Monthly Archives: September 2013

Molecular Memories – Manipulating the Brain

Memories are pretty important to most us. As collections of our experiences they anchor us to a personal sense of reality. Memories are pretty important to science, too; some of the earliest studies in psychology focused on their capabilities and qualities and they remain a major research topic today.

At a functional level, we know that memories are more like reconstructions than photographic records. Recall is an active process, and an imperfect one, so what we remember is rarely an accurate copy of the original event. We forget, we repress, and we confuse elements of some memories with elements of others (characteristics that make eyewitness testimony so unreliable).

What physical and biochemical processes in the brain can account for these functional properties? What actually happens when we form memories, and what happens when we forget?  Two new studies, both from MIT, tackled these questions directly, and an effect of this work is to point out some weighty questions about how firmly our memories are tied to “reality” and what we could (or should) do to change them.

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Cruise Control – Automation, Trust, and Human Skill

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Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic in 2009. Colgan Air Flight 3407 crashed the same year in Buffalo NY. In 2013, Asiana Flight 214 crashed on approach to San Francisco Airport and a few weeks later, a UPS cargo flight crashed on approach into Birmingham, Alabama. In each case, pilots were coping with problems in their automated cockpit systems at critical points in the flight and had to fall back on manual skills to fly their aircraft.  And, in each, case, the outcome was tragedy.

Automation has improved by orders of magnitude since its first serious use in WWII and flying safety has improved with it. Success, however, may have diminished one problem (pilot workload) while triggering another. Accident trends indicate that pilots may now be placing too much faith in automation at the expense of their fundamental flying skills. The effect isn’t limited to aviation, either; in an era of driverless cars, automated factories, and drones, we’re all involved with issues of how human agency best fits in with increasingly intelligent technologies.

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Microbiome Medicine – Treating Your Internal Ecosystem

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Fecal Transplants.” Definitely an attention-grabbing headline, and one that’s been in the news a lot lately.  This medical treatment is saving lives, though, and as icky as it sounds, there’s good science behind it. This approach to medicine treats the human microbiome – the extensive microbe community inside each of us.

New science is showing that each of us is really more of a walking ecosystem than the individual we think we are. Understanding this system, learning what it does, and how to use it for health care is a hot field of medical research. The effects of this work are changing medicine and changing the way we think about ourselves as living organisms.

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Driverless Cars – Still in the Hands of the Driver

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Self-driving cars have been getting a lot of buzz lately.  Residents of Florida, Nevada, and California have already seen Google’s experimental cars cruising their highways, with sensor packages on their roofs and no one inside.

If the technology works in the “real world,” driverless cars are just around the corner, right?  Well, maybe. Just because the test cars are licensed to operate in three states doesn’t mean they’ll be for sale soon. Some important issues are still unresolved but the final effect may be merely to shift the driver from operator to supervisor – a typical transition in most automated systems.

The dream of driverless cars isn’t new.  Concepts for automated cars and highways go back to the 1930s, and have resurfaced periodically through the 1990s.

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Bootstrapping the Brain? Coevolution of Tool Making and Language

A new brain imaging study has shown evidence that human language might have emerged together with advanced tool making skills.  Because we can physically date much of the timeline for tool making, the work indicates that language could have emerged almost two million years ago – far earlier than Homo sapiens.

While the results aren’t definitive, the study demonstrates

  •  New technologies that monitor brain performance while people perform practical tasks, and
  •  New methods for dating events that don’t have physical records (like language) by associating them with events that do

Work like this brings neuroscience into the realm of experimental archaeology, offering new approaches to studying the past.

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3D Printing for Space – Handy, Tasty, and BIG

Between the end of the Space Shuttle program and the US budget sequester, it might look like NASA is scaling down. The space agency is making ambitious strides, however, in at least one technology – 3D printing. Along the way, the effect may be to revamp how we design big things and how we get those things running in space.

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NASA thinks that 3D printing technology could transform space operations of the near and far future, and they’re

backing that belief with money. NASA just awarded a $500,000 contract to Tethers Unlimited (TUI) to demonstrate a robot-operated 3D printing system – SpiderFab – that could build large structures in orbit.

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