The most mental game in existence no longer requires fingers.
- A brain-controlled interface implements a two-step process: Identify the chess piece, then place it on the board.
- The program was 96 percent accurate at correctly moving chess pieces.
- This research opens up opportunities for physically impaired people to express themselves in new ways.
By November 2020, The Queen's Gambit had been watched in over 62 million households, making it the most-watched scripted limited series in Netflix history. The thoughtful, stylized show on the patient pursuit of chess was perfectly timed for a world in lockdown. Viewers were enamored with Elizabeth Harmon's mental prowess as she envisioned dozens of potential moves on the ceiling in order to evade capture and declare victory.
Chess is one of the most intellectually stimulating games in existence. What if you could play it purely with your mind? Given how immersive chess is, can you imagine leaving the physical world behind and truly entering a mind palace?
A game of the mind
It turns out a number of researchers have had such a vision. In a paper published in IEEE Xplore, German professors David Hubner, Albrecht Schall, and Michael Tangermann discuss the evolution of brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) as applied to two-player chess games. Incredibly, 96 percent of moves were correct — and most errors were technical issues that they believe can be fixed.
Chess is played by an estimated 605 million people around the world. While face-to-face interactions will always be an integral component of the intimacy of chess, the game was adopted early on the internet. The ability to play at a distance increased its popularity and accessibility as players found suitable opponents across the planet.
Photo: Anusorn / Adobe Stock
The BCI is based on a two-step process: first, identifying the piece a player wants to move, then moving it on the board. In this study, six players used a BCI chess application (which was based on an open-source Java app) along with an electroencephalogram (EEG) equipped with 31 passive electrodes that detected the chess piece and board position in the player's mind.
Before the game, each player performed predefined chess moves to calibrate the BCI. During play, they also had a predefined amount of time for thinking about their next move. Specifically, they were given 15 seconds to consider the piece that they were going to move and five seconds to "move" the piece. If the player only had one possible move, the BCI automatically executed it.
Hands-free chess has real-world applications
Beyond the excitement of controlling a computer with your mind, the researchers recognize a variety of potential applications. For instance, BCI games aid in cognitive training and help motor-impaired people express themselves.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
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- When it comes to your daily skincare routine, the right tools can make all the difference.
- Beyond moisturizers, serums, and toners, it's important to invest in a device that can enhance the capabilities of your beauty products.
- The Microcurrent 3-in-1 Facial Toning Device is on sale for 63% off and helps serums and moisturizers penetrate deeper into your skin.
Have you been trying endless anti-aging beauty products and gaining poor results? This means it's definitely time to re-evaluate your skincare routine. Beyond finding the proper products, you should pair it with a high-quality device like the Microcurrent 3-in-1 Facial Toning Device.
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Check it out in action:
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Are "humanized" pigs the future of medical research?
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration requires all new medicines to be tested in animals before use in people. Pigs make better medical research subjects than mice, because they are closer to humans in size, physiology and genetic makeup.
In recent years, our team at Iowa State University has found a way to make pigs an even closer stand-in for humans. We have successfully transferred components of the human immune system into pigs that lack a functional immune system. This breakthrough has the potential to accelerate medical research in many areas, including virus and vaccine research, as well as cancer and stem cell therapeutics.
Existing biomedical models
Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or SCID, is a genetic condition that causes impaired development of the immune system. People can develop SCID, as dramatized in the 1976 movie “The Boy in the Plastic Bubble." Other animals can develop SCID, too, including mice.
Researchers in the 1980s recognized that SCID mice could be implanted with human immune cells for further study. Such mice are called “humanized" mice and have been optimized over the past 30 years to study many questions relevant to human health.
Mice are the most commonly used animal in biomedical research, but results from mice often do not translate well to human responses, thanks to differences in metabolism, size and divergent cell functions compared with people.
Nonhuman primates are also used for medical research and are certainly closer stand-ins for humans. But using them for this purpose raises numerous ethical considerations. With these concerns in mind, the National Institutes of Health retired most of its chimpanzees from biomedical research in 2013.
Alternative animal models are in demand.
Swine are a viable option for medical research because of their similarities to humans. And with their widespread commercial use, pigs are met with fewer ethical dilemmas than primates. Upwards of 100 million hogs are slaughtered each year for food in the U.S.
In 2012, groups at Iowa State University and Kansas State University, including Jack Dekkers, an expert in animal breeding and genetics, and Raymond Rowland, a specialist in animal diseases, serendipitously discovered a naturally occurring genetic mutation in pigs that caused SCID. We wondered if we could develop these pigs to create a new biomedical model.
Our group has worked for nearly a decade developing and optimizing SCID pigs for applications in biomedical research. In 2018, we achieved a twofold milestone when working with animal physiologist Jason Ross and his lab. Together we developed a more immunocompromised pig than the original SCID pig – and successfully humanized it, by transferring cultured human immune stem cells into the livers of developing piglets.
During early fetal development, immune cells develop within the liver, providing an opportunity to introduce human cells. We inject human immune stem cells into fetal pig livers using ultrasound imaging as a guide. As the pig fetus develops, the injected human immune stem cells begin to differentiate – or change into other kinds of cells – and spread through the pig's body. Once SCID piglets are born, we can detect human immune cells in their blood, liver, spleen and thymus gland. This humanization is what makes them so valuable for testing new medical treatments.
We have found that human ovarian tumors survive and grow in SCID pigs, giving us an opportunity to study ovarian cancer in a new way. Similarly, because human skin survives on SCID pigs, scientists may be able to develop new treatments for skin burns. Other research possibilities are numerous.
The ultraclean SCID pig biocontainment facility in Ames, Iowa. Adeline Boettcher, CC BY-SA
Pigs in a bubble
Since our pigs lack essential components of their immune system, they are extremely susceptible to infection and require special housing to help reduce exposure to pathogens.
SCID pigs are raised in bubble biocontainment facilities. Positive pressure rooms, which maintain a higher air pressure than the surrounding environment to keep pathogens out, are coupled with highly filtered air and water. All personnel are required to wear full personal protective equipment. We typically have anywhere from two to 15 SCID pigs and breeding animals at a given time. (Our breeding animals do not have SCID, but they are genetic carriers of the mutation, so their offspring may have SCID.)
As with any animal research, ethical considerations are always front and center. All our protocols are approved by Iowa State University's Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and are in accordance with The National Institutes of Health's Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.
Every day, twice a day, our pigs are checked by expert caretakers who monitor their health status and provide engagement. We have veterinarians on call. If any pigs fall ill, and drug or antibiotic intervention does not improve their condition, the animals are humanely euthanized.
Our goal is to continue optimizing our humanized SCID pigs so they can be more readily available for stem cell therapy testing, as well as research in other areas, including cancer. We hope the development of the SCID pig model will pave the way for advancements in therapeutic testing, with the long-term goal of improving human patient outcomes.
Adeline Boettcher earned her research-based Ph.D. working on the SCID project in 2019.
New research from the University of Granada found that stress could help determine sex.
- A new study found that women with elevated stress before, during, and after conception are twice as likely to deliver a girl.
- One factor could be that sperm carrying an X chromosome are better equipped to reach the egg under adverse conditions.
- Another factor could be miscarriage of male fetuses during times of stress.
Stress in the modern world is generally viewed as a hindrance to a healthy life.
Indeed, excess stress is associated with numerous problems, including cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, insomnia, depression, obesity, and other conditions. While the physiological mechanisms associated with stress can be beneficial, as Kelly McGonigal points out in The Upside of Stress, the modern wellness industry is built on the foundation of stress relief.
The effects of stress on pregnant mothers is another longstanding area of research. For example, what potential negative effects do elevated levels of cortisol, epinephrine, and norepinephrine have on fetal development?
A new study, published in the Journal of Developmental Origins of Health and Disease, investigated a very specific aspect of stress on fetuses: does it affect sex? Their findings reveal that women with elevated stress are twice as likely to give birth to a girl.
For this research, the University of Granada scientists recorded the stress levels of 108 women before, during, and after conception. By testing cortisol concentration in their hair and subjecting the women to a variety of psychological tests, the researchers discovered that stress indeed influences sex. Specifically, stress made women twice as likely to deliver a baby girl.
The team points out that their research is consistent with other research that used saliva to show that stress resulted in a decreased likelihood of delivering a boy.
Maria Isabel Peralta RamírezPhoto courtesy of University of Granada
Lead author María Isabel Peralta Ramírez, a researcher at the UGR's Department of Personality, Evaluation and Psychological Treatment, says that prior research focused on stress levels leading up to and after birth. She was interested in stress's impact leading up to conception. She says:
"Specifically, our research group has shown in numerous publications how psychological stress in the mother generates a greater number of psychopathological symptoms during pregnancy: postpartum depression, a greater likelihood of assisted delivery, an increase in the time taken for lactation to commence (lactogenesis), or inferior neurodevelopment of the baby six months after birth."
While no conclusive evidence has been rendered, the research team believes that activation of the mother's endogenous stress system during conception sets the concentration of sex hormones that will be carried throughout development. As the team writes, "there is evidence that testosterone functions as a mechanism when determining the baby's sex, since the greater the prenatal stress levels, the higher the levels of female testosterone." Levels of paternal stress were not factored into this research.
Previous studies show that sperm carrying an X chromosome are better equipped to reach the egg under adverse conditions than sperm carrying the Y chromosome. Y fetuses also mature slowly and are more likely to produce complications than X fetuses. Peralta also noted that there might be more aborted male fetuses during times of early maternal stress, which would favor more girls being born under such circumstances.
In the future, Peralta and her team say an investigation into aborted fetuses should be undertaken. Right now, the research was limited to a small sample size that did not factor in a number of elements. Still, the team concludes, "the research presented here is pioneering to the extent that it links prenatal stress to the sex of newborns."
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
Context is everything.
The COVID-19 pandemic has introduced a number of new behaviours into daily routines, like physical distancing, mask-wearing and hand sanitizing. Meanwhile, many old behaviours such as attending events, eating out and seeing friends have been put on hold.
However, one old behaviour that has persisted, and has arguably been amplified due to COVID-19, is sitting — and it is not surprising to see why. Whether sitting during transportation, work, screen time or even meals, everyday environments and activities are tailored nearly exclusively to prolonged sitting. As such, sedentary behaviours, like sitting, make up the vast majority of our waking day.
Pre-COVID-19 estimates place the average Canadian adult's sedentary behaviour at around 9.5 hours per day. Current daily sedentary time is likely even higher as a result of stay-at-home orders, limitations on businesses and recreational facilities, and elevated health anxieties.
Health vs. well-being
This is a problem, given that chronic excessive levels of sedentary time have been linked to greater risk of diabetes, heart disease, mortality and even some cancers. However, for many people, their own judgments and feelings about their quality of life (also known as subjective well-being) may be more important and relevant for informing their health decisions and behaviours than potentially developing chronic diseases.
Subjective well-being encompasses an individual's own evaluation of their quality of life. It includes concepts like affect (positive and negative feelings) and life satisfaction. Interestingly, these evaluations can conflict with physical health outcomes. For example, a person could have diabetes but still report good subjective well-being, while someone with no physical health conditions may report poor subjective well-being.
This is important, as it means how an individual feels about their own health may not always align with what their body may demonstrate. That's why evaluating subjective well-being is vital for painting a holistic picture of health.
Different contexts of sitting
Relatively little research has examined the relationships between sedentary behaviour and subjective well-being. Exploring these relationships is important, as different contexts of sitting — such as socializing versus screen time — may yield different feelings or judgments of subjective well-being, unlike relationships between physical health and sedentary behaviour, which tend to be more consistent.
As health psychologists focused on physical activity and sedentary behaviour, we reviewed the scientific literature describing relationships between measures of sedentary behaviours such as physical inactivity and screen time, and subjective well-being as reflected by affect, life satisfaction and overall subjective well-being.
Our review highlights three main findings. First, sedentary behaviour, physical inactivity and screen time demonstrated weak but statistically significant correlations with subjective well-being. In other words, those who reported sitting more often and spending longer periods with no physical activity reported lower positive affect, higher negative affect and lower life satisfaction than those who sat less and moved more.
We also found that this relationship was most apparent in studies that compared people who were very sedentary to those who had more active lifestyles.
Not all sitting is bad sitting
Our second main finding relates to the context of the sedentary behaviour. While many studies examined overall sedentary behaviour and physical inactivity, some studies looked at specific contexts or domains of sitting and its relationship with subjective well-being. These studies revealed that different domains of sedentary behaviour have unique relationships with subjective well-being.
For example, screen time was consistently and negatively associated with subjective well-being. However, domains like socializing, playing an instrument and reading actually demonstrated positive associations with subjective well-being. These results differ from the traditional health-related sedentary behaviour research, in which all sedentary behaviour is viewed as harmful to health.
Our review suggests that some types of sedentary behaviour may be beneficial to quality of life. Rather, not all sitting is the same in terms of subjective well-being. So when people work towards reducing their sitting time, they should consider not just how much to reduce, but what kind to reduce.
Less sitting is good for everyone
Our third main finding concerns overall sitting and self-perceived levels of sedentary behaviour. Most studies found a weak statistically significant association between higher overall sedentary time and lower subjective well-being. However, in studies where participants were asked to compare their sedentary behaviour to how much they normally sit, those who perceived themselves as more sedentary than usual reported significantly poorer subjective well-being.
These findings suggest that how much an individual sits overall may not be as important as how much an individual sits compared to their usual level of sitting. This infers that anyone, regardless of how much they normally sit or are physically active, may potentially benefit from sitting less.
COVID-19 continues to influence daily life and routines. Even as businesses and gyms eventually reopen, and we feel more comfortable gathering with others and eventually stop wearing masks, we will almost certainly continue to sit and sitting will continue to change how we feel. While we may not be able to eliminate all of our sitting, we can all be mindful of both how much we can reduce it and where we can reduce it from to be healthier and feel better.
Wuyou Sui, Postdoctoral fellow, Behavioural Medicine Lab, School of Exercise Science, Physical & Health Education, University of Victoria and Harry Prapavessis, Professor, Kinesiology, Western University