First Fully Bionic Man Walks, Talks and Breathes.

He walks, he talks and he has a beating heart, but he’s not human — he’s the world’s first fully bionic man.

Like Frankenstein’s monster, cobbled together from a hodgepodge of body parts, the bionic man is an amalgam of the most advanced human prostheses — from robotic limbs to artificial organs to a blood-pumping circulatory system.

Million-dollar man

Roboticists Rich Walker and Matthew Godden of Shadow Robot Co. in England led the assembly of the bionic man from prosthetic body parts and artificial organs donated by laboratories around the world.

“Our job was to take the delivery of a large collection of body parts — organs, limbs, eyes, heads — and over a frantic six weeks, turn those parts into a bionic man,” Walker told LiveScience during an interview. But it’s not as simple as connecting everything like Tinkertoys. “You put a prosthetic part on a human who is missing that part,” Walker said. “We had no human; we built a human for the prosthetic parts to occupy.”

The robot, which cost almost $1 million to build, was modeled in some physical aspects after Bertolt Meyer, a social psychologist at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland, who wears one of the world’s most advanced bionic hands. [See Photos of the Bionic Man]

The bionic man has the same prosthetic hand as Meyer — the i-LIMB made by Touch Bionics — with a wrist that can fully rotate and motors in each finger. The hand’s grasping abilities are impressive, but the bionic man still drops drinks sometimes.

“He’s not the world’s best bartender,” Walker said.

The robot sports a pair of robotic ankles and feet from BiOM in Bedford, Mass., designed and worn by bioengineer Hugh Herr of MIT’s Media Lab, who lost his own legs after getting trapped in a blizzard as a teenager.

To support his prosthetic legs, the bionic man wears a robotic exoskeleton dubbed “Rex,” made by REX Bionics in New Zealand. His awkward, jerky walk makes him more Frankensteinian than ever.

Factory-made organs

But it doesn’t end there — the bionic man also has a nearly complete set of artificial organs, including an artificial heart, blood, lungs (and windpipe), pancreas, spleen, kidney and functional circulatory system.

The artificial heart, made by SynCardia Systems in Tucson, Ariz., has been implanted in more than 100 people to replace their ailing hearts for six to 12 months while they wait for a transplant, Walker said. The circulatory system, built by medical researcher Alex Seifalian of University College London,consists of veins and arteries made from a polymer used to create synthetic organs of any shape.

While it might not satisfy the Scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz,” the bionic man’s “brain” can mimic certain functions of the human brain. He has a retinal prosthesis, made by Second Sight in Sylmar, Calif., which can restore limited sight in blind people. He also sports a cochlear implant, speech recognition and speech production systems.

The engineers equipped the bionic man with a sophisticated chatbot program that can carry on a conversation. The only problem is, it has the persona of “an annoying 13-year-old boy from the Ukraine,” Walker said.

The most unnerving aspect of the bionic man, though, is his prosthetic face. It’s an uncanny replica of Meyer’s face. In fact, when Meyer first saw it, he hated it, describing it on the show as “awkward.”

The bionic man successfully simulates about two-thirds of the human body. But he lacks a few major organs, including a liver, stomach and intestines, which are still too complex to replicate in a lab.

The bionic man brings up some ethical and philosophical questions: Does creating something so humanlike threaten notions of what it means to be human? What amount of body enhancement is acceptable? And is it wrong that only some people have access to these life-extending technologies?

The access issue is especially troublesome, Walker said. “The preservation of life and quality of life has become basically a technical question and an economic question.”

6 Misconceptions About Breast cancer.

6 Misconceptions About Breast Cancer

I asked my colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic Breast Center what they perceive to be patients’ most common misconceptions about breast cancer diagnosis, treatment and care.

Combining our list, these six misconceptions rose to the top:

1. “If I have an annual mammogram, I don’t need to examine my breasts.”

It is important to understand that effective breast cancer screening includes both mammograms and self-breast awareness. A recent study conducted by Mayo Clinic and published in the American Journal of Surgery, conducted over an eight-year period, looked at 1,222 patients with newly diagnosed breast cancer. It found that 13 percent of these patients had a normal mammogram within the 12 months prior to their diagnosis of breast cancer. Knowing your breasts can play a critical role in the early detection of breast cancer, even when a woman has annual screening mammograms.

2. “I feel something in my breast, but my mammogram and/or ultrasound were normal. I’m sure I’m okay.”

Feeling a lump, nodule or anything of concern should always prompt consultation with your doctor. Palpable areas often turn out to be normal breast tissue, but they could also be cancerous even though a woman has recently had a normal mammogram and/or ultrasound. For this reason, it is best to have a health professional perform a breast exam on you and consider both the imaging and “feeling” characteristics to determine if further treatment is needed.   

Breast Cancer Awareness Month

3. “I don’t need annual mammograms – I need MRIs.”

Many national health groups, including the American Cancer Society, have endorsed screening breast magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) as useful adjunct (not substitute) for women with a 20 percent or greater lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. However, MRI has a significant false positive rate. These same groups have explicitly recommended against annual MRI screenings because the average American woman has only a 1 in 8 (12.5 percent) lifetime risk of developing breast cancer. If you are concerned because your personal and family history puts you at greater risk for breast cancer, you should talk with your doctor about breast MRI.

4. “I shouldn’t have a yearly mammogram because the radiation dosage is too high.”

There is no scientific evidence that associates annual mammograms beginning at age 40 with an increased risk from radiation. The effective dosage received from a routine screening mammogram is similar to the amount of background radiation exposure that a woman normally receives from sources in her environment over a three-month period.

5. “Thermography is an effective substitute for a mammogram.”

Thermography is the making of images of the breasts’ radiant infrared energy for the purpose of detecting cancer. In a June 2011 report, the Food and Drug Administration released its views on thermography.  This report said the FDA “was not aware of any valid scientific data to show that thermographic devices, when used on their own, are an effective screening tool for any medical conditions, including the early detection of breast cancer or other breast disease” and that it was “concerned that women will….not receive needed mammograms” if they relied solely on thermography.

6. “I should have the same breast cancer treatment my friend had.”

This is a misconception I encounter almost daily in my practice and the one I dislike the most.  Since breast cancer consists of a wide range of diseases, there are many different treatment options. Moreover, there have been many advances in treatment over the past 20 years. What was the standard of care even a few years ago may be obsolete today.  It is important for a woman to select a healthcare provider who provides evidence-based treatment options and takes time to explain the risks and benefits of each in order to help her understand the best choice for her particular disease and body.

As some of the most common misconceptions, I hope this helps you stay informed. Knowing the facts can help safeguard your health.

New particle might make quantum condensation at room temperature possible.

Researchers from FOM Institute AMOLF, Philips Research, and the Autonomous University of Madrid have identified a new type of particle that might make quantum condensation possible at room temperature. The particles, so called PEPs, could be used for fundamental studies on quantum mechanics and applications in lasers and LEDs. The researchers published their results on 18 October in Physical Review Letters.

In quantum condensation (also known as Bose-Einstein condensation) microscopic with different energy levels collapse into a single macroscopic quantum state. In that state, particles can no longer be distinguished. They lose their individuality and so the matter can be considered to be one ‘superparticle’.

Quantum condensation was predicted in the 1920s by Bose and Einstein, who theorised that particles will form a condensate at very low temperatures. The first experimental demonstration of the quantum condensate followed in the 1990s, when a gas of atoms was cooled to just a few billionths of a degree above absolute zero (-273°C). The need for such an extremely low temperature is related to the mass of the particles: the heavier the particles, the lower the temperature at which condensation occurs. This motivated an ongoing search for that may condense at higher temperatures than atoms. The eventual goal is to find particles that form a condensate at .


The researchers have created a particle that is a potential candidate for fulfilling the quest: the extremely light plasmon-exciton-polariton (PEP). This particle is hybrid between light and . It consists of photons (light particles), plasmons (particles composed of electrons oscillating in metallic nanoparticles) and excitons (charged particles in ).

The researchers made PEPs using an array of metallic nanoparticles coated with molecules that emit light. This system generates PEPs when it is loaded with energy. Through a careful design of the coupling between plasmons, excitons and photons, the researchers created PEPs with a mass a trillion times smaller than the mass of atoms.

Because of their small mass, these PEPs are suitable candidates for quantum condensation even at room temperature. However, due to losses in the system (such as absorption in the metal) PEPs have a short lifespan, which makes keeping them around long enough to condense a challenge.

First steps

The researchers have shown the first steps towards condensation of PEPs, demonstrating that PEPs cool down as their density increases. However, in the current system cooling down is limited by properties of the organic molecules used in the experiments, which lead to a saturation of the PEP density before sets in. The researchers envisage that it should be possible to overcome these challenges in the future.


To a large extent, PEPs are composed of photons. Therefore, their decay results in the emission of light. This emitted light has unique properties, which could constitute the basis of new optical devices. In view of recent advances from AMOLF and Philips Research towards improving white LEDs with similar systems, the researchers suggest that from a Bose-Einstein condensate might illuminate our living rooms in the future.

Too Much Caffeine Can Slow Brain Development.

Offduty: Caffine Drinks

These days, caffeine is the most commonly consumed psychoactive drug. It is estimated that at least 50% of adults consume caffeine on a daily basis. It is also estimated that soda and sweetened drinks are the single most consumed food in the American diet. The energy drink sales market in the United States throughout 2009 brought in roughly $4 billion dollars, with Red Bull coming in as the top selling energy drink, with Monster and Rockstar coming in 2nd and 3rd place. Red Bull currently has a 65 percent share of the U.S. Energy drink market. And in 2012 it took in sales of over $1 billion dollars alone. Coca-cola earned an impressive $4.68 billion in 2012. Alarmingly, more than one-third of teens are consuming are energy drinks daily “just to get through the day.”

“The soda fountain is the most valuable, most useful, most profitable, and altogether most beneficial business building feature assimilated by the drugstore in a generation…” – John Somerset, Drug Topics June 1920


When we feel tired or drowsy, this is thanks to the binding of adenosine to adenosine-receptors on the synapses of neurons in our brain. These receptors help to facilitate a “slow-down” of our brain’s signaling functions, and induces a tired sensation, when adenosine is bound. Caffeine’s chemical structure is vastly similar to that of adenosine, and the neurons in our brain will allow for either caffeine or adenosine to bind to the adenosine-receptors, effectively blocking adenosine’s binding. When we are really active, and expend adenosine triphosphate (ATP) (often referred to as the ‘molecular unit of currency’ or ‘energy currency’), there are higher levels of adenosine concentration in our brain. (Fisone, Borgkvist,& Usiello, 2004).

Caffeine is an antagonist which inhibits the effects of adenosine and competes for binding sites. When caffeine occupies the binding sites on nerve cells, it doesn’t mimic the ‘slow-down’ that is initiated when adenosine binds to the site. Instead of slowing down, the cells speed up and fire rapidly. Consuming too much caffeine can have many negative effects on our health, common symptoms of caffeine withdrawal include (but are not limited to): headaches, fatigue, drowsiness, nausea, muscle pains, and stiffness. It can also have negative effects on our sleep, even our brain development.

Humans particularly need sleep during puberty, as during this time their brain matures at a faster rate. Scientists exploring the effects of caffeine on rats found the maturing process in the rodents’ brains were inhibited and ultimately delayed due to caffeine consumption. Researchers at the University Children’s Hospital Zurich, found that in pubescent rats, caffeine intake equating to three to four cups of coffee per day in humans resulted in reduced deep sleep and delayed brain development. Compared to the rats that had been given pure drinking water, the researchers found that the ones which had consumed the water had far more neural connections in the brain than the caffeine-drinking animals.


Along with the growing controversy surrounding caffeinated drinks, last year Mayor Michael Bloomberg sought to ban large soda drinks in New York, in an effort to battle current rates of consumption. But we all know how well prohibition works, and the effort has received harsh criticism from fellow Americans. Instead of buying one really large “forbidden” size drink, what is stopping people from purchasing several? The legislation clearly isn’t going to be as effective as originally intended. If someone wants to drink 16oz of soda, they are going to find a way to drink it.

Excessive caffeine consumption obviously negatively impacts our overall health. Sugar in these soft drinks can lead to high insulin levels, which would contribute to high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, and also weight gain. The acid in the soda also eats away at tooth enamel, weakening your teeth. The aspartame sugar substitute in diet soda (and even some non-diet sodas) also isn’t very beneficial for the body, consumption of which can produce brain tumors, birth defects, diabetes, emotional disorders, and epilepsy/seizures. Everything should be consumed in moderation, and where there are withdrawal effects there is also addiction and dependence in a physiological as well as psychological manner.

Five Warning Signs Of Dementia.

Trouble chewing

According to a study in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, biting an apple can determine one’s odds of getting dementia. In Sweden, researchers studied 577 people who were 77 or older. They discovered that the ones who found it difficult to chew had a higher risk of dementia. It could be that, as people age and lose teeth, it’s more difficult to chew. Chewing less will lower the flow of blood to the brain, increasing the chances of mental decline.

Walking Slow

One’s style of walking can signal dementia. This was presented in a 2012 report at the Alzheimer’s International Conference. Many studies showed a correlation between abnormal walking styles and signs of mental decline during neuropsychological tests. One study analyzed how 19 elderly subjects walked at home. Individuals with a slower pace also had less brain volume.

Restless sleeping

One’s sleep cycle can lead to mental decline. Annals of Neurology published a study in December 2011 where they studied 1,300 women over 75 for five years. By the end of five years, 39 percent of these otherwise healthy women had developed mild dementia. The research showed that one’s weak circadian rhythms caused an 80 percent higher chance of developing dementias. These were people who were less active in the early hours of the day.

Extra weight

Excess weight is linked to heart disease, type two diabetes and arthritis. A neurology study from May 2011 proved a connection between high BMI and increased dementia risk. Studying 8,534 twins aged 65 or higher, 350 definitely had dementia, while 114 faced the possibility. When their BMI from 30 years earlier was noted, researchers found that those with dementia or the risk of it were 70 percent more likely to have had excess weight.


One’s emotions can affect brain health. The Archives of General Psychiatry (now JAMA Psychiatry) published a study that followed 13,000 people in California for six years. The risk of Alzheimer’s doubled in those with late-life depression. The risk tripled in individuals who also had mid-life depression.


Avoiding Phosporus in early stage renal disease.

It didn’t take long for Dr. Alex Chang, 31, to determine that he would pursue a career in nephrology. It was during his early years of medical school at Ohio State University that he became interested in the intricacies of the kidneys and the needs of kidney patients.

“I realized how important, yet underappreciated the kidneys are,” he said. “Nephrology is a complex field intimately linked with every organ system and that keeps me coming to work ready to learn more.”

It is that same passion that has driven his research. Dr. Chang focuses on ways to decrease the prevalence of chronic kidney disease and reduce its side effects through dietary interventions and lifestyle modifications. He is working on a new study, supported by the National Kidney Foundation’s Satellite Dialysis Clinical Investigator Grant, that is investigating the effects of phosphorus additives on patients who have early stage kidney disease.

“Patients who are on dialysis often have difficulty eliminating phosphorus, so they have to avoid consuming phosphorus additives,” Dr. Chang said. “But for people with early kidney disease, who can still excrete phosphorus, it is unknown if these additives could cause problems.”

Dr. Chang, who is a Clinical Investigator in Nephrology at Geisinger Health System, will conduct his research at Johns Hopkins University in the Prohealth Research Unit directed by Dr. Lawrence Appel.

The goal is to learn whether avoiding phosphorus additives decreases the cardiovascular risk in kidney patients. The study involves the recruitment of individuals who are classified as being in CKD stages 1 or 2. After obtaining a baseline phosphorus level, patients will undergo a period where they consume foods with phosphorus additives and another period where they consume foods without phosphorus additives. Researchers will then measure blood and urine searching for a hormone that is linked to increased cardiovascular risk.

“If we see an increase in this hormone (FGF-23), this would suggest that we should be counseling all kidney disease patients to avoid phosphorus additives,” said Dr. Chang.

Patients are currently being recruited for the study, and Dr. Chang and his team hope to publish results in mid-2015. After this study is completed, he will continue to examine new ways to combat kidney disease and its co-morbidities.

“There are so many exciting advances in dialysis and improvements in transplantation to look forward to, but I am actually hoping that we can refocus energy on low-hanging fruits,” he said. “To me, this means better understanding of diet and whether we can modify lifestyle behaviors to prevent or slow progression of kidney disease and increase the adherence rate to medications.”

Fighting HIV on its own turf.

Dr. Julie McElrath directs Fred Hutch’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division and the HVTN’s laboratory arm.

Fred Hutch is opening a Cape Town lab to launch HIV vaccine trials in South Africa, where the virus has infected more people than in any other country

Three years ago, Dr. Julie McElrath and her colleagues decided their best shot at developing an effective HIV vaccine was to try and beat the virus on its own turf, by launching clinical trials in a country that had lost an entire generation to AIDS.

In 2009, McElrath and Dr. Peter Gilbert had helped researchers complete a breakthrough trial of a vaccine that made some people more than 30 percent less likely to contract HIV. The trial took place in Thailand, where nearly 500,000 people are HIV-positive, according to UNAIDS. As McElrath, Gilbert and their colleagues at the HIV Vaccine Trials Network – which is based at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center – unraveled exactly why the vaccine was effective, they realized they needed to go into countries where the epidemic has hit the hardest.

“The vaccine can have the biggest benefit there, and studies can be done quickly and with fewer participants because the incidence is so high,” said McElrath, who directs Fred Hutch’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division and the HVTN’s laboratory arm.

Now the HVTN is launching trials of the most promising HIV vaccines ever developed, and they’re doing it in South Africa, where the virus infects more people than in any other country. There, more than five million people – or roughly 10 percent of the population – suffer from HIV, and nearly two million children have been orphaned by the disease, according to Statistics South Africa and UNAIDS.

The mission of the Hutch is the elimination of cancer and related diseases as a cause of human suffering and death. Those with HIV can be several thousand times more likely to develop various types of cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute.

If the new vaccines are effective, it will be a key step toward ending the HIV scourge in South Africa and worldwide.

“That’s the goal – to make insights that will lead to a vaccine that is far more effective than anything we’ve ever seen,” said Dr. Jim Kublin, the HVTN’s executive director.

Developing breakthrough HIV vaccines

The South Africa trials are the latest chapter in a vaccine push that started in 1999, when Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Larry Corey launched the HVTN. Since then, the network has conducted more than 50 clinical trials. The HVTN’s researchers and their colleagues spent the past four years improving the Thai trial vaccines and adapting them to sub-Saharan Africa’s most common HIV strains.

The network will soon conduct Phase 1 and Phase 2 studies to confirm that the new vaccines are safe. If all goes well, the vaccines will move forward to larger Phase 2 and Phase 3 studies to determine their side effects and effectiveness. Scheduled to start in 2015, those trials could include as many as 10,000 participants and will examine whether the vaccines reduce a healthy person’s risk of contracting HIV.

State-of-the-art lab fuels progress

The trials are anchored by a new, state-of-the-art vaccine lab that Fred Hutch spearheaded in Cape Town. The lab, which will be unveiled on Oct. 23, will analyze trial participants’ blood samples and study how their immune systems interact with the vaccine, and with the virus.

It cost approximately $3 million to complete the lab and the project received critical funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institutes of Health. The facility will also be open to South African researchers, giving them training and access to cutting-edge technology that helps advance their own HIV studies.

“That’s a really important goal – to partner with African scientists and clinicians to lay a foundation for research that extends far beyond the HVTN,” said Dr. Erica Andersen-Nissen, the lab’s director.

Goal: Disarm HIV worldwide

If the South Africa trials prove the latest vaccines are effective, it could be the foundation for a new wave of vaccines that potentially disarm HIV worldwide. It’s a process that could happen quickly or last for years – it took more than four decades to develop a vaccine for polio, and HIV is a far more complicated virus.

“I’ve been involved in medicine for my entire life, and I’ve never seen an endeavor like this – there is a huge community of people who are 100 percent committed to discovering a vaccine,” Kublin said. “It might not happen immediately, but it’s within our grasp.”

Sleep ‘cleans’ the brain of toxins

Brain in a head

The brain uses sleep to wash away the waste toxins built up during a hard day’s thinking, researchers have shown.

The US team believe the “waste removal system” is one of the fundamental reasons for sleep.

Their study, in the journal Science, showed brain cells shrink during sleep to open up the gaps between neurons and allow fluid to wash the brain clean.

They also suggest that failing to clear away some toxic proteins may play a role in brain disorders.

One big question for sleep researchers is why do animals sleep at all when it leaves them vulnerable to predators?

It has been shown to have a big role in the fixing of memories in the brain and learning, but a team at the University of Rochester Medical Centre believe that “housework” may be one of the primary reasons for sleep.

“The brain only has limited energy at its disposal and it appears that it must choose between two different functional states – awake and aware or asleep and cleaning up,” said researcher Dr Maiken Nedergaard.

“You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time.”


Their findings build on last year’s discovery of the brain’s own network of plumbing pipes – known as the glymphatic system – which carry waste material out of the brain.

Scientists, who imaged the brains of mice, showed that the glymphatic system became 10-times more active when the mice were asleep.

Cells in the brain, probably the glial cells which keep nerve cells alive, shrink during sleep. This increases the size of the interstitial space, the gaps between brain tissue, allowing more fluid to be pumped in and wash the toxins away.

Dr Nedergaard said this was a “vital” function for staying alive, but did not appear to be possible while the mind was awake.

She told the BBC: “This is purely speculation, but it looks like the brain is losing a lot of energy when pumping water across the brain and that is probably incompatible with processing information.”

She added that the true significance of the findings would be known only after human studies, but doing similar experiments in an MRI machine would be relatively easy.


Commenting on the research Dr Neil Stanley, an independent sleep expert, said: “This is a very interesting study that shows sleep is essential downtime to do some housekeeping to flush out neurotoxins.

“There is good data on memory and learning, the psychological reason for sleep. But this is the actual physical and chemical reason for sleep, something is happening which is important.”

Dr Raphaelle Winsky-Sommerer, a lecturer in sleep at Surrey University, said: “It’s not surprising, our whole physiology is changing during sleep.

“The novelty is the role of the interstitial space, but I think it’s an added piece of the puzzle not the whole mechanism.

“The significance is that, yet again, it shows sleep may contribute to the restoration of brain cell function and may have protective effects.”

Many conditions which lead to the loss of brain cells such as Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s disease are characterised by the build-up of damaged proteins in the brain.

The researchers suggest that problems with the brain’s cleaning mechanism may contribute to such diseases, but caution more research is needed.

The charity Alzheimer’s Research UK said more research would be needed to see whether damage to the brain’s waste clearance system could lead to diseases like dementia, but the findings offered a “potential new avenue for investigation”.

‘Electronic blood’ computer tested.

Dr Patrick Ruch demonstrates liquid fuelled computing
Is liquid fuel the key to zettascale computing? Dr Patrick Ruch with IBM’s test kit

IBM has unveiled a prototype of a new brain-inspired computer powered by what it calls “electronic blood”.

The firm says it is learning from nature by building computers fuelled and cooled by a liquid, like our minds.

The human brain packs phenomenal computing power into a tiny space and uses only 20 watts of energy – an efficiency IBM is keen to match.

Its new “redox flow” system pumps an electrolyte “blood” through a computer, carrying power in and taking heat out.

Only 1% of a computer is used to process information. And we think we’ve built a good computer?”

Dr Bruno Michel IBM Zurich

A very basic model was demonstrated this week at the technology giant’s Zurich lab by Dr Patrick Ruch and Dr Bruno Michel.

Their vision is that by 2060, a one petaflop computer that would fill half a football field today, will fit on your desktop.

“We want to fit a supercomputer inside a sugarcube. To do that, we need a paradigm shift in electronics – we need to be motivated by our brain,” says Michel.

“The human brain is 10,000 times more dense and efficient than any computer today.

“That’s possible because it uses only one – extremely efficient – network of capillaries and blood vessels to transport heat and energy – all at the same time.”

IBM’s brainiest computer to date is Watson, which famously trounced two champions of the US TV quiz show Jeopardy.

The victory was hailed as a landmark for cognitive computing – machine had surpassed man.

Graphic: IBM's vision of a brain-inspired 3D computer The future of computing? IBM’s model uses a liquid to deliver power and remove heat

But the contest was unfair, says Michel. The brains of Ken Jennings and Brad Rutter ran on only 20 watts of energy, whereas Watson needed 85,000 watts.

Energy efficiency – not raw computing power – is the guiding principle for the next generation of computer chips, IBM believes.

Our current 2D silicon chips, which for half a century have doubled in power through Moore’s Law, are approaching a physical limit where they cannot shrink further without overheating.

Bionic vision

“The computer industry uses $30bn of energy and throws it out of the window. We’re creating hot air for $30bn,” says Michel.

“Ninety-nine per cent of a computer’s volume is devoted to cooling and powering. Only 1% is used to process information. And we think we’ve built a good computer?”

“The brain uses 40% of its volume for functional performance – and only 10% for energy and cooling.”

Michel’s vision is for a new “bionic” computing architecture, inspired by one of the laws of nature – allometric scaling – where an animal’s metabolic power increases with its body size.

An elephant, for example, weighs as much as a million mice. But it consumes 30 times less energy, and can perform a task even a million mice cannot accomplish.

IBM's Bruno Michel with liquid cooled Aquasar server
Bruno Michel with a server from Aquasar – a highly efficient liquid-cooled computer

The same principle holds true in computing, says Michel, whose bionic vision has three core design features.

The first is 3D architecture, with chips stacked high, and memory storage units interwoven with processors.

“It’s the difference between a low-rise building, where everything is spread out flat, and a high rise building. You shorten the connection distances,” says Matthias Kaiserswerth, director of IBM Zurich.

But there is a very good reason today’s chips are gridiron pancakes – exposure to the air is critical to dissipate the intense heat generated by ever-smaller transistors.

Piling chips on top of one another locks this heat inside – a major roadblock to 3D computing.

IBM’s solution is integrated liquid cooling – where chips are interlayered with tiny water pipes.

The art of liquid cooling has been demonstrated by Aquasar and put to work inside the German supercomputer SuperMUC which – perversely – harnesses warm water to cool its circuits.

SuperMUC consumes 40% less electricity as a result.

Liquid engineering

But for IBM to truly match the marvels of the brain, there is a third evolutionary step it must achieve – simultaneous liquid fuelling and cooling.

Just as blood gives sugar in one hand and takes heat with another, IBM is looking for a fluid that can multitask.

Vanadium is the best performer in their current laboratory test system – a type of redox flow unit – similar to a simple battery.

First a liquid – the electrolyte – is charged via electrodes, then pumped into the computer, where it discharges energy to the chip.

SuperMUC uses liquid cooling instead of air – a model for future computer designs

Redox flow is far from a new technology, and neither is it especially complex.

But IBM is the first to stake its chips on this “electronic blood” as the food of future computers – and will attempt to optimise it over the coming decades to achieve zettascale computing.

“To power a zettascale computer today would take more electricity than is produced in the entire world,” says Michel.

He is confident that the design hurdles in his bionic model can be surmounted – not least that a whole additional unit is needed to charge the liquid.

And while other labs are betting on spintronics, quantum computing, or photonics to take us beyond silicon, the Zurich team believes the real answer lies right behind our eyes.

“Just as computers help us understand our brains, if we understand our brains we’ll make better computers,” says director Matthias Kaiserswerth.

He would like to see a future Watson win Jeopardy on a level playing field.

IBM redox flow test system
A redox flow test system – the different coloured liquids have different oxidation states

Other experts in computing agree that IBM’s 3D principles are sound. But as to whether bionic computing will be the breakthrough technology, the jury is out.

“The idea of using a fluid to both power and cool strikes me as very novel engineering – killing two birds with one stone,” says Prof Alan Woodward, of the University of Surrey’s computing department.

“But every form of future computing has its champions – whether it be quantum computing, DNA computing or neuromorphic computing.

“There is a long way to go from the lab to having one of these sitting under your desk.”

Prof Steve Furber, leader of the SpiNNaker project agrees that “going into the third dimension” has more to offer than continually shrinking transistors.

“The big issue with 3D computing is getting the heat out – and liquid cooling could be very effective if integrated into 3D systems as proposed here,” he told the BBC.

“But all of the above will not get electronics down to the energy-efficiency of the brain.

“That will require many more changes, including a move to analogue computation instead of digital.

“It will also involve breakthroughs in new non-Turing models of computation, for example based on an understanding of how the brain processes information.”

The drugs derived from deadly poisons

Images of poison; bottle of poison; syringe; pills; poison symbol; another bottle

These days we have access to a huge array of medicines to protect us from pain, disease and death. But, as Michael Mosley has been discovering, the source of many of our more remarkable medicines have been deadly poisons.

Take a look at this picture.

Computer model of Botulinum toxin

It is the most poisonous substance known to man. A couple of teaspoons would be enough to kill everyone in the UK. A couple of kilos would kill every human on earth. It is so dangerous that it is manufactured in military installations and at around £100 trillion per kilo it is also the most expensive substance ever made. Yet despite being so toxic and so costly it is in huge demand. Many people pay large amounts of money to have it injected into their foreheads.

It is botulinum toxin – better known as Botox – a toxin produced by bacteria first discovered in poorly prepared sausages during the 18th Century. It was named after the Latin for sausage – botulus.

Michael Mosley

On the LD50 toxicity scale, which measures how much of a substance you would need to kill half the people it is given to, Botox measures just 0.000001 mg/kg. In other words you need would need around 0.00007mg to kill a 70kg man like me. Or to put it another way, a lethal dose for me would weigh less than one cubic millimetre of air.

Botulinum toxin kills its victims by causing respiratory failure. It is a neurotoxin – it enters nerves and destroys vital proteins. This stops communication between nerves and muscles. Only the growth of new nerve endings can restore muscle function, and that can take months.

Its main claim to fame is that it will iron out wrinkles in ageing faces and does so by destroying the nerves that cause frowning. The quantities used are tiny – a few billionths of a gram, dissolved in saline. In the name of science I tried Botox a few years ago.

It certainly smoothed away the wrinkles but it also gave me a weird expression, until the new nerve endings grew.

But botulinum toxin is far more than simply a vanity product. It is extremely useful for treating a number of medical conditions, ranging from eye squints to migraines, excess sweating to leaky bladders. In fact there are currently more than 20 different medical conditions that botulinum toxin is being used to treat. More are being discovered all the time.

Botox facelift
A Botox facelift

Botulinum toxin is just one example of extraordinarily dangerous poisons that have useful medical applications. Captopril, a $1bn antihypertensive drug, was developed from studies made on snake venoms. Exenatide, marketed as Byetta, is an effective and extremely lucrative drug used to treat type-2 diabetics. It comes from studies of the saliva of the Gila monster, a large venomous lizard that lives in the south-western US and Mexico

But the impact of poisons on modern medicine go deeper than simply providing new forms of treatment. One poison in particular helped shape the entire modern pharmaceutical industry.

In Victorian Britain, life insurance was a booming industry. This easy money led to a surge in murders, many of them by poison.

Arsenic bottle
Oxides of arsenic are tasteless, soluble and very deadly

One of the most high profile cases was a woman called Mary Ann Cotton who, in 1873, was tried for multiple murders. She had been married four times and three of her husbands, all heavily insured, died. The one who survived seems to have done so because he refused to take out insurance. So she left him.

In all, 10 of her children died of what seemed to be gastric-related illnesses. Each must have been a tragic loss, but fortunately for Cotton most were insured.

Her mother, her sister-in-law, and her lover all died. And in each case, she benefited. By 1872, the unfortunate woman had lost an astonishing 16 close friends or family members. But there was one left – her seven-year-old stepson, Charles. She tried to give him away to the local workhouse but they wouldn’t have him. So young Charles soon died.

The manager of the workhouse, however, got suspicious and contacted the police. They soon decided Cotton must have poisoned the boy and thought they knew how she’d done it – with arsenic.

Arsenic oxides are minerals and as a poison are almost unrivalled. They are tasteless, dissolve in hot water and take less than a hundredth of an ounce to kill. Yet in the 19th Century, marketed as a rat poison, arsenic oxide was cheap and easily available. Children would blithely collect it from the shops along with the tea, sugar and dried fruits.

The trial of Mary Ann Cotton would hinge on whether they could find traces of arsenic in the body of her stepson. Forensic science was still in its infancy but they did have a good test for arsenic. This was because there was an awful lot of arsenic poisoning around.

A sample from the boy’s stomach and intestines was heated with acid and copper. If arsenic was present, the copper would turn dark grey and, when placed on paper soaked in mercury bromide, produce a tell-tale yellowy-brown stain.

When they tested the body of poor little Charles they discovered that he had indeed died of a lethal dose of arsenic. Cotton was convicted of his murder and hanged in Durham Jail. She was never taken to trial for the mysterious deaths of her mother, three husbands, two friends and 10 other children.

It was a rash of murders and poisonings like this one that led first to the Arsenic Act and then to the Pharmacy Act 1868. This act ruled that the only people who could sell poisons and dangerous drugs were qualified pharmacists and druggists.

So it was from poisonings, accidents and murders that the modern legitimate business of pharmacy finally emerged. And one compound – arsenic trioxide – has also found a legitimate medical use, as an anti-cancer agent.