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Scientists have discovered a new form of “cell communication”

A freshly discovered unique form of messaging between the cells of the human brain may mean that it is even more productive than previously thought.

An international team of scientists from Greece and Germany found in cortical cells located on the surface of the cerebral cortex a mechanism that independently generates a new “graded” signal. This may give individual neurons a different way to perform their logical functions. An article about it was published In the Science magazine.

The brain is often compared to a computer. This is a very crude analogy, but when describing how signal transmission inside the brain works, it has a right to life to a certain extent. Both of them use the power of electric voltage to perform various operations.

In computers, this happens in a simpler way: the flow of electrons passes through transistors, a kind of “control panel” of the current in the circuit. In neurons, the signal is transmitted using membrane channels that exchange ions of elements such as sodium, chlorine and potassium. This impulse is called the action potential.

When activated from the neuron to its neighbor, sodium ions go through the synapse: this is how the signal is transmitted. However, as it turned out, the brain still has surprises for scientists. Researchers tested electrical activity in brain tissue samples from patients with epilepsy. By analyzing the structure of these sections using fluorescence microscopy, they saw that individual cortical neurons exchanged calcium ions upon activation.

It turned out that in this way, previously unregistered brain waves are triggered – calcium mediated dendritic action potentials (dCaAP). To make sure that this is not an error in the measurement, not an accident or a unique feature of the tissues of people with epilepsy, the authors of the article double-checked their results on other tissues of the cortex – sections of brain tumors.

In addition, the use of a sodium channel blocker did not lead to a complete cessation of signal exchange: the final “silence on the air” was achieved only with the blocking of both sodium and calcium.

What does this mean? If we continue the analogy with a computer, then instead of transistors, the brain uses dendrites – branching processes of neurons. The more “distributor” dendrite, the more information it can process. “Dendrites play a central role in understanding the brain because they underlie what determines the processing power of individual neurons,” explains neuroscientist Matthew Larkum.

Dendrites are a kind of “traffic light” along the path of nerve impulses. If the action potential is large enough, the activation of the following neurons occurs, which can further block or transmit a message, but if they do not, activation does not occur. This is the logical foundation of the work of our brain – voltage surges provide information transmission through logical commands of the type AND (if AND x, AND y are triggered, the signal is transmitted) and OR (x OR y must be triggered for signal transmission).

In addition to AND / OR logic functions, these neurons can generate XOR (“exclusive OR”) logic commands that enable one signal to go further along the chain of neurons if the other signal meets certain conditions. “Previously it was believed that XOR operations require network solutions,” the scientists explain.

To make sure that neurons really behave this way, researchers used a method of fixing potential called somatodendritic patch clamp. It consists in establishing close contact of the polished glass microelectrode with a single neuron (its dendrite) and the removal of potential from it. This allowed us to study the tissues of the deep (second and third) layers of the cortex. It is here that the biological basis of higher-order mental functions is located, which are associated with sensations, thinking and motion control. The device helped to see the potentials of dendrites and record the signals transmitted by individual neurons upon activation.

More research is needed to find out how dCaAPs manifest themselves in all neurons and in the living system as a whole. In addition, it is still unknown whether such signals are unique to humans, or appeared much earlier on the path of evolution. In any case, this discovery can bring a lot of benefits both in relation to the study and treatment of the brain, including problems of higher functions, and as an inspiring example for engineers. Perhaps new discoveries of the constructive capabilities of the brain will help in the work on the creation of new devices.


Science & Technology

NTP nuclear rocket engine will take humans to Mars in just three months

Although the romance of the peaceful atom has subsided since the mid-1960s, the idea of ​​using nuclear reactors for “civilian” purposes is still regularly returned. The new nuclear rocket engine (NRM) will deliver a man to Mars much faster than is possible now.

The danger of cosmic radiation is much more serious than the risk of infection from an accident with such an engine. The most dangerous of all the constraining vectors for projects of sending people to other bodies in the solar system is cosmic radiation. Radiation from our star and galactic rays can seriously damage the health of the mission crew. Therefore, when planning flights to Mars, engineers and scientists try to reduce travel time as much as possible.

One promising way to get to the Red Planet in just three months could be a new NTP engine. Its concept was developed and submitted to NASA by Ultra Safe Nuclear Technologies ( USNC-Tech ) from Seattle, USA. The name of the unit is simply deciphered – Nuclear Thermal Propulsion ( NTP ), that is, “thermal nuclear power plant”. The novelty differs from its previously created or invented counterparts in the most secure design.

A key component of USNC’s development is mid – grade uranium fuel “pellets”. They contain 5% to 20% of the highly reactive isotope U- 235 coated with zirconium carbide ceramics. This degree of enrichment lies roughly halfway between the “civilian” nuclear power plants and the military. The proprietary ceramic coating technology makes the tablets incredibly resistant to mechanical damage and extreme temperatures.

Schematic diagram of a thermal nuclear rocket engine / © Wikipedia |  Tokono
Schematic diagram of a thermal nuclear rocket engine / © Wikipedia | Tokono

The company promises that their fuel elements are significantly superior in these parameters to those currently used at nuclear power plants. As a result, the engine will have a higher specific impulse with a lower degree of uranium enrichment than in earlier versions of NRE. In addition to the flight to Mars, among the goals of the ambitious project are other missions within the solar system. The perspectives of the concept will soon be considered by specialists from NASA and the US Department of Defense ( DoD ). Perhaps departments will even allow its commercial use by private companies.

Theoretically, NRE based on modern technologies can have a specific impulse (SR) seven times higher than that of chemical jet engines. And this is one of the key performance parameters. At the same time, unlike electric and plasma ones, the ID of a nuclear rocket engine is combined with high thrust. One of the limiting factors in the use of NRE, in addition to safety issues, are extremely high temperatures in the reactor core.

The higher the temperature of the gases flowing out of the engine, the more energy they have. And accordingly, they create traction. However, mankind has not yet come up with relatively inexpensive and safe materials that can withstand more than three thousand degrees Celsius without destruction. The solution created by USNC will operate at the limit of modern materials science (3000 ° C) and have a specific impulse twice that of the best liquid-propellant engines.

Tests of the first nuclear jet engine in 1967 / © NASA
Tests of the first nuclear jet engine in 1967 / © NASA

The official press release does not specify which working body will be used in NTP . Usually, in all NRE projects, the reactor core heats hydrogen, less often ammonia. But, since we are talking about a long-term mission, the creators could have chosen some other gas. Keeping liquid hydrogen on board for three months is no easy task. But you still need to invent something for the way back.

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Science & Technology

Scientist Peter Scott-Morgan is set to become “the world’s first complete cyborg”

Scientist and roboticist Peter Scott Morgan, who is using an advanced version of Stephen Hawking's communication system, built by Intel. INTEL

Two years ago scientist Peter Scott-Morgan was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and today he is still fighting for a new life, not just for survival.

This October, Dr. Scott-Morgan is on track to become the world’s first full-fledged cyborg, potentially giving him more years of life.

The world’s first complete cyborg

It was in 2017 that Dr. Peter Scott-Morgan (a brilliant robotics writer, scientific writer, and talented speaker) was diagnosed with degenerative motor neuron disease that ultimately paralyzed his entire body except his eyes.

The diagnosis is understandably grim, especially considering that he has only two years to live, but he has not given up the fight.

Teaming up with world-class organizations with expertise in artificial intelligence, Dr. Scott-Morgan is transforming himself into what he calls “the world’s first fully fledged cyborg.”

“And when I say ‘Cyborg’, I mean not just that some kind of payment will be implanted in me, I mean that I will become the most advanced human cybernetic organism ever created on Earth for 13.8 billion years. My body and brain will be irreversibly changed, ”says Dr. Scott-Morgan.

What does it mean to be human

According to Dr. Scott-Morgan, he will become part robot and part living organism. Moreover, the change will not be one-time, but with subsequent updates.

“I have more updates in the process than Microsoft ,” says Dr. Scott-Morgan.

AI-powered creative expression

The cyborg artist is a great example of the power of human-AI collaboration. AI uses the data that make up Peter’s digital portrait ( articles, videos, images, and social media ) and is trained to recognize key ideas, experiences, and images.

Peter will introduce a theme, AI will suggest composition, and Peter will apply images to suggest style and mood. Peter will direct the AI ​​to render a new digital image that none of them could create alone.

A unique blend of AI and human, reflects Peter’s creative and emotional self – a critical aspect of what it means to be human.

Peter 2.0

This October, Dr. Scott-Morgan will undergo what he calls the latest procedure that will transform him into “Complete Cyborg”.

October 9 he tweeted a photo of himself, writing the following:

“This is my last post as Peter 1.0. Tomorrow I will trade my vote for potentially decades of life as we complete the last medical procedure for my transition to Full Cyborg, in the month that I was told statistically I would be dead. I am not dying, I am transforming. ! Oh, how I LOVE science !!! “.

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Science & Technology

Japan has developed an inflatable scooter that weighs practically nothing

The University of Tokyo engineers have developed the Poimo inflatable electric scooter, which is created individually for each owner. It is enough to send your photo to the manufacturers – and a personal optimized model will be assembled for you.

The scooter is designed with a special program for the body size of a particular user and his specific fit. Moreover, each owner is free to make any changes to this model. If he makes any changes to the drawing, the program will automatically redesign the electric bike to maintain its strength, stability and controllability. When the model is finished and approved, it is handed over to the manufacturer.

Scooter Poimo

The scooter consists of seven separate inflatable sections that are constructed from durable fabric and sewn with straight stitch. It remains to add electronic components – in particular, a brushless motor and a lithium-ion battery. 

The finished electric scooter weighs about 9 kg and can travel at speeds up to 6 km / h (that is, slightly faster than a pedestrian). It can work for an hour on one charge.

This is how the current version of Poimo looks like in action:

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