Experimental Brain Implant Lets Paralyzed People Communicate by Turning Thoughts Into Text

BrainGate Collaboration
BrainGate Collaboration

People with paralysis could someday use a brain implant to help them communicate their thoughts and carry out everyday tasks. As Engadget reports, a brain-computer interface (BCI) called the BrainGate2 Neural Interface System has enabled three paralyzed people to send texts, buy groceries online, stream music, and even play a virtual piano on a tablet.

The interface was developed by the BrainGate consortium, a team of neuroscientists, engineers, and computer scientists that creates new technologies for people who are paralyzed, have lost a limb, or have a neurologic disease that limits their motor function or speaking ability. Their findings were published in the journal PLOS One.

The three participants in the clinical study are paralyzed and lack the use of their arms. An implant about the size of a baby aspirin pill containing an array of microelectrodes was placed in their motor cortex—the part of the brain responsible for movement. A small sensor was used to record any neural signals associated with moving a limb, which were then decoded and sent to a virtual mouse paired to a tablet via Bluetooth.

In other words, the participants just had to think about moving a cursor on a screen, and the interface did the heavy lifting for them. They were able to type 30 characters per minute and make 22 point-and-click selections per minute.

Similar technologies have been developed in the past, but this one lets people use an off-the-shelf tablet without having to make any modifications, according to Engadget.

A participant plays a virtual piano
BrainGate Collaboration

Although the brain implant technology is still in the experimental stage and is not yet ready for commercial development, several of the study’s authors said the results are promising and could vastly improve the quality of life for people with paralysis.

Stanford University bioengineer and lead author Paul Nuyujukian said in a statement, "One of the participants told us at the beginning of the trial that one of the things she really wanted to do was play music again. So, to see her play on a digital keyboard was fantastic."

[h/t Engadget]

A Simple Skin Swab Could Soon Identify People at Risk for Parkinson's

iStock.com/stevanovicigor
iStock.com/stevanovicigor

More than 200 years have passed since physician James Parkinson first identified the degenerative neurological disorder that bears his name. Over five million people worldwide suffer from Parkinson’s disease, a neurological condition characterized by muscle tremors and other symptoms. Diagnosis is based on those symptoms rather than blood tests, brain imaging, or any other laboratory evidence.

Now, science may be close to a simple and non-invasive method for diagnosing the disease based on a waxy substance called sebum, which people secrete through their skin. And it’s thanks to a woman with the unique ability to sniff out differences in the sebum of those with Parkinson's—years before a diagnosis can be made.

The Guardian describes how researchers at the University of Manchester partnered with a nurse named Joy Milne, a "super smeller" who can detect a unique odor emanating from Parkinson's patients that is unnoticeable to most people. Working with Tilo Kunath, a neurobiologist at Edinburgh University, Milne and the researchers pinpointed the strongest odor coming from the patients' upper backs, where sebum-emitting pores are concentrated.

For a new study in the journal ACS Central Science, the researchers analyzed skin swabs from 64 Parkinson's and non-Parkinson's subjects and found that three substances—eicosane, hippuric acid, and octadecanal—were present in higher concentrations in the Parkinson’s patients. One substance, perillic aldehyde, was lower. Milne confirmed that these swabs bore the distinct, musky odor associated with Parkinson’s patients.

Researchers also found no difference between patients who took drugs to control symptoms and those who did not, meaning that drug metabolites had no influence on the odor or compounds.

The next step will be to swab a a much larger cohort of Parkinson’s patients and healthy volunteers to see if the results are consistent and reliable. If these compounds are able to accurately identify Parkinson’s, researchers are optimistic that it could lead to earlier diagnosis and more effective interventions.

[h/t The Guardian]

World’s Oldest Stored Sperm Has Produced Some Healthy Baby Sheep

A stock photo of a lamb
A stock photo of a lamb
iStock.com/ananaline

It’s not every day that you stumble across a 50-year-old batch of frozen sheep sperm. So when Australian researchers rediscovered a wriggly little time capsule that had been left behind by an earlier researcher, they did the obvious: they tried to create some lambs. As Smithsonian reports, they pulled it off, too.

The semen, which came from several prize rams, had been frozen in 1968 by Dr. Steve Salamon, a sheep researcher from the University of Sydney. After bringing the sample out of storage, researchers thawed it out and conducted a few lab tests. They determined that its viability and DNA integrity were still intact, so they decided to put it to the ultimate test: Would it get a sheep pregnant? The sperm was artificially inseminated into 56 Merino ewes, and lo and behold, 34 of them became pregnant and gave birth to healthy lambs.

Of course, this experiment wasn’t just for fun. They wanted to test whether decades-old sperm—frozen in liquid nitrogen at -320°F—would still be viable for breeding purposes. Remarkably, the older sperm had a slightly higher pregnancy rate (61 percent) than sheep sperm that had been frozen for 12 months and used to impregnate ewes in a different experiment (in that case, the success rate was 59 percent).

“We believe this is the oldest viable stored semen of any species in the world and definitely the oldest sperm used to produce offspring,” researcher Dr. Jessica Rickard said in a statement.

Researchers say this experiment also lets them assess the genetic progress of selective breeding over the last five decades. “In that time, we’ve been trying to make better, more productive sheep [for the wool industry],” associate professor Simon de Graaf said. “This gives us a resource to benchmark and compare.”

[h/t Smithsonian]

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