Week in Review: The Growing Filament

UNC-TV Science Week In Review: August 29, 2013
The Glowing Filament

 

Thomas Edison gets much of the credit for the invention of the light bulb, but 75 years earlier, a British chemist named Humphry Davy had the crazy idea to pass current through a platinum filament. It wasn’t terribly bright and didn’t last long, but that glowing filament lit the way for almost 200 years of electric light.

In my opinion, this is one of the coolest methods of innovation, combining mundane materials like metal and electric current and creating something special: a glowing filament to illuminate a dark room. This week, North Carolina researchers took raw DNA, vision, computer code and building materials and created...


A Genetic Blueprint for Schizophrenia
Schizophrenia, a severe mental disorder, affects about 1% of Americans and its causes can be as nebulous and varied as its multitude of systems. Experts have found links between schizophrenia and brain size, structure and chemistry as well as to their surroundings, but a new study from UNC Medical Center in Chapel Hill sheds light on another cause: genetics.

While 1% of Americans have schizophrenia, people who have a schizophrenic parent have a 10% chance of developing the disorder. So, in the largest study of its kind, Dr. Patrick Sullivan examined genetic information gathered in three separate studies for specific mutations that occur more in schizophrenia patients. All told, his team tested genes from more than 59,000 people.

Out of the thousands of mutations that showed some relationship to schizophrenia, 22 (including 13 new ones) passed statistical muster. Some of these genes are associated with calcium ion channels (some of which are also implicated in bipolar disorder) that help pass messages within and between brain cells. Others affect micro-RNA and long intergenic non-coding (linc) RNA which are thought to regulate how genes are expressed.

Sullivan writes in the study, which appeared in the journal Nature Genetics, that these 22 mutations represent a small fraction of the mutations probably involved. He suggests that even larger studies may reveal more than 8,000 statistically significant mutations. But these first 22 already provide some possible avenues for treating this extremely complex disorder.


A Sense of Touch
At least once a week, I whack my knee against the leg of my kitchen table (yeah I’m really smart). How do I know I’ve whacked it? Neurons in my leg send a signal to the somatosensory (touch) cortex in my brain, which interprets that signal as “ouch.” 

Sometimes, I can see the whack happen, but my eyes tell a different part of my brain, the visual cortex, what I’ve done, but not the somatosensory cortex. It’s not another “ouch,” but my eyes send me a spiteful message confirming what my knee has already told me. That’s the common interpretation of sensory systems: somatosensory cortex gets touch, visual cortex gets vision.

But new research from Duke is challenging that idea, saying that while those cortices aren’t directly connected, my eyes can still tell me “ouch” by stimulating my somatosensory cortex. A group led by Miguel Nicolelis had a group of monkeys look at a digital image of a monkey arm. They poked the monkey’s arm in real life at the same time they showed something poking the image. Brain scans came out as you would expect, the visual cortex lit up from the image while the somatosensory lit up from the touch.

Then the scientists stopped actually poking the monkey but continued to poke the image, and the monkey’s somatosensory cortex continued to light up, showing that it “felt” the poke. Further, that poke signal was delayed compared to when they were actually poking the monkey, suggesting that the monkey saw the image, processed it and then told the somatosensory cortex to make a “poke” signal.

Nicolelis, who develops andvanced prosthetics, says this work could lead to the development of a “touch” sense for people with paralysis. The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Energy Models for Everybody
When experts debate how best to use energy, figures like future energy prices, future greenhouse gas emissions and future fuel production are often tossed around. Obviously, we can’t travel to the future and ask for this data, and making predictions based on so many variables is too much for a human to accomplish fast enough to make a difference. Experts rely on computer programs called Energy Economy Optimization (EEO) models to predict these values and how best to manage our energy in the future.

There are several EEO’s currently in use, but their code is private, limiting critics’ ability to evaluate the data coming from the EEO’s. This week, engineers from NC State University published a paper describing their own EEO, with an open source (free) code that anyone can access.

Their “Tools for Energy Optimization and Analysis” (TEMOA) can draft energy strategies based on different time-spans and geographical areas. The paper describing the work appeared in the journal Energy Economics.


A House for a Sustainable Future
A team from UNC Charlotte recently finished their project for the 2013 Solar Decathlon competition, hosted by the US Department of Energy. The competition’s 20 teams compete in 10 challenges that result in the design of an energy efficient home.

UNC Charlotte’s team recently finished their project, called UrbanEden, which features environmentally friendly concrete, indoor gardens fed by built-in rain-catchers, solar heat and power systems and even a computer system to monitor the house and suggest the best ways to heat and power it.

The team will disassemble UrbanEden and rebuild it in Irvine, Cal. October 3-13 for the competition. For more on the Solar Decathlon, watch QUEST this October on UNC-TV.


- Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, medicine and the environment as a reporter/writer. He is currently pursuing a master's degree in medical and science journalism at UNC - Chapel Hill.