Tasting the light

This one is old, but since I just wrote one post on neuroplasticity, I thought I’d write another.

Back in 2009, scientists made a special digital camera for the blind. This camera sent its picture to a small array of electrodes. These electrodes were on a small “lollipop” that the blind person put in his/her mouth. The small electric signals were picked up by the tongue. They said it felt like pop-rocks, or champagne bubbles.

It took only about 15 minutes for the blind user’s brain to start interpreting the input as vision.

Seiple works with four patients who train with the BrainPort once a week and notes that his patients have learned how to quickly find doorways and elevator buttons, read letters and numbers, and pick out cups and forks at the dinner table without having to fumble around. “At first, I was amazed at what the device could do,” he said. “One guy started to cry when he saw his first letter.”

While the sensor can only work in black and white, and is fairly low resolution, it is amazing that the brain can rewire itself so quickly to take input from the tongue and interpret it as vision.

If I only had a brain

Could you live with half a brain? Some people have. The cerebellum is a small part of the brain by volume, but contains about half of the brain’s neurons. Some people have managed to live their entire lives without a cerebellum. Since the cerebellum handles lots of fine motor control, balance, and more, these people have had trouble walking properly, had slurred speech, trouble with coordination, and more.

But recently, a Chinese woman was found to have lived without a cerebellum. She first stood at 4 years old, and couldn’t walk unaided until she was 7. Her symptoms are not as severe. It seems that her brain grew so that many of the functions of the cerebellum were controlled by other parts of the brain.


Google Educator Certification


I’m currently spending a lot of my outside of school time getting certified to be a Google Educator. This is mostly because all the students at my school will soon be getting Chromebooks, and I’d like to be certified on the technology.

Nervous system may be more distributed than we thought

Your nervous system might be more sophisticated than we thought. Classically, nerves send signals to the brain for processing. The brain does all the heavy lifting of figuring out what was observed.

That may not be the case. Researchers at Umeå University in Sweden have found that the nerves in skin do some preprocessing of the signals before they send them to the brain.

Our work has shown that two types of first-order tactile neurons that supply the sensitive skin at our fingertips not only signal information about when and how intensely an object is touched, but also information about the touched object’s shape

In particular, they found that the neurons in the skin perform the same type of calculations that the cerebral cortex does.

New batteries use sugar for energy

Batteries use chemical reactions to produce electricity. Classically, a battery is 2 different metals in an acid. Lithium-ion batteries are more complex, and have a high energy density. There is a higher energy density on your breakfast table. Sugar.

Scientists at Virginia Tech have created battery prototypes that use sugar for energy. The battery (really an enzymatic fuel cell) needs to be refilled instead of recharged. But it can store 15 times the energy and last for 10 times as long as a lithium-ion battery.

New thymus organ grown from scratch

Scottish scientists have managed to grow an entire organ (a thymus) from a few cells. In mice — this is a long way from human trials.

Starting with a few cells from a mouse embryo, they “reprogrammed” them to turn into thymus cells. They injected them into a mouse, along with some support cells. The cells grew to form a complete thymus. NB: the thymus is a fairly simple organ. The new thymus started producing T-cells.

One problem is that since the thymus grew from foreign cells, there are organ computability problems.