Neuroscientists publish most detailed human brain map yet

July 21, 2016

In a new paper published in Nature, neuroscientists have set out the most comprehensive brain atlas to date.

Over the centuries, countless attempts have been made to classify the regions of the brain, however, this research is the most advanced to date, BBC News has reported. 

Specifically, the authors of the paper have demarcated 180 compartments of the cortex, 97 of which have been identified for the first time.

Image by David Shattuck, PhD. and Paul M. Thompson, PhD. http://www.humanconnectomeproject.org/gallery/

Behind this paper is the Human Connectome Project, a US-led collaboration which aims to demystify both the wiring of the brain and how this affects our behaviour. 

According to Dr Emma Robinson, co-author of the paper and a member of the Oxford University team behind the software used to analyse the project’s massive amount of data, “This is the culmination of the entire HCP project that we’ve been working towards,”

“This paper is really a mammoth effort by Matthew Glasser and David Van Essen (of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri) – manually labelling brain regions, but also pulling together all the streams that we’ve been working on, trying to collect incredibly high quality images and state of the art imaging processing techniques.”

 In order to procure this data, the HCP team initially held long scanning sessions of the brains of 210 individuals.

One part of the research consisted of observing the physical properties of the brain. For example, variations in the folds and thickness of the cortex; and within the cortex, the amount of myelin, a substance which enfolds nerve fibres, that could be detected throughout.

The researchers also examined brain activity, looking specifically at which parts of the brain were triggered by particular activities, and the degree to which activity levels in different parts of the brain correlated and coordinated with one another. 

The 180 areas of the brain were distinguished using automatic computational tools, which the HCP team then tested and confirmed through 210 fresh brain scans. 

Prof Tim Behrens, who is involved in the HCP but who did not have a hand in the paper said, “Every one of those 180 areas in this paper is described in detail – its relation to the previous literature, its functional properties, its anatomical properties… Nobody will do as good a job as this for a long time.”

“It will now be the parcellation that is used by all of neuroscience, I would think.”

Prof Simon Eickhoff of the University of Dusseldorf in Germany, who was not involved in the research,meanwhile described the research as “a really big step forward”.

At the same time, he sought to put the paper in context. 

“If you look at the classical brain maps, even from the 19th century – they were whole-brain maps; they had a label for every spot on the cortex. Any part of the brain has already been looked at.

“[This work] certainly defines something clearly, where knowledge has been imprecise and maybe contradictory. But ‘new’ is a tricky term.”

Nevertheless, Prof Behrens proposed that this new map “conceptually changes things.”

“Brain areas are not coarsely divided with, say, 50 pieces that we need to figure out what they’re doing.”

“As you get more and better data, you can subdivide it further and further – and we should be thinking about the brain in this much more granular way.”

Sources: BBC News and humanconnectomeproject.org

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Pokémon a go go

July 19, 2016

Since the launch of Pokémon GO on the 6th July, Japan’s Nintendo Co has seen a 14% jump in share value, with its market capitalisation rocketing to 4.5 trillion yen ($42.5 billion, €38 billion) by Tuesday, Reuters has reported.

Much to the frustration of fans around the world, the release of this smartphone game was staggered, initially being limited to just the United States, Australia and New Zealand.

Now, however, Pokémon GO is available to download on iPhones and Android phones in a total of 35, mostly European, countries, and has become a worldwide smash hit.

According to data collected by app analytics firm SimilarWeb, on the 7th July, one day after it’s official release in the United States, the game had already been installed onto more US Android phones than Tinder.

Moreover, the figures for app usage have also been astonishing. SimilarWeb reported on the 10th July that over 60 percent of those who downloaded the Android app in the US were daily users, which means roughly 3 percent of the entire US population were playing Pokémon GO on a daily basis.

The firm also reported that daily usage among players averaged 43 minutes 23 seconds, which puts its daily user activity higher than those of Whatsapp, Instagram, Snapchat or Messenger.

Meanwhile BBC News reported that in its initial week, Pokémon Go was more heavily tweeted than Brexit in the first week of the referendum (15.3 million tweets in comparison to 11.7) and twice as popular as the Euro 2016 football championships in its first week.

Even on the day of the UK referendum vote, there were almost as many Google searches for the game as there were for Brexit, and after it’s release, searches for the game even overtook those for that internet staple, pornography, reported the BBC.

For Nintendo, the runaway success of this game has provoked immense buying of their shares, on a scale that has surprised many.

Takashi Oba, senior strategist at Okasan Securities, said, “I’ve never seen the trend of such a big company’s shares changing so quickly in such a short period of time.” 

In fact, on Tuesday, trading in shares in Nintendo accounted for almost a quarter of all trading on the Tokyo Stock Exchange’s main board, according to Reuters.

Meanwhile the turnover of Nintendo shares reached 703.6 billion yen ($6.6 billion, €5.9 billion) by the end of Tuesday, thereby surpassing the 476 billion yen ($4.5 billion, €4 billion) record it set on Friday for trading turnover in individual shares.

Until now Nintendo has not been a contender in the virtual reality and augmented reality market, yet there has been speculation that the company may seek to capitalise on the success of Pokémon GO, for example with other popular characters such as Super Mario and Zelda following down the same path.

Sources include: Reuters, BBC News, SimilarWeb

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Antarctic ozone hole “healing” say scientists

July 3, 2016

A study published in Science claims to offer the first compelling evidence that the hole in the ozone layer above the Antarctic is shrinking. This study, conducted by US and UK scientists, contains data collected annually between September 2000 and September 2015, which demonstrates a decline of 4 million sq km in the size of the ozone hole during this period.

The study’s authors attribute the good news to the phasing out of Chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) chemicals since a global ban was introduced with the 1987 Montreal Protocol.

The study is also the first to highlight the role of volcanic activity in ozone depletion.

Ozone depletion and CFCs

Ozone is a gas which is present in the stratosphere, where it serves to protect humans, animals and plants on Earth by blocking harmful ultraviolet radiation coming from the Sun. For humans, exposure to UV radiation raises the risk of skin cancer and cataract damage.

Although depletion and production of ozone both occur naturally in the stratosphere, the level of ozone has been historically constant.

Yet in the mid 1980s British scientists discovered a dramatic thinning of the ozone layer above the Antarctic. Subsequently, in 1986, work by US researcher Susan Soloman called attention to the destructive effects on the ozone of the chlorine and bromine molecules in CFCs, which at the time were present in everything from aerosols to refrigerators and air conditioning units.

On the back of this research, in 1987 the Montreal Protocol introduced a global ban on CFC production, which was ratified by all UN member countries.

Ozone hole shrinkage

According to a BBC News article, the declining influence of CFCs has been reported by other studies prior to this latest research; however, this is the first time evidence has been put forward that the hole in the ozone layer is actually shrinking.

Between 2000 and 2015, Prof Solomon and her colleagues conducted detailed measurements of ozone in the stratosphere using weather balloons, satellites and model simulations. By so doing, they found that the hole above the Antarctic has shrunk by 4 million sq km over this period. Over half of this gain was due to the reduction of atmospheric chlorine.

For Dr Markus Rex from the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany, “This is the first convincing evidence that the healing of the Antarctic ozone hole has now started.” He ascribes this achievement to the Montreal Protocol, and sees this latest finding as “a big step forward.”

Nevertheless as Professor Soloman made clear, “Even though we phased out the production of CFCs in all countries including India and China around the year 2000, there’s still a lot of chlorine left in the atmosphere.”

Given that this has a lifetime of between 50 to 100 years, recovery is expected to be slow. “We don’t expect to see a complete recovery until about 2050 or 2060,” said Professor Soloman.

Volcanic Activity

Yet, seemingly contrary to the reports conclusions, the reading taken in October 2015 showed the largest ozone hole on record; findings which at first baffled the researchers.

According to Prof Solomon, “Until we did our recent work no-one realised that the Calbuco eruption in Chile, actually had significantly affected the ozone loss in October of last year.”

The reason that thinning of the ozone layer occurred predominantly over the Antarctic is due to the extreme cold and ample light in this region. Conditions which helped to create Polar Stratospheric Clouds, in which CFCs linger and eat away at the ozone.

Prof Solomon explained that “”After an eruption, volcanic sulphur forms tiny particles and those are the seeds for Polar Stratospheric Clouds.”

“You get even more of these clouds when you have a recent major volcanic eruption and that leads to additional ozone loss.”

In fact this study has been hailed as “historically significant” by some in the field for being the first to draw a connection between volcanic activity and ozone loss.

Doubts

At the same time, there have been doubts raised by some in the field that the shrinkage in the ozone hole can be attributed to the decreasing amount of chlorine in the stratosphere.

Nasa’s Dr Paul Newman, for example, said, “The data clearly show significant year to year variations that are much greater than the inferred trends shown in the paper.”

“If the paper included this past year, which had a much more significant ozone hole due to lower wave driven forcing, the overall trend would be less.”

Even so, the researchers behind the study clearly believe strongly in their findings. For them, international efforts to tackle the hole in the ozone should serve as a model for other global environmental problems.

“This was an era in which international co-operation went rather well on some issues. I was inspired by the way the developed and developing countries were able to work together on dealing with the ozone hole,” said Prof Solomon.

Sources: BBC News, Guardian Newspaper

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Japanese scientists develop “e-skin”

April 22, 2016

Japanese scientists at the University of Tokyo have developed an ultrathin electronic skin or “e-skin” which could allow for human skin to be functionalised like a smartphone screen, according to a report by Live Science.

According to the report, the e-skin employs technology similar to how organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays are manufactured for smartphones and televisions.

The superflexible display is made from organic electronics made from carbon-based polymers. Devices made using these materials are lighter and more flexible than electronics made using inorganic materials. The challenge when working with OLEDs, however, is that these products usually degrade in air and require bulky protective coatings to shield them. This protection means the devices lose some of their flexibility.

For the e-skin, the team at the University of Tokyo developed a new method to protect the electronic components from the air but which allowed it remain flexible. The entire device is just 3 micrometers (millionths of a meter) thick and highly flexible, the researchers said.

The newly developed protective film, called a passivation layer, consists of alternating layers of inorganic silicon oxynitride and organic parylene. It shields the device from damaging oxygen and water vapour meaning it can last several days in contact with the air.

“Our e-skin can be directly laminated on the surface of the skin, allowing us to electronically functionalize human skin,” Takao Someya, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at the University of Tokyo, and author of a paper on the new device published in the journal Science Advances, was reported as saying.

“We think that functionalizing the skin may replace the smartphone in the future,” Someya said to Live Science. “When you carry an iPhone, it is a bulky device. But if you functionalize your own skin, you don’t need to carry anything, and it’s easy to receive information anywhere, anytime.”

“The scientists created both digital and analog displays that could be laminated to the skin, and all of the devices were flexible enough to distort and crumple in response to body movement, without losing their functionality,” Live Science said.

According to the researchers, such devices could be used to monitor health in future. His team also created a device consisting of red and green OLEDs and a light detector “that could monitor the concentration of oxygen in a human subject’s blood when the e-skin is laminated to the person’s finger using highly flexible adhesive tape,” the report said.

Source: Live Science

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Volvo to test self-driving cars in China

April 8, 2016

The Swedish car-maker is looking to launch an experiment in which local drivers in China will test up to 100 self-driving cars, a Reuters report said.

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A road in Beijing, China

The experiment will involve local drivers testing the cars on public roads in limited driving situations such as on express roads and highways, company executives were reported to have told Reuters.

Volvo has not yet announced when the experiment will take place but has confirmed that it is already looking for a well-suited city in China in which to conduct the tests. “It has to be a big city where there are lots of consumers… wasting an hour a day in the cars (sitting in traffic),” Chief Executive of Volvo, Hakan Samuelsson, was quoted as saying. “That’s I think realistically where this function can be sold commercially.”

According to Samuelsson, the self-driving cars alert the driver when autopilot mode can be activated, on freeways or in specific zones such as gated neighborhoods or industrial parks, giving the driver the option to maintain or relinquish control.

Volvo’s experiment is part of the company’s efforts to take advantage of the Chinese government‘s recent pledge to embrace futuristic technologies.

Volvo was purchased in 2010 by China’s Zhejiang Geely Holding Group. Since that time, the company has been aiming to increase sales in China. It hopes that by 2020, one quarter of its global sales (200,000 units) will be made in the Asia Pacific region – and the majority of these in China.

The company is also planning a similar test programme in Gothenburg, Sweden, to begin next year.

Tesla, Mercedes, Audi and Alphabet Inc’s Google are among other companies currently developing self-driving cars.

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TJC offers an extensive global network of professional & experienced multilingual translators, proof-readers and interpreters. We also have academic researchers, specialists and speakers, who are all native speakers of over 100 languages. Our expert translators and interpreters are based all over the globe and can assist you with projects of all kinds.

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Tiny inexpensive gravimeter could be a “game-changer”

April 1, 2016

A team of researchers from the University of Glasgow have developed a compact device that measures tiny gravity fluctuations, and could be used to monitor volcanoes or search for oil, BBC news reported.

mi-1044575_1920

The design of the device, which is much smaller and less expensive than existing gravimeters, is based on accelerometers found in smartphones. Commercial gravimeters currently on the market cost around £70,000-plus, which are largely the preserve of wealthy oil companies. The University of Glasgow team’s design, which is around the size of a postage stamp, could be available in a few years for only hundreds, the BBC report said.

Unlike other similar machines, the new compact gravimeter is based on a “microelectromechanical system” similar to that used in smartphone accelerometer.

“The difference between the mobile phone accelerometers and our device is that our springs are very, very thin – about 10 times thinner than a human hair,” Richard Middlemiss, the PhD student who made the new instrument, was quoted as saying. “That means that whereas in a mobile phone, it’ll only be activated by something as big as the Earth – our sensor is… almost at the point where you could detect the gravitational pull of a human when you’re standing next to them.”

In the journal, Nature, the teams reported that their contraption can detect even smaller gravity changes – such as those that would be caused by a tunnel less than 1m across, buried 2m underground. This could help explore for oil and gas.

Why do we get gravitational changes?

Tidal forces, caused by the interacting pull of the Sun and Moon, also slightly squash the Earth’s diameter. For this reason, spots on the earth’s crust could go up and down by about 40cm over the course of 12-13 hours.

“That means that we get a change in gravitational acceleration – so that’s what we’ve been able to measure,” Middlemiss said.

The research team has a patent pending on its design.

So what can a compact gravimeter be used for?

Gravimeters can be used for petroleum and mineral prospectingseismologygeodesygeophysical surveys and other geophysical research, and for metrology.

Multiple devices could be scattered around volcanoes or mounted on drones to conduct subterranean survey, the team suggested. They could even help civil engineers locate pipes under roads, Mr Middlemiss said, to save them digging in the wrong places.

Is this a ‘game-changer’?

According the BBC report, Prof Hazel Rymer, a vulcanologist at the Open University, greeted the Glasgow gadget with huge enthusiasm.

“It is just so exciting,” she was reported as saying. “It’s an absolute game-changer.”

She went on: “they’ve now got a sensor that is sensitive enough to measure the types of gravity changes that I’m interested in – and anybody else that is using gravity meters.”

Source: BBC News

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Language differences don’t affect the way we hear music, study finds

February 26, 2016
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Rhythmic differences in our mother tongues don’t affect the way we perceive music, the study finds

Speakers of languages with a different rhythm do not differ in their perception of non-linguistic sound patterns like music, a new study by SISSA, the International School for Advanced Studies, shows.

The study, published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory and Cognition, was based on the hypothesis that “native listening” (the idea that our mother tongue acts as a sort of auditory “template” and influences the way we perceive the sounds of other languages) also transfers to non-linguistic sound stimuli like music.

In the new study, Alan Langus, research fellow at the International School for Advanced Studies (SISSA) of Trieste, Marina Nespor, SISSA professor, and colleagues found the opposite: that this “native listening” effect is limited to linguistic sounds.

The research was based on the “iambic–trochaic law”. “The way we group notes within continuous sound sequences is determined by the iambic-trochaic law (ITL),” SISSA explained in its press release, “whereby we tend to pair sounds of varying intensity or pitch into trochees and those of different duration into iambs. An iamb is formed by two elements in which the stronger element follows the weaker one, and a trochee is exactly the opposite.”

“Even the phrasal rhythm of a language follows either iambic or trochaic preferences, and each language has its characteristic rhythm: some prefer a iambic pattern (e.g. Italian) others a trochaic one (e.g. Turkish or Persian).”

In a series of experiments on native speakers of Italian, Persian or Turkish, the researchers tested whether the preferred rhythm of the subjects’ mother tongues also transferred to non-linguistic sounds or even to visual stimuli. However, the experiments provided negative results.

“It is true that the rhythm of spoken language influenced the perception of the sounds of other languages.” SISSA said. “However, we found no transfer of the effect to the other domains of non-linguistic auditory and visual stimuli” concluded Langus.

Source: SISSA

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TJC offers an extensive global network of professional & experienced multilingual translators, proof-readers and interpreters. We also have academic researchers, specialists and speakers, who are all native speakers of over 100 languages. Our expert translators and interpreters are based all over the globe and can assist you with projects of all kinds.

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