SciTech Briefs

Scientists map the human brain

Scientists at 12 laboratories and universities have begun work on the Human Connectome Project, which aims to scan and map out the entire human brain. The goal of the project is to identify and plot every single connection and neuron of the brain within five years. With a $30 million grant from the National Institutes of Health, the researchers will use advanced brain-scanning technology — including diffusion imaging, multiple MRI techniques, and magnetoencephalography — to scrutinize over 90 billion neurons and the 150 trillion synapses connecting them. Neurons are the basic unit of the nervous system, consisting of a cell body, an axon extending out to make connections with other neurons, and dendrites entering to receive signals. Synapses are the gaps between neurons across which electrical signals pass information.

The immense amount of data generated from imaging the brain will equal about one petabyte, which is roughly 1 million gigabytes. The end goal of the Human Connectome Project is to create an open-source platform for scientists to understand the brain and analyze its structure in relation to neurological issues.

Source: _Popular Science _magazine

Heat wave kills off coral

With one of the worst heat waves on record, this year has seen the suffering of not only humans and plants, but also coral reefs that are invaluable to ocean ecosystems. Reefs spanning the Pacific Ocean eastward to the Caribbean region are bleaching and subsequently dying. Coral reefs consist of millions of tiny animals called polyps, which have hard skeletons of calcium carbonate that compose the actual coral structure. The polyps supply algae in the water with nutrients and shelter, so the algae symbiotically provide the coral polyps with food through photosynthesis. When the algae, which are the source of a reef’s bright colors, are overwhelmed with heat and sunshine, they photosynthesize too fast, and begin to produce toxins which cause the coral to eject them and lose its color. Hence, the bleaching of coral reefs is an indicator of starved coral reefs.

When reefs die, the local ecosystem is irrevocably damaged, causing a decrease in local fish and other marine populations. Fisheries in Thailand have begun feeling the economic effects, and many of the dying reefs have no hope of recovering so far.

Source: The New York Times

First human-powered flight recorded

Two graduate students at the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies (UTIAS) have created the first winged human aircraft able to fly continuously. The ornithopter, a heavier-than-air craft propelled by flapping wings, piloted by engineering Ph.D. candidate Todd Reichart, flew at an average speed of 15.9 miles per hour for 19.3 seconds at the Great Lakes Gliding Club in Ontario. As a project in both sustainability and efficient design, the Snowbird has a wingspan as large as a Boeing 737’s (105 feet), but weighs only 94 pounds.

The Snowbird is the first flying craft powered solely by human energy that has been capable of maintaining its altitude for prolonged periods of time. Since Leonardo da Vinci’s speculation of a human-powered aircraft in the 1400s, various people have tried to implement his idea. The most recent attempt before the Snowbird was also headed by the UTIAS, though the craft, known as UTIAS Ornithopter No. 1, was powered by a jet engine.

Source: BBC