June 10, 2012

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The Geopolitics of Climate Change

June 3, 2012

Interesting talk by Gwynne Dyer, author of Climate Wars:

Climate change milestone: CO2 levels reach 400ppm in the Arctic

June 2, 2012

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reports a worrying new milestone for CO2, the main global warming pollutant. Arctic monitoring stations now show 400 parts per million (ppm) of the heat-trapping gas in the atmosphere.

The global level now stands at 395ppm (see video below), and is expected to reach the Arctic level in the very near future. Scientists believe the maximum “safe” limit for a stable climate is around 350ppm.

On current trends, CO2 levels could reach 800-1000ppm by the end of this century – potentially resulting in 6°C of global warming.

A permanent base on Mars by 2023?

June 2, 2012

A Dutch group – Mars One – has announced plans to establish a human settlement on Mars in 2023.

The project is being led by Bas Lansdorp, a researcher from the Netherlands with a Masters in Science from Delft University of Technology. The plan is to send food and other supplies to the planet by 2016, then after several stages land humans on Mars for permanent settlement in 2023.

At first glance, this project appears to be extraordinarily optimistic in terms of timescale, but let’s see what happens. There have been many surprising developments in space travel of late – such as Planetary Resources’ plans for asteroid mining, Space Adventures offering lunar tourism, the world’s first commercial spaceport, the launch of Falcon 9 by SpaceX, Russian and Japanese plans for Moon missions, and a revolutionary new rocket engine.

Neuroscientists reach major milestone in whole-brain circuit mapping

June 2, 2012

Neuroscientists at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory (CSHL) reached a major milestone this week – publicly releasing the first data from their groundbreaking project, to construct the first whole-brain wiring diagram of a vertebrate brain, that of the mouse.

The data, which totals 500 terabytes, consists of gigapixel images (a billion pixels each) of whole-brain sections. These can be zoomed to show individual neurons and their processes, creating a “virtual microscope.” The images are integrated with other data sources from the web, and are being made fully accessible to neuroscientists as well as interested members of the general public (http://mouse.brainarchitecture.org). The data are being released pre-publication in the spirit of open science initiatives that have become familiar in digital astronomy (e.g. Sloan Digital Sky Survey) but are not yet as widespread in neurobiology.

A slice of the mouse brain. Click to enlarge.

Each sampled brain is represented in about 500 images, each image being an optical section through a 20 micron-thick slice of tissue. Users can journey through each brain from “front” to “back”, following the pathways taken through 3D brain space by tracer-labeled neuronal pathways. The tracers were picked to follow neuronal inputs and outputs of different brain regions.

“Our project seeks to address a remarkable gap in our knowledge of the brain,” says Partha Mitra, Professor of Biomathematics at CSHL and director of the Mouse Brain Architecture (MBA) Project.

“Our knowledge of how the brain is wired remains piecemeal and partial after a century of activity. To understand how the brain works (or fails to work in neurological disease), it is critical that we understand this wiring diagram more fully. Further, there remain fundamental questions about brain evolution that cannot be addressed without obtaining such wiring diagrams for the brains of different species.”

Projections from a motor cortex AAV injection (credit: CSHL)

The MBA Project is distinguished by the approach advocated by Mitra in a 2009 paper. Back then, Mitra proposed mapping vertebrate brains at what he described as the “mesoscopic” scale – a mid-range amenable to light microscopy, giving far more detail than MRI-based methods, yet considerably less detail than via electron microscopy (EM). The latter, while useful for mapping synaptic connections between individual neurons, is feasible on a whole-brain basis only for tiny brains (e.g. fruitflies) or very small portions of the mouse brain.

The pragmatic approach Mitra advocated, and which is realised in this first data release, is to image whole mouse brains in a semi-automated, quality-controlled process using light microscopy and injected neural tracers. While the basic methodology has been available for some time, systematically applying it to a grid of locations spanning the entire brain, and digitising/re-assembling the resulting collection of brains, is a new approach made feasible by the exponentially falling costs of computer storage. A mouse brain, at light-microscope resolution, generates around one terabyte (1000 GB) of data. Thus, producing and storing the data sets currently being gathered would have been impossibly expensive a decade or so ago.

“Our project is what I’d call a necessary first step in a much larger enterprise – that of understanding both structure and dynamics of the vertebrate, and ultimately, the human brain,” says Mitra.

Project highlights: http://brainarchitecture.org/mouse/highlights

Nokia Sensing X Challenge

May 30, 2012

The X PRIZE Foundation and Nokia have announced the launch of the Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE – a $2.25 million global competition aimed at developing a new generation of health sensors and sensing technologies that can drastically improve the quality, accuracy and ease of monitoring a person’s health.

Improvements in these technologies will empower individuals to effortlessly monitor and collect their own real-time health data, providing both consumers and healthcare providers convenient access to critical information whenever and wherever they need it.

The announcement was made by X PRIZE Foundation Chairman and CEO Dr. Peter Diamandis and Nokia Executive Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Dr. Henry Tirri during their keynote address at the Wireless Health Convergence Summit in San Diego.

“Partnering with Nokia is a natural fit for this competition. Health sensing technologies enabled by artificial intelligence, lab-on-a-chip, and digital imaging are advancing exponentially and will ultimately integrate with your phone. We need to expand sensor and sensing technology beyond disease management to areas such as public health and fitness,” said Dr. Diamandis.

“The Nokia Sensing X CHALLENGE will bring about radical innovation in health sensors and sensing technologies, which paves the way for better choices in when, where, and how individuals receive care. Ultimately, healthcare will be more convenient, affordable, and accessible to consumers worldwide through these integrated digital health solutions.”

The inefficiencies and total cost of the U.S. healthcare system (and healthcare systems around the globe) has been a pressing social and political issue for many years. In the U.S., the total spent annually on the healthcare system is more than $2 trillion, which accounts for more than 15 percent of the nation’s GDP. Health sensors have the capacity to stem this trend. Consumer use of sensors and sensing solutions has the potential to improve, extend and ease delivery of healthcare services, as well as reduce costs to the benefit of health providers and patients.

“Nokia engages in Open Innovation on many different levels; this type of ‘grand challenge’ is not only a unique method of driving significant progress in a short space of time, but one which can also help to create an entire ecosystem,” said Dr. Tirri.

“This competition will enable us to realize the full potential of mobile sensing devices, leading to advances in sensing technology which can play a major role in transforming the lives of billions of people around the world.”

“Personality genes” may help account for longevity

May 29, 2012

“It’s in their genes” is a common refrain from scientists when asked what factors allow people to reach the age of 100 and beyond. Until now, research has focused on genetic variations that offer a physiological advantage like high levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol.

But in a new study, researchers have found that personality traits – like being outgoing, optimistic, easygoing and enjoying laughter, as well as staying engaged in activities – may also help to produce extreme longevity.

The findings are published in the journal Aging, and come from Einstein’s Longevity Genes Project. This studied 500 Ashkenazi Jews, aged from 95 to 122, and their 700 offspring. Ashkenazi (Eastern European) Jews were selected because they are genetically homogeneous – making it easier to spot genetic differences within the group.

Previous studies have shown that personality arises from underlying genetic mechanisms directly affecting health. This new study was aimed at detecting genetically-based personality characteristics by developing a measure called the Personality Outlook Profile Scale (POPS).

“When I started working with centenarians, I thought we’d find they survived so long in part because they were mean and ornery,” said Nir Barzilai, director of Einstein’s Institute for Aging Research. “But when we assessed the personalities … we found qualities that clearly reflect a positive attitude towards life. Most were outgoing, optimistic and easygoing. They considered laughter an important part of life and had a large social network. They expressed emotions openly rather than bottling them up.”

In addition, the centenarians had lower scores for displaying neurotic personality and higher scores for being conscientious, compared with a representative sample of the U.S. population.

“Some evidence indicates that personality can change between the ages of 70 and 100, so we don’t know whether our centenarians have maintained their personality traits across their entire lifespans,” continued Dr. Barzilai. “Nevertheless, our findings suggest that centenarians share particular personality traits and genetically-based aspects of personality may play an important role in achieving both good health and exceptional longevity.”

Holograms to replace people at New York airports

May 28, 2012

As the summer travel season gets underway, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has announced new initiatives to improve customer service for passengers at the region’s busiest airports.

More than 106 million passengers use the agency’s three major airports each year, which in addition to LaGuardia and Newark includes John F. Kennedy International Airport. The enhancements will provide immediate results just as air travel starts to increase during the busiest time of the year. These initiatives are the direct result of a customer survey conducted by the Port Authority of more than 10,000 air passengers who evaluated their experience.

Among the new initiatives will be a 20 percent increase in the number of Customer Care Representatives during peak hours, with 70 new agents. Currently, 350 customer care agents provide valuable information to help customers navigate the airport and public transportation options. They staff the airport’s welcome centres and other high-volume terminal areas like checkpoint entry and exit areas, and are easily identifiable by their red jackets.

Given the huge volumes of international travellers, the Customer Service Representatives speak a total of 27 different languages, with English and Spanish most prevalent.

To expand on the program, the Port Authority has created an innovative pilot plan that will see five “virtual” customer care representatives. These will be computerised, hologram-like avatars providing automated information to travellers in LaGuardia’s Central Terminal Building, Newark Liberty’s Terminal B and JFK’s Terminal 5 when they are installed in early July, at a cost of $180,000.

The avatars are not interactive, but Port Authority Executive Director Pat Foye is quoted as saying he “hopes a future iteration of the talking machines will hold conversations with passengers.”

The technology has already been used in France and elsewhere, but this will be the first time it has appeared in North America.

For more info, see http://www.airportone.com/

Jet-injected drugs could mean the end of needles

May 26, 2012

Getting a shot at your doctor’s office may become less painful in the not-too-distant future.

MIT researchers have engineered a device that delivers a tiny, high-pressure jet of medicine through the skin without the use of a hypodermic needle. The device can be programmed to deliver a range of doses to various depths — an improvement over similar jet-injection systems that are now commercially available.

The researchers say that among other benefits, the technology may help reduce the potential for needle-stick injuries; the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that hospital-based health care workers accidentally prick themselves with needles 385,000 times each year. A needleless device may also help improve compliance among patients who might otherwise avoid the discomfort of injecting themselves with drugs such as insulin.

“If you are afraid of needles and have to frequently self-inject, compliance can be an issue,” says Catherine Hogan, a scientist in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and a member of the research team. “We think this kind of technology … gets around some of the phobias that people may have about needles.”

NASA developing concepts for future Mars missions

May 24, 2012

NASA’s call to scientists and engineers to help plan a new strategy to explore Mars has resulted in almost double the amount of expected submissions, with many unique and bold ideas.

About 400 concepts or abstracts were submitted to the Concepts and Approaches for Mars Exploration Workshop in Houston, which was organised to gather input for the reformulation of NASA’s Mars Exploration Program. Submissions came from individuals and teams that included professional researchers, undergraduate and graduate students, NASA centres, federal laboratories, industry, and international partner organisations.

NASA is reformulating the Mars Exploration Program, to be responsive to high-priority science goals and President Obama’s challenge of sending humans to Mars in the early 2030s.

“This strong response sends a clear message that exploring Mars is important to future exploration,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. “The challenge now will be to select the best ideas for the next phase.”

Selected abstracts will be presented during a workshop, from 12-14 June, hosted by the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston. Selectees are now being invited to present and discuss concepts, options, capabilities and innovations to advance Mars exploration. Workshop discussion will help to formulate a strategy for long-term exploration.