Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 21, 2024

Inception, deception, and solar power

By MIKE YAMAKAWA | September 12, 2013

INCEPTION?

Well, in the movie-sense, absolutely not. Not with current technology at least. Maybe one day we’ll be able to press a red button on a box that will transport us into people’s dreams, allowing us to plant information without any incriminating footprints.

However, edging away from the boundaries of ethics, a recent experiment has shown that “powering up” the brain can actually produce strong memories!

UC Irvine researchers tested rodents to retain memories of sounds. After listening to certain tones, researchers stimulated the nucleus basalis, a portion of the brain rich with acetylcholines, a chemical compound known to help memory formation. They saw the respiration rates of the rodents spike up when the specific sound was made, similar to getting excited when an awesome song is played on the radio. While clinical trials on humans have not been conducted, this may pave way for treatment designs targeted towards neurological disorders that lead to memory loss.

Concurrently, researchers from The Scripps Research Institute discovered ways to do just the opposite. They asked whether memories can be dissociated from external stimuli. For example, can previous drug users going through rehab reduce the overwhelming sensation of desire when they see money, gum, or more drugs?

Memories are a huge part of our lives, of course. Memories of our grandparents; memories of high school prom; soldiers’ memories of a tragic incidents during war; they all shape our lives significantly, for better or for worse.

Unfortunately some who have undergone a tragic event tend to suffer from PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) causing them to relive their terrifying memories, while others who have suffered from addictions can be pushed back into their drug habits. Researchers were able to throw these bad memories out the window, without hurting the long-cherished, pleasant memories.

When a memory is made, many things are altered in the brain. Neurons, or neural cells, are changed structurally by proteins called actins. This allows neurons to extend their bodies towards other neurons, consequently allowing those neurons to communicate together electrochemically.

Scientists found that inhibiting the activity of actin during the “maintenance-phase” of memory creation changed the behavior of drug-addicted animals in response to the appearance of drugs. Other memories, like the association of smell with food, was remarkably unaffected.

HARVESTING THE SUN

Besides the gas that we use to fuel up our cars, many other sources have been found to power up our technologies, including wind and the sun. Unfortunately, there has been a great stall to begin a vast conversion to alternative energies due to cost and efficiency. Constant wind is only available in higher altitudes in certain cities, and the technology that harnesses energy from the sun’s photons is not very efficient.

However, a group of researchers at University of Pennsylvania has found a way to improve the efficiency of solar cells using plasmonic nanostructures. These nanostructures are composed of gold fillings and porphyrins, which are able to capture and absorb the photons’ energy. Electrons within the structure are subsequently excited and are harvested to be used in other devices while it’s in the excited state.

The structure can also adapt to various wavelengths of light to harness the most energy as possible. This is done by changing the distance between the nanoparticles, allowing for various wavelengths to enter. The nanostructure, diminutive as the name suggests, can be even incorporated in paints that coat your computer so your computer can only be powered using sunlight. While this paint is not commercially available and is just a theoretical product, it may be something that will replace your chargers in the future!


Have a tip or story idea?
Let us know!

Comments powered by Disqus

Please note All comments are eligible for publication in The News-Letter.