SciTech Now Episode 524

In this episode of SciTech Now, studying the feline tongue; why do leaves change color; a club to view space; and a pacemaker to treat patients with Parkinson’s Disease.


[ Theme music plays ]

Coming up... mysteries of a cat tongue.

The tongue seemed to be a very interesting topic that no one had bothered to look at.

The colorful chemistry of leaves.

It's an unmasking of colors that are already there.

Discovering the beauty of space.

This telescope will be able to see the first star's light that was born.

Treating Parkinson's with the touch of a button.

They build a computational model in an iPad that a clinician can use in the clinic.

It's all ahead.

Hello. I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

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

Let's get started.

Ever wonder how cats manage to grab their food and water?

If you take a close look at a cat tongue, you'll see small spines that resemble hooks called papillae.

Alexis Noel, PhD student of mechanical engineering, studies feline tongues and has discovered some interesting qualities.

Our partner, Science Friday, has the story.


I have a cat at home named Murphy... and he thought that the blanket that he was on smelled really tasty, and he ended up getting his tongue stuck in the blanket.

And so I went to help detangle him, and, you know, the scientist in me was like, 'What just happened?'

Well, everybody keeps saying cat tongues are like sandpaper, right?

But how does sandpaper catch on a blanket?

So I took that question with me back to the lab and looked a little closer at cat tongues, and thus started the cat-tongue study.

♪♪ My name is Alexis Noel.

I'm a PhD student in mechanical engineering, and I study tongues.

You know, when you think about biomechanics and you're wanting to replicate the animal world to help some sort of technology for humans, you think of things like hands or you think of things like walking, and the tongue seemed to be a very interesting topic that no one had bothered to look at.

So my collection of tongues -- I think it's up to 23 now.

When I dig through that freezer, it's always an adventure.

I got tongues from a local taxidermist.

I got some from Zoo Atlanta and University of Tennessee Veterinary School.

I have cat tongues ranging from domestic cat to mountain lion, other animal tongues, like pig tongues.

I even have a monkey tongue.

There's all sorts of different tongues out there.

There's tongues with spikes on them, like penguins.

There's tongues that have a very sticky fluid on them, to help catch insects, typically.

Tongues have evolved for specific functions.

So let's think about cats.

When you look at the surface of the cat tongue, you'll see all sorts of different spines on the surface.

These small spines are called 'papillae.'

They are composed primarily of keratin, such as like our fingernails.

When I started this study, my first thought was that these cat spines are used to rasp meat off bones, because that was the general consensus.

So I actually took a dissected cat tongue and I took a piece of pork, and I basically grated the pork with this cat tongue to see what would happen.

And, lo and behold, the cat tongue was able to rip that meat off of that pork slab very, very easily.

And I stuck it under the sink to wash it, and the cat tongue was dyed red, and I thought that was very strange.

It should be able to wash off easily, and I could not get that color out of these spines.

And so I pulled one of the spines out from the cat tongue and stuck it in a CT scanner to get a beautiful 3-D image, and when that image came out of the CT scanner, it was fascinating.

We saw this tiny little scoop, this little U-shaped -- I call it an ice-cream scoop.

My mind was blown.

That was totally contradictory to all of the previous literature.

So, the purpose of the tiny little scoop in these cat spines in the mouth is quite interesting.

These little scoops hold saliva, very similar to how a drinking straw kind of pulls up water when it's in your cup.

These little spines will pull in water and store water in the spines.

So when a cat goes to groom and it lodges these spines deep into the fur, it's able to distribute that saliva deep within its fur, all the way down to its skin, which better helps it clean its fur.

And it's used beyond just grooming.

We've shown that the fluid-dispensing properties of these papillae can help with control of body temperature in cats, so being able to distribute saliva deep within their fur can help with that cooling.

And we found that this scoop shape was not just in a domestic-cat tongue.

In fact, these scoop shapes were found from house cats all the way up to tigers, and what's cool is that these little spines are the exact same size from house cat to tiger, which is very strange in the animal world.

Generally, you have things that scale, but these little tongue spines do not.

Why don't these spines get bigger as the cat gets bigger?

We hypothesize that it is linked to the fur density and the fur length.

So when you have fur that's very fluffy and you try and compress it as much as possible, you're gonna compress down to a certain height.

What we found is that that height, from tigers to snow leopards to house cats, is always going to be less than the length of the papillae in the cat tongue.

Another unique feature of the cat tongue is that the spines all point towards the back of the throat.

So, if you've ever wondered why cats have hairballs, it's because the fur that they collect with their tongue can only go one direction -- down the throat.

But if you think about it in terms of application, like human hairbrushes, taking hair out of a hairbrush is a huge hassle.

It's really, really annoying.

So if you could have a hairbrush that, with one swipe of your hand, removes all of the hair, I think that's a pretty big advancement.

So, we are currently developing a cat-tongue-inspired brush, and we're taking all of these unique functions of the cat papillae and seeing how it can be used for human purposes or pet-grooming purposes.

No other animal has developed a tongue to grooming like a cat's, and by no means am I saying that the papillae on the cat tongue are used only for grooming.

It's really a multifunctional tool.

But when you pet your cat, you are rubbing your hand over its saliva-coated fur.

You're getting all sorts of different oils and different enzymes and saliva all over your hand.

So, is rubbing your hand on cat fur that's been coated in saliva just as gross as a dog licking your face?

I would say no.

I am still not grossed out by catching my cat and petting my cat.

It actually makes me appreciate my cat just a little bit more.

I mean, I think there are still things about cats that we haven't even discovered yet.

I think they're a really interesting animal to study.

[ Theme music plays ] [ Computer keys clacking ]

Ainissa Ramirez is a scientist, author, and self-proclaimed science evangelist.

She is the creator of a podcast series called 'Science Underground.'

She joins me now to discuss why leaves change colors during the autumn season.

It is the number-one question of every 5- or 6-year-old, I'm sure...

That's right.

...but it's also good to remind the adults that have to deal with those 5- or 6-year-olds.

What is it that's happening on a maybe chemical level to a leaf?

Well, there's a dance that's going on.

We have green, which is chlorophyll.

Chlorophyll is important for photosynthesis.

And chlorophyll starts to break down when the sun doesn't shine as much and when the temperature drops.

And when chlorophyll breaks down, what it does is it's like a curtain in front of a piece of art.

It drops, and behind it are other colors that are already present, and that's the yellow and the oranges.


So, it's an unmasking of colors that are already there.

And then it's also the creation, the production, of other colors -- the reds and the purples.

They happen at the end of the summer, and so they start to bubble up, and so that's when the reds and the purples come, as well.

So, why do the leaves start out green in spring?

It's just the chlorophyll that we're seeing?

Well, you need chlorophyll.

Chlorophyll -- I don't -- We don't have a national holiday for chlorophyll, but we actually should because it generates the energy so that the sun can, you know, transfer its light to a form of energy and help trees convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, so chlorophyll is a hardworking molecule.

Why is it sort of only in the kind of the ROY end of the spectrum and not the BIV that we see more colors changing?

Oh, good question.

Well, it ends up not all trees can change col-- Like, ginkgos can get to about yellow.

But then there's some really fantastic trees, like the sugar maple, which has this range of like a fire orange to reds.


So, it really has to do with the chemicals, the compounds, that are available in a tree.

So, you could conceivably have violet leaves if the chemicals inside the leaves were different?

That's right. That's right.

I mean, I'm seeing leaves that, on one side, you see the greens and yellows and then you see a little bit of the reddish on the other side, on one leaf.

So, does this happen in other seasonal plants, besides the trees that we're seeing -- I mean, basically, the chlorophyll unmasking process?

That's right.

It's generally happening to most trees.

And we're pretty lucky, because -- all right, I'm biased -- we're in the Northeast, but we're supposed to have the best palette of colors.

We don't have the most trees, but we have particularly the sugar maple, which has those reds, and a lot of other places don't have those fiery reds that the sugar maple has.

What makes an evergreen an evergreen?

That's a good question.

I would have to ask a dendrologist.

[ Both chuckle ]

Like, we have pine needles, right?

Yeah, pine needles.

They stay green. That's right.

And if it's not green, well, then you have a problem, 'cause that tree is dying.

So, yeah.

So, there's different classes of trees -- some that go through this process that get triggered by the amount of sun and by the temperature.

Temperature is very important.

You know, how does a tree know that the seasons are changing?


When the temperature dips at night, that's telling the tree, 'Okay, now we're entering another season.

Time to shut things down.

We're not doing the chlorophyll thing.

We're actually going to go into a kind of a sleep mode.'

Evergreens don't have that same kind of signal.

Sometimes you see some of those early, you know, kind of spring or early winter kind of frosts that kill off plants...


...and kind of change the clocks of the plants and the crops, and all of a sudden, you have massive die-offs...

That's right.

...where it shouldn't be.

That's right.

So, those anomalous weather events actually have pretty big economic consequences for farmers.

Absolutely, and, also, if we have a very warm summer and it goes into fall, October, and it's still warm, the leaves don't change color until much later, so there can also be a delay, and that has an economic impact, particularly in places like, you know, Vermont and New Hampshire, where they rely on the peepers, the leaf peepers, people coming out, spending their money to take pictures and the like.

Ainissa Ramirez, thanks so much.

Thank you.

[ Theme music plays ]

Very carefully.

Your spacecraft hurtles toward the planet at thousands of miles per hour, so you'll have to hit the brakes in a hurry.

[ Brakes screech ] First, your capsule needs a heat shield.

It protects the spacecraft inside from the heat and friction of entry into the atmosphere.

Friction slows you down over 90% but not enough to land safely.

Use a parachute to slow down even more.

Still, falling at over 100 miles per hour, you need the right system to land safely.

Here are some options.

With a small to midsize rover, use a cushion of airbags along with retro rockets.

Impact at 30 miles an hour and bounce to a stop.

[ Tape rewinds ] With a large lander, use retro rockets and landing legs to touch down going about 6 miles an hour.

[ Tape rewinds ] Or with a large, heavy rover, use a big jet pack to slow down to under 2 miles an hour.

Then gently lower it on cables to land on its wheels.

Any way you do it, you'll need skill and hard work.

There's nothing easy about landing on Mars.

Two Grand Valley State University students' passion for space inspired them to create a local astronomy club on campus.

Today that club is giving back to the people of Michigan with a special view of space.

Here's the story.

I want to make that impact where, like, I did something at Grand Valley, and, like, even after I leave, it's still gonna be here.

Preston Saycocie is a student at Grand Valley State University who's trying to bring what he loves to where he lives.

Another student, named Alexander Sokoly, is helping him.

The people here on college campuses are gonna be the people designing those rockets or calculating those equations or discovering the new life on the next planet.

Together, Saycocie and Sokoly are using their passion about the unknown to get others involved.

I've always been interested in space, and then just one night out of the blue, I get a call from Preston, and he was like, 'Hey, I'm starting an astronomy club.

Would you be on the e-board for that?'

And I was like, 'You know what?

Why not?'

The club meets every other week, alternating between a formal meeting and what Sokoly calls a hang-out.

But that we also just want to have fun and be part of a community, too, so we do cool events, like making solar-system bracelets or going out to the Grand Ravines Park and just sitting around watching the stars and listen to music and just enjoy each other's company.

Saycocie says he found a home with the club, one that he'd been searching for.

So, freshman year, you know, everybody's trying to find their place.

Um... I couldn't really find my place.

And so that year, I started really working with my astronomy club back home, 'cause I commuted.

His club back home is the Shoreline Amateur Astronomical Association.

Saycocie runs the SAAA social-media pages and says the club and its members are what inspired him to start one on campus.

One of those members is vice president Francisco Roldan, who says that the club is great, aside from not having its own observatory.

I have been involved with other astronomy-club societies, in Milwaukee, for example, and when I got here, of course, the first thing I asked -- 'Where's your observatory?'

[ Laughs ]

Roldan says his question got the ball rolling, and before long, the group found a location and began raising funds to build their own observatory.

The Hemlock Crossing Park was chosen, not so much because it's the greatest place to observe but because of the nature centers there.

So, you already have a component that will be part of the educational process.

Although it's the SAAA's project, the observatory is being built for anybody who'd like to use it.

Ours is defined as a public observatory.

We will train the personnel at the nature center to operate it, and we will equip it and be able to observe the sun.

Roldan says this observatory will be open-use as much as possible.

He's hoping that the open use will cause some parkgoers to discover their love for astronomy as he did 63 years ago in Havana, Cuba.

When I was about 10 years old, my school took us to a planetarium.

I had never been in a planetarium, and when I walked out of that building, I was hooked.

I was gonna be a professional astronomer when I grew up.

Roldan said Havana had similar light pollution to some of the big cities in West Michigan.

And when they projected the sky in the dome, I was amazed.

I was amazed that this is what the sky's really supposed to look like.

Roldan thinks that, regardless of where they live, people of all ages deserve to see what he saw in that planetarium.

Hopefully it'll be 8- and 10-year-old kids that come and look through the instrument who will get turned on to astronomy like I did when I was that age.

According to Roldan, the observatory is over halfway funded and won't take long to build, and, in the meantime, Saycocie has his own instrument to study the sky.

I got my telescope freshman year of college.

I went out to an event for the Shoreline Club, and they were showing people all their telescopes, and I was just like... 'This is what I want.'

And I bought it and I built it, and it's been one of the greatest things I've ever bought.

You just take it out, put the base on the ground, bring out the tube, put the tube on the base, and then it's a bunch of adjusting, and then, really, all I need to do is just put in a lens and then make sure it's, you know, pointed at something.

Both Roldan and Saycocie like telescopes but say you don't need them to experience space if you're willing to travel a bit.

I did travel with my wife to Mexico for a solar eclipse.

I went down to Missouri for the solar eclipse.

It was supposed to be a trip with my friends, but they ended up bailing on me, but I told myself, 'I am not gonna miss this event.'

Both amateur astronomers have witnessed a solar eclipse, and both had a similar take on it.

Amazing experience.

I believe everybody should be able to experience it once in their lifetime.

That is, uh -- Everybody should see one solar eclipse in their lifetime, I think.

As breathtaking as it was, Saycocie said it was not the most important part of his trip.

I decided to stay another night in Missouri, and I Airbnb'd a potentially murderous RV out in the middle of nowhere at Mark Twain National Forest, and if you've ever experienced being out alone, no lights, no anything, light music playing and just laying down on Earth and looking out into the sky, those kind of moments are just life-changing for me.

It's moments like these, Saycocie says, have shaped his goals for the future.

The big goal is to become a mechanical engineer, and then the end goal is to become an astronaut.

Sokoly is also pursuing engineering and says the workload is tough but he still finds time for some leisure activities, such as astrophotography.

So, to do astrophotography, like, on the very basic level, you take a camera, like a DSLR, and a tripod and you set it 'cause it has to be very still.

You'll leave the shutter open for like almost like a minute long, and then all that gets processed by the camera.

Astrophotography allows people to see stars that are invisible to the naked eye.

Saycocie is also excited about astrophotography, but he told us about a camera that was a little more complex.

It's called the James Webb Space Telescope, and it's -- I don't like to say it's Hubble's replacement.

It's more of Hubble's, like, successor.

The James Webb Telescope is around the size of a tennis court.

According to NASA, it will orbit a million miles from Earth, four times farther than the moon.

It's quite an undertaking.

You have to realize that once we park it up there, at least right now, there's nothing for us to go out there to fix it.

[ Chuckles ] So it's got to be -- It's quite a gamble, and it's got to be real perfect.

But I think that the new scope will discover many new things, just like Hubble did, you know?

Heavens only knows what's going to come out of that instrument.

With this telescope... it is groundbreaking.

Hubble was able to see pretty far, but this telescope will be able to see the first star's light that was born from the Big Bang theory.

Whether you're scared or excited by this, Saycocie says you can't shy away from wanting to know what we'll find.

If we lose our curiosity, if we stop asking those big questions, like, we lose our sense of being human.

[ Computer keys clacking ]

The SCI Institute at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City is treating patients with Parkinson's disease and movement disorders who have implanted pacemakers through the use of iPad apps.

Here's the story.


I would take parts of these pills every three hours, and when I'd take them, basically, I'd be on the medication for 2 1/2 hours.

The last half an hour, I'd be off so that I went from perfectly fine to the point where I couldn't hardly move, and I had the shakes.

I was pretty much at the end of my ropes.

My depression was really bad because, for one thing, I was maxed out on my medication.

I came in here to the University of Utah.

I was interviewed by a number of folks on the team, and I had the surgeries through May and about August of 2015.

Deep brain stimulation is a treatment offered for patients with movement disorders and some other neurological conditions in which we place electrodes inside the patient's brain which is attached to a type of pacemaker that is implanted in their chest and that delivers electrical stimulation to help treat the problems that they have, such as Parkinson's disease, tremor, dystonia, and other neurological problems.

About four months, I had to come once a month, one to two hours each visit, and then after that, I come about every three months, and it's about an hour visit.

Since we have to come about 32 miles to get here -- it takes about an hour one way -- it would take a lot of stress off of us.

And since we have a University of Utah clinic right there within about five minutes of our house, and if the doctor there knew how to do it, boy, we could save about half a day each time we come in here, which is every three months now.

After the patients are implanted, they have to come back several times to meet with the neurologist who will do the programming of the device, which should be very tailored for the patient.

So, it's rare to find this technology and this resource in some areas.

So, the SCI Institute is working in developing ways to make both physicians' and patients' lives easier.

They built a computational model in an iPad that the clinician can use in the clinic, and you can estimate the area that you are going to stimulate and where the current is spreading and how much energy you need to provide the benefit to the patient.

That makes the programming much shorter because you don't need to use a trial-and-error approach, trying every possible different setting.

You can actually estimate which setting would be appropriate just based on the feedback from that imaging.

In addition to that, these can be used remotely so that the patients don't need to go so many times to the clinic.

You can estimate the setting before, and this can be applied by a nurse or someone that doesn't have the same background training in deep brain stimulation.

If you're a patient who lives in rural areas or many hours away and you get DBS therapy, with the type of care that we can provide right now, those patients and their families are signing up to travel to an academic medical center for the rest of their life, and we think this has a huge effect on patient quality of life.

And so one of the things we've been doing is exploring whether we can create a care model where patients can stay at home but still get expert management from their doctors at major academic medical centers.

Till recently, physicians have not had the way to see the effects of DBS in an individual subject, so, using these interactive visualizations, a physician can look at a model of that patient's brain and change the stimulation settings the same way they would in the patient and get immediate feedback on those effects.

This type of modeling, for a long time, was taking a tremendous amount of time to produce.

We wanted to drastically speed up that process and just make it much more interactive.

The application that we built to do this actually does this by using supercomputers here at the SCI Institute.

If one of our physician colleagues is looking at a patient model on their iPad and they want to change the settings, that's packaged up as a request, it's sent to the SCI Institute, these computations are done in near real time and delivered back to them, and then they can see the results, usually in about 1 to 15 seconds.

Deep brain stimulation is not for everybody with Parkinson's disease and not for everybody with movement disorders.

Most patients with these conditions tend to respond extremely well to medication therapies.

However, about 10% to 15% of the patients start to have some degree of complications independent of their medical treatment, and that's when they become candidates for deep brain stimulation.

Deep brain stimulation surgery has been like a miracle in my life.

Since that, I feel like a normal human being again.

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.