Cool Stuff Last Week: Brain Chips, Solar Panels, and Wobble.

Science is awesome, and it’s always changing. Here’s a recap of what happened last week.

  1. Brain chip restores arm and hand movements to paralyzed man

Most of us don’t think a whole lot about what exactly happens when we open a door or type an email. Our brain and spinal cord do the complicated work of translating intent into action. But for quadriplegic people like Ian Burkhart, neural signals can no longer traverse the spinal cord, so the limbs no longer respond to commands like “pick up that fork.”

This is why Ian and a team of researchers at Ohio State University spent over a year working out in excruciating detail exactly how the human brain coordinates muscle movement in the wrist and hand. A chip in Ian’s motor cortex picks up neural signals and relays the signal to a computer program – that’s the easy part. The hard part was training the program to translate those signals into reliable motions. The team spent 15 months working with Ian on just six distinct hand and wrist movements until the computer could interpret them accurately and consistently.

Once the computer decodes the signal from the chip in Ian’s brain, it passes the message on to an electronic sleeve on Ian’s arm. The 130 electrodes on the sleeve stimulate Ian’s muscles, allowing him to move his own arm at will. Ian can pour water from a glass, swipe a credit card – and even play Guitar Hero. This is the first time an intracortical device has been used to restore function, in real time, to a quadriplegic individual. Although more work is needed before the system could be used on a broader scale, it has exciting implications for the future of treatment for paraplegic individuals.

  1. Solar panels that run on rain

If there’s one glaring problem with solar panels, it’s that they require, well, sun. They’re not the most realistic energy source if you live in Seattle. But now, researchers in Qingdao, China have created a solar panel that generates energy rain or shine. This solar panel is coated in a very thin layer of graphene. When rain hits the graphene, it results in a dual layer which generates energy via an electron charge transfer. This technology may need a little work before it hits the market – the solar-to-electric conversion efficiency is only 6.5%  – but given a little development, these new solar panels may provide a clean energy solution for rainy climates.

  1. Wobble baby: climate change affects how the earth moves

According to a new study from NASA, the earth is experiencing a rapid change in the way it moves about its axis. The earth naturally “wobbles” a bit on its axis, drifting east and west a little as it spins. Since 2000, the Earth’s wobble suddenly shifted course and began heading east at a rapid rate. Last week, scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory published a paper detailing how shifts in Earth’s water distribution affect this drift.

They identified a number of interesting findings to help explain the shift. Massive loss of ice sheets in Greenland push the spin axis east, while loss of ice from West Antarctica and gain of ice from East Antarctica contribute to the shift. Perhaps most importantly, loss of water from Eurasia due to long-term drought has had a major effect on Earth’s wobble. This harmless shift nonetheless highlights the major impact global warming is having on our world.

Jessica (Editor)
10891702_10152475816767115_155735200795992761_nJess is a fourth year biology PhD student who studies the liver and its regenerative capabilities. In her admittedly limited free time, she enjoys traveling, writing, and being outdoors.
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