Recent news – Scientists reading minds

I thought this video was just too cool not to share (the embed code doesn’t work, so you’ll have to follow the link – sorry, WordPress doesn’t allow Flash or Java code). I saw this on 60 Minutes last night. The short of it is that using brain imaging equipment and software, scientists are starting to be able to “read” minds. They have determined that certain neurons always fire in the same pattern when thinking about specific things, and so by looking at your brain scans, they can compare those to known patterns to determine what you are thinking about.

The project is still in its infant stages, where they know, for instance, the difference between “screwdriver” and “apartment”, but are limited to a small list of words they have mapped. Right now they can’t discern complex thoughts, but it seems it’s only a matter of time – a little like the human genome project, a map of human thought is a big, but not insurmountable task, given sufficient resources and time (one expert they interviewed suggested it might be completed within five years from now). It could become the ultimate lie detector test.

Of course, this raises all sorts of ethical issues. It would be invaluable in court, but as one expert points out, will it be considered physical evidence such as DNA or hair samples that police can get warrants to obtain from suspects, or will it fall under the 5th amendment, which provides that defendants in court cannot be forced to provide testimony against themselves.

Read the full-text at the 60 Minutes website.


Recent news: Scientists regenerate body parts

Saturday news

My mom has always been a paper-reader, enjoying the Saturday news over her morning coffee. I’ve never spent much time browsing the paper, always finding it a bit depressing – either in the sense that the front section is filled with news of murders, fires, car accidents, and other tragedies, or because so much of the paper is dedicated to such superficial things at the expense of more newsworthy stories, such as cars, which get not one, but two whole sections just to themselves. Occasionally I’ll pop on to the newspaper’s website to check out the headlines (I don’t feel like I’m wasting a lot of paper just to read 5% of the stories this way). If there is a paper sitting around I may pick it up and flip through a few sections, however. See what’s new, what the headlines are today. My mom got the Saturday papers this weekend, and while having breakfast at their new house I flipped through the Ottawa Citizen’s front section.

The headline was “Tories scrap portrait gallery plan”, about the government changing their minds on where the national portrait gallery should go. The large centre image was about a guy in a public housing complex in Ottawa, where the wait list is at 5 years, who uses his unit for storage and doesn’t live there (he’s being evicted). Along the bottom there are three small headlines, each with the first 100 words of the article and direction to the rest of the full text. These were “Canada denies wrongdoing in delivering Algerian to US”, “Poppies keep popping off? Experts pin down ways to make them stay”, and then beside them, given less than 1/16th of the front page, the headline “US military researchers grow new limbs, organs”.

It was enough to pique my interest, and when I started reading more, I was fascinated. The first few paragraphs read:

American military researchers say they have unlocked the secret to regrowing limbs and recreating organs in humans who have sustained major injuries.

Using “nanoscaffolding,” the researchers have regrown a man’s fingertip and the internal organs of several test subjects.

The technology works by placing a very fine apparatus called a scaffold, which is made of polymer fibres hundreds of times finer than a human hair, in place of a missing limb or damaged organ. The scaffold acts as a guide for cells to grab onto so they can begin to rebuild missing bones and tissue.

The tissue grows through tiny holes in the scaffold, in the same way a vine snakes its way up a trellis.

After the body part has regenerated, the scaffold breaks down, is absorbed into the person’s body and disappears entirely.

A bit further down they describe some of the successful experiments. One involved a man who, while starting up the engine on his model airplane, lost the tip of one finger (basically the final joint). Using nanoscaffolding they were able to regrow that entire section, bone, skin, nail and all. Another example was of a young girl, born without a uterus, where they were able to grow one using her own tissue and nanoscaffolding. Bladders regrown in people who had bladder damage.

They say they’re working up to regenerating a “complex organ, such as a heart.” I don’t know about you, but a fingertip seems pretty darned complex to me. It’s not like you’re just growing a layer of skin, here, to graft over a burn or something (which the technology has also been used to accomplish). This is part of a limb, with several different structural components, made of different materials, with nerves and blood vessels running through it. It would be one thing if they put the nanoscaffold in place and ended up with a lump of generic flesh at the end of his finger, but they claim to have regrown the bone and nail, too.

I couldn’t believe that an announcement of this magnitude had been relegated to the bottom corner of the front page, with the rest of the story on the inner back page. This seems way more momentous than the location of the portrait gallery or a guy being evicted from public housing. This has huge implications for the future studies of things like spinal cord injuries, heart attack victims, people needing kidney or other organ transplants. It could mean the end of long wait lists for donor organs.

Well, even if the Ottawa Citizen didn’t think it was big news, I thought it was amazing. I don’t follow the news too closely, and likely won’t post many news items, but felt this deserved sharing.

The whole article can be read online at this page (it’s actually the National Post, but the story is identical).

Some announcements

Willow Flycatcher

This is a post for news-y bits that I’ve been collecting over the last week or so. I thought I’d just hold on to them all and put them into a single non-nature post. Well, still nature-related, just not directly so.

First, I’ve participated in a few blog carnivals that all came out recently. Carnivals are a great way to sample the writings of many different people, as well as learn about many different, varied things. I invite everyone to browse over to It’s Just Me (aka The Egret’s Nest) for I and the Bird #78. Lots of great bird-related stories, from close to home to far abroad (no matter where home is for you!). Once you’re done there, check out Gossamer Tapestry for the latest Circus of the Spineless (a carnival dedicated to – you guessed it – invertebrates of all shapes and sizes), edition number 34. And finally, wrap it up with a visit to Earth, Wind and Water to read all about our arboreal neighbours in the Festival of the Trees #25.

Northern Pine Looper - Caripeta piniata

Some exciting news of a more personal nature, the field guide to moths that myself and The Moth Man will be co-authoring has been bought by Houghton Mifflin and will find a home in their Peterson field guide series. We have yet to sign the official documents, but the deal has been done, and I’m very excited to get started on the project! During negotiations it also came up that they’re planning a re-design of the Peterson series in the next few years, of which ours will be one of the first. It will be in the style of most bird books, with the images opposite the text and maps. We’re pretty stoked. Our deadline is 2010, so expect to see the book hit shelves in a couple years (if not before!).


And finally, a few days ago Voice of the Turtle passed on a Tree of Happiness to me. The “award” or recognition includes the above image, which is written in Portuguese. Not speaking Portuguese myself, I had to run it through a web translator. Actually, I ran it through several, since none of them are perfect. Roughly, the words mean this:

You have just received the Tree of Happiness.

It is still just a little seedling, but depends on you to grow steady and strong.

Plant it in your heart, water it with smiles and kindness, feel the fragrance of its flowers, the sweet taste of its fruits and share its shadow with whom you want!

The good things are better still if we can share them with people dear to us; then be a generous person and share this tree with your friends.

So plant happiness where you go!

You’ll see how many people come closer.

Will you?

This would be better if I had an actual little seedling to nurture and grow and share, but in the absence of that, a recipient is supposed to list six things that make them happy, and pick six other bloggers who deserve such an award (presumably because their writing makes you happy, rather than that you think they need an infusion of happiness).

Things that make me happy (in no particular order):

1. Breathing the fresh air, feeling the breeze in my hair and the sun on my face, listening to birds sing, out in the quiet of the countryside on a warm day.
2. Sharing my knowledge with someone and watching them grow, or seeing their enthusiasm or amazement in the subject. Blogging falls into this category.
3. Doing good by someone. Anyone, friend, family or stranger.
4. Sitting in a puddle of sun with a book in my hands, a tea at my side, and a purring cat in my lap.
5. Spending time with Blackburnian. Catching up with my best friend or family.
6. Art supplies. I like playing with them, too, but really art supplies are my version of the woman’s shoe collection. Don’t send me into an art store unsupervised.

I started to list six blogs that I felt were worthy recepients. I got up to six, then realized there was no way I could pick just six blogs who exemplified the qualities set out in the Portuguese above. So instead, I point you to the blogroll in my sidebar. All of these bloggers show some or all of the qualities listed, or I wouldn’t have included them in my blogroll. If you haven’t visited these sites, I highly recommend you do.