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Can Brain Zaps Boost Learning?

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by Benjamin Plackett

It may only be spring break, but finals season will soon be upon the academic world— and to all those students out there considering the perilous embrace of the amphetamine Adderall, think again. There could be a legal (if more intimidating) alternative. It’s called transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS) and it involves sending mild electrical currents into your brain.

The idea to stimulate the brain with electricity was originally developed as a means to treat patients suffering from brain injuries or strokes. The method was first extended to help with depression and chronic pain, and later trials on healthy adults gave researchers cause to hope it could improve wider cognitive functioning, learning and recall.

In a paper published last week in The Journal of Neuroscience, Vanderbilt University researchers announced they had proven it’s possible to boost human learning potential through tDCS. The study’s participants were given 20 minutes of electrode stimulation, after which they were asked to perform a trial-and-error task. The researchers measured the electrical activity of the subject’s brain while completing the assignment to determine whether tDCS made any difference. They concluded the effect was noticeable, with volunteers scoring low error rates on their work. So what is it about electrical stimulation that seems to trigger all these positive changes in the way the brain works?

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Txch This Week: Tiny Discoveries and Robot Fish

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by Norman Rozenberg

This week on Txchnologist we looked at big innovation in miniature. First, a research team has developed a small, inexpensive device capable of analyzing 170,000 different molecules in a blood sample, meaning a complete medical checkup might be at hand—literally. 

Next, a Stanford bioengineer has developed a microscope that can magnify objects 2,000 times. No big deal, you say? The kicker is that the microscope is flat, rugged, made of paper and costs just 50 cents.

Bioengineers looking for better alternative fuels are finding new sources by altering sorghum and sugarcane. Their work is making the crops produce more oil and be more tolerant of colder climates.

Cornell engineers have developed a smartphone- and solar-powered test for Kaposi sarcoma, a cancer that affects a disproportionate number of people in Africa. Columbia University researchers, meanwhile, have discovered that wetting dehydrated spores of certain bacteria can be used to produce electricity or power robot muscles. 

Now we’re bringing you the news and trends we’ve been following this week in the world of science, technology and innovation.

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This image shows a group of neurons in a mouse’s brain. The whole group measures about the width of a human hair and is part of the brain’s somatosensory area, which maps senses to the part of the body where they were experienced. This is the part of the sensory system that tells you a pain is coming from your foot or that a friend’s tap is on your shoulder.
The 3-D image of a tiny proportion of the mouse brain’s 75 million neurons is a composite developed by cutting several hundred 30-nanometer-thick slices of mouse brain tissue. Each slice was then imaged in sequence using an electron microscope, according to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The stack of images was reconstructed in 3-D and colored to better visualize individual neurons and the connections between them.
Image courtesy: Daniel Berger, MIT. EM data from N. Kasthuri, R. Schalek, K. Hayworth, J.C. Tapia, and J. Lichtman/Harvard. Reconstruction and rendering by D. Berger and S. Seung at MIT.[[MORE]]

This image shows a group of neurons in a mouse’s brain. The whole group measures about the width of a human hair and is part of the brain’s somatosensory area, which maps senses to the part of the body where they were experienced. This is the part of the sensory system that tells you a pain is coming from your foot or that a friend’s tap is on your shoulder.

The 3-D image of a tiny proportion of the mouse brain’s 75 million neurons is a composite developed by cutting several hundred 30-nanometer-thick slices of mouse brain tissue. Each slice was then imaged in sequence using an electron microscope, according to the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The stack of images was reconstructed in 3-D and colored to better visualize individual neurons and the connections between them.

Image courtesy: Daniel Berger, MIT. EM data from N. Kasthuri, R. Schalek, K. Hayworth, J.C. Tapia, and J. Lichtman/Harvard. Reconstruction and rendering by D. Berger and S. Seung at MIT.

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The Walk Again Project

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by Txchnologist staff

This short film from GE’s Focus Forward profiles the work of Miguel Nicolelis, a Duke University neurobiology professor and director of the Walk Again Project. The project is an international consortium of researchers who are developing technology at the cutting edge of robotics in hopes of one day rendering wheelchairs obsolete.

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