Top 10 Science News of the Month: February 2018

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The world of science is marching forward each day with breathtaking new discoveries and smart solutions to the biggest problems faced by humanity. February was no different and here we are with a quick roundup of the top science news!

Spoiler: Wine and alcohol lovers would want to take note!

From among our best short-listed ten, the news piece that made it to the first of the top science news of February 2018 is very, very intriguing.

See for yourself!

Top Science News of the Month

1. Personalized Medicine with QR Codes: Medicine of the Future

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Credit: University of Copenhagen (The Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences)

A team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen has joined forces with colleagues from Finland’s Åbo Akademi University to create ‘medicine of the future’.

Present-day medicine has the tendency to respond differently to each person who intakes it. Medicines are mass produced, and hence, when people get sick, everyone gets the same medicine with the same amount of active compound, irrespective of suitability. The team is working to make this system obsolete.

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They have engineered a brand new method to produce medicine. With this tech, the medical drug can be dosed exactly as per the requirement of the patient.

They produce a white edible substance, on which they print a QR code of a drug. The code enables the storage of data on the ‘pill‘ (edible white material) itself. On scanning the code, one can obtain all the information about the medicine. Looking at it this way, this tech will also reduce cases of wrong/fake medication.

To learn more, watch the video below:

The team is now working to refine the process of production for the new ‘pills‘.

In the near future, the researchers hope to enable a regular printer to apply the medical drug (in the form of a QR code). Meanwhile, the edible white substance will be produced in advance.

Full Release: University of Copenhagen (The Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences), ScienceDirect

2. Low Levels of Alcohol – Good for the Brain

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Credit: Pexels.com

Now, now, do not get me wrong. Let me clear out one thing first. Excessive alcohol intake over prolonged periods of time is bad for the central nervous system, was bad, and will always remain bad. However, as per a new study conducted by researchers at the University of Rochester (Medical Center), low levels of alcohol intake are ‘potentially beneficial’ for brain health, in the sense that they help the brain to clear away toxins.

Studies conducted prior to this one have also indicated benefits of controlled alcohol consumption. These benefits include reduced risk of a number of cancers and heart diseases.

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The new study was conducted in mice to observe the impact of alcohol exposure, both short-term and long-term.

When the mice were exposed to high alcohol dosage over a prolonged time period, the team observed inflammation in astrocytes – cells that regulate the glymphatic system. The glymphatic system is something that regulates the brain’s cleaning process. The team also observed that high alcohol dosage compromised and impaired the animals’ motor skills and cognitive abilities.

On the contrary, mice that were given a low-level dosage of alcohol had less than normal inflammation in the astrocytes. Also, their glymphatic system was more efficient in removing waste as compared to the mice who were the control sample and were not at all exposed to alcohol. The low-dose animal subjects’ motor skills and cognitive abilities were identical to the control subjects.

Full Release: ScienceDaily, Nature 

3. Dimmer, Dumber?

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Credit: Michigan State University

In a rather unexpected study, a team of researchers at the Michigan State University set out to discover the effects of dim light (DLD) and bright light (BLD) on the brain. The subjects for the study were Nile grass rats. These rats, like humans, are diurnal – active during the day and sleep at night.

Prior to being exposed to the test conditions of the study, all the subjects were trained on a maze-like spatial task. The subjects were to be tested on the same task after being exposed to the respective test conditions.

Exposure to Dim Light (DLD): The rats were exposed to dim light for four weeks. The researchers found that the rodents had lost around 30% of capacity in the hippocampus, which is a region for memory and learning in the brain. The rodents also performed poorly on the aforementioned spatial task that they had been trained for previously.

Exposure to Bright Light (BLD): In this case, the rats were exposed to bright light for four weeks. These rats performed better on the spatial task than they initially had.

Exposure to Dim Light, and then Bright Light: The rats that were exposed to dim light for four weeks, were exposed to bright light (also for four weeks) after a month-long break period. This was where the beauty of this experiment shone through. The rats after being exposed to bright light regained their brain capacity fully, and also performed well on the spatial task.

Funded by the National Institutes of Health, this study is the first of its kind that shows structural changes in the brain due to environmental light. I would personally advise you, dear reader, to go through the full release of this study on the website of Michigan State University, the link to which is provided as follows.

Full Release: Michigan State University, Wiley Online Library 

4. Exoplanets Rich in Water, Probably

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An artist’s impression of the planets orbiting the ultra-cool red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

TRAPPIST-1 is a faint, red star at a distance of 40 light-years from Earth. In 2016, ESO’s La Silla Observatory detected the presence of planets around the star. Naturally, it got researchers excited and the following year was put into making further observations. Using telescopes like NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and ESO’s Very Large Telescope, it was discovered that the star has at least seven planets in its system.

What’s more? Almost all of the planets are approximately the same size as Earth. They have been named TRAPPIST-1b, c, d, e, f, g, and h; with respect to their increasing distance from their star.

With the help of all the accumulated data, scientists can, for the very first time, observe what Earth-sized exoplanets are made of.

As per the acquired information about the planets’ density measurements and their compositions, the researchers have reached the conclusion that the seven planets are not merely rocky and barren masses. The planets seem to contain volatile material, which the team estimates, is water. In some cases, this material is present up to 5% of the planet mass, which is an extremely big amount, considering that Earth only has 0.02% water by mass. (*muffles a scream*)

The innermost planets, viz., TRAPPIST-1b and c, are expected to have rocky cores. They are also expected to have thicker atmospheres as compared to Earth.

TRAPPIST-1d is the lightest of the planets, at 30% of Earth’s mass. It might have a large atmosphere, an ice layer, or an ocean. Scientists cannot tell for certain as of yet.

TRAPPIST-1e is the planet which is the most similar to dear, mother Earth. It is the only planet in the TRAPPIST-1 system which is denser than the Earth. It may have a denser iron core since it does not have a thick atmosphere, ice layer or ocean. What is strange, however, is that its appearance is much rockier as compared to the other planets in the system.

TRAPPIST-1f, g, and h, the outermost planets, are far enough from the host star to have frozen water on their surfaces. To add to that, if they have thin atmospheres, they wouldn’t be able to contain heavy molecules such as carbon dioxide.

The team will continue to gather more information on the TRAPPIST-1 system, as well as gather more data on other faint red stars.

Full Release: European Southern Observatory, Astronomy & Astrophysics

5. W-TENG: Generates Electricity Wirelessly from Simple Mechanical Motion

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Credit: Adv. Energy Mater. 2017, 1702736

Triboelectricity refers to the electric charge generated by friction, due to which it is considered a green source of energy. A team of scientists from Clemson’s Nanomaterials Institute is looking forward to making the world ‘go greener‘ using triboelectricity.

The team engineered a small device out of plastic and tape which produces electricity from vibrations and motion, in 2017. It is the ‘ultra-simple triboelectric nanogenerator‘, nicknamed the ‘U-TENG‘. When the two constituent materials are brought together by either clapping hands or tapping feet, a voltage is generated. It is detected by an external, wired circuit. The electrical energy is then stored in a battery or capacitor until required.

By the end of 2017, the team had produced a wireless version of TENG, called the W-TENG, hence expanding the area of applications for this tech. W-TENG, like U-TENG, was engineered using the same principle – by using materials that are opposite in affinity for electrons, so that when they are brought in contact with each other, they generate a voltage.

The constituent materials for W-TENG were switched from plastic to a graphene-based, biodegradable polymer called poly-lactic acid or PLA, and from Kapton tape to Teflon, a substance popular for coating non-stick cookware.

The new wireless device generates a maximum voltage of 3000V. As the voltage is high, the W-TENG generates an electric field that can be wirelessly sensed. And as predictable as it would be, just like in the case of the U-TENG, the electrical energy can be stored wirelessly in batteries and capacitors.

To learn directly from the creators of the tech, watch the video below:

The team predicts a wide scope of applications for the W-TENG, from employment in the middle of the ocean, to military battlefields to outer space.

Full Release: Clemson University, Wiley Online Library 

6. Chronic Alcohol Misuse: Biggest Risk Factor for Dementia

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Credit: Pexels.com

The Lancet Public Health Journal conducted the largest, observational, nation-wide study to look specifically at the effect of chronic alcohol abuse that led to early-onset dementia. The cases of over one million adults in France (diagnosed with dementia) were made a part of this study.

Amidst the large number, 57,000 cases were that of early-onset dementia which unfurls before the age of 65. Of this number (57K), 57% cases were related to prolonged, heavy alcohol intake.

Heavy drinking is described by the World Health Organization (WHO) as:

-Consuming an average of more than 60 grams pure alcohol per day for men

-Consuming an average of more than 40 grams pure alcohol per day for women

Now, considering the strong association between early-onset dementia and chronic drinking disorders, the authors of the study suggest screening and treatment for alcohol abuse in order to reduce the alcohol-attributing dementia cases, at the least per se. This would be a good place to take into consideration that prolonged alcohol misuse shortens life expectancy by more than 20 years in general, and dementia is one of the main causes of death. If the screening and treatment initiative was to become reality, it would be possible to reduce the number of premature dementia deaths significantly.

Full Release: ScienceDaily, The Lancet (Public Health) 

7. Rendering Quality Personalization to Wearable Devices

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Credit: Image courtesy of Seth Kroll/Wyss Institute

Researchers at the Harvard Biodesign Lab are designing an exo-suit that falls under soft, assistive devices. For this design to work well, the robot and the wearer of the suit need to be in sync.

Now, consider the fact that all humans move differently – from the way they walk, their gait – and engineering the robot’s parameters for every user is a time-consuming and also a tad bit inefficient process. Also, when we walk, we constantly change how we move in order to save energy (known as metabolic cost) naturally and unintentionally.

This is where the team from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering & Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering come in. They have developed a very efficient Machine Learning algorithm that can tailor and employ completely personalized controls for soft exo-suits.

Ye Ding, a co-author of the research and a postdoctoral fellow at the SEAS claims that this method is effective, and with it, the team has achieved a great improvement in the ‘metabolic performance for the wearers of a hip extension assistive device.’

Another postdoctoral fellow at the SEAS, Myunghee Kim, chimed in, saying that before the introduction of their researched ML algorithm, finding the correct control parameters for an individual wearer was a difficult, step-by-step process, because, as mentioned before, all humans walk differently. To add to that, the experiments required the researchers to manually tune parameters, which was a complicated and time-consuming process. But now, their algorithm can easily pave its way through that variability, and rapidly identify and apply the best possible control parameters by itself.

The researchers mention a human-in-the-loop optimization, that uses real-time measurements such as breathing rate and other human physiological signals, to control and adjust the parameters of the wearable device.

The algorithm, when combined with the suit, brought down the metabolic cost (compared to walking without the device) by 17.4%, which was a 60%+ improvement from the previous work done by the team.

To take this further, the team next wants to apply the algorithm to more complex devices.

Full Release: Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, ScienceMag (Robotics) 

8. A New Form of LIGHT!!?

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Credit: Christine Daniloff/MIT

Have you and your friends ever fought with flashlights pretending for them to be lightsabers? I have. Can you imagine light sabers becoming reality? I couldn’t, earlier, until I came across this piece of information!

Hear me out on this one!

When we normally try and cross the light beams from, let’s say, two flashlights, nothing really happens, right? They just pass by each other.

Well, that is so because the photons that comprise of light, do not ‘interact’ with each other.

This behavior was certainly unacceptable to researchers at many places; Harvard University and MIT, to name a few.

They wanted to know what would happen, if let’s say, the photons interacted with each other. Pulled and pushed on each other? Attracted and repelled each other?

Fascinating, right? The way their minds work.

So, in light of recent events, these brilliant minds have demonstrated that photons can be made to interact! The most practical use of this accomplishment would be for using photons in quantum computing.

How did they uncover this?

Let’s look at the experiment:

  • The researchers shone a weak laser beam through a dense cloud of ultra-cold rubidium atoms.
  • The normal, expected behavior would be for the photons to exit the cloud as randomly spaced photons.
  • However, something strange happened. The photons bound together in pairs and triplets, which openly suggested some form of attraction among them.
  • Photons, as we know it, have no mass and travel at 3×10^8 m/s. But here, the bound photons attained a ‘fraction of an electron’s mass‘. To add to that, they even appeared to move sluggishly. The newly weighed-down particles traveled about 100,000 times slower than the regular non-interacting photons.

This information is practically and quite literally giving me goosebumps out of sheer excitement! *starry-eyed*

Vladan Vuletić, one of the authors of the study, is of the opinion that if the photons can be made to interact in other ways, they may be able to harness the photons for incredibly fast and convoluted quantum computations.

Full Release: MIT News, ScienceMag 

9. Low Magnesium Levels Render Vitamin D Ineffective

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Credit: Pexels.com

Yes, you read that right. According to a study published in The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association, Vitamin D is rendered ineffective without the presence of optimum levels of magnesium in the body. The research was done in the United States of America, and it reveals that as many as 50% Americans might have inactive (but stored) Vitamin D as they are magnesium deficient.

Mohammed S. Razzaque, co-author of the study, MBBS, Ph.D., and professor at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine states that without magnesium, Vitamin D intake is neither useful nor ‘safe’.

Sounds dangerous, doesn’t it? Well, it is.

Vitamin D supplements can increase calcium and phosphate levels while the Vitamin D remains dormant and deficient. Due to this, consumers may suffer from ‘vascular calcification‘. In the past decades, magnesium consumption from natural foods has decreased due to industrialized agriculture and changes in diets. The more processed the foods are, the lesser their levels of magnesium.

In the human body, magnesium is the fourth most abundant mineral; after calcium, potassium, and sodium.

To make sure that you get an optimum dose of magnesium, try consuming magnesium-rich foods like:

  • almonds
  • bananas
  • broccoli
  • beans
  • brown rice
  • cashews
  • egg yolk
  • fish oil
  • flaxseed
  • green veggies
  • milk
  • mushrooms
  • nuts
  • oatmeal
  • pumpkin seeds
  • sesame seeds
  • soybeans
  • sunflower seeds
  • sweet corn
  • tofu
  • whole grains

Full Release: ScienceDaily, The Journal of the American Osteopathic Association 

10. Cancer-Fighting Nanobots

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Credit: Jason Drees, Arizona State University

Nanomedicine is a relatively new branch of medicine that combines the medical field with the very promising nanotechnology in the hope to open entirely new avenues for treatments. In a breakthrough research by a team at the Arizona State University (ASU), in collab with the National Center for Nanoscience & Technology (NCNST), they have successfully programmed nanobots to shrink tumors. This is done by cutting off the blood supply to the tumors.

This strategic tech can be used for a number of cancers, such as breast cancer, ovarian and lung cancer, and melanoma, as demonstrated by the team.

Until now, scientists have been trying to destroy cancerous tumors while not bringing harm to any healthy cells. The ASU team sought out a simpler idea. They went for starving the tumors, which has so far worked out very well in the demonstrations.

The team is now on the lookout for clinical partners in order to develop this tech even further.

Full Release: ScienceDaily, Nature (Biotechnology)  

This was all from February’s edition of top science news. If you wish we have missed out on an important discovery, kindly email us at contact@ionizermag.com and we’ll add it to the list. 

Previous Editions of Monthly Top Science News Articles

Top Science News December 2017

Top Science News January 2018

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