WTF Fun Fact 13633 – Communication via Brain Implants

Imagine a world where thoughts translate into words without uttering a single sound via brain implants.

At Duke University, a groundbreaking project involving neuroscientists, neurosurgeons, and engineers, has birthed a speech prosthetic capable of converting brain signals into spoken words. This innovation, detailed in the journal Nature Communications, could redefine communication for those with speech-impairing neurological disorders.

Currently, people with conditions like ALS or locked-in syndrome rely on slow and cumbersome communication methods. Typically, speech decoding rates hover around 78 words per minute, while natural speech flows at about 150 words per minute. This gap in communication speed underscores the need for more advanced solutions.

To bridge this gap, Duke’s team, including neurologist Gregory Cogan and biomedical engineer Jonathan Viventi, has introduced a high-tech approach. They created an implant with 256 tiny sensors on a flexible, medical-grade material. Capturing nuanced brain activities essential for speech, this device marks a significant leap from previous models with fewer sensors.

The Test Drive: From Lab to Real Life

The real challenge was testing the implant in a real-world setting. Patients undergoing unrelated brain surgeries, like Parkinson’s disease treatment or tumor removal, volunteered to test the implant. The Duke team, likened to a NASCAR pit crew by Dr. Cogan, had a narrow window of 15 minutes during these surgeries to conduct their tests.

Patients participated in a simple task: listening to and repeating nonsensical words. The implant recorded their brain’s speech-motor cortex activities, coordinating muscles involved in speech. This data is then fed into a machine learning algorithm, managed by Suseendrakumar Duraivel, to predict the intended sounds based on brain activity.

While accuracy varied, some sounds and words were correctly identified up to 84% of the time. Despite the challenges, such as distinguishing between similar sounds, the results were promising, especially considering the brevity of the data collection period.

The Road Ahead for Brain Implants

The team’s next steps involve creating a wireless version of the device, funded by a $2.4M grant from the National Institutes of Health. This advancement would allow users greater mobility and freedom, unencumbered by wires and electrical outlets. However, reaching a point where this technology matches the speed of natural speech remains a challenge, as noted by Viventi.

The Duke team’s work represents a significant stride in neurotechnology, potentially transforming the lives of those who have lost their ability to speak. While the current version may still lag behind natural speech rates, the trajectory is clear and promising. The dream of translating thoughts directly into words is becoming more tangible, opening new horizons in medical science and communication technology. This endeavor, supported by extensive research and development, signals a future where barriers to communication are continually diminished, offering hope and empowerment to those who need it most.

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Source: “Brain implant may enable communication from thoughts alone” — ScienceDaily

WTF Fun Fact 13613 – First Chimeric Monkey

Researchers have made a monumental stride in primate research by making the first chimeric monkey.

This marks the first successful birth of a chimeric monkey from embryonic stem cell lines. This scientific achievement has profound implications for the fields of genetic engineering, species conservation, and biomedical studies.

Understanding Chimerism in Primates

The study, led by senior author Zhen Liu of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, culminated in the birth of a monkey with cells originating from two distinct embryos. Until now, this feat of chimerism had been achieved only in smaller mammals such as rats and mice. Published in the prestigious journal Cell, the research opens new avenues for understanding pluripotency. That’s the capability of stem cells to differentiate into any cell type—in non-human primates and possibly humans.

The cynomolgus monkeys, commonly used in biomedical research, served as the subjects for this groundbreaking experiment. The researchers established nine stem cell lines from blastocyst embryos and selected a subset of these pluripotent cells to inject into early-stage monkey embryos. This meticulous process led to several pregnancies and the birth of six live monkeys. One of these showcased a substantial level of chimerism.

The Making of a Chimeric Monkey

The researchers tagged the stem cells with green fluorescent protein. This enabled them to trace which tissues originated from the stem cells. Extensive analysis revealed that the chimeric monkey exhibited a wide distribution of stem-cell-derived tissues across the brain, heart, kidney, liver, and gastrointestinal tract. Remarkably, the live monkey displayed stem cell contributions ranging from 21% to 92% across various tissues, averaging 67%.

The presence of stem-cell-derived cells in the reproductive tissues was a significant discovery. It underscors the potential for these cells to contribute to the germline and possibly influence future generations.

Implications and Future Directions

The success of this study is not merely academic. It has practical implications, offering the potential to create more precise monkey models for neurological and other biomedical research. By enhancing the understanding of primate cell developmental potential, the study paves the way for innovative approaches in medical science.

Looking ahead, the team aims to refine their method to increase the efficiency of generating chimeric monkeys. They plan to optimize the stem cell cultures and the blastocysts’ environments, hoping to improve the survival rates of these embryos in host animals.

In conclusion, the birth of the first chimeric monkey from embryonic stem cells is a remarkable scientific milestone. It broadens our knowledge of primate biology and holds promise for future applications that could benefit both primate conservation and human health.

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Source: “First live birth of a chimeric monkey using embryonic stem cell lines” — ScienceDaily