"It's exciting to be able to have these first observations of alien matter—stuff that didn't come from our sun or the planets, but came from the outside of our solar system, from other parts of the galaxy," David McComas, team leader for the IBEX program, said during a NASA news conference Tuesday.
"We think these are really important measurements, because these elements are the fundamental building blocks of stars, planets, and people."
Soldiers could have their minds plugged directly into weapons systems, undergo brain scans during recruitment and take courses of neural stimulation to boost their learning, if the armed forces embrace the latest developments in neuroscience to hone the performance of their troops.
These scenarios are described in a report into the military and law enforcement uses of neuroscience, published on Tuesday, which also highlights a raft of legal and ethical concerns that innovations in the field may bring.
The report by the Royal Society, the UK's national academy of science, says that while the rapid advance of neuroscience is expected to benefit society and improve treatments for brain disease and mental illness, it also has substantial security applications that should be carefully analysed.
The report's authors also anticipate new designer drugs that boost performance, make captives more talkative and make enemy troops fall asleep.
"Neuroscience will have more of an impact in the future," said Rod Flower, chair of the report's working group.
"People can see a lot of possibilities, but so far very few have made their way through to actual use.
"All leaps forward start out this way. You have a groundswell of ideas and suddenly you get a step change."
The authors argue that while hostile uses of neuroscience and related technologies are ever more likely, scientists remain almost oblivious to the dual uses of their research.
The report calls for a fresh effort to educate neuroscientists about such uses of the work early in their careers.
Some techniques used widely in neuroscience are on the brink of being adopted by the military to improve the training of soldiers, pilots and other personnel.
A growing body of research suggests that passing weak electrical signals through the skull, using transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), can improve people's performance in some tasks.
One study cited by the report described how US neuroscientists employed tDCS to improve people's ability to spot roadside bombs, snipers and other hidden threats in a virtual reality training programme used by US troops bound for the Middle East.
"Those who had tDCS learned to spot the targets much quicker," said Vince Clark, a cognitive neuroscientist and lead author on the study at the University of New Mexico. "Their accuracy increased twice as fast as those who had minimal brain stimulation. I was shocked that the effect was so large."
Clark, whose wider research on tDCS could lead to radical therapies for those with dementia, psychiatric disorders and learning difficulties, admits to a tension in knowing that neuroscience will be used by the military.
"As a scientist I dislike that someone might be hurt by my work. I want to reduce suffering, to make the world a better place, but there are people in the world with different intentions, and I don't know how to deal with that.
"If I stop my work, the people who might be helped won't be helped. Almost any technology has a defence application."
Research with tDCS is in its infancy, but work so far suggests it might help people by boosting their attention and memory. According to the Royal Society report, when used with brain imaging systems, tDCS "may prove to be the much sought-after tool to enhance learning in a military context".
One of the report's most striking scenarios involves the use of devices called brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) to connect people's brains directly to military technology, including drones and other weapons systems.
The work builds on research that has enabled people to control cursors and artificial limbs through BMIs that read their brain signals.
"Since the human brain can process images, such as targets, much faster than the subject is consciously aware of, a neurally interfaced weapons system could provide significant advantages over other system control methods in terms of speed and accuracy," the report states.
The authors go on to stress the ethical and legal concerns that surround the use of BMIs by the military. Flower, a professor of pharmacology at the William Harvey Research Institute at Barts and the London hospital, said: "If you are controlling a drone and you shoot the wrong target or bomb a wedding party, who is responsible for that action? Is it you or the BMI?
"There's a blurring of the line between individual responsibility and the functioning of the machine. Where do you stop and the machine begin?"
Another tool expected to enter military use is the EEG (electroencephalogram), which uses a hairnet of electrodes to record brainwaves through the skull. Used with a system called "neurofeedback", people can learn to control their brainwaves and improve their skills.
According to the report, the technique has been shown to improve training in golfers and archers.
The US military research organisation, Darpa, has already used EEG to help spot targets in satellite images that were missed by the person screening them. The EEG traces revealed that the brain sometimes noticed targets but failed to make them conscious thoughts. Staff used the EEG traces to select a group of images for closer inspection and improved their target detection threefold, the report notes.
Work on brain connectivity has already raised the prospect of using scans to select fast learners during recruitment drives.
Research last year by Scott Grafton at the University of California, Santa Barbara, drew on functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans to measure the flexibility of brain networks. They found that a person's flexibility helped predict how quickly they would learn a new task.
Other studies suggest neuroscience could help distinguish risk-takers from more conservative decision-makers, and so help with assessments of whether they are better suited to peacekeeping missions or special forces, the report states.
"Informal assessment occurs routinely throughout the military community. The issue is whether adopting more formal techniques based on the results of research in neuroeconomics, neuropsychology and other neuroscience disciplines confers an advantage in decision-making."
The Miraculous NASA Breakthrough That Could Save Millions of Lives
There are no hospitals in space. The closest E.R. is back on Earth, and astronauts can't exactly jump in a cab to get there. So what happens if the sun burps out a massive blast of radiation while an astronaut is space-amblin' by?
The NASA Biocapsule—made of carbon nanotubes—will be able to "diagnose" and instantly treat an astronaut without him or her even knowing there's something amiss. It would be like having your own personal Dr. McCoy—implanted under your skin. It represents one of the most significant breakthroughs in the history of medicine, and yes, it'll work on Earth, too.
Out of all the amazing things we saw during our NASA visits, nothing blew our minds as much as this tiny little bundle of carbon. The Space Biosciences Division at NASA Ames creates medical technology for astronauts. They essentially provide healthcare for outer space. Dr. David Loftus is the man who invented the NASA Biocapsule and has been awarded a patent for it.
Picture this: An astronaut is going to Mars. The round-trip journey will take between two and three years. During that time, the astronaut will not have access to a doctor, and there's a lot that can go wrong with the human body in space. So, prior to launch, the astronaut is implanted with a number of NASA Biocapsules. A very small incision is made in the astronaut's skin for each Biocapsule (probably in the thigh), which is implanted subcutaneously. It's outpatient surgery that requires only local anesthetic and a stitch or two to close the wound. But after it's complete, the astronaut's body is equipped to deal with a whole host of problems on its own.
One of the primary threats in space is exposure to high levels of radiation. When astronauts travel beyond Low Earth Orbit (i.e., to the Moon or Mars), they are at risk of acute radiation exposure from "solar particle events," sudden releases of intense radiation from the sun, which can damage bone marrow and wipe out someone's immune system. That's where the NASA Biocapsule kicks in: It could be filled with cells that sense the increased levels of radiation and automatically disperse medicine to help the body compensate.
This isn't science fiction. We already use a hormone called G-CSF (Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor) to treat cancer patients who are receiving radiation treatment. So it was a very small jump to put these cells in a capsule. Without G-CSF, an astronaut's immune system might not recover; he or she could die of a massive infection.
The Biocapsules aren't one-shot deals. Each capsule could be capable of delivering many metred doses over a period of years. There is no "shelf-life" to the Biocapsules. They are extremely resilient, and there is currently no known enzyme that can break down their nanostructures. And because the nanostructures are inert, they are extremely well-tolerated by the body. The capsules' porous natures allow medication to pass through their walls, but the nanostructures are strong enough to keep the cells in one place. Once all of the cells are expended, the Biocapsule stays in the body, stable and unnoticed, until it is eventually removed by a doctor back on Earth.
While the treatment of radiation-effects in space is NASA's no. 1 application for the Biocapsule, different capsules will be created to combat different threats. Heat, exhaustion, and sleep-deprivation are serious risks on an EVA (a "spacewalk"), and astronauts are usually on a very tight schedule. Different capsules can be created that contain unique triggers and treatments for different stress-factors. Naturally, DARPA has expressed a huge interest in the Biocapsules for potential military applications. But there are far loftier things planned for us Earthlings.
On our home planet, the NASA Biocapsule's primary target is diabetes—specifically, patients who need insulin. Says Dr. Loftus:
The capsule would contain pancreatic islet cells (from animals) or would contain engineered cells designed to behave like pancreatic islet cells, with both glucose-sensing and insulin secretion function. Patients with low-insulin requirement might benefit from implantation of a single capsule (containing perhaps a million to 10 million cells); patients with higher insulin requirement might require implantation of more than one capsule.
In other words, diabetes patients might never need to give themselves another shot. They wouldn't have to worry about remembering to bring medicine everywhere, and they might even be free of having to constantly monitor their blood-sugar levels. Plus, many diabetes patients lapse into comas or die during sleep because that's eight hours every day when they can't monitor their levels. The NASA Biocapsules would work automatically, regardless of whether you're awake or not. As of 2010 there were an estimated 285 million people living with diabetes, so saying that this invention could potentially save millions of lives is not an exaggeration.
Secondary "terrestrial" applications include cancer treatment (especially brain cancer). A Biocapsule implanted directly into a tumor bed could deliver very high doses of chemotherapy right to the area where it is needed—and it would greatly reduce side effects by minimizing the amount of medication that gets to other sites in the body. There are also important applications in gene therapy.
Some children are born missing a gene, or are born with a defective gene. As a result, they can't make a needed protein. Hemophilia is a classic example. These patients are missing an important blood coagulation protein. The biocapsule could be used to implant cells that are engineered to release the missing protein. Successful therapy would mean that the patients are spared the need to receive periodic injections. Patients would be safely protected by the protein released from the capsule, and they would be able to lead more normal lives.
During our visit, we asked Dr. Loftus if there could be applications for severe allergy sufferers. Many people have potentially deadly allergies (to bees, to nuts, etc.) that could send them into anaphylactic shock, and they have to carry a shot of epinephrine (an "EpiPen") in case of exposure. He said that was very much a possibility, and implementing that technology into the biocapsule would be relatively very simple. He even credited us with coming up with the idea, so in the future when you get stung by a bee and don't die, you're welcome, from Gizmodo.
Given all of these applications (and there are many more), it's not a stretch to say that the NASA Biocapsule could change the face of medicine forever. They are inexpensive and (as you can see in the video) extremely easy to create. The vacuum sucks carbon nanotubes into the mold, you slide the capsule off the mold, you fill it with cells, and then you cap it off either using more nanotubes or a protein glue. Easy as pie. They are scheduled to begin animal trials this year and next, and human trials would begin shortly after that. If all goes well we would likely see these implanted in International Space Station astronauts sometime this decade, and while it's always a wild guess, Dr. Loftus thinks we could realistically see wildspread usage on Earth within 10 to 15 years.
The NASA Biocapsule I made now sits proudly on a shelf above my desk. It is almost certainly the coolest physical thing I have ever made. An artifact from the future. Every time I look at it I feel like I'm looking through a window into another time. Twenty years from now these capsules may be commonplace. We may all have them under our skin, keeping us safe on Earth—or maybe on Mars.
Scientists employed by Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE and leader of Abu Dhabi, successfully created more than 50 rainstorms in the state's Al Ain region last year, mostly in July and August when there is virtually no rain at all. It is believed to be the first time the system has produced rain from clear skies.
They have been using giant ionisers, shaped like giant lampshades, to generate fields of negatively charged particles, which create cloud formation.
In a company video, seen by The Sunday Times, Helmut Fluhrer, the founder of Metro Systems International, the Swiss company in charge of the project, said: "We are currently operating our innovative rainfall enhancement technology, Weathertec, in the region of Al Ain in Abu Dhabid. We started in June 2010 and have achieved a number of rainfalls."
The Amazon is home to more species than almost anywhere else on earth. One of them, carried home recently by a group from Yale University, appears to be quite happy eating plastic in airless landfills.