SciTech Briefs

Zika virus found to be sexually transmittable

In Dallas, Texas, health officials have reported the first case of a person infected with the Zika virus who has not traveled outside of the United States. Furthermore, the virus is said to have spread through sexual transmission. This has new implications for the control of the disease.

After being infected by mosquito bite in Venezuela, a traveler returned to his home in Colorado, where he transmitted the virus to his wife. Several days later, the man and his wife both had symptoms of the virus, which were confirmed through blood tests. While researchers did not test the man’s semen, they noted that the rest of the couple’s family did not contract the disease.

Currently, there is a major outbreak of the disease in the Americas, and it is making its way to the U.S. The virus is suspected to be the cause for the increased cases of the neurological disorder microcephaly among newborns in Brazil. Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have issued guidelines advising people to use protection to prevent sexual transmission of the Zika virus.

Source: The Washington Post

Dead birds wash onto Alaskan shore; cause unknown

Abnormally large numbers of dead seabirds have appeared on the shores of Whittier, Alaska over the past several months. In early January, around 8,000 common murres, which make up the largest population of seabirds in the state, were swept ashore as a result of strong winds coming from the southeast. Scientists were puzzled when large numbers of these dead birds first appeared in March of 2015 — the start of the breeding season when murre populations are typically in their prime.

According to experts in the Alaska branch of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a scarcity of food might have starved the common murres, depriving them of the energy needed to survive the extreme winds. It is also thought that saxitoxin, which induces amnesic shellfish poisoning, might have contributed to some some of the deaths. Saxitoxin can be present in shellfish, such as mussels, clams, and oysters, all of which comprise a piece of the murre’s diet.

This toxin is thought to be the cause of some of these deaths, but it is hard to be sure, since it is difficult to detect in birds without much in their stomachs, like the starving murres.

Source: Discovery News

New collar helps reduce brain trauma in athletes

After numerous animal studies, researchers are set to begin human trials on a collar that could reduce brain trauma during impacts, such as collisions which occur during football. The device, a u-shaped collar that wraps comfortably around the neck, works by increasing bloodflow to the brain, thus providing a larger amount of cushioning and decreasing brain impact with the skull.

The device alters bloodflow by slightly reducing the amount of blood exiting the brain after each heartbeat. This is a grand development for the athletic industry because brain trauma has become a rampant concern in many sports cultures.

Football especially has seen an alarming number of brain trauma cases; last year, Frontline reported evidence from a Brown University study that from a sample of 91 former NFL players, 87 (96 percent) of them showed signs of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a degenerative brain disorder which can cause emotional defects, as well as memory loss. Hopefully, if this collar enters full production, it will be able help cut down on these alarming statistics.

Source: Discovery News

U.S. deems three-parent babies ethically passable

An Institute of Medicine panel, which was formed at the request of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), has concluded that it is ethically permissible to make “three-parent babies” for clinical experimentation, given that a set of criteria are met.

These babies are created using mitochondrial replacement therapy in order to prevent the inheritance of rare genetic diseases which affect mitochondria, such as autism. Since about one in 20 people with autism have mitochondrial dysfunction, while only one in 4000 people in the general population have the disease. Mitochrondrial disorder may have a role in autism contraction.

In mitochondrial transfer, which has already been approved in the United Kingdom, the nucleus from the mother’s egg is inserted into a health donor egg, previously stripped of its original nucleus.
An embryo is formed when researchers fertilize the modified egg with the sperm of the father. As a result, the embryo would contain a combination of DNA from the three parties, but it would be made of mostly genetic information from the mother and father.

Source: Science News

Loudspeaker adapts to environment, helps vocal clarity

German researchers, operating out of the Oldenburg-based Project Group Hearing, Speech, and Audio Technology of the Faunhofer Institute of Digital Media Technology IDMT, have created a software that makes it easier for speech to be heard in noisy environments, including loudspeaker announcements at railway stations. Their Adapt Dynamic Range Compression (DRC) software employs a microphone that continually analyzes the noise of the environment, adjusting speech accordingly.

While similar technologies exist, high volumes from speakers can be incomprehensible. The researchers’ software is designed so that consonants, which involve short and high frequencies, are reinforced in sound. Additionally, DRC softens the loud parts and amplifies the soft parts of speech.

The combination of these techniques allow for improved intelligibility of speech and the prevention of potential miscommunication. The software utilizes natural voice dynamic observations to amplify naturally quiet parts of speech and diminish naturally loud parts of speech, in order to optimize intelligibility. Currently, the software is available to industrial partners.

Source: ScienceDaily

Exoskeleton can help paralyzed individuals walk

A mechanical engineering professor from the Robotics and Human Engineering Laboratory in the University of California, Berkeley, has recently released a new, lighter, and more agile exoskeleton named The Phoenix. A product of SuitX, a company that emerged from the robotics lab, the exoskeleton incorporates two motors positioned at the hips as well as tension settings — which are electrically controlled — that adjust to the movement of the wearer’s legs.

Part of the exoskeleton involves a pair of clutches with buttons that can enable the user to control the movement and speed of the legs. The user also wears a backpack containing a battery pack that can last from four to eight hours.

The Phoenix is currently one of the lightest and most accessible exoskeletons commercially available. At $40,000, The Phoenix is competitively priced when compared to similar exoskeletons, which cost approximately twice as much. While prohibitively expensive for most, this development does have promising applications.

Source: ScienceDaily