Wednesday, March 3, 2010


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Researchers at the University of Washington looked at signals on the brain's surface while using imagined movements to control a cursor. The results, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that watching a cursor respond to one's thoughts prompts brain signals to become stronger than those generated in day-to-day life.

"Bodybuilders get muscles that are larger than normal by lifting weights," said lead author Kai Miller, a UW doctoral student in physics, neuroscience and medicine. "We get brain activity that's larger than normal by interacting with brain-computer interfaces. By using these interfaces, patients create super-active populations of brain cells."

The finding holds promise for rehabilitating patients after stroke or other neurological damage. It also suggests that a human brain could quickly become adept at manipulating an external device such as a computer interface or a prosthetic limb.

The team of computer scientists, physicists, physiologists and neurosurgeons studied eight patients awaiting epilepsy surgery at two Seattle hospitals. Patients had electrodes attached to the surface of their brains during the week leading up to the surgery and agreed to participate in research that would look at connecting brains to a computer.

Asking people to imagine doing a movement -- such as moving their arm -- is commonly done to produce a brain signal that can be used to control a device. But how that process works is poorly understood.

"A lot of the studies in this field are in non-human primates," Miller said. "But how do you ask an animal to imagine doing something? We don't even know that they can."

The researchers first recorded brain patterns when human subjects clenched and unclenched a fist, stuck out a tongue, shrugged their shoulders or said the word "move."

Next, the scientists recorded brain patterns when subjects imagined performing the same actions. These patterns were similar to the patterns for actual action but much weaker, as expected from previous studies.

Finally, the researchers looked at signals when subjects imagined performing the action and those brain signals were used to move a cursor toward a target on a computer screen. After less than 10 minutes of practice, brain signals from imagined movement became significantly stronger than when actually performing the physical motion.

"People have been looking at imagined movements as a way to control computers for a long time. This study provides a glimpse of the underlying neural machinery," said co-author Rajesh Rao, a UW associate professor of computer science and engineering who is Miller's neuroscience dissertation advisor.

"The rapid augmentation of activity during this type of learning bears testimony to the remarkable plasticity of the brain as it learns to control a non-biological device," Rao said.

After less than 10 minutes of training, two of the subjects also reported they no longer had to imagine moving the body part and could just think about moving the cursor.

"The ability of subjects to change the signal with feedback was much stronger than we had hoped for," said co-author Dr. Jeffrey Ojemann, a UW professor of neurological surgery. "This is likely to have implications for future prosthetic work."

The new findings also provide clues about which brain signals to tap. Researchers compared the patterns in low-frequency signals, usually used to control external devices, and high-frequency signals, typically dismissed as noise. They discovered that the high-frequency signals are more specific to each type of movement. Because each one occupies a smaller portion of the brain, several high-frequency signals could be tapped simultaneously to control more sophisticated devices.

Rao's group has used electrodes on the surface of the scalp to record low-frequency brain signals for brain-computer communication. His group will now try using such non-invasive methods to harness high-frequency signals.

(Photo: University of Washington)

University of Washington


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Life’s smallest motor, a protein that shuttles cargo within cells and helps cells divide, does so by rocking up and down like a seesaw, according to research conducted by scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Brandeis University.

The researchers created high-resolution snapshots of a protein motor, called kinesin, as it walked along a microtubule, which are tube-shaped structures that form a cell’s “skeleton.” The result is the closest look yet at the structural changes kinesin proteins undergo as they ferry molecules within cells.

“We see for the first time how kinesin’s atomic-scale moving parts allow it to pull itself and its cargo along a microtubule,” says Ken Downing, a biophysicist with Berkeley Lab’s Life Sciences Division. He conducted the research with postdoctoral fellow Charles Sindelar, now at Brandeis University.

“We found that there is a pivot point, where the kinesin motor attaches to the microtubule, which acts like a fulcrum and causes kinesin to rock up and down like a seesaw as it moves along the microtubule,” adds Downing.

Their research is reported this week in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The first-ever glimpse of kinesin’s seesaw motion offers key insights into one of life’s most fundamental processes. Fueled by an energy-giving compound called ATP, kinesin proteins motor along microtubules like trains on a railroad track, towing cargo to various locations within cells and assisting in cell division. Microtubules are a cylindrical weave of proteins found throughout cells that serve as cellular scaffolding.

Until now, scientists did not have a clear picture of what happens when ATP binds with kinesin, and especially how this process triggers structural changes in kinesin that propel the protein along microtubules.

Extremely high-resolution crystallography images of kinesin motors have enabled researchers to piece together the protein’s three-dimensional structure. But these images don’t reveal how it works.

“The problem is that it is not until the protein motor binds to a microtubule that structural rearrangements occur that enable ATP hydrolysis, the process that transfers energy from ATP to kinesin,” says Downing.

To image kinesin at this critical stage, Downing and Sindelar turned to cryoelectron microscopy, which is a type of electron microscopy in which the sample is studied at extremely low temperatures. The technology is used by structural biologists to image proteins and other molecules as they appear in real-world conditions, in this case a kinesin protein attached to a microtubule.

The technique yielded 8 to 9 angstrom-resolution snapshots of the kinesin motor at four stages of the motor’s cycle as it moves along a microtubule. One angstrom is one-ten billionth of a meter. Using these images as a guide, the researchers then “dropped in” even higher resolution crystallographic images of kinesin’s components. This step enabled them to derive atomic-level structural models of kinesin in action.

“Collectively, this work provides a detailed molecular explanation for kinesin’s microtubule-attached power stroke,” says Downing. “In other words, we can see it how it works in real life. We looked at kinesin in different phases, and learned what causes it to move from one conformation to another, which is how it pulls cargo along the microtubule.”

In addition to further elucidating a key biological process, Downing and Sindelar’s research may inform the development of disease-fighting drugs. One of kinesin’s main jobs is moving chromosomes apart during cell division. Anything that blocks this process will lead to cell death, which is the basis of several cancer therapies such as taxol.

“New insights into how kinesin works could allow scientists to develop drugs that target and block particular kinesin movements,” says Downing.

(Photo: Charles Sindelar, Brandeis University)

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory


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Using arrays of long, thin silicon wires embedded in a polymer substrate, a team of scientists from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has created a new type of flexible solar cell that enhances the absorption of sunlight and efficiently converts its photons into electrons. The solar cell does all this using only a fraction of the expensive semiconductor materials required by conventional solar cells.

"These solar cells have, for the first time, surpassed the conventional light-trapping limit for absorbing materials," says Harry Atwater, Howard Hughes Professor, professor of applied physics and materials science, and director of Caltech's Resnick Institute, which focuses on sustainability research.

The light-trapping limit of a material refers to how much sunlight it is able to absorb. The silicon-wire arrays absorb up to 96 percent of incident sunlight at a single wavelength and 85 percent of total collectible sunlight. "We've surpassed previous optical microstructures developed to trap light," he says.

Atwater and his colleagues—including Nathan Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor and professor of chemistry at Caltech, and graduate student Michael Kelzenberg—assessed the performance of these arrays in a paper appearing in the February 14 advance online edition of the journal Nature Materials.

Atwater notes that the solar cells' enhanced absorption is "useful absorption."

"Many materials can absorb light quite well but not generate electricity—like, for instance, black paint," he explains. "What's most important in a solar cell is whether that absorption leads to the creation of charge carriers."

The silicon wire arrays created by Atwater and his colleagues are able to convert between 90 and 100 percent of the photons they absorb into electrons—in technical terms, the wires have a near-perfect internal quantum efficiency. "High absorption plus good conversion makes for a high-quality solar cell," says Atwater. "It's an important advance."

The key to the success of these solar cells is their silicon wires, each of which, says Atwater, "is independently a high-efficiency, high-quality solar cell." When brought together in an array, however, they're even more effective, because they interact to increase the cell's ability to absorb light.

"Light comes into each wire, and a portion is absorbed and another portion scatters. The collective scattering interactions between the wires make the array very absorbing," he says.

This effect occurs despite the sparseness of the wires in the array—they cover only between 2 and 10 percent of the cell's surface area.

"When we first considered silicon wire-array solar cells, we assumed that sunlight would be wasted on the space between wires," explains Kelzenberg. "So our initial plan was to grow the wires as close together as possible. But when we started quantifying their absorption, we realized that more light could be absorbed than predicted by the wire-packing fraction alone. By developing light-trapping techniques for relatively sparse wire arrays, not only did we achieve suitable absorption, we also demonstrated effective optical concentration—an exciting prospect for further enhancing the efficiency of silicon-wire-array solar cells."

Each wire measures between 30 and 100 microns in length and only 1 micron in diameter. “The entire thickness of the array is the length of the wire,” notes Atwater. “But in terms of area or volume, just 2 percent of it is silicon, and 98 percent is polymer.”

In other words, while these arrays have the thickness of a conventional crystalline solar cell, their volume is equivalent to that of a two-micron-thick film.

Since the silicon material is an expensive component of a conventional solar cell, a cell that requires just one-fiftieth of the amount of this semiconductor will be much cheaper to produce.

The composite nature of these solar cells, Atwater adds, means that they are also flexible. "Having these be complete flexible sheets of material ends up being important," he says, "because flexible thin films can be manufactured in a roll-to-roll process, an inherently lower-cost process than one that involves brittle wafers, like those used to make conventional solar cells."

Atwater, Lewis, and their colleagues had earlier demonstrated that it was possible to create these innovative solar cells. "They were visually striking," says Atwater. "But it wasn't until now that we could show that they are both highly efficient at carrier collection and highly absorbing."

The next steps, Atwater says, are to increase the operating voltage and the overall size of the solar cell. "The structures we've made are square centimeters in size," he explains. "We're now scaling up to make cells that will be hundreds of square centimeters—the size of a normal cell."

Atwater says that the team is already "on its way" to showing that large-area cells work just as well as these smaller versions.

(Photo: Caltech/Michael Kelzenberg)

California Institute of Technology (Caltech)




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