by Olivia Van Arsdale, ’17
For Your Health
In late January, scientists at Harvard published a study that brought the medical community closer to understanding schizophrenia, a mental illness characterized by delusional thinking and hallucinations.
According to the research team lead by Steven McCarroll, associate professor of genetics, schizophrenia is closely linked to the process of “synaptic pruning,” in which the brain gets rid of unnecessary connections between neurons as it matures.
This new study explains how the process probably goes wrong and why.
People with schizophrenia are thought to have a gene that accelerates synaptic pruning, thus severing connections that the brain needs.
The research team found among all subjects, those with schizophrenia were more likely to have overactive forms of the gene C4-A than the control subjects, which causes synaptic pruning to go awry and sever necessary synapses.
Because so little was known about schizophrenia beforehand, this is a breakthrough for science.
However, researchers are not quite ready to celebrate yet.
“We’re all very excited and proud of this work,” Dr. Lander said to the New York Times. “But I’m not ready to call it a victory until we have something that can help patients.”
Making Waves in Space
This month, scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory) finally achieved what the organization was created to do: record gravitational waves from outer space.
These waves, ripples in space-time, were caused by two black holes colliding 1.3 billion years ago. Scientists described the sound as a “chirp” lasting one-fifth of a second as the waves stretched and compressed around earth.
Why is this such a big deal? In 1915, Einstein published his Theory of Relativity, in which he postulated gravitational waves as a part of his concept of space-time. Einstein asserted that space and time were a continuum that became warped by anything with mass. He theorized that the universe worked like a giant fabric, so a large object would make the fabric sag around it. If a smaller object was placed next to the larger object, it would fall towards the bigger object. This theory was revolutionary because for the first time it explained why gravity worked. Movement on the fabric would cause tiny ripples, or the gravitational waves that we can now hear. However, until now, it could not be definitively proven because gravitational waves were undetectable.
It took a century, but science has finally proven Einstein right.
Researchers for the MIT Media Lab have created inFORM, a computerized surface that works like a moving relief map. Using hundreds of pins and motion-sensors, users can interact with the surface, creating three-dimensional models. While the technology is still clunky, it shows definite promise. In short: it’s a shape-shifting computer.
InFORM can be used by urban planners to model cities, and also to design new products. It can also be used to collaborate on products over Facetime, allowing two people who are far away to manipulate objects with the shape-shifting surface acting as their hands.
The Media Lab researchers are hopeful about possible new applications. Sean Follmer, computer researcher and designer, aspires to have a product that will change function based on the shape it’s bended into. Currently, they have an experimental prototype of an armband that can bend into a phone. Additionally, the designers created a desk that uses inFORM to transform a flat table into a desk with a cup-holder, pencil holder, and iPad stand. While the technology is not going to be publicly available anytime soon, it’s accelerating in sophistication quickly, and might just hit the market before even the flying car.