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Month November 2013

Eat Nuts, Live Longer? Study Says Yes

Singularity Hub
Eat Nuts, Live Longer? Study Says Yes

nuts-banner
To live longer and healthier, the best current advice is exercise, maintain healthy weight and eat dark leafy greens. But we’re likely to increasingly see eating nuts included in that list.

Those who ate nuts nearly every day were 20 percent less likely to die in the course of two 30-year cohort studies, according to data analysis conducted by researchers at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Harvard School of Public Health and published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Nut eaters were almost 30 percent less likely to die of heart disease and more than 10 percent less likely to die of cancer than those who never at them, even after adjusting for other lifestyle factors. Both are among the top killers in the developed world.

health-foodThe study found that both tree nuts, such as almonds, cashews, Brazil nuts, and peanuts delivered the health and longevity benefits in direct proportion to consumption. Researchers crunched data from large cohort studies that tracked the health of 119,000 men and women for 30 years and included detailed dietary questionnaires every four years.

Here’s the kicker: The nut eaters were also slimmer and had lower rates of type 2 diabetes.

“Somebody might read our study and say, well that’s fine but if we start encouraging nut consumption that might lead to a greater chance of obesity, which is a major problem in the United States. But what we find is regular nut consumers are actually lighter; there’s less obesity in that group,” said Charles Fuchs, the director of the Gastrointestinal Cancer Treatment Center at Dana-Farber and the senior author of the paper.

Previous studies have also pointed to a correlation between eating nuts and lower risks of heart disease, type 2 diabetes, colon cancer and diverticulitis. Higher nut consumption also has been linked to reductions in cholesterol levels,  inflammation and insulin resistance.

A recent study sponsored by the almond industry found that Americans who snacked on that nut generally made up for the calories by eating less throughout the rest of the day.

nuts-spinachCritics of the Harvard findings noted that those who eat nuts may eat fewer potato chips or more salads, and those behaviors may account for their improved health. It could just be those dark leafy greens, after all.

While acknowledging that they haven’t pinned down causation, the Harvard researchers are confident enough that they plan to look for specific chemical components in nuts that would explain trimmer waistlines and healthier hearts.

“We’re trying to understand what is the benefit, what’s the mechanism by which these things reduce the risk of dying of heart disease and cancer as well as reducing the risk of diabetes,” said Fuchs.

The next step will be studying the blood and tumor samples from those collected in the cohort studies “to see what pathway nuts are affecting and then hopefully hone down what chemical or chemicals within nuts contribute to benefits,” Fuchs said.

Nuts may be an underwhelming prescription for longevity for those hoping for big gains. But the secrets to a long-life don’t appear to be all that secret. Particularly in developed countries, eating too much and exercising too little account for a big share of deaths, so changes in diet have the potential to move the needle on life expectancy.

Improved treatment for cancer could also boost life expectancy numbers significantly. But because it seems increasingly remote that a single fix will work for all types of cancers, progress is likely to be piecemeal.

Studies of the mechanisms of aging itself — the modern search for the fountain of youth — are in their intellectual infancy.

Images via Shutterstock.com: Featured image Olga Manukyan, banner Es75, lola1960, caldix

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FDA Approves Brain Implant to Monitor and Autonomously Respond to Epileptic Seizures

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FDA Approves Brain Implant to Monitor and Autonomously Respond to Epileptic Seizures

Neurostimulator_Detects_Seizures (1)

In recent years, brain implants have been used to control tremors from Parkinson’s Disease and help quadriplegics move robotic arms. We can now add epilepsy to the list—a brain implant for patients suffering epileptic seizures was recently approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Epilepsy is caused by a kind of electrical storm in the brain that temporarily shorts out the system. Often, such events are associated with temporary loss of consciousness and bouts of muscle convulsions (seizures) lasting a minute or two.

The NeuroPace RNS Stimulator is surgically implanted within the skull and connected by wires and electrodes to the regions of the brain thought responsible for the seizures. The neurostimulator actively monitors electrical activity in these regions and autonomously delivers “imperceptible” electrical stimulation to normalize irregularities.

Epilepsy affects an estimated two million Americans and 65 million people worldwide. Even so, it remains a largely mysterious condition. If a person experiences two or more seizures, they are designated epileptic, but often, the root cause goes undiagnosed.

Sometimes a change of diet can aid epilepsy patients, but more often, drug therapies are required. If drugs don’t do the trick, doctors may look into brain surgery to remove the misfiring region. However, sometimes brain surgery isn’t practical because the region responsible is essential to living a normal life.

For patients who don’t respond to epilepsy drugs (see here for specific criteria) the NeuroPace neurostimulator might be an option. NueroPace estimates some 400,000 patients might benefit from their device.

NeuroPace_RNS_Stimulator

NeuroPace RNS Stimulator

Dr. Joseph Neimat, a Vanderbilt Medical Center neurologist, told NPR, “I think this is substantial. This is the first FDA-approved brain implant for epilepsy. And it’s also the first implant of any kind that is responsive to brain activity.”

A similar technique called vagus nerve stimulation is already available. However, the method doesn’t proactively seek irregularities and respond to them.

Though the RNS Stimulator helped reduce the seizures patients experienced, it only rarely removed them entirely.

The FDA reported 29% of patients experienced a 50% drop in seizures after a three month trial, and according to the NeuroPace press release, “For those subjects who reached two years post-implant, 55 percent of the subjects experienced a 50 percent or greater reduction in seizures.”

Though neurostimulators help mitigate symptoms, they don’t cure the underlying condition. And brain surgery is serious, no matter how you slice it. The FDA said site infection was one of the most frequent adverse effects of the RNS Stimulator.

That said, simply reducing symptoms can be transformative.

We recently wrote about Andrew Johnson, who had a neurostimulator implanted in his brain to control violent tremors brought on by Parkinson’s Disease.

Like the NeuroPace device, Johnson’s device is only appropriate for some patients, and surgery can be rough. Johnson said post-procedure, he was in “obscene amounts of pain” where the “slightest whisper was like a dagger to the skull.”

Once in place, however the implant dramatically improved Johnson’s quality of life—essentially giving him an off-switch for a once debilitating condition.

NASA’s Next Frontier: Growing Plants On The Moon

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NASA’s Next Frontier: Growing Plants On The Moon

earth rise

A small team at NASA’s Ames Research Center has set out to “boldly grow where no man has grown before” – and they’re doing it with the help of thousands of children, a robot, and a few specially customized GoPro cameras.

In 2015, NASA will attempt to make history by growing plants on the Moon. If they are successful, it will be the first time humans have ever brought life to another planetary body. Along the way, they will make groundbreaking contributions to our understanding of biology, agriculture, and life on other worlds. And though they may fail, the way they are going about their mission presents a fascinating case study of an innovative model for public-private collaboration that may very well change space entrepreneurship.

The Lunar Plant Growth Habitat team, a group of NASA scientists, contractors, students and volunteers, is finally bringing to life an idea that has been discussed and debated for decades. They will try to grow arabidopsis, basil, sunflowers, and turnips in coffee-can-sized aluminum cylinders that will serve as plant habitats. But these are no ordinary containers – they’re packed to the brim with cameras, sensors, and electronics that will allow the team to receive image broadcasts of the plants as they grow. These habitats will have to be able to successfully regulate their own temperature, water intake, and power supply in order to brave the harsh lunar climate.

However, it won’t just be NASA scientists who are watching the results closely – the success of this experiment will require the assistance of schools and citizen scientists.

In a brilliant mix of creativity and frugality, NASA will send schools their own set of habitats so they can grow the same plants that are being sent to the Moon. The reasons for this are two fold. First, every experiment needs a control, and instead of spending the money to duplicate the experiment multiple times, they can crowdsource it. By collecting the data from thousands of experiments, they can gain valuable insights in an entirely new way. Second, it allows children to be part of the moment – to not just watch from afar, but to gain experience and knowledge by actively participating.

It is quite unusual to hear of a significant NASA project that is so simple, small-scale, and low-cost. Thanks to the rapid advances in consumer electronics over the last few years, parts that would have once cost millions of dollars now cost just hundreds. But what really made this project feasible was an unexpected opportunity: the Google Lunar X Prize, the search giant’s twenty-million-dollar incentive prize for a private company to launch a robotic spacecraft that lands on the moon, travels across the surface, and transmits back two “Mooncasts” by December 31, 2015. Multiple teams are competing – and whoever ends up winning will likely fly with this special payload on board.

With this model NASA doesn’t have to spend tens of millions of dollars or wait years for the next mission to the Moon. According to Dr. Chris McKay, a well-renowned planetary scientist, this project would have cost $300 million two decades ago – now, NASA can build and launch it for under $2 million. It serves as a win for both NASA and private space industry. Dr. McKay compared it to the early days of airplanes and airmail, “Just like we buy tickets on commercial airlines, why shouldn’t we buy space on commercial flights?”

Without this opportunity, it’s uncertain this project would have ever gotten off the ground – and that would have meant a major missed opportunity not only for future astronauts, but also for people here on Earth as well.

(Credit: Hemil Modi) Individuals pictured include Lunar Plant Growth Habitat team members and NASA’s Ames Research Center top management: Dr. Harry Partridge, Emmett Quigley, Dr. Chris Mckay, Dr. Jacob Cohen, Hemil Modi, Dr. Robert Bowman, Dr. Pete Worden, Arwen Dave, Falguni Suthar, Nargis Adham, Sangeeta Sankar

Individuals pictured include Lunar Plant Growth Habitat team members and NASA’s Ames Research Center top management: Dr. Harry Partridge, Emmett Quigley, Dr. Chris Mckay, Dr. Jacob Cohen, Hemil Modi, Dr. Robert Bowman, Dr. Pete Worden, Arwen Dave, Falguni Suthar, Nargis Adham, Sangeeta Sankar (Photo credit: Hemil Modi)

To Dr. McKay, this is “step one in the quest to develop biological based life support systems on other worlds;” or, to put it another way, “this is the Neil Armstrong of the plant world.” The conditions of the moon are more characteristic of deep space than anywhere else we can access and quite different than growing plants on a space shuttle or space station. This experiment will test whether plants can survive radiation, flourish in partial gravity, and thrive in a small, controlled environment – the same obstacles that we will need to overcome in order to build a greenhouse on the Moon, or create life on Mars.

We may also learn a great deal about how to grow food in inhospitable climates here on our own planet. Dr. Robert Bowman, the team’s chief biologist, described how plants constantly have to cope with harsh environments and threats: “Simply knowing how plants deal with stress on the moon can really tell us a lot about how they deal with stress right here on Earth.” We know how plants are affected by conditions like drought – by exposing them to entirely new factors, we can advance our understanding of how they function.

Even if the seeds fail to germinate on the Moon, the fact that NASA is taking targeted risks without incurring significant costs could change business-as-usual for the once-legendary institution. Like most bureaucracies NASA has become quite risk averse and sensitive to perceptions of failure. But with commercial partnerships, they can experience a flop without necessarily having it make national headlines – they don’t have to put their entire reputation on the line every single time.

It may not be too long before space exploration missions are conducted more like technology startups and less like government programs. Dr. McKay sees a world of possibilities emerging from this democratization: “I see much better, more innovative experiments. When your experiment costs 300 million dollars, and you do one a decade, you can’t take any risks. You’ve got to be very conservative in what you do. But if your experiment is a million dollars and being done by grad students, you can do crazy and brilliant things.”

Whenever we do spread life beyond our own planet, it will fundamentally change our cultural perception of what is possible. As Dr. Pete Worden, Director of NASA’s Ames Research Center, explained excitedly, “The first picture of a plant growing on another world – that picture will live forever. It will be as iconic as the first footprint on the moon.” Just like the Apollo missions drove an entire generation to embrace technology and science, making the final frontier more accessible will inspire us to strive for even greater accomplishments.

You can reach Tarun directly at SH@tarunwadhwa.com or follow him on Twitter. Also, check out his upcoming book, Identified.

[images: NASA, Hemil Modi]

Bionic Eye Implant Will Become Available in U.S. in Coming Weeks

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Bionic Eye Implant Will Become Available in U.S. in Coming Weeks

blindness-blind-person
The Argus II retinal implant is like a cochlear implant for the blind. It looks like computing goggles such as Google Glass, but it sends the images the eyeglass-mounted visual processing unit detects to a tiny electrode array that’s been implanted in the user’s retina. Electrical stimulation sends visual information up the optic nerve to the visual cortex of the user’s brain, allowing him or her to see.

You could call it a bionic eye, and average Americans will gain access to it before the end of 2013. The device, made by California-based Second Sight with support from the Department of Energy, will in the coming weeks become medically available in the United States for patients blinded by retinitis pigmentosa, or RP, a degenerative eye disease that affects 1 in 4,000 Americans.

argus-retinaIn a recent study on eight people with end-stage RP, those using the implant were twice as likely to be able to correctly identify photos of objects with their outlines enhanced as those who received a scrambled signal from the implant. Without the assistance of the enhanced outlines, patients using the implants successfully identified objects in photos 25 percent more often than those in the positive control group.

The Argus II was approved in the United States as a humanitarian device, a status that certifies it as safe and likely to help. While standard approval would have required clinical trials on 300 patients, that status required just 30 test subjects. With an outlay of $1 million per patient, the more limited trials were the only viable decision, Brian Mech, Second Sight’s vice president for business development, told Singularity Hub.

Second Sight and its government partners are working toward a device that would allow patients to see well enough to recognize faces — and, potentially, as the technology improves, better even than people with 20/20 vision. Increased accuracy requires more electrodes in the implant, and the challenge is in keeping it tiny.

The Argus II implant includes 60 electrodes, but the planned Argus III will likely include 240. The more powerful implant won’t be approved and available to patients for several years, according to Mech.

blindness-future-argusSecond Sight can continue to improve the sight of patients using the Argus II device by ramping up the visual processing unit and fine-tuning the software that feeds the implant, he said. Backers also hope the retinal implant will be okayed for use in patients with macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in those aged 60 and over.

Patients, such as those suffering from glaucoma, which damages the ocular nerve, wouldn’t benefit from the implant. But Second Sight is developing an implant that stimulates the brain itself rather than relying on the ocular nerve to send the signal.

Such a device faces a far more daunting risk-benefit calculus. If in early testing the current implants had further damaged patients’ eyes, for instance, it wouldn’t have mattered much since they were already legally blind. (Few people are completely blind, but patients’ quality of life wouldn’t have been seriously affected.) Damage to a blind patient’s brain, on the other hand, would be a catastrophic clinical outcome.

“We could address all forms of blindness. From a technical perspective, we have what we need; it’s just the clinical risk that we have to figure out,” said Mech.

Devices that attach directly to the brain and provide computer-enhanced vision sound like a page torn from a future playbook, to be sure. But here in the present, even the more modest Argus II bionic implant has stirred enough interest to be named by several publications, including Time, CNN and Scientific American, as one of the most important inventions of 2013.

Photos: Ververidis Vasilis / Shutterstock.com, Second Sight, Syda Productions /Shutterstock.com

Chefs, Guitar Heroes, Even Doctors Now On Demand With Google Helpouts

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Chefs, Guitar Heroes, Even Doctors Now On Demand With Google Helpouts

Google_Helpouts_Guitar (1)

Telemedicine and online education aim to connect great teachers and skilled doctors to thousands or millions using video. Google’s latest experiment expands the list, placing experts, from chefs to yoga teachers, on call for anyone, anytime.

Based on Google’s video chat provider, Google Hangouts, the new service is called Google Helpouts and was recently launched to the public. In a blog post, Google engineering VP, Udi Manber, said, “Our goal is simple: help people help each other.”

And to that end, Helpouts already boasts a small but growing list of expert helpers including psychotherapists, makeup artists, career coaches, and electricians.

Helpers set their own rates by the minute, per session, or both and offer to book future appointments or connect instantly (if they’re online). Rates range from free to $75+ per meeting. Customers pay with Google Wallet, and Google takes 20% of the proceeds.

For a company that generally provides free services (on the surface, at least), Helpouts isn’t necessarily cheap. And because first impressions are everything, and a disappointing session might be the end of it for many—Google’s offering a money back guarantee and controlling quality with an up-front screening process.

Interested experts must first apply for an “invitation” then submit their service for review before being accepted to the site.

No doubt there will be some who go to Helpouts for a guitar lesson or pointers on how to improve pushups and crunches—but by far, the most promising services are consultations with physicians.

“Helpouts will allow our patients to get high quality affordable care,” said Dr. Tom Lee, chief executive of Google-funded One Medical Group. “The system is so wasteful.”

Efficiency for both patients and doctors would appear to be the name of the game. In many cases, there’s little reason to make an appointment three weeks in advance and spend an hour in a waiting room for a 10-minute conversation with a doctor.

Google jumped through the regulatory hoops (HIIPA compliance) to ensure their service is as secure as it can be. Further, all doctors must be licensed, in good standing, and thoroughly vetted by a Google-hired thirdy party.

Helpouts is a cool idea. Kind of a hybrid YouTube instructional video and online education course. Both lack interaction with the expert, where a series of questions might clarify difficult concepts. And while there are other similar services, like LiveNinja for example, none command an audience as big as Google’s.

We don’t know if it will take off, but Google thinks it’s a fairly simple algorithm. As Manber told a recent gathering of reporters, ”In the end, convenience and efficiency always win.” And we might add quality into the mix. Just saying.

Jason Silva and Barry Ptolemy Collaborate on New Series, ‘The Future of Us’

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Jason Silva and Barry Ptolemy Collaborate on New Series, ‘The Future of Us’

Silva_FOS_Golden

Equal parts art and science, passion and rationality, Jason Silva continues to curate the exponential in a new series called “The Future of Us” on AOL.

Silva told us the new stuff will be recognizable to those who’ve seen “Shots of Awe” or his philosophical espresso shots. Sponsorship by Chevrolet came with creative freedom and the funds to improve the end product.

In making the videos, Silva collaborated with friend Barry Ptolemy, director of “Transcendent Man,” and exchanged Central Park for Big Sur and Malibu.

Jason Silva

Jason Silva

“I got to take the content from my philosophical espresso shots and build on it—the production value, shoot with two cameras instead of one camera, invest more in stock footage—just take it to the next level.”

In the first episode, Silva sketches a few broad strokes. Our exponential future, he says, is in biotechnology, nanotechnology, and robotics. Episode two dives into biotech—how mind arose from flesh and is, in turn, creating flesh anew.

Quoting Freeman Dyson, he says, “In the near future, a new generation of artists are going to write genomes with the fluency that Blake and Byron wrote verses.”

The third installment covers nanotech, and the latest episode remixes Silva’s “Patterns” video exploring the artificial division between natural and manmade.

Barry Ptolemy

Barry Ptolemy

Silva told us, “The idea that nature and technology are separate is receding so fast it’s increasingly becoming obvious that there’s a continuum between the born and the made, and we’re just in the middle of it.”

The series will be eight episodes long, released weekly.  Silva’s film shorts still attract plenty of eyeballs, and with AOL, he’s exposing a whole new audience to exponential tech and the singularity.

Talking to Silva, you get the feeling guerrilla filmmaking and performance art are his greatest passions. “I make the videos because I have the urge to create.” Art and and science, he says, are two sides of the same coin.

Silva is at his best synthesizing, contextualizing, and spinning the story of science, tech, and philosophy for a non-technical audience. And hey, everyone is non-technical, until something inspires them to learn more.

Image Credit: Jason Goodman

Smartphone Physicals Are Taking Off With Explosion of Apps, Attachments

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Smartphone Physicals Are Taking Off With Explosion of Apps, Attachments

otoscope-banner
There’s no shortage of smartphone apps to help people track their health. And in recent months, medical apps have started growing up, leaving behind the novelty of attaching probes to a smartphone to offer, they hope, serious clinical tools.

Last month in a Ted Talk, Shiv Gaglani showed that a standard physical exam can now be done using only smartphone apps and attachments. From blood pressure cuff to stethoscope and otoscope — the thing the doctor uses to look in your ears — all of the doctor’s basic instruments are now available in “smart” format.

Gaglani described the project, called Smartphone Physical, as putting together “the new physicians handbag of the 21st century.”

The work has generated a lot of interest and will likely become the basis for a company. Working with fellow medical students Michael Hoaglin and Michael Batista, Gaglani has identified best-in-class devices and apps. The team is setting standards to continue to expand the list with apps and add-ons that are proven to work. They’re also exploring ways to make all of the individual tools work better together.

smartphone-stethoscopeThe current list of tools and explanatory website aim to raise awareness among doctors about the existence of the new technologies. There are no financial partnerships involved.

Some of the devices introduce aspects of crowdsourcing. For instance, the CellScope otoscope calls on a reference database of thousands of pictures of inner ears, whereas a single doctor will see only a fraction of that over the course of his or her career

Some of the instruments go beyond the tests performed in a physical exam. For example, SpiroSmart allows the iPhone to measure lung function by visually analyzing lip reverberation. (Traditional spirometers measure the air the patient exhales.)

The AliveCor ECG device reads cardiac activity, like its conventional counterpart, with electrodes. The electrodes and a single coin-size battery are all that’s added to the smartphone to create a machine accurate enough to be approved by the FDA.

Smaller, especially when it’s also cheaper, can be game changing.

For instance, MobiSante’s ultrasound wand substitutes the clunky and expensive imaging machine with a smartphone and a desktop application, making it both smaller and cheaper than traditional equipment. The company hopes the move will make ultrasound devices available in the 60 percent of the world where they’re currently not.

Even genetic diagnosis, or identifying a microbe by its genetic code, can now be done far from the lab using an add-on qPCR thermal cycler. (Singularity Hub has also covered a small standalone DNA amplifier from Lava Amp).

smartphone-ultrasoundThe devices don’t just give doctors more tools; they make it possible for patients to track their own health indicators between doctor’s visits. Blood pressure and lung function are prime examples. Of course, putting medical instruments in patients’ hands could exacerbate what Gaglani casually referred to as “cyberchondria.” (Yes, WebMD addicts, doctors are onto you.)

“There will certainly be a subset of patients who will try to interpret the data themselves. That’s going to happen, and there’s going to be some psychological ramifications for those patients,” Gaglani told Singularity Hub.

But patients also benefit by uploading their data and being able to document trends for the doctor during a visit. Research shows that patients who feel that they’re doctor is giving them personalized, rather than generic, advice are more likely to follow it. And doctors like simple instruments that allow them to focus more on patients and less on equipment during office visits, said Smartphone Physical’s Hoaglin.

Still, there are some glitches before smartphone physicals really take off. The doctor who tries to make his or her smartphone a mobile clinic of sorts currently has to navigate a number of different apps to drive each of the instruments. Some work for both Android and iPhone, but several only work on Apple devices. The data from each of the devices and apps also flow to different cloud platforms.

That’s an obvious target for Smartphone Physical as the project tries to convert what are now novelty devices into reliable medical equipment.

Images courtesy Cellscope, Think Labs and MobiSante

With Flexible Circuits, Wearable Electronics Gain Uses

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With Flexible Circuits, Wearable Electronics Gain Uses

checklight-mc10
In the world of tech, wearable devices are a hotbed of innovation. In the world of clinical medicine, their equivalent may be the changing understanding of head trauma and concussions.

The Boston-based electronics company MC10 sits at the intersection of these two hot topics. The company has kept a low profile, but its products are garnering a lot of interest. Its Reebok-branded skullcap that measures head trauma will be spotlighted at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. And Colts quarterback Andrew Luck has joined MC10’s athletic advisory board.

Called Checklight, the $149 skullcap is designed to be worn during athletic activity. Reebok designed the cap, incorporating MC10 electronics that include a tri-axial accelerometer to measure linear acceleration, a gyroscope to measure rotational acceleration and a microprocessor that analyzes the data.

If the impact of a collision nears a pre-programmed threshold, a yellow light blinks; a red light blinks if the impact clearly exceeds the threshold. The lights signal that a trainer or doctor should assess the athlete before s/he re-enters the game, since it can be difficult for players to  gauge the seriousness of an injury amid the hurly-burly of competition. Checklight also tallies the total number of impacts.

Sports_HydrationSensor_MC10There are lots of wearable products out there. Most are small and clip easily onto clothing, but they’re as rigid and fragile as electronics ever were. Even Samsung’s hyped curved-display phone looks an awful lot like a conventional smartphone.

Few if any other wearable devices could withstand a football game attached to one of the players, but MC10 is proof that more will come.

“At MC10, we are passionate about raising the bar when it comes to making technology truly wearable,” said CEO Dave Icke.

The company also makes a hydration-sensing Band-Aid that the wearer scans with a smartphone to know when it’s time to drink more water and how much, and urinary and cardiac catheters that include integrated sensors that collect a range of biological data.

flexible-circuitsYou may also have heard about electronic tattoos. MC10 is also developing those. Its technology powers the Motorola password-replacing tattoo that earned a lot of press last spring. The company is also looking into cosmetic and dermatological applications, such as notifying a user when to reapply sunscreen. (Laugh if you will, but people spend a lot of money on their skin as they age.)

All of MC10’s products trace their origins back to a 2008 research paper by co-founder John Rogers, a materials scientist at the University of Illinois. In the paper, Rogers laid out a method for making electronics that work even while being stretched and bent. The method uses nanoribbons of silicon and passive electronics on an ultra-thin plastic base.

So far, just the Checklight is on the shelves in retail stores. But as other companies develop their own flexible circuitry, wearable computing is likely to start looking less like goggles and more like plain-old clothing.

Images: MC10/Reebok, MC10, Rogers, Kim et al via Science

Sensors Embedded in Clothing? Check Out Sensoria Smart Socks

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Sensors Embedded in Clothing? Check Out Sensoria Smart Socks

Sensoria_Smart_Sock (1)

The first wave of self-tracking devices—Fitbit, FuelBand, Basis Band—has washed ashore and perhaps receded somewhat. Even so, sports and activity trackers make up some 61% of the wearables market, and market watchers predict more growth.

Most of these new health monitors strap to your wrist to record heart rate and activity. But Heapsylon’s Sensoria smart socks are a little different and may provide a clue to which way the wind blows—in the near future, more fitness trackers and health sensors may be embedded in clothing or attached to the skin. Here’s how they work.

Sensoria_Sock_Device

The company affixes textile sensors to each stocking, fore and aft. These sensors record foot pressure, heart rate, and body temperature and relay the data to a horseshoe-shaped device magnetically attached to the sock’s cuff, snug as Jeordie La Forge’s visor.

The socks are more accurate step trackers than the wrist-worn type that rely solely on accelerometers. But even better, if you’re a runner—Heapsylon’s initial target market—the socks’ pressure data are arranged inside a foot diagram in an accompanying app to show your average foot strike.

Running experts say the mid-foot strike is best, but it’s difficult for most runners to track their form. Though estimates vary, a significant fraction of runners will suffer a running-related injury each year, and while other factors may contribute to injuries, poor form is an important factor.

Sensoria_App_Run_CoachOther key running data include stride length and cadence. A digital “coach” in the app will let runners know when their stride length is too long or short and help them maintain a consistent pace by counting out step rhythm.

Heapsylon says their socks are comfortable and can be washed regularly. In extensive run testing, the ankle device didn’t slip down or prove much of a distraction. A LAPTOP Magazine review said the socks were comfortable, but they were only able to test a prototype anklet.

Future applications could range beyond running to other balance and stance dependent sports like golf, baseball, snowboarding, or skiing. Heapsylon says they’ll release a developer toolkit to expand their product’s capabilities.

Though the firm’s Indiegogo campaign is finished, they are taking pre-orders for shipment next year. Folks can buy the socks, anklet, and app for $149. Additional socks can be purchased in three-packs for $59.

Earlier this year, Gartner forecast wearable electronics would be a $10 billion market by 2016. Credit Suisse, meanwhile, said the market would increase ten-fold over the next three to five years to $50 billion. Neither forecast assigned a dominant fraction of the market to the kind of wearable tech you strap on your wrist or head.

Most wearable electronics won’t be conspicuous; rather, they’ll blend into the background, sewn into clothes or affixed to skin. And while watches, glasses, and the like will appeal to some—wearable “quantified self” sensors will be better integrated invisibly, coordinated by the more powerful, battery-hungry smartphone in your pocket.

Heapsylon has their eye on that larger market. If they can successfully design for socks—which get stomped on thousands of times a day and regularly thrown in the wash—their sensors may work more universally. Ultimately, the firm wants to be “the GoreTex of embeddable computing.”

If Gartner and Credit Suisse are right, Sensoria may be well positioned to provide the smart part of all that intelligent clothing.

Image Credit: Heapsylon

Monkeys Control Coordinated Arms Using Brain-Machine Interface

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Monkeys Control Coordinated Arms Using Brain-Machine Interface

monkey-avatar-coordinated-motion
The term “brain-machine interface” seems to invoke fear and discomfort in the minds of many, and gleeful enthusiasm in the minds of technophiles. Both of these reactions often overlook one of the major reasons for developing such interfaces: to enable amputees and those who suffer from paralysis to regain self-sufficiency by mentally controlling a mobile robot or robotic getup.

Prosthetic limbs controlled by a wearers’ thoughts are already available, though not commercially. They’re great for people who lack use of a single limb, usually just the part below the knee or elbow. But what about quadriplegics, for example?

Duke University researchers Miguel Nicolelis and Peter Ifft managed to create a two-handed brain-machine interface using monkeys in a study [pdf] recently published in Science Translational Medicine. Nicolelis has previously done similar work with a single arm. Attempts to empower two robotic limbs using a brain-machine interface have met with very limited success.

“Bimanual movements in our daily activities — from typing on a keyboard to opening a can — are critically important. Future brain-machine interfaces aimed at restoring mobility in humans will have to incorporate multiple limbs to greatly benefit severely paralyzed patients,” Nicolelis said in a news release.

To observe how the brain produces coordinated movement, Nicolelis and Ifft trained monkeys to use the hands of a realistic on-screen avatar, first with a joystick and, eventually, with just their minds. (An algorithm cleaned up the signals, looking for just the movement commands.)

Using surgically implanted arrays, the researchers achieved a two-handed BMI by recording the activity of a wider selection neurons than had been used in previous efforts — nearly 500 from multiple areas in both sides of the animals’ brains. They then sent the movement impulses on to power the avatar arms and captured them for subsequent analysis.

The mental activity involved with coordinating limbs did not look like the sum of that involved with moving each limb singly, they found.

“When we looked at the properties of individual neurons, or of whole populations of cortical cells, we noticed that simply summing up the neuronal activity correlated to movements of the right and left arms did not allow us to predict what the same individual neurons or neuronal populations would do when both arms were engaged together in a bimanual task,” Nicolelis said.

Miguel Nicolelis

Miguel Nicolelis

The monkeys’ brains also exhibited a great deal of adaptability as they learned to manipulate virtual arms, an aspect of the research that suggests that paralyzed people could learn to control robotic limbs. But while Nicolelis is the dominant mind in this sort of technology, his advances haven’t yet surmounted the need for electrodes in the brains of his subjects.

The findings will support the Walk Again Project, a Duke-led international consortium of BMI researchers that to unveil prototype robotic exoskeleton that lets quadriplegics walk at the opening ceremony of the 2014 World Cup 2014 in Nicolelis’s native Brazil.

Nicolelis reportedly wants to highlight his work on the World Cup stage by having young quadriplegics kick a soccer ball with the help of a robotic exoskeleton.

Photos and video courtesy Duke University