Belgian MPs to debate extending euthanasia laws to under-18s and Alzheimer’s patients.


The country already has some of the most relaxed laws on medically-assisted suicide in the world.

 

Belgium is set to debate this week whether or not it will extend its laws allowing euthanasia to include children and those suffering from long-term “diseases of the brain” like Alzheimer’s.

 

The country already has some of the most relaxed rules in the world when it comes to helping people who are suffering to take their own lives, and lawmakers could be about to push those boundaries even further.

Since 2002, any adult in Belgium who is signed off by two doctors as undergoing “unbearable psychological or physical suffering” can consent to be killed, most commonly by an injection of a lethal combination of drugs. Assisted suicides reportedly now account for around 1 per cent of all deaths.

Under the bill being considered, this could be extended to those under 18 if they requested it, their parents gave their consent, and where an expert psychologist deemed the child to fully understand the implications of their decision.

“This is very important because one child that suffers is one too many,” Jean-Jacques De Gucht, MP for the Open Flemish Liberals and Democrats party, told the Sunday Times.

“It’s about giving people the right to choose how and when to end their life in dignity,” he said.

According to the newspaper, a recent poll suggested that more than two-thirds of the Belgian public back the new laws.

Under the proposals, medically-assisted euthanasia would also be offered as an option to those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

Once diagnosed and while still lucid, they would be able to consent to being killed when their illness progressed to the point where doctors decided they were no longer interacting with society – even if on the surface they appeared to be happy and well.

In Europe only Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg have laws which allow for euthanasia in extreme circumstances. In Switzerland and Germany, doctors can prepare the necessary lethal injection but the patient must administer it themselves.

Supporters of the euthanasia bill say it would simply be bringing under legal control something which already happens anyway. Studies have shown that, with terminally ill children whose parents are begging for their suffering to be brought to an end, doctors have been steadily increasing doses of painkillers until they reach lethal amounts.

Dr Dominique Biarent, who runs the intensive care unit at a Brussels children’s hospital, told the Wall Street Journal that this does happen, though rarely, and only ever at the initiative of the child’s parents.

“Our goal is to cure,” she said. “It never happens that we’re pushing parents. We never say, ‘This morning we’re doing euthanasia—yippee!’ It’s a terrible process.”

The Belgian law has come under renewed international focus when a man chose to die last week after he said a failed sex change operation turned him into “a monster”.

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Plastic waste is a hazard for subalpine lakes too.


Many subalpine lakes may look beautiful and even pristine, but new evidence suggests they may also be contaminated with potentially hazardous plastics. Researchers say those tiny microplastics are likely finding their way into the food web through a wide range of freshwater invertebrates too.

The findings, based on studies of Italy’s Lake Garda and reported on October 7th in Current Biology, suggest that the problem of plastic pollution isn’t limited to the ocean.

“Next to mechanical impairments of swallowed plastics mistaken as food, many plastic-associated chemicals have been shown to be carcinogenic, endocrine-disrupting, or acutely toxic,” said Christian Laforsch of the University of Bayreuth in Germany. “Moreover, the polymers can adsorb toxic hydrophobic organic pollutants and transport these compounds to otherwise less polluted habitats. Along this line, plastic debris can act as vector for alien species and diseases.”

The researchers chose Lake Garda as a starting point for investigating contamination with micro- and macroplastics because they expected it to be less polluted given its subalpine location. What they found was a surprise: the numbers of particles in sediment samples from Lake Garda were similar to those found in studies of marine beach sediments.

The size ranges of found by Laforsch’s team suggested that they might find their way into organisms living in the . Indeed, the researchers showed that freshwater invertebrates from worms to water fleas will ingest artificially ground fluorescent microplastics in the lab.

This is an image of the freshwater crustacean D. magna. Fluorescent overview image showing fluorescent microplastic particles in the digestive tract. Credit: Current Biology, Imhof et al.

The findings in Lake Garda come as bad news for lakes generally, with uncertain ecological and economic consequences.

“The mere existence of microplastic particles in a subalpine headwater suggests an even higher relevance of in lowland waters,” Laforsch said. He recommends more research and standardized surveillance guidelines to control for microplastic contamination in freshwater ecosystems, as is already required for marine systems.

These are scanning electron microscope images of degraded plastic particles showing examples of surface textures on sampled plastic particles. Credit: Current Biology, Imhof et al.

The public can do its part by putting trash where it belongs. The shape and type of plastic particles found in the study indicate that they started as larger pieces of , most likely originating from post-consumer products.

Sitting All Day Could shorten your life.


Study confirms that sitting all day is detrimental to heart health.

Even if you do moderate exercise at the gym or at home, prolonged sitting is proving to be a risk factor for cardiovascular disease and diabetes. So says a study of post-menopausal women released this spring by the Women’s Health Initiative (WHI).

Researchers blame the negative cardiometabolic effects of sitting in a chair for many hours each day (six hours or more).

The study looked at more than 71,000 women aged 50 to 79 and related hours of sitting each day to daily activity levels from the 1990s to later outcomes. The study observed women who sit all day over the course of five years who achieved high, medium and low activity levels outside of work.

Shocking results

As you would expect, the more time spent sitting pushed up cardiovascular risk in the inactive and low- and medium-activity groups. The highest cardiovascular risk was for inactive women who reported sitting at least 10 hours a day.

The one exception to cardiovascular disease risk was for women at the very highest level of activity, which translated to about seven hours of walking or four to five hours of jogging or running each week. These heavy day sitters did not appear to have a higher risk of heart disease, according to the study.

Surprisingly, women in the medium-activity group who were meeting physical activity guidelines of two and a half hours per week of moderate exercise did show an increased risk of heart disease and stroke if they sat all day at work. The study also found that women who sat more tended to exercise less.

Many other studies are coming out with these same results, showing higher mortality rates for both men and women who are completely sedentary for six hours or more each day.

couple-exercising-sm

What to do

The question on everyone’s minds is: What can people who have desk jobs do to avoid health concerns?

Researchers say: sit less. The human body has not adapted to our sedentary modern lifestyle. We are born to be active.

Sitting less than five hours per day significantly reduces cardiovascular risk for women in the medium and low activity level. If you have to sit for more than five hours because of your job, other research on this topic is showing that short bursts of activity throughout the day can prove beneficial to health. Even five minutes of exercise each hour can have an impact.

More activity is better

“I have always told my patients a body in motion stays in motion,” says Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Curtis Rimmerman, MD. “Incorporating regular movement throughout the day is important for optimal physical and emotional health. Doing some exercise before work and at the lunch hour can be ways to circumvent an otherwise sedentary job.” More activity is always better, the researchers report. But do not be fooled into believing that achieving exercise guidelines of half an hour a day of activity five times a week is enough. This will not counteract the health issues caused by remaining seated for hours on end – either at work or on the couch!

Scientist who mapped human genome says we will be able to ‘print’ alien life from Mars


J. Craig Venter says the next revolution in genetics will come from synthetic biology, as we learn to design and ‘print’ organisms with computers.

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Scientists will soon be able to design and print simple organisms using biological 3D printers says J. Craig Venter, the scientist who led the private-sector’s mapping of the human genome.

Venter predicts that new methods of digital design and manufacture will provide the next revolution in genetic with synthetic cells and organism tailor-made to tackle humanity’s problems: a toolkit of sequenced genes will be used to create disease-resistant animals; higher yielding crops; and drugs that extend human life and boost our brain power.

These ideas have been outlined in Venter’s latest book ‘Life at the Speed of Light: From the Double Helix to the Dawn of Digital Life’, in which the geneticists asks the age-old question ‘what is life?’ before detailing the history – and future – of creating the stuff from scratch.

For Venter life can be reduced to “protein robots” and “DNA machines” but he also believes that technology will unlock far more exotic opportunities for creating life. The title of the publication refers to the idea that we may be able to transmit DNA sequences found on Mars back to Earth (at the speed of light) to be replicated at home by biological printers.

“I am confident that life once thrived on Mars and may well still exist there today,” writes Venter. “The day is not far off when we will be able to send a robotically controlled genome-sequencing unit in a probe to other planets to read the DNA sequence of any alien microbe life that may be there.”

Venter’s ideas may sound like science fiction but he has achieved comparable feats in the past. Frustrated by what he viewed as slow government-led efforts to sequence the human genome in the 90s, Venter raised private capital to create a rival effort under the company name of Celera

Fears that Venter and his backers would attempt to patent the genome spurred the US-led effort into action and global genes-race was sparked, with both sides eventually agreeing to announce their result one day apart in February 2001.

Venter parted ways with Celera in 2002 and founded the J.Craig Venter institute in 2006. In 2010 he and his colleagues at the institute announced that they had created the world’s first synthetic organism.

The team creating a bacterium genome from scratch and ‘watermarked’ it with custom DNA strings (these included an encoded email address) before transplanting it into another cell. The cell then began to reproduce, making it the first living species created by humanity.

Although such pioneering work frequently raises ethical questions over the danger of humanity ‘playing God’, Venter writes that he is not concerned with such concerns. In ‘Life at the Speed of Light’ he writes: “My greatest fear is not the abuse of technology but that we will not use it at all.”

Why do so many children self-harm?


Those who cut themselves – many as young as 10 – are often dismissed as attention-seekers. But their distress is real, and their numbers are increasing, reports Kate Hilpern.

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Chloe was just 12 when she started self-harming. “I was very quiet and an easy target for bullies. My brother was unwell, so I didn’t want to bother my parents, and I had very few friends. One day in class, I dug my nails into my arm to stop me crying, and I was surprised by how much the physical pain distracted me from the emotional pain. Before long, I was regularly scratching myself, deeper each time.”

The following year, on another particularly bad day, Chloe came home to find a knife on the kitchen side. “It felt almost instinctive to cut myself and afterwards, I felt so much better. By the time I was 15, I was using scissors or blades several times a day and never left home without something sharp.”

Chloe hid her scars, but one day a friend saw her diary. This led to Chloe’s mum, Jo, finding out. “It was a big shock,” says Jo. “Chloe, who is now 17, has always been a very sensible, studious young lady. I didn’t even know she was unhappy. Making matters worse was the fact that I got such bad advice. I was told not to discuss anything with Chloe, just to march her into treatment. It didn’t work.”

Last week, official statistics revealed an alarming rise in children who self-harm. These figures show that in the past year, NHS hospitals treated more than 18,000 girls and 4,600 boys between 10 and 19 after they had deliberately harmed themselves – a rise of 11 per cent. During the same period, cases involving children between 10 and 14 rose from 4,008 to 5,192 – a rise of 30 per cent.

According to Sarah Brennan, chief executive of YoungMinds, “An equally striking finding, which reflects Jo’s experience, was the lack of confidence among parents and professionals about how to deal with it.”

So what’s going on? Why are so many young people – children, for goodness sake – self-harming? And where did the phenomenon, one that many people hadn’t even heard of until recently, come from anyway?

Rachel Welch, project manager at selfharm.co.uk, isn’t convinced self-harming is on the rise. It’s just we are more aware of it, says the 35-year-old. Indeed, even the Bible includes stories about self-harming and the World Health Organisation has long recognised it as a problem, not just in the West but in developing countries.

“If you think back,” Welch says, “you may well remember someone in your youth who bit their nails furiously to the point of bleeding or who pulled out their hair. I knew one woman who always wore shoes a size too small because she said each step reminded her of just how awful she thought she was. When I self-harmed as a teenager, I used bruising. Like these other people, I didn’t think of it as self-harm, though, because the label wasn’t around and there was no real understanding of it.”

In turn, this meant other people were less likely to look out for, or notice, it. “And it certainly didn’t occur to me to contact anyone to help make sense of what I was doing. We had no phone except one static landline where everyone could hear you and I wouldn’t have known who to call anyway,” she says. “Nowadays, people are much more likely to know about self-harm and they can contact organisations like ours, ChildLine and others privately by phone or online.”

But Sue Minto, head of ChildLine, believes the increase in cases has been dramatic. “In 2011/12, self-harm appeared for the first time in the top five main concerns for 14 year olds. This dropped further to 13 year olds in 2012/13, indicating that more young people are self-harming at a younger age,” she says.

While some headlines have blamed a society increasingly obsessed with body image (which may help account for why girls are more prone to self-harming), Minto believes a more serious problem is the 24/7 online culture. “In my day, if someone was bullied, they could find escape at home, but that isn’t available now. Before you know it, something you said in confidence to one friend, or something unkind that someone else has said about you, is up there in neon lights for anyone to read for any amount of time.”

Then there’s the fact that families are increasingly fragmented and the inequality gap is widening. “Research shows that under-12s, in particular, are very watchful when their parents are stressed and often internalise it,” says Fiona Pienaar, head of service management at children’s mental health charity Place2Be.

No wonder so many more young people turn to self-harm to cope, she says. “People report that the pain – and blood, if cutting is involved – can make them feel they are alive, when otherwise they feel numb or insignificant. People also talk about the overwhelming tension that can build up in their body, which hurting yourself can release. Then there’s the way that physical pain can push away emotional pain. Many people, for example, report banging their heads against a wall when dreadful thoughts seem to take over. And others talk about wanting to punish themselves.”

Whilst it’s clearly positive that self-harm is now acknowledged as a problem, the increased publicity does have a darker side, she says. “It means it is more likely to be on the menu of options for young people. I do wonder if some who hear about it and are struggling, may then try it.”

With celebrities such as Demi Lovato, the US singer, increasingly making public that they self-harmed, it’s a concept that is much more likely to be on a young person’s radar, she explains.

Certainly much is made of copycat self-harming, a concept that took a particularly sinister turn in January when a mock campaign started by online pranksters urged Justin Bieber fans to self-harm themselves and film it in protest at controversial images of the pop star.

There are even pro-self-harm websites, which Welch says are even darker than pro-anorexia ones. “These are sites which urge competition about how far you can go or which get people posting their cuts as badges of honour.”

These are not reasons to stop discussions around self-harm, however, she says. “I think that if someone is going to watch a film with self-harm or read about it in a magazine and try it, then they probably would have a predisposition towards it anyway. In fact, I think the more we talk about it, the more likely prevention, support and treatment is likely to improve.”

As it is, she says, there are countless problems. First off, prevention, which has to involve young people feeling they have positive engagement with their families, schools and peers, clearly isn’t happening.

Second, while an adult facing mental health problems is likely to refer themselves to a doctor, youngsters almost never do until their symptoms are acute. It therefore falls to a parent or teacher, many of whom don’t notice the problem.

“A further issue is that GPs often measure the emotional distress by the severity of the scars. But a 15-year-old cutting herself down to the bone isn’t necessarily any more distressed than a 15-year-old scratching her wrist.”

Even youngsters who do get referred often have an 18-week wait. “That’s a long time for the problem to fester and they may no longer be in the right head space to talk about it.”

Then there’s the fact that youngsters need choices in treatment. “I completely refused all counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy,” says Chloe. “I was very angry because it wasn’t my choice. Eventually, what sorted me out was the friends I made at college and a local therapeutic group. Rather than saying, ‘This is terrible, you need to stop right now’, which is what everyone else said, they said, ‘This is a coping mechanism. It’s not great, but we need to work out what’s caused it and find other ways for you to cope’. In my case, writing things down, talking to others and squeezing ice cubes can help. I self-harm a lot less now and I do feel I’m starting to move on.”

Indeed, if there is one piece of good news around self-harm, it’s that most adolescents who self-harm will stop in early adulthood, and often abruptly. “But this shouldn’t be a reason not to take it seriously. It’s a grave problem, with potentially fatal consequences, and some people continue or relapse,” insists Welch.

Some names have been changed. For more information and support, visit selfharm.co.uk, childline.org.uk or youngminds.org.uk

Better robot vision: Neglected statistical tool could help robots better understand the objects in the world around them


Object recognition is one of the most widely studied problems in computer vision. But a robot that manipulates objects in the world needs to do more than just recognize them; it also needs to understand their orientation. Is that mug right-side up or upside-down? And which direction is its handle facing? To improve robots’ ability to gauge orientation, Jared Glover, a graduate student in MIT‘s Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, is exploiting a statistical construct called the Bingham distribution. In a paper they’re presenting in November at the International Conference on Intelligent Robots and Systems, Glover and MIT alumna Sanja Popovic ’12, MEng ’13, who is now at Google, describes a new robot-vision , based on the Bingham distribution, that is 15 percent better than its best competitor at identifying familiar objects in cluttered scenes.

That algorithm, however, is for analyzing high-quality visual data in familiar settings. Because the Bingham distribution is a tool for reasoning probabilistically, it promises even greater advantages in contexts where information is patchy or unreliable. In ongoing work, Glover is using Bingham distributions to analyze the orientation of pingpong balls in flight, as part of a broader project to teach robots to play pingpong. In cases where visual information is particularly poor, his algorithm offers an improvement of more than 50 percent over the best alternatives.

“Alignment is key to many problems in robotics, from object-detection and tracking to mapping,” Glover says. “And ambiguity is really the central challenge to getting good alignments in highly cluttered scenes, like inside a refrigerator or in a drawer. That’s why the Bingham distribution seems to be a useful tool, because it allows the algorithm to get more information out of each ambiguous, local feature.”

Because Bingham distributions are so central to his work, Glover has also developed a suite of software tools that greatly speed up calculations involving them. The software is freely available online, for other researchers to use.

In the rotation

One reason the Bingham distribution is so useful for robot vision is that it provides a way to combine information from different sources. Generally, determining an object’s orientation entails trying to superimpose a geometric of the object over visual data captured by a camera—in the case of Glover’s work, a Microsoft Kinect camera, which captures a 2-D color image together with information about the distance of the color patches.

For simplicity’s sake, imagine that the object is a tetrahedron, and the geometric model consists of four points marking the tetrahedron’s four corners. Imagine, too, that software has identified four locations in an image where color or depth values change abruptly—likely to be the corners of an object. Is it a tetrahedron?

The problem, then, boils down to taking two sets of points—the model and the object—and determining whether one can be superimposed on the other. Most algorithms, Glover’s included, will take a first stab at aligning the points. In the case of the tetrahedron, assume that, after that provisional alignment, every point in the model is near a point in the object, but not perfectly coincident with it.

If both sets of points in fact describe the same object, then they can be aligned by rotating one of them around the right axis. For any given pair of points—one from the model and one from the object—it’s possible to calculate the probability that rotating one point by a particular angle around a particular axis will align it with the other. The problem is that the same rotation might move other pairs of points farther away from each other.

Glover was able to show, however, that the rotation probabilities for any given pair of points can be described as a Bingham distribution, which means that they can be combined into a single, cumulative Bingham distribution. That allows Glover and Popovic’s algorithm to explore possible rotations in a principled way, quickly converging on the one that provides the best fit between points.

Big umbrella

Moreover, in the same way that the Bingham distribution can combine the probabilities for each pair of points into a single probability, it can also incorporate probabilities from other sources of information—such as estimates of the curvature of objects’ surfaces. The current version of Glover and Popovic’s algorithm integrates point-rotation probabilities with several other such .

In experiments involving visual data about particularly cluttered scenes—depicting the kinds of environments in which a household robot would operate—Glover’s algorithm had about the same false-positive rate as the best existing algorithm: About 84 percent of its object identifications were correct, versus 83 percent for the competition. But it was able to identify a significantly higher percentage of the objects in the scenes—73 percent versus 64 percent. Glover argues that that difference is because of his algorithm’s better ability to determine object orientations.

He also believes that additional sources of information could improve the algorithm’s performance even further. For instance, the Bingham distribution could also incorporate statistical information about particular objects—that, say, a coffee cup may be upside-down or right-side up, but it will very rarely be found at a diagonal angle.

Indeed, it’s because of the Bingham distribution’s flexibility that Glover considers it such a promising tool for robotics research. “You can spend your whole PhD programming a robot to find tables and chairs and cups and things like that, but there aren’t really a lot of general-purpose tools,” Glover says. “With bigger problems, like estimating relationships between objects and their attributes and dealing with things that are somewhat ambiguous, we’re really not anywhere near where we need to be. And until we can do that, I really think that robots are going to be very limited.”

Gary Bradski, vice president of computer vision and machine learning at Magic Leap and president and CEO of OpenCV, the nonprofit that oversees the most widely used open-source computer-vision software library, believes that the Bingham distribution will eventually become the standard way in which roboticists represent object orientation. “The Bingham distribution lives on a hypersphere,” Bradski says—the higher-dimensional equivalent of a circle or sphere. “We’re trying to represent 3-D objects, and the spherical representation fits naturally with the 3-D space. It’s just kind of a recoding of the features that has more natural properties.”

“It isn’t really as hard as the math looks,” Bradski adds. “It’s a better representation, so I think once it’s understood, this’ll just kind of become one of the things that is built in when you’re doing the 3-D fits. [Glover] found something that was obscure, but once people are familiar with it, it will just be a no-brainer.”

Scripps Research Institute Scientists Invent a Better Way to Make Antibody-Guided Therapies


Chemists at The Scripps Research Institute (TSRI) have devised a new technique for connecting drug molecules to antibodies to make advanced therapies.

Antibody-drug conjugates, as they’re called, are the basis of new therapies on the market that use the target-recognizing ability of antibodies to deliver drug payloads to specific cell types—for example, to deliver toxic chemotherapy drugs to cancer cells while sparing most healthy cells. The new technique allows drug developers to forge more stable conjugates than are possible with current methods.

“A more stable linkage between the drug molecule and the antibody means a better therapy—the toxic drug is less likely to fall off the antibody before it’s delivered to the target,” said Carlos F. Barbas III, the Janet and Keith Kellogg II Chair at TSRI.

Barbas and two members of his laboratory, Research Associates Narihiro Toda and Shigehiro Asano, report the finding in the chemistry journal Angewandte Chemie, where their paper was published recently online ahead of print and selected as a “hot” contribution.

A Popular Approach with Limitations

The new method for making more stable antibody-drug conjugates comes as the first generation of these powerful therapies are entering the market. Two such conjugates are now in clinical use. Brentuximab vedotin (Adcetris®), approved by the FDA in 2011, has shown powerful effects in clinical trials against otherwise treatment-resistant lymphomas. It uses an antibody to deliver the cell-killing compound monomethyl auristatin E to cells that bear the CD30 receptor, a major marker of lymphoma. The other conjugate, ado-trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla®), approved just this year for metastatic breast cancer, delivers the toxic compound mertansine to breast cancer cells that express the receptor HER2.

The success of these antibody-drug conjugates and the broad potential of the technology have made them popular with drug companies, particularly those trying to develop new anticancer medicines. “The current development pipeline is full of antibody-drug conjugates,” says Barbas.

Yet the chemical method that has been used to make these conjugates has significant limitations. The method involves the use of compounds derived from maleimide, which can be easily added to small drug molecules. The maleimide molecule acts as a linker or bridge, making strong bonds with cysteine amino acids that can be engineered into an antibody protein. In this way, a single antibody protein can be tagged with one or more maleimide-containing drug molecules. The main problem is that these maleimide-to-cysteine linkages are susceptible to several forms of degradation in the bloodstream. When such a cut occurs, the disconnected “payload” drug-molecule—typically a highly toxic compound—is liable to cause unwanted collateral damage to the body, like a “smart bomb” gone astray. This instability of current maleimide-based conjugates probably accounts for at least some of their considerable toxicity.

A more stable linkage would mean less toxicity and higher efficacy for antibody-drug conjugates, and for the past several years research chemistry laboratories around the world have been looking for a way to achieve this.

Improved Linkages

Now Barbas and his colleagues appear to have found one in the form of a novel Thiol-Click reaction. In their new paper, they have described a way to make improved linkages using compounds based on methylsulfonyl-substituted heterocycles instead of maleimides. “This method turns out to enable more stable linkages to an antibody protein, as well as more specific linkages, so the drug attaches to the right place on the right protein,” said Barbas.

Coincident with the report of the new linking compounds in Angewandte Chemie, the chemical supplier Sigma-Aldrich Corporation will begin selling the compounds, so that pharmaceutical companies can start working with them to make more stable antibody-drug conjugates. Under a recent agreement (see http://www.scripps.edu/news/press/2013/20130718sigma.html), Sigma-Aldrich markets new chemical reagents from Barbas’s and several other TSRI laboratories as soon as the papers describing them are released.

“Improved antibody–drug conjugate technologies are a top-priority research area in the pharmaceutical industry and exactly the type of fundamental research issue that our partnership with Scripps will continue to address,” said Amanda Halford, vice president of academic research at Sigma-Aldrich.

Although linking drug molecules to target-homing antibodies is the best-known therapeutic application of the new method, Barbas emphasized its broad relevance. “It should be useful for many types of protein conjugation,” he said. These include the conjugation of proteins to fluorescent beacon molecules for laboratory experiments, as well as the linkage of drug compounds to polyethylene glycol molecules—“pegylation”—to slow their clearance from the body and thus keep them working longer.

Billion pound brain project under way


The BBC’s Fergus Walsh: “Some doubt whether this project will justify its billion pound price tag”

A 10-year, billion pound neuroscience project which aims to revolutionise our understanding of the human brain has begun.

Scientists from 135 institutions, mostly in Europe, are participating in the The Human Brain Project (HBP).

Co-funded by the EU, it aims to develop the technology needed to create a computer simulation of the brain.

It will also build a database of brain research from the tens of thousands of neuroscience papers published annually.

Cognition

“The Human Brain Project is an attempt to build completely new computer science technology that will enable us to collect all the information we have built up about the brain over the years,” said Prof Henry Markram, Director of the HBP at EPFL (Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne), in Switzerland.

“We should begin to understand what makes the human brain unique, the basic mechanisms behind cognition and behaviour, how to objectively diagnose brain diseases, and to build new technologies inspired by how the brain computes.”

The scientists involved accept that current computer technology is insufficient to simulate complex brain function. But within a decade, supercomputers should be sufficiently powerful to begin the first draft simulation of the human brain.

Another hurdle is the huge amount of data that will be produced, which will mean massively expanding computing memory.

Complex

The HBP can be viewed as the neuroscience equivalent of the Human Genome Project, which involved thousands of scientists around the world working together to sequence our entire genetic code. That took more than a decade and cost hundreds of billions of dollars.

But whereas that involved mapping every one of the three billion base pairs found in every cell that make up our entire genetic code, the Human Brain Project will not be able to map the entire human brain. It’s simply too complex.

Prof Henry Markram, director of the Human Brain Project

The brain has around 100 billion neurons, or nerve cells and 100 trillion synaptic connections.

Instead the project aims to build a variety of computer simulations.

Scientists at the University of Manchester are building a model which will mimic 1% of brain function. The SpiNNaker project is led by Steve Furber, a pioneer of the computer industry, who played a key role in the design of the BBC Microcomputer.

“I’ve spent my career building conventional computers and I’ve seen their performance grow spectacularly.

“Yet they still struggle to do things that humans find instinctive. Even very young babies can recognise their mothers but programming a computer to recognise a particular person is possible but very hard.”

Neuromorphic computers

Brain v computer

Computers are excellent at doing very simple things quickly and can do mathematical calculations far more speedily than humans. But the brain is vastly superior at doing complex things which involve deeper understanding and learning.

Supercomputers are getting faster every year. The biggest have a processing speed measured in petaflops (1,000 trillion Floating Point Operations per Second, or FLOPS).

The Chinese Tianhe-2, the world’s most powerful supercomputer, is capable of 34 petaflops/sec but that may rise to 100 petaflops/sec.

But it will require an exaflop computer – 10 times more powerful that the Chinese supercomputer running at full potential – to even begin to simulate real-time brain activity.

It is thought the first exaflop computer, capable of a billion billion calculations per second will be developed within a few years.

But using current technology a computer that powerful would require much of the output from a power station. By contrast the human brain needs just 30 watts; the energy to run a light bulb.

The scientists believe unlocking those secrets would yield major benefits in information technology, with the advent of so-called neuromorphic computers – machines which learn like the brain.

“With this knowledge we could produce computer chips with specialised cognitive skills that mimic those of the human brain, such as the ability to analyse crowds, or decision-making on large and complex datasets,” said Prof Markram.

These digital brains should also allow researchers to compare healthy and diseased brains within computer models.

Brain disease

A key aim is to produce a more scientific understanding of the basis of brain diseases, building a unified map of neurological disorders and how they relate to each other. The HBP team believe that will help provide a more objective way to diagnose disease and treat brain disorders.

The massive cost of the HBP has attracted some criticism that it may starve funding for other neuroscience research. The vast ambition of the project has also led some to doubt whether it really can deliver a revolution in our understanding of the brain within a decade.

But Prof Steve Furber believes it is the right time to make the attempt: “There are plenty of grounds for scepticism about whether the project will deliver a fairly complete understanding of how the brain works. But we will make progress even if we don’t achieve that ultimate goal and that could yield major benefits for medicine, computing and for society.”

Army robot refuses to be pushed over.


Meet Atlas, a humanoid robot capable of crossing rough terrain and maintaining its balance on one leg even when hit from the side.

And WildCat, the four-legged robot that can gallop untethered at up to 16mph (26km/h).

These are the latest creations of Boston Dynamics, a US robotics company part-funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa).

The robots are part of Darpa’s Maximum Mobility and Manipulation programme.

Darpa says such robots “hold great promise for amplifying human effectiveness in defence operations”.

Referring to Atlas’s ability to remain balanced despite being hit by a lateral weight, Noel Sharkey, professor of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Sheffield, told the BBC: “This is an astonishing achievement… quite a remarkable feat.”

This version of Atlas is one of seven humanoid robots Boston Dynamics is developing in response to the Darpa Robotics Challenge.

In December, competing robots will be set eight tasks to test their potential for use in emergency-response situations, including crossing uneven ground, using power tools and driving a rescue vehicle.

Darpa wants to improve the manoeuvrability and controllability of such robots while reducing manufacturing costs.

WildCat strike?

Boston Dynamics puts its WildCat robot through its paces

WildCat can bound, gallop and turn, mimicking the movements of quadruped animals. It is powered by an internal combustion engine.

“It is a shame that such technology is not being developed with other research funding,” said Prof Sharkey, who is also chair of the International Committee for Robot Arms Control.

“We do not know what military purpose it will serve but certainly it is a step towards a high-speed ground robot that could be weaponised to hunt and kill.”

The video shows WildCat performing on a flat surface, but Prof Sharkey said: “It would be good to see how well it could perform in a muddy field.”

Last year, Boston Dynamics’ Cheetah robot reached a sprint speed of 28.3mph tethered to a treadmill.

Geoff Pegman, managing director of RURobots, told the BBC: “Robotics has been making important strides in recent years, and these are a couple of demonstrations of the technology moving forward.

“However, their application may be limited to areas such as defence and, maybe specialised construction or demolition tasks.

“In other applications there are more efficient ways of achieving the mobility more cost effectively.”

Fusion milestone passed at US lab.


Target alignment at NIF The

Researchers at a US lab have passed a crucial milestone on the way to their ultimate goal of achieving self-sustaining nuclear fusion.

Harnessing fusion – the process that powers the Sun – could provide an unlimited and cheap source of energy.

But to be viable, fusion power plants would have to produce more energy than they consume, which has proven elusive.

Now, a breakthrough by scientists at the National Ignition Facility (NIF) could boost hopes of scaling up fusion.

NIF, based at Livermore in California, uses 192 beams from the world’s most powerful laser to heat and compress a small pellet of hydrogen fuel to the point where nuclear fusion reactions take place.

The BBC understands that during an experiment in late September, the amount of energy released through the fusion reaction exceeded the amount of energy being absorbed by the fuel – the first time this had been achieved at any fusion facility in the world.

This is a step short of the lab’s stated goal of “ignition”, where nuclear fusion generates as much energy as the lasers supply. This is because known “inefficiencies” in different parts of the system mean not all the energy supplied through the laser is delivered to the fuel.

Nuclear fusion at NIF.

Hohlraum
  • 192 laser beams are focused through holes in a target container called a hohlraum
  • Inside the hohlraum is a tiny pellet containing an extremely cold, solid mixture of hydrogen isotopes
  • Lasers strike the hohlraum’s walls, which in turn radiate X-rays
  • X-rays strip material from the outer shell of the fuel pellet, heating it up to millions of degrees
  • If the compression of the fuel is high enough and uniform enough, nuclear fusion can result

But the latest achievement has been described as the single most meaningful step for fusion in recent years, and demonstrates NIF is well on its way towards the coveted target of ignition and self-sustaining fusion.

For half a century, researchers have strived for controlled nuclear fusion and been disappointed. It was hoped that NIF would provide the breakthrough fusion research needed.

In 2009, NIF officials announced an aim to demonstrate nuclear fusion producing net energy by 30 September 2012. But unexpected technical problems ensured the deadline came and went; the fusion output was less than had originally been predicted by mathematical models.

Soon after, the $3.5bn facility shifted focus, cutting the amount of time spent on fusion versus nuclear weapons research – which was part of the lab’s original mission.

However, the latest experiments agree well with predictions of energy output, which will provide a welcome boost to ignition research at NIF, as well as encouragement to advocates of fusion energy in general.

It is markedly different from current nuclear power, which operates through splitting atoms – fission – rather than squashing them together in fusion.

NIF, based at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, is one of several projects around the world aimed at harnessing fusion. They include the multi-billion-euro ITER facility, currently under construction in Cadarache, France.

However, ITER will take a different approach to the laser-driven fusion at NIF; the Cadarache facility will use magnetic fields to contain the hot fusion fuel – a concept known as magnetic confinement.