November 26, 2018

On Monday, NASA engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab will be on pins and needles, waiting to see if the InSight spacecraft touches down safely on Mars.

InSight was launched seven months ago, traveling 301,223,981 miles and reaching a top speed of 6,200 mph. This is NASA's first mission to study the deep interior of Mars, and the craft's landing will be tricky. InSight will enter the planet's atmosphere at hypersonic speed, and must slow down quickly in order to make a gentle landing. If all goes according to plan, InSight will touch down at noon PST, with signals reaching engineers back on Earth eight minutes later.

"We've studied Mars from orbit and from the surface since 1965, learning about its weather, atmosphere, geology, and surface chemistry," said Lori Glaze, acting director of the Planetary Science Division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Now we finally will explore inside Mars and deepen our understanding of our terrestrial neighbor as NASA prepares to send human explorers deeper in to the solar system."

The Jet Propulsion Lab's entry, descent, and landing team pre-programmed all stages of InSight's landing, taking into consideration weather reports sent from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and they might have to slightly tweak the algorithm right before InSight starts its descent. NASA says it took more than a decade to build InSight, and should it land successfully on Mars, it will take two to three months for InSight's robotic arm to set up and calibrate all of the mission's instruments. Catherine Garcia

September 24, 2018

Researchers have found that after only 10 minutes of light exercise, there is enhanced communication between the regions of the brain that store and recall memories.

Scientists from the University of California, Irvine, had 36 healthy volunteers in their early 20s exercise for 10 minutes, doing light activity like yoga or walking. The volunteers then took a memory test, which was repeated later without exercise. The researchers asked 16 of the volunteers to take the test again, with some exercising first and others resting. While studying their brain activity, it was discovered that those who exercised had increased activity between the hippocampus and cortical brain regions, all of which are associated with memory.

The results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the researchers concluded that volunteers who exercised had an easier time distinguishing between different memories. Michael Yassa, a neuroscientist at UCI and project co-leader, told The Guardian that the amount of necessary exercise is dependent on a person's age, mobility level, and other lifestyle factors, and for many, taking a leisurely stroll is enough. Catherine Garcia

September 15, 2018

California's state government will work with a company called Planet Labs to build and launch a climate change research satellite capable of tracking the sources of pollution, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) said Friday.

"We're going to launch our own satellite — our own damn satellite to figure out where the pollution is and how we're going to end it," Brown said at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. "This groundbreaking initiative will help governments, businesses, and landowners pinpoint — and stop — destructive emissions with unprecedented precision, on a scale that's never been done before."

Brown did not say when the satellite would be ready or how much it might cost. A statement from his office said the project "has the potential to deliver global emission reductions equivalent to 1,000 million metric tons of carbon dioxide annually — or removing 200 million vehicles from roads every year."

The day before, at the same event, Brown argued environmental issues would be a major black mark on President Trump's legacy. "When Trump says, in effect, 'We like more methane going into the air,' that is highly destructive, very highly destructive," he said. "So I think he'll be remembered [as] he is now — I don't know: liar, criminal, fool, pick your choice." Bonnie Kristian

August 30, 2018

Everyday medicine is getting a technical transformation.

The first "digital pill" with an implanted sensor is ready to make its debut, Stat reports. These high-tech capabilities only come in the antipsychotic drug Abilify MyCite right now, but the development could soon provide unprecedented insight into how medicine works.

Abilify MyCite, a treatment for bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, was first granted FDA approval last year, per its maker Otsuka. Its tiny internal sensor knows when it touches stomach fluid and sends details to the patient's wearable MyCite patch. Patients can then look at ingestion data on an app and input how they're feeling, and doctors can view the information online.

The generic of Abilify costs around $700 per month, and MyCite will run about $1,650 for takers without insurance, Stat says, so only a handful of Medicaid users will get to try the high-tech pill for now. Otsuka say it's capitalizing on this small-scale debut to learn from how the doctors and patients use the sensor. Results could inform the development of more precise mental illness medications, the company says, and perhaps transform medication as we know it. Read more at Stat. Kathryn Krawczyk

February 20, 2018

Our eyeballs apparently contain information that could revolutionize cardiovascular medicine.

Artificial intelligence software developed by Google in conjunction with its biotech subsidiary company Verily can scan retinal images to predict heart disease at nearly the same accuracy rate as a traditional blood test, United Press International reports. The findings, published Monday in the journal Nature Biomedical Engineering, explain that Google's AI makes its predictions by examining images of the back of a patient's eye in order to develop a profile of the patient, including several characteristics that could determine cardiovascular risk.

From the retinal images, Google's AI can determine within impressive degrees of accuracy a patient's age, gender, blood pressure, and smoking status, as well as even the past occurrence of major cardiovascular events, The Verge explains. The program taught itself how to analyze eyeballs after using machine learning techniques to pore over more than 284,000 retinal images; while studying, the AI used what UPI describes as a visual "heatmap" to learn which parts of the eye's anatomy contained certain predictive factors. The AI eventually learned, for example, that to analyze a patient's blood pressure, it was prudent to examine the blood vessels in the eye.

To test its capabilities, researchers sicced the AI on two patient pools, totaling more than 13,000 patients. The AI made correct predictions on the future risk of heart disease in 70 percent of cases — nearly the same accuracy rate as the blood-test method doctors traditionally use, which has a 72 percent accuracy rate.

Harlan M. Krumholz, the director of Yale's Center for Outcomes Research and Evaluation, predicted that the findings of Google's AI show that machine learning and artificial intelligence will "more precisely hone our understanding of disease and individuals," helping physicians "understand these processes and diagnoses in ways that we haven't been able to before." Read the full study here. Kelly O'Meara Morales

February 15, 2018

The Food and Drug Administration on Wednesday approved the Banyan Brain Trauma Indicator, the first-ever blood test to detect signs of a traumatic brain injury.

The test identifies two proteins that appear in the blood within 12 hours of a serious brain injury, the Los Angeles Times reports. The levels of those proteins can then predict which patients may have brain lesions that can be seen on a CT scan and which won't. Test results come back about four hours later, but Banyan Biomarkers Chairman and CEO Henry Nordhoff told the Times they are working on creating a test with a turn-around of less than an hour.

CT scans are done in order to locate and monitor bruising, swelling, and bleeding in the brain, and many people undergo the scans to ensure they don't have a serious brain injury; these scans cost on average $1,200 and exposes a patient to the radiation equivalent of 100 to 200 chest X-rays. The military wants to use the Banyan Brain Trauma Indicator out in the battlefield, and Nordhoff said he's hoping that within two years, there will be a faster and smaller test that can be used in ambulances and athletic facilities. Catherine Garcia

February 1, 2018

Laser-toting archaeologists have discovered an entire new city in the Central American jungle.

National Geographic reported Thursday that researchers have uncovered proof that Mayan civilization was far more advanced than previously thought. Using laser-created scans of the jungles in northern Guatemala, researchers "digitally removed the tree canopy" from images of the area, National Geographic explained. The editing — made possible by a technology called LiDAR, which scans pictures taken at a birds'-eye view — allowed researchers to peer beneath the dense fauna.

The result was the discovery that the jungles were concealing a Mayan "megalopolis" in their shadows. Underneath the leaves, researchers found more than 60,000 structures that were previously unknown, including "houses, palaces, [and] elevated highways," National Geographic reported. The structures likely created a series of connected cities.

The new discovery prompted the researchers to revise up previous calculations of the Mayan population. Scientists have long estimated that Mayan civilization had about 5 million inhabitants, but one archaeologist said the LiDAR findings indicate that number is way too low: "With this new data it's no longer unreasonable to think that there were 10 to 15 million people there," he said.

The LiDAR initiative is being led by the PACUNAM Foundation, a Guatemalan nonprofit that seeks to further research and preservation efforts in the region. And the search for Mayan ruins is far from over: Scientists leading the charge only scanned roughly 800 square miles of jungle in this initial sweep, and apparently still have more than 5,000 square miles to go. Read more at National Geographic. Kelly O'Meara Morales

January 26, 2018

Microsoft founder Bill Gates has a novel idea for fighting poverty among farmers: breeding better cows.

BBC reported Friday that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will invest millions of dollars to promote "the health and productivity of livestock" through research by Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines. "For over a billion people living in the world's poorest countries, agriculture and livestock are a lifeline out of poverty," Gates said Friday. "You can sell the output, and that's money for school fees. You can keep the output, and that's diet diversification."

Through their charitable organization, the Gateses are pumping $40 million into research to create more efficient and more resilient cows. The financial injection will help "make vaccines, medicines, and diagnostics accessible to millions of the world's poorest smallholder farmers," BBC explained. The Times of London added that some efforts will be made to crossbreed existing breeds of cows in an attempt to capitalize on the best traits of each one. "We [need] animals with the ability to have a high rate of feed conversion, and others that tolerate extreme variations of temperatures," a professor involved in the research said.

For example, The Times explained, there is a huge difference in the milk output between different breeds of cows. British cows can pump out as much as 30 daily liters of milk, while some African cows can only make 2 liters — but the African cows are better adapted to the heat. If those two traits could be combined in one animal, the benefits would be great.

Gates is optimistic that his investment will go a long way: "The impact per dollar we spend is super-high in [Africa]," he said. "You can have a cow that is four times as productive." Read more at BBC. Kelly O'Meara Morales

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