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The Gander – 31 March 2016

Monkey brain business

US neuroscientists have successfully developed a brain-machine interface (BMI) that enables monkeys to move and accurately navigate wheelchairs using only their thoughts.

The researchers, from the Duke Centre for Neuroengineering, hope the achievement can pave the way for future initiatives for people with disabilities, such as quadriplegia  or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.

The team has been working on the experiments for four years, inserting thin microfilaments into the somatosensory and premotor regions of two macaque monkeys.

They then recorded the monkeys’ brain activity and developed a computer programme for the robotic wheelchairs that translates brain signals into instructions for the device.

The monkeys were then able to navigate the wheelchair towards their target, a bowl of fresh grapes. However the researchers found that the more practice they had, the more accurately the monkeys were able to control the wheelchairs.

Senior author Dr Miguel Nicolelis, Co-Director for the Duke Centre for Neuroengineering, said: “In some severely disabled people, even blinking is not possible. For them, using a wheelchair or device controlled by non-invasive measures like an EEG may not be sufficient. We show clearly that if you have intracranial implants, you get better control of a wheelchair than with non-invasive devices.”

They also found that the monkeys were mentally evaluating the distance between their wheelchairs and the grapes.

“This was not a signal that was present in the beginning of the training, but something that emerged as an effect of the monkeys becoming proficient in this task,” continued Dr Nicolelis.

“This was a surprise. It demonstrates the brain’s enormous flexibility to assimilate a device, in this case a wheelchair, and that device’s spatial relationships to the surrounding world.”

The research was reported in ScienceDaily.

So-called friends

New research suggests that the modern attitude of ‘disposability’ — the perception of objects as dispensable and disposable — also extends to personal relationships.

The study was conducted at the University of Kansas, US, and attempted to evaluate the attitudes of people who are highly mobile or who relocate, relative to how they view relationships.

Among their findings, they discovered that when people perceive objects as disposable, this attitude translates to friends and other interpersonal relationships.

They also found that a history of high mobility is associated with a greater willingness to dispose of belongings, friends and even romantic relationships.

The researchers correlated data from four studies using detailed questionnaires.

“We found a correlation between the way you look at objects and perceive your relationships,” lead author Prof Omri Gillath, Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Kansas, told the journal Personal Relationships. “If you move around a lot, you develop attitudes of disposability toward objects, furniture, books, devices — basically whatever merchandise you have at home, your car even.

“This isn’t a new idea of the United States as a mobile country — for many people here, moving up means moving around. If you’re willing to move for school or a job, you have a higher chance of being successful. But we’re saying it also makes things superficial and disposable. It might be fine to have disposable diapers but not disposable friendships.”

Prof Gillath suggests that living in a ‘disposable society’ is having adverse effects on people’s ability to build meaningful, lasting relationships, particularly in those who relocate. “If you know you’re moving and develop the idea that everything can be replaced, you won’t develop the same strong and deep ties.

“We’re suggesting this is a broad phenomenon where we all tend to look at relationships to co-workers, friends and social network members as replaceable. Even in romantic relationships, when I ask my students what would they do when things get difficult, most of them say they would move on rather than try to work things out, or God forbid, turn to a counsellor.”

He continued: “Research suggests only deeper, high-quality ties provide us with the kind of support we need like love, understanding and respect.

“You need these very close ties to feel safe and secure and function properly. If social ties are seen as disposable, you’re less likely to get what you need from your network, which can negatively affect your mental and physical health, as well as your longevity.”


The face of fatigue

A new study conducted in Scotland has shown that a fatigued appearance caused by a lack of sleep can have a dramatic affect on how others perceive us and make a person seem less intelligent, as well as less attractive.

Some 200 participants looked at photographs of 190 people with neutral facial expressions and rated how intelligent and/or attractive they thought they were.

The researchers measured mouth curvature and eyelid ‘droopiness’ and found that more alert, more open eyes correlated with how intelligent a person is perceived to be.

“People over-generalise in judging those with droopy eyelids and a frown as being tired and having a low mood, both of which have a well-documented detrimental effect on cognitive performance.

“Therefore, it should be no surprise that many of us find people who look less alert and who have a lower mood as less intelligent-looking,” Mr Sean Talamas, lead author of the study and  postdoctoral researcher at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, told The Huffington Post.

“When looking at composites of all the faces that were rated as most intelligent versus those that were less intelligent-looking, subtle differences in eyelid-openness and mouth curvature continued to be prevalent in the high-intelligent looking composite images. Measuring the subtlety of these differences objectively was difficult, but finding that it was related to perceived intelligence wasn’t surprising.”

Mr Talamas continued: “It’s important to understand how we perceive others and how we are perceived, as studies show time and time again that, although frequently cautioned against it, we often judge a book by its cover.

“This can be particularly important in a classroom setting or job interview, in which perceptions of intelligence can have a real impact,” he added.

“Being aware of how we can change our perceived intelligence with more sleep can hopefully encourage better sleep habits.”

Liquid for life

A study published in the Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics has shown that most people who increased their consumption of plain water by only 1 per cent saw an overall reduction in their cholesterol, a lower calorie intake, as well as lower sugar consumption and sodium and saturated fat intake.

The study was conducted among 18,300 people in the US.

University of Illinois Kinesiology and Community Health Professor, Prof Ruopeng An, said: “The impact of plain water intake on diet was similar across race/ethnicity, education and income levels and body weight status.

“This finding indicates that it might be sufficient to design and deliver universal nutrition interventions and education campaigns that promote plain water consumption in replacement of beverages with calories in diverse population subgroups, without profound concerns about message and strategy customisation.”

The results showed that people who increased their water consumption by one, two or three cups daily decreased their total energy intake by 68 to 205 calories per day and their sodium intake by 78mg.

They also consumed five-to-18 grams less sugar and decreased their cholesterol consumption by seven-to-21mg daily.

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