New Energy Source for Future Medical Implants: Sugar

MIT engineers have developed a fuel cell that runs on the same sugar that powers human cells: glucose.

This glucose fuel cell could be used to drive highly efficient brain implants of the future, which could help paralyzed patients move their arms and legs again.

The fuel cell, described in the June 12 edition of the journal PLoS ONE, strips electrons from glucose molecules to create a small electric current. The researchers, led by Rahul Sarpeshkar, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at MIT, fabricated the fuel cell on a silicon chip, allowing it to be integrated with other circuits that would be needed for a brain implant.

The idea of a glucose fuel cell is not new: In the 1970s, scientists showed they could power a pacemaker with a glucose fuel cell, but the idea was abandoned in favor of lithium-ion batteries, which could provide significantly more power per unit area than glucose fuel cells. These glucose fuel cells also utilized enzymes that proved to be impractical for long-term implantation in the body, since they eventually ceased to function efficiently.

The new twist to the MIT fuel cell described in PLoS ONE is that it is fabricated from silicon, using the same technology used to make semiconductor electronic chips. The fuel cell has no biological components: It consists of a platinum catalyst that strips electrons from glucose, mimicking the activity of cellular enzymes that break down glucose to generate ATP, the cell’s energy currency. (Platinum has a proven record of long-term biocompatibility within the body.) So far, the fuel cell can generate up to hundreds of microwatts — enough to power an ultra-low-power and clinically useful neural implant.

“It will be a few more years into the future before you see people with spinal-cord injuries receive such implantable systems in the context of standard medical care, but those are the sorts of devices you could envision powering from a glucose-based fuel cell,” says Benjamin Rapoport, a former graduate student in the Sarpeshkar lab and the first author on the new MIT study.

Rapoport calculated that in theory, the glucose fuel cell could get all the sugar it needs from the cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) that bathes the brain and protects it from banging into the skull. There are very few cells in the CSF, so it’s highly unlikely that an implant located there would provoke an immune response. There is also significant glucose in the CSF, which does not generally get used by the body. Since only a small fraction of the available power is utilized by the glucose fuel cell, the impact on the brain’s function would likely be small.

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via Science Daily
 

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Could crowd sourcing provide the next genetics breakthrough?

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Everyone can see the resulting data and download it, including scientists

A wealth of extra free genetic data could be at scientists’ fingertips if a new website allowing the public to make their test results available gets enough traction.

OpenSNP provides a way for people who have had tests carried out by direct-to-consumer genetic testing companies – so far 23andMe, deCODEme and Family Tree DNA are supported – to upload their raw results online along with personal characteristics they wish to share from their eye colour to artistic ability to coffee consumption. Everyone can see the resulting data and download it, including scientists.

The non-profit hobby project, developed by three master’s degree students and a web developer, has just won first place – worth $10,001 – in the inaugural API Binary Battle, a competition funded by the paper sharing site Mendeley and the open access publishers Public Library of Science (PLoS) to build applications to make science more open while tapping into either or both platforms.

Bastian Greshake, studying for his master’s degree in ecology and evolution at Goethe University, Frankfurt, first had the idea for openSNP after he got himself genotyped this May. It provides a central repository for people who are willing to publicly share the powerful combination of both their genetic and phenotypic information, potentially enabling scientists to discover new genetic associations in the future, he explains.

While the companies already supply consenting customers’ genetic data for scientific research, and there are websites where people can upload their own, this is the first which includes phenotypic information too.

Thus far about 50 users have added their data to the website, which launched at the end of September. Greshake anticipates that at around 1000 data sets it will begin being useful for scientific study (though the information is entered on trust and data are unchecked).

Some scientists have already been in contact. “They thought it was a great idea and wanted to know how they can request our users provide extra phenotypic information,” he says.

Other than a rosy glow, the incentive for those willing to share their data are updates on the latest genetics research published in PLoS journals along with recommendations from Mendeley, of which summaries are also provided: great if you are interested in learning more about the genetic variations you are carrying.

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Subjects Move Virtual Chopper With Thoughts

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Lets people use EEG to move a computerized helicopter through virtual rings on a 3-D obstacle course.

Subjects using a new software package were able to control the movement of a virtual helicopter through an obstacle course using their thoughts alone.

For years scientists have been developing ways for people to control objects using only brainwaves. Researchers use EEG to measure electrical activity along a person’s scalp. These electrical signals can move a computer cursor, play video games and perform other two-dimensional tasks.

Now a team of University of Minnesota engineers has upped the ante with software that lets people use EEG to move a computerized helicopter through virtual rings on a 3-D obstacle course.

To test the software, researchers had three subjects wear caps laden with EEG sensors and hooked up to a computer. The subjects moved the virtual helicopter forward by imagining their arms moving forward. When they imagined no movement, the helicopter moved backwards. Imagining the movement of their left or right hands caused the helicopter to rotate in either direction.

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Human Impact On the Deep Sea

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The oceans cover 71% of our planet, with over half with a depth greater than 3000 m.

Although our knowledge is still very limited, we know that the deep ocean contains a diversity of habitats and ecosystems, supports high biodiversity, and harbors important biological and mineral resources. Human activities are, however increasingly affecting deep-sea habitats, resulting in the potential for biodiversity loss and, with this, the loss of many goods and services provided by deep-sea ecosystems.

These conclusions come from an international study conducted during the Census of Marine Life project SYNDEEP (Towards a First Global Synthesis of Biodiversity, Biogeography, and Ecosystem Function in the Deep Sea). The authors, over 20 deep-sea experts, conducted a semi-quantitative analysis of the most important anthropogenic impacts that affect deep-sea habitats at the global scale in the past, present and future scenarios. The impacts were grouped in three major categories: waste and litter dumping, resource exploitation, and climate change. The authors identified which deep-sea habitats are at highest risk in the short and mid-term, as well as what will be the main anthropogenic impacts affecting these areas, in a paper published in PLoS ONE on Aug. 1, 2011.

During the Census of Marine Life program, a ten-year program that investigated diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the global ocean and which ended inn 2010, researchers from its five deep-sea projects sampled and studied the different deep-sea habitats around the globe. The analysis of the current article is based on the results of the Census of Marine Life projects, synthesized during SYNDEEP, and also from data published previously in the scientific literature.

In the past, the main human impact affecting deep-sea ecosystems was the dumping or disposal of litter into the oceans. These activities were banned in 1972, but their consequences are still present today, together with the continuing illegal disposal of litter from ships and the arrival of litter and contaminants from coastal areas and river discharges. In particular, the accumulation of plastics on the deep seafloor, which degrade into microplastics, called mermaid tears, that can be ingested by the fauna, has consequences still unknown but predicted to be important. Moreover, there is increasing evidence of the accumulation of chemical pollutants of industrial origin, such as mercury, lead and persistent organic pollutants (e.g. dioxins, PCBs) in the sediment and fauna, including in species of commercial interest.

Currently, and because of the reduction of resources on land and in shallow waters, the largest direct impacts come from the exploitation of deep-sea resources and, in particular, from fisheries. In the future, however, the authors of this study predict that the most pervasive impacts may come from ocean acidification and climate change, which act at the global scale and can have important effects from surface waters to the abyssal seafloor. Some of these effects include an increase in water temperature that can cause important changes in stratification of the water column, accumulation of nutrients, and oceanic water circulation with corresponding alteration of hypoxia and faunal community structure.

Most importantly, the authors predict synergies amongst certain anthropogenic impacts and, in particular, between climate change and activities such as resource exploitation, wherein combined impacts may be particularly deleterious to deep-sea faunal communities.

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