New Worlds: Birth of a neuron - now playing at a brain near you

Also in New Worlds: Methods to save on fuel; new device monitors how much exposures billboards actually get.

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June 9, 2007 22:27
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The generation of neurons in the brain of a living mammal has been observed for the first time. Dr. Adi Mizrahi of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's neurobiology department at the Alexander Silberman Institute of Life Sciences used mouse models to study how nerve cells develop from an undifferentiated cellular sphere into rich and complex maturity. This has great significance for the future of brain research, says Mizrahi, since "the structural and functional complexity of nerve cells remains one of the biggest mysteries of neuroscience." His groundbreaking work appeared in the online edition of Nature Neuroscience. Using special microscopic imaging techniques combined with virus gene technology, Mizrahi was able to develop an experimental model to study in vivo development of neural dendrites - the branch-like extensions that spread out to other neurons and serve as points of communication. The model he used was the newborn neuron population that develops into the olfactory bulb of adult mice, providing their sense of smell. The development and maintenance of neurons in this area was assessed by time-lapse photography over several days. Mizrahi revealed that dendritic formation is highly dynamic, and that even after a neural network is formed, neurons continue to be "born" and remain capable of continuous change. This method provides a mechanism for observing - for the first time in a mammal - how these rich and complex cells develop, and how, once developed, they are maintained in the ever-changing environment of the brain. As for research that could lead to breakthroughs in treatment of neural disorders, Mizrahi noted that "there are only a few small areas in the brain capable of neurogenesis, and they hide secrets we want to reveal." CUTTING FUEL COSTS Improving the aerodynamics of heavy road vehicles could save the world trucking industry hundreds of millions of gallons of fuel per year. With this in mind, Tel Aviv University has developed a drag-reduction device that has caught the attention of the World's Best Technologies Showcase - an annual event in Texas. The device, which can be retrofitted to the back of a truck or trailer, can increase fuel economy by as much as 10 percent. Obviously, this will have a huge impact on the environment. Prof. Avraham Seifert and colleagues from TAU's Aladar Fleischman Faculty of Engineering are now testing a small actuator that, by the combined action of suction and pulsed blowing of airflow, reduces drag in a controlled manner and will save the US truck industry about $400 million a year. At an expected end-user cost of $1,000 to $2,000 per unit, the device should pay for itself in a year. NEW DEVICE SEES YOU WATCHING IT A new, affordable way for advertisers to track the effectiveness of their messages by counting how many people are looking at their billboards and screens has been invented by a computer science professor at Queen's University in Canada. Called Eyebox2, the portable device uses a camera that monitors eye movement in real time and automatically detects when it is being looked at from up to 10 meters away. Until now, eye-trackers have been ineffective beyond 60 centimeters, required people to remain stationary, needed personalized calibration and cost more than $25,000 each. The new "walk-up-and-use eye" needs no calibration and is offered at a fraction of the cost. "This camera mimics eye-contact perception in humans, allowing us to pinpoint quite accurately what plasma screen or product shelf people are looking at," says Dr. Roel Vertegaal, director of the university's human media lab and inventor of the technology. He is also CEO of Xuuk, the company he formed to commercialize it. The debut of Eyebox2 coincides with the new "ambient" advertising. While the impact of an Internet ad can be measured by the number of hits on a Web site, it's much harder to assess the effectiveness of plasma screens in shopping malls, restaurants and other public places. Vertegaal's invention gives advertisers a way of knowing how much attention such things receive. "Our technology allows interactive, real-time 'Flow of Attention' measures of customers in the real world. This allows ambient ads in malls to be sold 'by the eyeball,'" says Vertegaal. He stresses that this technology is not an additional form of surveillance, like closed-circuit TV, but compares it instead to a simple door sensor. "The door sensor doesn't know who you are, and neither does the Eyebox2," he says. "It is a passive technology that simply counts how many people have been looking at a particular ad and for how long." As competition for each consumer's attention intensifies, this technology enables advertisers to assess interest in their products in a completely transparent fashion, and for considerably less than existing methods, he adds. CHOCOLATE, MINT ON ONE LEAF Good news for chocolate and mint lovers! A new herb called Chocolate-Menta has been developed and acclimated to Israel by the Hishtil consortium. The plant has a delicate peppermint taste, and the aroma of chocolate. The stems are dark brown, and it grows well in the summer. Hishtil claims the plant is excellent in salads and beverages, and adds that it can be mixed in a blender with white cheese, ice cream or puddings, or even added to tinned sardines! The plant, sold exclusively by Hishtil (www.hishtil.com), can be grown from hanging pots in direct sun to half shade, with a lot of water; it slumbers in winter.

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