Apr 27, 2016
Feb 18, 2016
The recent debate about the issue of reproducibility in psychology lead me to question whether 21th century scientific psychology should still regard the “conventional” experimental approach as the prime method of inquiry.
Even most controlled lab experiments produce results that are difficult to generalize to real-life, because of the artificiality of the setting. On the other hand, field and natural experiments are higher in ecological validity (since they are carried out in real-world situations) but are hard to control and replicate. Not to mention that most psychology research is consistently done primarily on undergraduate students.
I suggest that the digital revolution and the emergence of “citizen science” could offer a totally new research approach to psychology.
Every second, social media, sensors and mobile tools generate massive amounts of data concerning people’s behavior and activities. According to a recent forecast by networking company Cisco concerning global mobile data traffic growth trends, global mobile data traffic reached 3.7 exabytes per month at the end of 2015, up from 2.1 exabytes per month at the end of 2014. Mobile data traffic has grown 4,000-fold over the past 10 years and almost 400-million-fold over the past 15 years. Mobile networks carried fewer than 10 gigabytes per month in 2000, and less than 1 petabyte per month in 2005. (One exabyte is equivalent to one billion gigabytes, and one thousand petabytes.)
The analysis of these large-scale “digital footprints” may open new avenues for discovery to psychologists, revealing patterns that would be otherwise impossible to detect through conventional experimental methods. A cloud-based open data portal could be designed to gather data streams made available from volunteering citizens, following protocols and guidelines developed by scientists – think about it as a sort of “S.E.T.I.” project for psychology. Autorized researchers may access these shared datasets to make collective analysis and interpretations.
I argue that the introduction of collective digital experiments may offer psychology novel opportunities to advance its research, and eventually achieve the rigour of natural sciences.
Feb 14, 2016
As many analysts predict, next-generation virtual reality technology promises to change our lives.
From manufacturing to medicine, from entertainment to learning, there is no economic or cultural sector that is immune from the VR revolution.
According to a recent report from Digi-Capital, the augmented/virtual reality market could hit $150B revenue by 2020, with augmented reality projected to reach $120B and virtual reality $30B.
Still, there are a lot of unanswered questions concerning the potential negative effects of virtual reality on the human brain. For example, we know very little about the consequences of prolonged immersion in a virtual world.
Most of scientific virtual reality experiments carried out so far have lasted for short time intervals (typically, less than an hour). However, we don’t know what are the potential side effects of being “immersed” for a 12-hour virtual marathon. When one looks at today’s headsets, it might seem unlikely that people will spend so much time wearing them, because they are still ergonomically poor. Furthermore, most virtual reality contents available on the market are not exploiting the full narrative potential of the medium, which can go well beyond a “virtual Manhattan skyride”.
But as soon as usability problems will be fixed, and 3D contents will be compelling and engaging enough, the risk of “3D addiction” may be around the corner. Most importantly, risks of virtual reality exposure are not limited to adults, but especially endanger adolescents’ and children’s health. Given the widespread use of smartphones among kids, it is likely that virtual reality games will become very popular within this segment.
Given that Zuckerberg regards virtual reality as the next big thing after video for Facebook (in March 2014 his corporation bought Oculus VR in a deal worth $2 billion), perhaps he might also consider investing some of these resources for supporting research on the health risks that are potentially associated with this amazing and life-changing technology.
Dec 26, 2015
Via Road to VR
The Manus VR team demonstrate their latest experiment, utilising Valve’s laser-based Lighthouse system to track their in-development VR glove.
Manus VR (previously Manus Machina), the company from Eindhoven, Netherlands dedicated to building VR input devices, seem have gained momentum in 2015. They secured their first round of seed funding and have shipped early units to developers and now, their R&D efforts have extended to Valve’s laser based tracking solution Lighthouse, as used in the forthcoming HTC Vive headset and SteamVR controllers.
The Manus VR team seem to have canibalised a set of SteamVR controllers, leveraging the positional tracking of wrist mounted units to augment Manus VR’s existing glove-mounted IMUs. Last time I tried the system, the finger joint detection was pretty good, but the Samsung Gear VR camera-based positional tracking struggled understandably with latency and accuracy. The experience on show seems immeasurably better, perhaps unsurprisingly.
Cyberpsychology is a fascinating field of research, yet it requires a lot of financial resources for its advancement. As an inherently interdisciplinary endeavor, the implementation of a cyberpsychology study often involves the collaboration of several scientific disciplines outside psychology, such as experts in human-computer interaction, software developers, data scientists, and engineers. Further, an increasing number of cyberpsychology studies consist of clinical trials, which can last several months (or even years) and involve a significant investment of economic resources. On the other side, finding adequate fundings is becoming the most pressing challenge for most cyberpsychologists.
This is due to several factors. First, governments university funding has fallen dramatically in most countries and the trend for the next years is not encouraging. Second, competition for grants is very high and it is likely to remain so. A third, - and perhaps less obvious - factor is that Cyberpsychology research tends to attract less fundings than other allied disciplines, i.e. medicine. Given this situation, what can be done to allow cyberpsychologists to keep furthering their research?
A possible strategy is to improve “lateral thinking” and find a way to optimize costs. This can be done, for example, by taking advantage of free, open source software/service/tools to support the different phases of the research process – design, implementation, collaboration, monitoring, data analysis, reporting, etc. These open-source tools are not only free, but sometimes even more powerful than existing proprietary software and services. For example, a fairly comprehensive set of free office productivity tools can be found online. These include word processor, spreadsheet (i.e. the OpenOffice suite), slide presentations, graphic programs (i.e. Gimp, http://www.gimp.org/).
As concerns the implementation of laboratory experiments, several software platforms are available for programming psychological studies. For example, PsychoPy is a user-friendly open-source application that allows the presentation of stimuli and collection of data for a wide range of neuroscience, psychology and psychophysics experiments. For the analysis of data, possible alternatives to commercial statistical packages include the R language for statistical computing, a free software environment for statistical computing and graphics (coupled with R-Commander or Rstudio for those who are not comfortable with line-command interfaces). And when it is time to writing a paper, free tools exist designed for the production of technical and scientific documentation, such as the popular program LaTeX, which can be used in combination to reference manager software like JabRef.
And what about Virtual Reality? Our NeuroVR platform is a free tool that young researchers (i.e. MS students, PhD students) can use to move their first scientific steps in the virtual realm.
Needless to say, the most expensive budget item in a research plan remains personnel costs. However, I think that by having a look at the many free scientific tools, resources and services that are available, it might be possible to significantly reduce the costs; at the same time, this approach offers the opportunity to support the growth of the open source community in our discipline.
Nov 17, 2015
In recent years, the increasing convergence between nanotechnology, biomedicine and health informatics have generated massive amounts of data, which are changing the way healthcare research, development, and applications are done.
Clinical data integrate physiological data, enabling detailed descriptions of various healthy and diseased states, progression, and responses to therapies. Furthermore, mobile and home-based devices monitor vital signs and activities in real-time and communicate with personal health record services, personal computers, smartphones, caregivers, and health care professionals.
However, our ability to analyze and interpret multiple sources of data lags far behind today’s data generation and storage capacity. Consequently, mathematical and computational models are increasingly used to help interpret massive biomedical data produced by high-throughput genomics and proteomics projects. Advanced applications of computer models that enable the simulation of biological processes are used to generate hypotheses and plan experiments.
The emerging discipline of computational biomedicine is concerned with the application of computer-based techniques and particularly modelling and simulation to human health. Since almost ten years, this vision is at the core of an European-funded program called “Virtual Physiological Human”. The goal of this initiative is to develop next-generation computer technologies to integrate all information available for each patient, and generated computer models capable of predicting how the health of that patient will evolve under certain conditions.
In particular, this programme is expected, over the next decades, to transform the study and practice of healthcare, moving it towards the priorities known as ‘4P's’: predictive, preventative, personalized and participatory medicine. Future developments of computational biomedicine may provide the possibility of developing not just qualitative but truly quantitative analytical tools, that is, models, on the basis of the data available through the system just described. Information not available today (large cohort studies nowadays include thousands of individuals whereas here we are talking about millions of records) will be available for free. Large cohorts of data will be available for online consultation and download. Integrative and multi-scale models will benefit from the availability of this large amount of data by using parameter estimation in a statistically meaningful manner. At the same time distribution maps of important parameters will be generated and continuously updated. Through a certain mechanism, the user will be given the opportunity to express his interest on this or that model so to set up a consensus model selection process. Moreover, models should be open for consultation and annotation. Flexible and user friendly services have many potential positive outcomes. Some examples include simulation of case studies, tests, and validation of specific assumptions on the nature or related diseases, understanding the world-wide distribution of these parameters and disease patterns, ability to hypothesize intervention strategies in cases such as spreading of an infectious disease, and advanced risk modeling.
Aug 23, 2015
The journey to digital business continues as the key theme of Gartner, Inc.'s "Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies, 2015." New to the Hype Cycle this year is the emergence of technologies that support what Gartner defines as digital humanism — the notion that people are the central focus in the manifestation of digital businesses and digital workplaces.
The Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies report is the longest-running annual Hype Cycle, providing a cross-industry perspective on the technologies and trends that business strategists, chief innovation officers, R&D leaders, entrepreneurs, global market developers and emerging-technology teams should consider in developing emerging-technology portfolios.
"The Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies is the broadest aggregate Gartner Hype Cycle, featuring technologies that are the focus of attention because of particularly high levels of interest, and those that Gartner believes have the potential for significant impact," said Betsy Burton, vice president and distinguished analyst at Gartner. "This year, we encourage CIOs and other IT leaders to dedicate time and energy focused on innovation, rather than just incremental business advancement, while also gaining inspiration by scanning beyond the bounds of their industry."
Major changes in the 2015 Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies include the placement of autonomous vehicles, which have shifted from pre-peak to peak of the Hype Cycle. While autonomous vehicles are still embryonic, this movement still represents a significant advancement, with all major automotive companies putting autonomous vehicles on their near-term roadmaps. Similarly, the growing momentum (from post-trigger to pre-peak) in connected-home solutions has introduced entirely new solutions and platforms enabled by new technology providers and existing manufacturers.
Jun 09, 2015
Grazie al Codice in materia di protezione dei dati personali hai il diritto di sapere come vengono usati i tuoi dati e di chiedermi di cancellarli.
I tuo dati non saranno nè venduti, nè ceduti gratuitamente od in nessun modo devoluti a terzi che potrebbero farne uso per altri scopi pubblicitari o di spam.
Di seguito è spiegato cosa sono i Cookies, consiglio questo video del Garante della Privacy, che spiega molto bene cosa sono e cosa fanno.
I cookies utilizzati sono:
– tecnici, tra cui Google Analytics, con l’IP reso anonimo. Questo vuol dire che Google riceve i dati delle visite in maniera aggregata. La tua privacy è protetta, e io so comunque quante persone hanno visto le mie pagine. Se vuoi disattivare GA, puoi scaricare il tool.
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Apr 05, 2015
Recently, a growing number of opinion leaders have started to point out the potential risks associated to the rapid advancement of Artificial Intelligence. This shared concern has led an interdisciplinary group of scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs to sign an open letter (http://futureoflife.org/misc/open_letter/), drafted by the Future of Life Institute, which focuses on priorities to be considered as Artificial Intelligence develops as well as on the potential dangers posed by this paradigm.
The concern that machines may soon dominate humans, however, is not new: in the last thirty years, this topic has been widely represented in movies (i.e. Terminator, the Matrix), novels and various interactive arts. For example, australian-based performance artist Stelarc has incorporated themes of cyborgization and other human-machine interfaces in his work, by creating a number of installations that confront us with the question of where human ends and technology begins.
In his 2005 well-received book “The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology” (Viking Penguin: New York), inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil argued that Artificial Intelligence is one of the interacting forces that, together with genetics, robotic and nanotechnology, may soon converge to overcome our biological limitations and usher in the beginning of the Singularity, during which Kurzweil predicts that human life will be irreversibly transformed. According to Kurzweil, will take place around 2045 and will probably represent the most extraordinary event in all of human history.
Ray Kurzweil’s vision of the future of intelligence is at the forefront of the transhumanist movement, which considers scientific and technological advances as a mean to augment human physical and cognitive abilities, with the final aim of improving and even extending life. According to transhumanists, however, the choice whether to benefit from such enhancement options should generally reside with the individual. The concept of transhumanism has been criticized, among others, by the influential american philosopher of technology, Don Ihde, who pointed out that no technology will ever be completely internalized, since any technological enhancement implies a compromise. Ihde has distinguished four different relations that humans can have with technological artifacts. In particular, in the “embodiment relation” a technology becomes (quasi)transparent, allowing a partial symbiosis of ourself and the technology. In wearing of eyeglasses, as Ihde examplifies, I do not look “at” them but “through” them at the world: they are already assimilated into my body schema, withdrawing from my perceiving.
According to Ihde, there is a doubled desire which arises from such embodiment relations: “It is the doubled desire that, on one side, is a wish for total transparency, total embodiment, for the technology to truly "become me."(...) But that is only one side of the desire. The other side is the desire to have the power, the transformation that the technology makes available. Only by using the technology is my bodily power enhanced and magniﬁed by speed, through distance, or by any of the other ways in which technologies change my capacities. (…) The desire is, at best, contradictory. l want the transformation that the technology allows, but I want it in such a way that I am basically unaware of its presence. I want it in such a way that it becomes me. Such a desire both secretly rejects what technologies are and overlooks the transformational effects which are necessarily tied to human-technology relations. This lllusory desire belongs equally to pro- and anti-technology interpretations of technology.” (Ihde, D. (1990). Technology and the Lifeworld: From Garden to Earth. Bloomington: Indiana, p. 75).
Despite the different philosophical stances and assumptions on what our future relationship with technology will look like, there is little doubt that these questions will become more pressing and acute in the next years. In my personal view, technology should not be viewed as mean to replace human life, but as an instrument for improving it. As William S. Haney II suggests in his book “Cyberculture, Cyborgs and Science Fiction: Consciousness and the Posthuman” (Rodopi: Amsterdam, 2006), “each person must choose for him or herself between the technological extension of physical experience through mind, body and world on the one hand, and the natural powers of human consciousness on the other as a means to realize their ultimate vision.” (ix, Preface).
In 1999, Joseph Pine and James Gilmore wrote a seminal book titled “The Experience Economy” (Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA) that theorized the shift from a service-based economy to an experience-based economy. According to these authors, in the new experience economy the goal of the purchase is no longer to own a product (be it a good or service), but to use it in order to enjoy a compelling experience. An experience, thus, is a whole-new type of offer: in contrast to commodities, goods and services, it is designed to be as personal and memorable as possible. Just as in a theatrical representation, companies stage meaningful events to engage customers in a memorable and personal way, by offering activities that provide engaging and rewarding experiences.
Indeed, if one looks back at the past ten years, the concept of experience has become more central to several fields, including tourism, architecture, and – perhaps more relevant for this column – to human-computer interaction, with the rise of “User Experience” (UX). The concept of UX was introduced by Donald Norman in a 1995 article published on the CHI proceedings (D. Norman, J. Miller, A. Henderson: What You See, Some of What's in the Future, And How We Go About Doing It: HI at Apple Computer. Proceedings of CHI 1995, Denver, Colorado, USA).
Norman argued that focusing exclusively on usability attribute (i.e. easy of use, efficacy, effectiveness) when designing an interactive product is not enough; one should take into account the whole experience of the user with the system, including users’ emotional and contextual needs. Since then, the UX concept has assumed an increasing importance in HCI.
As McCarthy and Wright emphasized in their book “Technology as Experience” (MIT Press, 2004): “In order to do justice to the wide range of influences that technology has in our lives, we should try to interpret the relationship between people and technology in terms of the felt life and the felt or emotional quality of action and interaction.” (p. 12).
However, according to Pine and Gilmore experience may not be the last step of what they call as “Progression of Economic Value”. They speculated further into the future, by identifying the “Transformation Economy” as the likely next phase. In their view, while experiences are essentially memorable events which stimulate the sensorial and emotional levels, transformations go much further in that they are the result of a series of experiences staged by companies to guide customers learning, taking action and eventually achieving their aspirations and goals.
In Pine and Gilmore terms, an aspirant is the individual who seeks advice for personal change (i.e. a better figure, a new career, and so forth), while the provider of this change (a dietist, a university) is an elictor. The elictor guide the aspirant through a series of experiences which are designed with certain purpose and goals. According to Pine and Gilmore, the main difference between an experience and a trasformation is that the latter occurs when an experience is customized: “When you customize an experience to make it just right for an individual - providing exactly what he needs right now - you cannot help changing that individual. When you customize an experience, you automatically turn it into a transformation, which companies create on top of experiences (recall that phrase: “a life-transforming experience”), just as they create experiences on top of services and so forth” (p. 244).
A further key difference between experiences and transformations concerns their effects: because an experience is inherently personal, no two people can have the same one. Likewise, no individual can undergo the same transformation twice: the second time it’s attempted, the individual would no longer be the same person (p. 254-255). But what will be the impact of this upcoming, “transformation economy” on how people relate with technology? If in the experience economy the buzzword is “User Experience”, in the next stage the new buzzword might be “User Transformation”.
Indeed, we can see some initial signs of this shift. For example, FitBit and similar self-tracking gadgets are starting to offer personalized advices to foster enduring changes in users’ lifestyle; another example is from the fields of ambient intelligence and domotics, where there is an increasing focus towards designing systems that are able to learn from the user’s behaviour (i.e. by tracking the movement of an elderly in his home) to provide context-aware adaptive services (i.e. sending an alert when the user is at risk of falling). But likely, the most important ICT step towards the transformation economy could take place with the introduction of next-generation immersive virtual reality systems. Since these new systems are based on mobile devices (an example is the recent partnership between Oculus and Samsung), they are able to deliver VR experiences that incorporate information on the external/internal context of the user (i.e. time, location, temperature, mood etc) by using the sensors incapsulated in the mobile phone.
By personalizing the immersive experience with context-based information, it will be possibile to induce higher levels of involvement and presence in the virtual environment. In case of cyber-therapeutic applications, this could translate into the development of more effective, transformative virtual healing experiences.
A staffer in Dr. Margaret Naeser’s lab demonstrates the equipment built especially for the research: an LED helmet (Photomedex), intranasal diodes (Vielight), and LED cluster heads placed on the ears (MedX Health). The real and sham devices look identical. Goggles are worn to block out the red light to avoid experimental artifacts. The near-infrared light is beyond the visible spectrum and cannot be seen. (credit: Naeser lab)
Researchers at the VA Boston Healthcare System are testing the effects of light therapy on brain function in the Veterans with Gulf War Illness study.
Veterans in the study wear a helmet lined with light-emitting diodes that apply red and near-infrared light to the scalp. They also have diodes placed in their nostrils, to deliver photons to the deeper parts of the brain.
The light is painless and generates no heat. A treatment takes about 30 minutes.
The therapy, though still considered “investigational” and not covered by most health insurance plans, is already used by some alternative medicine practitioners to treat wounds and pain.
The light from the diodes has been shown to boost the output of nitric oxide near where the LEDs are placed, which improves blood flow in that location.
“We are applying a technology that’s been around for a while,” says lead investigator Dr. Margaret Naeser, “but it’s always been used on the body, for wound healing and to treat muscle aches and pains, and joint problems. We’re starting to use it on the brain.”
Naeser is a research linguist and speech pathologist for the Boston VA, and a research professor of neurology at Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM).
How LED therapy works
The LED therapy increases blood flow in the brain, as shown on MRI scans. It also appears to have an effect on damaged brain cells, specifically on their mitochondria. These are bean-shaped subunits within the cell that put out energy in the form of a chemical known as ATP. The red (600 nm) and NIR (800–900nm) wavelengths penetrate through the scalp and skull by about 1 cm to reach brain cells and spur the mitochondria to produce more ATP. That can mean clearer, sharper thinking, says Naeser.
Nitric oxide is also released and diffused outside the cell wall, promoting local vasodilation and increased blood flow.
Naeser says brain damage caused by explosions, or exposure to pesticides or other neurotoxins — such as in the Gulf War — could impair the mitochondria in cells. She believes light therapy can be a valuable adjunct to standard cognitive rehabilitation, which typically involves “exercising” the brain in various ways to take advantage of brain plasticity and forge new neural networks.
“The light-emitting diodes add something beyond what’s currently available with cognitive rehabilitation therapy,” says Naeser. “That’s a very important therapy, but patients can go only so far with it. And in fact, most of the traumatic brain injury and PTSD cases that we’ve helped so far with LEDs on the head have been through cognitive rehabilitation therapy. These people still showed additional progress after the LED treatments. It’s likely a combination of both methods would produce the best results.”
Results published from 11 TBI patients
The LED approach has its skeptics, but Naeser’s group has already published some encouraging results in the peer-reviewed scientific literature.
Last June in the Journal of Neurotrauma, they reported in an open-access paper, the outcomes of LED therapy in 11 patients with chronic TBI, ranging in age from 26 to 62. Most of the injuries occurred in car accidents or on the athletic field. One was a battlefield injury, from an improvised explosive device (IED).
Neuropsychological testing before the therapy and at several points thereafter showed gains in areas such as executive function, verbal learning, and memory. The study volunteers also reported better sleep and fewer PTSD symptoms.
The study authors concluded that the pilot results warranted a randomized, placebo-controlled trial — the gold standard in medical research.
That’s happening now, thanks to VA support. One trial, already underway, aims to enroll 160 Gulf War veterans. Half the veterans will get the real LED therapy for 15 sessions, while the others will get a mock version, using sham lights.
Then the groups will switch, so all the volunteers will end up getting the real therapy, although they won’t know at which point they received it. After each Veteran’s last real or sham treatment, he or she will undergo tests of brain function.
Naeser points out that “because this is a blinded, controlled study, neither the participant nor the assistant applying the LED helmet and the intranasal diodes is aware whether the LEDs are real or sham — they both wear goggles that block out the red LED light.” The near-infrared light is invisible.
Other trials of the LED therapy are getting underway:
- Later this year, a trial will launch for Veterans age 18 to 55 who have both traumatic brain injury (TBI) and post-traumatic stress disorder, a common combination in recent war Veterans. The VA-funded study will be led by Naeser’s colleague Dr. Jeffrey Knight, a psychologist with VA’s National Center for PTSD and an assistant professor of psychiatry at BUSM.
- Dr. Yelena Bogdanova, a clinical psychologist with VA and assistant professor of psychiatry at BUSM, will lead a VA-funded trial looking at the impact of LED therapy on sleep and cognition in Veterans with blast TBI.
- Naeser is collaborating on an Army study testing LED therapy, delivered via the helmets and the nose diodes, for active-duty soldiers with blast TBI. The study, funded by the Army’s Advanced Medical Technology Initiative, will also test the feasibility and effectiveness of using only the nasal LED devices — and not the helmets — as an at-home, self-administered treatment. The study leader is Dr. Carole Palumbo, an investigator with VA and the Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine, and an associate professor of neurology at BUSM.
Naeser hopes the work will validate LED therapy as a viable treatment for veterans and others with brain difficulties. She also foresees potential for conditions such as depression, stroke, dementia, and even autism.
According to sources cited by the authors, i is estimated that there are 5,300,000 Americans living with TBI-related disabilities. The annual economic cost is estimated to be between $60 and $76.5 billion. It is estimated that 15–40% of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan as part of Operation Enduring Freedom/Operation Iraqi Freedom (OEF/OIF) report at least one TBI. And within the past 10 years, the diagnosis of concussion in high school sports has increased annually by 16.5%.
The research was supported by U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. National Institutes of Health, American Medical Society for Sports Medicine, and American College of Sports Medicine-American Medical Society for Sports Medicine Foundation.
Mar 19, 2015
Keeping mental focus while working, studying, or driving can be a serious challenge. A new product looking for funding on Kickstarter may help users maintain focus and to train the brain to keep the mind from wandering. The Narbis device is a combination of an EEG sensor and a pair of glasses whose lenses can go from transparent to opaque.
The user puts on the glasses and adjusts the dry EEG electrodes to make contact with the skull. The EEG component continuously monitors brainwave activity, noticing when the user starts to drift off mentally. When that happens, the glasses fade to darkness and the wearer is effectively forced to snap back to attention. The EEG recognizes fresh activity within the brain, immediately clearing the glasses and letting the wearer get back to task.
The team behind the Narbis believes that a couple sessions per week of wearing the device can help improve mental focus even when not using the system. Here’s their promo looking to fund the manufacturing of the device on Kickstarter.
The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation.
Nat Rev Neurosci. 2015 Mar 18;
Authors: Tang YY, Hölzel BK, Posner MI
Abstract. Research over the past two decades broadly supports the claim that mindfulness meditation - practiced widely for the reduction of stress and promotion of health - exerts beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance. Recent neuroimaging studies have begun to uncover the brain areas and networks that mediate these positive effects. However, the underlying neural mechanisms remain unclear, and it is apparent that more methodologically rigorous studies are required if we are to gain a full understanding of the neuronal and molecular bases of the changes in the brain that accompany mindfulness meditation.
Scanning ultrasound treatment of Alzheimer’s disease in mouse model (credit: Gerhard Leinenga and Jürgen Götz/Science Translational Medicine)
University of Queensland researchers have discovered that non-invasive scanning ultrasound (SUS) technology* can be used to treat Alzheimer’s disease in mice and restore memory by breaking apart the neurotoxic Amyloid-β (Aβ) peptide plaques that result in memory loss and cognitive decline.
The method can temporarily open the blood-brain barrier (BBB), activating microglial cells that digest and remove the amyloid plaques that destroy brain synapses.
Treated AD mice displayed improved performance on three memory tasks: the Y-maze, the novel object recognition test, and the active place avoidance task.
The next step is to scale the research in higher animal models ahead of human clinical trials, which are at least two years away. In their paper in the journal Science Translational Medicine, the researchers note possible hurdles. For example, the human brain is much larger, and it’s also thicker than that of a mouse, which may require stronger energy that could cause tissue damage. And it will be necessary to avoid excessive immune activation.
The researchers also plan to see whether this method clears toxic protein aggregates in other neurodegenerative diseases and restores executive functions, including decision-making and motor control. It could also be used as a vehicle for drug or gene delivery, since the BBB remains the major obstacle for the uptake by brain tissue of therapeutic agents.
Previous research in treating Alzheimer’s with ultrasound used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to focus the ultrasonic energy to open the BBB for more effective delivery of drugs to the brain.
Jan 25, 2015
Kathy Beitz, 29, is legally blind - she lost her vision as a child and, for a long time, adapted to living in a world she couldn't see (Kathy has Stargardt disease, a condition that causes macular degeneration). Technology called eSight glasses allowed Kathy to see her son on the day he was born. The glasses cost $15,000 and work by capturing real-time video and enhancing it.
Dec 16, 2014
Neuroprosthetics is a relatively new discipline at the boundaries of neuroscience and biomedical engineering, which aims at developing implantable devices to restore neural function. The most popular and clinically successfull neuroprosthesis to date is the cochlear implant, a device that can restore hearing by stimulating directly the human auditory nerve, by bypassing damaged hair cells in the cochlea.
Visual prostheses, on the other hand, are still in a preliminary phase of development, although substantial progress has been made in the last few years. This kind of implantable devices are designed to micro-electrically stimulate nerves in the visual system, based on an image from an external camera. These impulses are then propagated to the visual cortex, which is able to process the information and generate a “pixelated” image. The resulting impression has not the same quality as natural vision but it is still useful for performing basic perceptual and motor tasks, such as identifying an object or navigating a room. An example of this approach is the Boston Retinal Implant Project, a large joint collaborative effort that includes, among others, the Harvard Medical School and MIT.
Another area of neuroprosthetics is concerned with the development of implantable devices to help patients with diseases such as spinal cord injury, limb loss, stroke and neuromuscolar disorders improving their ability to interact with their environment and communicate. These motor neuroprosthetics are also known as “brain computer interfaces” (BCI), which in essence are devices that decode brain signals representing motor intentions and convert these information into overt device control. This process allows the patient to perform different motor tasks, from writing a text on a virtual keyboard to driving a wheel chair or controlling a prosthetic limb. An impressive evolution of motor neuroprosthetic is the combination of BCI and robotics. For example, Leigh R. Hochberg and coll. (Nature 485, 372–375; 2012) have reported that using a robotic arm connected to a neural interface called “BrainGate” two people with long-standing paralysis could control the reaching and grasping actions, such as drinking from a bottle.
Cognitive neuroprosthetics is a further research direction of neuroprosthetics. A cognitive prosthesis is an implantable device which aims at restoring cognitive function to brain-injured individuals by performing the function of the damaged tissue. One of the world’s most advanced effort in this area is being lead by Theodore Berger, a biomedical engineer and neuroscientist at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. Berger and his coll. are attempting to develop a microchip-based neural prosthesis for the hippocampus, a region of the brain responsible for long-term memory (IEEE Trans Neural Syst Rehabil Eng 20/2, 198–211; 2012). More specifically, the team is developing a biomimetic model of the hippocampal dynamics, which should serve as a neural prosthesis by allowing a bi-directional communication with other neural tissue that normally provides the inputs and outputs to/from a damaged hippocampal area.
Nov 01, 2014
Nestle SA will enlist a thousand humanoid robots to help sell its coffee makers at electronics stores across Japan, becoming the first corporate customer for the chatty, bug-eyed androids unveiled in June by tech conglomerate SoftBank Corp.
Nestle has maintained healthy growth in Japan while many of its big markets are slowing, crediting a tradition of trying out off-beat marketing tactics in what is a small but profitable territory for the world's biggest food group.
The waist-high robot, developed by a French company and manufactured in Taiwan, was touted by Japan's SoftBank as capable of learning and expressing human emotions, and of serving as a companion or guide in a country that faces chronic labor shortages.
Nestle said on Wednesday it would initially commission 20 of the robots, called Pepper, in December to interact with customers and promote its coffee machines. By the end of next year, the maker of Nescafe coffee and KitKat chocolate bars plans to have the robots working at 1,000 stores.
"We hope this new type of made-in-Japan customer service will take off around the world," Nestle Japan President Kohzoh Takaoka said in a statement.
Nestle did not say how much it was paying for Pepper, which SoftBank has said would retail for 198,000 yen ($1,830). The robot is already greeting customers at more than 70 SoftBank mobile phone stores in Japan.
Among Nestle's most successful Japan-only initiatives is the Nescafe Ambassador system, in which individuals stock coffee pods and collect money for them at their offices in exchange for free use of machines and other perks. Nestle wants half a million "ambassadors" by 2020 - nearly quadruple the number now - as it expands into museums, beauty salons and even temples.
The Japanese unit has also developed hundreds of KitKat flavors including wasabi and green tea, and this year rolled out a KitKat that can be baked into cookies.
The latest creation from Aldebaran, Pepper is the first robot designed to live with humans.
Oct 18, 2014
Brain networks in two behaviourally-similar vegetative patients (left and middle), but one of whom imagined playing tennis (middle panel), alongside a healthy adult (right panel). Credit: Srivas Chennu
People locked into a vegetative state due to disease or injury are a major mystery for medical science. Some may be fully unconscious, while others remain aware of what’s going on around them but can’t speak or move to show it. Now scientists at Cambridge have reported in journal PLOS Computational Biology on a new technique that can help identify locked-in people that can still hear and retain their consciousness.
Some details from the study abstract:
We devised a novel topographical metric, termed modular span, which showed that the alpha network modules in patients were also spatially circumscribed, lacking the structured long-distance interactions commonly observed in the healthy controls. Importantly however, these differences between graph-theoretic metrics were partially reversed in delta and theta band networks, which were also significantly more similar to each other in patients than controls. Going further, we found that metrics of alpha network efficiency also correlated with the degree of behavioural awareness. Intriguingly, some patients in behaviourally unresponsive vegetative states who demonstrated evidence of covert awareness with functional neuroimaging stood out from this trend: they had alpha networks that were remarkably well preserved and similar to those observed in the controls. Taken together, our findings inform current understanding of disorders of consciousness by highlighting the distinctive brain networks that characterise them. In the significant minority of vegetative patients who follow commands in neuroimaging tests, they point to putative network mechanisms that could support cognitive function and consciousness despite profound behavioural impairment.
Study in PLOS Computational Biology: Spectral Signatures of Reorganised Brain Networks in Disorders of Consciousness
Oct 17, 2014
Oct 16, 2014
Based on Facebook and Twitter chatter, it can seem like Ebola is everywhere. Following the first diagnosis of an Ebola case in the United States on Sept. 30, mentions of the virus on Twitter leapt from about 100 per minute to more than 6,000. Cautious health officials have tested potential cases in Newark, Miami Beach and Washington D.C., sparking more worry. Though the patients all tested negative, some people are still tweeting as if the disease is running rampant in these cities. In Iowa the Department of Public Health was forced to issue a statement dispelling social media rumors that Ebola had arrived in the state. Meanwhile there have been a constant stream of posts saying that Ebola can be spread through the air, water, or food, which are all inaccurate claims.
Research scientists who study how we communicate on social networks have a name for these people: the “infected.”