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Virtual Reality Experience Similar to a LSD Dose

A recent study in Nature Scientific Reports found that the VR experience, Isness-D, showed the same effect as a medium dose of LSD or psilocybin on four key indicators. The psychedelic renaissance is upon us, with myriad research showing how substances like psilocybin, LSD, and more aid in mental health conditions like treatment-resistant depression and PTSD. More and more, the curiosity around psychedelics is increasing, with individuals seeing the potential of these mind-bending medicines to overcome perceived limits of the self.

At the same time, technology continues to evolve at a rapid pace, posing the question: Could tech like virtual reality provide comparable benefits that psychedelics offer? Evidently the answer is yes, according to a recent study of a new VR experience, Isness-D, made to mirror specific transcendent psychedelic effects.

It all started with creator David Glowacki, who took a steep fall while walking in the mountains 15 years ago. After hitting the ground, he laid there suffocating as blood began leaking into his lungs. During this experience, Glowacki’s field of perception began to shift, peering down at his own body and finding he was made up of balled-up light, MIT Technology Review reports. He said the intensity of the light was related to the extent in which he inhabited his body, though watching the light slowly dim wasn’t frightening—It was transformative, leaking out of his body and around his environment. He took the experience as a signal that his awareness could outlast and transcend his physical body, ultimately bringing him peace.

The Nature study introduction brings up similar sensations from brain scientist Jill Bolte Taylor following a left-hemisphere stroke.

I could no longer define the boundaries of my body. I can’t define where I begin and where I end, because the atoms and molecules of my arm blend with the atoms and molecules of the wall, and all I could detect was this energy… I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me. And because I could no longer identify the boundaries of my body, I felt enormous and expansive. I felt at one with all the energy that was, and it was beautiful.

After his accident, Glowacki approached the experience, which he related to death, with curiosity, attempting to recapture that transcendence. The new technology is designed for groups of four to five, based anywhere in the world. The participants are represented as a cloud of smoke with a ball of light around the location of their heart. The experience features energetic coalescence, meaning that participants can gather in the same VR landscape and overlap their bodies, making it impossible to tell where one starts and another ends, contributing to a sense of connectedness and ego reduction that psychedelic experiences commonly bring.


How to Detect Diabetes Early Enough To Reverse It

Diabetes is a severe and growing metabolic disorder. It already affects hundreds of thousands of people in Switzerland. A sedentary lifestyle and an excessively rich diet damage the beta cells of the pancreas, promoting the onset of this disease. If detected early enough, its progression could be reversed, but diagnostic tools that allow for early detection are lacking. A team from the University of Geneva (UNIGE) in collaboration with several other scientists, including teams from the HUG, has discovered that a low level of the sugar 1,5-anhydroglucitol in the blood is a sign of a loss in functional beta cells. This molecule, easily identified by a blood test, could be used to identify the development of diabetes in people at risk, before the situation becomes irreversible. These results can be found in the Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism.
In Switzerland, almost 500,000 people suffer from diabetes. This serious metabolic disorder is constantly increasing due to the combined effect of a lack of physical activity and an unbalanced diet. If detected early enough at the pre-diabetes stage, progression to an established diabetes can be counteracted by adopting an appropriate lifestyle. Unfortunately, one third of patients already have cardiovascular, renal or neuronal complications at the time of diagnosis, which impacts their life expectancy.

When diabetes starts to develop but no symptoms are yet detectable, part of the beta cells of the pancreas (in green) disappear (right image) compared to a healthy individual (left image). This previously undetectable decrease could be identified by measuring the level of 1,5-anhydroglucitol in the blood

‘‘Identifying the transition from pre-diabetes to diabetes is complex, because the status of the affected cells, which are scattered in very small quantities in the core of an organ located under the liver, the pancreas, is impossible to assess quantitatively by non-invasive investigations. We therefore opted for an alternative strategy: to find a molecule whose levels in the blood would be associated with the functional mass of these beta cells in order to indirectly detect their alteration at the pre-diabetes stage, before the appearance of any symptoms,’’ explains Pierre Maechler, a Professor in the Department of Cell Physiology and Metabolism and in the Diabetes Centre of the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine, who led this work.

Several years ago, scientists embarked on the identification of such a molecule able to detect pre-diabetes. The first step was to analyse thousands of molecules in healthy, pre-diabetic and diabetic mouse models. By combining powerful molecular biology techniques with a machine learning system (artificial intelligence), the research team was able to identify, from among thousands of molecules, the one that best reflects a loss of beta cells at the pre-diabetic stage: namely 1,5-anhydroglucitol, a small sugar, whose decrease in blood would indicate a deficit in beta cells.


Biosynthetic Cornea Implant Restores Vision

A cornea implant made out of collagen gathered from pig skin has restored the vision of 20 volunteers in a landmark pilot study. Pending further testing, the novel bioengineered implant is hoped to improve the vision of millions around the world awaiting difficult and costly cornea transplant surgeries. More than one million people worldwide are diagnosed blind every year due to damaged or diseased corneas. A person’s vision can be easily disrupted when this thin outer layer of tissue surrounding the eye degenerates. A person suffering corneal blindness can have their vision restored by receiving a corneal transplant from a human donor. However, a lack of cornea donors means barely one in 70 people with corneal blindness will ever be able to access a transplant. Plus, the surgical procedure can be complex, amplifying the lack of access to this vision-restoring procedure for people in low– and middle-income countries.

This new research first looked to develop cornea implants that didn’t rely on human donor tissue. Over a decade ago the researchers first demonstrated biosynthetic corneas were effective replacements for donor corneas. But those earlier studies still relied on complex lab-grown human collagen, molded into the shape of corneas. This new study demonstrates the same biosynthetic cornea can be effectively produced using medical-grade collagen sourced from pig skin. Not only is this a cheap and sustainable source of collagen, but improved engineering techniques mean these bioengineered corneas can be safely stored for almost two years, unlike donated human corneas which must be used within two weeks of harvesting.

A pilot study saw bioengineered implants restore the vision of 14 volunteers who were completely blind before the experimental procedure

The results show that it is possible to develop a biomaterial that meets all the criteria for being used as human implants, which can be mass-produced and stored up to two years and thereby reach even more people with vision problems,” explained Neil Lagali, one of the researchers working on the project. “This gets us around the problem of shortage of donated corneal tissue and access to other treatments for eye diseases.

The other innovation demonstrated in the study is a new surgical approach for implanting the bioengineered cornea. Instead of needing to surgically remove a patient’s pre-existing cornea, as would be done when transplanting a donor cornea, the new method leaves that tissue intact. Only a small suture is necessary to insert the novel implant.

The new study, published in Nature Biotechnology, describes the results of a pilot trial that tested the implant in 20 volunteers, 14 of whom were completely blind before the experimental procedure. At the two-year follow-up the study reports all 20 volunteers had completely regained their vision and experienced no adverse effects from the surgery.


Reprogramming the Brain’s Cleaning Crew to Mop Up Alzheimer’s Disease

The discovery of how to shift damaged brain cells from a diseased state into a healthy one presents a potential new path to treating Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia, according to a new study from researchers at UC San Francisco (UCSF). The research focuses on microglia, cells that stabilize the brain by clearing out damaged neurons and the protein plaques often associated with dementia and other brain diseases. These cells are understudied, despite the fact that changes in them are known to play a significant role Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases, said Martin Kampmann, PhD, senior author on the study, which appears in Nature Neuroscience.

Microglia (green) derived from human stem cells

Now, using a new CRISPR method we developed, we can uncover how to actually control these microglia, to get them to stop doing toxic things and go back to carrying out their vitally important cleaning jobs,”  Kampmann said. “This capability presents the opportunity for an entirely new type of therapeutic approach.

Most of the genes known to increase the risk for Alzheimer’s disease act through microglial cells. Thus, these cells have a significant impact on how such neurodegenerative diseases play out, said Kampmann. Microglia act as the brain’s immune system. Ordinary immune cells can’t cross the blood-brain barrier, so it’s the task of healthy microglia to clear out waste and toxins, keeping neurons functioning at their best. When microglia start losing their way, the result can be brain inflammation and damage to neurons and the networks they form. Under some conditions, for example, microglia will start removing synapses between neurons. While this is a normal part of brain development in a person’s childhood and adolescent years, it can have disastrous effects in the adult brain.

Over the past five years or so, many studies have observed and profiled these varying microglial states but haven’t been able to characterize the genetics behind them. Kampmann and his team wanted to identify exactly which genes are involved in specific states of microglial activity, and how each of those states are regulated. With that knowledge, they could then flip genes on and off, setting wayward cells back on the right track. Accomplishing that task required surmounting fundamental obstacles that have prevented researchers from controlling gene expression in these cells. For example, microglia are very resistant to the most common CRISPR technique, which involves getting the desired genetic material into the cell by using a virus to deliver it. To overcome this, Kampmann’s team coaxed stem cells donated by human volunteers to become microglia and confirmed that these cells function like their ordinary human counterparts. The team then developed a new platform that combines a form of CRISPR, which enables researchers to turn individual genes on and off – and which Kampmann had a significant hand in developing – with readouts of data that indicate functions and states of individual microglia cells.

Through this analysis, Kampmann and his team pinpointed genes that affect the cell’s ability to survive and proliferate, how actively a cell produces inflammatory substances, and how aggressively a cell prunes synapses. And because the scientists had determined which genes control those activities, they were able to reset the genes and flip the diseased cell to a healthy state.


Sound Plus Electrical Stimulation to Treat Chronic Pain

A University of Minnesota (U OF M) Twin Cities-led team has found that electrical stimulation of the body combined with sound activates the brain’s somatosensory or “tactilecortex, increasing the potential for using the technique to treat chronic pain and other sensory disorders. The researchers tested the non-invasive technique on animals and are planning clinical trials on humans in the near future. During the study, published in the Journal of Neural Engineering, the researchers played broadband sound while electrically stimulating different parts of the body in guinea pigs. They found that the combination of the two activated neurons in the brain’s somatosensory cortex, which is responsible for touch and pain sensations throughout the body.

While the researchers used needle stimulation in their experiments, one could achieve similar results using electrical stimulation devices, such as nerve stimulation (TENS) units, which are widely available. The researchers hope that their findings will lead to a treatment for chronic pain that’s safer and more accessible than drug approaches.

Chronic pain is a huge issue for a lot of people, and for most, it’s not sufficiently treatable,” said Cory Gloeckner, lead author on the paper, a Ph.D. alumnus of the U of M Department of Biomedical Engineering and an assistant professor at John Carroll University.Right now, one of the ways that we try to treat pain is opioids, and we all know that doesn’t work out well for many people. This, on the other hand, is a non-invasive, simple application. It’s not some expensive medical device that you have to buy in order to treat your pain. It’s something that we think would be available to pretty much anyone because of its low cost and simplicity.”

The researchers plan to continue investigating this “multimodal” approach to treating different neurological conditions, potentially integrating music therapy in the future to see how they can further modify the somatosensory cortex.


Quantum Micro-Nano Satellite Launched by China

A Chinese micro-nano quantum satellite has entered its planned orbit and is now operational, the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC), one of its developers, said. It was launched atop a Lijian-1 carrier rocket from the Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center in northwest China.

The low-orbit satellite was designed to conduct real-time quantum key distribution experiments between the satellite and ground station and to carry out technical verification.

The new micro-nano satellite’s weight is about one-sixth the weight of the world’s first quantum satellite, the Chinese satellite Micius, which weighs more than 600 kilograms, according to the USTC. The university said that, based on the quantum technology first seen in Micius, it is clear that more low-cost quantum satellites are needed to realize an efficient, practical and global quantum communication network that can meet the increasing user demand.

The new satellite was jointly developed by Chinese universities and institutions such as the USTC, the Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Jinan Institute of Quantum Technology. Its launch and in-orbit operations are expected to aid the country’s quantum communication development and promote the improvement of national information security.

Nanobody Penetrates Brain Cells to Halt the Progression of Parkinson’s

Researchers from the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine have helped develop a nanobody capable of getting through the tough exterior of brain cells and untangling misshapen proteins that lead to Parkinson’s disease, Lewy body dementia, and other neurocognitive disorders. The research, published last month in Nature Communications, was led by Xiaobo Mao, an associate professor of neurology at the School of Medicine, and included scientists at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Their aim was to find a new type of treatment that could specifically target the misshapen proteins, called alpha-synuclein, which tend to clump together and gum up the inner workings of brain cells. Emerging evidence has shown that the alpha-synuclein clumps can spread from the gut or nose to the brain, driving the disease progression.

Nanobodies—miniature versions of antibodies, which are proteins in the blood that help the immune system find and attack foreign pathogens—are natural compounds in the blood of animals such as llamas and sharks and are being studied to treat autoimmune diseases and cancer in humans. In theory, antibodies have the potential to zero in on clumping alpha-synuclein proteins, but have a hard time getting through the outer covering of brain cells. To squeeze through these tough brain cell coatings, the researchers decided to use nanobodies instead. The researchers had to shore up the nanobodies to help them keep stable within a brain cell. To do this, they genetically engineered them to rid them of chemical bonds that typically degrade inside a cell. Tests showed that without the bonds, the nanobody remained stable and was still able to bind to misshapen alpha-synuclein.

The team made seven similar types of nanobodies, known as PFFNBs, that could bind to alpha-synuclein clumps. Of the nanobodies they created, onePFFNB2—did the best job of glomming onto alpha-synuclein clumps and not single molecules, or monomer of alpha-synuclein, which are not harmful and may have important functions in brain cells. Additional tests in mice showed that the PFFNB2 nanobody cannot prevent alpha-synuclein from collecting into clumps, but it can disrupt and destabilize the structure of existing clumps.

The structure of alpha-synuclein clumps (left) was disrupted by the nanobody PFFNB2. The debris from the disrupted clump is shown on the right.

Strikingly, we induced PFFNB2 expression in the cortex, and it prevented alpha-synuclein clumps from spreading to the mouse brain’s cortex, the region responsible for cognition, movement, personality, and other high-order processes,” says Ramhari Kumbhar, the co-first author and a postdoctoral fellow at the School of Medicine.

The success of PFFNB2 in binding harmful alpha-synuclein clumps in increasingly complex environments indicates that the nanobody could be key to helping scientists study these diseases and eventually develop new treatments,” Mao says.


Stretchy Brain-mimicking AI BioSensor Tracks Continuously Your Health

It’s a brainy Band-Aid, a smart watch without the watch, and a leap forward for wearable health technologies. Researchers at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME) have developed a flexible, stretchable computing chip that processes information by mimicking the human brain. The device, described in the journal Matter, aims to change the way health data is processed.

With this work we’ve bridged wearable technology with artificial intelligence and machine learning to create a powerful device which can analyze health data right on our own bodies,” said Sihong Wang, a materials scientist and Assistant Professor of Molecular Engineering.

Today, getting an in-depth profile about your health requires a visit to a hospital or clinic. In the future, Wang said, people’s health could be tracked continuously by wearable electronics that can detect disease even before symptoms appear. Unobtrusive, wearable computing devices are one step toward making this vision a reality.

The future of healthcare that Wang—and many others—envision includes wearable biosensors to track complex indicators of health including levels of oxygen, sugar, metabolites and immune molecules in people’s blood. One of the keys to making these sensors feasible is their ability to conform to the skin. As such skin-like wearable biosensors emerge and begin collecting more and more information in real-time, the analysis becomes exponentially more complex. A single piece of data must be put into the broader perspective of a patient’s history and other health parameters.


Engineering the Microbiome to Cure Disease

Residing within the human gut are trillions of bacteria and other microorganisms that can impact a variety of chronic human ailments, including obesity, type 2 diabetes, atherosclerosis, cancer, non-alcoholic fatty liver disease and inflammatory bowel disease. Numerous diseases are associated with imbalance or dysfunction in gut microbiome. Even in diseases that don’t involve the microbiome, gut microflora provide an important point of access that allows modification of many physiological systems.

Modifying to remedy, perhaps even cure these conditions, has generated substantial interest, leading to the development of live bacterial therapeutics (LBTs). One idea behind LBTs is to engineer bacterial hosts, or chassis, to produce therapeutics able to repair or restore healthy microbial function and diversity.

Existing efforts have primarily focused on using probiotic bacterial strains from the Bacteroides or Lactobacillus families or Escherichia coli that have been used for decades in the lab. However, these efforts have largely fallen short because engineered bacteria introduced into the gut generally do not survive what is fundamentally a hostile environment.

The inability to engraft or even survive in the gut requires frequent re-administration of these bacterial strains and often produces inconsistent effects or no effect at all. The phenomenon is perhaps most apparent in individuals who take probiotics, where these beneficial bacteria are unable to compete with the individual’s native microorganisms and largely disappear quickly.

The lack of engraftment severely limits the use of LBTs for chronic conditions for curative effect or to study specific functions in the gut microbiome,” said Amir Zarrinpar, MD, PhD, assistant professor of medicine at UC San Diego School of Medicine and a gastroenterologist at UC San Diego Health. “Published human trials using engineered LBTs have demonstrated safety, but still need to demonstrate reversal of disease. We believe this may be due to problems with colonization.

In a proof-of-concept study, published in the August 4, 2022, online issue of Cell , Zarrinpar and colleagues at University of California San Diego School of Medicine report overcoming that hurdle by employing native bacteria in mice as the chassis for delivering transgenes capable of inducing persistent and potentially even curative therapeutic changes in the gut and reversing disease pathologies. Using this method, the group found they can provide long-term therapy in a mouse model of type 2 diabetes.


How to Make Hydrogen Trade Cost-Effective to Meet the 1.5°C Climate Goal

To make hydrogen trade cost-effective, the costs of producing and trading green hydrogen must be lower than domestic production to offset higher transport costs. A new report series released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) sees hydrogen trade significantly contributing to a more diversified and resilient energy system.

Global hydrogen trade to meet the 1.5°C climate goal’ shows the importance of the future hydrogen trade. Trade allows countries to tap into affordable hydrogen as the scale of projects progresses and technology matures. One quarter of the global hydrogen demand could be satisfied by international trade through pipelines and ships.

With falling costs of renewables and the hydrogen potential exceeding global energy demand by 20-fold, three-quarters of global hydrogen would still be produced and used locally in 2050. This is a significant change from today’s oil market where the bulk is internationally traded.

Having access to abundant renewables will not be enough to win the hydrogen race, it’s also necessary to develop hydrogen trade”, IRENA’s Director-General Francesco La Camera said. “It is true that hydrogen trade offers multiple opportunities from decarbonising industry to diversifying supplies and improving energy security. Energy importers can become the exporters of the future.”

However, governments must make significant efforts to turn trade aspirations into reality”, La Camera added. “A mix of innovation, policy support and scale can bring the necessary cost reduction and create a global hydrogen market. Whether trade potentials can be realised will strongly depend on countriies’ policies and investment priorities and the ability to decarbonise their own energy systems.”

IRENA’s World Energy Transitions Outlook sees   covering 12 per cent of global energy demand and cutting 10 per cent of CO2 emissions by 2050. Yet, hydrogen can only be a viable climate solution if the power needed to produce it comes in addition to the electrification of the energy system, placing an even greater uptake of renewable power at the heart of the transition.

The new reports see half of the hydrogen being traded through largely existing, repurposed gas pipelines drastically reducing the costs of transport. Shipping of green ammonia would account for most of the other half, largely intercontinental hydrogen trade.

As hydrogen becomes an increasingly internationally traded commodity, the hydrogen sector will attract growing sums of investment. Satisfying the global demand requires investment of almost USD 4 trillion by 2050. Net zero-aligned finance instruments will have to leverage the investment needed.

Today’s published new modeling framework can be used to assess critical parameters that will affect future trade flows. This report completes a series with two earlier reports on green hydrogen supply cost and potential as well atechnology review of hydrogen carriers.