Archive for Recent Research

Cuddly robot seals assist in dementia care

// December 17th, 2013 // Comments Off on Cuddly robot seals assist in dementia care // Recent Research

Professor Wendy Moyle with residents from Wesley Mission, Brisbane holding the Paro companion robots. Photo from Journal of Dementia Care.

When I was a child, I had a toy from Seaworld that was a baby seal, and man I loved that little guy. I also had a Furby, one of those fluffy toy robots that took the world by storm in 1999, and are having a major comeback now.

Little did I know that, had I smooshed them together in an elaborate Toy Storyesque toy reconstruction, I could have invented Paro, the robotic baby harp seal.

Paro, developed by Dr Takanori Shibata at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology, is used in dementia care. Its big, blinking eyes gaze at the person interacting with it, responding to sound and light. It can recognise words used by its owner and though it can’t talk back, it can make baby seal noises and nuzzle.

This engagement helps reduce anxiety in people with dementia, according to research led by Wendy Moyle at the Griffith Health Institute in Brisbane, Australia. The research split 18 dementia patients into two groups, one engaging with Paro and the other reading in a group. The results found that people in the PARO group had higher quality of life scores after five weeks compared to the reading group.

Why a fluffy baby seal? As well as being downright adorable it is just about the same size as a baby, so people can hold it on their laps. The researchers also note that some people have had bad experiences with a cats or dogs, and might react with fear. Who could be afraid of a baby seal?

On the downside, each Paro costs about $5,000, and need to be shipped back to Japan for repairs. At such a hefty price tag, it might limit use in care facilities. Then again, if it’s significantly effective at improving quality of life, reducing need for medication or allowing people to live at home longer, maybe it’s money well spent.

That’s the focus of Wendy Moyle’s next project, supported by a one million dollar boost by the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The new study will be a large, randomised trial involving 380 people with dementia, and will compare three different care options – Paro, a soft plush toy, and usual care. Large aged care facilities in SE Queensland interested in taking part in the research can click through for more details.

New approach to gently insert DNA into cells with high-tech lasers

// August 29th, 2013 // Comments Off on New approach to gently insert DNA into cells with high-tech lasers // Recent Research

Ethical concerns aside, gene therapy is a really exciting area of science. How cool to explore the functions of DNA and cellular machinery by inserting exactly what you want into a cell of your choice. How many options to treat disease, create better crops or fun novelties like glow in the dark cats.

As an undergrad, when we played with inserting genes into E-coli and yeast we would take a whole bunch of cells and mix them in a tube with the DNA we wanted them to absorb. Then we’d “shock” the cells by heating them up and cooling them, so that – hopefully – a small percentage would be so stunned they would just nom up all the bits of DNA and incorporate them into their own genome. Then would be the tedious bit of plating them out onto agar that contained antibiotics or whatever and checking that they really did take up your bit of DNA that gave them resistance to antibiotics.

Needless to say, it wasn’t easy and many bacteria died in the process – either when I shocked them or, most likely, when I plated them on poison (oh the blood on my hands! Out damn spot.) So I found this press release really exciting.

Scientists from South Korea poked holes in single cells using a high-powered femtosecond laser. Then, with the finesse of a golfer on the green, gently popped in a polystyrene-based microparticle coated in DNA using optical tweezers. The tweezers use laser beams like magnets to attract or repel polar chemicals.

The method of poking holes, or pores, into cells with lasers already existed, as did optical tweezer technology. This research combined the two to ensure that the DNA was specifically inserted into one cell- a big boost in precision.

One of the cool things about this is that it can be done without opening the petri dish, unlike microinjection. With microinjection, which I guess is like those videos where people poke DNA into an egg for cloning, there’s a chance of contamination.

Another benefit is that the microparticle they inserted could be modified to sense things in the cell, rather than just delivering a payload of DNA. So there are a whole bunch of useful functions that they could explore with this technique.

A third benefit – you can play GOLF AT A CELLULAR LEVEL! That is just geekery at its finest. The next question for researchers will be – can you get lab coats to match golf pants?

The paper is open access and available here.

3D printers make batteries the size of a grain of sand

// June 19th, 2013 // Comments Off on 3D printers make batteries the size of a grain of sand // Recent Research

A 3D printer made this battery. It's smaller than a grain of sand. Credit: Ke Sun, Teng-Sing Wei, Jennifer Lewis, Shen J. Dillon

A 3D printer made this battery. It’s as small as a grain of sand. Credit: Ke Sun, Teng-Sing Wei, Jennifer Lewis, Shen J. Dillon

A battery the size of a grain of sand has been built using 3D printers, scientists announced yesterday.

It’s the century of smalls, where tiny devices are top dog. Computers shrink into tablets, phones are limited only by screen size, and mini-microphones can fit onto a pair of spectacles or atop a tiny flying robot. Why not? If you’re going to bug someone, you may as well use a robot bug.

As microchips become more and more micro, one thing holding us back is the battery. To get a decent battery life, you still need a rather large and heavy battery. Even my humble Nokia (circa 2002, still works like a charm) is half as heavy if you take out the battery. Think how light my pocket could be with a better battery!

Light pockets are one thing, a light heart is another.

Pace makers depend on lithium iodine-polyvinylpyride batteries, and they must be reliable and long-lasting.

“The battery occupies major portion of the pulse generator in terms of weight, volume, and size. The most important factor for a cardiac pacemaker battery is its reliability. Unlike many consumer products, batteries in implantable devices cannot be replaced. They are hard wired at the time of manufacture before the device is hermetically sealed… In general the power source of the implantable device is the only component which has a known predictable service life, which in turn determines the service life of the implanted device itself.” – Mallela, Ilankumaran & Rao “Trends in Cardiac Pacemaker Batteries” Indian Pacing and Electrophysiology Journal.

Don’t get me wrong, batteries have come a long way over the past twenty years. But there’s always more juice to be squeezed, and when it comes to juicy technology you can’t go past the 3D printer.

To make the sand-sized batteries, a team from Harvard University and the University of Illinois printed layers of concentrated lithium oxide-based inks. The 3D printer squeezed out tightly interlacing anodes (red) and cathodes (purple) using a nozzle finer than a human hair. The ink hardened as it was placed. Then they enclosed the stacks of electrodes in a container and filled it with an electrolyte solution.

The tiny battery was built with interlacing stacks of anode and cathode. Credit: Ke Sun, Bok Yeop Ahn, Jennifer Lewis, Shen J. Dillon

The tiny battery was built with interlacing stacks of anode and cathode. Credit: Ke Sun, Bok Yeop Ahn, Jennifer Lewis, Shen J. Dillon

Tests showed some impressive results for battery performance.

“The electrochemical performance is comparable to commercial batteries in terms of charge and discharge rate, cycle life and energy densities. We’re just able to achieve this on a much smaller scale,” Researcher Shen J. Dillon, University of Illinois, said in the press release.

Tiny and powerful batteries could make all sorts of new devices possible. Medical devices used not just for treating illness, but also for sensing infection or blood sugar levels, perhaps. Iron Man suits, now that would be exciting. And wafer-thin laptops, tablets and phones. Maybe I’ll wait until these new batteries hit the market before I update my Nokia…

The research was published in Advanced Materials yesterday, and here’s a video of the 3D printer in action. Sun, K., Wei, T., Ahn, B., Seo, J., Dillon, S., & Lewis, J. (2013). 3D Printing of Interdigitated Li-Ion Microbattery Architectures Advanced Materials DOI: 10.1002/adma.201301036

Shape-shifting devices, gadgets for the future

// April 29th, 2013 // 1 Comment » // Recent Research

I’ve always wanted a computer that would fold up like a newspaper. I could sit on a bench and open it to read, then close it up and cram into a bag. It wouldn’t be backlit like a computer screen, just a soothing paper-like display. There’s something lacking in e-readers today that look terribly phoney. As in, they look like giant phones or tablets. I want one like a book, an extremely lightweight paperback.

That’s been the dream since before iPhone’s were released, and it looks like it’s a step closer now. New prototypes for shape-shifting mobile devices were unveiled today at the Computer-Human Interaction Conference CHI2013 in Paris. They transform on demand, bending up to hide personal information or curving around to make a console for playing games. The press release says they can even curl into a stress ball, which doesn’t sound very healthy for a smart phone, though I can imagine it might come in handy.

Here’s a nifty video of the “Morphees” in action.

There are a few different ways the researcher’s achieved this kind of movement. Some prototypes used wires attached to motors that pulled and pushed them. Others used memory wire, which reverts to its original shape when heated by running a current through the wire.

The research was led by Dr Anne Roudaut and Professor Sriram Subramanian from the University of Bristol. They have also introduced a new metric to help guide the developing industry – “shape resolution.” Like screen resolution, shape resolution allows different devices to be compared easily, measuring the ability to stretch, bend, curve and so on.

On a related note, researcher Roel Vertegaal from Queen’s University is working on thinfilm phones, called the world’s first paper computer. The work was presented at the same conference, CHI, in 2011. Here’s a quick video. Looks incredible.

Pretty keen to head over to the next CHI conference, which is in Toronto on April 26, 2014. Though it might be easier to get to the 2015 one in Asia, as it’s a bit closer to Australia. For more info on the conferences, check out the Special Interest Group on Computer-Human Interaction.

Carnivorous snails, so how does that work?

// April 22nd, 2013 // Comments Off on Carnivorous snails, so how does that work? // Recent Research, The Realm of Bizzare

Perrottetia dermapyrrhosa, one of the newly described species from Thailand. Credit: Somsak Panha. License CC BY 3.0

Perrottetia dermapyrrhosa, one of the newly described species from Thailand. Credit: Somsak Panha. License CC BY 3.0

Three new species of brightly coloured carnivorous snail have been found in the limestone hills of Northern Thailand.

Each of the species is only found on one or a handful of hills, some of which have become limestone quarries. Pretty impressive, as a quarry is not a friendly habitat for an animal whose main predator is the boot.

As well as coming in a range of fancy colours, the new species are characterised by nothing less than the shape of their genitals. All from the Perrottetia aquilonaria has a club-shaped penis and penial hooks (sounds painful?), while P. dermapyrrhosa has a long penial sheath, long, scattered penial hooks and vaginal hooks.

It seems like snail penises are a common way to distinguish between species, and there must be quite an art to it. Take this rather lengthy description of P. aquilonaria’s junk.

“Genitalia with a long, slender penis; penial sheath short, about half of penis length; internal wall of introverted penis with black to brown penial hooks; vas deferens passes through a short section of penial sheath before connecting distally to penis; vagina and free oviduct short to long, vaginal hooks may be present; gametolytic duct and sac may not extend as far as albumin gland; seminal vesicle present with about the same length from vesicle to talon.”

If you click through to the complete article, published open-access on peer-reviewed ZooKeys, you can even see some pictures of penial hooks and vaginal corrugated folds. Come on, what else are you going to do with your day?

Perrottetia aquilonaria, another newly described species. Credit: Somsak Panha. CC BY 3.0

Perrottetia aquilonaria, another newly described species. Credit: Somsak Panha. CC BY 3.0

It all sounds rather saucy, and top-notch science research, but I got caught up on this idea of a carnivorous snail. I mean, what IS that? It sounds like something from an old Doctor Who episode, back when the creepy alien du jour was footage of maggots, zoomed in so they looked gigantic. These day’s it’s terrifying ghosts with their mouth all screamy and sideways and it looks like something from The Exorcism of Emily Rose.

They may not be lions and tigers, but carnivorous snails are nonetheless vicious. Some of the species we have in Australia are small and are probably in your garden right now, others are big black ones that live in the Victorian rainforest.

Carnivorous snails hunt other snails, following their slime trail until they catch up with them. Now, most snails have a tongue like a rasp, and they eat lettuce leaves and such by simply licking them away with their tongue-which-works-like-teeth. Carnivorous snails upsize the rasp for big-ass hooks, and when they catch up with their prey they give them a lick and stick their hooks in.

If you’ve ever poked a snail, you know they slip inside their shell and produce gross foam to stop you poking them (no means no). Unfortunately they try the same trick when they get licked by a carnivorous snail, and the attacker has already shoved its hooks in so the snail unwittingly sucks the hunter right into its shell with it. Then the predator just licks away until there’s nothing left.

Actually, that does sound like a creepy Doctor Who episode.

Carnivorous snails also hunt worms, hooking ’em and eating ’em like spaghetti. There’s a great discussion of carnivorous worms on land and sea here on the ABC Radio website.

The research was performed by Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok and the Natural History Museum, London.

ResearchBlogging.orgSiriboon, T., Sutcharit, C., Naggs, F., & Panha, S. (2013). Three new species of the carnivorous snail genus Perrottetia Kobelt, 1905 from Thailand (Pulmonata, Streptaxidae) ZooKeys, 287, 41-57 DOI: 10.3897/zookeys.287.4572

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