Environmental researchers from the University of Southern Australia are soliciting assistance from citizen scientists to help better understand the still mysterious behavior of the possum. Because the animal lives among and shares space with humans, it’s difficult to track and monitor their behavior without trespassing and interfering with the neighborhood. So, Professor Chris Daniels has set up a brief on line survey for locals to submit observations–including the lack of observations–of the possum population. With the critical assistance from citizen science, he hopes to gain new insight into the population distribution of possums and how people manage their interactions with the creature. “Spies needed for ‘Operation Possum'” :: The Advertiser :: August 20, 2008 :: [ READ ]
The 100 billion neurons in your head have interconnected into a vastly complex network, and these connections can change and evolve as you “think” and “learn.” Exactly how this network architecture is developed and even how individual connections are selected is not yet clear.
Image from PhysOrg.com
However, researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Neurobiology have experimentally verified that neurons have an even more efficient method for quickly selecting “good” connections from “maybe-not-so-good” connections, even before the critical synapse–the chemical controller that regulates communication between neurons–is fully developed.
The discovery shows that as an extension of a neuron (either a dendrite or axon) comes into contact with another neuron, a flood of calcium ions exchanges with the pair of cells and if certain thresholds are reached, then the growing connection will stick around long enough for a synapse to form; otherwise, it will retract and wiggle about growing into another direction.
The biological growth technique is observed to be quite efficient with “decision-making” for forming connections, in particular because synapse development can take much longer to complete. Even though the following article loosely suggests that this network connection technique “enables thinking,” it’s not necessarily the case that each time we have a “thought” that we are actually making a new, physical connection. Neural “learning” likely requires an evolution in the network structure, but our notion of “thinking” is likely related more to the patterns of electrical behavior in the existing network.
This work is also quite important for the future development of neurotechnological devices. For a pure neuron device to connect directly with a human brain, it will be required to have neurons living on the implanted device to grow extensions and interconnect directly with the subject brain… so, an understanding of how these connections develop and select one another will be absolutely vital for successful devices.
So, check out the following articles, and we’ll be following the important developments.
The AmSci Journal has reported on plenty of wonderful citizen science projects from watching fireflies to monitoring plant growth in your own backyard, but now this is some serious amateur research… build your own fusion reactor.
Harnessing the power of nuclear fusion–forcing two or more atoms together so close that they join to create a new, heavier nucleus, and release a ton of energy at the same time–has been the holy grail in nuclear energy research since the 1950s… after uncontrolled nuclear fusion was used to create the powerful hydrogen bomb. Fusion is the process that powers the stars in our universe, and it does not result in piles of radioactive waste that will take eons to decay. So, if nuclear fusion can be generated in the lab and the released energy efficiently exported, then energy for civilian usage could become incredibly cheaper and infinitely safer for our environment.
This noble task has been taken on by a close-knit group of nearly one hundred amateur scientists around the world, many of whom have already built at least one version of a fusion reactor in their home laboratory (i.e., basement, attic, or garage).
Read the following story on Kit Hull and Frank Sanns featured in The Wall Street Journal, and see how amazing the amateur research community can be.
“Nuclear Ambitions: Amateur Scientists Get a Reaction From Fusion” :: The Wall Street Journal :: August 18, 2008 :: [ READ ]
The Open Source Fusor Research Consortium :: [ VISIT ]
And check out some of the efforts from the “big boys”…
“Virtual National Laboratory for Heavy-Ion Fusion” [ VISIT ]
Just completing its second summer of data collection, a great new program brings citizen scientists from across the country to report observations on life cycle events from plants in their own backyard. The program called Project BudBurst is lead by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research and the National Phenology Network, and collects information on the timing of the first bud, first flower, and seed dispersal for plants.
Visit Project BudBurst to learn more about the research, download the program activity guide, and plan to submit your critical observations for next year’s cycle in Spring 2009.
“Spring Flowers: Clues To Climate Change — Climate Change Researchers Ask Amateur Botanists To Record Signs Of Spring” :: ScienceDaily :: May 1, 2008 :: [ READ with VIDEO ]
“Local gardeners do their part to record possible ‘global weirding'” :: Chicago Tribune :: August 5, 2008 :: [ READ ]
Can several hundred thousand rat neurons living in culture control the movements of a mechanical robot? Apparently to some extent so far, as researchers, including Dr. Ben Whalley, at the University of Reading have created a working “rat-brain-controlled” robot.
The controlling unit is, however, much less than that of a full rat brain, but in many respects it is actually much more interesting and exciting: the controller is a dish of rat neurons growing and interconnecting on top of an electrode array, which records electrical activity as well as electrically stimulates the cultured neuron network, and this all sits in a temperature-controlled environment in the lab safely separated from the actual robot. Wireless technology transmits the electrical information to and from from the culture and a mobile block with wheels and sonar sensors.
The electrical signals are filtered through software into movement controls for the robot. When the robot bumps into a wall, the sonar returns a signal to the culture dish to provide electrical feedback to the network. To date, the research has created a moving robot, and the team is now working to “train” the living neural network to appropriately respond to its environment… i.e., “don’t bump into the wall when you hear it coming.”
The group is particularly interested in how their basic understanding of this neural network can create memories, and how it will respond to imposed degradations of the physical network. This may lead to further clues into the progression of neurological disorders, including Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Even with the focus on medical advancements for human disease, this research program at Reading is extremely exciting as a pure application of neurotechnology by working to develop a direct neuron-computer interface, and their results will be quite useful for the broader technological advancement of neurotech devices.
“Rat-brain robot aids memory study” :: BBC News :: August 13, 2008 :: [ READ with VIDEO ]
“Rat brain-controlled robot to give important neurological insights” :: The Tech Herald :: August 13, 2008 :: [ READ ]
“A ‘Frankenrobot’ with a biological brain” :: asiaone News :: August 14, 2008 :: [ READ ]
Frogs make music … and like any great sonorous pattern, one only has to learn more and experience a little to appreciate it as true music. This is what University of Nebraska-Lincoln herpetologist Dennis Ferraro is trying to support with his compilation of “Frog Calls of Nebraska” [ order online ].
Learning the rhythms of frogs can certainly be aesthetically pleasing, but even more so a detailed knowledge of the frog language can help scientists track population trends. A decline in frog populations has become such a concern, that 2008 is the official “Year of the Frog“.
Online databases exists for local regions as well as a national program supported by the National Wildlife Foundation that allow citizen scientists the opportunity to learn specific frog calls and report the findings for nation-wide monitoring systems.
“Frog calls of Nebraska CD will help fans and trackers” :: The Lincoln Journal Star :: August 3, 2008 :: [ READ ]
Online database for Nebraska: Amphibians & Reptiles of Nebraska [ VISIT ]