Taste Maker: Better Eating Through Technology

The problem with eating healthy is that you have to eat healthy food. It’s a real dilemma, in my experience, and one of many troubling indications that the universe is essentially unfair.

A designer in Romania may have found a way around this problem, though, with a concept-stage technology that makes any kind of food taste like any other kind of food.

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Oh, it’s trippy, all right. The Set To Mimic system, a finalist in the 2014 Electrolux Design Lab Competition, proposes using a microchip patch on the forehead to essentially hack into your brain and trigger your favorite tastes and smells.

It works like this: Prepare an unhealthy dish that you really like — Scottish lorne sausage, say — and place it on the Set To Mimic plate. Affix the microchip patches to your forehead and dig in. The chip monitors the synaptic activity associated with the taste and smell of the food, then records this data in the hardware of the plate itself.

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Next time around, put some healthy food on the plate — one of those terrifying kale salads, for instance — and turn the dial. The plate broadcasts the synaptic data back to the dermal patches, which manipulates brain activity to replace the taste of kale with the taste of obscure but delicious Scottish breakfast foods.

Or something like that. This is all blue-sky product design thinking, mind you. Creator Sorina Rasteanu is a 22-year-old graduate student in Romania, and the concept development page is rather light on specifics. But there are no bad ideas in brainstorming, and it’s nice to see the young people thinking in the proper direction.


‘Biobot’ Moths Become Cyborgs in Cocoon

It’s like my grandma used to say: “Life is a grand adventure, and there are only three things worth worrying about — your family, your health and cyborg moth spies.”

New research out of North Carolina State University this week promises to accelerate the development of cybernetically modified “biobot” moths. The idea? To create remote control moth swarms that could be deployed as a flying sensor network for surveillance or disaster response.

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The concept has actually been around for quite a few years — since 2006, officially — in the form of a U.S. government sponsored program called HI-MEMS (Hybrid Insect Micro-Electro-Mechanical Systems). The program is administered, rather predictably, by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

The overall goal of the program is to create genuine cybernetic insects — a literal merging of biological and electronic bugs. Circuitry implanted into the moths allows for remote control of the insect, which may also be equipped with various kinds of monitors and transmitters. For example, sensors might include low-power video cameras and microphones, or gas sensors for bugs flying into certain disaster scenarios.

The new research out of N.C. State, published in the online Journal of Visualized Experiments (JoVE), proposes a new method for attaching electrodes to a moth during its pupal stage, in the cocoon. As the caterpillar is undergoing metamorphosis into the winged adult stage, the sensors embed themselves in such a way that researchers can directly monitor the electrical signals in muscle groups the moth uses during flight.

“We’re optimistic that this information will help us develop technologies to remotely control the movements of moths in flight,” writes paper co-author Dr. Alper Bozkurt, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at N.C. State, on the university project page. “That’s essential to the overarching goal of creating biobots that can be part of a cyberphysical sensor network.”

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To test the new technique, the researchers created wireless platform — pictured above — in which the cybernetic moth is tethered to a lightweight platform that is itself suspended in mid-air by electromagnets. It’s a little hard to describe. Check out this video at Phys.org to get a sense of the weirdness.

I assume the whirring sound you hear in the video is my grandma spinning in her grave, but it’s hard to tell for sure.

via Phys.org

Credit: Alper Bozkurt, N.C. State

Brain Chip Allows Quadriplegic Man to Move His Hand

Ian Burkhart was able to clench and unclench his fist using Neurobridge.

For the first time ever, a quadriplegic man has moved his hand using his own thoughts.

Ian Burkhart, a 23-year-old who became paralyzed after a diving accident four years ago, is the first patient to try out Neurobridge, which reroutes brain signals. The system combines a computer chip implanted in the brain, a brain-computer interface and a sleeve that transmits electrical signals to the patient’s forearm and hand.

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Neurobridge works as a kind of neural “bypass,” taking signals from the brain, rerouting them around the damaged spinal cord and sending them directly to the muscles, according to its developers, including doctors at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and researchers from Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, Ohio.

“Other devices use electrical stimulation, but they are not responsive to the individual,” Dr. Jerry Mysiw, medical director of Rehabilitation Services at Wexner, told Live Science. “I think we’ve demonstrated this is another milestone in the evolution of human-machine interface technology.” [10 Technologies That Will Transform Your Life]

Burkhart started preparing months before the trial began. In general, when muscles become paralyzed, they wither and shrink from lack of use. Burkhart used the sleeve to stimulate and build up his atrophied forearm muscles, so they would respond better to the Neurobridge signals.

For the system to work, surgeons needed to place the Neurobridge computer chip in a precise spot in Burkhart’s brain, in the part of the motor cortex that controls arm and hand movement, Mysiw said. To find the spot, the team hooked Burkhart up to an fMRI machine, which shows activity in the brain, and showed him images of hand motions and asked him to think about each motion. Then during a delicate three-hour surgery, doctors implanted a pea-sized chip on the area of Burkhart’s brain that lit up during the fMRI test.

The chip reads the brain signals and sends them to a computer that recodes them as signals that the muscles can pick up. The computer then sends those signals to the sleeve, which is covered with about 200 electrodes, which stimulate the muscles and make them move.

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The researchers at Battelle designed software and algorithms that can distinguish among different brain signals that correspond to various movements. “It’s like walking into a crowded room with hundreds of conversations going on, isolating just one and learning the language being spoken,” Chad Bouton, senior research scientist at Battelle, told Live Science.

Still, using Neurobridge requires a remarkable amount of concentration, Mysiw said. Users must rely entirely on visualizing the motion, because they can’t sense any information about physical touch coming from the hand they are moving. “For (Burkhart), it’s like trying to stand on a leg after its fallen asleep,” Mysiw said.

Previous technologies have allowed patients to control robotic arms with their thoughts, but Neurobridge is the first that has allowed patients to move their own limbs. The team next hopes to test the Neurobridge on other patients, as part of the ongoing clinical trial. Eventually the technology could be adapted to treat other kinds of paralysis, like those caused from stroke or traumatic brain injury, the researchers said.