The week’s most astounding developments from the neobiological frontier.

October 13, 2022

A personalized medicine printer

Researchers at Shenzhen University in China have designed a personalized drug delivery system by modifying a commercial printer to produce tailor-made patches with a pattern of drugs precisely designed to match the exact pattern of presentation of a specific disease on a person’s skin. The researchers say the basic approach could deliver personalized patches laden with drugs, macromolecules, cells, and other treatments for many different skin diseases. “Such a personalized drug delivery system could be suitable for the high-precision, topical treatment of various skin conditions, such as pigmentations, vitiligo, skin infections, skin scars, burn injuries, and skin cancers,” they write. Matter

The mechanism of mindfulness and meditation in addiction treatment

Mindfulness training and meditation are known to be effective at treating addiction, but nobody knows how exactly. A provocative new idea from researchers at the University of Utah suggests that a certain set of measurable signals in the brain, called frontal midline thetas, mediate the changes that take place in the brains of people who abuse opioids and can be reset by meditation. Following 165 long-term opioid users in a laboratory-based meditation session, they found people who received Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement (MORE) had an increase in frontal midline theta signals compared to people who received only supportive psychotherapy. The increase in these signals were also associated with experiences of transcending self, ego dissolution, and feelings of oneness and bliss. The researchers hypothesize that frontal midline theta stimulation might reset brain dysfunctions associated with addiction. Science Advances

Brain cells become gamers

“Synthetic biological intelligence emerging from cultured brain cells with the ability to self-organize and act in a goal-directed manner in response to sparse sensory information and output signals to a computer through a high-density multielectrode array” sounds like a mess of jargon. But here’s all you need to know: A single layer of cultured brain cells learned how to play Pong, that ancient grandfather of all video games. Researchers at Cortical Labs in Melbourne, Australia, developed the system, which they call Dishbrain, in which cultured neurons are linked to a computer through electrodes. Using feedback, recordings, and electrophysiological stimulation, the researchers created a simulated Pong game, which the neural network was able to learn within five minutes. They say the technology could be used to test theories of how the brain interacts with the world and to better understand human intelligence in general. It may be a while before the Petri dish can beat a Norwegian grandmaster in online chess, but who knows? Maybe they can teach the cells to cheat. Neuron

Study reveals 12,111 genetic markers of height

Long before humans understood anything about genetics or DNA, we knew one thing for sure: Tall parents often give birth to tall offspring. But if height is one of the most obvious heritable traits, it’s also one of the most complex. Early genome-wide association studies (GWAS) seeking to uncover the genes influencing height found hundreds and hundreds of genetic markers, but they could only explain about 5 percent of vertical variation from person to person. Now one of the largest GWAS studies ever has gone further, coming close to uncovering all the genetic determinants of height—at least among people of European descent, who contributed roughly 80 percent of the DNA in the study. Led by researchers at the University of Queensland in Australia, Osaka University in Japan, University of Exeter in England, and Boston Children’s Hospital, the study compared the genomes of 5.4 million people from 281 separate studies and uncovered a whopping 12,111 separate single-nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) associated with height. Even among Europeans, however, these SNPs only account for 40–50 percent of total height variations. The rest comes down to nurture—the impact of environmental exposures, diet, and other things. Nature

Structure of cool sensory protein

Researchers at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, have uncovered the mechanism of mouse TRPM8 channel, a protein shared by humans and other mammals that serves as the primary sensor of cold temperatures and chemicals like the menthol in breath mints or cigarettes, and signals those sensations to the brain. They used single particle cryo-electron microscopy to capture snapshots of the TRPM8 protein in closed, intermediate, and open states, visualizing the conformation of the protein as it opens in response to chemicals. Science

An artist’s interpretation of the TRPM8 channel protein—the primary player responsible for cold sensation in humans. Joana C. Carvalho