Fast Friday Four (July 22)

Sleep Not an All-or-Nothing Event

Finally, a good use for epilepsy patients! In order to monitor the sources of seizures of 13 patients at the Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center, doctors implanted 129 electrodes into 8 to 12 regions of the brain of each.

And Dr. Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin saw an opportunity.

When researchers typically study sleep, all they can do is put electrodes on the scalp and measure EEG. But thanks to the implants, Tononi went a step deeper and recorded the activity of 12 regions of the brain. What he found was pretty interesting.

At some point later in the sleep cycle, certain parts of the brain aren’t so restful. Sleep, it turns out, is kind of a localized phenomenon, where each region takes care of itself depending on how much rest it needs. Tononi compares it to a baseball game.

“They all need a seventh-inning stretch, but some of them take it in the sixth inning and some in the eighth,” he says.

Making a Spintronic “Data”

The next generation of computers won’t use the same technique as today’s to process data. Today’s computers use the presence of an electric charge or its absence to represent a 1 or 0 in binary code. But tomorrow’s computers will use the electron’s spin.

This is already happening in computer memory, but getting spintronics into processors is still on the horizon. Part of the problem is that the material that the processor is made out of must be able to carry a magnetic charge. Very few inorganic, typical modern semiconductors are capable of this, however, and those that are require extremely cold temperatures to operate; below -150 degrees Fahrenheit.

But Ohio State researcher Art Epstein has a solution. He has created an organic material that operates under normal conditions and is capable of holding a magnetic moment. And he and partner Ezekiel Johnston-Halperin recently succeeded in melding this new material with a typical, inorganic semiconductor.

Organic and inorganic together? Sounds like an android to me.

By first creating the typical inorganic piece and then applying the minute organic pieces required to carry electrons with their spin intact, the duo did something nobody else has ever done. They proved it is possible to create data processors out of organic material melded with inorganic pieces.

Why not just make entirely organic processors, you ask?

Well, think about it. The computer industry is huge. They’ve got a lot invested in the status quo. They’re not going to want to just scrap all of their existing infrastructure. So finding a way to meld new ideas to existing manufacturing capabilities is key.

Blind Eyes Can Still Set Your Internal Clock

It seems that it doesn’t matter whether you’re blind or not, your eyes can still help your brain set your sleep cycle.

In an experiment conducted by August Kampf-Lassin of the University of Chicago, scientists tested this idea in hamsters. As soon as baby hamsters opened their eyes, but before they were exposed to light, the researchers put a contact lens over one of their eyes that blocked all light. This sabotaged the eye’s development so that when the hamsters reached adulthood, that eye could no longer see stimuli like movement or food.

But it could still help the animals get into a circadian sleep rhythm. Even though they couldn’t use their blind eye to see objects, they could still use it for input to set their internal clocks.

“It’s interesting to see how some aspects of behavioral development are hard-wired and develop into adult-typical patterns, even in the total absence of normal environmental input to the system.”

Stem Cells Tested on Spinal Cord Injury

Some clinical trials aren’t so easy to conduct. For instance, when you need people willing to have stem cells injected into their recently traumatized spinal cord with 14 days of the initial injury. In that case, finding people takes a while.

However, Northwestern University has enrolled its second patient in just such a trial. The goal of the study, first and formost, is to determine if the procedure is safe. Can it be used in the future on other patients with a high degree of certainty of their safety?

But of course, the really interesting part is whether it works or not. The hope is that the stem cells will recoat damaged nerve cells that have lost their ability to conduct electrical impulses down the axon of the nerve. Previously, the s tem cels have shown nerve-growth stimulating properties leading to restoration of function in animal models of acute spinal cord injury.

Here’s to hoping this leads to making people walk after spinal cord injuries in the future!



About bigkingken

A science writer dedicated to proving that the Big Ten - or the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, if you will - is more than athletics.
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