Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs and Locked-In Communication

02 July 2012
Presented by Chris Smith, Louise Anthony.

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How can you communicate when you can't move a muscle? In this NewsFlash, we discover a new way to communicate with patients suffering "locked in" syndrome, ask if one heart attack begets another, and examine the evidence for warm-blooded dinosaurs...

In this episode

00:26 - Silent Speech: Communicating with "Locked In" Patients

How can you communicate if you can’t move a muscle? This is the situation for people with ‘locked-in syndrome’ - but a new study may have a solution.

Silent Speech: Communicating with "Locked In" Patients

How can you communicate if you can't move a muscle?  This is the situation for people with 'locked-in syndrome' - but a new study may have a solution.

FMRI_brainFor some years, scientists in the field have been working on 'brain-computer interfaces', trying to translate people's thoughts into speech.  In the past, this has relied on electroencephalography, using electrodes on the scalp to detect electrical activity in the brain, but a group from the Netherlands has now run a proof-of-concept study using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

In their study, each letter of the alphabet was assigned a 'mental task' - motor imagery, mental calculation, or inner speech.  By varying both the delay before starting the task, and the length of time for which they completed the mental task, the volunteers could encode 26 letters and a space.

By looking at the active areas of the brain during this time, the computer could choose the three most likely letters the participant was trying to communicate - and in this small trial, it chose the correct letter first 82% of the time.  This allowed the experimenters to have a two-way conversation with the volunteers in real-time, within a single scanning session - something that would not be possible with previous technologies.

Even more importantly, it required less than fifteen minutes' training to get the program working for each new volunteer, and can be adapted for those who cannot voluntarily move their eyes - making it suitable for people suffering complete paralysis.  This group has been unable to use EEG-based communication systems in the past.

If this can be shown to be successful in patients - rather than healthy volunteers - this could allow the vast majority of locked-in patients the opportunity to communicate with healthcare professionals and their loved ones.  It could also make distinguishing between locked-in syndrome and a person in a vegetative state much easier: a single coherent answer using this system would confirm the patient is conscious and aware.

Low magnification micrograph of the distal right coronary artery with complex atherosclerosis and luminal narrowing. Stained with Masson's trichrome.

04:05 - Why one heart attack begets another

Heart attacks and strokes are much more common in people who have already suffered a previous vascular event.

Why one heart attack begets another

Heart attacks and strokes are much more common in people who have already suffered a previous vascular event. Now scientists know why: inflammation caused by the first heart attack accelerates Propagating coronary artery thrombosisthe underlying arterial disease process, significantly increasing the risk of a subsequent episode.

Previous studies have shown that nearly one in five patients suffer repeat myocardial infarcts (heart attacks) within one year of the first being diagnosed. Doctors had thought that this merely reflected progression of the already-established disease process.

But a new study, published this week in Nature by Harvard scientist Ralph Weissleder and his colleagues, shows that heart attacks and strokes trigger the production from the bone marrow of inflammatory cells called monocytes.

These, the team found, penetrate other patches of arterial disease where they secrete enzymes that break down connective tissue and weaken the vessel wall, making the diseased region more prone to rupture and blockage, provoking a heart attack or stroke.

The researchers made the discovery by working with a strain of mice that lack a gene called ApoE, making them prone to arterial disease. Inducing heart attacks in these animals, the team found, led over the following 3 weeks to a surge in monocyte levels in the walls of the animals' arteries.

These cells are released initially in an immature form from the bone marrow in response to stress signals from the sympathetic nervous system. After maturing in the spleen, they then move through the blood to the blood vessel walls.

Encouragingly, certain beta-blocker drugs can prevent the process by stopping the signals from the sympathetic nerves from triggering the release of the stem cells from the bone marrow in the first place.

According to the researchers, "Our study suggests that patients with an ischaemic complication of atherosclerosis [arterial disease] experience a particularly vulnerable disease phase, and that interventions aimed at progenitors of innate immune cells could affect long-term outcomes."

Swimming in a swimming pool

06:21 - Tracking Olympic Swimmers Under Water

It’s not only the athletes taking part in London 2012 who are feeling under pressure at the moment. What about their coaches? For a sport like swimming, the process of coaching is very tricky because you have to assess an athlete’s technique with the added complication of rather a lot of water getting in the way. But team GB swimmers have been getting a bit of extra help lately with some cutting edge technology…

Tracking Olympic Swimmers Under Water
Prof Paul Conway and Mike Caine, Loughborough University

Chris -   It's not only the athletes taking part in London 2012 who are feeling under pressure at the moment.  What about their coaches?  For a sport like swimming, the process of coaching is very tricky because you have to assess an athlete's technique with the added complication of rather a lot of water getting in the way.  But team GB swimmers have been getting a bit of extra help lately with some cutting edge technology as Jane Reck explains...

Jane -   Tumble turns, dives, glides, and stroke technique.  Every aspect of movement is crucial for elite swimmers.  For their coaches, training athletes for a sport where most of the activity takes place in water is obviously a challenge.  However, a pioneer in Wireless Tracking System developed by UK researchers has been helping some of team GB's swimmers prepare for London 2012.  It brings existing sensing and motion tracking technologies together into one system.  Crucially, the researchers have also developed revolutionary technology that enables data to be transmitted wirelessly through water.  The research has been taking place at Loughborough University led by Paul Conway, Professor of Manufacturing Processes...

A swimmer performing the front crawl.Paul -   This came about really from a challenge from British Swimming who had tried a number of times in the past to understand a bit more about how their swimmers performed and how they might measure how they perform.  Because a swimming pool is quite a challenging environment - there's lots of water.  The human body is mostly water so it makes tracking things wirelessly very, very difficult.  And doing things like measuring in real time, things like speed, number of strokes they're taking, how they move in the water and how they turn, how they start is very difficult because there's a lot of water.  And that's a noisy environment in terms of the signal noise and the amount of interference you have.

Jane -   Professor Mike Caine is Director of Loughborough's world leading sports technology institute.  Along with Paul Conway, he explained more about the new system.

Mike -   It's a small box of electronics that's worn on the small of the back, it sends wireless signals that are picked up by a laptop receiver on the poolside, and that laptop then displays the various measures that are of interest to the athlete and the coach.  

Paul -   And then on each end of the pool, we have a pressure mat essentially stuck to the wall, It's a very thin pressure mat which is a large area when you touch it, you can measure pressure, essentially the force.  Also, we've got some underwater high speed video cameras and also on the swimmer we have some LED markers which are quite unique - these are waterproof markers that they wear on their hip.

Mike -   The idea was that we would utilise technology.  Things like accelerometers, gyroscopes, motion tracking techniques that we'd either directly developed ourselves, within the research group, or we were taking those technologies as they were emerging elsewhere and integrating them into a package that would support the swimmers and their coaches.  Effectively, an accelerometer allows you to derive speed, velocity.  Of course, you can also derive acceleration, so the rate of change in velocity, and that can be just as interesting.  A gyroscope is important because the swimmer turns at the end of each length and so, you're able to characterise the position through the tumble turn, and you can then analyse the technique.  We start to look at the biomechanics or the kinematics, the human motion relative to their position in 3D space.  And it's important to understand the orientation of the athlete so that you can make some meaningful analysis from those data.

Jane -   Innovative projects underway at the institute's research labs range from the development of new materials for sports footwear to tailor-made handle grips for rackets.  Paul and Mike say a significant aspect of this research has been developing a way of transmitting wireless signals underwater.

Paul -   Wireless technologies are part of our everyday life now, but you'll appreciate that the vast majority of transmissions are through air.  There are very, very few everyday applications that require transmission through water and so it's not surprising that the transmission of wireless information through water has received less attention.  And that really meant that all of the everyday commercially available protocols just didn't work in that environment.

Mike -   We've optimised frequencies of our transmission, the antenna design on the swimmer and also on the base station on beside of the pool.  The arrangement of the equipment on the swimmer and beside the pool, also the software, putting intelligence in it so it knows what's happening and can interpret if a signal drops out, what to do and how you can account for that.  Building redundancy as well, so, we can still get the data if we lose it for a few seconds.  Putting that together with other things around the pool such as video,  force sensors in starting blocks, pressure pads at each end of the pool for measuring the turn; and putting them altogether into one integrated system is the unique thing.  You can actually watch it on high-speed video and also see what's happening with the inertial sensors showing in real time so that each frame of the video is synchronised with what's happening on all the other sensors.  And that's probably the key step, bring it altogether, integrating the various sensor modes.

Paul -   So, we were having to genuinely invent new ways to transmit data that would be successful whilst in the pool environment.  I can't describe exactly how we have done that because it is subject to a patent - it is an inventive step and it is one that has commercial value.  If you think about water as a medium and air as a medium, they're so different that you need a radically different approach to the same problem.

Jane -   The new system enables coaches to give much quicker feedback to the swimmers.

Paul -   They will see simultaneously on the computer screen: the video as well as the data that's coming off the node, synchronised.  They'll see also from the turn, they'll see the data we're getting from the pressure mat, presented in a way that it's understandable.  A nice colour map of when the feet touch the wall, how hard they touch the wall, how long they're on the wall, some will bend their legs a bit longer so they're pushing longer on the wall.  They'll see also some of the measurements we get from the node they wear on their back.  We can pick up stroke rate, the velocity, how quickly they turn, how quickly they tumble, and they get that almost real time.

Jane -   Beyond swimming at London 2012, the system is already being looked at by industry to track components and factories for instance where there are wet and noisy environments.  The project is supported by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, other partners are British Swimming, UK Sport, Imperial College London, and Queen Mary University of London.

Chris -   Well, we'll find out within a month or so whether it's had any effect, but what a wonderful breakthrough.  Jane Reck there, reporting on a new wireless underwater tracking system that's being used in the training session for team GB's swimmers.

13:34 - Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs and Locked-In Communication

How can you communicate when you can't move a muscle? In this NewsFlash, we discover a new way to communicate with patients suffering "locked in" syndrome, ask if one heart attack begets another, and examine the evidence for warm-blooded dinosaurs...

Warm-Blooded Dinosaurs and Locked-In Communication

How can you communicate when you can't move a muscle? In this NewsFlash, we discover a new way to communicate with patients suffering "locked in" syndrome, ask if one heart attack begets another, and examine the evidence for warm-blooded dinosaurs...

A pair of Centrosaurs fighting

16:58 - Dinosaurs were warm-blooded

Make no bones about it, dinosaurs were warm-blooded, new research has revealed.

Dinosaurs were warm-blooded

Make no bones about it, dinosaurs were warm-blooded, new research has revealed.

Palaeontologists have claimed for many years that
A pair of dinosaurs fightingdinosaurs, like their modern-day reptile decendents, were cold-blooded. Part of their argument stems from features called 'lines of arrested growth', or LAGs, which are found in both dinosaur fossils and modern reptiles and, like tree-rings, chart the rates of bone growth in the animal.

In modern reptiles and amphibians, these LAGs correspond to periods of low temperature, such as winter, when metabolic rate falls and growth slows. Conversely, it had been widely accepted that, because they are warm-blooded and therefore maintain a high metabolic rate all year round, mammals don't develop LAGs.

But, more recently, the LAGs described in dinosaur bones appear to be subtley different to the modern reptilian form, and examples of LAG-like structures have also been reported for some mammals.

"This prompted opposing hypotheses and conjectures," says Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona scientist Meike Kohler and her colleagues in a paper in Nature this week. "However, much of the debate stems from a lack of detailed, methodical study on extant endotherms [modern-day warm-blooded animals] on which to base inferences regarding extinct vertebrates."

So Kohler and her colleagues have assembled data including bone analyses as well as climate records and metabolic activity logs from over 100 ruminant animals ranging from 3-kilogram-antelopes to one-tonne-elands that are native to 36 African and European locations. Crucially, the animals inhabit a broad range of latitudes enabling the effects of climate extremes on the animals' bones to be studied.

"LAGs are universally present in all climatic regimes, from high and cold to low and hot latitudes," the team report. "They form annually in the fast-growing highly-vascularised fibrolamellar bone tissue of ruminants of all body sizes resulting in a bone tissue pattern typically found in all dinosaurs..."

Then how do we account for them? The answer lies in looking at how the animals' physiological responses to changes in climate. At times of stress, when it is very dry and or cold, the animals compensate by altering their metabolic rates, including lowering body temperature, to conserve energy. "Growth arrest," the resereachers suggest, "forms part of this strategy."

The fact that modern-day ruminants show the same cyclical patterns of bone growth as dinosaurs once did suggests that this is part of an ancient process that still operates today. But, even more intriguing, it also proves that, just because dinosaurs' bones contain LAGs, they weren't necessarily cold blooded.

This resonates with previous studies that have modelled metabolic rate and dinosaur locomotion to argue that T. rex et al. weren't all just cold-blooded killers. Killers, yes. Cold-blooded, probably not.

20:09 - Daddy's Damaged DNA and Tornadoes Heating up the Sun

How smoking fathers risk passing on damaged DNA to their children, Magnetic tornadoes heating up the surface of the Sun and the surprising diet of Australopithecus Sediba...

Daddy's Damaged DNA and Tornadoes Heating up the Sun
Diane Anderson, University of Bradford; Sven Wedemeyer-Bohm, University of Oslo; Amanda Henry, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology

Smoking Away Mutations

Fathers who smoke at the time of their baby's conception risk passing on damaged DNA to their fertilisationchildren.

Using biomarkers to measure breaks in DNA in paternal blood and semen at the time of conception as well as maternal and umbilical cord blood at birth, and accounting for environmental factors that could damage DNA such as smoking,
Diane Anderson from the University of Bradfordfound a correlation between the DNA damaged in the sperm of smokers and their newborn children.

Diana -   Anti-smoking campaigns are aimed at pregnant women but couples planning their family and public health policy makers need to know that the father must stop smoking before conception to avoid risking the health of the baby.  It starts at the time of conception.  If they stopped smoking and waited 3 months, because that's the time it takes for the sperm to develop, before trying to conceive then the chances of having them damaged would be much lessened.

The inheritance of damaged DNA could cause the development of childhood diseases such as cancer.

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Magnetically heating the Sun's Atmosphere

Magnetic tornadoes on the surface of the Sun transports heat into its atmosphere, helping create the significantly hotter temperatures found in this outer atmosphere, known as the corona.

Swirling magnetic structures, similar to super-tornadoes were detected stretching from the Sun's surface upto 2000km into the corona by Sven Wedemeyer-Bohm from the University of Oslo.  Using 3D numerical models his team showed in the journal
Naturethat these swirls convect heat away from the surface and transfer the energy needed to reach these high temperatures, the causes of which were unknown until now.

Sven -   We currently estimate that there are at least 11000 of them across the sun at all times transporting energy from the surface into the upper layers.  That is very important when we want to solve the so-called coronal heating problem.  The outer layers of the sun have temperatures in excess of a million degrees or more, so that means we need to transport some energy from the surface of the sun into these outer layers, but it's not very clear how this happens.  And these swirling tornadoes now provide a very promising way to do that.

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Australopithecus sedibaEating like Sediba

And finally, the early hominin species Australopithecus sediba, which lived 2 million years ago, lived on a diet of leaves, fruit and bark, according to work published in
Nature.

By analysing carbon isotopes in tooth enamel, patterns of dental wear and scratches and plant remains in the plaque of teeth from 2 skeletons of these early humans, Amanda Henry from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Germany identified their diet to consist predominantly of bark and woody tissues, varying greatly from other African hominins of that time.

Amanda -   This species was living in an environment that were pretty open, grassland like a savannah, but they ate foods that came from the very small forested patches within that bigger environment.  The other hominids usually focused on grassland resources - they're really strongly focusing on those open savannah-like environments.  And so now, we have sort of the first evidence that there was really more variation.  These species were moving into new areas and trying new things.

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