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This week’s science roundup includes smartphone-controlled brain implants, empathy in animals, and algorithms for conservation.

Brain implants

A smartphone-controlled brain implant effectively altered the behaviors of mice.

The device uses LEDs the size of a grain of salt to send patterns of light to targeted brain cells. In doing so, it manipulates neural pathways, which are essential to learning, memory formation, and the experience of emotions and sensations.

<strong>Mice are chosen for lab tests</strong> because we share many of the same biological and behavioral characteristics. If a study like this works on mice, it holds at least some promise for humans.

In the study, scientists at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology injected mice with cocaine to produce drug-induced behaviors. They then successfully repressed those behaviors by targeting the neurons related to them.

The technology is controlled and charged remotely, using Bluetooth technology and antenna coils for magnetic field-based energy generation. The remote-charging feature eliminates the ongoing need for implant replacement surgeries, which is common among other wireless implants.

The researchers are hopeful that in the future, this technology will lead to deeper investigations into  and treatments for  the brain and other organs, like the heart.

Mice feel for each other

Mice appeared in another significant study, this time at Stanford University, where it was found they share in one another’s pain and pain relief

In the first experiment, mice were partnered together, one in each pair receiving an inflammatory injection. Surprisingly, however, it was the ‘bystander’ mouse that seemed to experience greater pain, showing sensitivity in more areas and for longer periods of time. 

<strong>Much like humans,</strong> mice have intense social needs. A study like this may be able to help us develop treatments for humans who struggle with empathy.

In the second experiment, both mice were given the injection, but this time, one of them was administered a soothing dose of morphine as well. After spending a short period of time together, the mouse that did not receive the morphine began to demonstrate similar pain relief (which did not happen in the control experiment). 

An examination of their brain activity during the experiments revealed that neurons fired in their anterior cingulate cortexes — the area of the brain that is responsible for empathy and memory in humans.

The study’s findings on neurochemicals and circuitry could be useful in drug development for the treatment of empathy-inhibiting personality disorders.

A comprehensive look at the state of Earth

From bleaching coral reefs to the globe’s many food crises, it’s hard to keep track of, let alone grasp, climate change in all of its effects. 

With this in mind, an international team of scientists performed a review of 150 environmental studies to gain a comprehensive understanding of the state of the natural world.  

<strong>The Dodo bird</strong> is one of the most famous extinct animals, but it's far from the only one. We've lost around 1,300 animal species that we know of, each an irreplaceable thread in our world's interconnected tapestry.

One of the project’s goals was to show, in exact terms, where we are now and where we’re heading in the decades and centuries to come. In the course of their review, they found that even many experts do not grasp the scale of the environmental crisis and the dangers it poses — a result likely attributable to their specialized focuses.

In terms of biodiversity alone, the team reported that in the last 500 years, 1,300 known animal species went extinct; and today, one million plant and animal species are poised to do the same.

In their paper, they also address the intersections of climate change and agriculture, ecosystems, and politics. For more information, check out this article.

Algorithms for conservation

A team of researchers at the Universities of Bath, Oxford, and Twente employed satellite imaging and a novel algorithm to detect and track African elephants across diverse and complex landscapes, including grasslands and woodlands. 

 <strong>Saving elephants</strong> requires a lot of information and a delicate hand. Elephants can move between grasslands and wooded areas, and these major changes can make tracking the elephants difficult.

The algorithm, developed by Dr. Olga Isupova (University of Bath), is an upgrade to contemporary algorithms, which have detected animals using satellite technology but only against monotone backgrounds.

Because researchers need data on animal populations for their conservation efforts, this technology, which alleviates some of the field’s data-collection challenges, could become an important tool. With improvements in satellite image resolution, the researchers will be able to detect smaller and smaller animals.

Reaching net-zero carbon emissions

Net zero by 2050 has a relieving ring to it; and it turns out, achieving the feat is surprisingly feasible.

There are multiple low-cost pathways the U.S. can take to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. And for the first time, researchers have developed a step-by-step plan to do so.

<strong>Net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 is possible, but our lives will have to change drastically.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory modeled the different pathways, which vary in cost (from 0.2% to 1.2% of the GDP) and land use, based on the U.S.’s entire energy and infrastructure system. 

They report that the transition to net zero is essentially an ‘infrastructure transformation.’ It is a methodical move, over the next few decades, toward solar and wind energy, electric vehicles, and energy-efficient buildings.

They found that rather than retiring fuel-based infrastructure early, they need only be replaced at the end of their lifetime. And happily, the cost to do so is lower than earlier studies predict, likely because green technologies have declined in cost at unexpected rates. Altogether, it would have a net cost of about $1 per citizen per day.

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