Category: Neurofeedback

10 Jul 2018
Manahel Thabet

Synthetic DNA Artificial Neural Network Recognizes Handwriting

Summary: Researchers have created an artificial neural network from synthetic DNA that is able to correctly identify handwritten numbers.

Source: CalTech.

Researchers at Caltech have developed an artificial neural network made out of DNA that can solve a classic machine learning problem: correctly identifying handwritten numbers. The work is a significant step in demonstrating the capacity to program artificial intelligence into synthetic biomolecular circuits.

The work was done in the laboratory of Lulu Qian, assistant professor of bioengineering. A paper describing the research appears online on July 4 and in the July 19 print issue of the journal Nature.

“Though scientists have only just begun to explore creating artificial intelligence in molecular machines, its potential is already undeniable,” says Qian. “Similar to how electronic computers and smart phones have made humans more capable than a hundred years ago, artificial molecular machines could make all things made of molecules, perhaps including even paint and bandages, more capable and more responsive to the environment in the hundred years to come.”

Artificial neural networks are mathematical models inspired by the human brain. Despite being much simplified compared to their biological counterparts, artificial neural networks function like networks of neurons and are capable of processing complex information. The Qian laboratory’s ultimate goal for this work is to program intelligent behaviors (the ability to compute, make choices, and more) with artificial neural networks made out of DNA.

“Humans each have over 80 billion neurons in the brain, with which they make highly sophisticated decisions. Smaller animals such as roundworms can make simpler decisions using just a few hundred neurons. In this work, we have designed and created biochemical circuits that function like a small network of neurons to classify molecular information substantially more complex than previously possible,” says Qian.

To illustrate the capability of DNA-based neural networks, Qian laboratory graduate student Kevin Cherry chose a task that is a classic challenge for electronic artificial neural networks: recognizing handwriting.

Human handwriting can vary widely, and so when a person scrutinizes a scribbled sequence of numbers, the brain performs complex computational tasks in order to identify them. Because it can be difficult even for humans to recognize others’ sloppy handwriting, identifying handwritten numbers is a common test for programming intelligence into artificial neural networks. These networks must be “taught” how to recognize numbers, account for variations in handwriting, then compare an unknown number to their so-called memories and decide the number’s identity.

In the work described in the Nature paper, Cherry, who is the first author on the paper, demonstrated that a neural network made out of carefully designed DNA sequences could carry out prescribed chemical reactions to accurately identify “molecular handwriting.” Unlike visual handwriting that varies in geometrical shape, each example of molecular handwriting does not actually take the shape of a number. Instead, each molecular number is made up of 20 unique DNA strands chosen from 100 molecules, each assigned to represent an individual pixel in any 10 by 10 pattern. These DNA strands are mixed together in a test tube.

“The lack of geometry is not uncommon in natural molecular signatures yet still requires sophisticated biological neural networks to identify them: for example, a mixture of unique odor molecules comprises a smell,” says Qian.

Given a particular example of molecular handwriting, the DNA neural network can classify it into up to nine categories, each representing one of the nine possible handwritten digits from 1 to 9.

First, Cherry built a DNA neural network to distinguish between handwritten 6s and 7s. He tested 36 handwritten numbers and the test tube neural network correctly identified all of them. His system theoretically has the capability of classifying over 12,000 handwritten 6s and 7s — 90 percent of those numbers taken from a database of handwritten numbers used widely for machine learning — into the two possibilities.

Crucial to this process was encoding a “winner take all” competitive strategy using DNA molecules, developed by Qian and Cherry. In this strategy, a particular type of DNA molecule dubbed the annihilator was used to select a winner when determining the identity of an unknown number.

“The annihilator forms a complex with one molecule from one competitor and one molecule from a different competitor and reacts to form inert, unreactive species,” says Cherry. “The annihilator quickly eats up all of the competitor molecules until only a single competitor species remains. The winning competitor is then restored to a high concentration and produces a fluorescent signal indicating the networks’ decision.”

Conceptual illustration of a droplet containing an artificial neural network made of DNA that has been designed to recognize complex and noisy molecular information, represented as ‘molecular handwriting.’ NeuroscienceNews.com image is credited to Olivier Wyart.

Next, Cherry built upon the principles of his first DNA neural network to develop one even more complex, one that could classify single digit numbers 1 through 9. When given an unknown number, this “smart soup” would undergo a series of reactions and output two fluorescent signals, for example, green and yellow to represent a 5, or green and red to represent a 9.

Qian and Cherry plan to develop artificial neural networks that can learn, forming “memories” from examples added to the test tube. This way, Qian says, the same smart soup can be trained to perform different tasks.

“Common medical diagnostics detect the presence of a few biomolecules, for example cholesterol or blood glucose.” says Cherry. “Using more sophisticated biomolecular circuits like ours, diagnostic testing could one day include hundreds of biomolecules, with the analysis and response conducted directly in the molecular environment.”

Source: NeuroScienceNews

02 Jul 2018

New Device Could Help Bring Back Lost Brain Function

Scientists at Stanford University and the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory in California are developing a device that could help bring back lost brain function . The device combines electrical brain stimulation with electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings, which is where electrodes are attached to the scalp and measure electrical activity.

Christopher Kenny, a senior scientist at SLAC, says, ‘The device works similar to radar, which sends out electromagnetic waves and passively listens for the weaker reflected waves. Here, we send electrical pulses into the head via the electrodes of an EEG monitoring system, and in the time between those strong pulses we use the same electrodes to pick up the much weaker electrical signals from inside the head.’

Although this sounds relatively simple, it can be quite hard to do since the weaker reflected waves can be a million times weaker than the signals sent into the head, making the weak signals quite difficult to detect. Previously, signals would be sent into the head and then the brain waves and the behavioral response would be tracked in different sessions. But, with this new device, they can be monitored at the same time the stimulus is applied, providing a more accurate link between the behavioral response and the brain wave activity.

Anthony Norcia, a professor of psychology from Stanford initiated the project and strongly believes that this device could open new paths in the treatment of brain disorders and in selectively turning certain brain activities on or off. Norcia and his team developed models relating to cases of visual impairment and how electrical activity from the brain’s visual centers travel to the scalp so that it can be detected by the external electrodes. Norcia says, ‘Our models give us a pretty good idea for how to design an array of electrodes to reach specific volumes inside the head. But we also want to be able to ‘listen’ to the brain’s response at the same time to figure out whether an applied stimulus had the desired effect.’

Norcia teamed up with members of the SLAC laboratory who specialize in detector development in order to develop the device. In particular, Martin Breidenbach from SLAC, says, ‘At SLAC, we’re trying to answer some of the really big questions about our universe, and figuring out how the human mind works seems to be right up there. We certainly have the engineering skills and resources to help with some of the technical issues in neuroscience. With our background in high-energy physics, we’re also used to multidisciplinary collaborations and know how to make them work.’

With the collaboration of physicists at SLAC, the team took a standard EEG monitor and paired it with one that they built which delivers the signals into the head and is generated with a 9-volt battery. They took the hit and tested the prototype on themselves, fortunately, this was successful.

In the future, the team hope to develop the device on the chip. Jeff Olsen, an electrical engineer from SLAC says, ‘In the next generation, we’ll be able to program the device, which will let us choose different types of signal shapes and synchronize electrical signals with other external triggers, such as visual stimulation.’ This is a very exciting device which would help those with brain disorders and return valuable brain functions, which is incredibly valuable. Watch this space.

Source: Forbes

14 Apr 2018
Manahel Thabet

Scientists Who Stick Needles in Brains Curious About What Needles Do to Brains

Neuroscience research is surprisingly brutal – a lot of what we’ve learned about the brain has come from opening up the organ and just poking around.  Definitely not an activity for the squeamish.

The best tool for the job? Often, it’s electrodes – a needle-like probe that can be inserted into the brain. Researchers use electrodes to measure how individual brain cells behave, to give people control over prosthetic limbs, or to develop other technology that interacts directly with the brain. But there’s reason to question exactly how much these probes can teach us, or if they’re even safe, according an article published April 6 in the Journal of Neural Engineering.

In it, neuroscientists point out that studying a brain with neural electrodes can cause quite a few issues.  Some of these problems are relatively simple, and can be solved through better engineering. For example, the surfaces of these electrodes that contact, stimulate, or record brain activity can degrade or slip – especially in a conscious research participant.

This can give rise to faulty recordings; a degraded electrode would make it seem like the cell it’s measuring is giving off a weaker signal than it really is. Because we can’t always tell why (or even if) these issues are occurring, it can be difficult for researchers to support their findings.

But the biggest problem the team found goes back to the fact that we actually knowvery little about the brain. In particular, we don’t know much about how our brain tissues respond to being jabbed with an electrode. For all we know, the article points out, neuroscientists have spent countless experiments trying to study brain cells that they killed or damaged while inserting the electrode.

There are some solutions out there – for these, the article focuses on areas of the brain’s visual cortex. For example, scientists can tell whether or not the cells they’re studying are still alive simply by having their research subject look at a visual and seeing if the cells respond.

But even so, the researchers concluded that our technology has caught up to the limits of what we actually know about the brain. In order for neuroscientists to regain confidence in their experimental findings, we will need to invest in actually sorting out these basic questions of how brains are responding to electrodes and other technological interventions.

Source: Futurism

09 Apr 2018

“Prosthetic Memory Systems,” Delivered Via Electrode, Could Be Dope, If You’re Willing To Wait A While

Prosthetic memory systems: no longer just some sci-fi nonsense.

Researchers just completed a military-funded project intended to boost patients’ recall. At first glance, the numbers look really promising. At second glance, though, they might just be enough cause for optimism, but, well, not much more.

The 15 participants were seeking treatment for epilepsy-related memory loss at North Carolina’s Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. They had already received surgery to place small brain implants in an effort to map what was going on in their brains to better treat their epilepsy.

In the study, published in the Journal of Neural Engineering on March 28, theparticipants in the study were asked to complete a simple task: look at an image on a screen and then correctly identify it among three or four other images after a short delay. While they were doing so, the researchers were busy mapping their brain activity to identify the region that displayed the most activity when the participant remembered the correct image.

In a second trial, the researchers used those small electrodes to stimulate the “correct answer” areas they had just identified.

The result? Stimulated participants’ short term memory improved by 37 percent, and their long-term memory (or what the researchers are calling that — a similar task with a longer day) improved by 35 percent.

“This is the first time scientists have been able to identify a patient’s own brain cell code or pattern for memory and, in essence, ‘write in’ that code to make existing memory work better, an important first step in potentially restoring memory loss,” said Robert Hampson, the lead researcher on this project, in a press release.

Dope.

The researchers received funding from DARPA in the hope that their work could help soldiers who face memory loss after head injuries.

Some caveats: this was one clinical trial conducted on just 15 people who were asked to complete one specific, simple task in a hospital setting. It’s not at all clear this would help you stop losing your keys so damn much, nor would you want to necessarily undergo surgery to try it. At least, not at its current stage of development, which is just proof-of-concept.

The results from this latest memory boosting study, which the researchers are calling a “prosthetic memory system,” are impressive. They might even inspire optimism, if you’re into that sort of thing.  This experiment lays the groundwork for future human research into technology that can restore or enhance brain function, and that’s nothing to dismiss.

But for as long as scientists have studied memory loss, no matter its cause, the timeline for when we’d have a viable solution was always in “the near future,” “sometime down the line.” A stock answer for when Alzheimer’s might be cured is always “50 years away,” conveniently after that scientist would likely have retired.

So what does this study show? A cool, promising future of prosthetic memories. But not for, say, 50 years or so.

Source: Futurism

31 Mar 2018

It’s Happening: British Man Has Uniquely Resistant Strain of Gonorrhea

It’s not a great feeling to know that you scared your doctors. Unfortunately for a man in the U.K, he recently did so: he displayed a case of gonorrhea that so dramatically resisted treatment that it chilled his physicians.

That’s partially because gonorrhea isn’t the best thing to leave untreated. But another reason: this case is a harbinger of a looming crisis.

Gonorrhea is an infection caused by a bacteria. Usually antibiotics can kill it. But after some time, the bacteria evolves to become resistant to that treatment. It also happens to be one of the world’s most common STDs, with 78 million new cases every year. 30 percent of all gonorrhea infections are resistant to at least one antibiotic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

We’ve known this was coming. In 2017, the WHO raised a worldwide alarm about the rising spread of resistance to older and cheaper antibiotics. Some countries with better monitoring systems, the UN agency said in a statement, found cases of resistance to all known antibiotics.

This case is one of the first of its kind. The man is reported to have visited a clinic earlier this year, and was given a combination of two antibiotics, azithromycin and ceftriaxone, that was known to be effective in getting rid of the disease. After the cocktail failed to wipe out the infection, the patient is now being treated with injections of a stronger antibiotic called ertapenem and will be tested again next month, PHE said in a report.

As reported by The Guardian, the U.K. government agency Public Health England (PHE) revealed that the patient who caught the highly resistant strain had a female partner in the country, but might have been infected during a trip in Southeast Asia. Authorities are tracking down the man’s partners to try and contain the spread of the disease.

“These cases may just be the tip of the iceberg, since systems to diagnose and report untreatable infections are lacking in lower-income countries where gonorrhea is actually more common,” said Teodora Wi, a human reproduction expert with WHO, in a 2017 press release.

New antibiotics are hard to come by. They are expensive to produce, and resistance evolves fast, thanks to their extensive use in agriculture and farming.

And we’re already feeling the effects. Superbugs claim the lives of up to 50,000 people every year in Europe and the U.S. alone, according to the U.K.’s Review on Antimicrobial Resistance. Globally, drug resistant infections kill at least 700,000 people every year.

Those deaths are mostly due to resistance to cheap, widely-available antibiotics. What makes this gonorrhea case notable? So far it has resisted treatments previously considered very effective. Doctors are treating the patient with more powerful antibiotics in the hope they might finally work.

Until we have more effective treatments for gonorrhea and other antibiotic-resistant infections, the only way to avoid catching a potentially untreatable STI is the same that prevents a treatable one: protected sex.

So if you needed an extra reminder to stay safe in the boudoir, well, here you go.

Source: Futurism

27 Mar 2018

How Your Gut Controls Your Mind and What to Do About It

Have you ever had that gut feeling? A feeling that makes you suddenly feel anxious or feel like something isn’t right? It’s not just a figure of speech, because there is actually science behind it. This is caused by the microbes in your gut communicating with your brain via something called the vagus nerve, and vice versa. So let’s look at what has to happen in the gut to cause it to start sending signals to the brain that result in problems like depression or anxiety.
Scientific evidence shows a strong connection between chronic diseases and inflammation. Inflammation is most commonly rooted in the gut, where around 70 percent of our immune system resides. Our food choices result in oxidative stress, setting the stage for inflammatory ailments such as depression, anxiety, brain fog, obesity and more. The health of your gut directly impacts the health of your brain.
The gut communicated with our immune system and also communicates with the brain using, among other things, neurotransmitters. One function of neurotransmitters is that they that they send key messages to the brain, resulting in various effects on the body.
Serotonin and dopamine are some well-known neurotransmitters that are typically associated with a good mood. In fact, while many believe that serotonin is primarily produced in the brain, it’s been found that up to 90 percent of serotonin is actually created in the gut.
Dr. Helen Messer, the Chief Medical Officer at Viome, which analyzes the gut microbiome, told Futurism that “the bacteria in the gut make or consume the majority of neurotransmitters in our bodies.”
Essentially, if your gut is producing an adequate amount of mood-improving chemicals like serotonin, then it will send signals to the brain that will result in various benefits such as better sleep and satiety. It’s obviously more complicated than that, but that’s the general rundown. So how do you influence your gut to help it produce the good neurotransmitters and other compounds that make the mind feel better? A lot of it has to do with eating the right diet that your gut needs.

gut mind brain

The foods that we eat affect the composition of our microbes and in turn change the products that our gut produces, Dr. Messier said. A fatty diet, especially, can turn on the bad bacteria that like those types of food. These fast food loving organisms produce inflammatory compounds setting the stage for chronic diseases.
The truth is that your gut is incredibly unique. It’s more unique than your fingerprint. It’s important to understand that there is no food that can be considered universally non-inflammatory. The same food that can heal one person and cause inflammation in another person depending the composition of the gut microbiome, Viome CEO Naveen Jain told Futurism. Your gut can metabolize the same food to produce nutrients that your body needs or can produce harmful toxins that cause inflammation. That spinach you’ve been told to eat your whole life may not actually be healthy for you right now.
A healthy diet personalized for you allows your gut not produce inflammatory compounds and instead produce healthy compounds like butyrate and neurotransmitters that positively affect the brain and mind. It’s not just neurotransmitters, though. The bacteria in your gut also produce vitamins and nutrients your brain needs to function properly.
“Neurotransmitter production in the brain is dependent on specific vitamins,” Dr. Messier said. “Folic acid is an example. Our brain absolutely depends on folic acid, and our bacteria make it for us. If they don’t have the right building blocks that come from the food, they won’t be able to make the things we depend on.”
If your brain does not get the nutrients it needs, then nerve signals slow down, and different parts of the brain start having trouble communicating effectively, Dr. Messier explained. The good news is that the microbiome changes. If someone adequately improves their diet, based on personalized recommendations, Dr. Messier says their gut can be rebalanced in a matter of weeks.
To find out what your unique microbiome needs, it’s best to get your gut tested. Viome, where Dr. Messier works, has developed an RNA sequencing method that is affordable and accurately identifies which organisms are active in your gut. Not only what organisms are there, but also what these organisms are doing and what they are producing. We’ve reported on it in the past. Viome offers personalized food recommendations based on the needs of your gut. Not only will your gut thank you, your brain will thank you too.

Source: Futurism

24 Mar 2018

A Mobile Scanner Reveals Brain Activity of Patients Doing Everyday Tasks

Children with mental and neurological disorders have plenty of challenges in their lives. The last thing they need is to sit still for a while with their heads stuck in a machine — the current technique that scientists use to take pictures of their brain activity. It’s inconvenient and unpleasant, but it’s also pretty limited, because it tells scientists nothing about how the brain behaves when the patient is active, going about their daily lives.

Scientists in the U.K. and U.S. decided it was time to make brain imaging way less stressful for patients, not to mention suitable for patients that struggle to keep still, such as toddlers.

They came up with a (scary-looking but) versatile helmet that allows them to move relatively freely as it scans their brain. The helmet is 3D printed, can be personalized to fit a patient’s head, and weighs less than one kilogram.

The researchers were able to shrink the machine without reducing its function by replacing the conventional sensors, which require a heavy cooling system, with tiny ones that use a different technique to capture the brain’s magnetic field.

As reported by New Scientist, the team tested the helmet on four volunteers. They were asked to move their fingers, to play a ball game and even have a cup of tea (because England). These experiments showed the portable scan worked as precisely and accurately as a conventional static one.

“This has the potential to revolutionize the brain imaging field, and transform the scientific and clinical questions that can be addressed with human brain imaging,” Gareth Barnes, a neuroimaging expert with the University College London and a partner of the project, told The Guardian.

Patients wearing the helmet can’t exactly forget about it — the scanner only works inside a special room designed to suppress the influence of the Earth’s natural magnetic field, which would interfere with the procedure. Oh, and it don’t just sit on the top of the head, but covers part of the face, too.

Still, the device could help researchers study child development, or brain activity of children with epilepsy. Better understanding could allow doctors to catch problems sooner, and treat them better.

Although still experimental, the device’s creators are confident that a mobile brain scanner holds great promises for science. They may do more tests, on people with neurological conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, or psychoses, and see if they learn anything new.

They also realize the design isn’t quite where it needs to be. So they’re working on making future iterations look similar to a bike helmet. Perhaps they realized that terrified patients with their heads stuffed in giant devices might not give the most reliable brain scans.

 Source: Futurism

28 Feb 2018
Manahel Thabet

Long Term Depression Permanently Changes the Brain

IN BRIEF

Is clinical depression a degenerative illness? One new study shows that inflammation in the brain linked to depression increases over time.

DEPRESSION INFLAMMATION

New research from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) in Toronto has revealed something remarkable about mental illness: years of persistent depression-caused inflammation permanently and physically alter the brain. This may dramatically affect how we understand mental illness and how it progresses over time.

In a study published in The Lancet Psychiatry, researchers found that those who had untreated depression for over a decade had significantly more inflammation in their brains, when compared to those with untreated clinical depression for less than a decade. This work jumps off of senior author Jeff Meyer’s previous work, in which he found the first concrete evidence that those with clinical depression experience inflammation of the brain.

This study went even further, proving for the first time that long-term depression can cause extensive and permanent changes in the brain. Dr. Meyer thinks that this study could be used to create treatments for different stages in depression. This is important because now it is clear that treating depression immediately after diagnosis should be significantly different than treatment after 10 years with the illness.

IMPROVING UNDERSTANDING

Once a doctor and patient find a treatments for depression that works for the patient, treatment typically remains static throughout the course of the patient’s life. Taking this new study into account, this might not be the most effective method.

A PET image of a slice of human brain, showing areas of blue and red coloring. This method was used to measure depression-caused inflammation in this study.
A PET image of a slice of human brain. Image Credit: Jens Maus

This study examined a total of 25 patients who have had depression for over a decade, 25 who had the illness for less time, and 30 people without clinical depression as a control group. The researchers measured depression-caused inflammation using positron emission tomography (PET), which can pick out the protein markers, called TSPO, that the brain immune cells produce due to inflammation. Those with long-lasting depression had about 30 percent higher levels of TSPO when compared to those with shorter periods of depression, as well as higher levels than the control group.

Many misunderstand mental illness to be entirely separate from physical symptoms, but this study shows just how severe those symptoms can be. These findings could spark similar studies with other mental illnesses.

It is even possible that depression might now be treated as a degenerative disease, as it affects the brain progressively over time: “Greater inflammation in the brain is a common response with degenerative brain diseases as they progress, such as with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease,” Meyer said in a press release.

Source: Futurism

04 Nov 2017

A Revolutionary Sensory Tool is Transforming the Lives of Children with Autism

Too Bright, Too Loud

When my little brother was born in 1993, I don’t think my parents were the only ones who didn’t know much about autism. For the next decade or so, as they tried to understand why my brother seemed constantly overstimulated by the world and heartbreakingly inconsolable at times, they did what many parents of children who would ultimately be diagnosed with autism did: they tried to experience the world through their child’s eyes and body.

Autism was not widely discussed in the early ’90s, in part because there wasn’t much to discuss. The research was limited, and high-profile celebrity activists were few and far between. For those whose lives had not been directly touched in some way by autism (at least not yet), the general understanding of the condition was defined by cultural interpretations, such as Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man.

For families raising children with autism — whether they had been formally diagnosed yet or not — it was an interesting time. The emergence of the internet provided a vital tool for parents, giving them access to information beyond what they could dig up at their local library as well as the opportunity to carve out community spaces and connect with other parents.

Questions like “How do you deal with this?” or “What works for you?” are not unfamiliar to parents in general, but for parents of children with autism or sensory processing disorders of any kind, they can refer to situations more serious than the standard toy store tantrum. Parents were often desperate to help their child stop physically harming themselves (either intentionally or unintentionally) and to find something — anything — that might calm them in those moments when chaos reigned.

My family did what many others did: tried various things and hoped that something would stick. My brother was ultimately more high functioning and verbal than children with autism are expected to be, but that was only after years of diligent intervention. When he was very young, the tone of every day of his life (and ours) was dictated by how he felt. On a good day, his meltdowns were infrequent and no one got hurt. I try not to dwell on what the bad days were like — as hard as they were for me and my parents, I can only imagine how they must have been for him.

Temple Grandin & The Hug Machine

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Temple Grandin, one of the most well-known researchers in the field of autism and someone who is, in fact, autistic herself. During the lecture, she discussed a number of topics, but primary among them was perhaps her most significant contribution to the body of research on autism and sensory processing disorders: her “hug machine.”

A number of the hallmark features of autism involve sensory processing. Specifically, children with autism tend to become painfully overstimulated by a variety of sensory input: sights, sounds, tastes, tactile sensations, etc. This was a tendency that Grandin was well aware of in herself from an early age and one that I remembered afflicting my brother. He was particularly overwrought about fire alarms, would often tear off his clothes in public, and has more or less eaten the same foods every day of his life for more than 20 years.

Not unlike Grandin, he also had an interesting contradiction about touch. He did not like to be hugged and had a number of interpersonal struggles that made him seem “unaffectionate.” However, at the same time, he exhibited self-soothing behaviors that made it seem like he wanted to be wrapped up or held. In fact, if he was thrashing about in the throes of a tantrum, a firm hold not only kept him from hurting himself (or anyone in close proximity), it also seemed to calm him down.

image credit: temple grandin / autism wiki

Grandin, who loves animals, spent much of her research career working with livestock. Her fascination with them began on her aunt’s farm when she was a child, during which time she observed the “squeeze machine” often used by dairy farms to quell anxious cows as they’re being branded. From there, she developed the concept for her own such device for people. The prototype involved two air mattresses and a wooden framework that she could stand within and then control the degree to which she was compressed by the mattresses.

Grandin’s brilliant, systems-thinking mind reasoned that something about the “deep touch pressure” provided by the squeeze machines calmed both the livestock and herself. Her seminal paper on the topic, Calming Effects of Deep Touch Pressure in Patients with Autistic Disorder, College Students, and Animals, was published in 1992 — one year before my brother was born.

Deep Touch Pressure

Grandin’s research defines deep touch pressure as “the type of surface pressure that is exerted in most types of firm touching, holding, stroking, petting of animals, or swaddling.” As she notes, it’s important to distinguish this type of touch from light touching, such as tickling or the sensation of hairs moving on the skin of your arm. That type of touch stimulates the nervous system and puts it on alert, which can then cause a person to feel anxious. Deep pressure touch, however, has been shown to have the opposite effect: it calms you down.

“Research on autistic children indicates that they prefer proximal sensory stimulation such as touching, tasting, and smelling to distal sensory stimulation of hearing and seeing,” Grandin writes, citing a paper from 1981 that observed how children with and without autism responded to various sensory modalities.

Other research Grandin discusses concerning deep touch pressure therapy (DTPT) applies more broadly to “neurotypical” folks as much as those with autism spectrum disorders. We’ve long known that newborns need close human contact not just to thrive, but to survive infancy at all. Those early experiences with touch – particularly being held and comforted physically by a caregiver — have been linked not only to how a child develops mentally, but physically as well.

More recent research has shown that touch can have an almost miraculous influence on the health of preterm infants in neonatal intensive care units around the world. The impact reaches beyond babyhood, too — benefits can extend well into the first decade of a child’s life.

DTPT research has also been shown to be helpful for children and adults who are not on the autism spectrum, but may suffer from anxiety. Occupational therapists have known for decades that deep touch pressure can help not just children with sensory processing disorders, but those with hyperactivity and attention deficit disorder, too.

While there are certainly hug machine-inspired apparatuses in use, for those of us who don’t have the space (or wouldn’t even know where to start in terms of constructing one ourselves), weighted blankets are a more user-friendly and generally affordable option for providing the benefits of DTPT. And, since you can use them in bed, it’s also worth noting that weighted blankets have been shown to help with sleep, too.

In the conclusion to her paper, Grandin points out that deep pressure touch can’t be expected to work for everyone, and not every child with autism will respond well to it. Still, her initial research and the two-decades-worth of additional research that followed it have helped countless families. By bringing to light the power of deep pressure touch, she’s given those struggling to help their children live in a world that is, at times, quite literally painful to bear an incredible tool and the previously unattainable possibility of calm.

Source: Futurism 

03 Sep 2017

The First Mind-Controlled Virtual Reality Game Has Arrived

IN BRIEF

Startup Neurable just unveiled the first virtual reality game that users can control with their minds. The game is just one example of the rapidly growing field of tech based on brain-computer interfaces, or BCIs.

TELEKINETIC POWERS

Part of the appeal of virtual reality (VR) is the ability to control the digital world using only your hands and simple movements. Startup company Neurable, in collaboration with the Madrid-based company Estudiofuture, is eliminating controllers and hand movements altogether with their first game: Awakening, which aims to show what it’s like to have telekinetic abilities.

Neurable Vice President Michael Thompson announced the game last week ahead of its appearance at the computer graphics conference SIGGRAPH. The game, set to be released in VR arcades in 2018, has a story similar to that of the Netflix series Stranger Things: “You are a child held prisoner in a government science laboratory. You discover that experiments have endowed you with telekinetic powers. You must use those powers to escape your cell, defeat the robotic prison guards, and free yourself from the lab.”

Speaking with IEEE Spectrum, Neurable CEO Ramses Alcaide explained that his company’s headset strap, attached to a modified HTC Vive headset, uses several electrodes positioned in specific areas that detect brain signals known as “event-related potentials.” These small electric changes in the brain are tied to movements, sensory experiences, or thoughts as they happen.

MORE THAN JUST GAMING

Though Neurable’s technology might be exciting for gamers, such brain-computer interfaces (BCIs) are being researched for much more widespread applications: from neuroscience research to mind-controlled web development, to brainwave-based marketing and tracking brain activity the way many track their steps. The technology is also being developed to help those with locked-in syndrome — unable to move or talk — communicate with the outside world.

Some researchers have expressed skepticism that this technology can ever be commercially viable; Jack Gallant, head of UC Berkeley’s Neuroscience Lab, told the Guardian it was “conceptually trivial but just about impossible to do” due to the difficulty of decoding brain signals through the thick human skull. But Alcaide seems to think the ease with which people have used Awakening bodes well for the tech’s future.

“A lot of people come in highly skeptical, because BCI has been a disappointment so many times before,” Alcaide told IEEE. “But as soon as they grab an object, there’s a smile that comes over their faces. You can see the satisfaction that it really works.”