Boffins slicing and dicing rats’ brains for a living have come up with the startling discovery that the grey matter is wired in a similar way to the internet.
A team of scientists from USC constructed a database from 40 years of study of the rat brain, resulting in this database, a virtual ‘wiring diagram’ for the rat’s brain.
Then they conducted a network analysis on the connections, to try and understand the underlying structure. What appeared to be the case was that the neurons were built in a series of local networks, “layered like the shells in a Russian nesting doll”.
Two local networks — vision and learning, and organ function — make up the inner shell, with another two making up the outer shell.
That gives the cerebral cortex the structure of a “mini-Internet” — or any complex computer network, really. A series of increasingly larger local networks all connect together, working upwards until you end with the fibre-optic cables and data centres that make up the backbone of our Internet.
We will not really believe that a rat’s brain could be dedicated to that much sex, although we do accept that having a lots of pictures of cats would make a lot of sense.
Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas have emerged from their smoke filled labs with a circuit board made with thin film transistors that are flexible enough to wrap around a nerve or blood vessel.
According to a paper issued by the team, they managed to laminate shape-memory polymers on top of thin film transistor circuits to create a chip that’s rigid at room temperature, but becomes pliant and flexible at body temperatures.
The film transistors could wrap around a diameter as small as 2.25 millimetres, and when implanted in rats the devices maintained conductivity while flexing with the surrounding tissue. It is not clear what the rat thought.
Graduate student Jonathan Reeder, the primary author on the research paper said that scientists and physicians have been trying to put electronics in the body for a while now, but one of the problems is that the stiffness of common electronics is not compatible with biological tissue.
“You need the device to be stiff at room temperature so the surgeon can implant the device, but soft and flexible enough to wrap around 3-D objects so the body can behave exactly as it would without the device. By putting electronics on shape-changing and softening polymers, we can do just that.”
The system needs further testing and if the materials prove reliable, and can be made to encompass more sensory capabilities while wrapping around even smaller structures.
It could lead to a whole range of body sensors to monitor health conditions like blood pressure heart rate, progression of diseases. Of course, fundamentalist Christians will claim that it is the mark of the beast predicted in the book of Revelations and call for the technology to be banned. We suspect a couple of rats might have similar objections and want the gear off their veins.
Neuroscientists at Cambridge University have come up with a more interesting use for their Inkjet printer other than printing photos of the lab’s Christmas party.
According to the British journal Biofabrication, which we get for the spot the fabrication competition, the team used an inkjet printer to print cells from the eye, making a practical step in the quest to grow replenishment tissue for damaged or diseased organs.
Researchers at England’s extracted two types of cells from rat retinas and squirted them through a printer nozzle to see if they survived.
Apparently the rats’ retinas were healthy after being “printed,” retaining their ability to survive and grow.
What the Cambridge boffins Keith Martin and Barbara Lorber believe is that they could use this technique to build artificial tissue in layers.
This is the first time that the technology has been used to successfully print mature cells from the central nervous system, the scientists said. They cautioned, however, that much work lay ahead.
What they want to do is build retinal tissue for people suffering from degenerative diseases of the eye as the loss of nerve cells in the retina is a feature of many blinding eye diseases.
“The retina is an exquisitely organised structure, where the precise arrangement of cells in relation to one another is critical for effective visual function,” they said in a press release.
The team used a piezoelectric inkjet printer head, which expelled so-called glia cells and retinal ganglion cells from adult lab rats through a single nozzle less than one millimetre (0.04 of an inch) across.
Inkjet fluid has a narrow margin of error in terms of viscosity and surface tension before it stops working. Adding cells to the liquid had the potential to make a real mess.
The only thing wrong with the technique is that there was a large loss in the number of cells sinking to the bottom of the fluid reservoir where they could not be printed. The cells that were printed were undamaged and could grow.
Tepco, the operator of the ill-fated Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant might have found the culprit responsible for the plant’s partial meltdown and it has four legs and a wiggly tail.
Of course, the disaster was caused by an earthquake, followed by a massive tsunami, but it was preventable. The plant experienced an extended blackout that disabled its cooling systems, causing multiple reactors to overheat, suffer partial meltdowns and release enough radiation to create more than five Godzillas.
Now, it seems the unfortunate power outage might have been caused by an equally unfortunate rat, who found his way into a switchboard, caused a short circuit and was promptly dispatched to Rat Heck. Engineers found the rat’s body inside a faulty switchboard, and discovered that he’d been gnawing away at the wires when he met his maker.
Tepco had previously blamed the faulty switchboard for the power failure. The outage cut off the flow of cooling water to four pools used to store more than 8,800 spent fuel rods. It took the company almost two days to restore cooling to the pools. Sadly, efforts to cool down the reactors weren’t as successful.
Now it seems that a single rat might have contributed to the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, which seems like an improvement, as the Chernobyl disaster was completely avoidable. It was caused by Soviet paranoia and general stupidity. Someone in the chain of command conveniently forgot to tell reactor operators that lowering graphite tipped control rods in RMBK reactors can cause a brief power surge when reinserted into the core. The same phenomenon was observed at the Ignalina nuke plant a couple of years earlier, but nobody got the memo, leaving large chunks of Belarus and Ukraine irradiated and uninhabitable.
Clearly, the world has made a lot of progress over the past three decades: instead of blaming pinko commies for nuclear tragedies we’ve moved onto rodents. The rat did it.
The fact that the Fukushima Daiichi plant was built on the coast and that its cleverly designed redundant generators were all flooded in a matter of minutes probably had nothing to do with the disaster at all.
A team of researchers have had a breakthough in creating artificial short-term memories in brain tissue.
Ben Strowbridge and Robert Hyde, from the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, have discovered how to store diverse forms of artificial short-term memories in isolated brain tissue.
This will pave the way for computers which have bio-mechanical memories and servers run by rat brains.
In their book, with the catchy title “Mnemonic Representations of Transient Stimuli and Temporal Sequences in Rodent Hippocampus In Vitro,” Strowbridge said that what they had found was a way to store information over seconds about both temporal sequences and stimulus patterns directly in the brain.
This paves the way for future research to identify the specific brain circuits that allow us to form short-term memories.
Organic memories are often grouped into two categories: declarative memory, the short and long-term storage of facts like names, places and events; and implicit memory, the type of memory used to learn a skill like playing the piano.
Using isolated pieces of rat brain tissue, the researchers demonstrated that they could form a memory of which one of four input pathways was activated.
Neural circuits stored in the hippocampus maintained the memory of stimulated input for more than 10 seconds. The information about which pathway was stimulated was evident by the changes in the ongoing activity of brain cells.
Hyde said that that it was possible to generate memories for specific contexts.
Work on memory is important for the study of neurodegenerative diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease. But they are also being looked at for bio hardware computing where a chip is replaced by a hyper-efficient collection of rat brains. While these might be more difficult to look after and have the tendency to send your server running up drain pipes they will use a lot less power and be a lot faster than silicon.
Scientists have created a tissue-engineered version of one of the oldest animals – knocking together a silicon jellyfish.
In a feat of bio-engineering, Caltech and Harvard researchers have succeeded in creating Medusoid, an artificial jellyfish grown using rubbery silicon based polymers, and rat heart cells.
Named after the mythological creature Medusa, which the artificial jellyfish resembles, it is able to propel itself through water using a similar propulsion method to the real 500 million year old creature.
Rather than recreating the precise components of a jellyfish, the team reverse engineered an approximation of the beast by focusing on the prime functions such as swimming or feeding.
This involved a bit of artistic licence, and the team said that they improved the design where nature had missed a few evolutionary tricks.
The team combined the polymer – silicone – with rat tissue and a protein layer which formed the pattern for growth.
The rat heart tissue retained the ability to contract, and, when they put the organism in conductive liquid and applied a regularly interspersed voltage the ‘jellyfish’ was able to propel itself forwards.The energy for this could one day be self supplied by the device.
So what real life applications are there for such a device, other than scaring bathers at the local swimming baths?
Apparently the movements of a jellyfish bear substantial similarities to the way a human heart ‘beats’ to pump blood around the heart.
The scientists believe that the method they have shown is a large step towards growing synthetic human hearts to form biologically pacemakers.
A video of the jellyfish in action can be seen here.
Say what you like about the hacks at the Daily Mail, they are quite happy to dust off the same metaphor for two different IT stories.
Yesterday it penned a yarn about how computer games were more addictive than crack. Citing a Panorama story it talked about how computer games mirrored Cold War tests which made rats addicted.
This morning it used those same tests to claim that we were all addicted to email and British civilisation was going to collapse under a wave of immigration (we made the last bit up, but you know where the Daily Mail is coming from).
However, it quotes Nicholas Carr, that well known psychologist and medical expert to back up its claim that the internet and an obsession with email is turning us into ‘lab rats’. Sorry, no it didn’t, it quoted Nicholas Carr, former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, because there is no better expert in such areas like a reporter for a business magazine.
Carr has written a book called The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing To Our Brains, so we guess that makes him an expert, particularly when the Mail wants a reason to slag off the world wide wibble. That is where the rats come in.
Carr is quoted as saying that gadgets have turned us into hi-tech lab rats, mindlessly pressing levers in the hope of receiving a pellet of social or intellectual nourishment.
What makes digital messages all the more compelling is their uncertainty. There’s always the possibility that something important is waiting for us in our inbox which overwhelms our knowledge that most online missives are trivial, he said.
Carr’s warning is just the latest by experts who fear that the digital age may be having unseen consequences for our brain’s health, the Daily Mail wailed.
We guess it is time to ask the rat. After all those experiments how did he turn out?