Some Big Ideas; Scientists and Researchers Are Always Looking for New Ways to Fight Disease, to Make Complex Tasks Easier, to Make Life Better. A Sampling of Inventions in Progress

Newsweek, October 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

Some Big Ideas; Scientists and Researchers Are Always Looking for New Ways to Fight Disease, to Make Complex Tasks Easier, to Make Life Better. A Sampling of Inventions in Progress


Byline: Ben Whitford, John Horgan, Eric Pape, Walter Alarkon, David H. Freedman

'Rewiring' The Brain

Sawing open someone's skull for research purposes is a no-no, but brain scientists have found the next best thing. By projecting an electrical charge through the skull, they can now flick neurons on and off without ever breaking the skin.

The technique, known as transcranial magnetic stimulation, or TMS, uses a $30,000 contraption to fire a powerful magnetic pulse into the cranium, creating an electric charge that activates brain cells. That's enough for some eye-catching parlor tricks: a zap above the temples makes muscles twitch involuntarily; one over the back of the head makes you see sparks. But the real magic begins when TMS pulses are fired in rapid succession. Depending on the frequency, repetitive TMS has long-term sensitizing or inhibitory effects, in principle allowing doctors to "rewire" the brain.

That has researchers reaching for their magnets. Doctors already use the technique to treat depression, stimulating areas of the brain that process moods; a large-scale clinical trial reports to the FDA next spring. And it doesn't stop there: TMS can be used to speed up thought processes, boost creativity and even turn off the voices in schizophrenics' heads. The military is interested in using the technique to turn off fatigue in soldiers. But forget about building your own orgasmatron: the brain's pleasure centers are too deeply buried to be targeted by TMS.

--Ben Whitford

Rip Van Winkle

Scientists studying animal hibernation have discovered that much of the damage caused by oxygen deprivation is a result of residual oxygen in the body, which produces harmful compounds called free radicals. The findings have inspired a counterintuitive strategy to minimize the effect: reduce the amount of oxygen to induce a state resembling suspended animation. A team at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle placed mice, which do not hibernate, in a sealed chamber. By gradually in-creasing the levels of hydrogen sulfide in the chamber, they "pushed aside" much of the oxygen within the animals' cells. The mice entered a comalike state, in which their body temperature, respiration and heartbeat decreased. Revived after six hours, the rodents showed no ill effects. Someday, similar techniques could reduce brain damage in accident victims en route to the hospital and extend the shelf life of organs for tranplantation.

--John Horgan

Mind Over Matter

Sever your spinal cord and you lose control of your arms and legs. But what if the brain could bypass the spine altogether? Researchers are already working on a "mind chip" that might transmit brain signals directly to the limbs.

In neuroscientist John Donahue's lab at Brown University, Matthew Nagle, paralyzed from the neck down in a stabbing four years ago, had a tiny silicon sensor implanted in his brain's motor region. The chip sent signals from Nagle's neurons to a computer; Nagle was able to direct the on-screen cursor to send e-mail, draw a circle and even play Pong. More significantly, he could open and close a robotic hand.

Donahue envisions similar chips' controlling not just prosthetics but actual paralyzed arms and legs. There's a long way to go. For starters, he must make the technology port-able (currently it fills his lab) and find a way to implant the chip without extensive surgery. But for people suffering from spinal-cord injuries, the tiny chip could change lives.

--Eric Pape

Better Vaccines

Conventional vaccines are notoriously fragile, making fighting a pandemic a logistical nightmare. New vaccines using viral DNA rather than whole virus proteins to stimulate the immune system promise to be easier to manufacture and transport--and could provide new weapons against previously untreatable diseases.

Injected DNA gets lost in the body, so British researchers attached viral DNA to tiny particles of gold dense enough to penetrate targeted cells. …

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Some Big Ideas; Scientists and Researchers Are Always Looking for New Ways to Fight Disease, to Make Complex Tasks Easier, to Make Life Better. A Sampling of Inventions in Progress
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