Category Archives: graphene

Communicating thoughts by means of brain implants?

The Australian military announced mind-controlled robots in Spring 2023 (see my June 13, 2023 posting) and, recently, scientists at Duke University (North Carolina, US) have announced research that may allow people who are unable to speak to communicate their thoughts, from a November 6, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily,

A speech prosthetic developed by a collaborative team of Duke neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, and engineers can translate a person’s brain signals into what they’re trying to say.

Appearing Nov. 6 [2023] in the journal Nature Communications, the new technology might one day help people unable to talk due to neurological disorders regain the ability to communicate through a brain-computer interface.

One more plastic brain for this blog,

Caption: A device no bigger than a postage stamp (dotted portion within white band) packs 128 microscopic sensors that can translate brain cell activity into what someone intends to say. Credit: Dan Vahaba/Duke University

A November 6, 2023 Duke University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail, Note: Links have been removed,

“There are many patients who suffer from debilitating motor disorders, like ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) or locked-in syndrome, that can impair their ability to speak,” said Gregory Cogan, Ph.D., a professor of neurology at Duke University’s School of Medicine and one of the lead researchers involved in the project. “But the current tools available to allow them to communicate are generally very slow and cumbersome.”

Imagine listening to an audiobook at half-speed. That’s the best speech decoding rate currently available, which clocks in at about 78 words per minute. People, however, speak around 150 words per minute.

The lag between spoken and decoded speech rates is partially due the relatively few brain activity sensors that can be fused onto a paper-thin piece of material that lays atop the surface of the brain. Fewer sensors provide less decipherable information to decode.

To improve on past limitations, Cogan teamed up with fellow Duke Institute for Brain Sciences faculty member Jonathan Viventi, Ph.D., whose biomedical engineering lab specializes in making high-density, ultra-thin, and flexible brain sensors.

For this project, Viventi and his team packed an impressive 256 microscopic brain sensors onto a postage stamp-sized piece of flexible, medical-grade plastic. Neurons just a grain of sand apart can have wildly different activity patterns when coordinating speech, so it’s necessary to distinguish signals from neighboring brain cells to help make accurate predictions about intended speech.

After fabricating the new implant, Cogan and Viventi teamed up with several Duke University Hospital neurosurgeons, including Derek Southwell, M.D., Ph.D., Nandan Lad, M.D., Ph.D., and Allan Friedman, M.D., who helped recruit four patients to test the implants. The experiment required the researchers to place the device temporarily in patients who were undergoing brain surgery for some other condition, such as  treating Parkinson’s disease or having a tumor removed. Time was limited for Cogan and his team to test drive their device in the OR.

“I like to compare it to a NASCAR pit crew,” Cogan said. “We don’t want to add any extra time to the operating procedure, so we had to be in and out within 15 minutes. As soon as the surgeon and the medical team said ‘Go!’ we rushed into action and the patient performed the task.”

The task was a simple listen-and-repeat activity. Participants heard a series of nonsense words, like “ava,” “kug,” or “vip,” and then spoke each one aloud. The device recorded activity from each patient’s speech motor cortex as it coordinated nearly 100 muscles that move the lips, tongue, jaw, and larynx.

Afterwards, Suseendrakumar Duraivel, the first author of the new report and a biomedical engineering graduate student at Duke, took the neural and speech data from the surgery suite and fed it into a machine learning algorithm to see how accurately it could predict what sound was being made, based only on the brain activity recordings.

For some sounds and participants, like /g/ in the word “gak,”  the decoder got it right 84% of the time when it was the first sound in a string of three that made up a given nonsense word.

Accuracy dropped, though, as the decoder parsed out sounds in the middle or at the end of a nonsense word. It also struggled if two sounds were similar, like /p/ and /b/.

Overall, the decoder was accurate 40% of the time. That may seem like a humble test score, but it was quite impressive given that similar brain-to-speech technical feats require hours or days-worth of data to draw from. The speech decoding algorithm Duraivel used, however, was working with only 90 seconds of spoken data from the 15-minute test.

Duraivel and his mentors are excited about making a cordless version of the device with a recent $2.4M grant from the National Institutes of Health.

“We’re now developing the same kind of recording devices, but without any wires,” Cogan said. “You’d be able to move around, and you wouldn’t have to be tied to an electrical outlet, which is really exciting.”

While their work is encouraging, there’s still a long way to go for Viventi and Cogan’s speech prosthetic to hit the shelves anytime soon.

“We’re at the point where it’s still much slower than natural speech,” Viventi said in a recent Duke Magazine piece about the technology, “but you can see the trajectory where you might be able to get there.”

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

High-resolution neural recordings improve the accuracy of speech decoding by Suseendrakumar Duraivel, Shervin Rahimpour, Chia-Han Chiang, Michael Trumpis, Charles Wang, Katrina Barth, Stephen C. Harward, Shivanand P. Lad, Allan H. Friedman, Derek G. Southwell, Saurabh R. Sinha, Jonathan Viventi & Gregory B. Cogan. Nature Communications volume 14, Article number: 6938 (2023) DO: Ihttps://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-023-42555-1 Published: 06 November 2023

This paper is open access.

FrogHeart’s 2023 comes to an end as 2024 comes into view

My personal theme for this last year (2023) and for the coming year was and is: catching up. On the plus side, my 2023 backlog (roughly six months) to be published was whittled down considerably. On the minus side, I start 2024 with a backlog of two to three months.

2023 on this blog had a lot in common with 2022 (see my December 31, 2022 posting), which may be due to what’s going on in the world of emerging science and technology or to my personal interests or possibly a bit of both. On to 2023 and a further blurring of boundaries:

Energy, computing and the environment

The argument against paper is that it uses up resources, it’s polluting, it’s affecting the environment, etc. Somehow the part where electricity which underpins so much of our ‘smart’ society does the same thing is left out of the discussion.

Neuromorphic (brainlike) computing and lower energy

Before launching into the stories about lowering energy usage, here’s an October 16, 2023 posting “The cost of building ChatGPT” that gives you some idea of the consequences of our insatiable desire for more computing and more ‘smart’ devices,

In its latest environmental report, Microsoft disclosed that its global water consumption spiked 34% from 2021 to 2022 (to nearly 1.7 billion gallons , or more than 2,500 Olympic-sized swimming pools), a sharp increase compared to previous years that outside researchers tie to its AI research. [emphases mine]

“It’s fair to say the majority of the growth is due to AI,” including “its heavy investment in generative AI and partnership with OpenAI,” said Shaolei Ren, [emphasis mine] a researcher at the University of California, Riverside who has been trying to calculate the environmental impact of generative AI products such as ChatGPT.

Why it matters: Microsoft’s five WDM [West Des Moines in Iowa] data centers — the “epicenter for advancing AI” — represent more than $5 billion in investments in the last 15 years.

Yes, but: They consumed as much as 11.5 million gallons of water a month for cooling, or about 6% of WDM’s total usage during peak summer usage during the last two years, according to information from West Des Moines Water Works.

The focus is AI but it doesn’t take long to realize that all computing has energy and environmental costs. I have more about Ren’s work and about water shortages in the “The cost of building ChatGPT” posting.

This next posting would usually be included with my other art/sci postings but it touches on the issues. My October 13, 2023 posting about Toronto’s Art/Sci Salon events, in particular, there’s the Streaming Carbon Footprint event (just scroll down to the appropriate subhead). For the interested, I also found this 2022 paper “The Carbon Footprint of Streaming Media:; Problems, Calculations, Solutions” co-authored by one of the artist/researchers (Laura U. Marks, philosopher and scholar of new media and film at Simon Fraser University) who presented at the Toronto event.

I’m late to the party; Thomas Daigle posted a January 2, 2020 article about energy use and our appetite for computing and ‘smart’ devices for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s online news,

For those of us binge-watching TV shows, installing new smartphone apps or sharing family photos on social media over the holidays, it may seem like an abstract predicament.

The gigabytes of data we’re using — although invisible — come at a significant cost to the environment. Some experts say it rivals that of the airline industry. 

And as more smart devices rely on data to operate (think internet-connected refrigerators or self-driving cars), their electricity demands are set to skyrocket.

“We are using an immense amount of energy to drive this data revolution,” said Jane Kearns, an environment and technology expert at MaRS Discovery District, an innovation hub in Toronto.

“It has real implications for our climate.”

Some good news

Researchers are working on ways to lower the energy and environmental costs, here’s a sampling of 2023 posts with an emphasis on brainlike computing that attest to it,

If there’s an industry that can make neuromorphic computing and energy savings sexy, it’s the automotive indusry,

On the energy front,

Most people are familiar with nuclear fission and some its attendant issues. There is an alternative nuclear energy, fusion, which is considered ‘green’ or greener anyway. General Fusion is a local (Vancouver area) company focused on developing fusion energy, alongside competitors from all over the planet.

Part of what makes fusion energy attractive is that salt water or sea water can be used in its production and, according to that December posting, there are other applications for salt water power,

More encouraging developments in environmental science

Again, this is a selection. You’ll find a number of nano cellulose research projects and a couple of seaweed projects (seaweed research seems to be of increasing interest).

All by myself (neuromorphic engineering)

Neuromorphic computing is a subset of neuromorphic engineering and I stumbled across an article that outlines the similarities and differences. My ‘summary’ of the main points and a link to the original article can be found here,

Oops! I did it again. More AI panic

I included an overview of the various ‘recent’ panics (in my May 25, 2023 posting below) along with a few other posts about concerning developments but it’s not all doom and gloom..

Governments have realized that regulation might be a good idea. The European Union has a n AI act, the UK held an AI Safety Summit in November 2023, the US has been discussing AI regulation with its various hearings, and there’s impending legislation in Canada (see professor and lawyer Michael Geist’s blog for more).

A long time coming, a nanomedicine comeuppance

Paolo Macchiarini is now infamous for his untested, dangerous approach to medicine. Like a lot of people, I was fooled too as you can see in my August 2, 2011 posting, “Body parts nano style,”

In early July 2011, there were reports of a new kind of transplant involving a body part made of a biocomposite. Andemariam Teklesenbet Beyene underwent a trachea transplant that required an artificial windpipe crafted by UK experts then flown to Sweden where Beyene’s stem cells were used to coat the windpipe before being transplanted into his body.

It is an extraordinary story not least because Beyene, a patient in a Swedish hospital planning to return to Eritrea after his PhD studies in Iceland, illustrates the international cooperation that made the transplant possible.

The scaffolding material for the artificial windpipe was developed by Professor Alex Seifalian at the University College London in a landmark piece of nanotechnology-enabled tissue engineering. …

Five years later I stumbled across problems with Macchiarini’s work as outlined in my April 19, 2016 posting, “Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants (part 1 of 2)” and my other April 19, 2016 posting, “Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants (part 2 of 2)“.

This year, Gretchen Vogel (whose work was featured in my 2016 posts) has written a June 21, 2023 update about the Macchiarini affair for Science magazine, Note: Links have been removed,

Surgeon Paolo Macchiarini, who was once hailed as a pioneer of stem cell medicine, was found guilty of gross assault against three of his patients today and sentenced to 2 years and 6 months in prison by an appeals court in Stockholm. The ruling comes a year after a Swedish district court found Macchiarini guilty of bodily harm in two of the cases and gave him a suspended sentence. After both the prosecution and Macchiarini appealed that ruling, the Svea Court of Appeal heard the case in April and May. Today’s ruling from the five-judge panel is largely a win for the prosecution—it had asked for a 5-year sentence whereas Macchiarini’s lawyer urged the appeals court to acquit him of all charges.

Macchiarini performed experimental surgeries on the three patients in 2011 and 2012 while working at the renowned Karolinska Institute. He implanted synthetic windpipes seeded with stem cells from the patients’ own bone marrow, with the hope the cells would multiply over time and provide an enduring replacement. All three patients died when the implants failed. One patient died suddenly when the implant caused massive bleeding just 4 months after it was implanted; the two others survived for 2.5 and nearly 5 years, respectively, but suffered painful and debilitating complications before their deaths.

In the ruling released today, the appeals judges disagreed with the district court’s decision that the first two patients were treated under “emergency” conditions. Both patients could have survived for a significant length of time without the surgeries, they said. The third case was an “emergency,” the court ruled, but the treatment was still indefensible because by then Macchiarini was well aware of the problems with the technique. (One patient had already died and the other had suffered severe complications.)

A fictionalized tv series ( part of the Dr. Death anthology series) based on Macchiarini’s deceptions and a Dr. Death documentary are being broadcast/streamed in the US during January 2024. These come on the heels of a November 2023 Macchiarini documentary also broadcast/streamed on US television.

Dr. Death (anthology), based on the previews I’ve seen, is heavily US-centric, which is to be expected since Adam Ciralsky is involved in the production. Ciralsky wrote an exposé about Macchiarini for Vanity Fair published in 2016 (also featured in my 2016 postings). From a December 20, 2023 article by Julie Miller for Vanity Fair, Note: A link has been removed,

Seven years ago [2016], world-renowned surgeon Paolo Macchiarini was the subject of an ongoing Vanity Fair investigation. He had seduced award-winning NBC producer Benita Alexander while she was making a special about him, proposed, and promised her a wedding officiated by Pope Francis and attended by political A-listers. It was only after her designer wedding gown was made that Alexander learned Macchiarini was still married to his wife, and seemingly had no association with the famous names on their guest list.

Vanity Fair contributor Adam Ciralsky was in the midst of reporting the story for this magazine in the fall of 2015 when he turned to Dr. Ronald Schouten, a Harvard psychiatry professor. Ciralsky sought expert insight into the kind of fabulist who would invent and engage in such an audacious lie.

“I laid out the story to him, and he said, ‘Anybody who does this in their private life engages in the same conduct in their professional life,” recalls Ciralsky, in a phone call with Vanity Fair. “I think you ought to take a hard look at his CVs.”

That was the turning point in the story for Ciralsky, a former CIA lawyer who soon learned that Macchiarini was more dangerous as a surgeon than a suitor. …

Here’s a link to Ciralsky’s original article, which I described this way, from my April 19, 2016 posting (part 2 of the Macchiarini controversy),

For some bizarre frosting on this disturbing cake (see part 1 of the Macchiarini controversy and synthetic trachea transplants for the medical science aspects), a January 5, 2016 Vanity Fair article by Adam Ciralsky documents Macchiarini’s courtship of an NBC ([US] National Broadcasting Corporation) news producer who was preparing a documentary about him and his work.

[from Ciralsky’s article]

“Macchiarini, 57, is a magnet for superlatives. He is commonly referred to as “world-renowned” and a “super-surgeon.” He is credited with medical miracles, including the world’s first synthetic organ transplant, which involved fashioning a trachea, or windpipe, out of plastic and then coating it with a patient’s own stem cells. That feat, in 2011, appeared to solve two of medicine’s more intractable problems—organ rejection and the lack of donor organs—and brought with it major media exposure for Macchiarini and his employer, Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, home of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine. Macchiarini was now planning another first: a synthetic-trachea transplant on a child, a two-year-old Korean-Canadian girl named Hannah Warren, who had spent her entire life in a Seoul hospital. … “

Other players in the Macchiarini story

Pierre Delaere, a trachea expert and professor of head and neck surgery at KU Leuven (a university in Belgium) was one of the first to draw attention to Macchiarini’s dangerous and unethical practices. To give you an idea of how difficult it was to get attention for this issue, there’s a September 1, 2017 article by John Rasko and Carl Power for the Guardian illustrating the issue. Here’s what they had to say about Delaere and other early critics of the work, Note: Links have been removed,

Delaere was one of the earliest and harshest critics of Macchiarini’s engineered airways. Reports of their success always seemed like “hot air” to him. He could see no real evidence that the windpipe scaffolds were becoming living, functioning airways – in which case, they were destined to fail. The only question was how long it would take – weeks, months or a few years.

Delaere’s damning criticisms appeared in major medical journals, including the Lancet, but weren’t taken seriously by Karolinska’s leadership. Nor did they impress the institute’s ethics council when Delaere lodged a formal complaint. [emphases mine]

Support for Macchiarini remained strong, even as his patients began to die. In part, this is because the field of windpipe repair is a niche area. Few people at Karolinska, especially among those in power, knew enough about it to appreciate Delaere’s claims. Also, in such a highly competitive environment, people are keen to show allegiance to their superiors and wary of criticising them. The official report into the matter dubbed this the “bandwagon effect”.

With Macchiarini’s exploits endorsed by management and breathlessly reported in the media, it was all too easy to jump on that bandwagon.

And difficult to jump off. In early 2014, four Karolinska doctors defied the reigning culture of silence [emphasis mine] by complaining about Macchiarini. In their view, he was grossly misrepresenting his results and the health of his patients. An independent investigator agreed. But the vice-chancellor of Karolinska Institute, Anders Hamsten, wasn’t bound by this judgement. He officially cleared Macchiarini of scientific misconduct, allowing merely that he’d sometimes acted “without due care”.

For their efforts, the whistleblowers were punished. [emphasis mine] When Macchiarini accused one of them, Karl-Henrik Grinnemo, of stealing his work in a grant application, Hamsten found him guilty. As Grinnemo recalls, it nearly destroyed his career: “I didn’t receive any new grants. No one wanted to collaborate with me. We were doing good research, but it didn’t matter … I thought I was going to lose my lab, my staff – everything.”

This went on for three years until, just recently [2017], Grinnemo was cleared of all wrongdoing.

It is fitting that Macchiarini’s career unravelled at the Karolinska Institute. As the home of the Nobel prize in physiology or medicine, one of its ambitions is to create scientific celebrities. Every year, it gives science a show-business makeover, picking out from the mass of medical researchers those individuals deserving of superstardom. The idea is that scientific progress is driven by the genius of a few.

It’s a problematic idea with unfortunate side effects. A genius is a revolutionary by definition, a risk-taker and a law-breaker. Wasn’t something of this idea behind the special treatment Karolinska gave Macchiarini? Surely, he got away with so much because he was considered an exception to the rules with more than a whiff of the Nobel about him. At any rate, some of his most powerful friends were themselves Nobel judges until, with his fall from grace, they fell too.

The September 1, 2017 article by Rasko and Power is worth the read if you have the interest and the time. And, Delaere has written up a comprehensive analysis, which includes basic information about tracheas and more, “The Biggest Lie in Medical History” 2020, PDF, 164 pp., Creative Commons Licence).

I also want to mention Leonid Schneider, science journalist and molecular cell biologist, whose work the Macchiarini scandal on his ‘For Better Science’ website was also featured in my 2016 pieces. Schneider’s site has a page titled, ‘Macchiarini’s trachea transplant patients: the full list‘ started in 2017 and which he continues to update with new information about the patients. The latest update was made on December 20, 2023.

Promising nanomedicine research but no promises and a caveat

Most of the research mentioned here is still in the laboratory. i don’t often come across work that has made its way to clinical trials since the focus of this blog is emerging science and technology,

*If you’re interested in the business of neurotechnology, the July 17, 2023 posting highlights a very good UNESCO report on the topic.

Funky music (sound and noise)

I have couple of stories about using sound for wound healing, bioinspiration for soundproofing applications, detecting seismic activity, more data sonification, etc.

Same old, same old CRISPR

2023 was relatively quiet (no panics) where CRISPR developments are concerned but still quite active.

Art/Sci: a pretty active year

I didn’t realize how active the year was art/sciwise including events and other projects until I reviewed this year’s postings. This is a selection from 2023 but there’s a lot more on the blog, just use the search term, “art/sci,” or “art/science,” or “sciart.”

While I often feature events and projects from these groups (e.g., June 2, 2023 posting, “Metacreation Lab’s greatest hits of Summer 2023“), it’s possible for me to miss a few. So, you can check out Toronto’s Art/Sci Salon’s website (strong focus on visual art) and Simon Fraser University’s Metacreation Lab for Creative Artificial Intelligence website (strong focus on music).

My selection of this year’s postings is more heavily weighted to the ‘writing’ end of things.

Boundaries: life/nonlife

Last year I subtitled this section, ‘Aliens on earth: machinic biology and/or biological machinery?” Here’s this year’s selection,

Canada’s 2023 budget … military

2023 featured an unusual budget where military expenditures were going to be increased, something which could have implications for our science and technology research.

Then things changed as Murray Brewster’s November 21, 2023 article for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s (CBC) news online website comments, Note: A link has been removed,

There was a revelatory moment on the weekend as Defence Minister Bill Blair attempted to bridge the gap between rhetoric and reality in the Liberal government’s spending plans for his department and the Canadian military.

Asked about an anticipated (and long overdue) update to the country’s defence policy (supposedly made urgent two years ago by Russia’s full-on invasion of Ukraine), Blair acknowledged that the reset is now being viewed through a fiscal lens.

“We said we’re going to bring forward a new defence policy update. We’ve been working through that,” Blair told CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday.

“The current fiscal environment that the country faces itself does require (that) that defence policy update … recognize (the) fiscal challenges. And so it’ll be part of … our future budget processes.”

One policy goal of the existing defence plan, Strong, Secure and Engaged, was to require that the military be able to concurrently deliver “two sustained deployments of 500 [to] 1,500 personnel in two different theaters of operation, including one as a lead nation.”

In a footnote, the recent estimates said the Canadian military is “currently unable to conduct multiple operations concurrently per the requirements laid out in the 2017 Defence Policy. Readiness of CAF force elements has continued to decrease over the course of the last year, aggravated by decreasing number of personnel and issues with equipment and vehicles.”

Some analysts say they believe that even if the federal government hits its overall budget reduction targets, what has been taken away from defence — and what’s about to be taken away — won’t be coming back, the minister’s public assurances notwithstanding.

10 years: Graphene Flagship Project and Human Brain Project

Graphene and Human Brain Project win biggest research award in history (& this is the 2000th post)” on January 28, 2013 was how I announced the results of what had been a a European Union (EU) competition that stretched out over several years and many stages as projects were evaluated and fell to the wayside or were allowed onto the next stage. The two finalists received €1B each to be paid out over ten years.

Future or not

As you can see, there was plenty of interesting stuff going on in 2023 but no watershed moments in the areas I follow. (Please do let me know in the Comments should you disagree with this or any other part of this posting.) Nanotechnology seems less and less an emerging science/technology in itself and more like a foundational element of our science and technology sectors. On that note, you may find my upcoming (in 2024) post about a report concerning the economic impact of its National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) from 2002 to 2022 of interest.

Following on the commercialization theme, I have noticed an increase of interest in commercializing brain and brainlike engineering technologies, as well as, more discussion about ethics.

Colonizing the brain?

UNESCO held events such as, this noted in my July 17, 2023 posting, “Unveiling the Neurotechnology Landscape: Scientific Advancements, Innovations and Major Trends—a UNESCO report” and this noted in my July 7, 2023 posting “Global dialogue on the ethics of neurotechnology on July 13, 2023 led by UNESCO.” An August 21, 2023 posting, “Ethical nanobiotechnology” adds to the discussion.

Meanwhile, Australia has been producing some very interesting mind/robot research, my June 13, 2023 posting, “Mind-controlled robots based on graphene: an Australian research story.” I have more of this kind of research (mind control or mind reading) from Australia to be published in early 2024. The Australians are not alone, there’s also this April 12, 2023 posting, “Mind-reading prosthetic limbs” from Germany.

My May 12, 2023 posting, “Virtual panel discussion: Canadian Strategies for Responsible Neurotechnology Innovation on May 16, 2023” shows Canada is entering the discussion. Unfortunately, the Canadian Science Policy Centre (CSPC), which held the event, has not posted a video online even though they have a youtube channel featuring other of their events.

As for neurmorphic engineering, China has produced a roadmap for its research in this area as noted in my March 20, 2023 posting, “A nontraditional artificial synaptic device and roadmap for Chinese research into neuromorphic devices.”

Quantum anybody?

I haven’t singled it out in this end-of-year posting but there is a great deal of interest in quantum computer both here in Canada and elsewhere. There is a 2023 report from the Council of Canadian Academies on the topic of quantum computing in Canada, which I hope to comment on soon.

Final words

I have a shout out for the Canadian Science Policy Centre, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in 2023. Congratulations!

For everyone, I wish peace on earth and all the best for you and yours in 2024!

Reducing toxicity of Alzheimer’s proteins with graphene oxide

Nobody really knows what causes Alzheimer’s disease (a form of dementia) so researchers continue to investigates the cause(s) and, also, possible remedies. An October 4, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily announces some of the latest research,

A probable early driver of Alzheimer’s disease is the accumulation of molecules called amyloid peptides. These cause cell death, and are commonly found in the brains of Alzheimer’s patients. Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden, have now shown that yeast cells that accumulate these misfolded amyloid peptides can recover after being treated with graphene oxide nanoflakes.

An October 4, 2023 Chalmers University of Technology press release (also received via email and on EurekAlert) by Susanne Nilsson Lindh & Johanna Wilde, which originated the news item, delves into the topic,

Alzheimer’s disease is an incurable brain disease, leading to dementia and death, that causes suffering for both the patients and their families. It is estimated that over 40 million people worldwide are living with the disease or a related form of dementia. According to Alzheimer’s News Today, the estimated global cost of these diseases is one percent of the global gross domestic product.

Misfolded amyloid-beta peptides, Aβ peptides, that accumulate and aggregate in the brain, are believed to be the underlying cause of Alzheimer’s disease. They trigger a series of harmful processes in the neurons (brain cells) – causing the loss of many vital cell functions or cell death, and thus a loss of brain function in the affected area. To date, there are no effective strategies to treat amyloid accumulation in the brain.

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology have now shown that treatment with graphene oxide leads to reduced levels of aggregated amyloid peptides in a yeast cell model.

“This effect of graphene oxide has recently also been shown by other researchers, but not in yeast cells”, says Xin Chen, Researcher in Systems Biology at Chalmers and first author of the study. “Our study also explains the mechanism behind the effect. Graphene oxide affects the metabolism of the cells, in a way that increases their resistance to misfolded proteins and oxidative stress. This has not been previously reported.”

Investigating the mechanisms using baker’s yeast affected by Alzheimer’s disease
In Alzheimer’s disease, the amyloid aggregates exert their neurotoxic effects by causing various cellular metabolic disorders, such as stress in the endoplasmic reticulum – a major part of the cell, in which many of its proteins are produced. This can reduce cells’ ability to handle misfolded proteins, and consequently increase the accumulation of these proteins.

The aggregates also affect the function of the mitochondria, the cells’ powerhouses. Therefore, the neurons are exposed to increased oxidative stress (reactive molecules called oxygen radicals, which damage other molecules); something to which brain cells are particularly sensitive.

The Chalmers researchers have conducted the study by a combination of protein analysis (proteomics) and follow-up experiments. They have used baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, as an in vivo model for human cells. Both cell types have very similar systems for controlling protein quality. This yeast cell model was previously established by the research group to mimic human neurons affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

“The yeast cells in our model resemble neurons affected by the accumulation of amyloid-beta42, which is the form of amyloid peptide most prone to aggregate formation”, says Xin Chen. “These cells age faster than normal, show endoplasmic reticulum stress and mitochondrial dysfunction, and have elevated production of harmful reactive oxygen radicals.”

High hopes for graphene oxide nanoflakes
Graphene oxide nanoflakes are two-dimensional carbon nanomaterials with unique properties, including outstanding conductivity and high biocompatibility. They are used extensively in various research projects, including the development of cancer treatments, drug delivery systems and biosensors.

The nanoflakes are hydrophilic (water soluble) and interact well with biomolecules such as proteins. When graphene oxide enters living cells, it is able to interfere with the self-assembly processes of proteins.

“As a result, it can hinder the formation of protein aggregates and promote the disintegration of existing aggregates”, says Santosh Pandit, Researcher in Systems Biology at Chalmers and co-author of the study. “We believe that the nanoflakes act via two independent pathways to mitigate the toxic effects of amyloid-beta42 in the yeast cells.”

In one pathway, graphene oxide acts directly to prevent amyloid-beta42 accumulation. In the other, graphene oxide acts indirectly by a (currently unknown) mechanism, in which specific genes for stress response are activated. This increases the cell’s ability to handle misfolded proteins and oxidative stress.

How to treat Alzheimer’s patients is still a question for the future. However, according to the research group at Chalmers, graphene oxide holds great potential for future research in the field of neurodegenerative diseases. The research group has already been able to show that treatment with graphene oxide also reduces the toxic effects of protein aggregates specific to Huntington’s disease in a yeast model.

“The next step is to investigate whether it is possible to develop a drug delivery system based on graphene oxide for Alzheimer’s disease.” says Xin Chen. “We also want to test whether graphene oxide has beneficial effects in additional models of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Parkinson’s disease.”

More about: proteins and peptides
Proteins and peptides are fundamentally the same type of molecule and are made up of amino acids. Peptide molecules are smaller – typically containing less than 50 amino acids – and have a less complicated structure. Proteins and peptides can both become deformed if they fold in the wrong way during formation in the cell. When many amyloid-beta peptides accumulate in the brain, the aggregates are classified as proteins.

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

Graphene Oxide Attenuates Toxicity of Amyloid-β Aggregates in Yeast by Promoting Disassembly and Boosting Cellular Stress Response by Xin Chen, Santosh Pandit, Lei Shi, Vaishnavi Ravikumar, Julie Bonne Køhler, Ema Svetlicic, Zhejian Cao, Abhroop Garg, Dina Petranovic, Ivan Mijakovic. Advanced Functional Materials Volume 33, Issue 45 November 2, 2023 2304053 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adfm.202304053 First published online: 07 July 2023

This paper is open access.

10 years of the European Union’s roll of the dice: €1B or 1billion euros each for the Human Brain Project (HBP) and the Graphene Flagship

Graphene and Human Brain Project win biggest research award in history (& this is the 2000th post)” on January 28, 2013 was how I announced the results of what had been a a European Union (EU) competition that stretched out over several years and many stages as projects were evaluated and fell to the wayside or were allowed onto the next stage. The two finalists received €1B each to be paid out over ten years.

Human Brain Project (HBP)

A September 12, 2023 Human Brain Project (HBP) press release (also on EurekAlert) summarizes the ten year research effort and the achievements,

The EU-funded Human Brain Project (HBP) comes to an end in September and celebrates its successful conclusion today with a scientific symposium at Forschungszentrum Jülich (FZJ). The HBP was one of the first flagship projects and, with 155 cooperating institutions from 19 countries and a total budget of 607 million euros, one of the largest research projects in Europe. Forschungszentrum Jülich, with its world-leading brain research institute and the Jülich Supercomputing Centre, played an important role in the ten-year project.

“Understanding the complexity of the human brain and explaining its functionality are major challenges of brain research today”, says Astrid Lambrecht, Chair of the Board of Directors of Forschungszentrum Jülich. “The instruments of brain research have developed considerably in the last ten years. The Human Brain Project has been instrumental in driving this development – and not only gained new insights for brain research, but also provided important impulses for information technologies.”

HBP researchers have employed highly advanced methods from computing, neuroinformatics and artificial intelligence in a truly integrative approach to understanding the brain as a multi-level system. The project has contributed to a deeper understanding of the complex structure and function of the brain and enabled novel applications in medicine and technological advances.

Among the project’s highlight achievements are a three-dimensional, digital atlas of the human brain with unprecedented detail, personalised virtual models of patient brains with conditions like epilepsy and Parkinson’s, breakthroughs in the field of artificial intelligence, and an open digital research infrastructure – EBRAINS – that will remain an invaluable resource for the entire neuroscience community beyond the end of the HBP.

Researchers at the HBP have presented scientific results in over 3000 publications, as well as advanced medical and technical applications and over 160 freely accessible digital tools for neuroscience research.

“The Human Brain Project has a pioneering role for digital brain research with a unique interdisciplinary approach at the interface of neuroscience, computing and technology,” says Katrin Amunts, Director of the HBP and of the Institute for Neuroscience and Medicine at FZJ. “EBRAINS will continue to power this new way of investigating the brain and foster developments in brain medicine.”

“The impact of what you achieved in digital science goes beyond the neuroscientific community”, said Gustav Kalbe, CNECT, Acting Director of Digital Excellence and Science Infrastructures at the European Commission during the opening of the event. “The infrastructure that the Human Brain Project has established is already seen as a key building block to facilitate cooperation and research across geographical boundaries, but also across communities.”

Further information about the Human Brain Project as well as photos from research can be found here: https://fz-juelich.sciebo.de/s/hWJkNCC1Hi1PdQ5.

Results highlights and event photos in the online press release.

Results overviews:
– “Human Brain Project: Spotlights on major achievements” and “A closer Look on Scientific
Advances”

– “Human Brain Project: An extensive guide to the tools developed”

Examples of results from the Human Brain Project:

As the “Google Maps of the brain” [emphasis mine], the Human Brain Project makes the most comprehensive digital brain atlas to date available to all researchers worldwide. The atlas by Jülich researchers and collaborators combines high-resolution data of neurons, fibre connections, receptors and functional specialisations in the brain, and is designed as a constantly growing system.

13 hospitals in France are currently testing the new “Virtual Epileptic Patient” – a platform developed at the University of Marseille [Aix-Marseille University?] in the Human Brain Project. It creates personalised simulation models of brain dynamics to provide surgeons with predictions for the success of different surgical treatment strategies. The approach was presented this year in the journals Science Translational Medicine and The Lancet Neurology.



SpiNNaker2 is a “neuromorphic” [brainlike] computer developed by the University of Manchester and TU Dresden within the Human Brain Project. The company SpiNNcloud Systems in Dresden is commercialising the approach for AI applications. (Image: Sprind.org)

As an openly accessible digital infrastructure, EBRAINS offers scientists easy access to the best techniques for complex research questions.

[https://www.ebrains.eu/]

There was a Canadian connection at one time; Montréal Neuro at Canada’s McGill University was involved in developing a computational platform for neuroscience (CBRAIN) for HBP according to an announcement in my January 29, 2013 posting. However, there’s no mention of the EU project on the CBRAIN website nor is there mention of a Canadian partner on the EBRAINS website, which seemed the most likely successor to the CBRAIN portion of the HBP project originally mentioned in 2013.

I couldn’t resist “Google maps of the brain.”

In any event, the statement from Astrid Lambrecht offers an interesting contrast to that offered by the leader of the other project.

Graphene Flagship

In fact, the Graphene Flagship has been celebrating its 10th anniversary since last year; see my September 1, 2022 posting titled “Graphene Week (September 5 – 9, 2022) is a celebration of 10 years of the Graphene Flagship.”

The flagship’s lead institution, Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden, issued an August 28, 2023 press release by Lisa Gahnertz (also on the Graphene Flagship website but published September 4, 2023) touting its achievement with an ebullience I am more accustomed to seeing in US news releases,

Chalmers steers Europe’s major graphene venture to success

For the past decade, the Graphene Flagship, the EU’s largest ever research programme, has been coordinated from Chalmers with Jari Kinaret at the helm. As the project reaches the ten-year mark, expectations have been realised, a strong European research field on graphene has been established, and the journey will continue.

‘Have we delivered what we promised?’ asks Graphene Flagship Director Jari Kinaret from his office in the physics department at Chalmers, overlooking the skyline of central Gothenburg.

‘Yes, we have delivered more than anyone had a right to expect,’ [emphasis mine] he says. ‘In our analysis for the conclusion of the project, we read the documents that were written at the start. What we promised then were over a hundred specific things. Some of them were scientific and technological promises, and they have all been fulfilled. Others were for specific applications, and here 60–70 per cent of what was promised has been delivered. We have also delivered applications we did not promise from the start, but these are more difficult to quantify.’

The autumn of 2013 saw the launch of the massive ten-year Science, Technology and Innovation research programme on graphene and other related two-dimensional materials. Joint funding from the European Commission and EU Member States totalled a staggering €1,000 million. A decade later, it is clear that the large-scale initiative has succeeded in its endeavours. According to a report by the research institute WifOR, the Graphene Flagship will have created a total contribution to GDP of €3,800 million and 38,400 new jobs in the 27 EU countries between 2014 and 2030.

Exceeded expectations

‘Per euro invested and compared to other EU projects, the flagship has performed 13 times better than expected in terms of patent applications, and seven times better for scientific publications. We have 17 spin-off companies that have received over €130 million in private funding – people investing their own money is a real example of trust in the fact that the technology works,’ says Jari Kinaret.

He emphasises that the long time span has been crucial in developing the concepts of the various flagship projects.

‘When it comes to new projects, the ability to work on a long timescale is a must and is more important than a large budget. It takes a long time to build trust, both in one another within a team and in the technology on the part of investors, industry and the wider community. The size of the project has also been significant. There has been an ecosystem around the material, with many graphene manufacturers and other organisations involved. It builds robustness, which means you have the courage to invest in the material and develop it.’

From lab to application

In 2010, Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov of the University of Manchester won the Nobel Prize in Physics for their pioneering experiments isolating the ultra-light and ultra-thin material graphene. It was the first known 2D material and stunned the world with its ‘exceptional properties originating in the strange world of quantum physics’ according to the Nobel Foundation’s press release. Many potential applications were identified for this electrically conductive, heat-resistant and light-transmitting material. Jari Kinaret’s research team had been exploring the material since 2006, and when Kinaret learned of the European Commission’s call for a ten-year research programme, it prompted him to submit an application. The Graphene Flagship was initiated to ensure that Europe would maintain its leading position in graphene research and innovation, and its coordination and administration fell to Chalmers.

Is it a staggering thought that your initiative became the biggest EU research project of all time?

‘The fact that the three-minute presentation I gave at a meeting in Brussels has grown into an activity in 22 countries, with 170 organisations and 1,300 people involved … You can’t think about things like that because it can easily become overwhelming. Sometimes you just have to go for it,’ says Jari Kinaret.

One of the objectives of the Graphene Flagship was to take the hopes for this material and move them from lab to application. What has happened so far?

‘We are well on track with 100 products priced and on their way to the market. Many of them are business-to-business products that are not something we ordinary consumers are going to buy, but which may affect us indirectly.’

‘It’s important to remember that getting products to the application stage is a complex process. For a researcher, it may take ten working prototypes; for industry, ten million. Everything has to click into place, on a large scale. All components must work identically and in exactly the same way, and be compatible with existing production in manufacturing as you cannot rebuild an entire factory for a new material. In short, it requires reliability, reproducibility and manufacturability.’

Applications in a wide range of areas

Graphene’s extraordinary properties are being used to deliver the next generation of technologies in a wide range of fields, such as sensors for self-driving cars, advanced batteries, new water purification methods and sophisticated instruments for use in neuroscience. When asked if there are any applications that Jani Kinaret himself would like to highlight, he mentions, among other things, the applications that are underway in the automotive industry – such as sensors to detect obstacles for self-driving cars. Thanks to graphene, they will be so cost-effective to produce that it will be possible to make them available in more than just the most expensive car models.

He also highlights the aerospace industry, where a graphene material for removing ice from aircraft and helicopter wings is under development for the Airbus company. Another favourite, which he has followed from basic research to application, is the development of an air cleaner for Lufthansa passenger aircraft, based on a kind of ‘graphene foam’. Because graphene foam is very light, it can be heated extremely quickly. A pulse of electricity lasting one thousandth of a second is enough to raise the temperature to 300 degrees, thus killing micro-organisms and effectively cleaning the air in the aircraft.

He also mentions the Swedish company ABB, which has developed a graphene composite for circuit breakers in switchgear. These circuit breakers are used to protect the electricity network and must be safe to use. The graphene composite replaces the manual lubrication of the circuit breakers, resulting in significant cost savings.

‘We also see graphene being used in medical technology, but its application requires many years of testing and approval by various bodies. For example, graphene technology can more effectively map the brain before neurosurgery, as it provides a more detailed image. Another aspect of graphene is that it is soft and pliable. This means it can be used for electrodes that are implanted in the brain to treat tremors in Parkinson’s patients, without the electrodes causing scarring,’ says Jari Kinaret.

Coordinated by Chalmers

Jari Kinaret sees the fact that the EU chose Chalmers as the coordinating university as a favourable factor for the Graphene Flagship.

‘Hundreds of millions of SEK [Swedish Kroner] have gone into Chalmers research, but what has perhaps been more important is that we have become well-known and visible in certain areas. We also have the 2D-Tech competence centre and the SIO Grafen programme, both funded by Vinnova and coordinated by Chalmers and Chalmers industriteknik respectively. I think it is excellent that Chalmers was selected, as there could have been too much focus on the coordinating organisation if it had been more firmly established in graphene research at the outset.’

What challenges have been encountered during the project?

‘With so many stakeholders involved, we are not always in agreement. But that is a good thing. A management book I once read said that if two parties always agree, then one is redundant. At the start of the project, it was also interesting to see the major cultural differences we had in our communications and that different cultures read different things between the lines; it took time to realise that we should be brutally straightforward in our communications with one another.’

What has it been like to have the coordinating role that you have had?

‘Obviously, I’ve had to worry about things an ordinary physics professor doesn’t have to worry about, like a phone call at four in the morning after the Brexit vote or helping various parties with intellectual property rights. I have read more legal contracts than I thought I would ever have to read as a professor. As a researcher, your approach when you go into a role is narrow and deep, here it was rather all about breadth. I would have liked to have both, but there are only 26 hours in a day,’ jokes Jari Kinaret.

New phase for the project and EU jobs to come

A new assignment now awaits Jari Kinaret outside Chalmers as Chief Executive Officer of the EU initiative KDT JU (Key Digital Technologies Joint Undertaking, soon to become Chips JU), where industry and the public sector interact to drive the development of new electronic components and systems.

The Graphene Flagship may have reached its destination in its current form, but the work started is progressing in a form more akin to a flotilla. About a dozen projects will continue to live on under the auspices of the European Commission’s Horizon Europe programme. Chalmers is going to coordinate a smaller CSA project called GrapheneEU, where CSA stands for ‘Coordination and Support Action’. It will act as a cohesive force between the research and innovation projects that make up the next phase of the flagship, offering them a range of support and services, including communication, innovation and standardisation.

The Graphene Flagship is about to turn ten. If the project had been a ten-year-old child, what kind of child would it have been?

‘It would have been a very diverse organism. Different aspirations are beginning to emerge – perhaps it is adolescence that is approaching. In addition, within the project we have also studied other related 2D materials, and we found that there are 6,000 distinct materials of this type, of which only about 100 have been studied. So, it’s the younger siblings that are starting to arrive now.’

Facts about the Graphene Flagship:

The Graphene Flagship is the first European flagship for future and emerging technologies. It has been coordinated and administered from the Department of Physics at Chalmers, and as the project enters its next phase, GrapheneEU, coordination will continue to be carried out by staff currently working on the flagship led by Chalmers Professor Patrik Johansson.

The project has proved highly successful in developing graphene-based technology in Europe, resulting in 17 new companies, around 100 new products, nearly 500 patent applications and thousands of scientific papers. All in all, the project has exceeded the EU’s targets for utilisation from research projects by a factor of ten. According to the assessment of the EU research programme Horizon 2020, Chalmers’ coordination of the flagship has been identified as one of the key factors behind its success.

Graphene Week will be held at the Svenska Mässan in Gothenburg from 4 to 8 September 2023. Graphene Week is an international conference, which also marks the finale of the ten-year anniversary of the Graphene Flagship. The conference will be jointly led by academia and industry – Professor Patrik Johansson from Chalmers and Dr Anna Andersson from ABB – and is expected to attract over 400 researchers from Sweden, Europe and the rest of the world. The programme includes an exhibition, press conference and media activities, special sessions on innovation, diversity and ethics, and several technical sessions. The full programme is available here.

Read the press release on Graphene Week from 4 to 8 September and the overall results of the Graphene Flagship. …

Ten years and €1B each. Congratulations to the organizers on such massive undertakings. As for whether or not (and how they’ve been successful), I imagine time will tell.

Nanobiotics and artificial intelligence (AI)

Antibiotics at the nanoscale = nanobiotics. For a more complete explanation, there’s this (Note: the video runs a little longer than most of the others embedded on this blog),

Before pushing further into this research, a note about antibiotic resistance. In a sense, we’ve created the problem we (those scientists in particular) are trying to solve.

Antibiotics and cleaning products kill 99.9% of the bacteria, leaving 0.1% that are immune. As so many living things on earth do, bacteria reproduce. Now, a new antibiotic is needed and discovered; it too kills 99.9% of the bacteria. The 0.1% left are immune to two antibiotics. And,so it goes.

As the scientists have made clear, we’re running out of options using standard methods and they’re hoping this ‘nanoparticle approach’ as described in a June 5, 2023 news item on Nanowerk will work, Note: A link has been removed,

Identifying whether and how a nanoparticle and protein will bind with one another is an important step toward being able to design antibiotics and antivirals on demand, and a computer model developed at the University of Michigan can do it.

The new tool could help find ways to stop antibiotic-resistant infections and new viruses—and aid in the design of nanoparticles for different purposes.

“Just in 2019, the number of people who died of antimicrobial resistance was 4.95 million. Even before COVID, which worsened the problem, studies showed that by 2050, the number of deaths by antibiotic resistance will be 10 million,” said Angela Violi, an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of mechanical engineering, and corresponding author of the study that made the cover of Nature Computational Science (“Domain-agnostic predictions of nanoscale interactions in proteins and nanoparticles”).

In my ideal scenario, 20 or 30 years from now, I would like—given any superbug—to be able to quickly produce the best nanoparticles that can treat it.”

A June 5, 2023 University of Michigan news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more technical details, Note: A link has been removed,

Much of the work within cells is done by proteins. Interaction sites on their surfaces can stitch molecules together, break them apart and perform other modifications—opening doorways into cells, breaking sugars down to release energy, building structures to support groups of cells and more. If we could design medicines that target crucial proteins in bacteria and viruses without harming our own cells, that would enable humans to fight new and changing diseases quickly.

The new [computer] model, named NeCLAS [NeCLAS (Nanoparticle-Computed Ligand Affinity Scoring)], uses machine learning—the AI technique that powers the virtual assistant on your smartphone and ChatGPT. But instead of learning to process language, it absorbs structural models of proteins and their known interaction sites. From this information, it learns to extrapolate how proteins and nanoparticles might interact, predict binding sites and the likelihood of binding between them—as well as predicting interactions between two proteins or two nanoparticles.

“Other models exist, but ours is the best for predicting interactions between proteins and nanoparticles,” said Paolo Elvati, U-M associate research scientist in mechanical engineering.

AlphaFold, for example, is a widely used tool for predicting the 3D structure of a protein based on its building blocks, called amino acids. While this capacity is crucial, this is only the beginning: Discovering how these proteins assemble into larger structures and designing practical nanoscale systems are the next steps.

“That’s where NeCLAS comes in,” said Jacob Saldinger, U-M doctoral student in chemical engineering and first author of the study. “It goes beyond AlphaFold by showing how nanostructures will interact with one another, and it’s not limited to proteins. This enables researchers to understand the potential applications of nanoparticles and optimize their designs.”

The team tested three case studies for which they had additional data: 

  • Molecular tweezers, in which a molecule binds to a particular site on another molecule. This approach can stop harmful biological processes, such as the aggregation of protein plaques in diseases of the brain like Alzheimer’s.
  • How graphene quantum dots break up the biofilm produced by staph bacteria. These nanoparticles are flakes of carbon, no more than a few atomic layers thick and 0.0001 millimeters to a side. Breaking up biofilms is likely a crucial tool in fighting antibiotic-resistant infections—including the superbug methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), commonly acquired at hospitals.
  • Whether graphene quantum dots would disperse in water, demonstrating the model’s ability to predict nanoparticle-nanoparticle binding even though it had been trained exclusively on protein-protein data.

While many protein-protein models set amino acids as the smallest unit that the model must consider, this doesn’t work for nanoparticles. Instead, the team set the size of that smallest feature to be roughly the size of the amino acid but then let the computer model decide where the boundaries between these minimum features were. The result is representations of proteins and nanoparticles that look a bit like collections of interconnected beads, providing more flexibility in exploring small scale interactions.

“Besides being more general, NeCLAS also uses way less training data than AlphaFold. We only have 21 nanoparticles to look at, so we have to use protein data in a clever way,” said Matt Raymond, U-M doctoral student in electrical and computer engineering and study co-author.  

Next, the team intends to explore other biofilms and microorganisms, including viruses.

The Nature Computational Science study was funded by the University of Michigan Blue Sky Initiative, the Army Research Office and the National Science Foundation. 

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

Domain-agnostic predictions of nanoscale interactions in proteins and nanoparticles by Jacob Charles Saldinger, Matt Raymond, Paolo Elvati & Angela Violi. Nature Computational Science volume 3, pages 393–402 (2023) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s43588-023-00438-x Published: 01 May 2023 Issue Date: May 2023

This paper is behind a paywall.

Water talks to electrons in graphene (i.e., carbon)?

Institutions from Spain, Germany, and England collaborated on the study announced in this June 23, 2023 news item on Nanowerk, Note: A link has been removed,

For the last 20 years, scientists have been puzzled by how water behaves near carbon surfaces. It may flow much faster than expected from conventional flow theories or form strange arrangements such as square ice.

Now, an international team of researchers from the Max Plank Institute for Polymer Research of Mainz (Germany), the Catalan Institute of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology (ICN2, Spain), and the University of Manchester (England), reports in a study published in Nature Nanotechnology (“Electron cooling in graphene enhanced by plasmon–hydron resonance”) that water can interact directly with the carbon’s electrons: a quantum phenomenon that is very unusual in fluid dynamics.

Pictured above: Water-graphene quantum friction (Credits: Lucy Reading-Ikkanda / Simons Foundation)

There are two press releases with almost identical text, the June 22, 2023 Max Planck Institute press release with its additional introductory paragraph is below,

Water and carbon make a quantum couple: the flow of water on a carbon surface is governed by an unusual phenomenon dubbed quantum friction. A work published in ‘Nature Nanotechnology’ experimentally demonstrates this phenomenon – which was predicted in a previous theoretical study— at the interface between liquid water and graphene, a single layer of carbon atoms. Advanced ultrafast techniques were used to perform this study. These results could lead to applications in water purification and desalination processes and maybe even to liquid-based computers.

A liquid, such as water, is made up of small molecules that randomly move and constantly collide with each other. A solid, in contrast, is made of neatly arranged atoms that bathe in a cloud of electrons. The solid and the liquid worlds are assumed to interact only through collisions of the liquid molecules with the solid’s atoms: the liquid molecules do not “see” the solid’s electrons. Nevertheless, just over a year ago, a paradigm-shifting theoretical study proposed that at the water-carbon interface, the liquid’s molecules and the solid’s electrons push and pull on each other, slowing down the liquid flow: this new effect was called quantum friction. However, the theoretical proposal lacked experimental verification.

“We have now used lasers to see quantum friction at work,” explains study lead author Dr Nikita Kavokine, a researcher at the Max Planck Institute in Mainz and the Flatiron Institute in New York. The team studied a sample of graphene – a single monolayer of carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb pattern. They used ultrashort red laser pulses (with a duration of only a millionth of a billionth of a second) to instantaneously heat up the graphene’s electron cloud. They then monitored its cooling with terahertz laser pulses, which are sensitive to the temperature of the graphene electrons. This technique is called optical pump – terahertz probe (OPTP) spectroscopy.

To their surprise, the electron cloud cooled faster when the graphene was immersed in water, while immersing the graphene in ethanol made no difference to the cooling rate. “This was yet another indication that the water-carbon couple is somehow special, but we still had to understand what exactly was going on,” Kavokine says. A possible explanation was that the hot electrons push and pull on the water molecules to release some of their heat: in other words, they cool through quantum friction. The researchers delved into the theory, and indeed: water-graphene quantum friction could explain the experimental data.

“It’s fascinating to see that the carrier dynamics of graphene keep surprising us with unexpected mechanisms, this time involving solid-liquid interactions with molecules none other than the omnipresent water,” comments Prof Klaas-Jan Tielrooij from ICN2 (Spain) and TU Eindhoven (The Netherlands). What makes water special here is that its vibrations, called hydrons, are in sync with the vibrations of the graphene electrons, called plasmons, so that the graphene-water heat transfer is enhanced through an effect known as resonance.

The experiments thus confirm the basic mechanism of solid-liquid quantum friction. This will have implications for filtration and desalination processes, in which quantum friction could be used to tune the permeation properties of the nanoporous membranes. “Our findings are not only interesting for physicists, but they also hold potential implications for electrocatalysis and photocatalysis at the solid-liquid interface,” says Xiaoqing Yu, PhD student at the Max Planck Institute in Mainz and first author of the work.

The discovery was down to bringing together an experimental system, a measurement tool and a theoretical framework that seldom go hand in hand. The key challenge is now to gain control over the water-electron interaction. “Our dream is to switch quantum friction on and off on demand,” Kavokine says. “This way, we could design smarter water filtration processes, or perhaps even fluid-based computers.”   

The almost identical June 26, 2023 University of Manchester press release is here.

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

Electron cooling in graphene enhanced by plasmon–hydron resonance by Xiaoqing Yu, Alessandro Principi, Klaas-Jan Tielrooij, Mischa Bonn & Nikita Kavokine. Nature Nanotechnology (2023) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41565-023-01421-3 Published: 22 June 2023

This paper is open access.

Flexible keyboards and wearable sketchpads: all in a touch-responsive fabric armband

Who doesn’t love a panda? It looks like someone is drawing on the armband with their fingers but the lines look a lot finer, more like a stylus was used.

Caption: When a person draws a panda on this touch-responsive armband that’s worn on their forearm (bottom right of photo), it shows up on a computer. Credit: Adapted from ACS Nano 2023, DOI: 10.1021/acsnano.2c12612

A May 2, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily announces the flexible armband,

It’s time to roll up your sleeves for the next advance in wearable technology — a fabric armband that’s actually a touch pad. In ACS [American Chemical Society] Nano, researchers say they have devised a way to make playing video games, sketching cartoons and signing documents easier. Their proof-of-concept silk armband turns a person’s forearm into a keyboard or sketchpad. The three-layer, touch-responsive material interprets what a user draws or types and converts it into images on a computer.

A May 2, 2023 American Chemical Society (ACS) news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, describes the work in more detail,

Computer trackpads and electronic signature-capture devices seem to be everywhere, but they aren’t as widely used in wearables. Researchers have suggested making flexible touch-responsive panels from clear, electrically conductive hydrogels, but these substances are sticky, making them hard to write on and irritating to the skin. So, Xueji Zhang, Lijun Qu, Mingwei Tian and colleagues wanted to incorporate a similar hydrogel into a comfortable fabric sleeve for drawing or playing games on a computer.

The researchers sandwiched a pressure-sensitive hydrogel between layers of knit silk. The top piece was coated in graphene nanosheets to make the fabric electrically conductive. Attaching the sensing panel to electrodes and a data collection system produced a pressure-responsive pad with real-time, rapid sensing when a finger slid over it, writing numbers and letters. The device was then incorporated into an arm-length silk sleeve with a touch-responsive area on the forearm. In experiments, a user controlled the direction of blocks in a computer game and sketched colorful cartoons in a computer drawing program from the armband. The researchers say that their proof-of-concept wearable touch panel could inspire the next generation of flexible keyboards and wearable sketchpads.       

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

Skin-Friendly and Wearable Iontronic Touch Panel for Virtual-Real Handwriting Interaction by Ruidong Xu, Minghua She, Jiaxu Liu, Shikang Zhao, Jisheng Zhao, Xueji Zhang, Lijun Qu, and Mingwei Tian. ACS Nano 2023, 17, 9, 8293–8302 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acsnano.2c12612 Publication Date: April 19, 2023 Copyright © 2023 American Chemical Society

This paper is behind a paywall.

Biodegradable electronics: a seaweed biosensor

By combining seaweed and graphene, scientists have been able to create sensors that can be worn like a ‘second skin’ and outperform other similar biosensors, according to a March 3, 2023 news item on ScienceDaily,

Scientists at the University of Sussex have successfully trialed new biodegradable health sensors that could change the way we experience personal healthcare and fitness monitoring technology.

The team at Sussex have developed the new health sensors — such as those worn by runners or patients to monitor heart rate and temperature — using natural elements like rock salt, water and seaweed, combined with graphene. Because they are solely made with ingredients found in nature, the sensors are fully biodegradable, making them more environmentally friendly than commonly used rubber and plastic-based alternatives. Their natural composition also places them within the emerging scientific field of edible electronics — electronic devices that are safe for a person to consume.

Better still, the researchers found that their sustainable seaweed-based sensors actually outperform existing synthetic based hydrogels and nanomaterials, used in wearable health monitors, in terms of sensitivity. Therefore, improving the accuracy, as the more sensitive a sensor, the more accurately it will record a person’s vital signs.

A March 2, 2023 University of Sussex press release (also on EurekAlert) by Poppy Luckett, which originated the news item, describes the inspiration for the research,

Dr Conor Boland, a materials physics lecturer in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, said:  “I was first inspired to use seaweed in the lab after watching MasterChef during lockdown. Seaweed, when used to thicken deserts, gives them a soft and bouncy structure – favored by vegans and vegetarians as an alternative to gelatin. It got me thinking: “what if we could do that with sensing technology?”.

“For me, one of the most exciting aspects to this development is that we have a sensor that is both fully biodegradable and highly effective. The mass production of unsustainable rubber and plastic based health technology could, ironically, pose a risk to human health through microplastics leeching into water sources as they degrade.  

“As a new parent, I see it as my responsibility to ensure my research enables the realisation of a cleaner world for all our children.” 

Seaweed is first and foremost an insulator, but by adding a critical amount of graphene to a seaweed mixture the scientists were able to create an electrically conductive film. When soaked in a salt bath, the film rapidly absorbs water, resulting in a soft, spongy, electrically conductive hydrogel.  

The development has the potential to revolutionise health monitoring technology, as future applications of the clinical grade wearable sensors would look something like a second skin or a temporary tattoo: lightweight, easy to apply, and safe, as they are made with all natural ingredients. This would significantly improve the overall patient experience, without the need for more commonly used and potentially invasive hospital instruments, wires and leads.  

Dr Sue Baxter, Director of Innovation and Business Partnerships at the University of Sussex, is excited about the potential benefits of this technology:  “At the University of Sussex, we are committed to protecting the future of the planet through sustainability research, expertise and innovation. What’s so exciting about this development from Dr Conor Boland and his team is that it manages to be all at once truly sustainable, affordable, and highly effective – out-performing synthetic alternatives.  

“What’s also remarkable for this stage of research – and I think this speaks to the meticulous ground-work that Dr Boland and his team put in when they created their blueprint – is that it’s more than a proof of principle development. Our Sussex scientists have created a device that has real potential for industry development into a product from which you or I could benefit in the relatively near future.” 

This latest  research breakthrough follows the publication of a blueprint for nanomaterial development from the Sussex scientists in 2019, which presented a method for researchers to follow in order to optimise the development of nanomaterial sensors.  

Kevin Doty, a Masters student in the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, at the University of Sussex, said:  “I taught chemistry previously, but decided I wanted to learn more about nanoscience. My gamble paid off, and not only did I enjoy it more than I expected, but I also ended up with an opportunity to utilize the information I had learned to work on a novel idea that has evolved into a first author publication as an MSc student. Learning about nanoscience showed me just how varied and multidisciplinary the field is. Any science background can bring knowledge that can be applied to this field in a unique way. This has led to further studies in a PhD studentship, opening up an all new career path I could not have previously considered.” 

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

Food-Inspired, High-Sensitivity Piezoresistive Graphene Hydrogels by Adel A. K. Aljarid, Kevin L. Doty, Cencen Wei, Jonathan P. Salvage, and Conor S. Boland. ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng. 2023, 11, 5, 1820–1827 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1021/acssuschemeng.2c06101 Publication Date:January 25, 2023 Copyright © 2023 The Authors. Published by American Chemical Society

This paper appears to be open access.

A nonvolatile photo-memristor

Credit: by Xiao Fu, Tangxin Li, Bin Caid, Jinshui Miao, Gennady N. Panin, Xinyu Ma, Jinjin Wang, Xiaoyong Jiang, Qing Lia, Yi Dong, Chunhui Hao, Juyi Sun, Hangyu Xu, Qixiao Zhao, Mengjia Xia, Bo Song, Fansheng Chen, Xiaoshuang Chen, Wei Lu, Weida Hu

it took a while to get there but the February 13, 2023 news item on phys.org announced research into extending memristors from tunable conductance to reconfigurable photo-response,

In traditional vision systems, the optical information is captured by a frame-based digital camera, and then the digital signal is processed afterwards using machine-learning algorithms. In this scenario, a large amount of data (mostly redundant) has to be transferred from a standalone sensing elements to the processing units, which leads to high latency and power consumption.

To address this problem, much effort has been devoted to developing an efficient approach, where some of the memory and computational tasks are offloaded to sensor elements that can perceive and process the optical signal simultaneously.

In a new paper published in Light: Science & Applications, a team of scientists, led by Professor Weida Hu from School of Physics and Optoelectronic Engineering, Hangzhou Institute for Advanced Study, University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, Hangzhou, China, State Key Laboratory of Infrared Physics, Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Shanghai, China, and co-workers have developed a non-volatile photo-memristor, in which the reconfigurable responsivity can be modulated by the charge and/or photon flux through it and further stored in the device.

A February 13, 2023 Chinese Academy of Sciences press release, which originated the news item, provided more technical detail about the work,

The non-volatile photo-memristor has a simple two-terminal architecture, in which photoexcited carriers and oxygen-related ions are coupled, leading to a displaced and pinched hysteresis in the current-voltage characteristics. For the first time, non-volatile photo-memristors implement computationally complete logic with photoresponse-stateful operations, for which the same photo-memristor serves as both a logic gate and memory, using photoresponse as a physical state variable instead of light, voltage and memresistance. Polarity reversal of photo-memristors shows great potential for in-memory sensing and computing with feature extraction and image recognition for neuromorphic vision.

The photo-memristor demonstrates tunable short-circuit current in a non-volatile mode under illumination. By mimicking the biological functionalities of the human retina and designing specific device structures, the devices can act as neural network for neuromorphic visual processing and implementation of completely photoresponse-stateful logic operations triggered by electrical and light stimuli together. It can support various kinds of sensing tasks with all-in-one sensing-memory-computing approaches. These scientists summarize the operational principle and feature of their device:

“We design[ed] a two-terminal device with MoS2-xOx and specific graphene for three purposes in one: (1) to provide low barrier energy for the migration of oxygen ions; (2) to perform as geometry-asymmetric metal–semiconductor–metal van der Waals heterostructures with multi-photoresponse states; and (3) as an extension of a memristor, this device not only provides tunable conductance, but also demonstrates reconfigurable photoresponse for reading at zero bias voltage.”

“Moreover, the tunable short-circuit photocurrent and photoresponse can be increased to 889.8 nA and 98.8 mA/W, respectively, which are much higher than that of other reconfigurable phototransistors based on 2D materials. To reverse the channel polarity and obtain a gate-tunable short-circuit photocurrent, the channel semiconductor must be thin enough. Thus, it is difficult to use the thick film needed to absorb enough light to get a large signal. In our case, the mechanism of the two-terminal device rearrangement is based on ion migration, which is not limited by the thickness. We can increase the thickness of the film to absorb more photons and get a large short-circuit photocurrent.” they added.

“This new concept of a two-terminal photo-memristor not only enables all-in-one sensing-memory-computing approaches for neuromorphic vision hardware, but also brings great convenience for high-density integration.” the scientists forecast.

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

Graphene/MoS2−xOx/graphene photomemristor with tunable non-volatile responsivities for neuromorphic vision processing by Xiao Fu, Tangxin Li, Bin Caid, Jinshui Miao, Gennady N. Panin, Xinyu Ma, Jinjin Wang, Xiaoyong Jiang, Qing Lia, Yi Dong, Chunhui Hao, Juyi Sun, Hangyu Xu, Qixiao Zhao, Mengjia Xia, Bo Song, Fansheng Chen, Xiaoshuang Chen, Wei Lu, Weida Hu. Light: Science & Applications volume 12, Article number: 39 (2023) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41377-023-01079-5 Published: 07 February 2023

This paper is open access.

Treating cardiac arrhythmia with light: a graphene tattoo

An April 17, 2023 news item on Nanowerk announced research into a graphene cardiac implant/tattoo,

Researchers led by Northwestern University and the University of Texas at Austin (UT) have developed the first cardiac implant made from graphene, a two-dimensional super material with ultra-strong, lightweight and conductive properties.

Similar in appearance to a child’s temporary tattoo, the new graphene “tattoo” implant is thinner than a single strand of hair yet still functions like a classical pacemaker. But unlike current pacemakers and implanted defibrillators, which require hard, rigid materials that are mechanically incompatible with the body, the new device softly melds to the heart to simultaneously sense and treat irregular heartbeats. The implant is thin and flexible enough to conform to the heart’s delicate contours as well as stretchy and strong enough to withstand the dynamic motions of a beating heart.

Caption: Graphene implant on tattoo paper. Credit: Ning Liu/University of Texas at Austin

An April 17, 2023 Northwestern University news release (also on EurekAlert), which originated the news item, provides more detail about the research, graphene, and the difficulties of monitoring a beating heart, Note: Links have been removed,

After implanting the device into a rat model, the researchers demonstrated that the graphene tattoo could successfully sense irregular heart rhythms and then deliver electrical stimulation through a series of pulses without constraining or altering the heart’s natural motions. Even better: The technology also is optically transparent, allowing the researchers to use an external source of optical light to record and stimulate the heart through the device.

The study will be published on Thursday (April 20 [2023]) in the journal Advanced Materials. It marks the thinnest known cardiac implant to date.

“One of the challenges for current pacemakers and defibrillators is that they are difficult to affix onto the surface of the heart,” said Northwestern’s Igor Efimov, the study’s senior author. “Defibrillator electrodes, for example, are essentially coils made of very thick wires. These wires are not flexible, and they break. Rigid interfaces with soft tissues, like the heart, can cause various complications. By contrast, our soft, flexible device is not only unobtrusive but also intimately and seamlessly conforms directly onto the heart to deliver more precise measurements.”

An experimental cardiologist, Efimov is a professor of biomedical engineering at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and professor of medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. He co-led the study with Dmitry Kireev, a research associate at UT. Zexu Lin, a Ph.D. candidate in Efimov’s laboratory, is the paper’s first author.

Miracle material

Known as cardiac arrhythmias, heart rhythm disorders occur when the heart beats either too quickly or too slowly. While some cases of arrhythmia are not serious, many cases can lead to heart failure, stroke and even sudden death. In fact, complications related to arrythmia claim about 300,000 lives annually in the United States. Physicians commonly treat arrhythmia with implantable pacemakers and defibrillators that detect abnormal heartbeats and then correct rhythm with electrical stimulation. While these devices are lifesaving, their rigid nature may constrain the heart’s natural motions, injure soft tissues, cause temporary discomfort and induce complications, such as painful swelling, perforations, blood clots, infection and more.

With these challenges in mind, Efimov and his team sought to develop a bio-compatible device ideal for conforming to soft, dynamic tissues. After reviewing multiple materials, the researchers settled on graphene, an atomically thin form of carbon. With its ultra-strong, lightweight structure and superior conductivity, graphene has potential for many applications in high-performance electronics, high-strength materials and energy devices.

“For bio-compatibility reasons, graphene is particularly attractive,” Efimov said. “Carbon is the basis of life, so it’s a safe material that is already used in different clinical applications. It also is flexible and soft, which works well as an interface between electronics and a soft, mechanically active organ.”

Hitting a beating target

At UT, study co-authors Dimitry Kireev and Deji Akinwande were already developing graphene electronic tattoos (GETs) with sensing capabilities. Flexible and weightless, their team’s e-tattoos adhere to the skin to continuously monitor the body’s vital signs, including blood pressure and the electrical activity of the brain, heart and muscles.

But, while the e-tattoos work well on the skin’s surface, Efimov’s team needed to investigate new methods to use these devices inside the body — directly onto the surface of the heart.

“It’s a completely different application scheme,” Efimov said. “Skin is relatively dry and easily accessible. Obviously, the heart is inside the chest, so it’s difficult to access and in a wet environment.”

The researchers developed an entirely new technique to encase the graphene tattoo and adhere it to the surface of a beating heart. First, they encapsulated the graphene inside a flexible, elastic silicone membrane — with a hole punched in it to give access to the interior graphene electrode. Then, they gently placed gold tape (with a thickness of 10 microns) onto the encapsulating layer to serve as an electrical interconnect between the graphene and the external electronics used to measure and stimulate the heart. Finally, they placed it onto the heart. The entire thickness of all layers together measures about 100 microns in total.

The resulting device was stable for 60 days on an actively beating heart at body temperature, which is comparable to the duration of temporary pacemakers used as bridges to permanent pacemakers or rhythm management after surgery or other therapies.

Optical opportunities

Leveraging the device’s transparent nature, Efimov and his team performed optocardiography — using light to track and modulate heart rhythm — in the animal study. Not only does this offer a new way to diagnose and treat heart ailments, the approach also opens new possibilities for optogenetics, a method to control and monitor single cells with light. 

While electrical stimulation can correct a heart’s abnormal rhythm, optical stimulation is more precise. With light, researchers can track specific enzymes as well as interrogate specific heart, muscle or nerve cells.

“We can essentially combine electrical and optical functions into one biointerface,” Efimov said. “Because graphene is optically transparent, we can actually read through it, which gives us a much higher density of readout.”

The University of Texas at Austin issued an April 18, 2023 news release and as you would expect the focus is on their researchers, Note 1: I’ve removed many but not all of the redundancies between the two news releases; Note 2: A link has been removed,

A new cardiac implant made from graphene, a two-dimensional super material with ultra-strong, lightweight and conductive properties, functions like a classic pacemaker with some major improvements.

A team led by researchers from The University of Texas at Austin and Northwestern University developed the implantable derivative from wearable graphene-based electronic tattoo, or e-tattoo – graphene biointerface. The device, detailed in the journal Advanced Materials, marks the thinnest known cardiac implant to date.

“It’s very exciting to take our e-tattoo technology and use it as an implantable device inside the body,” said Dmitry Kireev, a postdoctoral research associate in the lab of professor Deji Akinwande’s lab at UT Austin who co-led the research. “The fact that is much more compatible with the human body, lightweight, and transparent, makes this a more natural solution for people dealing with heart problems.”

Hitting a beating target

At UT Austin, Akinwande and his team had been developing e-tattoos using graphene for several years, with a variety of functions, including monitoring body signals. Flexible and weightless, their team’s e-tattoos adhere to the skin to continuously monitor the body’s vital signs, including blood pressure and the electrical activity of the brain, heart and muscles.

But, while the e-tattoos work well on the skin’s surface, the researchers needed to find new ways to deploy these devices inside the body — directly onto the surface of the heart.

“The conditions inside the body are very different compared to affixing a device to the skin, so we had to re-imagine how we package our e-tattoo technology,” said Akinwande, a professor in the Chandra Family Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.  

The researchers developed an entirely new technique to encase the graphene tattoo and adhere it to the surface of a beating heart. …

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

Graphene Biointerface for Cardiac Arrhythmia Diagnosis and Treatment by Zexu Lin, Dmitry Kireev, Ning Liu, Shubham Gupta, Jessica LaPiano, Sofian N. Obaid, Zhiyuan Chen, Deji Akinwande, Igor R. Efimov. Advanced Materials Volume 35, Issue 22 June 1, 2023 2212190 DOI: https://doi.org/10.1002/adma.202212190 First published online: 25 March 2023

This paper is open access.