Category Archives: Science in the News

Prosthetic Limbs approach the Natural kind

Advancements in the function of powered prosthetic limbs have been few and far between in the last 50 years. That is not to say that their structure and mechanical design have not improved, but current prostheses still limit the wearer’s motion control and sense of touch. Researchers at the Case Western Reserve University of Ohio recently performed a study in which they implemented pressure sensors to more closely mimic what a person with a normal arm would feel.

Prosthetic limbs aim to mimic real limbs by communicating directly with the brain. Image source: Gizmag

Touch perception, one of our five senses, is a critical part of the human experience and helps build our basic perception of the world around us. In humans, the somatosensory system (touch, or tactile perception) critically depends on the nervous system. When you touch a surface, for example placing your hand on a table, sensors on the skin’s surface initiate an electrical signal that is conducted to the brain via the spinal cord, and allows the impact to be felt by the hand. The term ‘stimulus’ simply refers to an electrical signal coursing through our body that is processed by our brain, and interpreted as an instruction for reaction. However, in individuals lacking normal limbs, this pathway cannot occur because the skin sensors are not present. In general, modern research in the field aims to improve two-way communication between the wearer and their prosthetic limb.


New technologies in prostheses aim to improve the communication between brain and limb. Image Source: Flickr commons; Uploader: U.S. FDA

Many people who currently wear prosthetic limbs complain that the appliances create unnatural sensations that are distracting and unpleasant. Moreover, current prosthetic limbs cannot directly convey stimulation to the wearers. Dr. Dustin Tyler and his colleagues at Case Western Reserve University proposed a solution for this problem. They hypothesized that if they could generate electrical signals in varying intensity to nerves (lying outside of the brain and spinal cord), this would produce sensory restoration. The team’s main improvements to the existing prostheses were as follows. Firstly, they created an ability for wearers to vary their grip strength, and secondly, they decreased the level of discomfort endured by the wearer.

In order to create a stimulation, the team connected electrodes that could create electrical impulses into the subjects’ upper limbs. Researchers also added pressure sensors to subjects’ artificial fingerprints that had the capacity to respond to varying stimulation patterns. Two parameters were tested. Firstly, by altering average signal intensity, researchers found that the wearer could precisely control the size of the area their hands were in contact with. Secondly, by changing signal frequency, researchers found that the wearer could control their finger strength. The combination of these two features gave wearers an enhanced ability to manipulate delicate objects. Also, users of the research team’s prosthetic limbs described the sensations as natural and comfortable.

The video below shows a prosthetic limb user performing the delicate task of removing a stem from a cherry. Those who were using nerve stimulation technology perform significantly better than those without it.

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-Imran Mitha

The bugs in your guts are making you fat.

Generally when we think “bacteria” and “guts”, we think of nasty things like food poisoning or the stomach flu. But in reality, there are large amount of bacteria living in our lower digestive system – what scientists call the Gut Microflora. In fact, some recent research has shown that the bacteria living in our guts aren’t simply enjoying a tenant-landlord relationship; in fact, they may actively contribute to our overall health. A good example of this is the much-hyped “probiotics” recently being promoted as the new “superfood” essential to successful diets. As Yogurt companies have been advertising left and right,   “an exclusive probiotic culture … has been shown to survive passage through the digestive tract in sufficient amounts for Activia to help regulate the digestive system”. But is there any truth to this?

Some research has indicated that certain species of bacteria may contribute to the overall efficiency of energy extraction and affect overall levels of host obesity;  and in fact, studies in mice have shown that mice with differing levels of obesity has different compositions in their gut microflora, showing quite the correlation between bacterial colonies in the gut and obesity. This begs the question, Would changing the bacteria help make you skinnier?

 Scientific American-Volume 310, Issue 6. "How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin"

Scientific American-Volume 310, Issue 6.
“How Gut Bacteria Help Make Us Fat and Thin”










To make a long and complicated answer short, We don’t know.  Though there has been trials done confirming the short-term effects on things related to obesity, so far no study has proven effective, as the gut microflora is a complicated subject with many facets to watch.  That being said, There are current studies in the works, so keep an (critical) eye on your news feed, and feel free to eat all the yogurt you’d like.

– James L.




Collagen cannot be absorbed through skin!

The desire to stay youthful for many women has been consistent; hence keeping a youthful skin has also been a consistent concern. Thus it really disturbs me that the beauty market nowadays targets and takes advantage of these worries to sell skin products with false advertisements at shockingly expensive prices. FALSE advertisement, that’s right. Many different brands flaunt their new line of creams with this magical molecule “collagen,” which can apparently make skin plumped-up, smoother, and younger.

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This is complete nonsense. It is a cold hard fact that collagen molecules are just too large to be absorbed through tiny pores of skin. It will have no benefits to skin when it is being applied in such way. Let’s take a closer look at collagen.




Collagen itself is a protein present in all body’s organs and connective tissues and mainly functions to sustain tendons, cartilage, and skin. It provides firmness and elasticity to skin and thus making it true that increasing collagen levels in body will increase the chance of skin staying more youthful. This is the scientific reasoning behind those false advertisements.

However, it is critical to note that this is only true when we increase level of collagen by eating the right, healthy food or by taking collagen supplements, but not by applying those collagen-containing creams on our faces. Like I said before, collagen molecules are too large to be absorbed through the pores of our skin, and even if the skin could absorb them, we have to remember that collagens are proteins naturally made inside our body. They would be completely “dead” and inactive by the time we rub them onto the skin. The only reason why your expensive collagen cream feels nice is because it gives cream its consistency.

Let us not forget that including collagen in skin care products is just another way of marketing. This had been proven quite a while ago, but many still seem to be unaware of this. So remember this and do not waste your time and money on collagen-containing creams, everyone! Why don’t we all try eating more soy products, vegetables, and fruits instead?


By Sunny Sohn

Images/Video Sources:

Collagen image:

Fruits and Vegetables image:



I was first introduced to the topic of climate change in high school through the movie, “An Inconvenient Truth”, and since then the issue has been weighing heavily on my mind. A few years ago I became aware of a solution to climate change called geoengineering. Encyclopaedia Britannica defines geoengineering as, “the large-scale manipulation of a specific process central to controlling Earth’s climate for the purpose of obtaining a specific benefit.”

There are forty proposed methods, but the two primary methods used are Carbon Dioxide Reduction (CDR) and Solar Radiation Management (SRM). CDR deals with reducing the amount of carbon dioxide in the air through natural means such as planting more trees and algae, and increasing carbon in soils. I agree with this process because although we are tampering with the ecosystem of the planet, we are not introducing new things into it. With fast fluctuating climate changes, I understand why the demand to be able to control the weather is an issue. I agree with certain methods like CDR to help strengthen our planet so that it can defend itself, much like strengthening the immune system of a human being.

Example of Carbon Reduction (Tree Planting) Source: Flickr Commons

Example of Carbon Reduction (Tree Planting)
Source: Flickr Commons

On the other hand, we have SRM that is reducing the amount of solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface. This method is done by introducing nanoparticles such as sulphate, barium, and aluminum into the atmosphere. The health effects from these types of metals over a long period of time are unknown, which is my main problem with this method. Volcanoes release sulphate naturally, but with such a high amount being pumped into our skies we don’t know the effect that it will have on our respiratory system, and the respiratory system of animals as well. Also, other particles involved such as aluminum have been related to human diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Another concern is the filtering out of many positive effects of sunlight such as Vitamin D.

Example of Solar Radiation Management (Chemical Trails) Source: Flickr Commons

Example of Solar Radiation Management (Chemical Trails)
Source: Flickr Commons

At this point, with the SRM aspect, I feel like it is more of an experiment that we cannot afford to gamble with. Other pressing issues such as genetically modified foods still leave us with the freedom of choice, whereas with geoengineering we are all participants whether we like it or not.

Video on Solar Radiation Management
Source: Youtube
Author: dschnei333

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– Jenna Bains

Ice Ice Go Away…Come Again Another Day?

Arctic sea ice has been dramatically declining in recent years, as shown by the two images below. Scientists claim that if the current trend (4% decrease per decade) continues, an ice-free Arctic summer may be a reality by as soon as 2020.

Graph showing decline in Arctic Sea Ice over the last 33 years. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Graph showing decline in Arctic Sea Ice over the last 33 years. Source: Wikimedia Commons

NASA images show decrease in Arctic sea ice from 1980 to 2012. Source: Flickr Commons user: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre

NASA images show decrease in Arctic sea ice from 1980 to 2012. Source: Flickr Commons user: NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre

So, why is this so terrifying? Well, the reduced availability of sea ice poses a great threat to the survival of the walrus. Just last week approximately 35,000 walruses ( gathered on a beach in Alaska, because they had nowhere else to go.

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The walrus, officially known as Odobenus rosmarus, feeds near the ocean floor within the Arctic Circle. They usually feed offshore where there is an abundance of shellfish, molluscs and other soft-bodies organisms. Larger adults feed twice a day, and may consume up to 6,000 clams per feeding, which they do very rapidly.

However, unlike seals, walruses can’t swim for long periods of time, and therefore usually gather on sea ice with other walruses to rest in between feeding periods. With the increased melting of sea ice, walruses are forced to swim to shore instead, having been found on beaches around Alaska and in the Chukchi Sea in previous years.

Walruses resting on sea ice are at increasing danger of losing this natural habitat. Source: Flickr Commons user: USFWS/Joel Garlich-Miller

Walruses resting on sea ice are at increasing danger of losing this natural habitat. Source: Flickr Commons user: USFWS/Joel Garlich-Miller

Now that the walruses are farther away from their natural feeding areas, they have two choices: they can either swim far distances to reach the rich offshore feeding sites (resulting in a net burn of calories), or they can remain close to shore and try to sustain themselves with a much lower quality of food, whilst competing with the thousands of other walruses on land.

Furthermore, the massive crowds of walruses are prone to stampedes, which have led to mass killings via trampling in previous incidences of beach gatherings, particularly of female and juvenile walruses.

The USGS has warned that 17 species, including the walrus, are at risk of extinction as a direct result of decreasing sea ice, particularly because the Artic is warming almost twice as fast as the rest of the world.

It is clear that something needs to change, and change soon, or else our actions as human beings will cause not only the end of Odobenus rosmarus, but also a collapse of the ecosystem in which it is involved.

An increasingly common site: 35,000 walruses gather on a beach 8km away from Point Lay, Alaska.

An increasingly common site: 35,000 walruses gather on a beach 8km away from Point Lay, Alaska.

– Mikaela Stewart

Something is going on while you are sleeping

Man sleeping. source: google image(free to share)

We spend about a third of our lives sleeping, and it is considered as an activity as crucial to our health and well-being as eating. Sleep makes us improve our mood and feel more energized. However, there are a lot of unknown information and things going on while we are at rest.

First, what is going on while you are asleep? When we’re sleeping, neurons in the brain fire nearly as much as they do while we are awake. That means whatever happening during our sleeping hours is quite important to a number brain and cognitive functions.

These are some reasons why you need enough sleep and they describe what our brains do while we are asleep – and it suggest you to get some shut-eye tonight.

1. Rememers / Learns how to perform physical activities.

Your brain stores information into a long-term memory in sleep spindles, which signal processes that refresh our memories. This process help storing information specifically related to physical tasks, such as sports, driving, and dancing. These short-term memories are transferred from the motor cortex to the temporal lobe, where they become long-term memories.

2. Create and strengthen memories

Location of hippocampus in the brain source: wikipedia common

While you are asleep, the brain keeps forming new memories linking them from old ones to more recent memories. This process happens during both REM and non-REM sleep periods. Lack of sleep can cause a significant effect on the hippocampus, and affect in memory creation and consolidation. Due to this fact, all nighter would lose their ability to learn new study materials.

3. Decision making

Decision making: where to go sources: google image( free to share)

The brain can process information and prepare for actions during sleep. A recent study found that the brain processes complex stimuli while we are asleep, and utilize this information to make some decisions while we are awake.

4. Clears out toxins

Research at the Univiersity of Roschester found that during the sleep, the brains of mice flush out damaging molecules associated with neurodegeneration, which could potentially have the effect of accelerating diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Therefore, our brains would not have enough time to flush out toxins if we do not get adequate time of sleep.

Parkinson’s disease effect on various parts of brain. sources: google image(free to share)

Why do we need sleep? and What is going on in our brains during the sleep?

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Jack Yoon

Research into Medical History sheds light on Issues of Racism in Science

I was fascinated by this interview in The Atlantic with Lundy Braun, a researcher in Africana studies and pathology and labortatory medicine, about her new book, Breathing Race Into the Machine: the Surprising Career of the Spirometer from Plantation to Genetics. It’s notable both for being good science coverage in a national magazine, but also because it highlights an issue of racism in science. The story raises interesting questions that could propably be applied to other areas of science.

Braun discusses the history of the measurement of lung capacity, which dates back to antebellum slavery in the United States and had its beginnings as a sort of pseudo-scientific justification for the notion that different races were not physically equal. Slave-owners at the time looked to variety of sciences now mostly seen as pseudo-science to try to find some sort of scientific proof of racial superiority.

The earliest study was performed by a slave-owner near the height of the slavery debate in the United States, and found that those classified as blacks or “mullatoes” had a lower lung capacity. These findings were confirmed by a large study performed by the union army during civil war. By the 1920s, the notion that black people just naturally had a lower lung capacity was medical conventional wisdom, despite some, more limited, evidence to the contrary (based on more qualitative study).

If black people do indeed have lower lung capacities, it could be due not to some sort of inherent racial difference but to different environmental or developmental factors. Black people in the United States experience poverty at much higher rates than white people and tend to live closer to a variety of environmental risk.

Today, spirometers still feature “race correction,” and read differently for patients who are determined by their doctor to be black (Braun also found that this classification was done inconsistently). Braun maintains that there have been no studies of sufficient sample size exploring other possible reasons for lower lung capacity in some black populations and that there is little justification for race correction.

The implications of this race correction are unclear. In the epilogue of her book Braun discusses how some doctors don’t rely on spirometer readings at all, and others only “eyeball it” (that is to say, the doctors guess what race someone is). Not all were even aware that race correction occured.

While the importance of this particular medical device may not be clear, the story has broader implications for science as a whole. The foundations of a lot of modern science were generated by a society that was deeply invested in justifying profound inequalities and it seems that in this case that over a hundred years of the scientific process working has failed to correct a mistake that’s based in that sort of justifying myth.


A modern Spirometer, a device for measuring lung capacity. From Wikimedia Commons: AdvancedMedicalEngineering


Who said you can’t see bright stars in the deep ocean?


Euprymna scolopes by MattiasOrmestad

A photo of a Bobtail squid,  Euprymna scolopes, performing bioluminescence. It’s underside is brightly lit by its symbiotic bacteria V.fischeri. Photo by Mattias Ornestad on

Euprymna scolopes, commonly known as the Bobtail squids, are found around the Hawaiian Islands. Additionally, they’re about 4.5cm and has one other amazing fact: they have an indirect ability to perform bioluminescence, which is the production or emission of light by living organisms.  To be exact, the Bobtail squids don’t produce this phenomenon, it is the bacteria residing in these squids that produce this light. Together they can perform the largest symphony of dancing blue stars in the ocean.

The bacteria, Vibrio fischeri, is a symbiont that lives in the mantle of the Bobtail squids. The squids acquire this bacteria after they are hatched. These symbionts live in the deepest tract of the mantle and they produce the light source depending on the seawater environment, sensed through the squids’ pores. Furthermore, the Bobtail squids expel around 90-95% of these bacteria every dawn. At dusk, the bacteria increase in population and emit light again from the mantle. Since Euprymna scolopes is a nocturnal species, it hunts for prey at night time. With the bacteria, the squids are able to perform counterillumination. This effect allows them to camouflage themselves by looking like the sky above or deep abyss to divert their predators’ attention.

Here’s a video from the United Kingdom Society for Applied Microbiology uploaded by Siouxsie Wiles on YouTube. It explains how the Bobtail squids and the bacteria interact.

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But here is the most astonishing hypothesis about the symbiotic relationship: the squids themselves can adjust the intensity of the light produced by their dependents.

Research tested this hypothesis and found two possible theories. Firstly, the squids may be controlling their oxygen intake to restrict the bacteria’s production of energy, thus resulting in dimmer or brighter illumination.  Secondly, the squids control light emission by using their ink sac as an iris to restrict light. Both processes cannot kill the bacteria but only limit its emission. Unfortunately, biologists couldn’t explain the mechanism behind light intensity control since they could not visually see inside the mantle.

Aliivibrio fischeri (

A photo of the bacteria, Vibrio fischeri, which provides the Bobtail squid bioluminescence, in a petri dish. Photo from

Biologists are trying to find out how these bacteria communicate with its host. There still remain many unanswered questions. For example, how do the squids know how much V. fischeri to expel? What happens if we remove these symbiotic bacteria from their hosts? How do the squids know when to stop before killing the bacteria?

With further research, they hope to understand how bacterial cells communicate with human cells using Bobtail squids as their model. Scientists wish to find ways to distinguish harmful bacteria versus those that help regulate our body. By understanding how V.fischeri functions inside the squids, we could produce antibiotics that only pinpoint the harmful bacteria in our body and find ways to disrupt these bacteria from causing us sicknesses.

– Alison Fung