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Balancing old and new skills

December 10, 2013 11:14 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

To learn new motor skills, the brain must be plastic: able to rapidly change the strengths of connections between neurons, forming new patterns that accomplish a particular task. However, if the brain were too plastic, previously learned skills would be lost too easily. A new computational model explains how the brain maintains the balance between plasticity and stability, and how it can learn similar tasks without interference.

Sensor tracks zinc in cells

December 10, 2013 7:21 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Zinc is found in every tissue in the body. The vast majority of the metal ion is tightly bound to proteins, helping them to perform biological reactions. Tiny amounts of zinc, however, are only loosely bound, and may be critical for proper function in some organs. Yet the exact roles the ion plays in biological systems are unknown. A new optical sensor tracks zinc within cells and should help researchers learn more about its functions.

A leap forward in x-ray technology

December 4, 2013 7:47 am | by David Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

X-rays transformed medicine a century ago by providing a noninvasive way to detect internal structures in the body. Still, they have limitations: X-rays cannot image the body’s soft tissues, except with the use of contrast-enhancing agents that must be swallowed or injected, and their resolution is limited. But a newly developed approach could dramatically change that.

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Pills of the future

December 2, 2013 12:09 pm | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Drugs delivered by nanoparticles hold promise for targeted treatment of many diseases, including cancer. However, the particles have to be injected into patients, which has limited their usefulness so far. Now, researchers have developed a new type of nanoparticle that can be delivered orally and absorbed through the digestive tract, allowing patients to simply take a pill instead of receiving injections.

3-D images, with only one photon per pixel

December 2, 2013 7:49 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Lidar rangefinders gauge depth by emitting short bursts of laser light and measuring the time it takes for reflected photons to arrive back and be detected. In Science, researchers from Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Research Laboratory of Electronics describe a new lidar-like system that can gauge depth when only a single photon is detected from each location.

Inexpensive nanocamera can operate at the speed of light

November 26, 2013 7:31 am | by Helen Knight, MIT News correspondent | News | Comments

A $500 “nanocamera” that can operate at the speed of light has been developed by researchers in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab. The 3-D camera could be used in medical imaging and collision-avoidance detectors for cars, and to improve the accuracy of motion tracking and gesture-recognition devices used in interactive gaming.

A possible cause of the end-Permian mass extinction: Lemon juice?

November 25, 2013 11:05 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Rain as acidic as undiluted lemon juice may have played a part in killing off plants and organisms around the world during the most severe mass extinction in Earth’s history. About 252 million years ago, the end of the Permian period brought about a worldwide collapse known as the Great Dying, during which a vast majority of species went extinct. The cause of such a massive extinction is a matter of scientific debate.

Creating synthetic antibodies

November 25, 2013 7:40 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Massachusetts Institute of Technology chemical engineers have developed a novel way to generate nanoparticles that can recognize specific molecules, opening up a new approach to building durable sensors for many different compounds, among other applications. To create these “synthetic antibodies,” the researchers used carbon nanotubes.

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Catalyst for business

November 21, 2013 9:37 am | by Rob Matheson, MIT News Office | News | Comments

After working at a software company for four years, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) alumnus Andrew Dougherty was itching to do something entrepreneurial in the energy industry. Browsing the Website of MIT’s $50K (now $100K) Entrepreneurship Competition, he found an exact match for his interests: an invention by MIT postdoctoral researcher Javier García-Martínez that used nanotechnology to improve the efficiency of oil refining.

Droplets break a theoretical time barrier on bouncing

November 21, 2013 7:25 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | Videos | Comments

Those who study hydrophobic materials are familiar with a theoretical limit on the time it takes for a water droplet to bounce away from such a surface. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have now found a way to burst through that perceived barrier, reducing the contact time by at least 40%.

Study: More spending on fire suppression may lead to bigger fires

November 20, 2013 10:02 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

The “firefighting trap” is a term often used by business managers to describe a shortsighted cycle of problem-solving: dealing with “fires,” or problems, as they arise, but failing to address the underlying cause, thereby increasing the chance that the same problem will reoccur in the future. Massachusetts Institute of Technology has looked at the original inspiration for this “quick-fix” management strategy: firefighting itself.

Magnetic nanoparticles could aid heat dissipation

November 20, 2013 8:05 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Cooling systems generally rely on water pumped through pipes to remove unwanted heat. Now, researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and in Australia have found a way of enhancing heat transfer in such systems by using magnetic fields, a method that could prevent hotspots that can lead to system failures. The system could also be applied to cooling everything from electronic devices to advanced fusion reactors, they say.

Asteroids’ close encounters with Mars

November 19, 2013 7:56 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

For nearly as long as astronomers have been able to observe asteroids, a question has gone unanswered: Why do the surfaces of most asteroids appear redder than meteorites—the remnants of asteroids that have crashed to Earth? Scientists have now found that Mars, not Earth, shakes up some near-Earth asteroids.

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How do we balance needs of energy, water and climate?

November 15, 2013 7:26 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

In deciding how best to meet the world’s growing needs for energy, the answers depend crucially on how the question is framed. Looking for the most cost-effective path provides one set of answers; including the need to curtail greenhouse gas emissions gives a different picture. Adding the need to address looming shortages of fresh water, it turns out, leads to a very different set of choices.

Biologists identify new cancer weakness

November 14, 2013 3:37 pm | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

About half of all cancer patients have a mutation in a gene called p53, which allows tumors to survive and continue growing even after chemotherapy severely damages their DNA. A new study from Massachusetts Institute of Technology biologists has found that tumor cells with mutated p53 can be made much more vulnerable to chemotherapy by blocking another gene called MK2.

Machine learning branches out

November 14, 2013 7:59 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Much artificial intelligence research is concerned with finding statistical correlations between variables. As the number of variables grows, calculating their aggregate statistics becomes dauntingly complex. But that calculation can be drastically simplified if you know something about the structure of the data.

Better batteries through biology?

November 13, 2013 7:30 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Lithium-air batteries have become a hot research area in recent years: They hold the promise of drastically increasing power per battery weight, which could lead, for example, to electric cars with a much greater driving range. But bringing that promise to reality has faced a number of challenges.

Cooling when there's too much heat

November 11, 2013 2:18 pm | by Nancy W. Stauffer, MIT Energy Initiative | News | Comments

When an earthquake and tsunami struck Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011, crews sprayed cooling seawater on the reactors, but to no avail. One possible reason: Droplets can’t land on surfaces that hot and instantly begin to evaporate, forming a thin layer of vapor and then bouncing along it. Now, MIT researchers have come up with a way to cool hot surfaces more effectively by keeping droplets from bouncing.

Moon’s face doesn’t tell its whole story

November 8, 2013 12:00 pm | News | Comments

Researchers find that huge craters on the near side of the moon may overstate the intensity of asteroid impacts about 4.1 billion years ago.                                          

Hybrid nuclear plants could make a dent in carbon emissions

November 5, 2013 7:31 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Many efforts to smooth out the variability of renewable energy sources have focused on batteries, which could fill gaps lasting hours or days. But Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Charles Forsberg has come up with a much more ambitious idea: He proposes marrying a nuclear power plant with another energy system, which he argues could add up to much more than the sum of its parts.

How to program unreliable chips

November 4, 2013 8:23 am | by Larry Hardesty, MIT News Office | News | Comments

As transistors get smaller, they also become less reliable. So far, computer-chip designers have been able to work around that problem, but in the future, it could mean that computers stop improving at the rate we’ve come to expect. A third possibility, which some researchers have begun to float, is that we could simply let our computers make more mistakes.

Implantable sensor paves way to long-term monitoring

November 4, 2013 7:31 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Nitric oxide (NO) is one of the most important signaling molecules in living cells, carrying messages within the brain and coordinating immune system functions. In many cancerous cells, levels are perturbed, but very little is known about how NO behaves in both healthy and cancerous cells. Until now.

Resistance is futile

November 1, 2013 7:40 am | by Anne Trafton, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Cisplatin is a chemotherapy drug given to more than half of all cancer patients. The drug kills cells very effectively by damaging nuclear DNA, but if tumors become resistant to cisplatin they often grow back. A new study offers a possible way to overcome that resistance. The researchers found that when cisplatin was delivered to cellular structures called mitochondria, DNA in this organelle was damaged, leading to cancer cell death.

So close, yet so far

October 31, 2013 7:42 am | by Jennifer Chu, MIT News Office | News | Comments

In August, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers identified an exoplanet with an extremely brief orbital period: The team found that Kepler 78b, a small, intensely hot planet 400 light-years from Earth, circles its star in just 8.5 hrs. Now this same team has found that Kepler 78b shares another characteristic with Earth: its mass.

Experiment could shed light on the mysteries of dark matter

October 28, 2013 7:41 am | by David L. Chandler, MIT News Office | News | Comments

Dark matter, believed by physicists to outweigh all the normal matter in the universe by more than five to one, is by definition invisible. But certain features associated with dark matter might be detectable, according to some of the many competing theories describing this elusive matter. Now scientists have developed a tool that could test some of these predictions and thus prove, or disprove, one of the leading theories.

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