• Age-related macular degeneration (AMDR) is a terrifying eye disease.

    The centre of your vision disintegrates. Reading is impossible. The faces of people you love become unrecognizable.

    And for the ailment’s most common form – fully 70 per cent of all cases – there is absolutely no cure.

    But, in a lab in Montreal, there may be the beginnings of some hope.

    Dr. Gilbert Bernier, associate professor of neurosciences at University of Montreal, is leading a team at Maissonneuve-Rosemont Hospital, turning human stem cells into the cone-shaped photoreceptor cells that make vision possible.

    “We have developed a very efficient method which allows us to obtain 80 per cent of the human embryonic stem cells differentiating to human cones with the receptors.” Bernier said in an interview with Yahoo Canada.

    “This is unprecedented.”

    Stem cells are invaluable for this kind of research, because they have the ability to transform into any of the vast variety of components that make up the human body.

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  • Pitting man versus machine is a concept that has been used in science fiction novels and movies alike for generations. The good ones make us wonder whether artificial intelligence will ever actually be able to compare to the fascinating labyrinth of biochemistry that is the human brain. We can stop wondering now, because scientists have developed an artificial intelligence system that is as smart as a four-year-old.

    It’s called the ConceptNet 4. It’s built using natural language processing tools which allow it to understand words just like humans do. A separate piece of software allows the ConceptNet 4 to understand questions. Combined together, the machine can come up with the answers to questions in a verbal IQ test.

    Results of the study concluded that the machine did well in testing related to vocabulary and being able to judge similarities between things, but not so well in comprehension and in understanding word reasoning. While it is an interesting finding for scientists,

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    Ridley Scott’s fictional space adventure film “The Martian” has had a stellar first couple of weeks at the box office, grossing more than $108 million since its release and getting big thumbs up from the space geek community.

    Matt Damon stars in this Robinson Crusoe story set in the early 2030s, millions of miles away from Earth, as astronaut Mark Watney is left marooned on the surface of the Red Planet and is forced to figure out a way to survive. A big part of what is drawing rave reviews from scientists and space nerds is that this ambitious film based on the bestselling novel gets the big things right – like the fact that the Mars environment allows explorers, with access to the right technology, to survive and that the planet actually has the basic ingredients for supporting life.

    Adding to the excitement for the film is NASA’s recent big announcement that they have stumbled across the hardest evidence yet for seasonal flowing wateron Mars. They have spotted dribble-like

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  • Portabello mushrooms: on the grill; in a salad; powering your cell phone?

    Cengiz and Mihri Ozkan, a husband-and-wife team of professors at the Bourns College of Engineering at the University of California-Riverside, are developing a way to make cleaner, greener, longer-lasting cell phone batteries out of delicious portabello mushrooms.

    “We process mushrooms by heating them up to between 700-1100 degrees Celsius,” Cengiz Ozkan told Yahoo Canada.

    “This produces porous nanoribbons as an anode material.”

    Anodes are a crucial part of any battery. They are electrodes, through which conventional current flows into a device.

    And they’re a bit of a problem when it comes to seeking greener ways to make things go.

    “Our mushroom-based anodes are produced without the use of environmentally harsh chemicals, such as acids and bases,” Mihri Ozkan explained, contrasting the new approach with the traditional way of preparing natural graphite – the standard material for battery use.

    “Per ton of natural

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  • A non-invasive brain-to-brain interface successfully allowed two people in separate locations to share thoughts.A non-invasive brain-to-brain interface successfully allowed two people in separate locations to share thoughts.

    Brains are electrical systems. They generate electrical impulses.

    So – can they read electrical impulses sent directly from another brain?

    Apparently yes, according to new research conducted at the University of Washington.

    Researchers linked the brains of five pairs of participants using electroencephalography (EEG) machines. Each pair was separated by distance, playing a game of 20 questions over the internet.

    “One was asked to think of an object, and the other was told to ask questions,” lead study author Andrea Stocco – an assistant professor of psychology at U.W. – said in an interview with Yahoo Canada.

    “Questions could be asked through the computer, but the answers only occurred through a brain-to-brain interface (BBI). Basically, a computer analyzed the brain waves of the respondent, detected if the answer was yes or no, and translated the answer into a visual signal that was delivered to the second participant.”

    Stocco explained that “yes” answers would generate visual

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  • In this rich and varied world, there are people who are generally happy, and those who tend to be sad.

    Choice? Circumstance?

    New research from Oxford University is suggesting something far more subtle:

    Actual connections in the makeup of our brains may be the underlying cause of our overall emotional outlook.

    Literally, if you’re happy and you know it, your brain may just be wired that way.

    “Using 461 subjects drawn from the general population, this study includes state-of-the-art Magnetic Resonance Imaging data of the brain, showing the way different brain areas are physically connected, as well as how they are connected in terms of how they function. It also includes a wealth of information about each individual – their behaviours and life history.”

    That’s Thomas Nichols, head of neuroimaging statistics at England’s University of Warwick, one of ten co-authors of the final report. He was part of a team that studied 280 variables in the test subjects’ lives and choices.

    And yes,

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  • The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from launch pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral February 11, 2015. (Reuters)The unmanned Falcon 9 rocket lifts off from launch pad 40 at the Cape Canaveral February 11, 2015. (Reuters)

    The most expensive part of any voyage into space – be it to the orbiting space station or distant Pluto – is travelling the first 160 kilometres blasting off the Earth.

    On average, the cost of leaving the gravity pull of our planet and placing a communication satellite, telescope or planetary probe into space is about US$10,000 per pound. Each and every large rocket launches hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment. With astronomical costs like these tied to today’s dependence on expendable, chemical launch vehicles, the hopes for a burgeoning space industry in the near future filled with orbiting hotels and moon bases and boots on Mars and beyond may remain stymied for generations to come unless these expenses can be brought down to Earth.

    Space propulsion researchers have been coming up with blueprints for alternatives (some more realistic than others) for decades, and one particularly intriguing concept has been receiving a lot of attention recently.

    Going up

    This past

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  • Black-footed ferret (Ken Ardill/Toronto Zoo)Black-footed ferret (Ken Ardill/Toronto Zoo)

    It has been generations since the black-footed ferret has been seen in Canada.

    Cute enough to give pandas a run for their money – only about 50 centimetres long with black bandit masks, round pinkish ears and black boots – they disappeared from Alberta and Saskatchewan in the early 20th century.

    Now several breakthroughs are giving biologists hope that the only ferret native to North America could yet make a comeback.

    Scientists have successfully used frozen semen from a ferret dead 20 years to artificially inseminate captive ferrets in a North American breeding program.

    Eight kits were born, vastly increasing the genetic gene pool of one of the most endangered animals on the continent.

    “The wild population was down to 18 individuals. Out of them, only seven individuals actually bred so the whole black-footed ferret population is from seven founders,” says Maria Franke, curator of mammals at the Toronto Zoo, the only Canadian facility that is part of the captive breeding program

    Read More »from Black-footed ferret numbers being revived in Canada thanks to sperm freezing program
  • You know the drill.

    You wake up with the sniffles – maybe the light, raspy shadow of a mild sore throat.

    You cough. It seems a little deep.

    You think you’re catching a cold. You don’t want or need to catch a cold.

    So – maybe you reach for the vitamin C.

    Hold that thought.

    Throughout the panoramic sweep of human history, the cure for the common cold has proved elusive. But a compromise wisdom has emerged. A broad consensus feels that if you can’t cure a cold, vitamin C might at least be able to head one off.

    At least one well-informed author disagrees.

    Short answer: it does not appear to,” says Catherine Price, the author of Vitamania: Our Obsessive Quest for Natural Perfection, an overview of how vitamins revolutionized the way we think about food.

    “The big meta-analyses of vitamin C have concluded that when it is taken as a preventative measure, it doesn't help prevent colds in the general population. While there's always a chance that you'll benefit from the placebo effect,

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  • Around the world, fresh water is increasingly being seen as a dwindling resource.

    In California, an epic drought is threatening a huge portion of American agriculture. The need there is beyond critical.

    Meanwhile, up here in Canada, a whopping 31 per cent of all the water on the continent is draining away into inaccessible places like Hudson Bay and the Arctic Ocean.

    Oh, and we’re already sharing the vast waters of the Great Lakes with our increasingly thirsty neighbours to the south.

    The more we have – and aren’t even using – the more and more they need.

    “You just have to look at the history of Canada to figure out what’s inevitably going to happen,” warns Lloyd Alter, a blogger and editor at TreeHugger.com.

    “At some point, I believe the Americans are either just going to take the water, or we’re all going to make some deal and sell it.”

    Alter has just written a fine and comprehensive article on the past – and future – of Canada’s water supply. The stakes are high, he warned.


    Read More »from Will the U.S. steal Canada’s water?


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