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This week we’re reporting on research into regenerating cartilage, a robotic exoskeleton that could help paralyzed people walk, and how your phone might actually be making you age faster. And yes, painted cows.

Bringing back lost limbs

You may already be aware that salamanders can regrow entire limbs. Maybe you even dreamed of a day when humans could do the same thing. While we aren’t there yet, scientists from Duke University have found that we have more in common with our amphibious friends that we previously thought. 

<strong>Newly discovered biological similarities</strong> between humans and animals like salamanders that can regrow limbs hold promise for combating arthritis.Duke researchers discovered a cartilage repair mechanism in the human body that functions similarly to the process that helps a salamander regrow a limb. By looking at the number of amino acid conversions in a protein, the scientists were able to determine the age of cartilage cells in various joints.

They found cartilage cells are generally older in the hips, moderate in the knees, and younger in the ankles. This progression of age correlates with how limb repair in animals like salamanders is most robust at the tips of legs or tails. 

On top of this, the scientists found that microRNA molecules regulate the healing process—in both humans and animals. With more research, microRNAs could be the key to helping us slow or even reverse arthritis.

Robots are getting soft

<strong>A soft neurorobot</strong> with a neurologically integrated tactile sensory skin can sense interactions with the external environment and respond accordingly. Courtesy University of Houston. While we’re still working on regrowing our own limbs, scientists from China and the US have teamed up to make advancements for artificial limbs. Inspired by earthworms, the engineers created a new soft robot with a tactile skin. Thanks to a stretchable transistor, the device is able to respond to physical stimuli, such as tapping, in its surrounding environment. 

The robot’s artificial synaptic transistors work much like the neurons in the human brain. Because these sensors continue to work even if they are stretched, it gives them enormous flexibility in how they could be used. The scientists say the work represents a significant step toward prosthetics that could directly connect with nerves in biological tissues, offering greater function to artificial limbs. 

One step closer to cyborgs

Spinal cord injuries, usually resulting from traffic accidents or falls, devastate the lives of around 500,000 people each year. Most sufferers experience chronic pain and between 20-30 percent show signs of depression.

Paralyzed patient Thibault walks by controlling a robotic exoskeleton suit with his thoughts. Courtesy CBS Evening News.

Thankfully, robotics may be able to give these people some hope. Scientists at the University of Grenoble Alpes have worked with a 28-year-old French patient known only as Thibault to create a robotic exoskeleton that responds to a person’s thoughts.

After a fall from a balcony four years ago, Thibault was entirely paralyzed from the neck down and was an eager volunteer for the experiment. Scientists began by implanting two recording devices on each side of Thibault’s head, which connect to his sensorimotor cortex. He then trained on a video game system to learn how to control a digital avatar’s movements with his mind.

An algorithm translates his brain signals into the movements he thinks about and sends the physical commands to the specially constructed exoskeleton. With practice, Thibault was able to travel while wearing the exoskeleton for a combined total of around 150 meters of movement over multiple sessions. Though still a long way from practical use, Thibualt commented that the success of the technology offers, “a message of hope.” 

How the zebra got its stripes

It has long been theorized that a zebra’s stripes help camouflage it from predators. However, recent research suggests that zebras are hiding from more than lions.

<strong>White stripes</strong> painted on black cows reduced fly bites by fifty percent. Courtesy PLOS ONE.Japanese scientists painted cows with black or white stripes and also created a control group where the animals’ original all-black coats were left unaltered. The researchers found that the white stripes resembling a zebra actually reduced fly bites by 50 percent. They theorize that stripes may interfere with a fly’s motion detection.

Of course, the sample size of six cows leaves plenty of room for more experimentation. But there’s more to this research than the comfort of cows: biting flies cost US cattle production more than $2 billion per year.

Want to live longer?

With social media always thrusting terrible news in your face, it can feel like you age a few years every time you pull out your phone. However, recent research out of Oregon State University shows that it’s not your phone’s content that’s aging you—it’s the light. 

<strong>Blue light</strong> from computer screens and LEDs can shorten your lifespan—even if you don’t look at it. Specifically, scientists found that exposure to blue light can damage cells in your brain and your retinas. In addition to our phones, increased use of LEDs that emit a high fraction of blue light may have negative effects on human lifespan. 

The researches kept groups of flies in either total darkness or a combination of 12 hours of blue light and 12 hours of darkness. The flies exposed to blue light had shorter lifespans than those with no light or those exposed to light with the blue wavelengths filtered out. Even flies that were born without eyes responded negatively to blue light, which suggests that blue light can harm even without seeing it.

The researchers suggest that concerned humans wear eyeglasses with amber lenses or use the settings on phones and laptops that block blue emissions.

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