25 June 2016

Read the Brain to Diagnose Mental Illness

Although scientists have learned a lot about the brain in the last few decades, approaches to treating mental illnesses have not kept up. As neuroscientists learn more about brain circuits, a Stanford psychiatrist foresees a time when diagnoses will be based on brain scans rather than symptoms. It was really not until about 10 years ago that mental health professionals started realizing how little difference we have made. There are a few fundamental issues and mistakes we’ve made. One is that in the absence of knowing what the causes of the illnesses that we treat are, we focus on the symptoms, and that has already led us down the wrong path.

Realizing that errors has coincided with the era of imaging, and even more recently with the really exciting focus on individual subject analyses. We understand behavior is essentially underpinned by brain circuits. That is, there are circuits in the brain that determine certain types of behaviors and certain types of thoughts and feelings. That’s probably the most useful way of organizing brain function. If you can start characterizing circuit disruptions for compensatory symptoms at an individual subject level and then link that to how you can provide interventions, then you can get away completely from diagnoses and can intervene with brain function in a directed way.

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21 June 2016

Threading the Way to Touch Sensitive Robots

Fabrics containing flexible electronics are appearing in many novel products, such as clothes with in-built screens and solar panels. More impressively, these fabrics can act as electronic skins that can sense their surroundings and could have applications in robotics and prosthetic medicine. Researchers at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), Saudi Arabia, have now developed smart threads that detect the strength and location of pressures exerted on them. Most flexible sensors function by detecting changes in the electrical properties of materials in response to pressure, temperature, humidity or the presence of gases. Electronic skins are built up as arrays of several individual sensors. These arrays currently need complex wiring and data analysis, which makes them too heavy, large or expensive for large-scale production.

Researchers built their smart threads from cotton threads coated with layers of one of the miracle materials of nanotechnology: single-walled carbon nanotubes (SWCNTs). They showed their threads had decreased resistance when subjected to stronger mechanical strains, and crucially the amplitude of the resistance change also depended on the thickness of the SWCNT coating. These findings led the researchers to their biggest breakthrough: they developed threads of graded thickness with a thick SWCNT layer at one end tapering to a thin layer at the other end. Then, by combining threads in pairs they could not only detect the strength of an applied pressure load, but also the position of the load along the threads. They have used their smart threads to build 2D and 3D arrays that accurately detect pressures similar to those that real people and robots might be exposed to.

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16 June 2016

Can Napping Make Us Smarter

Daytime napping in healthy adults does indeed lead to benefits in terms of alertness, mood and cognitive functioning. Adults do not require shut-eye in the middle of the day—unlike infants and toddlers—but many grown-ups nap just the same. A 2008 National Sleep Foundation poll found that 460 out of 1,000 respondents had napped at least twice during the previous month. Intuitively most of us think that a nap will refresh us and make us better able to take on the challenges of the day. In fact, research shows that healthy adults who take naps enjoy brighter moods, faster reaction times, and better performance on tasks involving logical reasoning, attention and memory. How much we gain from napping, though, depends on a number of factors, including how and when we nap and for how long. A 20-minute nap appears to hit the sweet spot. Studies reveal that such brief sojourns boost both mood and cognitive performance. Shorter, 10-minute naps are also good for enhancing performance and cause less grogginess than longer naps do.

Naps lasting an hour or more are not recommended. During a longer nap, you fall into a deeper sleep, which makes it more difficult to awaken feeling refreshed. Also, longer naps diminish the quality of night time sleep. The best time of day to take a nap is mid-afternoon, between 2 and 4 P.M. Given the body's natural biological clock, it is generally easier to fall asleep during this window and to reap the full benefits of a good rest. In one study from our sleep laboratory, we found that habitual nappers slept more lightly than non-habitual nappers did, which may mean that the ability to nap lightly contributes to better alertness and performance after napping. Habitual nappers also reported feeling better than the non-habitual nappers after the same amount of sleep. Though generally beneficial, napping isn't for everyone. Poor sleepers who have difficulty falling and staying asleep at night might want to avoid daytime snoozing. For everyone else, though, a 20-minute mid-afternoon nap could be the secret to feeling sharp and happy throughout the day.

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14 June 2016

A Happy Life May Not Be a Meaningful Life

For most people, feeling happy and finding life meaningful are both important and related goals. But do happiness and meaning always go together? It seems unlikely, given that many of the things that we regularly choose to do – from running marathons to raising children – are unlikely to increase our day-to-day happiness. Recent research suggests that while happiness and a sense of meaning often overlap, they also diverge in important and surprising ways. In a study, 400 American adults to fill out three surveys over a period of weeks. The surveys asked people to answer a series of questions their happiness levels, the degree to which they saw their lives as meaningful, and their general lifestyle and circumstances. As one might expect, people’s happiness levels were positively correlated with whether they saw their lives as meaningful. However, the two measures were not identical – suggesting that what makes us happy may not always bring more meaning, and vice versa. To probe for differences between the two, the researchers examined the survey items that asked detailed questions about people’s feelings and moods, their relationships with others, and their day-to-day activities.

Feeling happy was strongly correlated with seeing life as easy, pleasant, and free from difficult or troubling events. Happiness was also correlated with being in good health and generally feeling well most of the time. However, none of these things were correlated with a greater sense of meaning. Feeling good most of the time might help us feel happier, but it doesn’t necessarily bring a sense of purpose to our lives. Interestingly, their findings suggest that money, contrary to popular sayings, can indeed buy happiness. Having enough money to buy what one needs in life, as well as what one desires, were also positively correlated with greater levels of happiness. However, having enough money seemed to make little difference in life’s sense of meaning. More broadly, the findings suggest that pure happiness is about getting what we want in life—whether through people, money, or life circumstances. Meaningfulness, in contrast, seems to have more to do with giving, effort, and sacrifice. It is clear that a highly meaningful life may not always include a great deal of day-to-day happiness. And, the study suggests, our American obsession with happiness may be intimately related to a feeling of emptiness, or a life that lacks meaning.

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13 June 2016

World's Oldest Computer from 60BC Predicted Future

The world's first computer, which is about 2,000 years old, wasn't just used by ancient Greeks to chart the movement of the sun, moon and planets - it was also a fortune telling device, say researchers. The 2,000-year-old astronomical calculator, the Antikythera Mechanism, is a system of intricate bronze gears dating to around 60 BC, used by ancient Greeks to track solar and lunar eclipses. It was retrieved from a shipwreck discovered off the Greek island of Antikythera in 1901, but a decades-long study has only now announced new results. While researchers had previously focused on its internal mechanisms, the study is now attempting to decode minute inscriptions on the remaining fragments of its outer surfaces.

Its ancient engineers may have also given in to a less scientific urge - man's perpetual curiosity about what the future holds. Researchers say the device was probably made on the island of Rhodes and do not think it was unique. It's only unique in the sense that it is the only one ever found. Slight variations in the inscriptions point to at least two people being involved in that, and there could have been more people making its gears. More than a dozen pieces of classical literature, stretched over a period from about 300 BC to 500 AD, make references to devices such as that found at Antikythera. The calculator could add, multiply, divide and subtract. It was also able to align the number of lunar months with years and display where the sun and the moon were in the zodiac.

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11 June 2016

HTC Vive Business Edition

HTC has just made a surprising reveal of a new version of a business version of its Vive VR headset. It's called the Vive Business Edition (BE), and you basically get the same headset and accessories (two Vive controllers, two base stations and four face cushions) as consumers. However, business buyers also get a dedicated customer support line and the option to buy more than one headset.  After strong initial sales, you can now get a regular Vive pretty soon after you order it -- a sign that consumer demand may have waned.

HTC recently launched the Vive X fund to help companies build VR apps for the device. Virtual reality also has huge potential in the business world for architecture, visualization and design, among other applications. As such, HTC is offering a commercial license and limited 12-month guarantee as part of the Vive BE package (the consumer guarantee is limited to non-commercial applications). The Vive BE is launching this month in the US, Canada, UK, Germany and France, and will arrive elsewhere in the coming weeks.

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09 June 2016

VR Shows You Old

A virtual reality experience transforms the user into a 74-year-old named Alfred in order to see his perspective as a medical patient. Their goal was to craft an interactive, experiential product that could be used for curriculum in geriatrics because of predicted growth in future U.S. aging populations and a disconnect between patients and the students or doctors who treat them.

Users experience that with some headphones and the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2, a headset that can immerse them into a 360-degree virtual reality experience. The headset also includes a Leap Motion device that tracks and projects user's hands in the story to make them feel like they're Alfred. Becoming Alfred helps users empathize with and better understand elderly patients.

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