Avatar. Pick your Sim. The entertainment world has done an amazing job developing software that generates animated characters with strikingly realistic movement. But scientists have taken this one step further to create models that can help kids with cerebral palsy walk better, delay the onset of osteoarthritis, and even answer a question in the minds of children of all ages: How exactly did T. rex run?
That’s what the researchers behind this video—an entrant in the NIH Common Fund’s recent video competition—have done. They’ve developed OpenSim: a free software tool that combines state-of-the-art musculoskeletal modeling and dynamic computer simulations to produce highly accurate representations of the underlying biomechanics of motion. OpenSim was designed at the NIH-supported center for physics-based Simulation of Biological Structures (Simbios) at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA. And now, researchers around the world are using OpenSim to find more effective interventions for a variety of movement disorders.
When children enter the first grade, their brains are primed for learning experiences, significantly more so, in fact, than adult brains. For instance, scientists have documented that musical training during grade school produces a signature set of benefits for the brain and for behavior—benefits that can last a lifetime, whether or not people continue to play music.
Now, researchers at Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, have some good news for teenagers who missed out on learning to play musical instruments as young kids. Even when musical training isn’t started until high school, it produces meaningful changes in how the brain processes sound. And those changes have positive benefits not only for a teen’s musical abilities, but also for skills related to reading and writing.
You may have heard about young mathematicians who’ve helped to design cooler cars, smarter phones, and even more successful sports teams. But do you know about the young mathematician who is helping to find a cure for the estimated 35 million people worldwide infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)? If not, I’d like to introduce you to Alison Hill, a mathematical biologist at Harvard University, Cambridge, MA.
Recognized this year by Forbes Magazine’s 30 Under 30 as one of the most important young innovators in healthcare, Hill is teaming with clinicians to develop sophisticated mathematical tools to predict which experimental drugs might work to clear HIV from the body once and for all. While current treatments are able to reduce some patients’ HIV burden to very low or even undetectable levels, it is eradication of this viral reservoir that stands between such people living with a serious, but controllable chronic disease and actually being cured.
Caption: Heart microchamber generated from human iPS cells; cardiomyocytes (red), myofibroblasts (green), cell nuclei (blue) Credit: Zhen Ma, University of California, Berkeley
The adult human heart is about the size of a large fist, divided into four chambers that beat in precise harmony about 100,000 times a day to circulate blood throughout the body. That’s a very dynamic system, and also a very challenging one to study in real-time in the lab. Understanding how the heart forms within developing human embryos is another formidable challenge. So, you can see why researchers are excited by the creation of tiny, 3D heart chambers with the ability to exist (see image above) and even beat (see video below) in a lab dish, or as scientists say “in vitro.”
Credit: Zhen Ma et al., Nature Communications
To achieve this feat, an NIH-funded team from University of California, Berkeley, and Gladstone Institute of Cardiovascular Disease, San Francisco turned to human induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cell technology. The resulting heart chambers may be miniscule—measuring no more than a couple of hair-widths across—but they hold huge potential for everything from improving understanding of cardiac development to speeding drug toxicity screening.
Credit: Amy Robinson, Alex Norton, William Silversmith, Jinseop Kim, Kisuk Lee, Aleks Zlasteski, Matt Green, Matthew Balkam, Rachel Prentki, Marissa Sorek, Celia David, Devon Jones, and Doug Bland, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA; Sebastian Seung, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
This eerie scene might bring back memories of the computer-generated alien war machines from Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds thriller. But what you’re seeing is a computer-generated depiction of a quite different world—the world inside the retina, the light-sensitive tissue that lines the back of the eye. The stilt-legged “creatures” are actually ganglion nerve cells, and what appears to be their long “noses” are fibers that will eventually converge to form the optic nerve that relays visual signals to the brain. The dense, multi-colored mat near the bottom of the image is a region where the ganglia and other types of retinal cells interact to convey visual information.
What I find particularly interesting about this image is that it was produced through the joint efforts of people who played EyeWire, an internet crowdsourcing game developed in the lab of computational neuroscientist Sebastian Seung, now at Princeton University in New Jersey. Seung and his colleagues created EyeWire using a series of high-resolution microscopic images of the mouse retina, which were digitized into 3D cubes containing dense skeins of branching nerve fibers. It’s at this point where the crowdsourcing came in. Online gamers—most of whom aren’t scientists— volunteered for a challenge that involved mapping the 3D structure of individual nerve cells within these 3D cubes. Players literally colored-in the interiors of the cells and progressively traced their long extensions across the image to distinguish them from their neighbors. Sounds easy, but the branches are exceedingly thin and difficult to follow.