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Axios Science

Axios Science

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Quick note: The newsletter is taking next week off for Thanksgiving. To those of you celebrating, I hope you have a happy one.

1. Stem cells advance — in unexpected ways

Illustration: Rebecca Zisser / Axios

Axios' Erin Ross writes: New advances in stem cell research have the potential to save lives – but not necessarily for the reasons people think. In the late 90s and early 2000s, scientists and the press heralded the promise of these cells that appeared to have the ability to become whatever type of cell was needed to replace or fix damaged tissues. But major advances were slow to come, and the hype faded.

What's happening now: Instead of flashy, morphing cells, the stem cell therapies of today are much more subtle, work in unexpected ways, and it's not always clear why. Still, these advances are promising, so much so that today the FDA released a newly restructured framework for regenerative medicine, including stem cells, to help expedite applications for new therapies.

How they're being used: Small advances have accumulated, and there are currently several active human clinical trials using various types of stem cells to treat diseases.

  • ALS patients: With this neuromuscular disease, also called Lou Gehrig's disease, the brain cells called glia degrade. Stem cells injected into rats seem to protect these glia. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center has begun recruiting human patients for a phase 1 clinical trial.
  • Stroke patients: Bone marrow stem cells injected into the blood helped reduce movement difficulties in a trial of 31 recent stroke patients conducted by the University of Grenoble in France and the University of Baltimore in Maryland. The findings were presented in a poster at the Society for Neuroscience's annual meeting on Monday, and plans for a 400-patient study are underway.
  • Patients with spinal injuries: In a clinical trial of six patients with recent spinal injuries, all regained some motor function after receiving oligodendrocyte progenitor cells, a type of stem cell.
  • Traumatic brain injury. Research conducted by Shyam Gajavelli, a neurologist at the University of Miami, suggests human neuronal stem cells can prevent the immune system in a rat's brain from turning on itself and attacking neurons after it is injured.

Read Erin's full piece here.

2. AI researchers revisit an old muse

Illustration: Lazaro Gamio / Axios

Deep learning — the artificial intelligence technique that allowed a computer to beat a world champion Go player — has become very good at recognizing patterns in images and games. But it's loosely based on ideas we've had about the human brain for decades. Researchers now have more insights from neuroscience and ever-better technologies, both of which they are trying to use to make more intelligent machines.

What's new: On Tuesday, DeepMind co-founder Demis Hassabis presented new work from the company that indicates a move into different territory. Researchers gave an AI system pictures of a 3D scene, along with the coordinates of the camera angles, and it was able to output a new scene from an angle it had never seen. Being able to build models of the world like this — and then use them to react and respond to new situations never encountered before — is considered key to intelligence.

Read more about the fields of AI and neuroscience reconnecting.

3. Axios stories to spark your brain

4. What we're reading elsewhere

The Open Notebook asked me and four other science editors to take part in a conversation about launching a science news outlet. I'll share the link when the roundtable discussion comes out but in the meantime I thought I'd highlight some stories from the other outlets involved:

  • Undark: Jesse Emspak on the problems — ethical and technical — of research saying AI can link facial features to behavior.
  • BuzzFeed Science: Peter Aldhous on the relationship between domestic violence and mass shootings.
  • STAT: Scientists creating human brain organoids are in "uncharted ethical waters," reports Sharon Begley.
  • Hakai: A dam project in Turkey is threatening Mesopotamian Marshes, writes Emilienne Malfatto. "If that happens, the so-called Marsh Arabs will become refugees — but refugees cast away from a peaceful enclave and into a war-torn zone."

5. Something wondrous

Three main neurons involved in the bee's waggle dance. Photo: Thomas Wachtler / Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich

Bees tell each other how to find pollen-laden flowers using the "waggle dance." It's incredibly precise, and can pinpoint a flower miles away. A bee stomps, vibrates her wings, and waggles her abdomen while walking in a straight line, then circles back to the start and does it again. The angle she moves says which way to go. The amount of time she wags tells the distance. Other bees follow the waggle map.

The catch: Hives are pitch black. The observing bees don't see the dance — they hear and feel it.

Researchers already knew which neurons the bees used to feel vibrations, and they knew about the dance. But no one had looked at how the two interacted.

Thomas Wachtler, a researcher at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich, drummed the beat of an artificial waggle dance to a bee, and observed which neurons activated. At the center of the brain's response were three neurons: the first starts or stops the second in response to sound – so that measures the time period of the waggle. The purpose of the third isn't clear yet, but since it receives signals from both of the bee's antennae, Wachtler thinks it helps the observers track where the dancing bee is in space, so they can determine the angle of the waggle.

"We're starting to understand how a fairly simple neural system, like a bee's, can solve a complex task like communication," Wachtler says.