SciTech Now Episode 521

In this episode of SciTech Now, studying brain patterns; the third space tourist; relationship between local plants and climate change; and the latest medical techniques to rescuing injured turtles.



Coming up... understanding the origins of stuttering.

We're trying to understand how a brain is pretty much normal most of the time and then suddenly [ Claps ] fails and then comes right back and acts normally again.

Space tourism.

And there's the Earth, big blue sphere.

It's like, 'Wow.'

Climate change in your backyard.

There's a lot of detail that we can study.

We could dissect the flower.

We could soak it up in boiling water.

Turtle power.

I love it when they're this active.

It's a good sign.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...


I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Cutting-edge research into brain-activity patterns that affect stuttering could lead to breakthroughs in optimizing brain functions for a wide variety of people, including Alzheimer's patients.

We go to the University of Texas at San Antonio Cognitive Neuroscience Lab for a first-hand look at this research in action.

Well, stuttering is a difficult problem.

It's pervasive.

There aren't any good cures for stuttering.

And this is an opportunity to really understand the origins of stuttering, and it has the potential for actually developing practical tools.

We're studying people who stutter, and the reason for that is that they have pretty much normal brains, but every once in a while, it will clearly not be operating normally.

They'll stutter.

And it's just obvious when that happens.

And so we're trying to understand how a brain is pretty much normal most of the time, and then suddenly fails and then comes right back and acts normally again.

So people who stutter -- they'll be fluent, then dysfluent.

Then they're right back in the game and being fluent.

So we want to understand that process -- what's different about the brain when people are dysfluent versus when they're fluent?

I -- so, I had struggled with stuttering pretty much my entire life, and one day I wanted to, you know, do something about it, so I enrolled in this intensive speech path-speech pathology program over at Texas State.

And the professor there works with Dr. Jeffrey Mock here at UTSA.

And he invited me to be one of the test subjects since I've been very involved with...with helping out the-the school's, uh, speech program.

So, EEG is electroencephalography.

And basically, it's the noninvasive brain-imaging technology.

It's really the only noninvasive brain technology that's portable.

So, EEG...There are other brain technologies, like MRI, and they require you to be in a big machine.

EEG -- you put it on your head.

You can move around, and because of the wireless technology, you can be monitored.

So EEG is the only brain technology -- imaging technology that you can do to monitor the brain at work.

Once we identify those fingerprints, then we're going to train people to change that electrical activity to fit the good fingerprint more often.

And we do that by feeding back activity about what the brain is doing in near-real time.

So it's sort of like playing Marco Polo, where you can kind of get information -- 'You're getting warmer.

You're getting warmer.

You're getting colder.' So we want them to get warmer towards that good brain state.

So this will be... They'll have an EEG cap on, and this cap has 64 metal electrodes embedded in it.

And they just sit on the subject's head just sort of like a baseball cap.

And they can pick up the electrical activity that makes its way from the brain to the scalp.

There's a skull in the way, so these are very small signals that we're picking up.

But nonetheless, we can pick them up, and we can connect that to a computer and try to read out the brain patterns, the activity patterns of the brain.

While we're doing all that, we're asking them to speak, and we're giving them these words, these funny pseudowords, I think, is what we're going to be looking at, that are difficult to pronounce.

So we're really trying to give them a stress test to make it very difficult to be fluent, and that's just simply to get better measures of what the brain is doing when they stutter versus when they're fluent.

Biwilo rudble.

Dinking luss.

Tantifely winter.

I'm hoping that this research will lead to better ways to help people like me -- like me.

If they could find the area of the brain that could activate right before a person stutters, then, then science can, can target that, get that, that area and find a more physical... possibly a physical, uh... uh, way of help for people like me, uh-huh?

And also give me, for me personally, a sense of self-accomplishment that I know that I can help...that I can do something, something about it even if it's in just a small way.

I think it'll have many uses besides the basic understanding of stuttering and then the development of the application, which hopefully will lead to at least training, helping to train, or, you know, the ideal thing would be a real-time application that would assist people online.

♪♪ ♪ ♪♪

Many of us dream of exploring space, but few of us will ever have this opportunity.

Space tourism, however, has opened the possibility for citizens to join astronauts at the International Space Station, but what does it take to make the journey to the last frontier?

Joining us is the third space tourist to ever make the trip, Greg Olsen, who celebrates the 13th anniversary of his almost 10-day space exploration.

So, is it all it's cracked up to be?


And even better.

It was like magic.

That's my best description of it.

To float weightless, you know, for 10 days -- unbelievable.

I mean, this cost you an enormous sum of money, 20 million bucks at the time, if I'm not mistaken.

Actually, turns out that was a bargain because numbers quoted now are upwards of $70 million or $80 million for the same trip.

[ Chuckles ]

And it's been, I don't know, five or six years since anyone has done it.

But it's still possible through Space Adventures.

You didn't just walk onboard.

There was a lot of training involved.

Tell me about that.

I had to train in Russia for six months.

NASA does not take private people into space, so the only way to do it is through the Russian Space Agency.

And what kind of training?

Well, it was primarily about the safety and emergency procedures.

You just can't walk on a rocket and go into space.

There's a lot of things you have to know.

How do you put the space suit on?

How do you take it off?

How do you make sure the air is flowing?

Millions of things.

Suppose a fire breaks out.

You're part of the crew.

You got to help.

100%, and the last thing I wanted to do is be a burden on the crew in case anything went wrong, so over and over again, we trained, so... And a good part of that is, you know, my crew, which was one cosmonaut -- a Russian cosmonaut -- and one NASA astronaut, trained together three or four hours for almost six months.

And we really got to know each other.

Still friends with them?

Oh, yeah.

I saw... Bill McArthur I see annually.

He stays in my place here in Manhattan.

And Valery Tokarev, the cosmonaut, was over here last week.

I took him to Fiorello's Café and to Princeton, New Jersey, where I stay.


So, is there a... a moment when it hits you?

Even with all the training, that helps some of the nerves.


But where is it that you realize, 'Oh, man, this is happening'?

When you look out, and you see this big blue sphere just slowly receding.

It's like, 'Wow.' You know, in the rocket, which you can train for in a centrifuge, at least for the acceleration forces, the G-forces, so we had lots of practice for that.

But when we actually launched, you know, we have a shroud protecting us from the atmosphere, so we couldn't see anything.

And after about 50 miles, I heard this loud explosion.

The shroud went away, and there's the Earth, big blue sphere.

And it's like, 'Wow.' Unbelievable.

I mean, you can't train for that.

What does that...How does that shift your perspective on things?

[ Sighs ] You know, I'm not a terribly spiritual person, but I just felt like the luckiest person alive... and still do.

I mean, I was born here in Brooklyn.

My dad was an electrician.

My mom was a schoolteacher.

And to go from there to floating in space, it's like, 'Wow.'

How did you do it?

I mean, what kind of... What, did you start a business, what?

Yeah, real rags-to-riches story.

First of all, I was a real screw-up in high school.

I was suspended several times, did not get good grades.

I got suspended on the night of my prom.

[ Chuckles ] My girlfriend is yelling and screaming at me.

'I paid $30 for this dress!'

Got convicted of juvenile delinquency in Bergen County Court.

So at age 17, life wasn't looking very bright for me, but somehow, you know, I just kept going, and I got into Fairleigh Dickinson by the skin of my teeth, and that enabled me to kind of get my life together.

Wound up getting a PhD in material science from Virginia, became a research scientist, and I spun off, and I started and sold two high-tech companies, and that's really what enabled the money.

But what really enabled the whole thing was math and science.


And, you know, I've given over 500 talks to schoolkids, and I tell them, 'Don't give up.

Math and science, ' especially for women and minorities.

It's so easy to quit.

But what is it about learning math and science that you think changes you as a student?

I think it's mainly the discipline.

You know, we all remember in school there are always two or three kids in the class that just got everything, got straight 'A's.' They're the exception, and they don't always go on to be the biggest successes.

Most of the people were like me, struggling, 'Boy, I don't get this.' You know, having to work hard.

I mean, I was a 'B' student at my best, 'B,' 'B-plus.' Yeah, and I have no... I was very proud of that and still am.

You know, to get 'B's' in physics and quantum mechanics -- you know, that's okay.

But believe me.

I worked hard for that.

And that's really the secret.

My motto is 'Don't give up.' I tell that to kids.

I tell that to senior citizens.

You were the third.

Any idea how many space tourists there have been?

There have been seven.

One, Charles Simonyi, has done it twice.

That's a small group.

Yes, and we keep in contact.

Do you think that it is going to be more likely that space tourism catches on, is commercialized, and is accessible to people who don't have the means that you did when you had to do it?

I think the cost is going to come down.

But fundamentally, I mean, it costs about $10, 000 a pound...

A pound? get something into orbit at, you know, 250 miles, which is low-Earth orbit.

That takes a lot of chemical energy, and, you know, can you get the price down from $50 million?


But I don't see a $5, 000-per-person orbital ride.

Do you think your training in physics and science helped you to want to do this?

I'll tell you how I got the idea.

True story.

I was in Starbucks in Princeton, June of 2003, reading the paper, drinking coffee.

And I read a story about how civilians could go up into space, and it was just a 'Wow' moment to me, like, 'I gotta do this.' I had just sold my company, so I had the means.

You need three things to do a private space.

Obviously, you need the resources.

You need the desire, and I find about half the people I speak with say, 'Boy, I'd never do that.' And the third thing you need is time.

You need about two years of your life just to put yourself on hold.

It's not two years of training.

But between going back and forth to meetings and medical exams, it's the better part of two years.

And it's very distracting.

You know, you can't carry on a career and do this at the same time, so...

What did your family and friends think?

Well, I have two daughters and three sisters, and they all were supportive.

I don't know what they were saying in the background, but no one said anything negative to me.

Astronauts come back often with a greater respect for the environment...


...when you realize that sort of blue-ball moment.


Was there a moment that you came back realizing that this trip had affected you?

Oh, well, I was always conscious of the environment, but something that really struck me was the sunrise and sunset, which occurs eight times -- sorry, 16 times a day because we orbit the Earth 16 times.

And I have a great photo of just a thin blue band around the edge of the Earth, and when you look at it, you say, 'Man, that's all the air we have to breathe!'

And actually, most of that, what you see is not... You know, it's 20, 000 feet and higher, so, boy, it just struck me how little there is, and, you know, we'd better start taking care of it.

Gregory Olsen, thanks so much for joining us.

You bet.


Is climate change affecting how plants reproduce?

That's the question behind a project launching at San Diego State and 18 other California universities.

Here's a look at the scientists taking part in this critical research to understand the relationship between what our local plants tell us about global issues.

This is a very diverse area.

Just as Interstate 8 drops down the bouldery pass into the Imperial Valley, a stone structure called Desert View Tower has offered motorists sweeping views of the desert floor since 1923.

You probably need to label this one.

Now it could offer a glimpse into how climate change is affecting native plants.

You know what?

Let's go to the one on the top.

Lluvia Flores-Rentería is an evolutionary plant ecologist at San Diego State University.

The tower's owners are letting her and her students track the reproductive cycle of the cholla cacti on their property.

Cylindropuntia wolfii is the scientific name, but the common name is Wolfii's cholla.

Wolf's cholla is common in Southern California's desert, waist-high tangles of cylindrical sections covered in fine spines.

At sunset, the spines catch the sunlight and give off a show-stopping glow.

But Flores-Rentería and master's student Ryan Buck noticed this year the chollas skipped their spring show of red and yellow blooms -- except those at the tower.

They fared better thanks to a weekly drink of water.

So the two are back to see if the flowers developed fruit and, in them, seeds.

So, if you see a large fruit that looks juicy, let me know.

Studies on the East Coast have found widespread changes in plant reproductive cycles as the Earth warms.

The fruit is also dry.

On the West Coast, a $1.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation will help researchers like Flores-Rentería ask whether that's happening here and whether it's linked to climate change.

This time, this year, we've seen a shift.

But we don't know if it's related to precipitation patterns or temperature or something else, right?

So if we have historical data, then we can start asking these questions.

And all of these go... These are ferns, fern relatives.

That historical data lives here pressed onto paper and filed away in cabinets deep in the Life Sciences Building at San Diego State.

And just pulling this out, this was collected in 1941, April 30.

There's a lot of detail that we can study.

We could dissect the flower.

We could soak it up in boiling water.

We could look at the fruits.

We can look at the plant hairs, called trichomes.

So we can still see a lot, even though this is nearing 100 years old.

But we can also take that leaf and extract DNA.

With the NSF grant, herbaria across the state will upload high-resolution photos of their specimens and information about where and when they were collected to a central online database.

As we do this for all of California, we can begin to get an idea as to when they flowered, when they fruited in the past versus the present.

And they can use a digital map to make comparisons by location.

One hypothesis is they're today flowering earlier in the season.

And we don't have enough data to prove that, but I think we'll have enough data in about three years.

Back at Desert View Tower, Flores-Rentería scours cholla after cholla, looking for fruit.


Well, I cannot really find anything.

That's sad.

Even on the sections covered with protective bags where Flores-Rentería pollinated the flowers by hand, the fruit dried out before it could mature.

The other thing is that when we came here and we did the pollinations, the manual pollinations, we also had... We saw the bees.

The bees were very active.

So that's very important, so the natural pollenization occurred, and our manual pollenization occurred, but as you can see, all of the fruits are being aborted.

So that's kind of scary, really, to see all of these plants not reproducing sexually.

The plant can still clone itself by dropping sections off its branches to take root elsewhere.

No fruits formed.

But student Ryan Buck says the adaptation isn't a failsafe.

Just imagine that you bud off and you start cloning, and there's just a whole population of you.

And let's say you're allergic to strawberries, and the only food source you have is strawberries.

Every single one of you is going to die because you can't eat.

So there's not enough genetic diversity to keep going if it's just budding and cloning off the whole time.

Some species can evolve and adapt to that, but that's going to take a lot of time, and at the rate that climate change is going, they don't have that much time.

And the plants will look a lot drier.

Buck and Flores-Rentería will continue to track the cholla to see if this year is an anomaly or a symptom of climate change.

In the meantime, they'll take the spiky, dried fruit back to the office to see if they can salvage some seeds.

And it's very, very spiny.

♪♪ ♪

In fast-growing urban areas, it's not easy being a turtle.

Development destroys habitat.

Busy roads and lawn equipment are hard for turtles to avoid.

And don't forget -- turtles move very slowly.

A rescue team at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine brings the latest medical techniques to rescuing injured turtles.

Take a look.

So, Cowfish was found on the side of the road.

He was probably hit by a car.

We tried to repair his shell a little bit.

You're doing a great job.

Right now, he's got that white ointment that's on him.

That's an antimicrobial ointment to try to prevent any type of infection, and it also promotes shell healing.

This will heal up nicely, especially in these snapping turtles.

It'll kind of keratinize with like your fingernail.

I love it when they're this active.

It's a good sign.

Does that mean that you're ready to go before it gets cold?

A lot of times, when they're sick, they're not aggre-- especially snapping turtles, which can be a rather more aggressive species than the other species that we see... When they're sick, they're not as snappy.

So when they get to be snappy like this, that's a good indication that they're ready to be released.

Medical science mixes with common sense to care for injuries in this most unique of hospitals.

This is part of the reason why we do it.

It's a way to go ahead and give back to our community since overpopulation is occurring or kind of taking more of their habitat, and so this is one way we can make up for what we're doing, by healing the turtles and giving them a better life and putting them back in an area that's a little bit more safe.

This is the Turtle Rescue Team at North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.

It's housed in a corner of the Veterinary Health and Wellness Center.

Roughly 80 student volunteers make up the team, handling everything from intake and triage to care and release.

Do you know how many stitches he had, total?

I didn't look at the chart.

I got four out.

I think there's one more right here.

And this is Walking Stick.

He's a box turtle.

All the patients are named after other animal species.

Numbers are really hard for vet students to memorize with everything else coming and going through our heads, so the animal names, it's more fun for us -- when we get a turtle in and we get to name it, then we're more into the cases, like, 'Hey, this is the turtle that I named,' and also, it's much more fun to walk into a lab full of Snow Leopards and Gibbons and Walking Sticks than it is A154.

Those fun names also mask the seriousness of the injuries.

The team cares for more than 500 injured turtles every year.

About half of those injured turtles will recover and be returned to the wild.

If you look at his shell here, this is a shell fracture he probably got from being hit by a car.

We fixed that up.

You can see there's two little holes right here.

That's where we drilled through the shell to bring the shell together.

That way, we can help it heal.

And then if you look at his front, he's missing this leg.

Sometimes when they get car strikes, they can get a little bit of nerve damage, and so what we'll do when we see that is we'll first treat them with an anti-inflammatory in case the nerves are just damaged because there's swelling around them, but this guy, his leg never really recovered, so we decided to go ahead and amputate it.

Vehicle strikes are the number-one cause of turtle injuries.

Strikes by lawn equipment rank second.

Dog attacks are number three.

So, they can totally live with three legs, and they do really, really well with three legs.

We can put him if you want to move Gibbon.

So he's totally able to move if he decides he wants to.

The Turtle Rescue Team sees more and more injured turtles every year.

I think in 1996, we had 38 patients, and this year is our third year in a row with over 500.

I don't think there are more turtles in Wake County now than there were 25 years ago.

I think that there are more people, there are more roads, and the turtles are getting squeezed.

The turtle team's records show that if a turtle survives the first 24 hours after an injury, the chances of recovery are greatly improved.

And the team has pioneered new treatment techniques to treat injured turtles that have gained national recognition, including using women's dress hooks to repair broken shells.

One of the things that's really challenging is when a turtle is brought in, in some cases, to look at that animal and say, 'What are its chances?'

I mean, everything has a chance, right?

If there's life, there's hope.

But we know that a lot of the turtles are not going to make it, and we try to humanely euthanize those turtles so that they're not suffering.

But there are some turtles that come in that seem to have that extra will, that extra spark -- even though their injury looks horrendous, their attitude looks pretty good, and we'll give those turtles a chance.

So they're good patients in that they are really tough.

Turtles have been around for millions of years.

They haven't changed a lot.

They can live a long time.

We know box turtles can live over 100 years.

They have a slow metabolism.

They're pretty docile, but they are challenging because of that shell -- that thing that gives them strength and protects them is a barrier to us when we're trying to diagnose a problem or treat them.


And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until then, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by... ♪♪ ♪ ♪♪ ♪ ♪♪ ♪