Science

On playing fields across the country, nervous trainers stand on the sidelines, hoping none of their players will sustain a head injury. After years of denial, organizations such as the National Football League are finally beginning to recognize the dangers of concussion. Although awareness of the issue has increased enormously, diagnosis remains difficult, relying exclusively on players’ subjective reports of symptoms such as blurred vision, dizziness, headache and nausea. At least two life sciences companies are now developing blood tests that can detect concussion more reliably and objectively, and a recent study suggests such tests may eventually be game-changers. “The biggest problem is that the clinical criteria for diagnosing concussion are very vague,” says Henrik Zetterberg, a professor of neurochemistry at the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. “If someone hits their head and doesn’t feel 100 percent well afterwards, that can fulfill the criteria—it’s not much stricter than that.” A blood test that diagnoses concussion …

Elite memory athletes are not so different from their peers in any other sport: They face off in intense competitions where they execute seemingly superhuman feats such as memorizing a string of 500 digits in five minutes. Most memory athletes credit their success to hours of memorization technique practice. One lingering question, though, is whether memory champs succeed by practice alone or are somehow gifted. Recent research suggests there may be hope for the rest of us. A study, published today in Neuron, provides solid evidence that most people can successfully learn and apply the memorization techniques used by memory champions, while triggering large-scale brain changes in the process. A team led by Martin Dresler at Radboud University in the Netherlands used a combination of behavioral tests and brain scans to compare memory champions with the general population. It found top memory athletes had a different pattern of brain connectivity than controls did, but also …

Free falling: NASA is putting ultracold atoms in space A laboratory for cooling an atomic gas to just a billionth of a degree above absolute zero will soon be sent up to the International Space Station (ISS) by physicists working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The goal of the Cold Atom Lab (CAL) mission is to create long-lived Bose–Einstein condensates (BECs) that could lead to better sensors and atomic clocks for use on spacecraft. The BECs could even provide important insights into the nature of dark energy, according to the researchers. First created in 1995, a BEC is made by trapping and cooling an atomic gas to an extremely low temperature so the atoms fall into the same low-energy quantum state. Instead of behaving like a collection of individual atoms, a BEC is essentially a large quantum object. This makes it very sensitive to disturbances such as stray magnetic fields and accelerations, and therefore BECs …

When Naika Venant killed herself in January, the Miami-area teen broadcast the event for two hours on Facebook’s popular video live-streaming feature, Facebook Live. A friend of hers saw the video and alerted police but aid did not arrive in time to save the 14-year-old’s life. Other young people have also recently posted suicidal messages on social media platforms including Twitter, Tumblr and Live.me. In a bid to save lives Facebook and other social media giants are now wading into suicide prevention work—creating new alert systems designed to better identify and help at-risk individuals. Last Wednesday Facebook unveiled a new suite of tools including the company’s first pattern recognition algorithms to spot users who may be suicidal or at risk of lesser self-harm. Facebook says the new effort will help it flag concerning posts and connect users with mental health services. It also represents a new front in its machine learning. Suicide is now the …

New vision: the implant in a rat’s eye An organic retinal implant designed in Italy can stimulate retinal neurons and send signals to the brain, restoring near-normal vision indefinitely to rats with degenerative blindness without causing apparent damage to the rats’ eyes. That’s the claim of the researchers who developed it, who believe it could potentially lead to treatments for a major cause of blindness in humans. Other researchers, however, are more cautious. Retinitis pigmentosa describes multiple genetic disorders that cause the photoreceptors on the retina to die. These lead to blindness, even though the other neurons concerned with signal processing and the optic nerve remain functional. There is currently no effective clinical treatment for the condition, but several groups are developing various proposals to effectively replace these lost photoreceptors by stimulating the retinal neurons artificially. While this could one day restore a patient’s vision, these approaches face severe difficulties. For example, most of the …

More than a dozen state attorneys general are asking Pres. Donald Trump to throw out recent federal rules regulating the environment for endangered or threatened plants and animals. The states claim the rules, which enlarge the definition of species habitat, give the federal government excessive power over state and private lands. The rules govern implementation of the Endangered Species Act (ESA), and were made a year ago by Pres. Barack Obama’s administration. In January the state officials sent a letter to the Trump transition team asking for repeal, arguing the rules will cost states and private land owners billions of dollars by blocking or delaying the use or development of their properties. “It’s such a massive land grab by the federal government,” Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge says. But at least one study shows implementation of the ESA has affected very few development projects during the current decade. Rutledge, along with Alabama Attorney General Luther …

Molecule traps: angulons spotted in helium droplets The quasiparticle concept allows physicists to describe complex, many-body interactions in terms of the behaviour of a single particle-like entity. Usually these particles turn up in condensed-matter systems such as semiconductors, but a new type of quasiparticle known as an angulon has been proposed to describe the rotation of an atomic or molecular impurity within a solvent. First proposed theoretically two years ago, angulons have now been shown to explain the curious behaviour of a range of different molecules rotating within liquid helium. Physicists have been studying quasiparticles since at least the 1940s, when Lev Landau and Solomon Pekar put forward the idea of the polaron to describe the behaviour of an electron travelling through a crystal lattice. As the electron moves forward it disturbs the surrounding atoms and so polarizes that region of the crystal. Describing the process completely would involve calculating the changing interaction between the …

Is love in the eye of the beholder? Perhaps among humans it is, but not so in other mammals. In the case of some bats, love is detected by nose. In the bat family Emballonuridae at least one of its 51 species (and likely more) uses the sense of smell to find the mate with the greatest genetic diversity. The bat family, also called sac-winged bats, have bag-shaped glands in each wing that are open to the air. During courtship, males wave their wings in front of the females for a few seconds, dispersing the scent that comes out of these bags. “Males are continually trying to announce themselves by mixing an odorous cocktail with chemical components in their wing bags, making sure the molecules reach the female noses by fluttering the wings in front of them,” Pablo Santos, the lead author of the study, from the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, wrote …

Light and sound: how to make an ultrasound “7” A new way of creating specially shaped pulses of ultrasound using light and a 3D printer has been unveiled by Michael Brown and colleagues at University College London. The pulses, which are creating using the photoacoustic effect in a 3D-printed material, could be tailored to perform a range of tasks including manipulating biological cells and delivering drugs to specific parts of the body. Renowned for its ability to let us see inside the body, ultrasound refers to acoustic waves at frequencies above about 20 kHz. Such waves can also be used for medical treatment, industrial product imaging and chemistry. Researchers have also recently developed acoustic tractor beams and tweezers for the non-contact manipulation of small objects. Ultrasound is usually generated by applying an electrical signal to a piezoelectric transducer. Complicated ultrasound signals can be created using arrays of transducers, but the ability to create certain very precise …

The idea of wireless phone charging is enticing: Set your device down for a quick battery top-up while you eat lunch or wait for a plane. No need to carry tangled cords or hunt for a power outlet. Many phones now offer the feature, and charging docks are starting to pop up in airports and restaurants. But calling the current technology “wireless” is still a bit of a stretch. True, your phone is no longer tethered to a cable. But the charging dock is plugged into an outlet, and the phone needs to be positioned on the dock in a very specific way. Ultimately, it is not much different from using a power cable. That looks set to change with two nascent forms of the technology—one of which is truly wireless, allowing a phone to soak up juice by itself from a faraway source. Another big boost could come from Apple, which is likely to …

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