Google is only the latest company to patent a terrifying, high-tech toy.
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All the news, memes, and social-media smackdowns that you might have missed this week.
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The Myers-Brigg Type Indicator personality test may be reductive and inconsistent, but I still love it.
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Space photos of the week, May 24-30.
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Every weekend, WIRED Security rounds up the security vulnerabilities and privacy updates that didn’t quite rise to our level for in-depth reporting this week, but deserve your attention nonetheless.
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Researchers build the world’s largest evolutionary tree and conclude that species arise because of chance mutations—not natural selection.
In the latest episode of the Geek's Guide to the Galaxy podcast our panel discusses the greatness of "Mad Max: Fury Road."
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Something happened when women took the stage at Google I/O, and it happened in real-time. In the comments section.
“Bannerless” appears in "The End Has Come," a new anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction.
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MIT researchers have found they were able to reactivate memories in mice that could not otherwise be retrieved, using optogenetics — in which proteins are added to neurons to allow them to be activated with light.
The breakthrough finding, in a paper published Thursday (May 28) in the journal Science, appears to answer a longstanding question in neuroscience regarding amnesia.
Damaged or blocked memory?
Neuroscience researchers have for many years debated whether retrograde amnesia — which follows traumatic injury, stress, or diseases such as Alzheimer’s — is caused by damage to specific brain cells, meaning a memory cannot be stored, or if access to that memory is somehow blocked, preventing its recall.
The answer, according to Susumu Tonegawa, the Picower Professor in MIT’s Department of Biology and director of the RIKEN-MIT Center at the Picower Institute for Learning and Memory: “Amnesia is a problem of retrieval impairment.”
Memory researchers have previously speculated that somewhere in the brain network is a population of neurons that are activated during the process of acquiring a memory, causing enduring physical or chemical changes.
If these groups of neurons are subsequently reactivated by a trigger such as a particular sight or smell, for example, the entire memory is recalled. These neurons are known as “memory engram cells.”
Blocking, then activating memories with light
Until now, no one has been able to show that these groups of neurons undergo enduring chemical changes, in a process known as memory consolidation. One such change, known as “long-term potentiation” (LTP), involves the strengthening of synapses, the structures that allow groups of neurons to send signals to each other, as a result of learning and experience.
To find out if these chemical changes do indeed take place, the researchers first identified a group of engram cells in the hippocampus that, when activated using optogenetic tools, were able to express a memory.
When they then recorded the activity of this particular group of cells, they found that the synapses connecting them had been strengthened. “We were able to demonstrate for the first time that these specific cells — a small group of cells in the hippocampus — had undergone this augmentation of synaptic strength,” Tonegawa says.
The researchers then attempted to discover what happens to memories without this consolidation process. By administering a compound called anisomycin, which blocks protein synthesis within neurons, immediately after mice had formed a new memory, the researchers were able to prevent the synapses from strengthening.
When they returned one day later and attempted to reactivate the memory using an emotional trigger, they could find no trace of it. “So even though the engram cells are there, without protein synthesis those cell synapses are not strengthened, and the memory is lost,” Tonegawa says.
But startlingly, when the researchers then reactivated the protein synthesis-blocked engram cells using optogenetic tools, they found that the mice exhibited all the signs of recalling the memory in full.
“If you test memory recall with natural recall triggers in an anisomycin-treated animal, it will be amnesiac, you cannot induce memory recall,” Tonegawa says. “But if you go directly to the putative engram-bearing cells and activate them with light, you can restore the memory, despite the fact that there has been no LTP.”
Memories are stored in a circuit of groups of cells in multiple brain areas, not synapses
Further studies carried out by Tonegawa’s group demonstrated that memories are stored not in synapses strengthened by protein synthesis in individual engram cells, but in a circuit, or “pathway” of multiple groups of engram cells and the connections between them.
“We are proposing a new concept, in which there is an engram cell ensemble pathway, or circuit, for each memory,” he says. “This circuit encompasses multiple brain areas and the engram cell ensembles in these areas are connected specifically for a particular memory.”
The research dissociates the mechanisms used in memory storage from those of memory retrieval, according to Ryan. “The strengthening of engram synapses is crucial for the brain’s ability to access or retrieve those specific memories, while the connectivity pathways between engram cells allows the encoding and storage of the memory information itself,” he says.
Changes in synaptic strength and in spine properties have long been associated with learning and memory, according to Alcino Silva, director of the Integrative Center for Learning and Memory at the University of California at Los Angeles.
“This groundbreaking paper suggests that these changes may not be as critical for memory as once thought, since under certain conditions, it seems to be possible to disrupt these changes and still preserve memory,” he says. “Instead, it appears that these changes may be needed for memory retrieval, a mysterious process that has so far evaded neuroscientists.”
Abstract of Engram cells retain memory under retrograde amnesia
Memory consolidation is the process by which a newly formed and unstable memory transforms into a stable long-term memory. It is unknown whether the process of memory consolidation occurs exclusively through the stabilization of memory engrams. By using learning-dependent cell labeling, we identified an increase of synaptic strength and dendritic spine density specifically in consolidated memory engram cells. Although these properties are lacking in engram cells under protein synthesis inhibitor–induced amnesia, direct optogenetic activation of these cells results in memory retrieval, and this correlates with retained engram cell–specific connectivity. We propose that a specific pattern of connectivity of engram cells may be crucial for memory information storage and that strengthened synapses in these cells critically contribute to the memory retrieval process.
Lightly stimulating the brain with transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) may improve short-term memory in people with schizophrenia, according to a new study by researchers at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
The tDCS procedure involves placing sponge-covered electrodes on the head and passing a weak electrical current between them.
David Schretlen, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, reasoned that this type of brain stimulation might ease some of the cognitive difficulties that afflict people with schizophrenia.
A test based on prefrontal cortex stimulation
To test that possibility, Schretlen and Johns Hopkins colleagues targeted a brain region called the left dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, which plays an important role in short-term or working memory and is abnormal in people with schizophrenia, according to Schretlen.
Schretlen recruited 11 participants: five adults with confirmed schizophrenia and six of their close relatives (parents, siblings, and children of people with schizophrenia show some of the same abnormalities to a lesser degree, says Schretlen).
Each participant received two 30-minute treatments — one using a negative electrical charge, which the researchers thought might prove beneficial — and the other using a positive charge as a control. During and after each treatment, participants completed a battery of cognitive tests.
There were two notable results:
- On tests of verbal and visual working memory, participants performed significantly better after receiving a negative charge, and the effects were “surprisingly strong,” says Schretlen.
- Participants did better at the challenging task of switching between naming categories of items in a supermarket after a negatively charged treatment. The stimulation “was associated with better performance on working memory and subtle changes in word retrieval,” Schretlen says. People with schizophrenia often struggle to find the right words, he says. Because the prefrontal cortex contains a brain region responsible for word retrieval, Schretlen reasoned that transcranial direct current stimulation might help.
Schretlen is now studying transcranial direct current stimulation in a larger sample of patients using repeated sessions of stimulation, which he hopes will induce lasting benefits.
“Cognitive impairment is as ubiquitous as hallucinations in schizophrenia, yet medications only treat the hallucinations,” Schretlen says. “So even with medication, affected individuals often remain very disabled.” His hope is that transcranial direct current stimulation could give people with schizophrenia a shot at leading a more normal life.
A related study last year showed that tDCS improved correction of mistakes. But another recent study found that after a repeated IQ test (which is normally expected to show improvements), IQ scores of people who underwent tDCS brain stimulation improved markedly less than did the IQ scores of people in the placebo group.
The tDCS procedure is also being studied by other researchers as a treatment for depression and Alzheimer’s-related memory loss, and to enhance recovery following strokes.
The research is described in a paper published online in Clinical Schizophrenia and Related Psychoses. The study was funded by the Therapeutic Cognitive Neuroscience Professorship; the Therapeutic Cognitive Neuroscience Fund; the Benjamin and Adith Miller Family Endowment on Aging, Alzheimer’s and Autism; and the National Institute on Child and Human Development.
Abstract of Can Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation Improve Cognitive Functioning in Adults with Schizophrenia?
Cognitive impairment is nearly ubiquitous in schizophrenia. First-degree relatives of persons with schizophrenia often show similar but milder deficits. Current methods for the treatment of schizophrenia are often ineffective in cognitive remediation. Since transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) can enhance cognitive functioning in healthy adults, it might provide a viable option to enhance cognition in schizophrenia. We sought to explore whether tDCS can be tolerated by persons with schizophrenia and potentially improve their cognitive functioning. We examined the effects of anodal versus cathodal tDCS on working memory and other cognitive tasks in five outpatients with schizophrenia and six first-degree relatives of persons with schizophrenia. Each participant completed tasks thought to be mediated by the prefrontal cortex during two 30-minute sessions of tDCS to the left and right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (DLPFC). Anodal stimulation over the left DLPFC improved performance relative to cathodal stimulation on measures of working memory and aspects of verbal fluency relevant to word retrieval. The patient group showed differential changes in novel design production without alteration of overall productivity, suggesting that tDCS might be capable of altering selfmonitoring and executive control. All participants tolerated tDCS well. None withdrew from the study or experienced any adverse reaction. We conclude that adults with schizophrenia can tolerate tDCS while engaging in cognitive tasks and that tDCS can alter their performance.
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University of Wisconsin-Madison and U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory (FPL) researchers have jointly developed a wood chip in an effort to alleviate the environmental burden* of electronic devices.
Well, actually, a wood-substrate-based semiconductor chip. They replaced the silicon substrate portion in a conventional chip with environment-friendly cellulose nanofibril (CNF). CNF is a flexible, biodegradable material made from wood, as the researchers note in an open-access paper published May 26 in the journal Nature Communications.
“[More than 99%] of the material in a chip is support,” said Zhiyong Cai, project leader of an engineering composite science research group at FPL. With the new substrate, the chips are “so safe you can put them in the forest and fungus will degrade it. They become as safe as fertilizer.”
The new material is especially important for microwave chips (such as those used in mobile phones) made with gallium arsenide, which is especially difficult to fabricate on foreign substrates. That’s because of the small feature sizes and high temperature processes required for high performance.
Cai’s group addressed two key barriers to using wood-derived materials in an electronics setting: surface roughness and thermal expansion. “You don’t want it to expand or shrink too much. Wood is a natural hydroscopic [water-absorbing] material and could attract moisture from the air and expand,” Cai says. “With an epoxy coating on the surface of the CNF, we solved both [problems].”
* In 2007, it was estimated that over 426,000 cell phones (most of them were still functional) and 112,000 computers were discarded every day in the US, totalling 3.2 million tons of electronic waste generated per year, the researcher note in the paper.
Abstract of High-performance green flexible electronics based on biodegradable cellulose nanofibril paper
Today’s consumer electronics, such as cell phones, tablets and other portable electronic devices, are typically made of non-renewable, non-biodegradable, and sometimes potentially toxic (for example, gallium arsenide) materials. These consumer electronics are frequently upgraded or discarded, leading to serious environmental contamination. Thus, electronic systems consisting of renewable and biodegradable materials and minimal amount of potentially toxic materials are desirable. Here we report high-performance flexible microwave and digital electronics that consume the smallest amount of potentially toxic materials on biobased, biodegradable and flexible cellulose nanofibril papers. Furthermore, we demonstrate gallium arsenide microwave devices, the consumer wireless workhorse, in a transferrable thin-film form. Successful fabrication of key electrical components on the flexible cellulose nanofibril paper with comparable performance to their rigid counterparts and clear demonstration of fungal biodegradation of the cellulose-nanofibril-based electronics suggest that it is feasible to fabricate high-performance flexible electronics using ecofriendly materials.
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