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Neuroprosthetics and deep brain stimulation: Two big neuroscience breakthroughs

Neuroscience is working to conquer some of the human body's cruelest conditions: Paralysis, brain disease, and schizophrenia.

SUSAN HOCKFIELD: One issue that I think haunts all of us is enabling the disabled. How can we make it possible for people who have lost the ability to use their limbs -- either by amputation or by stroke -- how do we give them a better life? How do we make their lives more enjoyable, give them greater mobility? One of my colleagues -- going back to my early days as a neuroscientist -- John Donoghue, has been fascinated in how the part of our brain that controls movements works. It's called the motor cortex, part of the cerebral cortex; it's located just about here. And we have known for many, many, many years that signals from the nerve cells in that part of the brain drive motions. If I want to reach out my arm to grab a glass of water, it's signals from the motor cortex that send their information down the spinal cord in our back and then out to the limbs. If you've had a spinal cord injury or a stroke, those connections are interrupted. But John Donoghue understood that just because the connections were interrupted didn't mean that the motor cortex wasn't working. And he resolved to figure out a way to pick up the signals from the motor cortex and translate them into either a robotic arm or an individual's own arm by connecting to another set of electronics that could drive the muscles in the arm of someone who was paralyzed.

He and his colleagues have invented an intracortical brain computer interface; it's a very, very teeny set of electrodes -- it's about the size of a baby aspirin -- that has a hundred very fine wires that can sit in the motor cortex. They pick up the signals from the nerve cells in the motor cortex and relay them to a computer. The computer then decodes the signal and then can send that signal out to a robotic arm or, as I said, through a number of connections back to the individual's own arm and gives that individual the ability, for the first time since their injury, to feed themselves, to grab a cup of coffee and take a sip by themselves. So it gives them a kind of independence they never had.

One of John Donoghue's colleagues, Dr. Leigh Hochberg, who's worked closely with him on these experiments, told me something really quite extraordinary. The whole world of deep brain stimulation, which is related, and it's a world that is related to recording signals from the brain, but also driving brain activity by stimulating electrodes in the brain. And this kind of deep brain stimulation has proved effective for some kinds of epilepsy. It's proved remarkably effective for some individuals with Parkinson's, it has controlled their tremors. And there are a lot of possibilities. The problem with understanding the brain and intervening is there are a billion nerve cells in the brain, and figuring out how each one participates in an activity is a daunting task, to put it mildly. But what these experiments suggest is that we may not need to do a cell by cell analysis. We may not need a cell by cell understanding of the circuitry that drives a particular activity, an activity we want or an activity we don't want. We may be able to operate at the level of ensembles of neurons, and this is what happens when we use deep brain stimulation to control epilepsy or control Parkinson's.

What Dr. Hochberg told me about was his dream, and it is really a quite inspiring dream. Besides epilepsy, there are other diseases that are intermittent. And he suggests that perhaps for something as complicated as schizophrenia, where some of the time an individual who has schizophrenia will be functioning absolutely normally, and then the brain departs from a normal function into an aberrant function, which is manifest in all of the signs and signals of schizophrenia. What he suggests is that we may someday -- and let's hope in the not so distant future -- be able to record from an individual's brain and understand when the signals began to move into the schizophrenic mode and perhaps be able to stimulate the brain to correct that back to the normal mode.

  • Neuroscience and engineering are uniting in mind-blowing ways that will drastically improve the quality of life for people with conditions like epilepsy, paralysis or schizophrenia.
  • Researchers have developed a brain-computer interface the size of a baby aspirin that can restore mobility to people with paralysis or amputated limbs. It rewires neural messages from the brain's motor cortex to a robotic arm, or reroutes it to the person's own muscles.
  • Deep brain stimulation is another wonder of neuroscience that can effectively manage brain conditions like epilepsy, Parkinson's, and may one day mitigate schizophrenia so people can live normal, independent lives.


Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
  • In a future involving more online instruction than any of us ever imagined, it will be crucial to meticulously design factors like learner navigation, interactive recordings, feedback loops, exams and office hours in order to maximize learning potential within the virtual environment.
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White dwarfs hold key to life in the universe, suggests study

New study shows white dwarf stars create an essential component of life.

NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)
Surprising Science
  • White dwarf stars create carbon atoms in the Milky Way galaxy, shows new study.
  • Carbon is an essential component of life.
  • White dwarfs make carbon in their hot insides before the stars die.
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"Forced empathy" is a powerful negotiation tool. Here's how to do it.

Master negotiator Chris Voss breaks down how to get what you want during negotiations.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Personal Growth
  • Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss explains how forced empathy is a powerful negotiating tactic.
  • The key is starting a sentence with "What" or "How," causing the other person to look at the situation through your eyes.
  • What appears to signal weakness is turned into a strength when using this tactic.
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Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Surprising Science
  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
  • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
  • The moon is one of Jupiter's 79.
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How to catch a glimpse of Comet NEOWISE before it’s gone

Unless you plan to try again in 6,800 years, this week is your shot.

Image source: Sven Brandsma/Unsplash
Surprising Science
  • Comet NEOWISE will be most visible in the U.S. during the evenings from July 14-19, 2020.
  • After July 23rd, NEOWISE will be visible only through good binoculars and telescopes.
  • Look in the northwestern sky below the Big Dipper after dusk while there's a chance.

UPDATE: NASA is broadcasting a NASA Science Live episode highlighting Comet NEOWISE. NASA experts will discuss and answer public questions beginning at 3PM EST on Wednesday, July 15. Tune in via the agency's website, Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, LinkedIn, Twitch, or USTREAM.

Before last evening, July 14, 2020, the easiest way to see Comet NEOWISE — the brightest comet to zoom past Earth since 1977's Comet Hale-Bopp — from the United States was to catch it about an hour before sunrise. Now, however, you can see it in the evening, where it will remain for until the 19th. This is a definite don't-miss event — NEOWISE won't be coming back our way for another 6,800 years. It's the first major comet of the millennium, and by all accounts, it's unforgettable.

NEOWISE just got back from the Sun

Comet NEOWISE is named after the NASA infrared space telescope that first spotted it on March 27th. Its official moniker is C/2020 F3. It's estimated that the icy comet is about three miles across, not counting its tail.

NEOWISE is now heading away from our Sun, having made it closet approach, 27.4 million miles, to our star on July 3. The heat from that encounter is what's given NEOWISE its tail: It caused gas and dust to be released from the icy object, creating the tail of debris that looks so magical from here.

As NEOWISE moves closer to Earth, paradoxically, it will be less and less visible. By about July 23rd, you'll need binoculars or a telescope to see it at all. All of which makes this week prime time.

An evening delight

star constellation in sky

Image source: Allexxandar/Shutterstock/Big Think

First, find an unobstructed view of the northwest sky, free of streetlights, car headlights, apartment lights, and so on. And then, according to Sky & Telescope:

"Start looking about one hour after sunset, when you'll find it just over the northwestern horizon as the last of twilight fades into darkness."

It should be easy to spot since it's near to one of the most recognizable constellations up there, the Big Dipper. "Look about three fists below the bottom of the Big Dipper, which is hanging down by its handle high above, and from there perhaps a little to the right." Et voilà: Comet NEOWISE.

Says Sky & Telescope's Diana Hannikainen, "Look for a faint, fuzzy little 'star' with a fainter, fuzzier little tail extending upward from it."

The comet should be visible with the naked eye, though binoculars and a simple telescope may reveal more detail.

You may also be able to snap a photo of this special visitor, though you'll need the right gear to do so. A dedicated camera is more likely to capture a good shot than a telephone, but in either case, you'll need a tripod or some other means of holding the camera dead still as it takes a timed exposure of several seconds (not all phones can do this).

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