Tag Archives: North Carolina State University (NCSU)

Compact and affordable brain-computer interface (BCI)

This device could help people with disabilities to regain control of their limbs or provide advance warnings of seizures to people with epilepsy and it’s all based on technology that is a century old.

A January 19, 2022 Skolkovo Institute of Science and Technology (Skoltech) press release (also on EurekAlert) provides details about the device (Note: A link has been removed),

Scientists from Skoltech, South Ural State University, and elsewhere have developed a device for recording brain activity that is more compact and affordable than the solutions currently on the market. With its high signal quality and customizable configuration, the device could help people with restricted mobility regain control of their limbs or provide advance warnings of an impending seizure to patients with epilepsy. The article presenting the device and testing results came out in Experimental Brain Research.

Researchers and medics, as well as engineers working on futuristic gadgets, need tools that measure brain activity. Among their scientific applications are research on sleep, decision-making, memory, and attention. In a clinical setting, these tools allow doctors to assess the extent of damage to an injured brain and monitor coma patients. Further down cyberpunk lane, brain signals can be translated into commands and sent to an external or implanted device, either to make up for lost functions in the body or for plain fun. The commands could range from moving the arm of an exoskeleton worn by a paralyzed person to turning on the TV.

Invented about a century ago, electroencephalographers are devices that read the electrical activity of the brain via small electrodes placed on the scalp. The recorded signals are then used for research, diagnostics, or gadgetry. The problem with the existing systems used in labs and hospitals is they are bulky and/or expensive. And even then, the number of electrodes is limited, resulting in moderate signal quality. Amateur devices tend to be more affordable, but with even poorer sensitivity.

To fill that gap, researchers from South Ural State University, North Carolina State University, and Brainflow — led by electronic research engineer Ildar Rakhmatulin and Skoltech neuroscientist Professor Mikhail Lebedev — created a device you can build for just $350, compared with the $1,000 or more you would need for currently available analogs. Besides being less expensive, the new electroencephalographer has as many as 24 electrodes or more. Importantly, it also provides research-grade signal quality. At half a centimeter in diameter (about 1/5 inches), the processing unit is compact enough to be worn throughout the day or during the night. The entire device weighs about 150 grams (about 5 ounces).

The researchers have made the instructions for building the device and the accompanying documentation and software openly available on GitHub. The team hopes this will attract more enthusiasts involved in brain-computer interface development, giving an impetus to support and rehabilitation system development, cognitive research, and pushing the geek community to come up with new futuristic gizmos.

“The more convenient and affordable such devices become, the more chances there are this would drive the home lab movement, with some of the research on brain-computer interfaces migrating from large science centers to small-scale amateur projects,” Lebedev said.

“Or we could see people with limited mobility using do-it-yourself interfaces to train, say, a smartphone-based system that would electrically stimulate a biceps to flex the arm at the elbow,” the researcher went on. “That works on someone who has lost control over their arm due to spinal cord trauma or a stroke, where the commands are still generated in the brain — they just don’t reach the limb, and that’s where our little brain-computer interfacing comes in.”

According to the team, such interfaces could also help patients with epilepsy by detecting tell-tale brain activity patterns that indicate when a seizure is imminent, so they can prepare by lying down comfortably in a safe space or attempting to suppress the seizure via electrical stimulation.

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

Low-cost brain computer interface for everyday use by Ildar Rakhmatulin, Andrey Parfenov, Zachary Traylor, Chang S. Nam & Mikhail Lebedev. Experimental Brain Research volume 239,Issue Date: December 2021, pages 3573–3583 (2021) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s00221-021-06231-4 Published online: 29 September 2021

This paper is behind a paywall.

You can find Brainflow here and this description on its homepage: “BrainFlow is a library intended to obtain, parse and analyze EEG, EMG, ECG and other kinds of data from biosensors.”

A robot that sucks up oil spills

I was surprised to find out that between 1989 when the Exxon Valdez oil spill fouled the coastline along Alaska and northern British Columbia and 2010 when the BP (British Petroleum) oil spill fouled the Gulf of Mexico and a number of US states, which border it, and Mexico’s state coastlines, there had been virtually no improvement in the environmental remediation technologies for oil spills (see my June 4, 2010 posting).

This summer we’ve had two major oil spills, one in the Russian Arctic (as noted in my August 14, 2020 posting; scroll down to the subhead ‘As for the Russian Arctic oil spill‘) and in the Indian Ocean near Mauritius and near a coral reef and marine protected areas (see this August 13, 2020 news item on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC] news online website).

No word yet on whether or not remediation techniques have improved but this August 6, 2020 article by Adele Peters for Fast Company highlights a new robotic approach to cleaning marine oil spills,

A decade after a BP drilling rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, sending an estimated 168 million gallons of oil gushing into the water over the course of months, local wildlife are still struggling to recover. Many of the people who worked to clean up the spill are still experiencing health effects. At the time, the “cleanup” strategy involved setting oil slicks on fire and spraying mass quantities of a chemical meant to disperse it, both of which helped get rid of the oil, but also worsened pollution [emphasis mine].

A new robot designed to clean oil spills, now in development, demonstrates how future spills could be handled differently. The robot navigates autonomously on the ocean surface, running on solar power. When oil sensors on the device detect a spill, it triggers a pump that pushes oil and water inside, where a custom nanomaterial sucks up the oil and releases clean water.

Kabra [Tejas Sanjay Kabra, a graduate student at North Carolina State University] 3D-printed a small prototype of the robot, which he tested in a lab, a swimming pool, and then the open ocean. (The small version, about two feet across, can collect 20 gallons of oil at a time; the same device can be scaled up to much larger sizes). He now hopes to bring the product to market as quickly as possible, as major oil spills continue to occur—such as the spill in Russia in June that sent more than 20,000 metric tons of diesel into a pristine part of the Arctic.

Peters’s article provides more details and features an embedded video.

Kabra calls his technology, SoilioS (Spilled OIL recovery by Isis & Oleophilic Sponge) and he entered it in the 2020 James Dyson Awards. The undated James Dyson Award news release announcing the 2020 national winners does not include Kabra’s entry. Mind you, over 1700 inventors entered the 2020 competition.

I hope Kabra perseveres as his robot project looks quite interesting for a number of reasons as can be seen in his entry submission (from the James Dyson Award website),

Initially, I started with a literature review on various Nanomaterials made from tree leaves with specific properties of Hydrophobicity and oleophilicity. Then I narrowed down my research on four different types of leaves i.e., Holy basil, betel, subabul, and mango. Nanoparticles from these leaves were made by green synthesis method and SEM, EDX and XRD tests were conducted. From these tests, I found that the efficiency of material made from the subabul tree was max (82.5%). In order to carry out surface cleaning at sea, different robot designs were studied. Initially, the robot was built in a box structure with arms. The arms contained Nano-capillary; however, the prototype was bulky and inefficient. A new model was devised to reduce the weight as well as increase the efficiency of absorbing the oil spill. The new robot was designed to be in a meta-stable state. The curves of the robot are designed in such a way that it gives stability as well as hold all the components. The top part of the robot is a hollow dome to improve the stability in water. The robot is 3D printed to reduce weight. The 3D printed robot was tested in a pool. Further, work is going on to build a 222 feet robot to test with hardware suitable for sea.

Here’s what SoilioS looks like,

[downloaded from https://www.jamesdysonaward.org/en-US/2020/project/soilios/]

Kabra described what makes his technology from what is currently the state-of-the-art and his future plans (from the James Dyson Award website),

The current technology uses carbon Nano-particle, and some other uses plastic PVC with a chemical adhesive, which is harmful to the environment. On the other hand, SoilioS uses Nano-material made from tree leaves. The invented technology absorbs the oil and stores inside the container with a recovery rate of 80%. The recovered oil can be used for further application; however, on the other hand, the current products burn the oil [emphasis mine] at the cleaning site itself without any recovery rate, thereby increasing pollution. The durability of the invented technology is 8-10 years, and the Nanomaterial used for cleaning the oil spill is reusable for 180 cycles. On the other hand, the durability of the current technology is up to 3-5 years, and the material used is non-reusable. The cost of the invented product is only $5 and on the other hand, the existing technology costs up to $750.

I aim to develop, manufacture, and practically test the robot prototype in the sea so that it can be used to solve oil spill issues and can save billions of dollars. I hope this device will help the environment in a lot of ways and eventually decrease the side effects caused due to oil spills such as leukemia and dying marine life. Currently, I am testing the product on different grades of oil to improve its efficiency further and improving its scope of the application so that it can also be used in industries and household purposes.

I wish Kabra good luck as he works to bring his technology to market.

$1.4B for US National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) in 2017 budget

According to an April 1, 2016 news item on Nanowerk, the US National Nanotechnology (NNI) has released its 2017 budget supplement,

The President’s Budget for Fiscal Year 2017 provides $1.4 billion for the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), affirming the important role that nanotechnology continues to play in the Administration’s innovation agenda. NNI
Cumulatively totaling nearly $24 billion since the inception of the NNI in 2001, the President’s 2017 Budget supports nanoscale science, engineering, and technology R&D at 11 agencies.

Another 9 agencies have nanotechnology-related mission interests or regulatory responsibilities.

An April 1, 2016 NNI news release, which originated the news item, affirms the Obama administration’s commitment to the NNI and notes the supplement serves as an annual report amongst other functions,

Throughout its two terms, the Obama Administration has maintained strong fiscal support for the NNI and has implemented new programs and activities to engage the broader nanotechnology community to support the NNI’s vision that the ability to understand and control matter at the nanoscale will lead to new innovations that will improve our quality of life and benefit society.

This Budget Supplement documents progress of these participating agencies in addressing the goals and objectives of the NNI. It also serves as the Annual Report for the NNI called for under the provisions of the 21st Century Nanotechnology Research and Development Act of 2003 (Public Law 108-153, 15 USC §7501). The report also addresses the requirement for Department of Defense reporting on its nanotechnology investments, per 10 USC §2358.

For additional details and to view the full document, visit www.nano.gov/2017BudgetSupplement.

I don’t seem to have posted about the 2016 NNI budget allotment but 2017’s $1.4B represents a drop of $100M since 2015’s $1.5 allotment.

The 2017 NNI budget supplement describes the NNI’s main focus,

Over the past year, the NNI participating agencies, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the National Nanotechnology Coordination Office (NNCO) have been charting the future directions of the NNI, including putting greater focus on promoting commercialization and increasing education and outreach efforts to the broader nanotechnology community. As part of this effort, and in keeping with recommendations from the 2014 review of the NNI by the President’s Council of Advisors for Science and Technology, the NNI has been working to establish Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges, ambitious but achievable goals that will harness nanotechnology to solve National or global problems and that have the potential to capture the public’s imagination. Based upon inputs from NNI agencies and the broader community, the first Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenge (for future computing) was announced by OSTP on October 20, 2015, calling for a collaborative effort to “create a new type of computer that can proactively interpret and learn from data, solve unfamiliar problems using what it has learned, and operate with the energy efficiency of the human brain.” This Grand Challenge has generated broad interest within the nanotechnology community—not only NNI agencies, but also industry, technical societies, and private foundations—and planning is underway to address how the agencies and the community will work together to achieve this goal. Topics for additional Nanotechnology-Inspired Grand Challenges are under review.

Interestingly, it also offers an explanation of the images on its cover (Note: Links have been removed),


About the cover

Each year’s National Nanotechnology Initiative Supplement to the President’s Budget features cover images illustrating recent developments in nanotechnology stemming from NNI activities that have the potential to make major contributions to National priorities. The text below explains the significance of each of the featured images on this year’s cover.


Front cover featured images (above): Images illustrating three novel nanomedicine applications. Center: microneedle array for glucose-responsive insulin delivery imaged using fluorescence microscopy. This “smart insulin patch” is based on painless microneedles loaded with hypoxia-sensitive vesicles ~100 nm in diameter that release insulin in response to high glucose levels. Dr. Zhen Gu and colleagues at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and North Carolina State University have demonstrated that this patch effectively regulates the blood glucose of type 1 diabetic mice with faster response than current pH-sensitive formulations. The inset image on the lower right shows the structure of the nanovesicles; each microneedle contains more than 100 million of these vesicles. The research was supported by the American Diabetes Association, the State of North Carolina, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and the National Science Foundation (NSF). Left: colorized rendering of a candidate universal flu vaccine nanoparticle. The vaccine molecule, developed at the NIH Vaccine Research Center, displays only the conserved part of the viral spike and stimulates the production of antibodies to fight against the ever-changing flu virus. The vaccine is engineered from a ~13 nm ferritin core (blue) combined with a 7 nm influenza antigen (green). Image credit: NIH National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Right: colorized scanning electron micrograph of Ebola virus particles on an infected VERO E6 cell. Blue represents individual Ebola virus particles. The image was produced by John Bernbaum and Jiro Wada at NIAID. When the Ebola outbreak struck in 2014, the Food and Drug Administration authorized emergency use of lateral flow immunoassays for Ebola detection that use gold nanoparticles for visual interpretation of the tests.


Back cover featured images (above): Images illustrating examples of NNI educational outreach activities. Center: Comic from the NSF/NNI competition Generation Nano: Small Science Superheroes. Illustration by Amina Khan, NSF. Left of Center: Polymer Nanocone Array (biomimetic of antimicrobial insect surface) by Kyle Nowlin, UNC-Greensboro, winner from the first cycle of the NNI’s student image contest, EnvisioNano. Right of Center: Gelatin Nanoparticles in Brain (nasal delivery of stroke medication to the brain) by Elizabeth Sawicki, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, winner from the second cycle of EnvisioNano. Outside right: still photo from the video Chlorination-less (water treatment method using reusable nanodiamond powder) by Abelardo Colon and Jennifer Gill, University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, the winning video from the NNI’s Student Video Contest. Outside left: Society of Emerging NanoTechnologies (SENT) student group at the University of Central Florida, one of the initial nodes in the developing U.S. Nano and Emerging Technologies Student Network; photo by Alexis Vilaboy.

North Carolina universities go beyond organ-on-a-chip

The researchers in the North Carolina universities involved in this project have high hopes according to an Oct. 9, 2015 news item on Nanowerk,

A team of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and NC State University has received a $5.3 million, five-year Transformative Research (R01) Award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to create fully functioning versions of the human gut that fit on a chip the size of a dime.

Such “organs-on-a-chip” have become vital for biomedical research, as researchers seek alternatives to animal models for drug discovery and testing. The new grant will fund a technology that represents a major step forward for the field, overcoming limitations that have mired other efforts.

The technology will use primary cells derived directly from human biopsies, which are known to provide more relevant results than the immortalized cell lines used in current approaches. In addition, the device will sculpt these cells into the sophisticated architecture of the gut, rather than the disorganized ball of cells that are created in other miniature organ systems.

“We are building a device that goes far beyond the organ-on-a-chip,” said Nancy L. Allbritton, MD, PhD, professor and chair of the UNC-NC State joint department of biomedical engineering and one of four principle investigators on the NIH grant. “We call it a ‘simulacrum,’ [emphasis mine] a term used in science fiction to describe a duplicate. The idea is to create something that is indistinguishable from your own gut.”

I’ve come across the term ‘simulacrum’ in relation to philosophy so it’s a bit of a surprise to find it in a news release about an organ-on-a-chip where it seems to have been redefined somewhat. Here’s more from the Simulacrum entry on Wikipedia (Note: Links have been removed),

A simulacrum (plural: simulacra from Latin: simulacrum, which means “likeness, similarity”), is a representation or imitation of a person or thing.[1] The word was first recorded in the English language in the late 16th century, used to describe a representation, such as a statue or a painting, especially of a god. By the late 19th century, it had gathered a secondary association of inferiority: an image without the substance or qualities of the original.[2] Philosopher Fredric Jameson offers photorealism as an example of artistic simulacrum, where a painting is sometimes created by copying a photograph that is itself a copy of the real.[3] Other art forms that play with simulacra include trompe-l’œil,[4] pop art, Italian neorealism, and French New Wave.[3]


The simulacrum has long been of interest to philosophers. In his Sophist, Plato speaks of two kinds of image making. The first is a faithful reproduction, attempted to copy precisely the original. The second is intentionally distorted in order to make the copy appear correct to viewers. He gives the example of Greek statuary, which was crafted larger on the top than on the bottom so that viewers on the ground would see it correctly. If they could view it in scale, they would realize it was malformed. This example from the visual arts serves as a metaphor for the philosophical arts and the tendency of some philosophers to distort truth so that it appears accurate unless viewed from the proper angle.[5] Nietzsche addresses the concept of simulacrum (but does not use the term) in the Twilight of the Idols, suggesting that most philosophers, by ignoring the reliable input of their senses and resorting to the constructs of language and reason, arrive at a distorted copy of reality.[6]

Postmodernist French social theorist Jean Baudrillard argues that a simulacrum is not a copy of the real, but becomes truth in its own right: the hyperreal. Where Plato saw two types of representation—faithful and intentionally distorted (simulacrum)—Baudrillard sees four: (1) basic reflection of reality; (2) perversion of reality; (3) pretence of reality (where there is no model); and (4) simulacrum, which “bears no relation to any reality whatsoever”.[7] In Baudrillard’s concept, like Nietzsche’s, simulacra are perceived as negative, but another modern philosopher who addressed the topic, Gilles Deleuze, takes a different view, seeing simulacra as the avenue by which an accepted ideal or “privileged position” could be “challenged and overturned”.[8] Deleuze defines simulacra as “those systems in which different relates to different by means of difference itself. What is essential is that we find in these systems no prior identity, no internal resemblance”.[9]

Getting back to the proposed research, an Oct. (?), 2015 University of North Carolina news release, which originated the news item, describes the proposed work in more detail,

Allbritton is an expert at microfabrication and microengineering. Also on the team are intestinal stem cell expert Scott T. Magness, associate professor of medicine, biomedical engineering, and cell and molecular physiology in the UNC School of Medicine; microbiome expert Scott Bultman, associate professor of genetics in the UNC School of Medicine; and bioinformatics expert Shawn Gomez, associate professor of biomedical engineering in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences and NC State.

The impetus for the “organ-on-chip” movement comes largely from the failings of the pharmaceutical industry. For just a single drug to go through the discovery, testing, and approval process can take as many as 15 years and as much as $5 billion dollars. Animal models are expensive to work with and often don’t respond to drugs and diseases the same way humans do. Human cells grown in flat sheets on Petri dishes are also a poor proxy. Three-dimensional “organoids” are an improvement, but these hollow balls are made of a mishmash of cells that doesn’t accurately mimic the structure and function of the real organ.

Basically, the human gut is a 30-foot long hollow tube made up of a continuous single-layer of specialized cells. Regenerative stem cells reside deep inside millions of small pits or “crypts” along the tube, and mature differentiated cells are linked to the pits and live further out toward the surface. The gut also contains trillions of microbes, which are estimated to outnumber human cells by ten to one. These diverse microbial communities – collectively known as the microbiota – process toxins and pharmaceuticals, stimulate immunity, and even release hormones to impact behavior.

To create a dime-sized version of this complex microenvironment, the UNC-NC State team borrowed fabrication technologies from the electronics and microfluidics world. The device is composed of a polymer base containing an array of imprinted or shaped “hydrogels,” a mesh of molecules that can absorb water like a sponge. These hydrogels are specifically engineered to provide the structural support and biochemical cues for growing cells from the gut. Plugged into the device will be various kinds of plumbing that bring in chemicals, fluids, and gases to provide cues that tell the cells how and where to differentiate and grow. For example, the researchers will engineer a steep oxygen gradient into the device that will enable oxygen-loving human cells and anaerobic microbes to coexist in close proximity.

“The underlying concept – to simply grow a piece of human tissue in a dish – doesn’t seem that groundbreaking,” said Magness. “We have been doing that for a long time with cancer cells, but those efforts do not replicate human physiology. Using native stem cells from the small intestine or colon, we can now develop gut tissue layers in a dish that contains stem cells and all the differentiated cells of the gut. That is the thing stem cell biologists and engineers have been shooting for, to make real tissue behave properly in a dish to create better models for drug screening and cell-based therapies. With this work, we made a big leap toward that goal.”

Right now, the team has a working prototype that can physically and chemically guide mouse intestinal stem cells into the appropriate structure and function of the gut. For several years, Magness has been isolating and banking human stem cells from samples from patients undergoing routine colonoscopies at UNC Hospitals.

As part of the grant, he will work with the rest of the team to apply these stem cells to the new device and create “simulacra” that are representative of each patient’s individual gut. The approach will enable researchers to explore in a personalized way how both the human and microbial cells of the gut behave during healthy and diseased states.

“Having a system like this will advance microbiota research tremendously,” said Bultman. “Right now microbiota studies involve taking samples, doing sequencing, and then compiling an inventory of all the microbes in the disease cases and healthy controls. These studies just draw associations, so it is difficult to glean cause and effect. This device will enable us to probe the microbiota, and gain a better understanding of whether changes in these microbial communities are the cause or the consequence of disease.”

I wish them good luck with their work and to end on another interesting note, the concept of organs-on-a-chip won a design award. From a June 22, 2015 article by Oliver Wainwright for the Guardian (Note: Links have been removed),

Meet the Lung-on-a-chip, a simulation of the biological processes inside the human lung, developed by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University – and now crowned Design of the Year by London’s Design Museum.

Lined with living human cells, the “organs-on-chips” mimic the tissue structures and mechanical motions of human organs, promising to accelerate drug discovery, decrease development costs and potentially usher in a future of personalised medicine.

“This is the epitome of design innovation,” says Paola Antonelli, design curator at New York’s Museum of Modern Art [MOMA], who nominated the project for the award and recently acquired organs-on-chips for MoMA’s permanent collection. “Removing some of the pitfalls of human and animal testing means, theoretically, that drug trials could be conducted faster and their viable results disseminated more quickly.”

Whodathunkit? (Tor those unfamiliar with slang written in this form: Who would have thought it?)