Transcript: Feb 23, 2010

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

With the eyes of the world watching, with the hopes of a nation resting upon your shoulders, with the lifetime of training and hard work at your disposal and everything on the line, what now separates you from the victory platform or the agony of defeat?

Only you, your will to make it happen. Concentrate, meditate, one point of focus. Now is the moment in which you can do. Whether you’re about to make your attempt for Olympic gold or stepping out of your front door to meet the day, every moment of your life is an opportunity to perform at your best.

And while your best, much like the following hour of programming, does not necessarily represent the views or opinions of the University of California at Davis, KDVS or its sponsor. Like your life, Science is an unending series of Olympic performances with scientists who train hard to hone their skills working alone or in teams, researchers going for the gold with every study.

And though we are not gathered in one spot, we are the crowd cheering each triple acts of twisler and stuck three point landing of insight and innovation, and waiting with anticipation the results and hopes of adding to our overall mental count here on This Week in Science, coming up next.

Good morning, Kirsten and Ali!

Kirsten: Good morning, Justin! How are you doing?

Justin: Good.

Kirsten: Yeah. We missed you last week.

Justin: Yeah, I wasn’t here.

Kirsten: You were not here. It was apparent. It was apparent. We had fun. But it definitely wasn’t the same. So welcome back.

Justin: Thank you.

Kirsten: Welcome back and welcome everybody to this week’s episode of This Week in Science. And we have a – just fun-filled, action-packed show ahead of us on this week’s show.

Justin: I have stories.

Kirsten: You do have stories. I don’t know if we’re going to have time to get to that (whole) – let’s…

Justin: These are mostly blank pages.

Kirsten: Okay, good. I was going to say wow. It’s a lot of paper there, many trees. Special in our lineup today is a special decade in review report by our lovely intern, Ali, on Brain-Computer Interfaces. That’ll be coming up in the second half of the show.

Also, we have a quick chat lined up with Peter Willson of Explorit Science Central, the local Davis science museum.

Justin: Woo-ho!

Kirsten: Yeah. I have a review of my weekend at AAAS and a couple of stories on wasps and Einstein. What do you have?

Justin: I have no idea. Let’s see. I’ve got genetic variances. This is associated with biological aging. I have some nap news. This is a good nap news.

Kirsten: Let me take a nap. I like naps.

Justin: Somebody talking about whether or not it’s a good idea to have an informed public when it comes to science.

Kirsten: I talk about that all the time.

Justin: And why cows can kill you.

Kirsten: No.

Justin: This is a different story.

Kirsten: Okay.

Justin: This is a different way that cows can kill you from the ways that cows have attempted to kill us in the past.

Kirsten: Like with a knife. I hate that.

Justin: Straight cow thuggery going on.

Kirsten: Oh, cow thugs.

Justin: And physicists making lasers out of sound.

Kirsten: I don’t think we’re going to get to all of these. You’re teasing too many stories. We’re not going to get to them.

Justin: Our main molecule is created through…

Kirsten: Okay, great. Let’s get started. There’s a lot to cover. We don’t have time. All right. So I have a present for you from Oklahoma. But I didn’t bring it. I forgot it. So it’s going to have to wait a week.

I spoke at the OSU Research Week last week. And my excellent hosts, Jared Dempsey and Charles Abramson set me home with some door prizes. I got this cute t-shirt.

Justin: Aggies.

Kirsten: I know. I was like, “Hey the Aggies. It’s like Davis but in Oklahoma.” Yeah. I guess they have a different mascot. But anyway, the Aggies, I was excited about that. And there’s one present that was selected especially for you by Jared who, by the way, has been – he’s the guy who’s been taking cigarette donations…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: …from people who are trying to quit for his addiction research.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. And so, he’s the person who initiated my visit out to Oklahoma. And he also has a present for you that I forgot to bring. Anyway…

Justin: What is it?

Kirsten: I’m not going to tell you.

Justin: Why?

Kirsten: Because it’s a surprise.

Justin: You didn’t say it was a surprise. It’s just a gift.

Kirsten: But it will come next week.

Justin: You already know what it is.

Kirsten: And a big thanks just for the hospitality of the hosts in Oklahoma State University and to their Department of Psychology.

Justin: The anticipation is now killing me for a whole week.

Kirsten: Big thanks.

Justin: What is it? What could it be?

Kirsten: I didn’t see it. All right. So each year the American Association for the Advancement of Science has a meeting where they bring together scientists and science organizations and science vendory-type people and journalists from all over the world. And I went there this last weekend.

Justin: Cool.

Kirsten: After I went to Oklahoma. And the meeting was in San Diego and it was raining. I was very sad. Hmm.

But a few highlights of the trip were the discussions of dolphins that I got to hear, doomsday scenarios, oh, Geoengineering was a big topic. And also, I got to meet journalists from all over the place talking about – having conversations about the changing phase of science communication and how best to communicate science to everybody.

But it turns out that dolphins might be a great model species for studying Type II Diabetes – very possible. However, several other researchers looking at dolphin cognition and animal behavior – dolphin behavior, they suggest the dolphin should be given non-human person status which would make doing research involving diabetes incredibly difficult.

So these two teams of people aren’t talking to each other — the ones who want to do research on dolphins because they’re several to humans in some ways…

Justin: Right.

Kirsten: …and the ones who are going, “But no, dolphins are smart animals. We can’t experiment on them. They’re like the monkeys of the sea.” I don’t know.

Justin: Monkeys of the sea.

Kirsten: Yeah. Okay, that was a bad statement. But okay, this is all opinion. This is – this part of it is just my thoughts after hearing all these different dolphin conversations.

The only reason that people feel all…

Justin: Do you speak dolphin? Wow.

Kirsten: Yeah. No, I’ve been talking to Flipper for years.

Justin: So what did the dolphin say?

Kirsten: If don’t know if that’s dolphinish. I don’t know. The only reason that people feel all warm and fuzzy about dolphins in the first place is that they have an intelligence that we can recognize because it’s similar in some ways to our own intelligence. So, we feel this connection or this bond to them.

Justin: They also have sex for recreation. So we’re like – they’re so like us.

Kirsten: They’re just like us, right. And they’re violent. Hey, they’re just like us. This led me to think that – start thinking about human-like intelligence. And the fact that it shouldn’t – or the idea that it shouldn’t be a factor in determining conservation status for animals since intelligence is something we don’t even understand and have a hard time defining.

If we can’t even define intelligence, what are we doing just randomly choosing, “You are like humans. You have intelligence we understand so we will conserve you.”

Justin: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: I mean that’s – it’s just ridiculous. We need to get over ourselves and our over inflated sense of importance in the universe before tackling these issues. That’s just my personal opinion.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: Yeah. Other news from AAAS, mathematicians are finding new ways to use their skills as opposed to just staying in academics and defining undefinable spaces like shapes and things.

They’re working with social science…

Justin: Math mocker.

Kirsten: I am a math mocker. I’m sorry. Math is very important but it kind of goes with English degrees. And that people say, “Well, what are you going to do with that when you get out of school?” And people go, “Oh, I don’t know, maybe a teacher,” which is great, but at the same time…

Justin: You’re making fun of English degrees, too.

Kirsten: I know. I’m just mocking everyone this morning. Sorry. Sorry. I’m going to get so much mail.

Justin: So we can’t all be super hip cool neurologists. But what are you going to do with your degree? Zing!

Kirsten: “Kiki, what did you do with your degree – your bird brain degree?” I started doing radio. Yeah, doing a lot with it, hello! I’m mocking myself here, mocking myself.

But mathematicians are actually – they’re putting math into application now. They’re starting to work with social scientists and urban planners to figure out how to plan for the weird things that people do on sidewalks, roads and in buildings. So you know how people kind of clump in groups and form these, what they call hot spots and…

Justin: Yeah, do a little traffic flow control.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. So it’s very interesting. They’re starting to use math to model these random behaviors – these illogical behaviors of humans in groups to see how they can plan for that.

Justin: I would love that – the very localized issue. But I would love to see that implemented here in the city of Davis because the town next to – a little ways down the road there is Sacramento. One of the things that’s brilliant about Downtown Sacramento is if you are going the speed limit, you can cruise all the way through the downtown and hit every single green light.

Kirsten: Right, to the speed limit. Mm hmm.

Justin: Because they are timed to – if you’re going to 35 miles an hour, whatever it is, you’ll hit every green light, the stop lights in Davis. And I’ve gone from every which direction or going in and out of town.

Kirsten: It punishes you for – yeah.

Justin: They will stop you at every single red light, every single one. You can count the number of red lights or of stop lights between you and any destination, that’s how many red lights you’re going to hit.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: There’s no possible way of hitting greens.

Kirsten: Yup.

Justin: But you might hit one, the first one.

Kirsten: Note to Davis’ city planners, talk to mathematicians.

Justin: The rest of them are going to be red.

Kirsten: I learned that scientists need to remember to keep the public in the loop when planning and executing potentially controversial experiments. Transparency is key to things like Hadron Colliders and Geoengineering and keeping people in the dark only leads to greater mistrust and development of more conspiracy theories.

So hey, scientists, go talk to people. Tell the people what you’re up to and it might help a little bit.

Yeah. And so, AAAS was pretty exciting. There was a lot of great news out of there. And hopefully, it will continue to bring scientists and journalists together in a way that will benefit the public communication of science. Yeah.

Justin: Like why don’t we do that right now? Okay. This is my favorite story. This is – I almost feel like I need this right now.

University of California, Berkeley comes this getting a nice noontime nap can improve your mental acuity. Just a one hour snooze can boost the brain’s ability to learn new things. And what’s more, the more hours we spend awake, the more sluggish our minds become according to the findings of the study.

It shows an hour’s nap can dramatically boost and restore your brainpower and suggests that Biphasic Sleep schedule, I guess that’s sleeping more than once a solar day.

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: It’s that a refreshed mind can make you smarter because of course you can or apt to learn more things. This supports previous data from same research team that pulling in all-nighter cram session actually decreases a student’s ability to remember new facts by nearly 40%.

Kirsten: That is a lot. Wow!

Justin: Wow, 40%.

Kirsten: Yeah. I mean we’ve heard news for years that cramming, staying up all night, that the less you sleep the more it’s going to affect your memory and your ability to perform on tests.

Justin: I guess I’ve heard it the other way around though.

Kirsten: Wow.

Justin: I guess I have heard it that if you sleep, you are somehow locking in those memories.

Kirsten: Yeah. The more sleep you get, yeah, you’re helping consolidate those memories and lock them in, right.

Justin: But what this is sort of suggesting is that it’s actually – there are key regions of the brain that are key to learning that shut down during sleep deprivation.

Kirsten: Wow.

Justin: So the idea is then, even if you did the all-night cram session but then slept well and, you know, had the afternoon exam, you still would not be getting the benefit of that all-night cram session because your brain would have been shut down, reducing your ability to remember that new stuff by 40% already.

Kirsten: That’s really interesting.

Justin: There’s a quote in here. “Sleep not only rights the wrong of prolonged wakefulness but a neurocognitive level, it moves you beyond where you were before you took a nap,” says Matthew Walker, an assistant professor of psychology at UC Berkeley.

Kirsten: And they say a 90-minute nap, right?

Justin: Ninety-minute siesta.

Kirsten: Ninety minutes. So the short power nap is not necessarily going to be beneficial.

Justin: No, it’s 90 minutes.

Kirsten: Most people do like a 20-minute power nap kind of thing.

Justin: My nap, it’s always like three or four hours.

Kirsten: I can’t – I know. If I go to sleep, I’m down.

Justin: Gone.

Kirsten: That’s it. Down.

Justin: You know what, but we encounter more new facts in a day than most people encounter all week.

Kirsten: So we have a lot more.

Justin: So we made a lot. You may need to get more mental rest. That’s our – we’re used to sleeping in. Yeah, very cool.

Kirsten: Yeah. Parasitic wasps take advantage of stinky butterflies. They do. They do. This story was sent in by Dale Fischer. He found the stories written up in – on science blogs, not exactly rocket science. It’s a blog by a writer named Ed Yong who’s a great writer.

He writes about the study that is published in — I can’t remember — behavioral something. I can’t remember the name of the journal off hand. But what happens are these two species of parasitic wasps, they hone in on the smells, the after-sex smells of butterflies.

The male butterfly will actually put an odorant onto the female after they’ve engaged in sex so that it keeps – it repels other males from being attracted to that female so that that male will have a better chance of siring offspring, okay?

So these parasitic wasps, what they like to do is hitch a ride on the female butterfly back to the place where she lays her eggs. And then they hop onto the eggs. And then dig into the eggs and lay their eggs in the egg. And their babies, (ar rawr rar reow), chew on the baby butterflies.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: Yeah. So what they found is anti-aphrodisiac is actually – the parasitic wasps have to smell the anti-aphrodisiac compound mixed in with the smell of the butterfly. The anti-aphrodisiac, the single chemical compound on its own…

Justin: By itself, won’t do it.

Kirsten: Well, yeah, won’t do it by itself. But it has to be mixed in with the smell of the – the scent of a woman, which is really interesting. And these butterflies, one species of butterfly – the butterfly will – one species lays a whole bunch of eggs in one location.

So, for a parasitic wasp to follow that one home…

Justin: It’s a jackpot.

Kirsten: It’s a jackpot.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. The other butterfly lays a bunch of eggs but only one egg in a bunch of different locations. So if the parasitic wasp hitches a ride on that butterfly, they’re going to do okay, but it’s not quite as good in terms of where that parasitic wasp can lay its eggs.

The wasp is able to differentiate. They put the wasp in a maze to see if it could smell which butterfly was which. And it could actually differentiate and would go more likely to the butterfly that laid more eggs in one location.

Justin: Wow.

Kirsten: Mm hmm. But given a choice, it will preferentially go for that one. But if there’s no real choice, it will take whatever it can get. So these wasps are figuring out some pretty smart stuff.

And one species of wasp knows how to do this from the time it’s born. And another species of wasp has to actually hitch a ride on a butterfly to learn the scent.

Justin: What?

Kirsten: And figure – yeah. So there’s one wasp who’s got it, who just knows it from the time it’s born and can just take advantage of these scents. But there’s another species of wasp that has to actually encounter a butterfly and have a successful attempt at hitching a ride on the butterfly to its egg layer before it actually learns these scents mean something.

Justin: Interesting.

Kirsten: Yeah. But anyway, just another case of cool parasitic…

Justin: Yeah. But that’s a great thing to…

Kirsten: …insects taking advantage of what’s going on in the natural world.

Justin: That would be a great study to drill down on those wasps and see if you can list it out the differences between having a genetic memory kind of a thing versus…

Kirsten: A learned memory.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. That’s a great point. I’m sure they’re going to – I hope they go that direction because that would make some fun reporting for us later.

Justin: Just another free PhD idea out there for anybody in the Life Sciences trying to figure out what to…

Kirsten: That’s right. You go on with a story. You’re listening to This Week in Science. I’m going to call Peter Willson right now. So you go and talk.

Justin: Okay. You get on the phone. I’m going to talk about genetic variance that are associated with biological aging have been zeroed-in on by UK researchers. They’re finding that could explain why some people seem to age faster than the hosts of This Week in Science.

Reported in the journal of Nature Genetics, they analyzed some 500,000 genetic variations to find those linked to the aging. According to study co-leader, Dr. Nilesh Samani, a Professor of Cardiology at the University of Leicester – what’s the French – I think that’s the French.

Kirsten: Leicester.

Justin: Leicester.

Kirsten: I think English.

Justin: The English-French word which always looks like Leicester. Leicester but it’s Leicester. Anyway, two forms of aging: chronological, that’s the one we’re all familiar with, it’s chronological aging. How many years it’s been since you were born? This is your chronological age.

But there is also your biological age which is determined by the age of the cells that actually make you up, cells that can be functionally younger or functionally older than your chronological age might indicate.

That’s very interesting. I wonder how you tell like your real age then. “There’s an accumulating evidence that the risk of age-associated diseases, including heart disease and some types of cancer, most – more closely related to your biological rather than chronological age,” says Semani summarizing in a news release from the University of Leicester.

Kirsten: Leicester. Stop it.

Justin: You know, it is the English language. And that’s a University in London. It would think that they would spell it with the English pronunciations. Of course, I think that the Leicester’s have their own way of talking completely, probably, than the rest of the English language.

Study co-leader, Dr. Tim Spector of King’s College London said, “What our study suggests is that some people are genetically programmed to age at a faster rate.” Or others at a slower rate, I guess you could also list if from that…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …that people age or cells are actually aging at different rates between different individuals. I mean, it’s like – so I could – I really could be like…

Kirsten: You know, like kind of make sense. I mean, some people just seem, you know, they get – I don’t know. It kind of makes sense.

Justin: I still get…

Kirsten: Why do people die at different ages? Why do some people seem to have earlier cardiovascular disease? Why do some people seem, you know, why do some people go forever? You know, what is it that makes the difference, the fact that there’s a genetic component to the aging? That’s…

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: And I mean, I get caught at all time.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: And look at this right here. This is the mustache that I’ve been growing for like three, four weeks now.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: It’s the mustache of a 14-year-old boy.

Kirsten: And on that note, let’s bring Director of Marketing and Development from the Explorit Science Center here in Davis, Peter Willson. Let’s bring him on the line so that we can talk a little bit about Davis’ premier children science center.

Justin: Good morning, Peter! Welcome to This Week in Science.

Peter: Good morning, guys! Thanks for having me on. I appreciate it.

Kirsten: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. So tell us a little bit – the reason that we’re having you on here is because I received a message, a cry for help actually…

Peter: Yeah.

Kirsten: …from the Explorit Science Center. And can you tell us a little bit about what the situation is right now?

Peter: Yeah. Unfortunately, we find ourselves in a pretty critical situation. You know, we’ve been providing service in Davis for about 28 years, a hands-on science in Davis for 28 years. And then throughout the region, through our outreach programs, we serve about 65,000 students a year.

Because of the economic situation that’s facing not only us but everyone right now, the funding is down. We are a non-profit, so we rely heavily on individual donations as well as funds from grants and foundation giving.

And the money just isn’t there right now. And we can’t blame obviously the individuals. And then, you know, grants and foundations are pulling their money back as well because their parent companies have less and less money so they have less money to dole out.

Kirsten: Right. So what role does Explorit play in the community? You know, what does it do for the community?

Peter: Really it’s a great service. We really help to bridge the gap of book learning that students take on in the classroom in regards to science and allow that learning to come to life. The students were able to come into our museum and get hands on, and really engage in science.

We aim our programs towards elementary aged students. We really see ourselves as being the person that initiates spark for science.

You know, I was a principal before I worked with Explorit Science and I was an elementary school principal. And I saw a lot of times the kids just get intimidated by science. There’s a lot of big words and a lot of concepts that are pretty heavy.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Peter: So they don’t get the opportunity to really get dirty, get messy, and see some of these concepts come to life. And that’s what Explorit does. It allows the students to be able to take some of these vocabulary words and see an outcome.

Kirsten: Right, to actually interact with it.

Justin: Yeah. And when you just talk about bridging the gap from book to experience…

Peter: Mm hmm.

Justin: I think I’d have to cut you off there a little bit and say, “I’m not sure there is a book being put in front of any of these children.” Because my experience, I’ve got a 6-year-old that’s in the Davis school system…

Peter: Okay.

Justin: …who has been to numerous Explorit events where the Explorit actually comes out to the school…

Peter: Yeah.

Justin: …and engages the kids.

Peter: Well, thank you.

Justin: And – yeah. Well, I thank you because you’re going to the school. And of course, we’ve gone out to the Explorit Center many times and checked it out. But yeah, just recently, he came home with a Mars rover, and a little rocket ship that he had built that had a satellite on-board, and was explaining to me on how that would work, and how would they separate in space.

So, I mean, it is a huge service. I don’t think most of the parents who are hearing about these wonderful things — that their kids come home and are talking about — really understand that this is something that the Explorit Center is doing and not something that’s being generated by the schools because there really isn’t any science education other than what has come through Explorit and outreach to our school systems in the City of Davis, which is a very science-savvy town to begin with.

Kirsten: Or maybe at the young level. I mean, there definitely is a science education in the schools as you go.

Justin: Well yeah, as you go forward. But I’m talking about introducing the kids.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: Because to have your 6-year-old come home and explain to you a satellite on-board a rocket, what the difference is and how they separate, I mean, it was pretty amazing stuff.

Peter: Yeah. That’s great. You know, I don’t completely disagree. Again, going back to my previous life of being a principal, I know that when you’re looking at hiring an elementary classroom teacher, you’re going to make sure that they’re strong in English and Math. And obviously, Math and Science have some shared components.

But you’re not looking at someone who has a strong Science background. You want someone that’s going to be able to teach reading, writing and Math. And a lot of times, the teachers themselves become intimidated.

Far too many times, our schools would buy a Science package or a pre-made Science kits that would just go unopened year after year after year because, you know, the teachers were intimidated. They themselves didn’t know what to do with it. So therefore, you know, the kids lost out on their science experiments.

Kirsten: Yeah. So, with Explorit right now and the financial situation that you’re in, you know, is it – I mean, are you looking at potentially shutting your doors? Is that the situation that you’re in?

Peter: Yeah, that’s the unfortunate reality right now is we need some help financially. And if we aren’t able to generate some funds, Explorit might have to close down, I mean, forever, you know, no longer be able to provide the same services that we’ve provided.

Kirsten: Are there any other organizations that could take Explorit’s place that are working that could step up if that happened?

Peter: In regards to professional organizations or like science museums?

Kirsten: Well, science groups, organizations or institutions that can provide science – that provide science outreach that could expand what they’re doing or, you know, is there anything?

Peter: Yeah. You know – and thanks for bringing that up. We’re actually in a very unique situation right now where – like what was mentioned earlier, Davis itself is a very science-minded community. Sacramento itself is a very science-minded region.

What we’re looking at is taking some initial conversations right now with two or three other very like organizations — organizations that have similar missions, organizations that do similar outreach programs and seeing if one, or two, or three of us can pull it together and say, “Okay, let’s all share this region,” because the ultimate goal is to provide hands-on science educations throughout the region. It doesn’t matter if it’s under this title or our title, or that name or this name, but, you know, what the ultimate goal is.

So we are in a process of kind of, you know, the feeling out, the courting process to see, you know, how truly we do lineup and what that organization would look like

Justin: And this might be more blunt than we’re interested in doing here, but is there a dollar amount?

Peter: Yes. For our organization?

Justin: Yeah.

Peter: We’re looking at about $600,000. Really where we fall is that science building, the museum, that’s on 2nd Street out in Davis, that right there has been a financial drain on our organization. We’re working with the lender right now and seeing if they can renegotiate some terms.

We know, we charge $4 for family members that come in. And we just can’t make ends meet on charging people $4.

Justin: Yeah.

Kirsten: Yeah. So what are you looking for and how can people help you out if they’re interested in helping Explorit?

Peter: What we’re looking for is we’re really looking for the community to rally behind us. You know, we’ve been in Davis for 28 years. We’ve taught your children. We want to teach your grandchildren science.

You know, there are 60,000 people in Davis. If everyone gives $10, you know, that would be fantastic, understanding that that’s probably not a reality.

Justin: So if half the people did $20…

Peter: Yeah, I hope (unintelligible) – half…

Justin: But then if 50%…

Peter: You don’t think your – if you don’t think your neighbors are going to donate, maybe you can help them out. But you can log on to our website, And you can click on this Davis Explorit page and donate there online.

At the same time for family, if they’re interested in getting more information, they can contact me directly. Again, my name is Peter Willson at Explorit. And we’ll meet with them. We’ll give them an hour presentation. In the morning, you know, we’ll serve them some breakfast though, then not cutting too much to their workday.

And at the same time one of the biggest things, if families can help us get to summer time. If we can make it to summer time, we should be okay because summer is one of our biggest fund generator.

So if you can say, “Hey, you know what, let’s make sure that this summer we’re supporting Explorit by sending our children out for one week or two weeks.” And we can make it this summer. We should be able to pull through.

Kirsten: And Explorit does provide summer programs for kids. It’s one of those great things so that when kids are on their summer break, they can still get great science education in the community.

Peter: Yeah. And, you know, we go from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade. And it’s not, you know, they’re not going to be coming in and cracking up on books and taking vocabulary tests. I mean it’s fun. It’s a science camp but at the same time we weave in some of those intellectual components so that way the kids aren’t just mindless and brainless the entire summer. I mean, we still keep them active and engaged.

Kirsten: And that’s what we like. So again, you can check, go to Explorit’s website. What was the address again?


Kirsten: Okay, great. And Peter, thank you so much for joining us this morning and good luck. We do…

Peter: Thank you very much for giving us the opportunity to speak with you.

Kirsten: You’re welcome. You’re welcome. And we hope that – your kind of organization, community science museums and science outreach programs are very important to the future of science communication and education in America. So, supporting your kind of organization is the kind of grassroots movement that will just keep things moving forward. So, thanks.

Justin: Yeah. I am a huge fan of the Explorit Center here in Davis. That would be just devastating to lose that. Oh my goodness.

Kirsten: Yeah. Well, on that note let us take a break. We will be back in a few moments with more science news. We’ve got Ali coming up after the break with her decade of brain-computer interfaces.

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And we’re back. It’s This Week in Science. And Ali has a special segment for us today on brain-computer interfaces. It is – this year is the 10th anniversary of This Week in Science. And so we are going to try and give you a little run-down, dig deep into the past decade and some interesting science topics.

And so, Ali’s going to give us the first of these. Hi!

Ali: Hello!

Kirsten: Thanks for putting work into this. And just tell me what you got.

Ali: All right. Well yeah, this is a decade in science on brain-computer interface. And your brain has a superpower. It’s called neuroplasticity. And throughout your entire life, it allows your brain to continuously change and adapt to new situations.

Since the 1970s, scientists have been developing ways to use this superpower to get the brain to incorporate synthetic devices and use them as if they were a natural part of the body. These devices are called brain-computer interfaces or BCIs for short. And they are forever changing the way that humans relate to technology.

In the 1970s, scientists are researching algorithms for reconstructing limb movements from the signals in the motor cortex neurons.

In the 1980s, scientists and Dr. Apostolos Georgopoulos used electrodes implanted in monkeys to find the mathematical relationship between the rate of neural firing and the direction the monkeys moved their arms.

Since then, many researchers have measured the electrical output from groups of neurons and used the signals to control external devices. Their work led to the first neuroprosthetics which were implanted in humans in the mid ’90s.

BCIs can detect electrical signals from neurons in the brain either invasively or non-invasively. Invasive BCIs are implanted directly into the grey matter of the brain through neurosurgery. These devices have focused on repairing eyesight and helping people who are paralyzed.

Unfortunately, scar tissue builds up and decreases the effectiveness of invasive BCIs over time. However, to get around this problem, partially invasive BCI technology such as electrocardiography implants electrodes directly on the surface of the brain inside the skull.

Most non-invasive BCIs use electrocephalography, which is a method of recording the electrical activity of neurons within the brain along the scalp, so just putting little electrodes directly on your scalp.

Kirsten: Yes. So we’ve got implanting electrodes directly into the brain so they’re touching the neurons and then…

Justin: Whoa!

Kirsten: …we’ve got the – whoa! And then we’ve got this under the skull – between the surface of the brain and the skull and then on the scalp.

Ali: On top, yeah.

Kirsten: On top of your head at least different levels.

Ali: Mm hmm. And according to researcher Dr. Shih of the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, Florida, “There’s a big difference in the quality of information you get from an ECoG compared to an EEG.” ECoG is the one inside – directly inside the skull.

“The scalp and bony skull diffuses and distorts the signal, rather like how Earth’s atmosphere blurs the light from stars,” he says. And that’s why progress to-date on developing these kinds of mind interfaces has been slow.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: So, yeah. It’s a lot better if you’re right in there…

Kirsten: Right.

Ali: …with the neurosignals.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Justin: That skull keeps getting in the way.

Ali: Regardless of the pace, the science of creating brain-computer interfaces has undergone extraordinary advancements within the last ten years.

And in 2000, scientists lead by Brazilian researcher Miguel Nicolelis built a brain implant allowing a monkey to control a robotic arm with its thoughts, marking the first case of mental intentions being captured and used to move a mechanical object.

Five years later, another group of scientists at the University of Pittsburgh including Dr. Andrew Schwartz reported having a monkey use a child-sized robotic arm to feed itself fruits and vegetables.

They trained the monkey to feed itself using signals from its brain while its real arms were restrained in plastic tubes. There were 96 electrodes, each thinner than a human hair, attached to the monkey’s motor cortex.

“The exact placement of the electrodes is not important,” Schwartz explained. “You don’t have to be exactly right because the brain is highly plastic. When the monkey wants to move its arm, cells are activated in the motor cortex,” he says.

“Each of these cells activates at a different intensity depending on the direction the monkey intends to move its arm. The direction that produces the greatest intensity is a cell’s preferred direction. The average of the preferred directions of all the activated cells is called the population vector.”

“We can use the population vector to accurately predict the velocity and direction of normal arm movement. And in the case of this prosthetic, it serves as the control signal to convey the monkey’s intention to the prosthetic arm.”

Justin: And it’s like – our brains actually do this all the time…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: …when we’re not connected. Like for instance, watching the ice dancing last night, there was all parts of my brain that were activated, that were trying to keep people from falling or trying to balance…

Ali: Yeah.

Justin: …like with somebody’s ski on my calf while they were riding on my back and we’re heading in the other direction. I mean, the brain is actually – your motor neurons are actually trying to control the physical actions that you watch. But once they actually have a method of communicating that, then they can actually do it.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: That’s just amazing, stunning stuff.

Ali: Yeah. And more recently, in January of 2008, Dr. Nicolelis lab uses a new BCI to allow a monkey in the US to control a robot walking on a treadmill in Japan.

According to Dr. Nicolelis, these experiments are the first steps towards a brain-machine interface that may someday allow paralyzed people to walk by using only their thoughts to control machines.

Kirsten: Mm hmm. Yeah.

Ali: And this monkey, he could see the robot on a screen but that was it and was able to just walk and allow it to go back to work.

Kirsten: That’s right.

Ali: Walk as well.

Kirsten: I see it walking. I will make it walk. Yes.

Ali: And in December of 2008, scientists at the University of Washington including Biophysicist Eberhard Fetz used an artificial link between brain and muscle that allowed temporarily paralyzed monkeys to move their hands.

According to Dr. Fetz, almost any cell in the motor cortex could be brought under control and used as a trigger to stimulate muscles or possibly even the spinal cord which Fetz says, “Typically produces a coordinated contraction of synergistic muscles, stimulation there could be advantageous for generating more complex, useful movements.”

“We used a direct connection between single cells and single muscles, which are then able to provide an intuitive and immediate consequence of cell activity. It is much more direct than decoding a large population of cells.”

So that’s cool because that’s not even using a device, it’s just – I mean, being able to directly connect…

Kirsten: Right.

Ali: …and helping people’s paralyzed limbs and stuff.

Kirsten: Intention from that nerve directly to the muscle by-pass the spinal cord.

Ali: Bypassing the…

Kirsten: If the spinal cord has been severed…

Ali: Mm hmm.

Kirsten: …in an accident and your legs don’t work, you just go directly from the brain, from motor cortex directly to the muscles in the legs themselves so they can go.

Justin: It’s like stealing cable.

Kirsten: Yeah, like stealing cable.

Ali: Just like that. And then in addition to controlling external robots, internal devices such as cochlear implants have been used for years, transmitting sound into electrical signals that are then sent directly into the brain and bypassing the damaged part of the ear.

The visual apparatus, however, is far more complicated. Despite this, visual neuroprosthetics have been designed that aim to partially restore damaged or lost vision.

This is usually done using an externally worn camera that is able to convert video information into an electric signal that a neurostimulator can then input into the retina optical nerve or directly into the visual cortex, depending on the patient’s condition and which part is damaged.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: So that will be really cool to help blind people see, eventually.

One of the first scientists to come up with a working brain interface to restore sight was scientists William Dobelle. His first prototype was implanted in 1978 into a man blinded in adulthood. It is important that he was blinded in adulthood because it means his brain did know how to see.

Kirsten: Right.

Ali: His eyes just didn’t know how to but his brain had learned.

Kirsten: Right, right. That’s important.

Ali: The electrodes were implanted into his visual cortex and were successful in producing phosphenes or the sensation of seeing light, just in shades of grey. This was very limited vision and at first required the patient to be hooked up to a two-ton mainframe.

Kirsten: That would be heavy, hard to drag around.

Ali: However, in 2002, another patient became the first to receive Dobelle’s second generation implant. And by then, the computer technology has improved to the point where it could be installed without hooking up a huge, larger external computer.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Justin: Of course, if you had the new heavy-duty truck that’s out in the market…

Kirsten: Right.

Justin: …you could actually can load that two-ton apparatus into the back and…

Kirsten: But you don’t need to anymore. Thank goodness.

Ali: Actually, this implant allowed only black and white vision at a slow frame-rate but it was enough to allow the man to drive a car on the parking lot.

Justin: Wow. Yeah, see.

Ali: In 2005, four severely paralyzed people who were equipped with a BrainGate implant created by a bio-tech firm, Cyberkinetics, and demonstrated they were able to check and send email, turn on televisions, lights and applications and control a wheelchair using only their thoughts. And this is a company that makes implant.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: In 2009, scientists at the University of Florida designed a wheelchair-mounted arm that is controlled entirely by thought. The arm is controlled by EEG so the outer scalp…

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: …device that measures the brain activity of the person when changing arrows point in the a direction they want to go.

Justin: I could see some danger there though. You know, you get your iPod on, you’re grooving with some music, it’s sort of changes and you were, like over all mental.

Ali: But you have to focus.

Justin: Yes, you got to be conscious, right.

Kirsten: You have to concentrate. Yes. Focus.

Ali: In April of the same year, a University of Washington Biomedical Engineering doctoral student named Adam Wilson used a similar technique while using an EEG to post messages on Twitter.

Kirsten: I remember that. That was pretty cool. Brain direct – Brain to Twitter interface.

Ali: And this is a similar…

Justin: And have they tried that in a plane?

Kirsten: Not in plane, yet. Yeah, that’s the next step.

Ali: And that was a similar way of doing it where he just saw letters flashing. And when the one flashed, that was the one he wanted his brain kind of lit up with excitement or whatever. And then it chose that one.

Justin: That’s kind of – that’s what happens when we text. We’re cycling through the letters until the right one comes up.

Ali: Mm hmm.

Justin: And then, “Aha! Yeah. I wanted that letter. Okay.”

Ali: And the next step was to make the devices smaller and more easily transportable.

In October of 2009, scientists at the Brown University developed an entirely implantable neuroprosthetic. And scientists at Brown University developed the first totally wireless computer interface using a system that turns brainwaves into FM radio signals and then decodes them as sound.

So this technology is leading. And it’s going to lead to a lot of commercial applications. And so – I mean, with the potential of these new technologies to be lucrative, companies are popping up that sell products straight to the public and entrepreneurs are rushing into the field.

There are even neuroventures classes at MIT. And many ventures are already out there. For example, the company NeuroVigil in California is working on an iBrain, which has several potential uses including providing instant feedback to drivers if they start to fall asleep at the wheel — wake them up.

Kirsten: Yeah.

Ali: And new technologies often make their first appearance in mainstream culture in the form of toys. And BCI’s are no different. A range of different commercial mind-reading games are now on the market.

Mindflex and Star Wars Trainer use headsets with simple electrodes that measure levels of concentration and relaxation. And then signaling – then they signal a fan, which then can blow a light ping pong-type ball up and down developing – depending on your level of concentration.

And this sells for $90…

Justin: I want. I want, we got to get that? I got to get that and play with it.

Ali: Yeah. They sell it for…

Justin: That sounds so awesome. We’ve got to get our hands on one of those.

Ali: Well, they’re only $90-$100 so for now. But then there are pricier games, one that can be rented or purchased called “Mindball”. This is a two-person game where the players attempt to control the ball’s movement across the table by getting their brainwaves to become more focused and relaxed. So they’re just kind of sitting at opposite ends trying to get the ball.

Justin: I’d lose.

Ali: And then another company, NeuroSky, they’re the company that designed the headsets used for these games. And other games on the market have a game called “NeuroBoy” which is a computer game in which you can set targets on fire just by focusing on them.

Kirsten: Fire starter.

Ali: Or levitate by relaxing. An interesting thing about these games is that some people are naturally better at them than others. People like lawyers or other multitaskers tend to have difficulty focusing their brainwaves while there are other people who seemed to be able to easily just control it immediately.

Justin: Yeah. Also, lawyers, they don’t have reflections in mirrors. So those are – there are differences.

Kirsten: Not a helpful comment.

Ali: And musicians, too, have been experimenting with EEG since the 60’s. And today, some universities even offer studies in neuromusic.

Recently, researchers Andrew Brouse and Eduardo Miranda developed the BCMI piano that uses EEG signals in real time to control the keys.

Justin: Wow.

Ali: So, it’s some guy just sitting there thinking about it and the piano is playing.

Justin: It could be your own theme song.

Ali: And the military, too, has been quick to explore uses for this bridgening technology. It has been reported that the Research and Development Office for the US Department of Defense has had a budget for the last year that included $4 million for a program called “Silent Talk,” which hoped to allow user-to-user communication on the battlefield without the use of vocalized speech through the analysis of neurosignals.

And $4 million more was given to the University of California by the Army for research on computer-mediated synthetic telepathy which aims to be able to read word-specific neurosignals to see if they can be generalized between different people in order to send telepathic signals on the battlefield.

And some ethical concerns have been raised about the new use of BCI technologies are that presently people may be able to hack into some of the devices that are now being used such as neurological pacemakers and maybe cause them to do other things in the brain.

Kirsten: Mm hmm.

Ali: And also, as their uses evolve and multiply, other concerns may arise like people are worried about the idea of improving upon already healthy brains, perhaps a practice that only the rich will indulge in creating a disadvantage for those who cannot afford it. Others worry about the privacy implications of developing technology that one day could more easily read people’s thoughts, even unbeknownst to them.

Justin: Was it like…?

Kirsten: Get out of my brain!

Justin: That’s why I don’t trust people who don’t talk enough because I feel like they’re already – we already aren’t eavesdropping on them enough. I mean, I’m all for eavesdropping on people’s thoughts. Why not? Find out what’s really going on.

Kirsten: Get back. Let her finish. We’re running out of time.

Ali: Some of these concerns are not warranted yet nor even in the near future. However, according to UC Davis professor, Arne Ekstrom, within in the next decade, we could start to build neural chips that could store memory. But as for now, we’re still struggling with how neurons even form memories.

But he predicts within the near future we’ll be able to use BCI devices to enhance storage based in your brain. And eventually, some people talk of almost unlimited access to information to the brain.

The founders of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, talk of future plans to turn their search engine into an artificially intelligent machine that could be connected directly to the brain.

“Certainly, if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off,” he says.

Kirsten: Or not.

Ali: Some people might not agree. Yeah.

Kirsten: Maybe, maybe not.

Ali: But how close are we to be – being able to control our own avatars? Well first of all, as Dr. Ekstrom points out, if someone’s legs don’t work in real life — as in the movie — they won’t instantly work in an avatar. It’s not just the muscles that have atrophied, but the part of the brain used to control the legs had atrophied as well.

So someone would not just be able to jump into the avatar body and be able to run around. They would take lots of training with biofeedback and certainly not immediately with non-functional real legs.

However, this could be possible in some form in the future. And we may actually be closer to the neural part of this sort of body-sharing technology than actually being able to physically construct an avatar itself.

Brain Computer Technology will continue to become more powerful. And its use will become more widespread in verse while changing the way we interact with technology.

How far do you think it will go?

Kirsten: Yeah. I think that’s an interesting question to bring up to the audience out – to the listeners out there.

Justin: I want the memory.

Kirsten: Justin…

Justin: That is so awesome. That’s the one I want.

Kirsten: Justin wants memory. What do you want? What do you – I don’t know. We were talking about this, Ali. And I – when I think of this stuff, I just have to wonder where – how far is this going to take us exactly and is this the beginning of a real melding of man and machine?

Ali: Yeah.

Kirsten: You know, is it going to turn into – are we going to be cyborgs? What is it going to do?

Ali: And download our brains online.

Kirsten: Right. I know. Was it going to – are we going…

Justin: Or upload them.

Kirsten: Or upload.

Justin: Upload a better brain.

Kirsten: Are we going to become Battlestar Galactica? That is – I don’t know. Is it – are we going to be in the middle of, you know, these TV series that we’re watching right now? I don’t know. I don’t know.

Thank you so much, Ali. This was really fascinating. It was – it’s neat to know to kind of put in perspective what exactly has happened in the last ten years versus, you know, the last 30 years.

And Justin’s passing over the end of the show. We are about out of time actually. But next week, I’m working on trying to get an interview with a bird brain researcher who’s been looking directly at the nerve cells of an anesthetized bird.

That was a great story this week. And I got to get it directly from the researcher’s mouth. So, I don’t know. I can’t promise it yet. But I’m working on trying to get that interview together.

And of course, we’re going to have more great science news. I’d like to thank Ed Dyer. Shoutout to you for sending all the great stories that we didn’t get to this week. There were so many, so many. And hopefully, we’ll get to more next week.

Dale Fischer, thank s so much. And everyone else who wrote, next week we’ll try to get in some minion mailbag. And…

Ali: Thanks everyone for listening. We hope you’ve enjoyed the show. TWIS is also available as a podcast. Go to our website,, and click on “Subscribe to the TWIS Science Podcast” for more information on how to subscribe or just search for This Week in Science in iTunes.

Kirsten: And for more information on anything you’ve heard here today, show notes are going to be available on our website, And we also want to hear from you, so email us at or

Ali: We love your feedback. If there is a topic you would like us to cover or address, or a suggestion for an interview, please let us know.

Kirsten: And we’ll be back here on KDVS next Tuesday at 8:30 AM Pacific time. We hope you’ll join us again for more great science news.

Ali: And if you’ve learned anything from the show, remember…

Kirsten: It’s all in your head.

Justin: Disclaimer! Disclaimer! Disclaimer!

Kirsten: I always do that. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I can’t get it right. I’m having cue problems.

Link to the episode: