportunities and Risks of Nanomaterials” (NRP 64) hopes to be able to bridge the gaps in our current knowledge on nanomaterials. Opportunities and risks for human health and the environment in relation to the manufacture, use and disposal of synthetic nanomaterials need to be better understood. The projects started their research work in December 2010.

I have a link to and a citation for the paper (Note: They use the term cellulose nanocrystals in the paper’s title),

Fate of Cellulose Nanocrystal Aerosols Deposited on the Lung Cell Surface In Vitro by Carola Endes, Silvana Mueller, Calum Kinnear, Dimitri Vanhecke, E. Johan Foster, Alke Petri-Fink, Christoph Weder, Martin J. D. Clift, and Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser. Biomacromolecules, 2015, 16 (4), pp 1267–1275 DOI: 10.1021/acs.biomac.5b00055 Publication Date (Web): March 19, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

While tracking down the 2015 paper, I found this from 2011,

Investigating the Interaction of Cellulose Nanofibers Derived from Cotton with a Sophisticated 3D Human Lung Cell Coculture by Martin J. D. Clift, E. Johan Foster, Dimitri Vanhecke, Daniel Studer, Peter Wick, Peter Gehr, Barbara Rothen-Rutishauser, and Christoph Weder. Biomacromolecules, 2011, 12 (10), pp 3666–3673 DOI: 10.1021/bm200865j Publication Date (Web): August 16, 2011

Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society

Both papers are behind a paywall.

Wound healing is nature’s way of zipping up your skin

Scientists have been able to observe the healing process at the molecular scale—in fruit flies. From an April 21, 2015 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists from the Goethe University (GU) Frankfurt, the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) Heidelberg and the University of Zurich explain skin fusion at a molecular level and pinpoint the specific molecules that do the job in their latest publication in the journal Nature Cell Biology.

An April 21, 2015 Goethe University Frankfurt press release on EurekAlert, which originated the news item, describes similarities between humans and fruit flies allowing scientists to infer the wound healing process for human skin,

In order to prevent death by bleeding or infection, every wound (skin opening) must close at some point. The events leading to skin closure had been unclear for many years. Mikhail Eltsov (GU) and colleagues used fruit fly embryos as a model system to understand this process. Similarly to humans, fruit fly embryos at some point in their development have a large opening in the skin on their back that must fuse. This process is called zipping, because two sides of the skin are fastened in a way that resembles a zipper that joins two sides of a jacket.

The scientists have used a top-of-the-range electron microscope to study exactly how this zipping of the skin works. “Our electron microscope allows us to distinguish the molecular components in the cell that act like small machines to fuse the skin. When we look at it from a distance, it appears as if skin cells simply fuse to each other, but if we zoom in, it becomes clear that membranes, molecular machines, and other cellular components are involved”, explains Eltsov.

“In order to visualize this orchestra of healing, a very high-resolution picture of the process is needed. For this purpose we have recorded an enormous amount of data that surpasses all previous studies of this kind”, says Mikhail Eltsov.

As a first step, as the scientists discovered, cells find their opposing partner by “sniffing” each other out. As a next step, they develop adherens junctions which act like a molecular Velcro. This way they become strongly attached to their opposing partner cell. The biggest revelation of this study was that small tubes in the cell, called microtubules, attach to this molecular Velcro and then deploy a self-catastrophe, which results in the skin being pulled towards the opening, as if one pulls a blanket over.

Damian Brunner who led the team at the University of Zurich has performed many genetic manipulations to identify the correct components. The scientists were astonished to find that microtubules involved in cell-division are the primary scaffold used for zipping, indicating a mechanism conserved during evolution.

“What was also amazing was the tremendous plasticity of the membranes in this process which managed to close the skin opening in a very short space of time. When five to ten cells have found their respective neighbors, the skin already appears normal”, says Achilleas Frangakis from the Goethe University Frankfurt, who led the study.

The scientists hope that their results will open new avenues into the understanding of epithelial plasticity and wound healing. They are also investigating the detailed structural organization of the adherens junctions, work for which they were awarded a starting grant from European Research Council (ERC).

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

Quantitative analysis of cytoskeletal reorganization during epithelial tissue sealing by large-volume electron tomography by Mikhail Eltsov, Nadia Dubé, Zhou Yu, Laurynas Pasakarnis, Uta Haselmann-Weiss, Damian Brunner, & Achilleas S. Frangakis. Nature Cell Biology (2015) doi:10.1038/ncb3159 Published online 20 April 2015

This paper is behind a paywall but there is a free preview available via ReadCube Access.

The researchers have provided an image illustrating ‘wound zipping’.

Caption: This is a perspective view of the zipping area with 17 skin cells. Credit: GU

Caption: This is a perspective view of the zipping area with 17 skin cells.
Credit: GU

Nanobionic plant materials

This is a bioinspired story with a bit of a twist. From a March 30, 2015 news item on Nanowerk (Note: A link has been removed),

Humans have been inspired by nature since the beginning of time. We mimic nature to develop new technologies, with examples ranging from machinery to pharmaceuticals to new materials. Planes are modelled on birds and many drugs have their origins in plants. Researchers at the Department of Mechanical and Process Engineering [ETH Zurich; Swiss Federal Institute of Technology] have taken it a step further: in order to develop an extremely sensitive temperature sensor they took a close look at temperature-sensitive plants. However, they did not mimic the properties of the plants; instead, they developed a hybrid material that contains, in addition to synthetic components, the plant cells themselves (“Plant nanobionic materials with a giant temperature response mediated by pectin-Ca2+”). [emphasis mine] “We let nature do the job for us,” explains Chiara Daraio, Professor of Mechanics and Materials.

The scientists were able to develop by far the most sensitive temperature sensor: an electronic module that changes its conductivity as a function of temperature. “No other sensor can respond to such small temperature fluctuations with such large changes in conductivity. Our sensor reacts with a responsivity at least 100 times higher compared to the best existing sensors,” says Raffaele Di Giacomo, a post-doc in Daraio’s group.

The scientists have provided an illustration of their concept using a tobacco leaf as the backdrop,

ETH scientists used cells form the tobacco plant to build the by far most sensitive temperature sensor. (Illustration: Daniele Flo / ETH Zurich)

ETH scientists used cells form the tobacco plant to build the by far most sensitive temperature sensor. (Illustration: Daniele Flo / ETH Zurich)

A March 31, 2015 ETH Zurich press release, which despite the release date originated the news item, describes the concept in more detail,

It has been known for decades that plants have the extraordinary ability to register extremely fine temperature differences and respond to them through changes in the conductivity of their cells. In doing so, plants are better than any man-made sensor so far.

Di Giacomo experimented with tobacco cells in a cell culture. “We asked ourselves how we might transfer these cells into a lifeless, dry material in such a way that their temperature-sensitive properties are preserved,” he recounts. The scientists achieved their objective by growing the cells in a medium containing tiny tubes of carbon. These electrically conductive carbon nanotubes formed a network between the tobacco cells and were also able to penetrate the cell walls. When Di Giacomo dried the nanotube-cultivated cells, he discovered a woody, firm material that he calls ‘cyberwood’. In contrast to wood, this material is electrically conductive thanks to the nanotubes, and interestingly the conductivity is temperature-dependent and extremely sensitive, just like in living tobacco cells.

The scientists considered  the new material’s (cyberwood) properties and possible future applications (from the news release),

As demonstrated by experiments, the cyberwood sensor can identify warm bodies even at distance; for example, a hand approaching the sensor from a distance of a few dozen centimetres. The sensor’s conductivity depends directly on the hand’s distance from the sensor.

According to the scientists, cyberwood could be used in a wide range of applications; for instance, in the development of a ‘touchless touchscreen’ that reacts to gestures, with the gestures recorded by multiple sensors. Equally conceivable might be heat-sensitive cameras or night-vision devices.

The Swiss researchers along with a collaborator at the University of Salerno (Italy) did further research into the origins of the material’s behaviour (from the news release),

The ETH scientists, together with a collaborator at the University of Salerno, Italy, not only subjected their new material’s properties to a detailed examination, they also analysed the origins of their extraordinary behaviour. They discovered that pectins and charged atoms (ions) play a key role in the temperature sensitivity of both living plant cells and the dry cyberwood. Pectins are sugar molecules found in plant cell walls that can be cross-linked, depending on temperature, to form a gel. Calcium and magnesium ions are both present in this gel. “As the temperature rises, the links of the pectin break apart, the gel becomes softer, and the ions can move about more freely,” explains Di Giacomo. As a result, the material conducts electricity better when temperature increases.

The news release goes on to mention a patent and future plans,

The scientists submitted a patent application for their sensor. In ongoing work, they are now further developing it such that it functions without plant cells, essentially with only pectin and ions. Their goal is to create a flexible, transparent and even biocompatible sensor with the same ultrahigh temperature sensitivity. Such a sensor could be moulded into arbitrary shapes and produced at extremely low cost. This will open the door to new applications for thermal sensors in biomedical devices, consumer products and low cost thermal cameras.

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

Plant nanobionic materials with a giant temperature response mediated by pectin-Ca2+ by Raffaele Di Giacomo, Chiara Daraio, and Bruno Maresca. Published online before print March 30, 2015, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1421020112 PNAS March 30, 2015

This paper is behind a paywall.

Spinal cords, brains, implants, and remote control

I have two items about implants and brains and an item about being able to exert remote control of the brain, all of which hint at a cyborg future for at least a few of us.

e-Dura, the spinal column, and the brain

The first item concerns some research, at the École Polytechnique de Lausanne (EPFL) which features flexible electronics. From a March 24, 2015 article by Ben Schiller for Fast Company (Note: Links have been removed),

Researchers at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, in Lausanne, have developed the e-Dura—a tiny skinlike device that attaches directly to damaged spinal cords. By sending out small electrical pulses, it stimulates the cord as if it were receiving signals from the brain, thus allowing movement.

“The purpose of the neuro-prosthesis is to excite the neurons that are on the spinal cord below the site of the injury and activate them, just like if they were receiving information from the brain,” says Stéphanie Lacour, a professor at the institute.

A January 8, 2015 (?) EPFL press release provides more information about the research,

EPFL scientists have managed to get rats walking on their own again using a combination of electrical and chemical stimulation. But applying this method to humans would require multifunctional implants that could be installed for long periods of time on the spinal cord without causing any tissue damage. This is precisely what the teams of professors Stéphanie Lacour and Grégoire Courtine have developed. Their e-Dura implant is designed specifically for implantation on the surface of the brain or spinal cord. The small device closely imitates the mechanical properties of living tissue, and can simultaneously deliver electric impulses and pharmacological substances. The risks of rejection and/or damage to the spinal cord have been drastically reduced. An article about the implant will appear in early January [2015] in Science Magazine.

So-called “surface implants” have reached a roadblock; they cannot be applied long term to the spinal cord or brain, beneath the nervous system’s protective envelope, otherwise known as the “dura mater,” because when nerve tissues move or stretch, they rub against these rigid devices. After a while, this repeated friction causes inflammation, scar tissue buildup, and rejection.

Here’s what the implant looks like,

Courtesy: EPFL

Courtesy: EPFL

The press release describes how the implant is placed (Note: A link has been removed),

Flexible and stretchy, the implant developed at EPFL is placed beneath the dura mater, directly onto the spinal cord. Its elasticity and its potential for deformation are almost identical to the living tissue surrounding it. This reduces friction and inflammation to a minimum. When implanted into rats, the e-Dura prototype caused neither damage nor rejection, even after two months. More rigid traditional implants would have caused significant nerve tissue damage during this period of time.

The researchers tested the device prototype by applying their rehabilitation protocol — which combines electrical and chemical stimulation – to paralyzed rats. Not only did the implant prove its biocompatibility, but it also did its job perfectly, allowing the rats to regain the ability to walk on their own again after a few weeks of training.

“Our e-Dura implant can remain for a long period of time on the spinal cord or the cortex, precisely because it has the same mechanical properties as the dura mater itself. This opens up new therapeutic possibilities for patients suffering from neurological trauma or disorders, particularly individuals who have become paralyzed following spinal cord injury,” explains Lacour, co-author of the paper, and holder of EPFL’s Bertarelli Chair in Neuroprosthetic Technology.

The press release goes on to describe the engineering achievements,

Developing the e-Dura implant was quite a feat of engineering. As flexible and stretchable as living tissue, it nonetheless includes electronic elements that stimulate the spinal cord at the point of injury. The silicon substrate is covered with cracked gold electric conducting tracks that can be pulled and stretched. The electrodes are made of an innovative composite of silicon and platinum microbeads. They can be deformed in any direction, while still ensuring optimal electrical conductivity. Finally, a fluidic microchannel enables the delivery of pharmacological substances – neurotransmitters in this case – that will reanimate the nerve cells beneath the injured tissue.

The implant can also be used to monitor electrical impulses from the brain in real time. When they did this, the scientists were able to extract with precision the animal’s motor intention before it was translated into movement.

“It’s the first neuronal surface implant designed from the start for long-term application. In order to build it, we had to combine expertise from a considerable number of areas,” explains Courtine, co-author and holder of EPFL’s IRP Chair in Spinal Cord Repair. “These include materials science, electronics, neuroscience, medicine, and algorithm programming. I don’t think there are many places in the world where one finds the level of interdisciplinary cooperation that exists in our Center for Neuroprosthetics.”

For the time being, the e-Dura implant has been primarily tested in cases of spinal cord injury in paralyzed rats. But the potential for applying these surface implants is huge – for example in epilepsy, Parkinson’s disease and pain management. The scientists are planning to move towards clinical trials in humans, and to develop their prototype in preparation for commercialization.

EPFL has provided a video of researcher Stéphanie Lacour describing e-Dura and expressing hopes for its commercialization,

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

Electronic dura mater for long-term multimodal neural interfaces by Ivan R. Minev, Pavel Musienko, Arthur Hirsch, Quentin Barraud, Nikolaus Wenger, Eduardo Martin Moraud, Jérôme Gandar, Marco Capogrosso, Tomislav Milekovic, Léonie Asboth, Rafael Fajardo Torres, Nicolas Vachicouras, Qihan Liu, Natalia Pavlova, Simone Duis, Alexandre Larmagnac, Janos Vörös, Silvestro Micera, Zhigang Suo, Grégoire Courtine, Stéphanie P. Lacour. Science 9 January 2015: Vol. 347 no. 6218 pp. 159-163 DOI: 10.1126/science.1260318

This paper is behind a paywall.

Carbon nanotube fibres could connect to the brain

Researchers at Rice University (Texas, US) are excited about the possibilities that carbon nanotube fibres offer in the field of implantable electronics for the brain. From a March 25, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

Carbon nanotube fibers invented at Rice University may provide the best way to communicate directly with the brain.

The fibers have proven superior to metal electrodes for deep brain stimulation and to read signals from a neuronal network. Because they provide a two-way connection, they show promise for treating patients with neurological disorders while monitoring the real-time response of neural circuits in areas that control movement, mood and bodily functions.

New experiments at Rice demonstrated the biocompatible fibers are ideal candidates for small, safe electrodes that interact with the brain’s neuronal system, according to the researchers. They could replace much larger electrodes currently used in devices for deep brain stimulation therapies in Parkinson’s disease patients.

They may also advance technologies to restore sensory or motor functions and brain-machine interfaces as well as deep brain stimulation therapies for other neurological disorders, including dystonia and depression, the researchers wrote.

A March 25, 2015 Rice University news release (also on EurekAlert*), which originated the news item, provides more details,

The fibers created by the Rice lab of chemist and chemical engineer Matteo Pasquali consist of bundles of long nanotubes originally intended for aerospace applications where strength, weight and conductivity are paramount.

The individual nanotubes measure only a few nanometers across, but when millions are bundled in a process called wet spinning, they become thread-like fibers about a quarter the width of a human hair.

“We developed these fibers as high-strength, high-conductivity materials,” Pasquali said. “Yet, once we had them in our hand, we realized that they had an unexpected property: They are really soft, much like a thread of silk. Their unique combination of strength, conductivity and softness makes them ideal for interfacing with the electrical function of the human body.”

The simultaneous arrival in 2012 of Caleb Kemere, a Rice assistant professor who brought expertise in animal models of Parkinson’s disease, and lead author Flavia Vitale, a research scientist in Pasquali’s lab with degrees in chemical and biomedical engineering, prompted the investigation.

“The brain is basically the consistency of pudding and doesn’t interact well with stiff metal electrodes,” Kemere said. “The dream is to have electrodes with the same consistency, and that’s why we’re really excited about these flexible carbon nanotube fibers and their long-term biocompatibility.”

Weeks-long tests on cells and then in rats with Parkinson’s symptoms proved the fibers are stable and as efficient as commercial platinum electrodes at only a fraction of the size. The soft fibers caused little inflammation, which helped maintain strong electrical connections to neurons by preventing the body’s defenses from scarring and encapsulating the site of the injury.

The highly conductive carbon nanotube fibers also show much more favorable impedance – the quality of the electrical connection — than state-of-the-art metal electrodes, making for better contact at lower voltages over long periods, Kemere said.

The working end of the fiber is the exposed tip, which is about the width of a neuron. The rest is encased with a three-micron layer of a flexible, biocompatible polymer with excellent insulating properties.

The challenge is in placing the tips. “That’s really just a matter of having a brain atlas, and during the experiment adjusting the electrodes very delicately and putting them into the right place,” said Kemere, whose lab studies ways to connect signal-processing systems and the brain’s memory and cognitive centers.

Doctors who implant deep brain stimulation devices start with a recording probe able to “listen” to neurons that emit characteristic signals depending on their functions, Kemere said. Once a surgeon finds the right spot, the probe is removed and the stimulating electrode gently inserted. Rice carbon nanotube fibers that send and receive signals would simplify implantation, Vitale said.

The fibers could lead to self-regulating therapeutic devices for Parkinson’s and other patients. Current devices include an implant that sends electrical signals to the brain to calm the tremors that afflict Parkinson’s patients.

“But our technology enables the ability to record while stimulating,” Vitale said. “Current electrodes can only stimulate tissue. They’re too big to detect any spiking activity, so basically the clinical devices send continuous pulses regardless of the response of the brain.”

Kemere foresees a closed-loop system that can read neuronal signals and adapt stimulation therapy in real time. He anticipates building a device with many electrodes that can be addressed individually to gain fine control over stimulation and monitoring from a small, implantable device.

“Interestingly, conductivity is not the most important electrical property of the nanotube fibers,” Pasquali said. “These fibers are intrinsically porous and extremely stable, which are both great advantages over metal electrodes for sensing electrochemical signals and maintaining performance over long periods of time.”

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

Neural Stimulation and Recording with Bidirectional, Soft Carbon Nanotube Fiber Microelectrodes by Flavia Vitale, Samantha R. Summerson, Behnaam Aazhang, Caleb Kemere, and Matteo Pasquali. ACS Nano, Just Accepted Manuscript DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.5b01060 Publication Date (Web): March 24, 2015

Copyright © 2015 American Chemical Society

The paper is open access provided you register on the website.

Remote control for stimulation of the brain

Mo Costandi, neuroscientist and freelance science writer, has written a March 24, 2015 post for the Guardian science blog network focusing on neuronal remote control,

Two teams of scientists have developed new ways of stimulating neurons with nanoparticles, allowing them to activate brain cells remotely using light or magnetic fields. The new methods are quicker and far less invasive than other hi-tech methods available, so could be more suitable for potential new treatments for human diseases.

Researchers have various methods for manipulating brain cell activity, arguably the most powerful being optogenetics, which enables them to switch specific brain cells on or off with unprecedented precision, and simultaneously record their behaviour, using pulses of light.

This is very useful for probing neural circuits and behaviour, but involves first creating genetically engineered mice with light-sensitive neurons, and then inserting the optical fibres that deliver light into the brain, so there are major technical and ethical barriers to its use in humans.

Nanomedicine could get around this. Francisco Bezanilla of the University of Chicago and his colleagues knew that gold nanoparticles can absorb light and convert it into heat, and several years ago they discovered that infrared light can make neurons fire nervous impulses by heating up their cell membranes.

Polina Anikeeva’s team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology adopted a slightly different approach, using spherical iron oxide particles that give off heat when exposed to an alternating magnetic field.

Although still in the experimental stages, research like this may eventually allow for wireless and minimally invasive deep brain stimulation of the human brain. Bezanilla’s group aim to apply their method to develop treatments for macular degeneration and other conditions that kill off light-sensitive cells in the retina. This would involve injecting nanoparticles into the eye so that they bind to other retinal cells, allowing natural light to excite them into firing impulses to the optic nerve.

Costandi’s article is intended for an audience that either understands the science or can deal with the uncertainty of not understanding absolutely everything. Provided you fall into either of those categories, the article is well written and it provides links and citations to the papers for both research teams being featured.

Taken together, the research at EPFL, Rice University, University of Chicago, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology provides a clue as to how much money and intellectual power is being directed at the brain.

* EurekAlert link added on March 26, 2015.

Chameleons (male panther chameleons in particular)—colour revelation

Caption: These are male panther chameleons (Furcifer pardalis) photographed in Madagascar. Credit: © Michel Milinkovitch

Caption: These are male panther chameleons (Furcifer pardalis) photographed in Madagascar.
Credit: © Michel Milinkovitch

Researchers at Switzerland’s University of Geneva/Université de Genève (UNIGE) have revealed the mechanisms (note the plural) by which chameleons change their colour. From a March 10, 2015 news item on phys.org,

Many chameleons have the remarkable ability to exhibit complex and rapid color changes during social interactions. A collaboration of scientists within the Sections of Biology and Physics of the Faculty of Science from the University of Geneva (UNIGE), Switzerland, unveils the mechanisms that regulate this phenomenon.

In a study published in Nature Communications [March 10, 2015], the team led by professors Michel Milinkovitch and Dirk van der Marel demonstrates that the changes take place via the active tuning of a lattice of nanocrystals present in a superficial layer of dermal cells called iridophores. The researchers also reveal the existence of a deeper population of iridophores with larger and less ordered crystals that reflect the infrared light. The organisation of iridophores into two superimposed layers constitutes an evolutionary novelty and it allows the chameleons to rapidly shift between efficient camouflage and spectacular display, while providing passive thermal protection.

Male chameleons are popular for their ability to change colorful adornments depending on their behaviour. If the mechanisms responsible for a transformation towards a darker skin are known, those that regulate the transition from a lively color to another vivid hue remained mysterious. Some species, such as the panther chameleon, are able to carry out such a change within one or two minutes to court a female or face a competing male.

A March 10, 2015 University of Geneva press release on EurekAlert (French language version is here on the university website), which originated the news item, explains the chameleon’s ability as being due to its ability to display structural colour,

Besides brown, red and yellow pigments, chameleons and other reptiles display so-called structural colors. «These colors are generated without pigments, via a physical phenomenon of optical interference. They result from interactions between certain wavelengths and nanoscopic structures, such as tiny crystals present in the skin of the reptiles», says Michel Milinkovitch, professor at the Department of Genetics and Evolution at UNIGE. These nanocrystals are arranged in layers that alternate with cytoplasm, within cells called iridophores. The structure thus formed allows a selective reflection of certain wavelengths, which contributes to the vivid colors of numerous reptiles.

To determine how the transition from one flashy color to another one is carried out in the panther chameleon, the researchers of two laboratories at UNIGE worked hand in hand, combining their expertise in both quantum physics and in evolutionary biology. «We discovered that the animal changes its colors via the active tuning of a lattice of nanocrystals. When the chameleon is calm, the latter are organised into a dense network and reflect the blue wavelengths. In contrast, when excited, it loosens its lattice of nanocrystals, which allows the reflection of other colors, such as yellows or reds», explain the physicist Jérémie Teyssier and the biologist Suzanne Saenko, co-first authors of the article. This constitutes a unique example of an auto-organised intracellular optical system controlled by the chameleon.

The press release goes on to note that the iridophores have another function,

The scientists also demonstrated the existence of a second deeper layer of iridophores. «These cells, which contain larger and less ordered crystals, reflect a substantial proportion of the infrared wavelengths», states Michel Milinkovitch. This forms an excellent protection against the thermal effects of high exposure to sun radiations in low-latitude regions.

The organisation of iridophores in two superimposed layers constitutes an evolutionary novelty: it allows the chameleons to rapidly shift between efficient camouflage and spectacular display, while providing passive thermal protection.

In their future research, the scientists will explore the mechanisms that explain the development of an ordered nanocrystals lattice within iridophores, as well as the molecular and cellular mechanisms that allow chameleons to control the geometry of this lattice.

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

Photonic crystals cause active colour change in chameleons by Jérémie Teyssier, Suzanne V. Saenko, Dirk van der Marel, & Michel C. Milinkovitch. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6368 doi:10.1038/ncomms7368 Published 10 March 2015

This article is open access.

Capturing the particle and the wave: photographing light

On returning to school to get a bachelor’s degree, I registered in a communications course and my first paper was about science, light, and communication. The particle/wave situation still fascinates me (and I imagine many others).

A March 2, 2015 news item on phys.org describes the first successful photography of light as both particle and wave,

Light behaves both as a particle and as a wave. Since the days of Einstein, scientists have been trying to directly observe both of these aspects of light at the same time. Now, scientists at EPFL [École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne in Switzerland] have succeeded in capturing the first-ever snapshot of this dual behavior.

Quantum mechanics tells us that light can behave simultaneously as a particle or a wave. However, there has never been an experiment able to capture both natures of light at the same time; the closest we have come is seeing either wave or particle, but always at different times. Taking a radically different experimental approach, EPFL scientists have now been able to take the first ever snapshot of light behaving both as a wave and as a particle. The breakthrough work is published in Nature Communications.

A March 2, 2015 EPFL press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the science and the research,

When UV light hits a metal surface, it causes an emission of electrons. Albert Einstein explained this “photoelectric” effect by proposing that light – thought to only be a wave – is also a stream of particles. Even though a variety of experiments have successfully observed both the particle- and wave-like behaviors of light, they have never been able to observe both at the same time.

A research team led by Fabrizio Carbone at EPFL has now carried out an experiment with a clever twist: using electrons to image light. The researchers have captured, for the first time ever, a single snapshot of light behaving simultaneously as both a wave and a stream of particles particle.

The experiment is set up like this: A pulse of laser light is fired at a tiny metallic nanowire. The laser adds energy to the charged particles in the nanowire, causing them to vibrate. Light travels along this tiny wire in two possible directions, like cars on a highway. When waves traveling in opposite directions meet each other they form a new wave that looks like it is standing in place. Here, this standing wave becomes the source of light for the experiment, radiating around the nanowire.

This is where the experiment’s trick comes in: The scientists shot a stream of electrons close to the nanowire, using them to image the standing wave of light. As the electrons interacted with the confined light on the nanowire, they either sped up or slowed down. Using the ultrafast microscope to image the position where this change in speed occurred, Carbone’s team could now visualize the standing wave, which acts as a fingerprint of the wave-nature of light.

While this phenomenon shows the wave-like nature of light, it simultaneously demonstrated its particle aspect as well. As the electrons pass close to the standing wave of light, they “hit” the light’s particles, the photons. As mentioned above, this affects their speed, making them move faster or slower. This change in speed appears as an exchange of energy “packets” (quanta) between electrons and photons. The very occurrence of these energy packets shows that the light on the nanowire behaves as a particle.

“This experiment demonstrates that, for the first time ever, we can film quantum mechanics – and its paradoxical nature – directly,” says Fabrizio Carbone. In addition, the importance of this pioneering work can extend beyond fundamental science and to future technologies. As Carbone explains: “Being able to image and control quantum phenomena at the nanometer scale like this opens up a new route towards quantum computing.”

This work represents a collaboration between the Laboratory for Ultrafast Microscopy and Electron Scattering of EPFL, the Department of Physics of Trinity College (US) and the Physical and Life Sciences Directorate of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. The imaging was carried out EPFL’s ultrafast energy-filtered transmission electron microscope – one of the two in the world.

For anyone who prefers videos, the EPFL researchers have  prepared a brief description (loaded with some amusing images) of their work,


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

Simultaneous observation of the quantization and the interference pattern of a plasmonic near-field by L Piazza, T.T.A. Lummen, E Quiñonez, Y Murooka, B.W. Reed, B Barwick & F Carbone. Nature Communications 6, Article number: 6407 doi:10.1038/ncomms7407 Published 02 March 2015

This is an open access paper.

A Nanorama Laboratory

The last Nanorama project featured here was the Nanorama Car Workshop in a Sept. 24, 2014 post. According to a Feb. 4, 2015 news item on Nanotechnology Now, there’s a new project,

The “Nanorama Laboratory”, an interactive online tool on the safe handling of nanomaterials, is now available in English on nano.dguv.de/nanorama/bgrci/en/. The tool, developed in close collaboration with the German Social Accident Insurance Institution for the raw materials and chemical industry (BG RCI), was devised by the Innovation Society, St. Gallen. It is part of the nano-platform “Safe Handling of Nanomaterials” of the German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV).

A Feb. 4, 2015 The Innovation Society press release, which originated the news item, expands on the topic,

The “Nanorama Laboratory“ http://nano.dguv.de/nanorama/bgrci/en/ is one of three interactive educational tools available on the Nano-Platform “Safe Handling of Nanomaterials“ (http://nano.dguv.de; to date, the platform and the remaining “Nanoramas” are available in German). The “Nanorama Laboratory” was developed by the Innovation Society, St. Gallen, in close collaboration with the German Social Accident Insurance Institution for the raw materials and chemical industry (BG RCI). It offers insights into the safe handling of nanomaterials and installations used to manufacture or process nanomaterials in laboratories. Complementary to hazard evaluation assessments, it enables users to assess the occupational exposure to nanomaterials and to identify necessary protective measures when handling said materials in laboratories.

The Innovation Society offers an image from the latest Nanorama made available in English,

Courtesy: The Innovation Society

Courtesy: The Innovation Society

Art project (autonomous bot purchases illegal goods) seized by Swiss law enforcement

Having just attended a talk on Robotics and Rehabilitation which included a segment on Robo Ethics, news of an art project where an autonomous bot (robot) is set loose on the darknet to purchase goods (not all of them illegal) was fascinating in itself (it was part of an art exhibition which also displayed the proceeds of the darknet activity). But things got more interesting when the exhibit attracted legal scrutiny in the UK and occasioned legal action in Switzerland.

Here’s more from a Jan. 23, 2015 article by Mike Masnick for Techdirt (Note: A link has been removed),

… some London-based Swiss artists, !Mediengruppe Bitnik [(Carmen Weisskopf and Domagoj Smoljo)], presented an exhibition in Zurich of The Darknet: From Memes to Onionland. Specifically, they had programmed a bot with some Bitcoin to randomly buy $100 worth of things each week via a darknet market, like Silk Road (in this case, it was actually Agora). The artists’ focus was more about the nature of dark markets, and whether or not it makes sense to make them illegal:

The pair see parallels between copyright law and drug laws: “You can enforce laws, but what does that mean for society? Trading is something people have always done without regulation, but today it is regulated,” says ays [sic] Weiskopff.

“There have always been darkmarkets in cities, online or offline. These questions need to be explored. But what systems do we have to explore them in? Post Snowden, space for free-thinking online has become limited, and offline is not a lot better.”

Interestingly the bot got excellent service as Mike Power wrote in his Dec. 5, 2014 review of the show. Power also highlights some of the legal, ethical, and moral implications,

The gallery is next door to a police station, but the artists say they are not afraid of legal repercussions of their bot buying illegal goods.

“We are the legal owner of the drugs [the bot purchased 10 ecstasy pills along with a baseball cap, a pair of sneaker/runners/trainers among other items] – we are responsible for everything the bot does, as we executed the code, says Smoljo. “But our lawyer and the Swiss constitution says art in the public interest is allowed to be free.”

The project also aims to explore the ways that trust is built between anonymous participants in a commercial transaction for possibly illegal goods. Perhaps most surprisingly, not one of the 12 deals the robot has made has ended in a scam.

“The markets copied procedures from Amazon and eBay – their rating and feedback system is so interesting,” adds Smojlo. “With such simple tools you can gain trust. The service level was impressive – we had 12 items and everything arrived.”

“There has been no scam, no rip-off, nothing,” says Weiskopff. “One guy could not deliver a handbag the bot ordered, but he then returned the bitcoins to us.”

The exhibition scheduled from Oct. 18, 2014 – Jan. 11, 2015 enjoyed an uninterrupted run but there were concerns in the UK (from the Power article),

A spokesman for the National Crime Agency, which incorporates the National Cyber Crime Unit, was less philosophical, acknowledging that the question of criminal culpability in the case of a randomised software agent making a purchase of an illegal drug was “very unusual”.

“If the purchase is made in Switzerland, then it’s of course potentially subject to Swiss law, on which we couldn’t comment,” said the NCA. “In the UK, it’s obviously illegal to purchase a prohibited drug (such as ecstasy), but any criminal liability would need to assessed on a case-by-case basis.”

Masnick describes the followup,

Apparently, that [case-by[case] assessment has concluded in this case, because right after the exhibit closed in Switzerland, law enforcement showed up to seize stuff …

!Mediengruppe Bitnik  issued a Jan. 15, 2015 press release (Note: Links have been removed),

«Can a robot, or a piece of software, be jailed if it commits a crime? Where does legal culpability lie if code is criminal by design or default? What if a robot buys drugs, weapons, or hacking equipment and has them sent to you, and police intercept the package?» These are some of the questions Mike Power asked when he reviewed the work «Random Darknet Shopper» in The Guardian. The work was part of the exhibition «The Darknet – From Memes to Onionland. An Exploration» in the Kunst Halle St. Gallen, which closed on Sunday, January 11, 2015. For the duration of the exhibition, !Mediengruppe Bitnik sent a software bot on a shopping spree in the Deepweb. Random Darknet Shopper had a budget of $100 in Bitcoins weekly, which it spent on a randomly chosen item from the deepweb shop Agora. The work and the exhibition received wide attention from the public and the press. The exhibition was well-attended and was discussed in a wide range of local and international press from Saiten to Vice, Arte, Libération, CNN, Forbes. «There’s just one problem», The Washington Post wrote in January about the work, «recently, it bought 10 ecstasy pills».

What does it mean for a society, when there are robots which act autonomously? Who is liable, when a robot breaks the law on its own initiative? These were some of the main questions the work Random Darknet Shopper posed. Global questions, which will now be negotiated locally.

On the morning of January 12, the day after the three-month exhibition was closed, the public prosecutor’s office of St. Gallen seized and sealed our work. It seems, the purpose of the confiscation is to impede an endangerment of third parties through the drugs exhibited by destroying them. This is what we know at present. We believe that the confiscation is an unjustified intervention into freedom of art. We’d also like to thank Kunst Halle St. Gallen for their ongoing support and the wonderful collaboration. Furthermore, we are convinced, that it is an objective of art to shed light on the fringes of society and to pose fundamental contemporary questions.

This project brings to mind Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics and a question (from the Wikipedia entry; Note: Links have been removed),

The Three Laws of Robotics (often shortened to The Three Laws or Three Laws, also known as Asimov’s Laws) are a set of rules devised by the science fiction author Isaac Asimov. The rules were introduced in his 1942 short story “Runaround”, although they had been foreshadowed in a few earlier stories. The Three Laws are:

A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Here’s my question, how do you programme a robot to know what would injure a human being? For example, if a human ingests an ecstasy pill the bot purchased, would that be covered in the first law?

Getting back to the robot ethics talk I recently attended, it was given by Ajung Moon (Ph.D. student at the University of British Columbia [Vancouver, Canada] studying Human-Robot Interaction and Roboethics. Mechatronics engineer with a sprinkle of Philosophy background). She has a blog,  Roboethic info DataBase where you can read more on robots and ethics.

I strongly recommend reading both Masnick’s post (he positions this action in a larger context) and Power’s article (more details and images from the exhibit).