Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Researchers announce molecular surgery — no cutting, no scarring

Doctors may be able to painlessly reshape cartilage with the technique.

Photo credit: SHAH MARAI / AFP / Getty Images
  • The application of electrical current can temporarily soften cartilage, allowing it to be manipulated before re-hardening.
  • The technique promises to eliminate cutting, scarring, pain, and recovery time.
  • So far it's been tested on just one bunny who now has one straight ear and one bent one.

At the American Chemical Society (ACS) Spring 2019 National Meeting & Exposition this month, researchers presented a new, potentially breakthrough technique for performing incision-less surgery at a molecular level. It promises to revolutionize the reshaping of cartilage in noses, ears, and perhaps joints immobilized by stroke or cerebral palsy. It may also provide an alternative to laser eye surgery. Its creators have so far been able to confirm its ability to reshape living tissue with no incision, no scarring, no pain, and without the need for recovery time. The surgery is performed using tiny needles, electric current, and 3D molds.

The promise

One of the research's lead investigators, Michael Hill, said in a press release, "We envision this new technique as a low-cost office procedure done under local anesthesia. The whole process would take about five minutes."

While currently in the process of arranging licensing for their procedure, the researchers are already looking toward using it with other collagen tissue such as tendons, and even corneas for the correction of vision issues. In animal tests, they've already had some success with reshaping a cornea using a 3D-printed contact lens painted with electrodes and to which they applied electrical current to soften the cornea. This is especially exciting due to the structure of its collagen fibers. Says Hill during the presentation, "It turns out that in order to remain transparent, the [layers of] collagen fibers are all perfectly aligned." Molecular surgery allows correction of the cornea without disrupting that required layering.

How it works

Cartilage is connective tissue found throughout the human body at bone joints, between vertebrae, in the nose, at the ends of ribs, the ear, and in bronchial tubes. It's firm and rubbery, though it's actually made up of rigid collagen fibers woven together by polymers. Though the fibers are connected to one another other, the structure's otherwise been described as being like a clump of spaghettis dropped on a countertop. "If you picked it up, the strands wouldn't fall apart, but it would be floppy," says Hill.

More important to the new surgical technique is that cartilage contains charged particles: negatively charged proteins and positively charged sodium ions. The more charged particles, the more rigid the cartilage.

Hill and his colleagues discovered that they could soften cartilage to make it freely moldable by applying current to it. The current electrolyzes the water into oxygen and hydrogen ions with (positively charged) protons that cancel out the cartilage proteins' negative charge, causing it to soften. "Once the tissue is floppy," says Hill, "you can mold it to whatever shape you want." The cartilage can then be constrained into the desired form until it re-hardens in that shape.

Cartilage. Image source: Berkshire Community College Bioscience Image Library

Molecular surgery’s test subject

The researchers have so far verified the efficacy of the technique on a rabbit's ears. After bending one of its otherwise straight-up ears and holding it in place with a mold, microneedle electrodes were inserted at the bend. Current was pulsed through them, softening the cartilage. After about 2 minutes, the current was shut off, the cartilage hardened in its new position, and the needles were removed with no damage to the site.

While further testing is obviously needed, it's hoped that this technique can be brought to bear in patients whose cartilage needs reshaping or repair. It may also be able to replace the cutting and painful recovery currently required in cosmetic surgery.

The rabbit's newly floppy ear 4 minutes after the surgery. Image source: American Chemical Society

Neom, Saudi Arabia's $500 billion megacity, reaches its next phase

Construction of the $500 billion dollar tech city-state of the future is moving ahead.

Credit: Neom
Technology & Innovation
  • The futuristic megacity Neom is being built in Saudi Arabia.
  • The city will be fully automated, leading in health, education and quality of life.
  • It will feature an artificial moon, cloud seeding, robotic gladiators and flying taxis.
Keep reading Show less

Tuberculosis vaccine shows promise in reducing COVID deaths

A new study suggests that a century-old vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.

Closeup of a BCG vaccination.

Credit: Kekyalyaynen.
Surprising Science
  • A new study finds a country's tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
  • More BCG vaccinations is connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases.
  • The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
Keep reading Show less

Human brains remember certain words more easily than others

A study of the manner in which memory works turns up a surprising thing.

Image Point Fr / Shutterstock
Mind & Brain
  • Researchers have found that some basic words appear to be more memorable than others.
  • Some faces are also easier to commit to memory.
  • Scientists suggest that these words serve as semantic bridges when the brain is searching for a memory.

Cognitive psychologist Weizhen Xie (Zane) of the NIH's National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) works with people who have intractable epilepsy, a form of the disorder that can't be controlled with medications. During research into the brain activity of patients, he and his colleagues discovered something odd about human memory: It appears that certain basic words are consistently more memorable than other basic words.

The research is published in Nature Human Behaviour.

An odd find

Image source: Tsekhmister/Shutterstock

Xie's team was re-analyzing memory tests of 30 epilepsy patients undertaken by Kareem Zaghloul of NINDS.

"Our goal is to find and eliminate the source of these harmful and debilitating seizures," Zaghloul said. "The monitoring period also provides a rare opportunity to record the neural activity that controls other parts of our lives. With the help of these patient volunteers we have been able to uncover some of the blueprints behind our memories."

Specifically, the participants were shown word pairs, such as "hand" and "apple." To better understand how the brain might remember such pairings, after a brief interval, participants were supplied one of the two words and asked to recall the other. Of the 300 words used in the tests, five of them proved to be five times more likely to be recalled: pig, tank, doll, pond, and door.

The scientists were perplexed that these words were so much more memorable than words like "cat," "street," "stair," "couch," and "cloud."

Intrigued, the researchers looked at a second data source from a word test taken by 2,623 healthy individuals via Amazon's Mechanical Turk and found essentially the same thing.

"We saw that some things — in this case, words — may be inherently easier for our brains to recall than others," Zaghloul said. That the Mechanical Turk results were so similar may "provide the strongest evidence to date that what we discovered about how the brain controls memory in this set of patients may also be true for people outside of the study."

Why understanding memory matters

person holding missing piece from human head puzzle

Image source: Orawan Pattarawimonchai/Shutterstock

"Our memories play a fundamental role in who we are and how our brains work," Xie said. "However, one of the biggest challenges of studying memory is that people often remember the same things in different ways, making it difficult for researchers to compare people's performances on memory tests." He added that the search for some kind of unified theory of memory has been going on for over a century.

If a comprehensive understanding of the way memory works can be developed, the researchers say that "we can predict what people should remember in advance and understand how our brains do this, then we might be able to develop better ways to evaluate someone's overall brain health."

Party chat

Image source: joob_in/Shutterstock

Xie's interest in this was piqued during a conversation with Wilma Bainbridge of University of Chicago at a Christmas party a couple of years ago. Bainbridge was, at the time, wrapping up a study of 1,000 volunteers that suggested certain faces are universally more memorable than others.

Bainbridge recalls, "Our exciting finding is that there are some images of people or places that are inherently memorable for all people, even though we have each seen different things in our lives. And if image memorability is so powerful, this means we can know in advance what people are likely to remember or forget."

spinning 3D model of a brain

Temporal lobes

Image source: Anatomography/Wikimedia

At first, the scientists suspected that the memorable words and faces were simply recalled more frequently and were thus easier to recall. They envisioned them as being akin to "highly trafficked spots connected to smaller spots representing the less memorable words." They developed a modeling program based on word frequencies found in books, new articles, and Wikipedia pages. Unfortunately, the model was unable to predict or duplicate the results they saw in their clinical experiments.

Eventually, the researchers came to suspect that the memorability of certain words was linked to the frequency with which the brain used them as semantic links between other memories, making them often-visited hubs in individuals's memory networks, and therefore places the brain jumped to early and often when retrieving memories. This idea was supported by observed activity in participants' anterior temporal lobe, a language center.

In epilepsy patients, these words were so frequently recalled that subjects often shouted them out even when they were incorrect responses to word-pair inquiries.

Seek, find

Modern search engines no longer simply look for raw words when resolving an inquiry: They also look for semantic — contextual and meaning — connections so that the results they present may better anticipate what it is you're looking for. Xie suggests something similar may be happening in the brain: "You know when you type words into a search engine, and it shows you a list of highly relevant guesses? It feels like the search engine is reading your mind. Well, our results suggest that the brains of the subjects in this study did something similar when they tried to recall a paired word, and we think that this may happen when we remember many of our past experiences."

He also notes that it may one day be possible to leverage individuals' apparently wired-in knowledge of their language as a fixed point against which to assess the health of their memory and brain.

Videos

Does conscious AI deserve rights?

If machines develop consciousness, or if we manage to give it to them, the human-robot dynamic will forever be different.

Scroll down to load more…
Quantcast