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New device can control light at unprecedented speeds

Scientists have developed a programmable, wireless spatial light modulator that can manipulate light at the wavelength scale with orders-of-magnitude faster response than existing devices. Image courtesy: Sampson Wilcox.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.- In a scene from “Star Wars: Episode IV — A New Hope,” R2D2 projects a three-dimensional hologram of Princess Leia making a desperate plea for help. That scene, filmed more than 45 years ago, involved a bit of movie magic — even today, we don’t have the technology to create such realistic and dynamic holograms. Generating a freestanding 3D hologram would require extremely precise and fast control of light beyond the capabilities of existing technologies, which are based on liquid crystals or micromirrors. An international group of researchers, led by a team at MIT, spent more than four years tackling this problem of high-speed optical beam forming. They have now demonstrated a programmable, wireless device that can control light, such as by focusing a beam in a specific direction or manipulating the light’s intensity, and do it orders of magnitude more quickly than com ... More

Steerable soft robots could enhance medical applications   New research unearths obscure and contradictory heat transfer behaviors   Organizing nanoparticles into pinwheel shapes offers new twist on engineered materials

Andreas Leber. Image courtesy: © Alain Herzog.

LAUSANNE.- Borrowing from methods used to produce optical fibers, researchers from EPFL and Imperial College have created fiber-based soft robots with advanced motion control that integrate other functionalities, such as electric and optical sensing and targeted delivery of fluids. Over the past decades, catheter-based surgery has transformed medicine, giving doctors a minimally invasive way to do anything from placing stents and targeting tumors to extracting tissue samples and delivering contrast agents for medical imaging. While today’s catheters are highly engineered robotic devices, in most cases, the task of pushing them through the body to the site of intervention continues to be a manual and time-consuming procedure. Combining advances in the development of functional fibers with developments in smart robotics, researchers from the Laboratory of Photonic Materials and Fiber Devices in EPFL’s School of Engineering have created ... More

An illustration of a boron arsenide crystal placed between two diamonds in a controlled chamber with thermal energy transported under extreme pressure. Image courtesy: The H-Lab/UCLA.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- UCLA researchers and their colleagues have discovered a new physics principle governing how heat transfers through materials, and the finding contradicts the conventional wisdom that heat always moves faster as pressure increases. Up until now, the common belief has held true in recorded observations and scientific experiments involving different materials such as gases, liquids and solids. The researchers detailed their discovery in a study published last week by Nature. They have found that boron arsenide, which has already been viewed as a highly promising material for heat management and advanced electronics, also has a unique property. After reaching an extremely high pressure that is hundreds of times greater than the pressure found at the bottom of the ocean, boron arsenide's thermal conductivity actually begins to decrease. The results suggest that there might be other materials experiencing the same phenomenon under extreme c ... More

Haihua Liu, a researcher at Argonne’s Center for Nanoscale Materials and study co-author. Image courtesy: Argonne National Laboratory.

CHAMPAIGN, IL.- Researchers have developed a new strategy to help build materials with unique optical, magnetic, electronic and catalytic properties. These pinwheel-shaped structures self-assemble from nanoparticles and exhibit a characteristic called chirality – one of nature’s strategies to build complexity into structures at all scales, from molecules to galaxies. Nature is rich with examples of chirality – DNA, organic molecules and even human hands. In general, chirality can be seen in objects that can have more than one spatial arrangement. For example, chirality in molecules might present itself as two strings of atoms that have the same composition, but each having a “twist” to the left or right in their spatial orientations, the researchers said. The new study, led by Qian Chen, a professor of materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Nicholas A. Kotov, a professor chemical ... More

The evolution of Asia's mammals was dictated by ancient climate change and rising mountains, study reveals   One of Europe's most ancient domestic dogs lived in the Basque Country   Researchers reveal how extinct Steller's sea cow shaped kelp forests

Carrying traps in the Hengduan Mountains. Image courtesy: Anderson Feijó.

CHICAGO, IL.- The idea that climate change and geological events can shape evolution isn't a new one: anyone who's heard of dinosaurs knows that a big change in the environment (like, say, a meteor hitting the Earth 66 million years ago and causing a chain reaction of storms, earthquakes, cold, and darkness) can dictate how animals live, die, and evolve. But while it's a generally agreed-upon concept, scientists rely on painstakingly precise data to map how these sorts of changes affect the course of evolution for even one species. A new study in PNAS compiles data on more than 3,000 species to show how climate and geologic changes across Asia over the last 66 million years have shaped the evolution of the continent's mammals. Asia is the world's largest continent, and it's home to just about every type of biome. "Asia has desert up north, tropical forests in the south, temperate forests in the east," says Anderson Feijó, the study's lead author, a researcher at the Institute of Zoology, Chinese Aca ... More

Erralla humerus. a) Anterior view. b) Posterior view. c) Medial view. d) Lateral view. Image courtesy: Journal of Archaeological Science: Reports (2022). DOI: 10.1016/j.jasrep.2022.103706.

BISCAY.- A humerus analyzed by the UPV/EHU's Human Evolutionary Biology group belonged to a specimen that lived in the Paleolithic period, 17,000 years ago. The dog is the first species domesticated by humans, although the geographical and temporal origin of wolf domestication remains a matter of debate. In an excavation led by Jesus Altuna in the Erralla cave (Zestoa, Gipuzkoa) in 1985 an almost complete humerus was recovered from a canid, a family of carnivores that includes wolves, dogs, foxes and coyotes, among others. At that time it was difficult to identify which species of canid it belonged to. Now the Human Evolutionary Biology team at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), led by Professor Conchi de la Rúa, has carried out an in-depth study of the bone remains. A morphological, radiometric and genetic analysis has enabled the species to be identified genetically as Canis lupus familiaris (domestic dog). The direct d ... More

A drawing of a Steller's sea cow, an extinct marine megaherbivore. Image courtesy: Biodiversity Heritage Library.

SAN FRANCISCO, CA.- For millions of years, the Steller's sea cow, a four-ton marine mammal and relative of the manatee, shaped kelp forests along the Pacific coast of North America by eating massive quantities of kelp fronds from the upper canopies, thus allowing light to spur productivity in the understory. In a paper published in Frontiers in Ecology and Evolution, researchers from the California Academy of Sciences—as part of the Academy's Thriving California initiative—reveal what historical kelp forests may have looked like in the presence of the marine megaherbivore, which went extinct in the 1700s just 27 years after its first encounter with Europeans due to overhunting, and suggest how kelp forest conservation efforts can take its absence into account. "Kelp forests are highly productive ecosystems. They act as storm buffers, are economically important for fishing, and are home to countless marine organisms, yet they are in steep ... More

Industrializing 3D printing   Deepest look yet into the heart of a quasar   Enzyme drives cognitive decline in mice, provides new target for Alzheimer's

VulcanForms has created digital production systems based on its industrial 3D printing technology. Image courtesy: Joseph Seif.

CAMBRIDGE, MASS.- The cutting edge of additive manufacturing offers a world of possibilities for companies looking to transform their manufacturing processes and create new products. But companies that want to tap into that world have traditionally had to invest huge sums of money into the latest 3D printing machines and then figure out how to integrate them into their operations. That’s a tough sell considering 3D printers can struggle with throughput and consistency for many industrial applications. Now, VulcanForms, founded by Martin C. Feldmann MEng ’14 and MIT Professor John Hart, is offering digital manufacturing as a service for companies to build industrial products at scale. The company assists customers with materials selection and product design, and then crafts a scalable manufacturing workflow in its production foundry. At the heart of each of those workflows is a proprietary laser powd ... More

The image on the left shows the deepest view yet into the plasma jet of quasar 3C 273, allowing us to study in more detail how the jet is focused.

BONN.- At the core of almost every galaxy is a supermassive black hole. But there are many different types. Quasars, for example, are one of the brightest and most active types of galaxy centres. An international group, including researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, presents new observations of the first quasar ever identified. This "quasi-stellar object", named 3C 273, is located at a distance of about 1.9 billion light years in the direction of the constellation Virgo. The new radio images trace the jet down to its origin and show how its width varies with increasing distance from the central black hole. Active supermassive black holes emit narrow, incredibly powerful jets of plasma that escape at nearly the speed of light. Thomas Krichbaum, astronomer at the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy (MPIfR) in Bonn, Germany, one of the leading authors of the work, says: “These jets hav ... More

The collaborative study was led by senior author Alexandra C. Newton, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Pharmacology at UC San Diego School of Medicine. Image courtesy: UC San Diego Health Sciences.

SAN DIEGO, CA.- In a recent search for gene variants associated with Alzheimer’s disease (AD), several affected families showed a mutation in an enzyme called protein kinase C-alpha (PKCα). Family members with this mutation had AD; those without the mutation did not. The M489V mutation has since been shown to increase the activity of PKCα by a modest 30 percent, so if and how it contributes to the neuropathology of AD has remained unclear. In a new study, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine found that the subtle increase in PKCα was sufficient to produce biochemical, cellular and cognitive impairments in mice, similar to those observed in human AD. The findings, published online on November 23, 2022 in Nature Communications, position PKCα as a promising therapeutic target for the disease. PKCα regulates the function of many other proteins, particularly in the brain ... More

Mussels in the Thames have declined by 95% since the 1960s   Scientists capture detailed snapshots of mouse brain cells nibbling on neurons   Higher weight is linked to poor brain health in children

Mussels are a group of sometimes distantly related molluscs which share characteristics such as their shape. Image courtesy: © University of Cambridge.

LONDON.- Numbers of mussels in the River Thames could be at just 5% of the level they were almost 60 years ago. Research conducted by the University of Cambridge in 2020 replicated a survey of the river from 1964 at a site near Reading, revealing that the UK's freshwater mussels are being put under increasing pressure following the arrival of invasive species. The results of the study, which has now been published in the Journal of Animal Ecology, showed that no depressed river mussels remained in this section of the Thames. Only empty shells were left to show that one of Europe's most threatened mussel species once lived there. PhD student Isobel Ollard, who led the study, says, 'The depressed river mussel used to be quite widespread in the Thames, but this survey didn't find a single one, which raises concerns for the survival of this species.' 'More widely, mussels are a great indicator of the health of the river ecosystem. Such a massive decline in mussel biomass in the river is also likely ... More

Oligodendrocyte precursor cells. Image courtesy: Allen Institute.

WASHINGTON, DC.- JoAnn Buchanan, Ph.D., was deep into the data. One click at a time, she scanned through the branching, twisting 3D shapes of mouse brain cells on her computer screen. Then Buchanan, a scientist at the Allen Institute, saw something weird: a kind of brain cell she wasn't familiar with. "They're just such beautiful cells, they're so beautiful. And I just became obsessed," Buchanan said. These brain cells, smaller than neurons but just as complex, are known as oligodendrocyte precursor cells, or OPCs for short. "I saw something in them which had never been seen before," Buchanan said. She doesn't mean that metaphorically. She literally saw something inside this OPC that nobody else had spotted—machinery that is able to digest parts of other cells. The OPCs, it turned out, were biting off and swallowing tiny bits of neighboring neurons. It sounds ghoulish, but this is a normal process in the brain. It's called synaptic pruning ... More

Yale-led study links higher weight in children with structural and functional brain impairments, which could contribute to reduced academic performance. Illustration courtesy: Michael S. Helfenbein.

NEW HAVEN, CT.- The relationship between weight and brain health in children is less clear than that of obesity in adults, which has consistently been linked to reduced brain health. But a new Yale study indicates that higher weight and higher body mass index may also affect the brains of children, linking it to both structural and functional brain impairments. The findings were presented Nov. 28 at the Radiological Society of North America annual meeting. Previous studies have examined the connection between weight and brain health in children, but findings have been inconsistent, says Simone Kaltenhauser, a research fellow at Yale School of Medicine and lead author of the study. One reason, she says, is because earlier studies had small numbers of participants. “Instead, we took a population-based approach,” said Kaltenhauser. “We used a very large dataset — the study participants closely approximate the U.S. population’s s ... More

More News
Mom's dietary fat rewires male and female brains differently
DURHAM, NC.- More than half of all women in the United States are overweight or obese when they become pregnant. While being or becoming overweight during pregnancy can have potential health risks for moms, there are also hints that it may tip the scales for their kids to develop psychiatric disorders like autism or depression, which often affects one gender more than the other. What hasn’t been understood however is how the accumulation of fat tissue in mom might signal through the placenta in a sex-specific way and rearrange the developing offspring’s brain. To fill this gap, Duke postdoctoral researcher Alexis Ceasrine, Ph.D., and her team in the lab of Duke psychology & neuroscience professor Staci Bilbo, Ph.D., studied pregnant mice on a high-fat diet. In findings appearing November 28 in the journal ... More

Rogue immune cells linked to leukemia found to be a key driver of autoimmune diseases
DARLINGHURST.- Gene variants associated with leukemia can produce "rogue" immune cells that drive autoimmune diseases, according to a new study from the Garvan Institute of Medical Research. Scientists had previously noticed that leukemia patients were also likely to develop an autoimmune disease, such as rheumatoid arthritis or aplastic anemia. Research into this link revealed that immune cells called killer T cells—responsible for destroying harmful cells and pathogens—were a key player. This new research provides insight into the role these killer T cells play in leukemia and autoimmune disease. Gene variations affecting a protein that controls the growth of killer T cells can turn them rogue, the researchers found. "We showed that these rogue killer T cells are driving the autoimmunity. They're pr ... More

A crystal shape conundrum is finally solved
HOUSTON, TX.- A crystal’s shape is determined by its inherent chemistry, a characteristic that ultimately determines its final form from the most basic of details. But sometimes the lack of symmetry in a crystal makes the surface energies of its facets unknowable, confounding any theoretical prediction of its shape. Theorists at Rice University say they’ve found a way around this conundrum by assigning arbitrary latent energies to its surfaces or, in the case of two-dimensional materials, its edges. Yes, it seems like cheating, but in the same way a magician finds a select card in a deck by narrowing the possibilities, a little algebraic sleight-of-hand goes a long way to solve the problem of predicting a crystal’s shape. The method described in Nature Computational Science shows using what they call auxiliary edge e ... More

Non-detection of key signal allows astronomers to determine what the first galaxies were - and weren't - like
CAMBRIDGE.- Using data from India’s SARAS3 radio telescope, researchers led by the University of Cambridge were able to look at the very early Universe – just 200 million years after the Big Bang – and place limits on the mass and energy output of the first stars and galaxies. Counterintuitively, the researchers were able to place these limits on the earliest galaxies by not finding the signal they had been looking for, known as the 21-centimetre hydrogen line. This non-detection allowed the researchers to make other determinations about the cosmic dawn, placing restraints on the first galaxies, and enabling them to rule out scenarios including galaxies that were inefficient heaters of cosmic gas and efficient producers of radio emissions. While we cannot yet directly observe these early galaxies, the results, ... More

Researchers take first step towards controlling photosynthesis using mirrors
LUND.- With the help of mirrors, placed only a few hundred nanometers apart, a research team has managed to use light more efficiently. The finding could eventually be useful for controlling solar energy conversion during photosynthesis, or other reactions driven by light. For example, one application could be converting carbon dioxide into fuel. The sunlight that hits Earth for one hour is almost equivalent to the total energy consumption of mankind for an entire year. At the same time, our global emissions of carbon dioxide are increasing. Harnessing the sun's energy to capture greenhouse gas and then convert it into fuel is a hot research field. A research team at Lund University in Sweden was previously able to show that with ultrafast laser spectroscopy, and the help of advanced materials, it would be ... More

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On a day like today, Nobel Prize laureate Egas Moniz was born
December 29, 1874. António Caetano de Abreu Freire Egas Moniz (29 November 1874 - 13 December 1955), known as Egas Moniz, was a Portuguese neurologist and the developer of cerebral angiography. He is regarded as one of the founders of modern psychosurgery, having developed the surgical procedure leucotomy—better known today as lobotomy—for which he became the first Portuguese national to receive a Nobel Prize in 1949 (shared with Walter Rudolf Hess). He held academic positions, wrote many medical articles and also served in several legislative and diplomatic posts in the Portuguese government. In 1911, he became professor of neurology in Lisbon until his retirement in 1944. Moniz hypothesized that surgically removing white matter fibers from the frontal lobe would improve a patient's mental illness. The first psychosurgery was performed in 1935 on a 63-year-old woman with depression, anxiety, paranoia, hallucinations, and insomnia.


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