Category Archives: risk

Big Conversation Season (podcast) Finale on ‘AI and the Future of Humanity’ available on Friday, September 22, 2023

Three guys (all Brits) talking about this question “Robot Race: Could AI Ever Replace Humanity (part 1)” is part of a larger video podcast series known as the ‘Big Conversation’ and part 2 of this ‘Big Conversation’ is going to be available on Friday, September 22, 2023.

I haven’t listened to the entire first part of the conversation yet. So far, it seems quite engaging and provocative (especially the first five minutes). They’re not arguing but since I don’t want to spoil the surprise do watch the first bit (the first 5 mins. of a 53 mins. 38 secs. podcast).

You can’t ask more of a conversation than to be provoked into thinking. That said …


I’m a little hesitant to include much about faith and religion here but this two-part series touches on topics that have been discussed here many times. So, the ‘Big Conversation’ is produced through a Christian group. Here’s more about the podcast series and its producers from the Big Conversation webpage,

he Big Conversation is a video series from Premier Unbelievable? featuring world-class thinkers across the religious and non-religious communities. Exploring science, faith, philosophy and what it means to be human [emphasis mine]. The Big Conversation is produced by Premier in partnership with John Templeton Foundation.

Premier consists of Premier Christian Media Trust registered as a charity (no. 287610) and as a company limited by guarantee (no. 01743091) with two fully-owned trading subsidiaries: Premier Christian Communications Ltd (no. 02816074) and Christian Communication Partnership Ltd (no. 03422292). All three companies are registered in England & Wales with a registered office address of Unit 6 April Court, Syborn Way, Crowborough, TN6 3DZ.

I haven’t seen any signs of proselytizing and like almost every other website in existence, they are very interested in getting you to be on their newsletter email list, to donate, etc.

Back to the conversation.

The Robot Race, Parts I & 2: Could AI ever replace humanity?

Here’s a description of the Big Conversation series and two specific podcasts, from the September 20, 2023 press release (received via email),

Big Conversation Season Finale on AI and the Future of Humanity Available this Friday

Featuring AI expert Dr. Nigel Crook, episode explores ‘The Robot Race: Could AI ever replace humans?’

Currently in its 5th season, The Big Conversation, hosted by comedian and apologist Andy Kind, features some of the biggest minds in the Christian, atheist and religious world to debate some of the biggest questions of science, faith, philosophy and what it means to be human. 

Episodes 5 & 6 of this season feature a two-part discussion about robotics, the future of artificial intelligence and the subsequent concerns of morality surrounding these advancements. This thought-provoking exchange on ethics in AI is sure to leave listeners informed and intrigued to learn more regarding the future of humanity relating to cyber-dependency, automation regulation, AI agency and abuses of power in technology.

To help us understand the complexities of AI, including the power and ethics around the subject – and appropriate concern for the future of humanity – The Big Conversation host Andy Kind spoke with AI Expert Dr. Nigel Crook and Neuroscientist Anil Seth.   

Dr. Nigel Crook, a distinguished figure recognized for his innovative contributions to the realm of AI and robotics, focuses extensively on research related to machine learning inspired by biological processes and the domain of social robotics. He serves as the Professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at Oxford Brooks University and is the Founding Director at the Institute for Ethical AI, specifically revolving around the concept of self-governing ethical robots.

Episode 5, the first in the two-part AI series, released September 8 [2023], and episode 6 releases Friday, Sept. 22 [2023].  

These episodes are available at as well as all major podcast platforms.  

I have a little more about Anil Seth from the Big Conversation Episode 5 webpage,

… Anil Seth, Professor of Cognitive & Computational Neuroscience at the University of Sussex, winner of The Michael Faraday Prize and Lecture 2023, and author of “Being You: A New Science of Consciousness”

There’s also a bit about Seth in my June 30, 2017 posting “A question of consciousness: Facebotlish (a new language); a July 5, 2017 rap guide performance in Vancouver, Canada; Tom Stoppard’s play; and a little more,” scroll down to the subhead titled ‘Vancouver premiere of Baba Brinkman’s Rap Guide to Consciousness’.

Ethical nanobiotechnology

This paper on ethics (aside: I have a few comments after the news release and citation) comes from the US Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) according to a July 12, 2023 news item on,

Prosthetics moved by thoughts. Targeted treatments for aggressive brain cancer. Soldiers with enhanced vision or bionic ears. These powerful technologies sound like science fiction, but they’re becoming possible thanks to nanoparticles.

“In medicine and other biological settings, nanotechnology is amazing and helpful, but it could be harmful if used improperly,” said Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) chemist Ashley Bradley, part of a team of researchers who conducted a comprehensive survey of nanobiotechnology applications and policies.

Their research, available in Health Security, works to sum up the very large, active field of nanotechnology in biology applications, draw attention to regulatory gaps, and offer areas for further consideration.

A July 12, 2023 PNNL news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves further into the topic, Note: A link has been removed,

“In our research, we learned there aren’t many global regulations yet,” said Bradley. “And we need to create a common set of rules to figure out the ethical boundaries.”

Nanoparticles, big differences

Nanoparticles are clusters of molecules with different properties than large amounts of the same substances. In medicine and other biology applications, these properties allow nanoparticles to act as the packaging that delivers treatments through cell walls and the difficult to cross blood-brain barrier.

“You can think of the nanoparticles a little bit like the plastic around shredded cheese,” said PNNL chemist Kristin Omberg. “It makes it possible to get something perishable directly where you want it, but afterwards you’ve got to deal with a whole lot of substance where it wasn’t before.”

Unfortunately, dealing with nanoparticles in new places isn’t straightforward. Carbon is pencil lead, nano carbon conducts electricity. The same material may have different properties at the nanoscale, but most countries still regulate it the same as bulk material, if the material is regulated at all.

For example, zinc oxide, a material that was stable and unreactive as a pigment in white paint, is now accumulating in oceans when used as nanoparticles in sunscreen, warranting a call to create alternative reef-safe sunscreens. And although fats and lipids aren’t regulated, the researchers suggest which agencies could weigh in on regulations were fats to become after-treatment byproducts.

The article also inventories national and international agencies, organizations, and governing bodies with an interest in understanding how nanoparticles break down or react in a living organism and the environmental life cycle of a nanoparticle. Because nanobiotechnology spans materials science, biology, medicine, environmental science, and tech, these disparate research and regulatory disciplines must come together, often for the first time—to fully understand the impact on humans and the environment.

Dual use: Good for us, bad for us

Like other quickly growing fields, there’s a time lag between the promise of new advances and the possibilities of unintended uses.

“There were so many more applications than we thought there were,” said Bradley, who collected exciting nanobio examples such as Alzheimer’s treatment, permanent contact lenses, organ replacement, and enhanced muscle recovery, among others.

The article also highlights concerns about crossing the blood-brain barrier, thought-initiated control of computers, and nano-enabled DNA editing where the researchers suggest more caution, questioning, and attention could be warranted. This attention spans everything from deep fundamental research and regulations all the way to what Omberg called “the equivalent of tattoo removal” if home-DNA splicing attempts go south.

The researchers draw parallels to more established fields such as synthetic bio and pharmacology, which offer lessons to be learned from current concerns such as the unintended consequences of fentanyl and opioids. They believe these fields also offer examples of innovative coordination between science and ethics, such as synthetic bio’s IGEM [The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition]—student competition, to think about not just how to create, but also to shape the use and control of new technologies.

Omberg said unusually enthusiastic early reviewers of the article contributed even more potential uses and concerns, demonstrating that experts in many fields recognize ethical nanobiotechnology is an issue to get in front of. “This is a train that’s going. It will be sad if 10 years from now, we haven’t figured how to talk about it.”

Funding for the team’s research was supported by PNNL’s Biorisk Beyond the List National Security Directorate Objective.

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

The Promise of Emergent Nanobiotechnologies for In Vivo Applications and Implications for Safety and Security by Anne M. Arnold, Ashley M. Bradley, Karen L. Taylor, Zachary C. Kennedy, and Kristin M. Omberg. Health Security.Oct 2022.408-423.Published in Volume: 20 Issue 5: October 17, 2022 DOI: Published Online:17 Oct 2022

This paper is open access.

You can find out more about IGEM (The International Genetically Engineered Machine competition) here.

Comments (brief)

It seems a little odd that the news release (“Prosthetics moved by thoughts …”) and the paper both reference neurotechnology without ever mentioning it by name. Here’s the reference from the paper, Note: Links have been removed,

Nanoparticles May Be Developed to Facilitate Cognitive Enhancements

The development and implementation of NPs that enhance cognitive function has yet to be realized. However, recent advances on the micro- and macro-level with neural–machine interfacing provide the building blocks necessary to develop this technology on the nanoscale. A noninvasive brain–computer interface to control a robotic arm was developed by teams at 2 universities.157 A US-based company, Neuralink, [emphasis mine] is at the forefront of implementing implantable, intracortical microelectrodes that provide an interface between the human brain and technology.158,159 Utilization of intracortical microelectrodes may ultimately provide thought-initiated access and control of computers and mobile devices, and possibly expand cognitive function by accessing underutilized areas of the brain.158

Neuralink (founded by Elon Musk) is controversial for its animal testing practices. You can find out more in Björn Ólafsson’s May 30, 2023 article for Sentient Media.

The focus on nanoparticles as the key factor in the various technologies and applications mentioned seems narrow but necessary given the breadth of topics covered in the paper as the authors themselves note in the paper’s abstract,

… In this article, while not comprehensive, we attempt to illustrate the breadth and promise of bionanotechnology developments, and how they may present future safety and security challenges. Specifically, we address current advancements to streamline the development of engineered NPs for in vivo applications and provide discussion on nano–bio interactions, NP in vivo delivery, nanoenhancement of human performance, nanomedicine, and the impacts of NPs on human health and the environment.

They have a good overview of the history and discussions about nanotechnology risks and regulation. It’s international in scope with a heavy emphasis on US efforts, as one would expect.

For anyone who’s interested in the neurotechnology end of things, I’ve got a July 17, 2023 commentary “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report.” The report was launched July 13, 2023 during UNESCO’s Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology (see my July 7, 2023 posting about the then upcoming dialogue for links to more UNESCO information). Both the July 17 and July 7, 2023 postings included additional information about Neuralink.

Systems biology and nanoinformatics

A May 29, 2023 news item on Nanowerk announces research from an international research team focused on a new nanoinformatics approach, Note: Links have been removed,

Researchers have discovered a new response mechanism specific to exposure to nanoparticles that is common to multiple species. By analysing a large collection of datasets concerning the molecular response to nanomaterials, they have revealed an ancestral epigenetic mechanism of defence that explains how different species, from humans to simpler creatures, adapt to this type of exposure.

The project was led by Doctoral Researcher Giusy del Giudice and Professor Dario Greco at the Finnish Hub for Development and Validation of Integrated Approaches (FHAIVE), Tampere University, Finland, in collaboration with an interdisciplinary team from Finland, Ireland, Poland, UK, Cyprus, South Africa, Greece and Estonia [emphasis mine] – including Associate Professor Vladimir Lobaskin from UCD School of Physics, University College Dublin, Ireland.

A May 29, 2023 University College Dublin (UCD) press release, which originated the news item, delves further into the research, Note: Links have been removed,

Director of FHAIVE, Professor Greco said: “We have demonstrated for the first time that there is a specific response to nanoparticles, and it is interlinked to their nano-properties. This study sheds light on how various species respond to particulate matters in a similar manner. It proposes a solution to the one-chemical-one-signature problem, currently limiting the use of toxicogenomic [sic] in chemical safety assessment.”

Systems Biology meets Nanoinformatics

Associate Professor Vladimir Lobaskin, who is an expert in nanostructured biosystems, said: “In this major collaborative work, the team led by the University of Tampere and including UCD School of Physics not only discovered common responses to nanoparticles across all kinds of organisms from plants and invertebrates to humans but also common features of nanomaterials triggering those responses.”

He said: “Tens of thousands of novel nanomaterials reach the consumer market annually. It is an enormous task to screen them all for possible adverse effects to protect the environment and human health. It could be damage to the lung when we inhale dust, a release of toxic ions by dust particles, production of reactive oxygen species, or binding of the cell membrane lipids by nanoparticles. In other words, it all starts with relatively simple physical interactions at the surface of the nanoparticles that are usually not known to biologists and toxicologists but needed to understand what we should fear when exposed to nanomaterials.”

In the past decade, OECD [Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development] countries have adopted a mechanism-aware toxicity assessment strategy based on the Adverse Outcome Pathway analysis establishing causal relationships between biological events leading to a disease or negative effect on the population. Once the Adverse Outcome Pathway is determined, one can trace the chain of biological events back to the origin – the molecular initiating event that triggered the cascade.

Attempts of statistical analysis of the toxicology data of recent years have not succeeded in identifying the nanomaterial properties responsible for the adverse outcomes. The problem is that the material characteristics typically provided by the producers, such as nanoparticle chemistry and size distribution, are too basic and insufficient to make sensible predictions of their biological activity.

An earlier work, co-authored by the UCD School of Physics team, suggested the collection of advanced descriptors of nanomaterials, using computational materials science if necessary, to understand the interactions of nanoparticles with biological molecules and tissues and enable the prediction of the molecular initiating events. These advanced descriptors can provide the missing bits of information and include the materials’ dissolution rates, the polarity of the surface atoms, molecular interaction energies, shape, aspect ratios, indicators of hydrophobicity, amino acid or lipid binding energy – as well as anything that may cause disruption of the normal cell or tissue functions.

Associate Professor Lobaskin and colleagues at UCD Soft Matter Modelling Lab have been working on in silico materials’ characterisation and evaluated the descriptors that correlate with the hazardous potential of nanoparticles.

He said: “In the analysis presented in this latest Nature Nanotechnology paper, we for the first time were able to see what is in common between different materials associated with the health risks at the molecular level. This publication is the first demonstration of the power of nanoinformatics, a new field of research extending the ideas from cheminformatics and bioinformatics, and also a big promise: using digital twins of materials created on a computer will soon enable us to screen and optimise novel materials for safety and functionality even before they are produced to make them safe and sustainable by design.”

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

An ancestral molecular response to nanomaterial particulates by G. del Giudice, A. Serra, L. A. Saarimäki, K. Kotsis, I. Rouse, S. A. Colibaba, K. Jagiello, A. Mikolajczyk, M. Fratello, A. G. Papadiamantis, N. Sanabria, M. E. Annala, J. Morikka, P. A. S. Kinaret, E. Voyiatzis, G. Melagraki, A. Afantitis, K. Tämm, T. Puzyn, M. Gulumian, V. Lobaskin, I. Lynch, A. Federico & D. Greco. Nature Nanotechnology (2023) DOI: Published: 08 May 2023

This paper is open access.

Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report

Launched on Thursday, July 13, 2023 during UNESCO’s (United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization) “Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology,” is a report tying together the usual measures of national scientific supremacy (number of papers published and number of patents filed) with information on corporate investment in the field. Consequently, “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends” by Daniel S. Hain, Roman Jurowetzki, Mariagrazia Squicciarini, and Lihui Xu provides better insight into the international neurotechnology scene than is sometimes found in these kinds of reports. By the way, the report is open access.

Here’s what I mean, from the report‘s short summary,

Since 2013, government investments in this field have exceeded $6 billion. Private investment has also seen significant growth, with annual funding experiencing a 22-fold increase from 2010 to 2020, reaching $7.3 billion and totaling $33.2 billion.

This investment has translated into a 35-fold growth in neuroscience publications between 2000-2021 and 20-fold growth in innovations between 2022-2020, as proxied by patents. However, not all are poised to benefit from such developments, as big divides emerge.

Over 80% of high-impact neuroscience publications are produced by only ten countries, while 70% of countries contributed fewer than 10 such papers over the period considered. Similarly, five countries only hold 87% of IP5 neurotech patents.

This report sheds light on the neurotechnology ecosystem, that is, what is being developed, where and by whom, and informs about how neurotechnology interacts with other technological trajectories, especially Artificial Intelligence [emphasis mine]. [p. 2]

The money aspect is eye-opening even when you already have your suspicions. Also, it’s not entirely unexpected to learn that only ten countries produce over 80% of the high impact neurotech papers and that only five countries hold 87% of the IP5 neurotech patents but it is stunning to see it in context. (If you’re not familiar with the term ‘IP5 patents’, scroll down in this post to the relevant subhead. Hint: It means the patent was filed in one of the top five jurisdictions; I’ll leave you to guess which ones those might be.)

“Since 2013 …” isn’t quite as informative as the authors may have hoped. I wish they had given a time frame for government investments similar to what they did for corporate investments (e.g., 2010 – 2020). Also, is the $6B (likely in USD) government investment cumulative or an estimated annual number? To sum up, I would have appreciated parallel structure and specificity.

Nitpicks aside, there’s some very good material intended for policy makers. On that note, some of the analysis is beyond me. I haven’t used anything even somewhat close to their analytical tools in years and years. This commentaries reflects my interests and a very rapid reading. One last thing, this is being written from a Canadian perspective. With those caveats in mind, here’s some of what I found.

A definition, social issues, country statistics, and more

There’s a definition for neurotechnology and a second mention of artificial intelligence being used in concert with neurotechnology. From the report‘s executive summary,

Neurotechnology consists of devices and procedures used to access, monitor, investigate, assess, manipulate, and/or emulate the structure and function of the neural systems of animals or human beings. It is poised to revolutionize our understanding of the brain and to unlock innovative solutions to treat a wide range of diseases and disorders.

Similarly to Artificial Intelligence (AI), and also due to its convergence with AI, neurotechnology may have profound societal and economic impact, beyond the medical realm. As neurotechnology directly relates to the brain, it triggers ethical considerations about fundamental aspects of human existence, including mental integrity, human dignity, personal identity, freedom of thought, autonomy, and privacy [emphases mine]. Its potential for enhancement purposes and its accessibility further amplifies its prospect social and societal implications.

The recent discussions held at UNESCO’s Executive Board further shows Member States’ desire to address the ethics and governance of neurotechnology through the elaboration of a new standard-setting instrument on the ethics of neurotechnology, to be adopted in 2025. To this end, it is important to explore the neurotechnology landscape, delineate its boundaries, key players, and trends, and shed light on neurotech’s scientific and technological developments. [p. 7]

Here’s how they sourced the data for the report,

The present report addresses such a need for evidence in support of policy making in
relation to neurotechnology by devising and implementing a novel methodology on data from scientific articles and patents:

● We detect topics over time and extract relevant keywords using a transformer-
based language models fine-tuned for scientific text. Publication data for the period
2000-2021 are sourced from the Scopus database and encompass journal articles
and conference proceedings in English. The 2,000 most cited publications per year
are further used in in-depth content analysis.
● Keywords are identified through Named Entity Recognition and used to generate
search queries for conducting a semantic search on patents’ titles and abstracts,
using another language model developed for patent text. This allows us to identify
patents associated with the identified neuroscience publications and their topics.
The patent data used in the present analysis are sourced from the European
Patent Office’s Worldwide Patent Statistical Database (PATSTAT). We consider
IP5 patents filed between 2000-2020 having an English language abstract and
exclude patents solely related to pharmaceuticals.

This approach allows mapping the advancements detailed in scientific literature to the technological applications contained in patent applications, allowing for an analysis of the linkages between science and technology. This almost fully automated novel approach allows repeating the analysis as neurotechnology evolves. [pp. 8-9[

Findings in bullet points,

Key stylized facts are:
● The field of neuroscience has witnessed a remarkable surge in the overall number
of publications since 2000, exhibiting a nearly 35-fold increase over the period
considered, reaching 1.2 million in 2021. The annual number of publications in
neuroscience has nearly tripled since 2000, exceeding 90,000 publications a year
in 2021. This increase became even more pronounced since 2019.
● The United States leads in terms of neuroscience publication output (40%),
followed by the United Kingdom (9%), Germany (7%), China (5%), Canada (4%),
Japan (4%), Italy (4%), France (4%), the Netherlands (3%), and Australia (3%).
These countries account for over 80% of neuroscience publications from 2000 to
● Big divides emerge, with 70% of countries in the world having less than 10 high-
impact neuroscience publications between 2000 to 2021.
● Specific neurotechnology-related research trends between 2000 and 2021 include:
○ An increase in Brain-Computer Interface (BCI) research around 2010,
maintaining a consistent presence ever since.
○ A significant surge in Epilepsy Detection research in 2017 and 2018,
reflecting the increased use of AI and machine learning in healthcare.
○ Consistent interest in Neuroimaging Analysis, which peaks around 2004,
likely because of its importance in brain activity and language
comprehension studies.
○ While peaking in 2016 and 2017, Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) remains a
persistent area of research, underlining its potential in treating conditions
like Parkinson’s disease and essential tremor.
● Between 2000 and 2020, the total number of patent applications in this field
increased significantly, experiencing a 20-fold increase from less than 500 to over
12,000. In terms of annual figures, a consistent upward trend in neurotechnology-10
related patent applications emerges, with a notable doubling observed between
2015 and 2020.
• The United States account for nearly half of all worldwide patent applications (47%).
Other major contributors include South Korea (11%), China (10%), Japan (7%),
Germany (7%), and France (5%). These five countries together account for 87%
of IP5 neurotech patents applied between 2000 and 2020.
○ The United States has historically led the field, with a peak around 2010, a
decline towards 2015, and a recovery up to 2020.
○ South Korea emerged as a significant contributor after 1990, overtaking
Germany in the late 2000s to become the second-largest developer of
neurotechnology. By the late 2010s, South Korea’s annual neurotechnology
patent applications approximated those of the United States.
○ China exhibits a sharp increase in neurotechnology patent applications in
the mid-2010s, bringing it on par with the United States in terms of
application numbers.
● The United States ranks highest in both scientific publications and patents,
indicating their strong ability to transform knowledge into marketable inventions.
China, France, and Korea excel in leveraging knowledge to develop patented
innovations. Conversely, countries such as the United Kingdom, Germany, Italy,
Canada, Brazil, and Australia lag behind in effectively translating neurotech
knowledge into patentable innovations.
● In terms of patent quality measured by forward citations, the leading countries are
Germany, US, China, Japan, and Korea.
● A breakdown of patents by technology field reveals that Computer Technology is
the most important field in neurotechnology, exceeding Medical Technology,
Biotechnology, and Pharmaceuticals. The growing importance of algorithmic
applications, including neural computing techniques, also emerges by looking at
the increase in patent applications in these fields between 2015-2020. Compared
to the reference year, computer technologies-related patents in neurotech
increased by 355% and by 92% in medical technology.
● An analysis of the specialization patterns of the top-5 countries developing
neurotechnologies reveals that Germany has been specializing in chemistry-
related technology fields, whereas Asian countries, particularly South Korea and
China, focus on computer science and electrical engineering-related fields. The
United States exhibits a balanced configuration with specializations in both
chemistry and computer science-related fields.
● The entities – i.e. both companies and other institutions – leading worldwide
innovation in the neurotech space are: IBM (126 IP5 patents, US), Ping An
Technology (105 IP5 patents, CH), Fujitsu (78 IP5 patents, JP), Microsoft (76 IP511
patents, US)1, Samsung (72 IP5 patents, KR), Sony (69 IP5 patents JP) and Intel
(64 IP5 patents US)

This report further proposes a pioneering taxonomy of neurotechnologies based on International Patent Classification (IPC) codes.

• 67 distinct patent clusters in neurotechnology are identified, which mirror the diverse research and development landscape of the field. The 20 most prominent neurotechnology groups, particularly in areas like multimodal neuromodulation, seizure prediction, neuromorphic computing [emphasis mine], and brain-computer interfaces, point to potential strategic areas for research and commercialization.
• The variety of patent clusters identified mirrors the breadth of neurotechnology’s potential applications, from medical imaging and limb rehabilitation to sleep optimization and assistive exoskeletons.
• The development of a baseline IPC-based taxonomy for neurotechnology offers a structured framework that enriches our understanding of this technological space, and can facilitate research, development and analysis. The identified key groups mirror the interdisciplinary nature of neurotechnology and underscores the potential impact of neurotechnology, not only in healthcare but also in areas like information technology and biomaterials, with non-negligible effects over societies and economies.

1 If we consider Microsoft Technology Licensing LLM and Microsoft Corporation as being under the same umbrella, Microsoft leads worldwide developments with 127 IP5 patents. Similarly, if we were to consider that Siemens AG and Siemens Healthcare GmbH belong to the same conglomerate, Siemens would appear much higher in the ranking, in third position, with 84 IP5 patents. The distribution of intellectual property assets across companies belonging to the same conglomerate is frequent and mirrors strategic as well as operational needs and features, among others. [pp. 9-11]

Surprises and comments

Interesting and helpful to learn that “neurotechnology interacts with other technological trajectories, especially Artificial Intelligence;” this has changed and improved my understanding of neurotechnology.

It was unexpected to find Canada in the top ten countries producing neuroscience papers. However, finding out that the country lags in translating its ‘neuro’ knowledge into patentable innovation is not entirely a surprise.

It can’t be an accident that countries with major ‘electronics and computing’ companies lead in patents. These companies do have researchers but they also buy startups to acquire patents. They (and ‘patent trolls’) will also file patents preemptively. For the patent trolls, it’s a moneymaking proposition and for the large companies, it’s a way of protecting their own interests and/or (I imagine) forcing a sale.

The mention of neuromorphic (brainlike) computing in the taxonomy section was surprising and puzzling. Up to this point, I’ve thought of neuromorphic computing as a kind of alternative or addition to standard computing but the authors have blurred the lines as per UNESCO’s definition of neurotechnology (specifically, “… emulate the structure and function of the neural systems of animals or human beings”) . Again, this report is broadening my understanding of neurotechnology. Of course, it required two instances before I quite grasped it, the definition and the taxonomy.

What’s puzzling is that neuromorphic engineering, a broader term that includes neuromorphic computing, isn’t used or mentioned. (For an explanation of the terms neuromorphic computing and neuromorphic engineering, there’s my June 23, 2023 posting, “Neuromorphic engineering: an overview.” )

The report

I won’t have time for everything. Here are some of the highlights from my admittedly personal perspective.

It’s not only about curing disease

From the report,

Neurotechnology’s applications however extend well beyond medicine [emphasis mine], and span from research, to education, to the workplace, and even people’s everyday life. Neurotechnology-based solutions may enhance learning and skill acquisition and boost focus through brain stimulation techniques. For instance, early research finds that brain- zapping caps appear to boost memory for at least one month (Berkeley, 2022). This could one day be used at home to enhance memory functions [emphasis mine]. They can further enable new ways to interact with the many digital devices we use in everyday life, transforming the way we work, live and interact. One example is the Sound Awareness wristband developed by a Stanford team (Neosensory, 2022) which enables individuals to “hear” by converting sound into tactile feedback, so that sound impaired individuals can perceive spoken words through their skin. Takagi and Nishimoto (2023) analyzed the brain scans taken through Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) as individuals were shown thousands of images. They then trained a generative AI tool called Stable Diffusion2 on the brain scan data of the study’s participants, thus creating images that roughly corresponded to the real images shown. While this does not correspond to reading the mind of people, at least not yet, and some limitations of the study have been highlighted (Parshall, 2023), it nevertheless represents an important step towards developing the capability to interface human thoughts with computers [emphasis mine], via brain data interpretation.

While the above examples may sound somewhat like science fiction, the recent uptake of generative Artificial Intelligence applications and of large language models such as ChatGPT or Bard, demonstrates that the seemingly impossible can quickly become an everyday reality. At present, anyone can purchase online electroencephalogram (EEG) devices for a few hundred dollars [emphasis mine], to measure the electrical activity of their brain for meditation, gaming, or other purposes. [pp. 14-15]

This is very impressive achievement. Some of the research cited was published earlier this year (2023). The extraordinary speed is a testament to the efforts by the authors and their teams. It’s also a testament to how quickly the field is moving.

I’m glad to see the mention of and focus on consumer neurotechnology. (While the authors don’t speculate, I am free to do so.) Consumer neurotechnology could be viewed as one of the steps toward normalizing a cyborg future for all of us. Yes, we have books, television programmes, movies, and video games, which all normalize the idea but the people depicted have been severely injured and require the augmentation. With consumer neurotechnology, you have easily accessible devices being used to enhance people who aren’t injured, they just want to be ‘better’.

This phrase seemed particularly striking “… an important step towards developing the capability to interface human thoughts with computers” in light of some claims made by the Australian military in my June 13, 2023 posting “Mind-controlled robots based on graphene: an Australian research story.” (My posting has an embedded video demonstrating the Brain Robotic Interface (BRI) in action. Also, see the paragraph below the video for my ‘measured’ response.)

There’s no mention of the military in the report which seems more like a deliberate rather than inadvertent omission given the importance of military innovation where technology is concerned.

This section gives a good overview of government initiatives (in the report it’s followed by a table of the programmes),

Thanks to the promises it holds, neurotechnology has garnered significant attention from both governments and the private sector and is considered by many as an investment priority. According to the International Brain Initiative (IBI), brain research funding has become increasingly important over the past ten years, leading to a rise in large-scale state-led programs aimed at advancing brain intervention technologies(International Brain Initiative, 2021). Since 2013, initiatives such as the United States’ Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) Initiative and the European Union’s Human Brain Project (HBP), as well as major national initiatives in China, Japan and South Korea have been launched with significant funding support from the respective governments. The Canadian Brain Research Strategy, initially operated as a multi- stakeholder coalition on brain research, is also actively seeking funding support from the government to transform itself into a national research initiative (Canadian Brain Research Strategy, 2022). A similar proposal is also seen in the case of the Australian Brain Alliance, calling for the establishment of an Australian Brain Initiative (Australian Academy of Science, n.d.). [pp. 15-16]


There are some concerns such as these,

Beyond the medical realm, research suggests that emotional responses of consumers
related to preferences and risks can be concurrently tracked by neurotechnology, such
as neuroimaging and that neural data can better predict market-level outcomes than
traditional behavioral data (Karmarkar and Yoon, 2016). As such, neural data is
increasingly sought after in the consumer market for purposes such as digital
phenotyping4, neurogaming 5,and neuromarketing6 (UNESCO, 2021). This surge in demand gives rise to risks like hacking, unauthorized data reuse, extraction of privacy-sensitive information, digital surveillance, criminal exploitation of data, and other forms of abuse. These risks prompt the question of whether neural data needs distinct definition and safeguarding measures.

These issues are particularly relevant today as a wide range of electroencephalogram (EEG) headsets that can be used at home are now available in consumer markets for purposes that range from meditation assistance to controlling electronic devices through the mind. Imagine an individual is using one of these devices to play a neurofeedback game, which records the person’s brain waves during the game. Without the person being aware, the system can also identify the patterns associated with an undiagnosed mental health condition, such as anxiety. If the game company sells this data to third parties, e.g. health insurance providers, this may lead to an increase of insurance fees based on undisclosed information. This hypothetical situation would represent a clear violation of mental privacy and of unethical use of neural data.

Another example is in the field of advertising, where companies are increasingly interested in using neuroimaging to better understand consumers’ responses to their products or advertisements, a practice known as neuromarketing. For instance, a company might use neural data to determine which advertisements elicit the most positive emotional responses in consumers. While this can help companies improve their marketing strategies, it raises significant concerns about mental privacy. Questions arise in relation to consumers being aware or not that their neural data is being used, and in the extent to which this can lead to manipulative advertising practices that unfairly exploit unconscious preferences. Such potential abuses underscore the need for explicit consent and rigorous data protection measures in the use of neurotechnology for neuromarketing purposes. [pp. 21-22]


Some countries already have laws and regulations regarding neurotechnology data,

At the national level, only a few countries have enacted laws and regulations to protect mental integrity or have included neuro-data in personal data protection laws (UNESCO, University of Milan-Bicocca (Italy) and State University of New York – Downstate Health Sciences University, 2023). Examples are the constitutional reform undertaken by Chile (Republic of Chile, 2021), the Charter for the responsible development of neurotechnologies of the Government of France (Government of France, 2022), and the Digital Rights Charter of the Government of Spain (Government of Spain, 2021). They propose different approaches to the regulation and protection of human rights in relation to neurotechnology. Countries such as the UK are also examining under which circumstances neural data may be considered as a special category of data under the general data protection framework (i.e. UK’s GDPR) (UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office, 2023) [p. 24]

As you can see, these are recent laws. There doesn’t seem to be any attempt here in Canada even though there is an act being reviewed in Parliament that could conceivably include neural data. This is from my May 1, 2023 posting,

Bill C-27 (Digital Charter Implementation Act, 2022) is what I believe is called an omnibus bill as it includes three different pieces of proposed legislation (the Consumer Privacy Protection Act [CPPA], the Artificial Intelligence and Data Act [AIDA], and the Personal Information and Data Protection Tribunal Act [PIDPTA]). [emphasis added July 11, 2023] You can read the Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada summary here or a detailed series of descriptions of the act here on the ISED’s Canada’s Digital Charter webpage.

My focus at the time was artificial intelligence and, now, after reading this UNESCO report and briefly looking at the Innovation, Science and Economic Development (ISED) Canada summary and a detailed series of descriptions of the act on ISED’s Canada’s Digital Charter webpage, I don’t see anything that specifies neural data but it’s not excluded either.

IP5 patents

Here’s the explanation (the footnote is included at the end of the excerpt),

IP5 patents represent a subset of overall patents filed worldwide, which have the
characteristic of having been filed in at least one top intellectual property offices (IPO)
worldwide (the so called IP5, namely the Chinese National Intellectual Property
Administration, CNIPA (formerly SIPO); the European Patent Office, EPO; the Japan
Patent Office, JPO; the Korean Intellectual Property Office, KIPO; and the United States
Patent and Trademark Office, USPTO) as well as another country, which may or may not be an IP5. This signals their potential applicability worldwide, as their inventiveness and industrial viability have been validated by at least two leading IPOs. This gives these patents a sort of “quality” check, also since patenting inventions is costly and if applicants try to protect the same invention in several parts of the world, this normally mirrors that the applicant has expectations about their importance and expected value. If we were to conduct the same analysis using information about individually considered patent applied worldwide, i.e. without filtering for quality nor considering patent families, we would risk conducting a biased analysis based on duplicated data. Also, as patentability standards vary across countries and IPOs, and what matters for patentability is the existence (or not) of prior art in the IPO considered, we would risk mixing real innovations with patents related to catching up phenomena in countries that are not at the forefront of the technology considered.

9 The five IP offices (IP5) is a forum of the five largest intellectual property offices in the world that was set up to improve the efficiency of the examination process for patents worldwide. The IP5 Offices together handle about 80% of the world’s patent applications, and 95% of all work carried out under the Patent Cooperation Treaty (PCT), see (Dernis et al., 2015) [p. 31]

AI assistance on this report

As noted earlier I have next to no experience with the analytical tools having not attempted this kind of work in several years. Here’s an example of what they were doing,

We utilize a combination of text embeddings based on Bidirectional Encoder
Representations from Transformer (BERT), dimensionality reduction, and hierarchical
clustering inspired by the BERTopic methodology 12 to identify latent themes within
research literature. Latent themes or topics in the context of topic modeling represent
clusters of words that frequently appear together within a collection of documents (Blei, 2012). These groupings are not explicitly labeled but are inferred through computational analysis examining patterns in word usage. These themes are ‘hidden’ within the text, only to be revealed through this analysis. …

We further utilize OpenAI’s GPT-4 model to enrich our understanding of topics’ keywords and to generate topic labels (OpenAI, 2023), thus supplementing expert review of the broad interdisciplinary corpus. Recently, GPT-4 has shown impressive results in medical contexts across various evaluations (Nori et al., 2023), making it a useful tool to enhance the information obtained from prior analysis stages, and to complement them. The automated process enhances the evaluation workflow, effectively emphasizing neuroscience themes pertinent to potential neurotechnology patents. Notwithstanding existing concerns about hallucinations (Lee, Bubeck and Petro, 2023) and errors in generative AI models, this methodology employs the GPT-4 model for summarization and interpretation tasks, which significantly mitigates the likelihood of hallucinations. Since the model is constrained to the context provided by the keyword collections, it limits the potential for fabricating information outside of the specified boundaries, thereby enhancing the accuracy and reliability of the output. [pp. 33-34]

I couldn’t resist adding the ChatGPT paragraph given all of the recent hoopla about it.

Multimodal neuromodulation and neuromorphic computing patents

I think this gives a pretty good indication of the activity on the patent front,

The largest, coherent topic, termed “multimodal neuromodulation,” comprises 535
patents detailing methodologies for deep or superficial brain stimulation designed to
address neurological and psychiatric ailments. These patented technologies interact with various points in neural circuits to induce either Long-Term Potentiation (LTP) or Long-Term Depression (LTD), offering treatment for conditions such as obsession, compulsion, anxiety, depression, Parkinson’s disease, and other movement disorders. The modalities encompass implanted deep-brain stimulators (DBS), Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), and transcranial Direct Current Stimulation (tDCS). Among the most representative documents for this cluster are patents with titles: Electrical stimulation of structures within the brain or Systems and methods for enhancing or optimizing neural stimulation therapy for treating symptoms of Parkinson’s disease and or other movement disorders. [p.65]

Given my longstanding interest in memristors, which (I believe) have to a large extent helped to stimulate research into neuromorphic computing, this had to be included. Then, there was the brain-computer interfaces cluster,

A cluster identified as “Neuromorphic Computing” consists of 366 patents primarily
focused on devices designed to mimic human neural networks for efficient and adaptable computation. The principal elements of these inventions are resistive memory cells and artificial synapses. They exhibit properties similar to the neurons and synapses in biological brains, thus granting these devices the ability to learn and modulate responses based on rewards, akin to the adaptive cognitive capabilities of the human brain.

The primary technology classes associated with these patents fall under specific IPC
codes, representing the fields of neural network models, analog computers, and static
storage structures. Essentially, these classifications correspond to technologies that are key to the construction of computers and exhibit cognitive functions similar to human brain processes.

Examples for this cluster include neuromorphic processing devices that leverage
variations in resistance to store and process information, artificial synapses exhibiting
spike-timing dependent plasticity, and systems that allow event-driven learning and
reward modulation within neuromorphic computers.

In relation to neurotechnology as a whole, the “neuromorphic computing” cluster holds significant importance. It embodies the fusion of neuroscience and technology, thereby laying the basis for the development of adaptive and cognitive computational systems. Understanding this specific cluster provides a valuable insight into the progressing domain of neurotechnology, promising potential advancements across diverse fields, including artificial intelligence and healthcare.

The “Brain-Computer Interfaces” cluster, consisting of 146 patents, embodies a key aspect of neurotechnology that focuses on improving the interface between the brain and external devices. The technology classification codes associated with these patents primarily refer to methods or devices for treatment or protection of eyes and ears, devices for introducing media into, or onto, the body, and electric communication techniques, which are foundational elements of brain-computer interface (BCI) technologies.

Key patents within this cluster include a brain-computer interface apparatus adaptable to use environment and method of operating thereof, a double closed circuit brain-machine interface system, and an apparatus and method of brain-computer interface for device controlling based on brain signal. These inventions mainly revolve around the concept of using brain signals to control external devices, such as robotic arms, and improving the classification performance of these interfaces, even after long periods of non-use.

The inventions described in these patents improve the accuracy of device control, maintain performance over time, and accommodate multiple commands, thus significantly enhancing the functionality of BCIs.

Other identified technologies include systems for medical image analysis, limb rehabilitation, tinnitus treatment, sleep optimization, assistive exoskeletons, and advanced imaging techniques, among others. [pp. 66-67]

Having sections on neuromorphic computing and brain-computer interface patents in immediate proximity led to more speculation on my part. Imagine how much easier it would be to initiate a BCI connection if it’s powered with a neuromorphic (brainlike) computer/device. [ETA July 21, 2023: Following on from that thought, it might be more than just easier to initiate a BCI connection. Could a brainlike computer become part of your brain? Why not? it’s been successfully argued that a robotic wheelchair was part of someone’s body, see my January 30, 2013 posting and scroll down about 40% of the way.)]

Neurotech policy debates

The report concludes with this,

Neurotechnology is a complex and rapidly evolving technological paradigm whose
trajectories have the power to shape people’s identity, autonomy, privacy, sentiments,
behaviors and overall well-being, i.e. the very essence of what it means to be human.

Designing and implementing careful and effective norms and regulations ensuring that neurotechnology is developed and deployed in an ethical manner, for the good of
individuals and for society as a whole, call for a careful identification and characterization of the issues at stake. This entails shedding light on the whole neurotechnology ecosystem, that is what is being developed, where and by whom, and also understanding how neurotechnology interacts with other developments and technological trajectories, especially AI. Failing to do so may result in ineffective (at best) or distorted policies and policy decisions, which may harm human rights and human dignity.

Addressing the need for evidence in support of policy making, the present report offers first time robust data and analysis shedding light on the neurotechnology landscape worldwide. To this end, its proposes and implements an innovative approach that leverages artificial intelligence and deep learning on data from scientific publications and paten[t]s to identify scientific and technological developments in the neurotech space. The methodology proposed represents a scientific advance in itself, as it constitutes a quasi- automated replicable strategy for the detection and documentation of neurotechnology- related breakthroughs in science and innovation, to be repeated over time to account for the evolution of the sector. Leveraging this approach, the report further proposes an IPC-based taxonomy for neurotechnology which allows for a structured framework to the exploration of neurotechnology, to enable future research, development and analysis. The innovative methodology proposed is very flexible and can in fact be leveraged to investigate different emerging technologies, as they arise.

In terms of technological trajectories, we uncover a shift in the neurotechnology industry, with greater emphasis being put on computer and medical technologies in recent years, compared to traditionally dominant trajectories related to biotechnology and pharmaceuticals. This shift warrants close attention from policymakers, and calls for attention in relation to the latest (converging) developments in the field, especially AI and related methods and applications and neurotechnology.

This is all the more important and the observed growth and specialization patterns are unfolding in the context of regulatory environments that, generally, are either not existent or not fit for purpose. Given the sheer implications and impact of neurotechnology on the very essence of human beings, this lack of regulation poses key challenges related to the possible infringement of mental integrity, human dignity, personal identity, privacy, freedom of thought, and autonomy, among others. Furthermore, issues surrounding accessibility and the potential for neurotech enhancement applications triggers significant concerns, with far-reaching implications for individuals and societies. [pp. 72-73]

Last words about the report

Informative, readable, and thought-provoking. And, it helped broaden my understanding of neurotechnology.

Future endeavours?

I’m hopeful that one of these days one of these groups (UNESCO, Canadian Science Policy Centre, or ???) will tackle the issue of business bankruptcy in the neurotechnology sector. It has already occurred as noted in my ““Going blind when your neural implant company flirts with bankruptcy [long read]” April 5, 2022 posting. That story opens with a woman going blind in a New York subway when her neural implant fails. It’s how she found out the company, which supplied her implant was going out of business.

In my July 7, 2023 posting about the UNESCO July 2023 dialogue on neurotechnology, I’ve included information on Neuralink (one of Elon Musk’s companies) and its approval (despite some investigations) by the US Food and Drug Administration to start human clinical trials. Scroll down about 75% of the way to the “Food for thought” subhead where you will find stories about allegations made against Neuralink.

The end

If you want to know more about the field, the report offers a seven-page bibliography and there’s a lot of material here where you can start with this December 3, 2019 posting “Neural and technological inequalities” which features an article mentioning a discussion between two scientists. Surprisingly (to me), the source article is in Fast Company (a leading progressive business media brand), according to their tagline)..

I have two categories you may want to check: Human Enhancement and Neuromorphic Engineering. There are also a number of tags: neuromorphic computing, machine/flesh, brainlike computing, cyborgs, neural implants, neuroprosthetics, memristors, and more.

Should you have any observations or corrections, please feel free to leave them in the Comments section of this posting.

Metal oxide nanoparticles and negative effects on gut health?

A May 4, 2023 Binghamton University news release by Jillian McCarthy (also on EurekAlert but published on May 9, 2023) announces the research, Note: A link has been removed,

Common food additives known as metal oxide nanoparticles may have negative effects on your gut health, according to new research from Binghamton University, State University of New York and Cornell University. 

Gretchen Mahler, professor of biomedical engineering and interim vice provost and dean of the Graduate School, worked in collaboration with Cornell researchers to study five of these nanoparticles. Their findings were recently published in the Journal of Antioxidants.

“They’re all actual food additives,” said Mahler. “Titanium dioxide tends to show up as a whitening and brightening agent. Silicon dioxide tends to be added to foods to prevent it from clumping. Iron oxide tends to be added to meats, for example, to keep that red color. And zinc oxide can be used as a preservative because it’s antimicrobial.” [emphases mine]

In order to test these nanoparticles, Mahler and Elad Tako, senior author and associate professor of food science in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell, used the intestinal tract of chickens. A chicken’s intestinal tract is comparable to a human’s; the microbiota that they have and the bacterial components have a lot of overlap with the microbiota that you see in the human digestive system, said Mahler. 

“We’ve been testing a series of nanomaterials here at Binghamton, and we’ve been looking at things like nutrient absorption, enzyme expression and some of the more subtle, functional markers,” said Mahler.

The doses of nanoparticles that were tested reflect what is typically consumed by humans. The nanoparticles were injected into the amniotic sac of broiler chicken eggs, which are specifically bred and raised for their meat. These chickens get larger faster, so the effects of the nanoparticles are more obvious earlier in development. The amniotic sac at a certain stage of development flows through the chicken intestine.

“When they hatched, we harvested tissue from the small intestine, the microbiota and the liver,” said Mahler. “We looked at gene expression, microbiota composition and the structure of the small intestine.”

The researchers found more negative effects with silicone dioxide and titanium dioxide. They also found that the nanoparticles had affected the functioning of the chicken’s intestinal lining (called the brush border membrane), the balance of bacteria in their intestinal tract and the chickens’ ability to absorb minerals.

The other nanoparticles had more neutral, or even positive, effects. Zinc oxide appeared to support intestinal development or compensatory mechanisms due to intestinal damage. Iron oxide could potentially be used for iron fortification, but with potential alterations in intestinal functionality and health.

Mahler doesn’t want to suggest that these nanoparticles need to be removed from our diets completely. Their research is meant to provide some information, and allow people to have a better understanding of what’s really in the food they consume.

“We’re eating these things, so it’s important to consider what some of the more subtle effects could be,” said Mahler. “We develop these gut models around this problem to try to understand it, and this collaboration, where we have these complementary methods to try to look at the problem, has been successful.”

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

Food-Grade Metal Oxide Nanoparticles Exposure Alters Intestinal Microbial Populations, Brush Border Membrane Functionality and Morphology, In Vivo (Gallus gallus) by Jacquelyn Cheng, Nikolai Kolba, Alba García-Rodríguez, Cláudia N. H. Marques, Gretchen J. Mahler and Elad Tako. Antioxidants 2023, 12(2), 431, DOI: Published online : 9 February 2023 (This article belongs to the Special Issue Dietary Supplements and Oxidative Stress)

This paper is open access.

A roly-poly (woodlouse) gold rush

This environmental monitoring story focused on the roly-poly was announced in an April 18, 2023 news item on Statnano,

The woodlouse goes by many names: roly-poly, pill bug, potato bug, tomato bug, butchy boy, cheesy bob, and chiggy pig, to name just a few. It is best known for contracting into a ball when agitated. This crustacean (yes, it’s a crustacean, not an insect) thrives in heavily metal-contaminated areas due to its specialized digestive organ, called a hepatopancreas, that stores and expels unwanted metals.

Metal nanoparticles are common in industrial and research plants. However, they can leach into the surrounding environment. Currently, little is known about the toxicity of metal nanoparticles for nearby organisms because detecting metal nanoparticles, particularly gold, requires microscopic, 3D imaging that cannot be done in the field


Caption: (a) Cartoon of a woodlouse depicting the hepatopancreas (HP) and the hind gut (HG). (b) Transmission overview of a single HP tubule, showing the helical structure. (c) Section from a HP tubule with the nuclei fluorescently labeled in blue. Credit: Iestyn Pope, Nuno G.C. Ferreira, Peter Kille, Wolfgang Langbein, and Paola Borri

An April 11, 2023 American Institute of Physics (AIP) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes a new approach to detecting gold nanoparticles in roly-polys,

In Applied Physics Letters, by AIP Publishing, researchers from Cardiff University in the U.K. introduce a novel imaging method to detect gold nanoparticles in woodlice. With information about the quantity, location, and impact of gold nanoparticles within the organism, scientists can better understand the potential harm other metals may have on nature.

“Gold nanoparticles are used extensively for biological research applications owing to their biocompatibility and photostability and are available in a large range of shapes and sizes,” said author Wolfgang Langbein. “By using gold nanoparticles, which would not normally be present in the woodlice diet, we can study the journey of nanoparticles inside complex biological systems.”

The researchers developed an imaging method known as four-wave mixing microscopy, which flashes light that the gold nanoparticles absorb. The light flashes again and the subsequent scattering reveals the nanoparticles’ locations. Using this state-of-the-art technique, they locate the individual gold nanoparticles in the 3D cellular environment.

“By precisely pinpointing the fate of individual gold nanoparticles in the hepatopancreas of woodlice, we can gain a better understanding of how these organisms sequester and respond to metals ingested from the environment,” said Langbein. “Tracking this metal within these organisms is the first step enabling further study to determine, for example, if gold is collected within specific cells, or if it can interfere with the metabolisms in high doses.”

The use of gold nanoparticles in medical devices is increasing and with it, their abundance in the environment. This imaging technique will provide clarity into the little-understood mechanisms in the woodlice hepatopancreas and will also provide helpful environmental monitoring.

In the future, background-free four-wave mixing microscopy could be used to detect other metal nanoparticles and may be applied to organisms like fish larvae and even human cell cultures.

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

Background-free four-wave mixing microscopy of small gold nanoparticles inside a multi-cellular organ by Iestyn Pope, Nuno G.C. Ferreira, Peter Kille, Wolfgang Langbein, and Paola Borri. Appl. Phys. Lett. 122, 153701 (2023) DOI: online April 11, 2023

This paper is open access.

Resisting silver’s microbial properties?

Yes, it is possible for bacteria to become resistant to silver nanoparticles. However, that yes comes with some qualifications according to a July 13, 2021 news item on ScienceDaily (Note: Links have been removed),

Antimicrobials are used to kill or slow the growth of bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms. They can be in the form of antibiotics, used to treat bodily infections, or as an additive or coating on commercial products used to keep germs at bay. These life-saving tools are essential to preventing and treating infections in humans, animals and plants, but they also pose a global threat to public health when microorganisms develop resistance to them, a concept known as antimicrobial resistance.

One of the main drivers of antimicrobial resistance is the misuse and overuse of antimicrobial agents, which includes silver nanoparticles, [emphases mine] an advanced material with well-documented antimicrobial properties. It is increasingly used in commercial products that boast enhanced germ-killing performance — it has been woven into textiles, coated onto toothbrushes, and even mixed into cosmetics as a preservative.

The Gilbertson Group at the University of Pittsburgh [Pennsylvania, US} Swanson School of Engineering used laboratory strains of E.coli to better understand bacterial resistance to silver nanoparticles and attempt to get ahead of the potential misuse of this material. The team recently published their results in Nature Nanotechnology.

Caption: A depiction of hyper-motile E.coli, a strain of bacteria found to resist silver nanoparticles’ antimicrobial properties after repeated exposure. Credit: Lisa Stabryla/University of Pittsburgh.

A July 13, 2021 University of Pittsburgh news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more insight into the research,

“Bacterial resistance to silver nanoparticles is understudied, so our group looked at the mechanisms behind this event,” said Lisa Stabryla, lead author on the paper and a recent civil and environmental PhD graduate at Pitt. “This is a promising innovation to add to our arsenal of antimicrobials, but we need to consciously study it and perhaps regulate its use to avoid decreased efficacy like we’ve seen with some common antibiotics.”

Stabryla exposed E.coli to 20 consecutive days of silver nanoparticles and monitored bacterial growth over time. Nanoparticles are roughly 50 times smaller than a bacterium.

“In the beginning, bacteria could only survive at low concentrations of silver nanoparticles, but as the experiment continued, we found that they could survive at higher doses,” Stabryla noted. “Interestingly, we found that bacteria developed resistance to the silver nanoparticles but not their released silver ions alone.”

The group sequenced the genome of the E.coli that had been exposed to silver nanoparticles and found a mutation in a gene that corresponds to an efflux pump that pushes heavy metal ions out of the cell.

“It is possible that some form of silver is getting into the cell, and when it arrives, the cell mutates to quickly pump it out,” she added. “More work is needed to determine if researchers can perhaps overcome this mechanism of resistance through particle design.”

The group then studied two different types of E.coli: a hyper-motile strain that swims through its environment more quickly than normally motile bacteria and a non-motile strain that does not have physical means for moving around. They found that only the hyper-motile strain developed resistance.

“This finding could suggest that silver nanoparticles may be a good option to target certain types of bacteria, particularly non-motile strains,” Stabryla said.

In the end, bacteria will still find a way to evolve and evade antimicrobials. The hope is that an understanding of the mechanisms that lead to this evolution and a mindful use of new antimicrobials will lessen the impact of antimicrobial resistance.

“We are the first to look at bacterial motility effects on the ability to develop resistance to silver nanoparticles,” said Leanne Gilbertson, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Pitt. “The observed difference is really interesting and merits further investigation to understand it and how to link the genetic response – the efflux pump regulation – to the bacteria’s ability to move in the system.

“The results are promising for being able to tune particle properties for a desired response, such as high efficacy while avoiding resistance.”

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

Role of bacterial motility in differential resistance mechanisms of silver nanoparticles and silver ions by Lisa M. Stabryla, Kathryn A. Johnston, Nathan A. Diemler, Vaughn S. Cooper, Jill E. Millstone, Sarah-Jane Haig & Leanne M. Gilbertson. Nature Nanotechnology (2021) DOI: Published: 21 June 2021

This paper appears to be open access.

Nanomaterial shapes and forms affect passage through blood brain barrier (BBB)

I meant to get this published a lot sooner.

There seems to be a lot of excitement about this research. I got an embargoed press release further in advance than usual and now the embargo is lifted, it’s everywhere except, at the time of this writing (0920 PDT July 6, 2021), on the publisher’s (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [PNAS]) website.

A July 5, 2021 news item on Medical Express announces the news,

Nanomaterials found in consumer and health-care products can pass from the bloodstream to the brain side of a blood-brain barrier model with varying ease depending on their shape—creating potential neurological impacts that could be both positive and negative, a new study reveals.

A July 5, 2021 University of Birmingham press release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, delves into the details,

Scientists found that metal-based nanomaterials such as silver and zinc oxide can cross an in vitro model of the ‘blood brain barrier’ (BBB) as both particles and dissolved ions – adversely affecting the health of astrocyte cells, which control neurological responses.

But the researchers also believe that their discovery will help to design safer nanomaterials and could open up new ways of targeting hard-to-reach locations when treating brain disease.

Publishing its findings today in PNAS, an international team of researchers discovered that the physiochemical properties of metallic nanomaterials influence how effective they are at penetrating the in vitro model of the blood brain barrier and their potential levels of toxicity in the brain.

Higher concentration of certain shapes of silver nanomaterials and zinc oxide may impair cell growth and cause increased permeability of the BBB, which can lead to the BBB allowing easier brain access to these compounds.

The BBB plays a vital role in brain health by restricting the passage of various chemical substances and foreign molecules into the brain from surrounding blood vessels.

Impaired BBB integrity compromises the health of the central nervous system and increased permeability to foreign substances may eventually cause damage to the brain (neurotoxicity).

Study co-author Iseult Lynch, Professor of Environmental Nanosciences at the University of Birmingham, commented: “We found that silver and zinc oxide nanomaterials, which are widely used in various daily consumer and health-care products, passed through our in vitro BBB model, in the form of both particles and dissolved ions.

“Variation in shape, size and chemical composition can dramatically influence nanomaterials penetration through the (in vitro) blood brain barrier. This is of paramount importance for tailored medical application of nanomaterials – for example targeted delivery systems, bioimaging and assessing possible risks associated with each type of metallic nanomaterial.”

The BBB is a physical barrier composed of a tightly packed layer of endothelial cells surrounding the brain which separates the blood from the cerebrospinal fluid allowing the transfer of oxygen and essential nutrients but preventing the access of most molecules.

Recent studies found nanomaterials such as zinc oxide can accumulate on the brain side of the in vitro BBB in altered states which can affect neurological activity and brain health. Inhaled, ingested, and dermally-applied nanomaterials can reach the blood stream and a small fraction of these may cross the BBB – impacting on the central nervous system.

The researchers synthesised a library of metallic nanomaterials with different particle compositions, sizes, and shapes – evaluating their ability to penetrate the BBB using an in vitro BBB model, followed by assessment of their behaviour and fate in and beyond the model BBB.

Co-author Zhiling Guo, a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham, commented: “”Understanding these materials’ behaviour once past the blood brain barrier is vital for evaluating the neurological effects arising from their unintentional entry into the brain. Neurotoxicity potential is greater in some materials than others, due to the different ways their shapes allow them to move and be transported.”

The research team tested varied sizes of cerium oxide and iron oxide, along with zinc oxide and four different shapes of silver – spherical (Ag NS), disc-like (Ag ND), rod-shaped (Ag NR) and nanowires (Ag NW).

Zinc oxide slipped through the in vitro BBB with the greatest ease. The researchers found spherical and disc-like silver nanomaterials underwent different dissolution regimes – gradually transforming to silver-sulfur compounds within the BBB, creating ‘easier’ entry pathways.

Zinc oxide is used as a bulking agent and a colorant. In over-the-counter drug products, it is used as a skin protectant and a sunscreen – reflecting and scattering UV radiation to help reduce or prevent sunburn and premature aging of the skin. Silver is used in cosmetic and skincare products such as anti-aging creams.

There’s still a long way to go with this research. For anyone who’s unfamiliar with the term ‘in vitro’, the rough translation is ‘in glass’ meaning test tubes, petri dishes, etc. are used. Even though the research paper has been peer-reviewed (not a perfect process), once it becomes available there will be added scrutiny from scientists with regard to how the research was conducted and whether or not the conclusions drawn are reasonable. One more question should also be asked, are the results reproducible by other scientists?

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

Biotransformation modulates the penetration of metallic nanomaterials across an artificial blood–brain barrier model by Zhiling Guo, Peng Zhang, Swaroop Chakraborty, Andrew J Chetwynd, Fazel Abdolahpur Monikh, Christopher Stark, Hanene Ali-Boucetta, Sandra Wilson, Iseult Lynch, and Eugenia Valsami-Jones. PNAS 118 (28) e2105245118 DOI: Published: July 13, 2021

This paper appears to be open access.

Rapid formation of micro- and nanoplastics in the environment

Image: Nora Meides.

A June 18, 2021 news item on announces the results of research into how materials made of plastic break down into micro- and nanoplastic particles in the environment,

Most microplastic particles in the environment originate from larger pieces of plastic. In a long-term study, an interdisciplinary research team at the University of Bayreuth has simulated how quickly plastic breaks down into fragments under natural influences. High-tech laboratory tests on polystyrene show two phases of abiotic degradation. To begin with, the stability of the plastic is weakened by photo-oxidation. Then cracks form and more and more and smaller fragments are released into the environment. The study, published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, allows conclusions to be drawn about other plastics that are common in the environment.

A June 17, 2021 University of Bayreuth press release, which originated the news item, provides more detail,

Polystyrene is an inexpensive plastic that is often used for packaging and thermal insulation, and is therefore particularly common in plastic waste. As part of their long-term study, the Bayreuth researchers for the first time combined analytical investigations, which were also carried out on polystyrene particles at the atomic level, with measurements determining the behaviour of these particles under mechanical stress. On the basis of this, they developed a model for abiotic degradation, i.e. degradation without the influence of living organisms.

“Our study shows that a single microplastic particle with a diameter of 160 micrometres releases about 500 particles in the order of 20 micrometres – i.e. 0.02 millimetres – over the course of one and a half years of being exposed to natural weathering processes in the environment. Over time, these particles in turn break down into smaller and smaller fragments. An ecocorona can form around these tiny particles, possibly facilitating penetration into the cells of living organisms. This was discovered a few months ago by another Bayreuth research group,” says first author Nora Meides, a doctoral student in macromolecular chemistry at the University of Bayreuth.

n the water, the microplastic particles were exposed to two stress factors: intense sunlight and continuous mechanical stress produced by agitation. In the real-world environment, sunlight and mechanical stress are in fact the two main abiotic factors that contribute to the gradual fragmentation of the particles. Irradiation by sunlight triggers oxidation processes on the surface of the particles. This photo-oxidation, in combination with mechanical stress, has significant consequences. The polystyrene chains become ever shorter. Furthermore, they become increasingly polar, i.e. centres of charge are formed in the molecules. In the second phase, the microplastic particles begin to fragment. Here, the particles break down into smaller and smaller micro- and nanoplastic fragments.

“Our research results are a valuable basis for investigating the abiotic degradation of macro- and microplastics in the environment – both on land and at the surface of water – in more detail, using other types of plastic as examples. We were surprised by the speed of fragmentation ourselves, which again shows the potential risks that could emanate from the growing burden of plastics on the environment. Especially larger plastic waste objects, are – when exposed to sunlight and abrasion – a reservoir of constant microplastic input. It is precisely these tiny particles, barely visible to the naked eye, that spread to the remotest ecosystems via various transport routes,” says Teresa Menzel, PhD student in the area of Polymer Engineering.

“The polystyrene investigated in our long-term study has a carbon-chain backbone, just like polyethylene and polypropylene. It is very likely that the two-phase model we have developed on polystyrene can be transferred to these plastics,” adds lead author Prof. Dr. Jürgen Senker, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, who coordinated the research work. 

The study that has now been published is the result of the close interdisciplinary cooperation of a working group belonging to the DFG Collaborative Research Centre “Microplastics” at the University of Bayreuth. In this team, scientists from macromolecular chemistry, inorganic chemistry, engineering science, and animal ecology are jointly researching the formation and degradation of microplastics. Numerous types of research technology are available on the Bayreuth campus for this purpose, which were used in the long-term study: among others, ¹³C-MAS-NMR spectroscopy, energy dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and gel permeation chromatography (GPC).

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

Reconstructing the Environmental Degradation of Polystyrene by Accelerated Weathering by Nora Meides, Teresa Menzel, Björn Poetzschner, Martin G. J. Löder, Ulrich Mansfeld, Peter Strohriegl, Volker Altstaedt, and Jürgen Senker. Environ. Sci. Technol. 2021, 55, 12, 7930–7938 DOI: Publication Date: May 21, 2021 Copyright © 2021 The Authors. Published by American Chemical Society

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