New Zealand’s Real Fruit Ice Cream Gets an American Makeover

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The wholesome summer favorite is catching on in the U.S., but with sprinkles, drizzles and even cookies to satisfy the nation’s sweet tooth.

Not your grandparents’ “Monopoly”

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On an otherwise sleepy Friday in late June, one corner of MIT’s Hayden Library was abuzz with the sounds of board gamers at play. Most of the gamers also happened to be first-time designers, and they had gathered to test out their maiden boards, some with the ink still drying.

“I printed my game this morning!” exclaimed Amruta Borwankar MBA ’23, who was fresh from completing her degree and had put off her return to India for the chance to design her own game. “I didn’t want to miss it because this is the only place that offers this kind of opportunity.”

That opportunity was a summer workshop in board game design, sponsored by the Council for the Arts at MIT and the MIT MindHandHeart Innovation Fund, and open to family, friends, and members of the MIT community. The workshop was led by Doris Qingyi Duanmu SM ’23, an MIT graduate student in urban studies, and Ziye Zhang, a game designer from New York University.

Over two weeks, the instructors ran participants through a crash course in the history and mechanics of board game design, and then set them up with materials, fabrication tools, online resources, and the goal of delivering a playable game at the workshop’s final Friday showcase. Their message to the fledgling designers: Any idea has gameplay potential.

In particular, the workshop emphasizes the idea that games can be a gateway into social and cultural topics that otherwise may be challenging to engage with in daily life.

“Board games can bring people together around the table and open up a topic, even an uncomfortable one, through their playfulness,” Duanmu notes. “It doesn’t mean that board games can solve a social problem, but they can help facilitate a conversation that could lead to decisions and solutions.”

Game history

Designing games as tools for progress is not a new idea. As Duanmu and Zhang reference in the workshop, the classic, cut-throat, capitalist game of “Monopoly” originally had more progressive intentions.

The game’s roots are meandering and surprisingly contentious, and can ultimately be traced back to Elizabeth “Lizzy” Magie. At the turn of the 20th century, Magie invented the “Landlord’s Game” — a setup that clearly resembles the modern “Monopoly,” with a board printed with various real estate properties, along with game pieces, play money, cards of chance, and the infamous command to “Go to Jail.”

Interestingly, Magie’s version could be played in one of two ways: either as competitive monopolists, in which players try to ruthlessly buy up more properties and accumulate more wealth than their opponents; or as more cooperative “anti-monopolists,” where everyone receives some benefit each time a player acquires some wealth. In Magie’s view, the game was meant to educate players on the tensions between capitalism and communalism. As it happened, capitalism won out, at least in terms of the game’s ultimate, commercial form.

And indeed, many board games developed through the 20th century were designed with similar competitive, land-grabbing, and even colonialist themes. Only recently have commercial-scale board games begun to feature more socially and culturally diverse themes.

In their workshop, Duanmu and Zhang cite Wingspan, a beautifully illustrated, card-driven board game that hit shelves in 2019, as one example of an enormously successful game with a seemingly niche theme (the habits and habitats of wild birds). They anticipate that Votes for Women, another tabletop game developed in 2022, could have a similar unconventional appeal. That game centers on the women’s suffrage movement, and to win the game, players must play cards that encourage the passage of the 19th amendment and states’ ratification of women’s right to vote.

“There’s a trend in the game production field now where designers are starting to focus on ways to showcase a particular idea,” Zhang says. “A lot of commercial games are mechanically heavy but are borrowing a theme, usually overlooking the social, educational, and intellectual aspects of board games. But if you have an irreplaceable idea that you’re designing as a game, that could change the market.”

Story and rhythm

Last spring, Duanmu fell upon a game idea of her own. As part of her studies in personal narratives and urban design, she had been researching the stories of Afghan refugees and the harrowing paths they’ve been forced to take to flee their country.

“I drew up a map showing all the routes they could choose, and I thought, this could be a perfect game board, and a way to tell their story,” says Duanmu, who is working with Zhang to refine the design. She is quick to emphasize that the game’s intent is not to romanticize or downplay the refugees’ plight, but rather to raise awareness and open dialogue on the issue.

“For those of us who are privileged enough to play, this kind of game could create a collective discomfort that we share within a game space,” she says. “That could make you want to know more about their background story and perhaps do something about it after the game is over.”

As they worked through the game’s mechanics and plot, the team had a thought: Perhaps they could teach others how to design board games with social and cultural stories at their core.

In January 2023, they offered the first board game design workshop during MIT’s Independent Activities Period. In that session, participants came up with preliminary designs for game ideas, ranging from maintaining environmentally sustainable industries in the Philippines, to managing the balance and flow of stories in a daily newsroom. The overwhelmingly positive response spurred Duanmu and Zhang to do it again. The most recent workshop, over two weeks this past June, drew participants with similarly diverse ideas that the duo helped guide into game form.

“Many of our participants are first-time designers, and we feel that starting with stories is an easier and more powerful way to get them started,” Zhang says. “A story needs a plot, a rhythm to the story, ups and downs, and those things can be turned into game mechanics that can tell and advance the story.”

Unlikely play

In the workshop’s final Friday showcase, about a dozen participants — a mix of students, postdocs, staff members, and MIT affiliates — set up their finished games and took turns play-testing and giving feedback on their classmates’ designs, which ranged from simple card games to more elaborate, 3D-printed constructions. Game themes ran an even wider gamut, exploring everything from human psychology and social relationships to library science, modern piracy, work/life balance, and supply chains in a depleted world.

Borwankar, the recent MBA graduate, managed to display two games: an array of tiles, each challenging a player to perform a silly exercise, or an act of kindness (compliment your neighbor — earn 7 points); and a game of government, where a player, acting as a head of state, must learn to balance various political actions with fiscal budgets and party votes.

“I think it’s important for kids to be aware of these tradeoffs,” says Borwankar, who brought her two young sons to join in the fun. “By playing the game, it could help them realize, next time they listen to a politician’s populist speech, that it’s not necessarily going to improve GDP — it’s just for votes.”

Across the room, Aziza Robinson-Goodnight displayed hexagonal tiles and a spinning wheel as part of her design, inspired by an unlikely game topic: reparations and the movement to collectively heal the Black community.  

“Communities are so bogged down with the day-to-day that they can’t think about the [historical] harm that’s inflicted on them, and the repair,” says Robinson-Goodnight, a Boston-based artist and activist who works with MIT’s Community Innovators Lab (CoLab). “I wanted to create a game where folks can take a journey through repair, and spark collective thinking around the repair of the harm.”

She plans to pitch the game to schools and community centers as a playful way into a hard though necessary conversation.

“Seeing the game, finished, is the most rewarding thing,” she says of her workshop experience. “I studied and taught art for 15 years, and it’s like, give me the tools, I can do the thing! I loved it.”

Duanmu and Zhang plan to offer the workshop next year during IAP 2024.

“We want to give everyone an introductory and hands-on experience to design a game that tells the stories they want,” Duanmu says. “We want to show them it’s all possible.”

Source: Not your grandparents’ “Monopoly”

A new vision for US health care

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It’s not exactly what he’s best known for, but Alexander Hamilton helped develop the first national, compulsory health insurance policy in the world: a 1798 taxpayer-financed plan Congress approved to cover sick and disabled seamen.

“The interests of humanity are concerned in it,” Hamilton wrote.

And they still are, as MIT Professor Amy Finkelstein notes in a new book. The U.S. has repeatedly tried to provide medical care for those who need it and cannot afford it. These efforts may have started with Hamilton, but they have continued through modern times, with policies that have mandated emergency-room care for all, and have extended insurance to those with certain serious illnesses.  

Then again, no policy has fully addressed the needs of the U.S. population. About 30 million U.S. citizens lack health insurance. Even for the insured, costs routinely exceed a plan’s benefits. Americans have $140 billion in unpaid medical debt, more than all other personal debt combined, and three-fifths of it is incurred by people with health insurance.

That’s why Finkelstein is calling for a total overhaul of the U.S. health insurance system, in a new book with economist Liran Einav of Stanford University, “We’ve Got You Covered: Rebooting American Health Care,” published today by Portfolio. In it, the scholars envision an approach with one layer of free and automatic health insurance for everyone, and another layer of private insurance for those seeking additional care amenities.  

“In the U.S., we have always had a commitment to do something when people are ill, so we might as well do it effectively and efficiently,” says Finkelstein, the John and Jennie S. MacDonald Professor in MIT’s Department of Economics. “I don’t think anyone would argue we have a wonderful, well-functioning health care system.”

Patchwork programs

Finkelstein has won the John Bates Clark Medal and received a MacArthur fellowship for empirical studies of health insurance and health care — including work on Medicaid and Medicare, the financial impact of being hospitalized, geographic variation in medical costs, and more. Finkelstein and Einav are also co-authors, with Ray Fisman, of the 2023 book, “Risky Business,” about the insurance industry.

Through two decades of intensive research, Finkelstein and Einav have also never advocated for specific health care policies — until now.

“We feel we do have something to say to the wider public about the problems, and also about the solution,” Finkelstein says. “We emphasize the problems of the insured, not only the uninsured.”

Indeed, around 150 million Americans rely on private employer-provided insurance. Yet they risk losing that insurance if they lose or change their job. Those with public health insurance, like Medicaid, face nearly the opposite problem. If a family member earns enough money to lift a household above the poverty line, they can lose eligibility. The net result: About one in four Americans under the age of 65 will be uninsured at some point in the next two years.

Many of them will actually be eligible for free or heavily discounted coverage. About 18 million Americans who are eligible for public health insurance remain unenrolled due to a lack of information and complicated signup procedures. And even Medicare, the workhorse public insurance program for many seniors, has out-of-pocket expenses with no cap. A quarter of people on Medicare spend a quarter of their income on health care.

Some reforms have brought better coverage to more people. As the scholars note, the Affordable Care Act of 2010 (which MIT economist Jonathan Gruber helped develop) has allowed 10 million formerly uninsured Americans to gain coverage. But it didn’t change the risk of losing insurance coverage or of incurring large medical debt due to highly incomplete coverage.

The book contends the U.S. has used a long series of piecemeal policies to try to fix problems with health coverage in the U.S. One long-standing approach has been to create disease-specific care subsidies, starting with a 1972 law extending Medicare to everyone with end-stage kidney disease. More recently, similar programs have been passed to cover patients with tuberculosis, breast and cervical cancer, sickle cell anemia, ALS, HIV/AIDS, and Covid-19.

Finkelstein and Einav are skeptical of this approach, however, due to its patchwork nature. Passing separate laws for different illnesses will always leave holes in coverage. Why not just automatically include everyone?

“When you think about covering all the gaps, that’s what universal basic coverage is,” Finkelstein says.

Land of the free

As “We’ve Got You Covered” notes, the current U.S. approach to health insurance is hardly etched in concrete: Employer-provided health care really only dates to the 1950s. And, the authors emphasize, the way the U.S. keeps instituting policies to make basic care available to anyone — open emergency rooms, subsidies for severe disease treatments — is telling us that the country has a bottom-line expectation of providing humane care when most needed.

“The reason why we have all these patches is that, hard as it is to believe, in the United States there is in fact a strong social norm, an unwritten social contract, that we don’t let people die in the streets,” Finkelstein says. “When people are in dire medical situations and don’t have resources, we inevitably as a society feel compelled to try to help them. The problems of the insured and the uninsured represent failures to achieve our commitments, not the lack of those commitments.”

To Finkelstein and Einav, then, the solution is to provide free, basic health care for everyone. No sign-up woes; enrollment would be automatic. No charges for basic care. No losing insurance if you leave your job. No falling off the public-insurance ranks if you climb above the poverty line.

At the same time, they envision, the U.S. would have another layer of private health insurance, covering health care amenities — private hospital rooms, say, or other elective elements of medical care. “You can pay to upgrade,” Finkelstein says.

That would not lead to the system of absolutely equal, universal care that some envision, but Finkelstein still believes it would improve the status quo.

“We have inequality in all aspects of our lives, and this is another,” Finkelstein says. “The key is to provide essential basic coverage.”

Could the U.S. afford a system of free, basic, automatic-enrollment health care? The book’s surprising answer is: Yes, absolutely. In the U.S., 18 percent of GDP is spent on health care. Half of that goes to public health care, and half on private care. As it happens, 9 percent of GDP is how much European countries spend on their public-care health systems.

“We’re already paying for universal coverage in the United States, even though we’re not getting it,” Finkelstein says. “We’re already spending 9 percent of GDP on publicly financed health care. We certainly could do it at the same price tag as all these other countries.”

“We’ve Got You Covered” even comes out against modest co-pays (despite studies showing they reduce visits to doctors), finding them “in conflict with the rationale for universal coverage, namely, access to essential medical care without regard to [financial] need,” as Finkelstein says.

Until the impossible becomes inevitable

If the Finkelstein-Einav health insurance system makes sense on the merits, though, does it have any chance of existing?

“One thing that makes me, if not optimistic, then at least not unduly pessimistic, is that this is an argument that will and does appeal to people across the political spectrum,” Finkelstein contends. Expanding health insurance is usually associated with progressive politicians, but the book points to a series of conservatives who, even into the 21st century, have supported universal coverage.

Certainly other experts have praised “We’ve Got You Covered.” Siddhartha Mukherjee, a physician and award-winning author, calls the book “the clearest diagnosis of the American health care system I have seen,” adding it “should and will reset the debate about how to fix health care.”

N. Gregory Mankiw PhD ’84 , the Robert M. Beren Professor of Economics at Harvard University and chair of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers under former president George W. Bush, terms it a “smart, cogent, and eminently readable look at the U.S. health care system and what can be done to fix it.”

Even if a change to a free system of basic care is not immediately in the offing, Finkelstein and Einav suggest in the book that their role, in writing “We’ve Got You Covered,” is something economist Milton Friedman suggested: Develop ideas and keep them in the public sphere until “the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.”

And in the meantime, Finkelstein and Einav firmly suggest people take more seriously the way U.S. health care policy implicitly assumes we should help everyone. And for the same reasons Hamilton wanted to help seamen, namely, “to protect from want and misery” in their lives.

Source: A new vision for US health care

A new vision for ultrasound imaging

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Nicole Henning did not foresee becoming an expert in ultrasound imaging.

Before joining Koch Institute for Integrative Cancer Research at MIT as an ultrasound research specialist at the Preclinical Imaging and Testing (PI&T) Core Facility, she earned a degree in animal sciences and aspired to go to veterinary school. Instead, she found herself working in animal husbandry, and soon, in facility and project management. While she enjoyed her work, it wasn’t enough.

“I wanted to do more research, particularly helping with other people’s research,” Henning says. “I wanted to try something new. I wanted more freedom to learn to do new things and experiment in my own way.”

Virginia Spanoudaki, scientific director of the PI&T, had a vision for implementing a new ultrasound imaging method. The core facility had an ultrasound machine that could potentially be used to produce larger quantities of less-biased information about the effects of different therapies on mouse models of cancer than other standard imaging techniques. However, one key ingredient was missing: dedicated research staff who could operate and improve the system for research use.

Spanoudaki’s ideal candidate would be someone who could learn not just imaging, but also someone who cared about animals and could make the most of the ultrasound technology. The PI&T is part of the Robert A. Swanson (1969) Biotechnology Center (SBC), which not only provides access to highly specialized, cutting-edge technology to scientists and engineers at the Koch Institute, the MIT community, and beyond, but offers expert consulting and training that help researchers run their experiments in ways that maximize the technology being used, as well as assistance with analyzing data, asking new questions, and planning the next experiments.

Henning’s high level of initiative and motivation, and willingness to experiment and educate herself, made her a perfect match. She would become an expert and teacher in ultrasound imaging very quickly.

“This turned out to be the perfect job. In retrospect, I feel lucky,” says Henning.

Getting a feeling for the technology

Immediately after joining the PI&T in 2019, Henning got to know and tinkered with the ultrasound imaging system. While she had no background in the technology and faced a steep learning curve, she sought training from the Fujifilm specialists who supplied the machine to the core.

Ultrasound imaging uses sound waves to take real-time images of the body. It is often used in hospitals to track fetal development in pregnancies, or to diagnose diseases in various organs. In cancer research, ultrasound imaging may be used to study cancer development or to screen drugs for their effect on tumors or tissues.

Henning decided to take ultrasound’s capabilities one step further by developing ultrasound-guided injection (USGI), a technique that can be harnessed to initiate disease for modeling purposes or administer drugs into deep tissues. Previously, delivering these to such hard-to-reach tissues inside the body required invasive surgeries. However, such surgeries can become a confounding factor in drug screenings and disease processes, as immune responses involved in healing the surgical wounds may hinder or boost the disease process or efficacy of the drugs being tested. The key advancement of USGI is that it is a minimally invasive technique, combining ultrasound imaging to view the inside of the body to make precisely targeted injections into tissues, for instance into the lungs, liver, or pancreas.

Laura Maiorino, a postdoc in the Koch Institute laboratory of MIT Professor Darrell Irvine, was endeavoring to develop local therapies for early-stage lung cancer with the idea of circumventing toxicity while maximizing the anti-tumor response. She wondered, “Can we use ultrasound guidance to inject our therapies inside the lung, inside a tumor?” When she approached Henning with this question, the answer was immediate: “We should try.”

“And that has been Henning’s answer to many questions since,” says Maiorino.

After months of digging through scarce literature on the topic and hands-on refinements, Henning and Maiorino successfully developed a precision method to deliver payloads to a target region in the lung — a technique that allows scientists to test local treatments for lung cancer preclinically. Maiorino believes that “Henning’s direct impact on the development of a new therapeutic approach on its way to human testing so quickly is truly an exceptional accomplishment.”

Liang Hao, formerly a postdoc and now a visiting scientist in the lab of MIT Professor Sangeeta Bhatia at the Koch Institute, also worked with Henning to apply the USGI technique to cancer, in this case to develop colorectal cancer metastasis models for drug screenings. Before the use of Henning’s USGI technique, developing such models relied on invasive and time-consuming surgical methods. Together with Hao, Henning was able to cut down the time by over 90 percent.

“Nicole is beyond an ultrasound expert in our study,” Hao says. “She is not only the powerhouse of the experimentation, but also actively brings up brilliant ideas that significantly strengthen the science. We are lucky to have her in the core facility and contributing to our research project.”

A model of innovation

Once the USGI technique had been developed, it could have been just a job well done for Henning. Through outreach to scientists working at the Koch Institute and presenting at last year’s American Association for Laboratory Animal Science National Meeting, Henning is working to make USGI readily available to any scientist who can benefit from it. In the near future, she will also publish the technique protocols on an open access website to make them freely available.

“Her can-do attitude and infectious enthusiasm have attracted several new users to this minimally invasive approach, which is set to become a gold standard for disease modeling,” Maiorino says.

Henning’s collaborative research endeavors were recognized on June 8 with the 2023 MIT Excellence Award, where she was presented with the award by Chancellor Melissa Nobles in the category of “Innovative Solutions: Collaborating for Results.” This award is annually given to recognize exceptional staff at MIT who help create novel solutions for challenges and embrace change as opportunities for growth.

“Henning is not just offering service, she is offering dedicated collaboration,” says Spanoudaki. “MIT’s signature ‘can-do’ attitude is well-embodied by Henning. Through active collaborations driven by curiosity and perseverance, Henning has developed a technology that has sparked a paradigm shift for the field of disease modeling and drug screening. Her enthusiasm to engage with others highlights the strength of academic environments, especially at the SBC, where collaboration and convergence creates impactful science.”

Source: A new vision for ultrasound imaging

A new dataset of Arctic images will spur artificial intelligence research

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As the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) icebreaker Healy takes part in a voyage across the North Pole this summer, it is capturing images of the Arctic to further the study of this rapidly changing region. Lincoln Laboratory researchers installed a camera system aboard the Healy while at port in Seattle before it embarked on a three-month science mission on July 11. The resulting dataset, which will be one of the first of its kind, will be used to develop artificial intelligence tools that can analyze Arctic imagery.

"This dataset not only can help mariners navigate more safely and operate more efficiently, but also help protect our nation by providing critical maritime domain awareness and an improved understanding of how AI analysis can be brought to bear in this challenging and unique environment," says Jo Kurucar, a researcher in Lincoln Laboratory's AI Software Architectures and Algorithms Group, which led this project.

As the planet warms and sea ice melts, Arctic passages are opening up to more traffic, both to military vessels and ships conducting illegal fishing. These movements may pose national security challenges to the United States. The opening Arctic also leaves questions about how its climate, wildlife, and geography are changing.

Today, very few imagery datasets of the Arctic exist to study these changes. Overhead images from satellites or aircraft can only provide limited information about the environment. An outward-looking camera attached to a ship can capture more details of the setting and different angles of objects, such as other ships, in the scene. These types of images can then be used to train AI computer-vision tools, which can help the USCG plan naval missions and automate analysis. According to Kurucar, USCG assets in the Arctic are spread thin and can benefit greatly from AI tools, which can act as a force multiplier.

The Healy is the USCG's largest and most technologically advanced icebreaker. Given its current mission, it was a fitting candidate to be equipped with a new sensor to gather this dataset. The laboratory research team collaborated with the USCG Research and Development Center to determine the sensor requirements. Together, they developed the Cold Region Imaging and Surveillance Platform (CRISP).

"Lincoln Laboratory has an excellent relationship with the Coast Guard, especially with the Research and Development Center. Over a decade, we’ve established ties that enabled the deployment of the CRISP system," says Amna Greaves, the CRISP project lead and an assistant leader in the AI Software Architectures and Algorithms Group. "We have strong ties not only because of the USCG veterans working at the laboratory and in our group, but also because our technology missions are complementary. Today it was deploying infrared sensing in the Arctic; tomorrow it could be operating quadruped robot dogs on a fast-response cutter."

The CRISP system comprises a long-wave infrared camera, manufactured by Teledyne FLIR (for forward-looking infrared), that is designed for harsh maritime environments. The camera can stabilize itself during rough seas and image in complete darkness, fog, and glare. It is paired with a GPS-enabled time-synchronized clock and a network video recorder to record both video and still imagery along with GPS-positional data.  

The camera is mounted at the front of the ship's fly bridge, and the electronics are housed in a ruggedized rack on the bridge. The system can be operated manually from the bridge or be placed into an autonomous surveillance mode, in which it slowly pans back and forth, recording 15 minutes of video every three hours and a still image once every 15 seconds.

"The installation of the equipment was a unique and fun experience. As with any good project, our expectations going into the install did not meet reality," says Michael Emily, the project's IT systems administrator who traveled to Seattle for the install. Working with the ship's crew, the laboratory team had to quickly adjust their route for running cables from the camera to the observation station after they discovered that the expected access points weren't in fact accessible. "We had 100-foot cables made for this project just in case of this type of scenario, which was a good thing because we only had a few inches to spare," Emily says.

The CRISP project team plans to publicly release the dataset, anticipated to be about 4 terabytes in size, once the USCG science mission concludes in the fall.

The goal in releasing the dataset is to enable the wider research community to develop better tools for those operating in the Arctic, especially as this region becomes more navigable. "Collecting and publishing the data allows for faster and greater progress than what we could accomplish on our own," Kurucar adds. "It also enables the laboratory to engage in more advanced AI applications while others make more incremental advances using the dataset."

On top of providing the dataset, the laboratory team plans to provide a baseline object-detection model, from which others can make progress on their own models. More advanced AI applications planned for development are classifiers for specific objects in the scene and the ability to identify and track objects across images.

Beyond assisting with USCG missions, this project could create an influential dataset for researchers looking to apply AI to data from the Arctic to help combat climate change, says Paul Metzger, who leads the AI Software Architectures and Algorithms Group.

Metzger adds that the group was honored to be a part of this project and is excited to see the advances that come from applying AI to novel challenges facing the United States: “I’m extremely proud of how our group applies AI to the highest-priority challenges in our nation, from predicting outbreaks of Covid-19 and assisting the U.S. European Command in their support of Ukraine to now employing AI in the Arctic for maritime awareness."

Once the dataset is available, it will be free to download on the Lincoln Laboratory dataset website.

Source: A new dataset of Arctic images will spur artificial intelligence research

Brain networks encoding memory come together via electric fields, study finds

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The “circuit” metaphor of the brain is as indisputable as it is familiar: Neurons forge direct physical connections to create functional networks, for instance to store memories or produce thoughts. But the metaphor is also incomplete. What drives these circuits and networks to come together? New evidence suggests that at least some of this coordination comes from electric fields.

A new open-access study in Cerebral Cortex shows that as animals played working memory games, the information about what they were remembering was coordinated across two key brain regions by the electric field that emerged from the underlying electrical activity of all participating neurons. The field, in turn, appeared to drive the neural activity, or the fluctuations of voltage apparent across the cells’ membranes.

If the neurons are musicians in an orchestra, the brain regions are their sections, and the memory is the music they produce, the study’s authors say, then the electric field is the conductor.

The physical mechanism by which this prevailing electric field influences the membrane voltage of constituent neurons is called “ephaptic coupling.” Those membrane voltages are fundamental to brain activity. When they cross a threshold, neurons “spike,” sending an electrical transmission that signals other neurons across connections called synapses. But any amount of electrical activity could contribute to a prevailing electric field that also influences the spiking, says study senior author Earl K. Miller, Picower Professor in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT.

“Many cortical neurons spend a lot of time wavering on verge of spiking” Miller says. “Changes in their surrounding electric field can push them one way or another.  It’s hard to imagine evolution not exploiting that.”

In particular, the new study showed that the electric fields drove the electrical activity of networks of neurons to produce a shared representation of the information stored in working memory, says lead author Dimitris Pinotsis, associate professor at City, University of London and a research affiliate in The Picower Institute for Learning and Memory. He noted that the findings could improve the ability of scientists and engineers to read information from the brain, which could help in the design of brain-controlled prosthetics for people with paralysis.

“Using the theory of complex systems and mathematical pen-and-paper calculations, we predicted that the brain’s electric fields guide neurons to produce memories,” Pinotsis says. “Our experimental data and statistical analyses support this prediction. This is an example of how mathematics and physics shed light on the brain’s fields and how they can yield insights for building brain-computer interface (BCI) devices.”

Fields prevail

In a 2022 study, Miller and Pinotsis developed a biophysical model of the electric fields produced by neural electrical activity. They showed that the overall fields that emerged from groups of neurons in a brain region were more reliable and stable representations of the information animals used to play working memory games than the electrical activity of the individual neurons. Neurons are somewhat fickle devices whose vagaries produce an information inconsistency called “representational drift.” In an opinion article earlier this year, the scientists also posited that in addition to neurons, electric fields affected the brain’s molecular infrastructure and its tuning so that the brain processes information efficiently.

In the new study, Pinotsis and Miller extended their inquiry to asking whether ephaptic coupling spreads the governing electric field across multiple brain regions to form a memory network, or “engram.”

They therefore broadened their analyses to look at two regions in the brain: The frontal eye fields (FEF) and the supplementary eye fields (SEF). These two regions, which govern voluntary movement of the eyes, were relevant to the working memory game the animals were playing because in each round the animals would see an image on a screen positioned at some angle around the center (like the numbers on a clock). After a brief delay, they had to glance in the same direction that the object had just been in.

As the animals played, the scientists recorded the local field potentials (LFPs, a measure of local electrical activity) produced by scores of neurons in each region. The scientists fed this recorded LFP data into mathematical models that predicted individual neural activity and the overall electric fields.

The models allowed Pinotsis and Miller to then calculate whether changes in the fields predicted changes in the membrane voltages, or whether changes in that activity predicted changes in the fields. To do this analysis, they used a mathematical method called Granger causality. Unambiguously, this analysis showed that in each region, the fields had strong causal influence over the neural activity and not the other way around. Consistent with last year’s study, the analysis also showed that measures of the strength of influence remained much steadier for the fields than for the neural activity, indicating that fields were more reliable.

The researchers then checked causality between the two brain regions and found that electric fields, but not neural activity, reliably represented the transfer of information between FEF and SEF. More specifically, they found that the transfer typically flowed from FEF to SEF, which agrees with prior studies of how the two regions interact. FEF tends to lead the way in initiating an eye movement.

Finally, Pinotsis and Miller used another mathematical technique called representation similarity analysis to determine whether the two regions were, in fact, processing the same memory.  They found that the electric fields, but not the LFPs or neural activity, represented the same information across both regions, unifying them into an engram memory network.

Further clinical implications

Considering evidence that electric fields emerge from neural electrical activity but then come to drive neural activity to represent information, Miller speculated that perhaps a function of electrical activity in individual neurons is to produce the fields that then govern them.

“It’s a two-way street,” Miller says. “The spiking and synapses are very important. That’s the foundation. But then the fields turn around and influence the spiking.”

That could have important implications for mental health treatments, he says, because whether and when neurons spike influences the strength of their connections, and thereby the function of the circuits they form, a phenomenon called synaptic plasticity. 

Clinical technologies such as transcranial electrical stimulation (TES) alter brain electrical fields, Miller notes. If electrical fields not only reflect neural activity but actively shape it, then TES technologies could be used to alter circuits. Properly devised electrical field manipulations, he says, could one day help patients rewire faulty circuits.

Funding for the study came from U.K. Research and Innovation, the U.S. Office of Naval Research, The JPB Foundation, and the Picower Institute.

Source: Brain networks encoding memory come together via electric fields, study finds

$7,200 Per Student: Arizona’s School Voucher Experiment

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More states are making all students eligible for private school subsidies. In Arizona, it has often benefited wealthier families.

Source: $7,200 Per Student: Arizona’s School Voucher Experiment

China’s Government Offers Love, but Entrepreneurs Aren’t Buying It

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The government’s new 31-point guidelines meant to inspire confidence feel empty to businesspeople after a three-year clampdown and no concrete changes.

Source: China’s Government Offers Love, but Entrepreneurs Aren’t Buying It

New sensor mimics cell membrane functions

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Drawing inspiration from natural sensory systems, an MIT-led team has designed a novel sensor that could detect the same molecules that naturally occurring cell receptors can identify.

In work that combines several new technologies, the researchers created a prototype sensor that can detect an immune molecule called CXCL12, down to tens or hundreds of parts per billion. This is an important first step to developing a system that could be used to perform routine screens for hard-to-diagnose cancers or metastatic tumors, or as a highly biomimetic electronic “nose,” the researchers say.

“Our hope is to develop a simple device that lets you do at-home testing, with high specificity and sensitivity. The earlier you detect cancer, the better the treatment, so early diagnostics for cancer is one important area we want to go in,” says Shuguang Zhang, a principal research scientist in MIT’s Media Lab.

The device draws inspiration from the membrane that surrounds all cells. Within such membranes are thousands of receptor proteins that detect molecules in the environment. The MIT team modified some of these proteins so that they could survive outside the membrane, and anchored them in a layer of crystallized proteins atop an array of graphene transistors. When the target molecule is detected in a sample, these transistors relay the information to a computer or smartphone.

This type of sensor could potentially be adapted to analyze any bodily fluid, such as blood, tears, or saliva, the researchers say, and could screen for many different targets simultaneously, depending on the type of receptor proteins used.

“We identify critical receptors from biological systems and anchor them onto a bioelectronic interface, allowing us to harvest all those biological signals and then transduce them into electrical outputs that can be analyzed and interpreted by machine-learning algorithms,” says Rui Qing, a former MIT research scientist who is now an associate professor at Shanghai Jiao Tong University.

Qing and Mantian Xue PhD ’23, are the lead authors of the study, which appears today in Science Advances. Along with Zhang, Tomás Palacios, director of MIT’s Microsystems Laboratory and a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, and Uwe Sleytr, an emeritus professor at the Institute of Synthetic Bioarchitectures at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences in Vienna, are senior authors of the paper.

Free from membranes

Most current diagnostic sensors are based on either antibodies or aptamers (short strands of DNA or RNA) that can capture a particular target molecule from a fluid such as blood. However, both of these approaches have limitations: Aptamers can be easily broken down by body fluids, and manufacturing antibodies so that every batch is identical can be difficult.

One alternative approach that scientists have explored is building sensors based on the receptor proteins found in cell membranes, which cells use to monitor and respond to their environment. The human genome encodes thousands of such receptors. However, these receptor proteins are difficult to work with because once removed from the cell membrane, they only maintain their structure if they are suspended in a detergent.

In 2018, Zhang, Qing, and others reported a novel way to transform hydrophobic proteins into water-soluble proteins, by swapping out a few hydrophobic amino acids for hydrophilic amino acids. This approach is called the QTY code, after the letters representing the three hydrophilic amino acids — glutamine, threonine, and tyrosine — that take the place of hydrophobic amino acids leucine, isoleucine, valine, and phenylalanine.  

“People have tried to use receptors for sensing for decades, but it is challenging for widespread use because receptors need detergent to keep them stable. The novelty of our approach is that we can make them water-soluble and can produce them in large quantities, inexpensively,” Zhang says.

Zhang and Sleytr, who are longtime collaborators, decided to team up to try to attach water-soluble versions of receptor proteins to a surface, using bacterial proteins that Sleytr has studied for many years. These proteins, known as S-layer proteins, are found as the outermost surface layer of the cell envelope in many types of bacteria and archaea.

When S-layer proteins are crystallized, they form coherent monomolecular arrays on a surface. Sleytr had previously shown that these proteins can be fused with other proteins such as antibodies or enzymes. For this study, the researchers, including senior scientist Andreas Breitwieser, who is also a co-author in the paper, used S-layer proteins to create a very dense, immobilized sheet of a water-soluble version of a receptor protein called CXCR4. This receptor binds to a target molecule called CXCL12, which plays important roles in several human diseases including cancer, and to an HIV coat glycoprotein, which is responsible for virus entry into human cells.

“We use these S-layer systems to allow all these functional molecules to attach to a surface in a monomolecular array, in a very well-defined distribution and orientation,” Sleytr says. “It’s like a chessboard where you can arrange different pieces in a very precise manner.”

The researchers named their sensing technology RESENSA (Receptor S-layer Electrical Nano Sensing Array).

Sensitivity with biomimicry

These crystallized S-layers can be deposited onto nearly any surface. For this application, the researchers attached the S-layer to a chip with graphene-based transistor arrays that Palacios’ lab had previously developed. The single-atomic thickness of the graphene transistors makes them ideal for the development of highly sensitive detectors.

Working in Palacios’ lab, Xue adapted the chip so that it could be coated with a dual layer of proteins — crystallized S-layer proteins attached to water-soluble receptor proteins. When a target molecule from the sample binds to a receptor protein, the charge of the target changes the electrical properties of the graphene in a way that can be easily quantified and transmitted to a computer or smartphone connected to the chip.

“We chose graphene as the transducer material because it has excellent electrical properties, meaning it can better translate those signals. It has the highest surface-to-volume ratio because it's a sheet of carbon atoms, so every change on the surface, caused by the protein binding events, translates directly to the whole bulk of the material,” Xue says.

The graphene transistor chip can be coated with S-layer-receptor proteins with a density of 1 trillion receptors per square centimeter with upward orientation. This allows the chip to take advantage of the maximum sensitivity offered by the receptor proteins, within the clinically relevant range for target analytes in human bodies. The array chip integrates more than 200 devices, providing a redundancy in signal detection that helps to ensure reliable measurements even in the case of rare molecules, such as the ones that could reveal the presence of an early-stage tumor or the onset of Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers say.

Thanks to the use of QTY code, it is possible to modify naturally existing receptor proteins that could then be used, the researchers say, to generate an array of sensors in a single chip to screen virtually any molecule that cells can detect. “What we are aiming to do is develop the basic technology to enable a future portable device that we can integrate with cell phones and computers, so that you can do a test at home and quickly find out whether you should go to the doctor,” Qing says.

“This new system is the combination of different research fields as molecular and synthetic biology, physics, and electrical engineering, which in the team’s approach are nicely integrated,” says Piero Baglioni, a professor of physical chemistry at the University of Florence, who was not involved in the study. “Moreover, I believe that it is a breakthrough that could be very useful in diagnostics of many diseases.”

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, MIT Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies, and Wilson Chu of Defond Co. Ltd.

Source: New sensor mimics cell membrane functions

Moving days for MIT’s history

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Gloria Martinez has a million-and-a-half items on her to-do list.

Quite literally: Give or take a few hundred thousand, that's the number of unique objects in the MIT Museum's astonishingly diverse collection. Martinez is supervising the collection's move to a new storage facility — the final step in delivering the new museum, whose headquarters opened last fall in the heart of Kendall Square.

Only a tiny fraction of the huge collection is on display at the popular new museum. Working under tight deadlines, Martinez and her team are painstakingly gathering details on the vast store, now held at a warehouse and at the previous site of the museum, and packing everything for transfer to another storage facility a few miles away.

Martinez, a master of the art and science of handling museum artifacts, faces a bewildering and ever-changing array of logistical challenges. “My day might look one way on my calendar in the morning, and turn into something completely different once I start,” she says.

Casting a wide net

Artifacts such as lab devices, ship models, and architectural plans are critical for understanding the Institute past and present, says Deborah Douglas, the museum's director of collections and curator of science and technology.

“The museum was formed around its objects, and has been systematically accumulating those artifacts over the past 50 years,” Douglas says. “The aim is not simply to document the triumphs of MIT, but to tell the story of science, technology, architecture, and all of the endeavors that the people of the Institute have engaged with in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries.”

“It's an encyclopedic collection,” she adds. The treasure trove holds, for example, plans for America’s Cup-winning yachts, 100 years of architecture student thesis drawings (including those of Robert Taylor, the first trained Black architect in the United States), one of the first aluminum-framed bicycles, human-powered airplane parts, holograms (lots of holograms!), thoroughly offbeat lab instruments, folded-paper items, costumes, trophies, massive chunks of physics experiments and early computers, and remnants of MIT's famous hacks, such as a door from the firetruck that appeared on the Great Dome in 2006 to mark the fifth anniversary of 9/11.

Florencia Pierri, assistant curator for science and technology, heard about the vast size of collection when she was hired. “But it's different,” she says, “to actually climb a ladder for the first time and survey the rows and rows and rows of 10-foot-tall shelves just chock full of stuff.”

Planning the process

Drawn by the scale of the challenge, Martinez joined the museum in 2019. Collaborating with museum registrar Katie Porter, she began quietly exploring the collection and sketching out plans for the move.

The next year, when the pandemic hit, MIT's lockdown policies drastically shrank the hours that anyone could work at the warehouse. “To be honest, Covid afforded me the opportunity to have that time exclusively just to plan and prepare for the projects,” she recalls.

As is common in museums, much of what MIT held was barely described in the museum's collection database. “Gloria insisted on a level of inventory review that will make the collection much more accessible online, so that it will become much easier for people on campus and around the world to understand what we have,” Douglas says.

By 2021, the museum had recruited three assistant curators who could bring their expertise to that job (and were starting to grasp just how much effort it would entail). Martinez also hired and trained a packing team of four people with a background in handling museum items.

She constantly revised plans and processes for the move. All of the museum's 20,000-or-so three-dimensional objects needed good photographs, so the team set up an ad hoc but highly effective photo station. Another issue cropped up with the sheer physicality of the objects, which might weigh 80 or 150 pounds. Grappling all day with these might lead to injuries or other accidents, so she aimed to shorten the work sessions.

“Processing the endless stream of items can be draining, physically and intellectually,” says Jon Duval, assistant curator of architecture and design. “But it's fun,” he says. “It's a joy to be around people who get equally excited about museum work and about artifacts, and to learn things from everyone else who's there. Or to look at something that we have no idea about, and try to figure out what it might be.”

“It's so great to have a team,” says Elisabeth (“Libby”) Meier, assistant curator for the museum's Hart Nautical Collection. “Gloria is a wizard at scheduling and making sure materials are where they need to be. And working with the other curators on things that aren't in my collection is fascinating, because I generally don't know what's coming out of the box, and they generally do.”

Puzzling out objects

There's no lack of artifacts that call for quick detective work.

Among the surprises was something that the collection database described simply as a brick. “I noticed it because I tried to move it and it was a lot heavier than I thought it would be,” says Pierri. She discovered that the “brick” was part of a graphite rod created for the world's first human-made self-sustaining nuclear chain reaction, at the University of Chicago in 1942.

Another unexpected find was two empty leather trunks that were falling apart and seemed to be overdue for the trash. But the trunks belonged to Katharine Dexter McCormick, the first woman to earn an MIT science degree and the main source of funding for the development of the first birth control pill. McCormick used the trunks to smuggle diaphragms from Europe to the United States in the 1920s, Pierri says.

An even stranger curiosity was a box of rusted cans — grocery store items employed in influential experiments with bar codes, says Duval.

Not every surprise during the inventory is so compelling, and not everything is kept. “Maybe we don't need quite so many toenail clippers from the contents of somebody's desk drawer,” Douglas says.

Connecting with the collection

With steady progress on an upgraded inventory, the packing team moved into high gear last November. Everything will be out of the current warehouse by December 2023, and out of the former museum site by July 2024.

Martinez keeps fine-tuning her plans as situations and timelines change. “It's been very fluid,” she says. “You can't be rigid in this profession. If you are, you really need to find another job.”

“For the last couple of years, we've been doing this nonstop, and it will require a lot more hard work and additional reinforcements” says Martinez, who adds that she's just starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

“Gloria has done an extraordinary job,” says Douglas. “She's created a really intelligent approach to inventorying, but then also created a plan for packing all the material that lets us be much more efficient in our moving process.”

“Ultimately, the goal of all this moving stuff around is to make it even more accessible,” Douglas says. “This is material that you can use to teach with, do research with, stimulate academic and entrepreneurial endeavors, and to educate — whether yourself or the broader community. If we can help inspire people, if we can help educate people, or provide useful resources for the work that's going on today or in the future at MIT and beyond, then we will have accomplished our mission.”

Source: Moving days for MIT’s history

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