Your Perfectly Personalized Avatar

Hello there! I’ve been meaning to bring you some fun new something or other, but my time and attention have been elsewhere. Also, I couldn’t really decide what I wanted to bring to your attention. Then, I came across Body Labs. According to its website, the Manhattan-based company was founded in 2013 with the goal of digitizing and organizing “data and information related to human body shape, pose, and motion.” The company’s mission is to “transform the human body into a digital platform upon and around which goods and services can be designed, produced, bought, and sold.”

Body Labs has gotten quite a bit of press in recent years, the most abundant of which falls into specific categories, such as…

 

Commercial Applications

Body Labs is hitting the right commercial buttons using all the right trending tech. Take online clothing purchases, for instance. Unless you’re pretty intimate with the brand, ordering clothes online is a gamble. It’s hard to find the right size when you can’t try something on. It’s also hard to know if it’ll look as good on you as it does on the person modeling it. According to Judy Frankel, “Of the $1.2 trillion in worldwide footwear and apparel sales, $62.4 billion were returned for improper fit in 2015.”

But, the avatars made by Body Labs could potentially cut that number way down. Creating an avatar takes your height, weight, and detailed measurements into account utilizing full body profile, frontal, and backside images. Just using the images gets the avatar pretty damn close to right, but if the measurements are off a bit, you can easily go in and tweak them.

 

3D

 

Although… She’s a bit more toned.

 

 

While that’s all well and good—and it really is—even better is the future potential of this tech in this same consumerism capacity. Think about going into a clothing store and using these avatars (with a store-linked system) to eliminate the necessity of trying anything on. Bliss. Or, going a step further, using these avatars to get bespoke clothing, made in-store, just for you via 3D printer. Double bliss. Manufacturing something like clothing would be more economical this way as well, seeing as there wouldn’t be a surplus of unsold merchandise or unused materials.

 

Medical Applications

Most of the current press on Body Labs in the “medical” section pertains to body weight. Specifically, creating a better way to consider an individual’s health spectrum than using BMI numbers. While BMI takes weight and height into account, the measurement doesn’t consider musculature, body structure, or where excess fat is located. That means healthy, fit individuals (like pro athletes) can slip into the obese category of BMI. Not taking into consideration the location of excess fat—around the thighs and upper arms versus around the torso—means that a healthy, average size person can fall into the same category as an individual with increased heart health risks. Body Labs’ body modeling can help individualize the body mass spectrum, taking you out of the wrong category and more precisely determining health risks.

 

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Pictured: Two very not-obese obese men.

 

 

Body Labs’ body modeling is also good for helping to properly fit a prosthetic to an individual. In his article, “The Future of 3D-printed Prosthetics,” Jonathan Schwartz discusses how some companies are making the manufacture and availability of personalized prosthetics easier and cheaper. I can definitely see 3D-printed prosthetics as the way of the future. And, with Body Labs’ body modeling, this process can boast a natural fitting prosthetic.

There’s also the chance that body modeling could help in recovery. Think about this scenario: You have an avatar with full movement tracking. It’s all the rage, so of course you do. It’s the new Instatwitterbook—VR style! One day, you have a car accident after which your mobility is limited. Let’s say your back was hurt. A new, full movement body model is made of you after the accident and is played beside the pre-accident model. The pre-accident model is now the standard—it’s the level of mobility to which you want to get back. So, over the course of physical therapy new body models are made to compare progress. That’s cool, but how does it help? By comparing progressing body models to the standard, you can better target exact problems areas to make recovery faster, more effective, and longer lasting.

Don’t be afraid of the future

It’s true that body modeling isn’t only for the good of fashion and niche medical industries. Not only can immersive VR improve, but the ability to predict movements without using body markers opens up the door for expansive VR game play. Want to play D&D at the park without having to build your own costume so people won’t stare or try to beat you up, not that that’s happened to me or anyone I know, shut up don’t ask questions!

 

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Here’s to future VR being safer than this seems!

 

 

Sorry, got a bit sidetracked. The point is, this type of tech has the potential to improve commercial markets, niche medical industries, and—and—entertainment!

 

 

 


 

The No-Win Situation

Hello there, guys and dolls! We’re about to get into a topic I really didn’t want to get into. Or, maybe it’s a topic I thought I’d never have to get into. Either way, here we are, about to discuss vaccines. And anti-vaxxers, of course. And how the anti-vaccination movement is contributing to an upswing in preventable infectious diseases. This is a topic I’m pretty passionate about—as in, it tends to make me angry when I think about it.

Here’s the thing: A parent’s job is to protect their children. That includes taking necessary steps to protect them from infectious diseases when possible. Likewise, it is each individual’s job—or at least it should be their motivation—to protect others from infectious diseases. Not even Dave would breath in your face if he had Mono. Anyway, those “protect” instincts are essentially the reasons behind having vaccines in the first place—not just because scientists like people to do science on. See here:

  • Infectious disease “A” is devastating to human health.
  • Infectious disease “A” is preventable.
  • Therefore, let’s do what we can to prevent infectious disease “A.”

When this formula happens, we get the results we saw with Polio which, in case you were unaware, was wiped out in the US. We’ve seen similar results with other infection diseases, as well. We’ll look at those later when I throw a bunch of statistics at you like a dodgeball champ.

 

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I was never a dodgeball champ.

 

 

 

The Spark that Caused a Movement

The problem is less of a problem and more of a shit-storm of problems—pardon my dirty mouth—starting with a theory. At a press conference in 1998, Andrew Wakefield voiced concerns that the MMR vaccine might be linked to autism via gastrointestinal issues. Susan Dominus explains:

[Wakefield’s] belief, based on a paper he wrote about 12 children, is that the three vaccines, given together, can alter a child’s immune system, allowing the measles virus in the vaccine to infiltrate the intestines; certain proteins, escaping from the intestines, could then reach and harm neurons in the brain.

Subsequent peer reviews found Wakefield’s theory unable to hold up to scrutiny. The theory was debunked. According to Dominus, the General Medical Council in Britain, “after a lengthy hearing, citing numerous ethical violations that tainted his work,” revoked Wakefield’s medical license. His funding was unethical and his research was fraudulent. Still, the damage had been done and Wakefield’s theory became the clinging dingleberry that sparked the anti-vaccination movement.

 

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This is you running from a dingleberry. Spoiler alert: It’s still there.

 

 

 

Fanning the Flames

Oh, my sweet, sweet internet. It’s just the best, right? It gives us kittens, Cracked.com, porn, recipes, and innumerable other awesome things. Yes, Dave, I included porn. Can’t you read? But, the internet is also the number one tool used to exacerbate fear, hate, misinformation, stupidity, porn. I mean, there’s the news of course, but really… is it even a contest?

By now I think I can confidently say that we are all familiar with the phrase, “With great power comes great responsibility.” The internet is a powerful tool and, as with any tool, the wielder decides how it’s used. That’s unfortunate when it comes to things like research, where you really have to work to weed out the mostly true from the moderately true and the moderately true from the questionable and the questionable from the modern day equivalent of “signs your neighbor is a witch.”

 

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Duck… or witch?

 

 

The internet is a plethora of misinformation and the platform on which anti-vaxxers can “learn” and spread the word—spread the fear—of the dangers of vaccines. Lena H. Sun explains, “One part of the anti-vaccine movement’s message is that vaccine-preventable diseases aren’t dangerous if people get modern medical care. But that’s a myth, and the failure to vaccinate can be catastrophic.”

And did I mention that anti-vaxxers are not only endangering their own children, they’re endangering the children of others? The wee humans too young for their first round of vaccinations are no longer protected by the vaccinated population around them. Now, they are subject to getting infectious diseases from non-vaccinated children. And it’s costing them their lives.

Texas health data shows a steady uptick in diseases such as pertussis and mumps in recent years. A recent mumps outbreak in Johnson County, southwest of Dallas, sickened at least 167 people, mostly students. In 2013, Texas experienced the largest outbreak of whooping cough, or pertussis, since 1959: nearly 4,000 cases. Five newborns who were too young to be vaccinated died.

 

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But this cute image makes up for all the death!

 

 

 

What’s the World Coming to?

The uptick in preventable infectious diseases since the anti-vaccination movement kicked into high gear is ridiculous. Minnesota is going through its worst measles outbreak in three decades. The 2014-15 measles outbreak in California led to the state passing one of the US’s strictest requirement laws, according to Sun. Lianna Matt with Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) explains:

Measles was declared eradicated from the United States in 2000 but has recently resurged, with 667 cases in 2014 and 189 in 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Pertussis dropped to fewer than 2,000 US cases for several years in the 1970s and ’80s before roaring back to more than 48,000 cases in 2012, a 60-year high, according to the CDC.

Outbreaks are not exclusively linked to anti-vaxxer population pockets. I’ll put that admission out there right now. Densely populated areas are higher risks for outbreaks, for example. Also a potential factor is waning vaccine immunity, which tends to happen when an individual waits too long between vaccination rounds. The CDC backs this information as well.

And yet… Highly vaccinated communities are more easily able to be rid of an outbreak. That’s a huge deal not just for individuals, but also for the economy. Outbreak intervention is extremely expensive in both dollars and man-hours. So, the elephant in the room has been addressed. The spike in preventable infectious diseases is not only due to the anti-vaccination movement. That doesn’t negate anything you read earlier. Non-vaccinated children—and yes, also adults—risk higher rates of contracting a preventable infectious disease, they risk more severe damage caused by the disease, and they risk having the disease longer. That last part is a detriment to those around them.

The longer you have an infectious disease, the farther you can spread it. And it will keep spreading until it has no more hosts or until it meets enough vaccinated individuals that it burns out. Along the way, there may be casualties.

 

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Home Healthcare just got a Little More Exciting

Look at us! All together again, chatting about things and stuff. Well, one-way chatting. Which is actually less chatting than—What? Oh, ok. Dave says I’m rambling.

Today, we’re going to talk about Star Trek—sort of. We’re going to talk about a piece of tech on Star Trek called the Tricorder.

You do remember the Tricorder, right?

 

 

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“Am I hungry? I mean, I could probably go for a burger.” “Doc?” “Oh, sorry. It’s cancer.”

 

The Contest

If you don’t know, Star Trek was created in the 1960s by a fella named Gene Roddenberry. According to his son, Rod (actual name Eugene), Gene was highly influenced by “the next big thing” in science to develop the tech for the show. Rod explained that his father would reach out to the scientific community, find out what the newest thing was, and ask, “What’s next?” It’s likely for this reason that many of the show’s gadgets are believable and, now, are replicable. You know, like the Tricorder, by way of the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE competition.

The competition was comprised of teams from all over the world, including finalists Basil Leaf Technologies (US), Dynamical Biomarkers Group (Taiwan), Cloud DX (Canada), Aezon (US), Danvantri (India), DMI (US)—DMX was busy in rehab—and Intelesens Responsive Healthcare (UK). The competition officially launched in 2012. The teams were tasked with creating something consumers could use at home to accurately monitor health:

The devices are expected to accurately diagnose 13 health conditions (12 diseases and the absence of conditions)—10 required core conditions and a choice of three elective conditions—in addition to capturing five real-time health vital signs, independent of a health care worker or facility, and in a way that provides a compelling consumer experience.

  • Required Core Health Conditions (10): Anemia, Atrial Fibrillation (AFib), Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Diabetes, Leukocytosis, Pneumonia, Otitis Media, Sleep Apnea, Urinary Tract Infection, Absence of condition 
  • Elective Health Conditions (Choice of 3): Cholesterol Screen, Food-borne Illness, HIV Screen, Hypertension, Hypothyroidism/Hyperthyroidism, Melanoma, Mononucleosis, Pertussis (Whooping Cough), Shingles, Strep Throat 
  • Required Health Vital Signs (5): Blood Pressure, Heart Rate, Oxygen Saturation, Respiratory Rate, Temperature

The Tricorder had no strict aesthetic parameters, but could not be over five lbs. Hand-held and all that. Earlier this year, the winners were awarded. Final Frontier Medical Devices—the Basil Leaf Technologies team—took home first prize, with Dynamical Biomarkers Group coming in second. And, while the competition is over, the work doesn’t stop there.

 

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I’m not sure what’s happening here, but I don’t think I can condone it.

 

 

Tricorder: Coming to a Store Near You

Qualcomm Foundation, which sponsored the competition, developed a post-prize fund in order to continue product development, consumer testing, industry adoption, retail commercialization, and more. According to XPRIZE, “Along with several strategic partners including the Roddenberry Foundation, XPRIZE and the Qualcomm Foundation will implement a series of initiatives to assist and support the teams in the further realization of their innovations.”

The initiative to bring the Tricorder to life—and to your fingertips—stems from the need to improve personal health in the US. The Tricorder will be able to help monitor existing/recurring health problems, as well as diagnose new illnesses. While the scope of diagnosis might seem relatively small, what the Tricorder—is scans the right word? ‘Cause I’m going to use it—scans for are the more prolific ailments in the US today. That means saving money on co-pays. It means saving money on extensive tests—some of which you don’t need. It means saving yourself the misery and frustration of going to the doctor in the first place.

Sponsors continuing support of the Tricorder are looking to educate citizens on the future of mobile health in the consumer industry. They are working on business plans for commercialization. They’re even working toward getting the Tricorder in stores, including Lowes—in the aisle between first-aid kits and soldering tools. In the years to come, and with a far less than perfect healthcare system, having the Tricorder commercially available will be a benefit we can’t afford not to have.

 

Genome Editing Advancements

I know, I know. It’s been days. But, you can relax now. I’m here. Oh, and Dave, of course. Dave is always here. Today we (but mostly I) are going to discuss the fun, exciting, and controversial topic of genetic manipulation! I’ll hold for applause. Specifically, we’re talking about genome editing. The first quarter of this year (that’s 2017, in case you’re reading this in the future or are a time traveler) has seen exciting news coming from the genetics field and with the help of CRISPR (that’s clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats) gene editing, advancements are being made pretty swiftly.

 

CRISPR-Cas9

So, CRISPR jumped on the scene as a more affordable, more precise, and quicker way to manipulate genes. CRISPR is made up of an enzyme (that’s the Cas9 part, which is often dropped from the acronym) and a bit of guide RNA. I’m going to share with you my favorite description of the CRISPR process, which was written by Sarah Zhang in this article:

Cas9 is an enzyme that snips DNA, and CRISPR is a collection of DNA sequences that tells Cas9 exactly where to snip. All biologists have to do is feed Cas9 the right sequence, called a guide RNA, and boom, you can cut and paste bits of DNA sequence into the genome wherever you want. [… ] Cas9 can recognize a sequence about 20 bases long, so it can be better tailored to a specific gene. All you have to do is design a target sequence using an online tool and order the guide RNA to match. It takes no longer than few days for the guide sequence to arrive by mail.

 

 

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When ethical boundaries stop being an issue, you’ll love how easy it is to order your significant other a new whatever-it-is-you-don’t-like.

 

 

The benefits of using CRISPR gene editing extend from the agricultural side of things to health and wellness in humans, our pets, and potentially our future children. According to this article in New Science, “David Ishee, a dog breeder from Mississippi, told the US Food and Drug Administration that he planned to use CRISPR gene editing to fix a mutation that makes Dalmatians prone to kidney disease.” Want more? In a Wired article by Amy Maxmen, we can see a bigger run down of the goings on with CRISPR:

Using the three-year-old technique, researchers have already reversed mutations that cause blindness, stopped cancer cells from multiplying, and made cells impervious to the virus that causes AIDS. Agronomists have rendered wheat invulnerable to killer fungi like powdery mildew, hinting at engineered staple crops that can feed a population of 9 billion on an ever-warmer planet. Bioengineers have used CRISPR to alter the DNA of yeast so that it consumes plant matter and excretes ethanol, promising an end to reliance on petrochemicals.

A lot of good could come from the ongoing study and use of CRISPR, but I know the one thing you’re all wondering…

 

 

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No, Dave, the question has nothing to do with douches.

 

 

 

The Question of Designer Babies

Will this breakthrough lead to the ability to produce designer babies? This is the $64,000 question, right? And, also… Is it ethical? When will it be possible? What are the consequences? Let’s start with the ethics aspect.

Previous studies utilizing CRISPR gene editing in human embryos have been done using only abnormal embryos—as in, embryos that couldn’t actually become children. But, this route was ineffective. The embryos’ genetic abnormalities don’t give an accurate look at what might be achievable in healthy embryos. So, when all else fails, there must be a compromise.

At the Third Affiliated Hospital of Guangzhou Medical University, a team has switched from abnormal embryos to “normal embryos derived from immature eggs donated by people undergoing IVF,” according to Michael Le Page. “Immature eggs like these are usually discarded by IVF clinics, as the success rate is much lower than with mature eggs. However, children have been born from such immature eggs.”

Toeing the ethics line? Maybe. But, as is the case with a deceased organ donor’s organs, if one person isn’t using it, someone else can.

While utilizing CRISPR gene editing could lead to designer baby manufacturing, we’re a long way from that. Which means we’re a ways off from discussing the consequences. For the most part, current embryonic studies are focused on isolating and editing genetic disorders. The aforementioned team at Third Affiliated Hospital, for instance, is focused on the genetic disorders causing favism and betathalassemia, both of which affect the blood.

At the current stage, these types of studies are running into their own problems—primarily mosaicism. Mosaicism is when, during cell division, both repaired and unrepaired DNA is present.

 

 

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Bad timing for a broken egg joke?

 

 

While progress is being made in the genome editing arena, there is still quite a road that needs to be traveled. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your outlook) science in traveling that road on a high-speed rail instead of a horse-drawn carriage.

 

 


 

Mental and Social Woes of Suspicion

Welcome back! Good to see ya, nice to meet’cha, let’s dive right in! Today’s topic is solely focused on suspicion and how it can affect your social life and mental processes. Of course, it’s only reasonable that I explain how this topic popped into my head.

You see, kiddies, I get extremely suspicious when certain people ask me questions. Whether it’s a stranger or an acquaintance, there are just some people I feel should not be asking me things—no matter how innocent the question. Take this conversation, for instance:

I’m in the kitchen area at work, heating up my lunch in a microwave.
Co-worker: Heating up your lunch?
Me: Yes.
Co-worker: What are you having?
Me: …Soup
Co-worker: What kind of soup?
Me: Homemade soup.
Co-worker: Well, what’s in it?
Me: ::shrugs:: Vegetables and broth.

 

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It was almost as discomforting as this image.

 

 

Yes, I knew what she wanted when asking what kind of soup. And, yes, I knew exactly what was in it. Yes, Dave, seriously. I can put edible things together in a bowl and pour broth over it. Anyway, the problem was this: I didn’t want to answer. Similarly, I don’t want to answer when asked about my prior weekend or my plans for the upcoming weekend. I don’t know why. My only reasoning is: It’s none of this person’s business. The next minute, I’ll turn around and tell the withheld information to a different co-worker. And, I’m not the only one who does this.

For the most part, we all encounter people who rub us the wrong way, people we instantly don’t like without even a word exchanged. I believe the type of guarded suspicion some of us have when asked questions by certain people is a symptom of this. So, why are some people suspicious in this way, and why do certain people seem to rub us the wrong way?

 

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Shown here: Not the wrong kind of rub.

 

 

Looking at the Science Behind Suspicion

Understanding suspicion through science is a good where to start with our conundrum. In order to figure out how people assess the credibility of others, scientists at the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute (VTC) investigated the parts of the brain that function in suspicion: the amygdala and the parahippocampal gyrus. The amygdala “plays a central role in processing fear and emotional memories and the parahippocampal gyrus […] is associated with declarative memory and the recognition of scenes,” according to an article featured on VTC’s website. The study went like this:

76 pairs of players, each with a buyer and a seller, competed in 60 rounds of a simple bargaining game while having their brains scanned [using an fMRI]. At the beginning of each round, the buyer would learn the value of a hypothetical widget and suggest a price to the seller. The seller would then set the price. If the seller’s price fell below the widget’s given value, the trade would go through, with the seller receiving the selling price and the buyer receiving any difference between the selling price and the actual value. If the seller’s price exceeded the value, though, the trade would not execute, and neither party would receive cash.

The outcome? According to Read Montague, director of the Human Neuroimaging Laboratory and the Computational Psychiatry Unit at VTC, and the leader of the study, “The more uncertain a seller was about a buyer’s credibility […] the more active his or her parahippocampal gyrus became.”

Knowing what parts of the brain are most active during a state of suspicion is the first step in understanding the emotion, as well as where the suspicion is based. Heightened activity in the amygdala would, theoretically, signify fear-based suspicion, while heightened activity in the parahippocampal gyrus would signify suspicion based on mistrust. Montague suggest the parahypocampal gyrus acts “like an inborn lie detector.”

“So, what?” you demand. “How is this actionable information and why should I care?” Good question! It just so happens that…

 

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Not caring could make you turn out like Dave.

 

 

Suspicion can Cost You Profit… and Worse

First of all, not everything is about you, my precious snowflakes. So, let’s look at the bigger picture. Like most things, suspicion in moderation can be quite good. There is a line, though. Being overly suspicious—either from fear or mistrust—can have negative consequences on financial success. According to Meghana Bhatt, one of the study’s authors:

People [taking part in the study] with a high baseline suspicion were often interacting with fairly trustworthy buyers, so in ignoring the information those buyers provided, they were giving up potential profits. The ability to recognize credible information in a competitive environment can be just as important as detecting untrustworthy behavior.

Not only can individuals with high baseline suspicion have a harder time achieving financial success, they can have a harder time achieving success in their careers. This can lead to a host of new problems, including an increase in stress and anxiety, as well as depression.

Speaking of the mental aspects, studies in suspicion can have implications for psychiatric disorders. “The fact that increased amygdala activation corresponds with an inability to detect trustworthy behavior may provide insight into the social interactions of people with anxiety disorders, who often have increased activity in this area of the brain,” explains Montague.

In short, studies such as these can help pinpoint sources of certain psychiatric disorders, which can better help scientists nail down proper treatments. But, these types of studies could also help to create a treatment or healthy way in which to promote balance for those with high baseline suspicion. Perhaps a better question is: When my internal lie detector goes off, who should I trust?

 

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Here’s an anxious kitten. You’re welcome.

 

 


 

 

Improving Quality of Life

I’ve previously written a couple of blog posts on tech advancements aimed at aiding movement inhibited individuals. This is another one of those, focused singularly on Brain-Machine Interface (BMI, also called Brain-Computer Interface, BCI), which we’ve touched on before. The reason I’m putting a good deal of focus on these types of topics—aside from the badassness of it—is because of my own physical issues.

You see kiddies, when I was the tender age of 16, I had a horseback riding accident that left me with a rotated hip. That one injury has since plagued me with low-back movement issues that are painful, sometimes debilitating, and decrease quality of life. On top of that, I have pretty bad knee issues—which also stem from the original rotated hip problem. I’ve had three epidurals, two cortisone shots at the knee joint, and so much physical therapy I count it as my second job. The one thing I want to do, physically, compounds all the wounds.

I just want to run. I love to run. I love the way it makes me feel before, during, and after. But, even jogging ¼ mile kills my knees and stresses my back. So, what must it be like for someone who just wants to walk, or even just stand? Life is a lot of things, but movement plays such a significant role in life that it’s something we think about lightly. You know, until we can’t do it anymore.

So, while robotics, neuroscience, and advancements in technology are blow-your-mind-like-a-big-league-hotdog awesome, combining the three to improve quality of life for thousands—millions?—of people is blow-your-mind-in-the-archaic-sense-of-the-word awesome. So, without further ado, let’s dig into the real meat of this blog.

 

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Just look at those cute, evil faces.

 

 

Allowing Locked-In ALS Patients to Communicate

I know what ALS is, but I had never previously heard of the “Locked-In” ALS condition. Thanks to my ignorance, you’ll all get a bit of definition time. You’re welcome. ALS patients suffering from the Locked-In condition are considered to be in the severe stage of ALS, wherein they are conscious and have brain function, but are unable to move. At all.

Science is working toward giving such patients as these a way to communicate again. According to the article Locked-In ALS Patients Answer Yes or No Questions with Wearable fNIRS Device, published earlier this month in Neuroscience News:

Using a wearable system developed by SUNY Downstate Medical Center researcher Dr. Randall Barbour, a team of investigators led by Professor Niels Birbaumer at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Switzerland and University of Tübingen in Germany were able to measure the brain’s hemodynamic response to a series of ‘yes’ or ‘no’ questions, thus allowing these patients to communicate.

While other tech has been used for this goal—EEG, fMRI, etc.—fNIRS (that’s functional near infrared spectroscopic) imaging has proved to be the breakthrough tech needed. But, what does this mean? Well, this is potentially the first step in bettering quality of life for Locked-In ALS patients. Communication, like movement, is a substantial part of life. It’s why we have language areas in the brain, Dave! But, this isn’t the only advance being made with BMI. Next up…

 

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This is your brain on binary code. Any questions?

 

 

BMI Opens Doors to Paralysis Patients

In Bruce Goldman’s article, Brain-Computer Interface Advance Allows Fast, Accurate Typing by People with Paralysis, published by Stanford Medicine, we get another look into BMI advancement. I fully anticipate all the readers here will visit the original article, which means I’m not listing all the scientists involved. Instead, I’m going to refer to them as “The Team.” You’re welcome. Again.

In this study, The Team worked with three paralysis patients, using an intracordical BMI (or in the case of this study, the term BCI is preferred) to send brain signals to a computer. Goldman explains that:

The investigational system used in the study, an intracortical brain-computer interface called the BrainGate Neural Interface System, represents the newest generation of BCIs […] An intracortical BCI uses a tiny silicon chip, just over one-sixth of an inch square, from which protrude 100 electrodes that penetrate the brain to about the thickness of a quarter and tap into the electrical activity of individual nerve cells in the motor cortex.

These are the nerve cells that send the signals the brain would give off during specific movement tasks (the right hand moving and clicking a computer mouse, for instance). The signals are decoded and converted in real time by a special algorithm, which then allows the patients to control a cursor on the screen in front of them to type out words at a higher speed and accuracy than seen in previous methods. According to Chethan Pandarinath, one of the lead authors of the research report, “We’re achieving communication rates that many people with arm and hand paralysis would find useful. That’s a critical step for making devices that could be suitable for real-world use.”

This is not only exciting, it’s groundbreaking for movement inhibited individuals. Going forward, this tech could help with general household tasks we take for granted—opening doors, changing the thermostat, controlling the TV—and who knows what else?—just by using your mind. This gives movement inhibited individuals access to and a modicum of control over their surroundings. That’s seriously impressive.

Krishna Shenoy, an integral part of The Team—and whose lab pioneered the algorithm for the BMI interface—expects that around five years from now, they may be looking at a “self-calibrating, fully-implanted wireless system [that] can be used without caregiver assistance, has no cosmetic impact, and can be used around the clock.”

 

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Just think of this computer as Professor X… you know… cause it’s reading your mind! Also, pretend this monitor is a computer, so my reference will work.

 

 

Improving on the Improvements

Now, we head over to San Diego State University (SDSU) to learn about new electrodes with increased durability that last longer and transmit clearer signals than current electrodes. This news comes to us from the article Big Improvement to Brain-Computer Interface, published by ScienceDaily with source material provided by SDSU. Here’s a rundown of the study:

The Center for Sensorimotor Neural Engineering (CSNE)—a collaboration of San Diego State University with the University of Washington and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology—is working on an implantable brain chip that can record neural electrical signals and transmit them to receivers in the limb, bypassing [spinal cord] damage and restoring movement.

The improvement here is the material out of which the chip is made. Current “state-of-the-art” electrodes are made from thin-film platinum, but researchers with CSNE are utilizing glassy carbon. According to the article, “This material is about 10 times smoother than granular thin-film platinum, meaning it corrodes less easily under electrical stimulation and lasts much longer than platinum or other metal electrodes.” These electrodes are being used both along the surface of and inside the brain for more complete—single neuron and cluster—data.

A doctoral grad student in the lab is even taking things one step further. According to the article:

Mieko Hirabayashi is exploring a slightly different application of this technology. She’s working with rats to find out whether precisely calibrated electrical stimulation can cause new neural growth within the spinal cord. The hope is that this stimulation could encourage new neural cells to grow and replace damaged spinal cord tissue in humans. The new glassy carbon electrodes will allow her to stimulate, read the electrical signals of, and detect the presence of neurotransmitters in the spinal cord better than ever before.

 

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I used this to represent “single” vs “cluster” and if you get it, good job. If not, enjoy the cute image.

 

 

Every year, new advances in tech are being made. But, seeing tech advancements geared toward improving quality of life for movement inhibited individuals is… well… awesome.

First Amendment vs Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia Websites

I am concerned.

Well, I’ll back up a moment and talk you through that. There are a couple of issues that ebb and flow as “hot topics” and neither has anything to do with the other. The First Amendment is one. Eating disorders—specifically anorexia nervosa (AN) and bulimia nervosa (BN)—is the other. I say “eating” disorders, but I think they are more aptly put into the category of “anxiety” disorders. But, that’s not really the topic right now. The topic, what has me concerned, is this: There are websites—quite a number of them, in fact—that glorify these disorders.

Pro-Ana (anorexia) and Pro-Mia (bulimia) websites have message boards where tips and advice are shared, not on how to overcome the disorder, but how to hide it better and be more efficient at it.

For obvious reasons, I won’t be linking to any of these sites, as I normally would.

 

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One reason being that we don’t need to encourage this.

 

 

Why do these sites exist?

Let’s turn to our friends over at ANAD, the National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders, Inc. (what a mouthful), to get a little insight into this. According to ANAD:

  • ~ 30 million people regardless of age or gender suffer from an eating disorder in the US
  • Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness (within the subset of eating disorders, AN has the highest mortality rate)
  • In a study following active duty military personnel over time, 5.5 percent of women and four percent of men had an eating disorder at the beginning of the study, and within just a few years of continued service, 3.3 percent more women and 2.6 percent more men developed an eating disorder
  • Nine percent of American women suffer from AN in their lifetime
  • One in five AN deaths is by suicide
  • Five percent of American women suffer from BN in their lifetime

This is maybe one third of the stats you can find on ANAD’s site. 30 million people in the US. That’s 9.2 percent of the US population. That’s 2,925,000 women suffering from AN and 4,875,000 from BN. If 26 percent of females and (according to ANRED.com) 10 percent of males suffer from AN or BN, a businessman would tell you that you’re looking at a ripe market. That’s one reason these sites exist. The market is so ripe, in fact, that one company has struck proverbial oil.

So, we know there is an audience for sites like these, but is that enough? Yes, and no. Sufferers of AN and BN are stigmatized, and none more so than men. To whom do you turn if you have a problem—and you know you have a problem—but you know you’ll be made to feel as though you’re worth less (if not exactly worthless) if you seek help. What will people think of you? That you’re weak? That you’re self-centered? That you value too greatly how others view you? That you can be manipulated by the media, or criticism of your appearance, or whatever the case may be? These feelings of worthlessness, of loneliness, of weakness, of anxiety only increase at the thought of saying something about your problem to someone.

With Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia sites, these individuals have a community. And it’s a community reinforcing the behavior of the disorders.

 

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I have no semi-humorous caption for this. Let’s just go with, “Don’t be a dick to people who need help.”

 

 

Why are these sites allowed?

This is my real question. I realize closely monitoring the Internet is like toilet training a cat—possible, maybe worth it, but definitely time, energy, and sanity consuming. Still, you would think websites that aid people in harming themselves, and which could potentially be considered aiding in suicide, would be… you know… not legal. In the same way starving someone is not legal. In the same way assisted suicide is not legal.

I know, I just know, that if Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia sites started to be monitored and subsequently shut down, someone would cry, “You’re violating my First Amendment rights!” Is this true? According to First Amendment Center and Newseum Institute, there are essentially nine categories not protected by the First Amendment:

  • Obscenity
  • Fighting words
  • Defamation (including libel and slander)
  • Child pornography
  • Perjury
  • Blackmail
  • Incitement to imminent lawless action
  • True threats
  • Solicitations to commit crimes

According to Deb McAlister-Holland, “Chat room conversations that [encourage] suicide [have been] denied First Amendment protection.” That, and also perhaps a bit of common sense, leads me to believe that Pro-Ana and Pro-Mia sites—including forums and chats on such sites—wouldn’t be protected. So, why are they still around, and why are there so many?

While rhetoric on such sites may not be the same as, “Go kill yourself,” in some instances, it’s very close.

 

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Want more info on what is and isn’t covered under the First Amendment? Check out Sam Cook’s article, “The First Amendment and What it Means for Free Speech Online.”

 


 

Misconceptions about Night Terrors

There’s little doubt that illnesses, diseases, disorders, and the like can be scary. Moreover, they can be quite terrifying when little is widely known about them. The parasomnia (sleep disorder) known as Night Terrors (NTs) (sometimes, Sleep Terrors) is one of these misunderstood disorders. I first heard about NTs in a grossly misleading psychology class in college. The class, Motivation and Behavior Psych, was much more closely related to neurobiology or neurochemistry—it’s the class that sparked my deep love of neuroscience.

Right. Back to the topic. NTs are often confused with nightmares. It’s pretty widely known that nightmares suck donkey testicles; they’re vivid, scary, uncomfortable, and usually leave lasting impressions upon waking. In my worst nightmare, I awoke to someone standing over me while I slept. It was so real that, when I actually woke up, I thought the person was there. I couldn’t move, I was scared to open my eyes. It was only when I realized my dogs were calmly sleeping that I knew no one else was in the room.

Vivid? Check. Terrifying? Check! Seared into my memory? Super check. Gargling on the sack of a donkey? You bet! The nightmare, Dave, not me. Seriously. NT? Absolutely not.

So, what’s the difference between NTs and nightmares, and why is it important to know? I’m glad you asked!

 

 

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Here’s a fancy chart on NT classification.

 

 

Core Differences

Differences between nightmares and NTs range from when during sleep they occur to electroencephalography (EEG) activity. The point here is, the two are fundamentally different. Nightmares, and even nightmare disorder, are “different from NT [and consist of] a lowered motor activity […] the person is not confused on waking up, remembers the nightmares in detail, and the disordered orientation immediately recovers”.² The authors of the article, “Treatment Approach to Sleep Terror: Two Case Reports,” give a robust definition of NT:

NT is classified under parasomnias characterized with sudden attacks of fear associated with the increase in autonomic signs following crying and loud shouting during the first few hours of sleep during the delta stage (associated with the NREM period). Clinically, the person wakes up screaming, scaring, or performing sudden and self-destructive acts (like jumping, running, crashing into something, harming the person beside). The person is non-responsive to the external stimulus during this period […] The person may predominantly experience cognitive impairment signs, such as disordered orientation and memory problems, confusion, and fear on waking up. In addition to these mental symptoms, somatic symptoms associated with the overstimulation of the autonomic system, such as palpitation, sweating, shaking, skin rubor, pupillary response, may appear. While adults generally cannot remember what they experienced the previous night, children can indistinctly remember their fear.²

 

I think that about sums it up. So, while nightmares generally occur during REM, NTs occur prior to REM, during NREM—or non-rapid eye movement. The result of two independent sleep studies stated that NT episodes “begin exclusively during [NREM] sleep, most frequently during slow-wave sleep (SWS), and should not be considered an acting-out of a dream” and that “consciousness is altered during sleepwalking/sleep terror episodes.”¹ NT is most common in children, with a prevalence of ~3-15 percent, and decreases significantly with age, although, “it seems probable that the notion of sleep terrors is largely unknown to people, therefore different types of nocturnal attacks can be reported as sleep terrors.”¹

Difficulty in obtaining more concrete statistics pertaining to NT is a big indication that NT is a misunderstood parasomnia.

 

 

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Not that having this chase you around is a good thing.

 

 

What Triggers NT?

Another great question! Both genetics and environmental stimuli play a role in NT:

It is well known that sleepwalking and night terrors run in families. Based on the study of familial incidence of sleepwalking and sleep terrors proposed that sleepwalking and night terrors share a common genetic predisposition, although the clinical expression of symptoms of these parasomnias may be influenced by environmental factors.”¹

 

The authors of “Treatment and Approach…” explain that “the risk of occurrence [of NT] among the first-degree relatives is ten folds more compared with those with no family history of NT.”²

Cases of NT have also been reported after stressful and/or significant life events, including divorce—personal or parental—death of a loved one, changing jobs or getting let go, changing schools, etc.

 

Why Does This Matter?

Part of why this matters is because additional research in NT could point to treatments aside from “making bedrooms safe” for NT sufferers or being prescribed benzodiazepine, which can cause rebounds or addiction. There is, of course, another reason it would be good to be knowledgeable about NT: “NT is highly associated with schizoid, borderline and dependent personality disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, [and] generalized anxiety disorder.”²

Which is not to say NT sufferers have those disorders. In fact, when comparing individuals with NT to individuals who only demonstrate somnambulism (sleepwalking), only a percentage of sleepwalkers had been diagnosed as psychotic:

In contrast to sleepwalkers, [individuals with NT] demonstrate higher levels of anxiety, obsessive-compulsive traits, phobias, and depression. The Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory (MMPI) profile suggests an inhibition of outward expression of aggression. A psychiatric diagnosis was established in 85 percent of patients with current night terrors. Although their psychopathology was more severe than in patients with sleepwalking, none of them was diagnosed as psychotic.”¹

 

Knowing the difference between NT, other arousal parasomnia, and regular ole nightmares can make a difference to the individual suffering from NT. Because a significant symptom of NT is sleepwalking, and because NT sufferers have increased mobility, they could cause damage to self or others.

Personally, I feel it’s important—if you know someone who sleepwalks—to be able to distinguish between and individual with NT and one with somnambulism, you know, on account of those regular ole sleepwalks could be psychotic.

 

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And psychotic children and the worst.

 

 

 


 

 

¹Szelenberger, Waldemar, Szymon Niemcewicz, and Anna Justyna Dąbrowska.

“Sleepwalking and Night Terrors: Psychopathological and Psychophysiological

Correlates.” International Review of Psychiatry 17.4 (2005): 263-70.

²Turan, Hatice Sodan, Nermin Gunduz, Aslihan Polat, and Umit Tural. “Treatment

Approach to Sleep Terror: Two Case Reports.” Noro Psikiyatri Arsivi 52.2 (2015):

204-06.

Why Understanding Dreams Matters

What’s the big deal with dreams and why is it so important we figure it out? Well, because when we dream, our brain is doing something. So, what if what it’s doing is helping or hurting us? The science behind dreaming—especially the physiology and how it relates to health—is a subject we just don’t know a whole lot about.

The topic of dreams has been a hot one for so many years you can trace it back to Ancient Greece, where they thought dreams told the future. The beliefs about dreams are numerous and range from ridiculous (showing the future) to plausible, including:

  • Dreams are a manifestation of the unconscious (show of hands, Freudians)
  • Dreams stimulate problem solving
  • Dreams help process negative emotions
  • Dreams are the collecting/discarding of brain trash (that’s very unjustly put, I admit)
  • Dreams consolidate short term memories to long-term memory
  • Dreams are a byproduct of neural impulses

Etc., etc., etc.

You see where I’m going with this? So, who’s right? Put your hand down, Dave, you don’t know the answer. There is no answer. Part of the reason for that is because it’s brain-stuff. I feel like I shouldn’t have to say more, but I will. Of all the sciences, neuroscience is probably the one where the least amount of answers have been discovered. And that’s not a slam on neuroscience—for which I have a deep love—it’s a testament to the human brain.

 

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Which is both wonderful, and poisonous when eaten!

 

 

Why Memory Consolidation is so Appealing

The theory of dreams being a byproduct of memory consolidation/processing makes very good sense to me, despite the nay-sayers. Part of the reason I’m so attached to this theory is because I can see it working. Take the elements in this dream I had, for instance:

  • I was fresh out of college and the only job I could get was as a manager of a local supermarket
  • I had crippling student loans
  • I had just come on shift when there was a zombie outbreak, so I had to lead my employees to safety
  • I had to run to my car to retrieve my revolver

That dream was both awesome and hilarious. It’s one of my favorites. I am also planning to write a book about it, so hands off my dream! Now, compare the dream elements with my reality:

  • When I was fresh out of college, I worked a retail job where I was in management
  • I have slightly less-than-crippling, although no less daunting, student loans
  • I had been marathon-watching Ash vs. The Evil Dead the day/evening before the dream
  • I keep a pistol in my car (this is a judgement-free zone)

This ability to connect dream elements with real world elements gives me the proof I need. But, you’re not me, so I don’t know if the same holds true for you.

 

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This was in one of my cookie comas. The Keebler elves did not fare well.

 

 

Why All the Hubbub About Dreams?

Many people still believe that dreams mean something, whether it’s the expression of the unconscious mind or symbolism of what one might be stressing over, looking forward to, etc. And, if you fall into that category, that’s fine. Remember, judgement-free zone. Mostly.

In any case, learning about dreams—both causes and the result of REM sleep deprivation—can also lead to additional information on such mental health issues as depression, migraines, and the development of mental disorders. I want to note here that, in some cases, REM sleep deprivation has been shown to improve the state of depressive patients.

 

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I can feel the happiness seeping in!

 

 

No matter what you believe dreams to be or not be, mean or not mean, I’d like to think that we can all agree on this: The more we discover about the nature, physiology, and effects of dreaming, the more ammunition we may have against some types of mental health issues. And that, my friends, would be a beautiful thing indeed.

The Skywalker Hand is Coming

As I was traipsing about the wide and wild world of the interwbs in search of awesome stuff, I stumbled—soberly—across this little nugget. If you don’t feel like going to the original article, then shame on you, but I’ll give you a bit of info on it before we get stared anyway. Take a big breath for this next line, because it’s a doozy. “Proof of Concept of an Online EMG-based Decoding of Hand Postures and Individual Digit Forces for Prosthetic Hand Control,” written by Alicia Gailey and Marco Santello of the School of Biology and Health Systems Engineering, Arizona State University, and Panagiotis Artemiadis of the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport, and Energy, Arizona State University, is part of the closed-loop systems for next-generation neuroprostheses research topic from Frontiers in Neurology, a “Frontiers in” journal series from Frontiers.

I’m almost certain that’s 100-percent accurate, but I’d be more confident if my brain was wired to a calculator. Speaking of Brain-Machine Interfaces (BMIs)…

 

Researchers are Looking to Improve Prosthetic Device Functions

For individuals who must utilize a prosthesis—in this case, transradial (below the elbow) or transhumeral (above the elbow)—the technology is only getting better. Overall hand and digit movement has improved greatly from the early days of the mannequin arm prosthesis.

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What? She doesn’t need it.

 

 

According to the authors of “Proof of Concept…,” “Options currently available to individuals with upper limb loss range from prosthetic hands that can perform many movements, but require more cognitive effort to control, to simpler terminal devices with limited functional abilities.”

Which means that, even considering the improvements to hand and arm prostheses, there is still room for growth. In an effort to increase the performance of upper limb prosthetic devices, researches are looking to BMIs for answers. But this research may help more than amputees. Utilizing BMIs and neuroprostheses can potentially help individuals suffering from neurological disorders that affect brain-to-body connections resulting in functional impairment and/or paralysis.

 

Looking for Advancements

Advancing functionality for hand/arm prostheses can dramatically help the end-user. The human hand is involved in countless tasks each day and, right now, available prostheses just aren’t cutting the mustard.

That’s a horrible expression. Would up to snuff be better? No. No, I don’t think there is such a thing as a good situation during which the word “snuff” is used. Anyway, let’s take a look at the challenges that prosthetic hand developers face, as per “Proof of Concept…” authors:

One of the main remaining challenges for prosthetic hand developers is in allowing the user to reliably control many different hand movements without too much cognitive effort. Body-powered systems are reliable, but their harness system can result in fatigue and strain. Furthermore, body-powered prostheses are limited in their functionality. Control systems based on electroencephalographic (EEG) signals can be used to control prosthetic hands for above-elbow amputees and paralyzed individuals. However, the implementation of these systems tends to be challenging because EEG signals are associated with many other behaviors besides hand motion, such as proximal musculature involved in hand transport, trunk movement, and so forth. Other methods are being developed to extract signals from within the brain or peripheral nerve tissue, but such methods are invasive and expensive.

And that’s why researchers and developers are turning to myoelectric systems. I’m not a complete dick, so here’s a brief explanation of myoelectric systems. Myoelectric systems focus on the application of myoelectric signals to control human-assisting robots or rehabilitation devices based on electromyographic (EMG) activity of residual muscles following an amputation. We’re starting to get our BMI here.

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What do you mean this is wrong? Wrong BMI or wrong tool?

 

The Research

The authors of “Proof of Concept…” tested the myoelectric control system on the commercially available i-limb from Touch Bionics. They sent commands wirelessly to the prosthesis in which “the integer value of the flexion command was proportional to the predicted flexion force.” The subjects, five males and three female, were all right-handed, able-bodied individuals.

We asked subjects to perform two sets of tasks. […] For both tasks, we recorded EMG signals from five surface EMG electrodes and extracted features from these signals to train a one-against-one support vector machine (SVM). This SVM was used to distinguish hand poses, and a random forest regression (RFR) was used to predict each of the five digit forces.

After this came the EMG decoder system training and testing. There’s a lot of math involved at this point, so I highly recommend you go check it out. If fact, here’s the link again. If you’re determined to stick with me, however, I thank you for your loyalty (and possibly laziness). No judgement.

A large part of this research was digit force prediction, but that alone wouldn’t be helpful. The authors point out that “the EMG-to-force mapping for the middle finger is going to be different for a thumb-middle finger precision grasp versus a closed fist. Incorporating an SVM classifier that distinguishes between hand postures, myoelectric control of hand motion, and individual digit forces for everyday activities becomes more feasible.”

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Pretty sure I did something wrong here.

 

 

The Takeaway

Utilizing myoelectric systems can add an amount of dexterity that current prostheses just can’t touch. This offshoot of BMI can allow for a more responsive and realistic—in movement—hand/arm prosthesis that could allow amputees—or those individuals with partial paralysis—to function in a more natural manner without tapping into the cognitive resources that EEG-signal control systems use.

Andy Lidstone

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