Exoskeletons as Fashion

There’s an interesting article over at the new Discover Magazine blog, the Crux, by Kyle Munkittrick, which you should definitely go read if you’re interested since I’ll just touch on it here. He discusses powered exoskeletons as a coming fashion trend – something I had not at all envisioned. He points out that every fashion is a prosthesis, and most relevantly, glasses and contacts were something first seen only as an aid for a disability, but have now blown up to be very much a part of fashion. Why shouldn’t we adapt to exoskeletons as fashion as well?

Right now powered exoskeletons seem to be mainly considered as aids for the handicapped or for the military, but as they get cheaper and better it’s not hard to imagine them being used in everyday life – there’s plenty of work that requires extra safety or heavy lifting. Hard hats haven’t exactly become sexy, but if it’s something used in a wide variety of circumstances by a variety of demographic groups, and considering there are already a fair amount of companies competing over exoskeletons, it would make sense for companies to try to market their products as fashionably as possible for each niche. 

If you’re wondering about the current state of exoskeletons, below are some examples of modern powered suits in action. Many companies are developing them, but the technology doesn’t seem to be quite developed enough for them to be widespread. Regardless, the exoskeleton seen in the first video (HAL) is being used in over 100 hospitals, according to the Tokyo Times, and the exoskeleton from the second video is being sold for personal use in New Zealand, although it’s currently rather pricey at about $150,000 USD.

Fun fact: the first ever powered exoskeleton was developed by GE and the U.S. military in the 1960’s; it was strong, but too heavy and too difficult to control, so it was never even tested with a person inside. 

And on a side note, the Japanese company that’s working on HAL is called Cyberdyne. They named themselves after the company that created Skynet in the Terminator series, and their exoskeleton has the same name as the homicidal AI from 2001: A Space Odyssey? If they’re trying to tell us something about their future plans, they couldn’t put it any clearer. 

Robot Can Control a Human Arm

Using electrodes on a human test subject’s arm, a robot could manipulate the human arm as well as its own arms to coordinate an action between them. This is relevant to the pursuit of robots that can assist paralyzed individuals, by using the robot body in addition to helping the paralyzed person move their own limbs. Below is a video showing this robot in action:


From Automaton:

The robot controls the human limb by sending small electrical currents to electrodes taped to the person’s forearm and biceps, which allows it to command the elbow and hand to move. In the experiment, the person holds a ball, and the robot a hoop; the robot, a small humanoid, has to coordinate the movement of both arms to successfully drop the ball through the hoop…

“Imagine a robot that brings a glass of water to a person with limited movements,” says Bruno Vilhena Adorno, the study’s lead researcher. “From a medical point of view, you might want to encourage the person to move more, and that’s when the robot can help, by moving the person’s arm to reach and hold the glass.”

Another advantage, he adds, is that capable robotic arms are still big, heavy, and expensive. By relying on a person’s physical abilities, robotic arms designed to assist people can have their complexity and cost reduced. Many research teams are teaching robots how to perform bimanual manipulations, and Adorno says it seemed like a natural step to bring human arms into the mix…

The researchers emphasize that the control of the human arm doesn’t have to be precise, just “good enough” to place it inside the robot’s workspace. They claim that having a robot able to control a person’s arm is better than having a very dexterous robot and a person’s weak, unsteady limb…

He plans to continue the project and adds that they’re now improving the electrical stimulation. They’re now able to move the elbow in both directions, for example. Eventually they hope to move the arm to any point in space.

The basic idea, then, is that it’s difficult to provide assistance to people if they can’t effectively use their own limbs, so why not have their helper robot move their limbs for them? 

I know you’re thinking what I’m thinking: terrifying. Besides that, it should be noted that neurons that don’t get any stimulation for a while can end up dying off, so some paralyzed individuals may not have the option of just getting outside stimulation for their nerves, since they won’t be intact any more. I imagine this solution, activating neurons from the outside, might head that degeneration off if it’s used not too long after the paralyzing event. 

“Lab-Grown Blood Given to Volunteer For the First Time”

From New Scientist:

RED blood cells generated in a lab have been successfully injected into a human volunteer for the first time. This is a vital step towards a future in which all the blood we need for transfusions can be made in the lab, so that blood donors are no longer essential.

Luc Douay at Pierre and Marie Curie University, Paris, and his colleagues extracted what are called hematopoetic stem cells from a volunteer’s bone marrow.

Hematopoietic stem cells are cells that can turn into any kind of blood cell. They’re a step in the path between embryonic stem cells, at the least differentiated extreme, and a specific type of blood cell, at the most differentiated extreme.

These cells were encouraged to grow into cultured red blood cells using a cocktail of growth factors. After labelling the cells so they could be traced, Douay’s team injected 10 billion – the equivalent of 2 millilitres of blood – back into the original donor to see how they survived…

“The results show promise that an unlimited blood reserve is within reach,” says Douay. That blood reserve is needed urgently. Although blood donations are increasing in many developed countries, blood banks struggle to keep up with the demands of ageing populations who need more operations – often involving blood transfusions. And a source of HIV-free blood is essential in countries with high rates of HIV infection…

Douay’s next challenge is to scale up production to a point where the cultured blood cells can be made quickly and cheaply in sufficient quantities for blood transfusions. The 10 billion cells his team made wouldn’t go very far – a transfusion typically requires 200 times that number. With his existing technology, Douay estimates that a single transfusion would require 400 litres of culture fluid, which is clearly impractical. “We are still a long way from the vision of dropping a couple of stem cells into the broth and making endless units of blood,” says John Hess of the University of Maryland in Baltimore.

Douay believes that it may take several years to scale up the technology. Another possibility is to use embryonic stem cells instead, as Lanza did in 2008. “We can generate up to 100 billion red blood cells from a single six-well plate of stem cells,” Lanza says. He also claims to have made red blood cells through yet another technique: generating “induced pluripotent” stem cells from skin samples and coaxing those stem cells into becoming blood cells.

This sounds like great news. Blood donations are always in need; supplementing those with lab-created blood should be a relief for patients in need of transfusions. New Scientist also gave us this handy-dandy timeline of the path to artificial blood, for your learning pleasure:

If you’re wondering what the “Rhesus blood group” it’s referring to above means, it’s a property of different blood types, part of which we’re familiar with by the positive/negative classification of our blood.

Rapid Genetic Testing in a Clinical Setting

For what appears to be the first time, doctors have used rapid genetic testing to immediately inform their treatment of patients. Basically, some people react poorly to a particular drug, and the genetic variant responsible for this is known. Doctors could test whether or not they had this genetic variant and administer the correct drug accordingly. The steps, as outlined in Medical Xpress:

The point-of-care genetic test used in the study is a first in medicine and overcame many of the previous obstacles that had prevented routine clinical genetic testing. The test featured:

— A saliva swab performed by clinical nurses at the bedside with no prior training in genetic laboratory techniques.
— A one-step insertion of the swab into a testing machine.
— Sixty minutes to identify whether individuals carried the at-risk genetic variant.

The Medical Xpress article goes into more detail and background, if you’re interested.

This technology sounds pretty great. How great though depends on how common this kind of situation is – how often medical care depends on genotype. I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d heard of that situation, but nothing comes to mind right now. I guess we’ll find out when we’re getting swabbed. If it is common, well, saving lots of money on healthcare would be pretty fantastic – and, of course, being in better health would be nice.

If you’re curious about DNA sequencing, you should check out this Ars Technica article that I’ve linked to before; it lays out the basics of the science well enough that I won’t try to replicate it here.

Nanoparticle Exposure May Not Be An Issue After All

The study of nanoparticles is a growing field relevant to nanotechnology. Nanoparticles – tiny particles of a material, anywhere between 1 and 2500 nanometres in diameter – are particularly interesting because they can have different properties than the same material in larger quantities. They have size-dependent properties, because the proportion of atoms on a particle’s surface is non-negligible compared to the atoms inside the particle, unlike with larger objects. 

For example, from Wikipedia

Nanoparticles often possess unexpected optical properties as they are small enough to confine their electrons and produce quantum effects. For example gold nanoparticles appear deep red to black in solution. Nanoparticles of usually yellow gold and gray silicon are red in color. Gold nanoparticles melt at much lower temperatures (~300 °C for 2.5 nm size) than the gold slabs (1064 °C). And absorption of solar radiation in photovoltaic cells is much higher in materials composed of nanoparticles than it is in thin films of continuous sheets of material.

However, the unusual properties of nanoparticles means, naturally, that they could be harmful to human health in some way. This has been a worry for some time now as nanotechnology has risen to prominence. In what seems like a big relief, a new study shows that we may actually be exposed to nanoparticles all the time, so if they have any dangerous effects, we should already know about them.

From ScienceDaily:

Since the emergence of nanotechnology, researchers, regulators and the public have been concerned that the potential toxicity of nano-sized products might threaten human health by way of environmental exposure.

Now, with the help of high-powered transmission electron microscopes, chemists captured never-before-seen views of miniscule metal nanoparticles naturally being created by silver articles such as wire, jewelry and eating utensils in contact with other surfaces. It turns out, researchers say, nanoparticles have been in contact with humans for a long, long time…

Using a new approach developed at [the University of Oregon] that allows for the direct observation of microscopic changes in nanoparticles over time, researchers found that silver nanoparticles deposited on the surface of their SMART Grids electron microscope slides began to transform in size, shape and particle populations within a few hours, especially when exposed to humid air, water and light. Similar dynamic behavior and new nanoparticle formation was observed when the study was extended to look at macro-sized silver objects such as wire or jewelry.

“Our findings show that nanoparticle ‘size’ may not be static, especially when particles are on surfaces. For this reason, we believe that environmental health and safety concerns should not be defined — or regulated — based upon size,” said James E. Hutchison, who holds the Lokey-Harrington Chair in Chemistry. “In addition, the generation of nanoparticles from objects that humans have contacted for millennia suggests that humans have been exposed to these nanoparticles throughout time. Rather than raise concern, I think this suggests that we would have already linked exposure to these materials to health hazards if there were any.”

Any potential federal regulatory policies, the research team concluded, should allow for the presence of background levels of nanoparticles and their dynamic behavior in the environment.

So that’s good news. Nanotechnologists, nanotechnology away!

Linking Average National IQ and Infectious Disease

Christopher Eppig at Scientific American writes about his search for the factors that determine average national IQ. This is a topic that’s apparently been studied quite a bit, and Eppig explains that the cumulative evidence points towards rates of infectious disease as a determining factor. 

One study found that newborn humans spend close to 90 percent of their calories on building and running their brains. (Even as adults, our brains consume as much as a quarter of our energy.) If, during childhood, when the brain is being built, some unexpected energy cost comes along, the brain will suffer. Infectious disease is a factor that may rob large amounts of energy away from a developing brain.

I was a bit hesitant about linking to this article because a) it’s written by the grad student who conducted this research, although I leave it to Scientific American to ensure that he’s being honest and accurate, and b) not once in the article does he question IQ as an objectively meaningful measure of intelligence. That’s a huge elephant in the room that I’m really surprised he did not address, and it definitely detracts from the article.

Nevertheless, this is an interesting theory that may not have been the most obvious explanation (I doubt I would’ve thought of it), so I put it out here for you to mull over. Mull away.

Placebos, Alternative Medicine and Scrutinizing Scientific Articles

A particular article in the New England Journal of Medicine has gotten the writers at Science-Based Medicine up in arms, spawning a series of critical articles of their own. Basically the original article demonstrates that a placebo, sham acupuncture and no treatment have an equally small effect on an asthma patient’s outcome compared to actual treatment, but that they can have a large psychological effect.

The problem is that their conclusion tries to push the idea that a patient subjectively feeling well is as or more important than their actual recovery; a dangerous perspective that props up alternative medicines that don’t actually accomplish anything besides a placebo effect, while putting patients at risk. From the “Spin City” article:

As I read the discussion of this paper, I could almost hear the cracking of bones as Kaptchuk went into major contortions to try to explain his negative result. Even though nowhere did the authors really explicitly state their real hypothesis, the design of the study made it painfully clear to anyone who understands clinical research that their hypothesis going in was that placebo responses would result in changes in objectively measured lung function in asthma. They were sorely disappointed, and the contortions of language that went into the discussion were plain to see. The authors implied that it might have been their use of a new, not really validated, patient-reported measure of asthma improvement. Or maybe, they argue, FEV1 isn’t a good measure of the severity of constriction of the airways in asthma, even though spirometry has been a reliable, well-validated test for asthma severity for decades. This is especially true in an academic medical center with a lot of pulmonary specialists. While spirometry can be unreliable in primary care settings and other settings where there isn’t a lot of experience performing it, such a description does not apply to Harvard-affiliated hospitals. At least I would hope not.

Overall, the spin on this study is not that placeboes don’t result in objectively measurable improvements, which is the correct conclusion. Rather, the spin is that subjective symptoms are as important or more important than objective measures; so let’s use placeboes.

All of this points to something important: even a peer-reviewed scientific article in a very important journal can be extremely misleading. Sadly, nowhere is safe enough for one’s critical-thinking-cap to be taken off. Analyzing and taking apart science articles is tough, and when I was in school and in lab I was repeatedly surprised by how my mentors could point out flaws in articles that I never would have thought of. Thinking takes practice 🙂  

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