Most folks have heard that extended time in space can wreck havoc on the muscles and bones of astronauts, but new research is showing that there are even worse consequences to low-gravity environments.
A team-up between American and Russian scientists sent a number of mice into space to live for 30 days in zero-gravity. When the 30 days ended the satellite returned to Earth, and the mice were examined for physiological changes.
Turns out zero-gravity situations probably aren’t too healthy; the mouse vasculature had significantly reduced abilities to change cerebral blood flow, likely due to the fact that blood doesn’t have to fight gravity to get to the brain or back down. The arterial walls were unchanged, but constriction and dilation was weaker depending on the artery. The body just didn’t adapt a way to work without the Earth’s natural forces.
The research was begun in response to reported temporary vision changes in astronauts following short-term space missions, and permanent problems in longer-term stays in space. More research is planned to follow up this study, but it sounds like those folks planning to colonize Mars may not enjoy the experience as much as they thought.
This research is published in the Journal of Applied Physiology.
Scientists at the University of California Riverside have developed a more efficient method of pre-treating biofuels, potentially cutting the cost of production drastically.
Production of biofuel requires the fermentation of biomass into ethanol, but that biomass has to be broken down into sugars before that can begin. The lignocellulose is the main target for this, but a nasty byproduct called lignin tends to lower sugar content in the final yield. Breakdown the lignin, increase the yield.
This new process, called CELF, is capable of increasing the sugar yield to 95% of the maximum possible with the lowest possible amount of enzymes used, as opposed to 70% with current methods. Increasing the enzyme load of CELF doesn’t really matter, because it achieves its high yields by destroying lignin, something other methods aren’t so great with. With oil fluctuating so greatly in price, lowering the cost of sustainable biofuel production is even more of a priority.
The research is published in ChemSusChem, and the technology is being licensed by CogniTek to create a new company, MG Fuels.
Nerve injuries are pretty nasty. They don’t regenerate readily, and the results can be pretty serious; current methods of dealing with a severely damaged nerve include taking a graft from a different part of the body that won’t [quite] miss it suturing it in place, preying that blood flow is high enough to support full healing. Nerve guidance conduits (tiny tubes used to link up nerves) are showing themselves to be solid alternatives to suturing and are already approved by the FDA for sale, but they’re limited in a number of ways, particularly that they aren’t tailor made.
A team at the University of Sheffield has successfully built and tested a 3D printer for NGCs that works from CAD and builds with polyethylene glycol. In theory, these CAD designed guides can be made to match the specific nerves of specific patients, improving success rates without damaging other nerves in the party with a graft.
The devices where tested in vitro with a mouse model, and worked as promised. While clinical trials will hopefully begin soon on the 3D printed NGCs, the next step is actually to find a printable material that is biodegradable.
The research is published in Biomaterials, and can be read here.
Medical Technology and VR
I’m a sucker for a lot of things, weird perception studies particularly as they relate to virtual and augmented realities being a big one. 2012 Illusion of the Year contest winner? Great stuff. SnowWorld? Greater stuff.
Combine the two, and you get a new possible treatment/torture tool for neck pain, which is exactly what a team of scientists just did.
The idea that the body has only five senses is completely and utterly wrong, and one of the more established sixth-senses is proprioception- the sensation of the body’s location in space. The cool thing about proprioception is that it’s REALLY easy to mess with by using other senses.
If you’re at all familiar with the book Phantoms in the Brain or know about the mirror box treatment for phantom limb pain, you know that you can trick the body into thinking it has an intact, okay arm using basic illusions. With the advent of consumer-grade VR it seems like we can extend these sorts of treatments to just about any disorder that involves bodily perception.
So, the study. Pretty basic, the scientists used an Oculus Rift to create a virtual world, changing head-tracking to either increase the amount of head rotation in the virtual world, or reduce it. They found that individuals who had the head movement rate increased in the virtual world reported pain with less real-world movement, and individuals who experienced slowed movement rates could actually turn their necks more before reporting pain. Simple, elegant, and adds to the feasibility of VR interventions in pain disorder treatments.
This research is published in Psychological Science.
Doc Forre is not a real doctor, nor even a fake one – he just plays one in Shadowrun. His interests are sciences with unnecessary neuro- prefixes and how they can be abused in traditional game design. You can get in touch with Doc Forre via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @DocForre.