SciTech Now: Episode 618


[ Theme music plays ] ♪♪

Coming up, learning about language from songbirds...

Songbirds, parrots, and hummingbirds have the ability to imitate sounds like we do for speech.

...3D-mapping of the human eye...

It is a way of making a three-dimensional map of the back of the eye. Hawaii's beaches...

So, plastic never truly biodegrades.

The first piece of plastic ever created still exists today.

...unpacking climate change.

I want people to see that things that they do have an impact and that it's a bigger problem than just themselves.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by... Hello. I'm Hari Srinivasan.

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

Let's get started.

The ability to learn and vocalize language is a complex behavior long believed to be unique to humans.

To understand how spoken language developed and how our brains manage it, there is new research focused on song-learning birds.

Professor Erich Jarvis is head of the Laboratory of Neurogenetics of Language at the Rockefeller University, where he is uncovering some of the molecular and genetic mechanisms that underlie vocal learning.

I never thought about, how do we learn to make sounds?

I just thought that it was something that we picked up from our environment or -- But how do we actually make the type of sounds?

Is it just mimicking?

Is it something else?

It includes mimicking.

We call that vocal learning.


But it's something that's actually highly specialized to us humans and a few other species.

Otherwise, we would be able to talk to all these animals out there.

[ Laughs ]

And we are not able to do that.

Right. So, why study birds?

What are they teaching us?

So, specific groups of birds -- songbirds, parrots, and hummingbirds -- have the ability to imitate sounds like we do for speech.


And how that happens, to answer your question, is, like us, these animals hear sounds, it goes to the hearing areas of the brain, and then it's translated to the areas of the brain that control the vocal organs, all this muscle here, and produce the sounds.


Many species have the hearing ability, like your dogs, but we and parrots have the production ability, as well.

Okay, so, looking into them, how now do we know -- Are there similarities that we have with parrots that -- I mean, how does the brain wiring work in --

Yeah. Yeah.

What's amazing is that parrots and humans are separated by 300 million years from a common ancestor.



But the brain pathways that controls their ability to produce their learned vocalizations, including our speech, is very similar to us.

And we cannot even find those brain pathways in a monkey or a chimpanzee or a chicken, who's closely related to a parrot.

Hmm. Why?

We think what happened is that these brain pathways evolved, as we like to say, convergently, in a parallel way, similar...


...just like birds have wings, bats have wings.



They came about separately from a common ancestor using the upper arms.

So, how do we use this information in helping humans?

If birds came up with a similar mechanism of how to produce spoken language that we have, humans have, it means we can actually learn from studying their brains not only how it works for us, but also how to cure certain diseases that are associated with speech deficits.

So, give me an example of a disease like that.

So, meaning somebody who could hear, but they can't vocalize?

Yeah, or somebody who can hear and they vocalize, but not properly.

They stutter.



And we found in other labs, as well, when certain areas of the brain, called the basal ganglia, are damaged in songbirds, they start to stutter in a way that humans do.

And we found that -- But the birds can recover.

After that damage, they can recover because they make new neurons that go to this brain area and repair it, and their stuttering is gone in less than a year.


So, if we can learn how to induce such new neuron growth in the human-speech brain pathways by studying these birds, then maybe we can actually help cure stuttering.

How much of this is sort of genetic?

And can we identify those genes now?


So, there's a genetic predisposition that allows us to learn spoken language, that allows parrots to learn how to imitate vocalizations like we do.

So, you're genetically born with that ability, but the actual sounds you learn is cultural...

Right. passed on from generation to generation in humans and parrots and songbirds.

And because you get this cultural transmission, you get different dialects in different languages in all these species that learn how to imitate.

So, would there be value then in mapping out the genomes of lots of birds?


Or beyond birds?

Yeah, work by my former students like Andreas Pfenning and others in my lab is that, by sequencing the genomes of humans -- and 'humans,' I mean primates that don't learn how to imitate -- and sequencing the genomes of parrots and other species of birds that don't learn how to imitate and looking at their brains, we found that the human-brain speech areas and the parrot-brain vocal learning areas have convergent genetic changes in them, parallel genetic changes, that you cannot find in monkeys, that you cannot find in chickens or other birds that don't learn how to imitate.

Okay, this is gonna get a tiny bit sci-fi...

Yep, mm-hmm.

...but if that's the case -- and here we are on the cusp of genetic engineering in a totally new way, where we're using CRISPR and other tools, we're able to make modifications to a single gene -- so, where my brain is going is -- you can tell this -- is there's a real-life 'Planet of the Apes' coming, right?

I mean, at some point, couldn't we modify the speech centers of a different species to have the ability to create sound and vocalize like us, and then it's up to their cultural ability to -- No?

There's some people actually trying that, including -- or starting to try, including my own group, where we're trying to take the human versions of these genes -- or the songbird and parrot versions of them -- and get them to function in the brain of a species that cannot imitate the way we do to see if we can induce a brain circuit for vocal learning.

My opinion is that many animals actually understand rudimentary human speech.


Like your dogs.


They can learn up to 400 words...



They can't produce them.

Many of them have feelings.

Many of them think.


But they can't express it.


So, I think if we were able to actually make this happen in other species besides humans and parrots and dolphins or another, I think that we will be able to understand what animals are thinking more.


So, okay, how did you get into this field in the first place?

What interested you into this?

I was -- I got into this field because, actually, I was transitioning from a pathway -- a career in dance to becoming a scientist.

Natural progression.

Yeah. It was natural to me.

And when I got into -- Science fascinated me.

And I was trying to decide, 'Okay, what do I want to study?

Something from the origins of the universe to how the brain works.'

I wanted to pick a hard problem.

And I chose the brain because it controls dancing.

But it turns out, by the way, only the vocal learning species are the ones that can learn how to dance.



Parrots can learn how to dance?

That's right.

Parrots can learn how to dance.

You see lots of YouTube videos of them.

And what we think happened is that the brain pathways for spoken language came out of the brain pathways that are controlling the hands, the body.

Different motor skills.

And when it gave rise to the speech pathway, it took the hearing pathway with it, right?

And that hearing pathway contaminated the rest of the brain, that now hearing can control our body.


Erich Jarvis from the Rockefeller University, thanks so much for joining us.

You're welcome.

At NYU Langone Eye Center in New York City, groundbreaking technology, computer science, and research are paving the way for new approaches to eye care.

We visit the center to get the story.

Your retina is a thin layer of tissue in the back of the eye that holds the key to diagnosing most blinding diseases.

Its appearance can indicate the presence of conditions like macular degeneration, diabetic retinopathy, and glaucoma.

But it wasn't until the advent of a technology called optical coherence tomography, or OCT, in the 1990s that objectively reviewing the retina was even possible.

So, what were people using before OCT?

They were looking.

[ Chuckles ] They were looking at the back of the eye and making a subjective assessment of what it looks like.

And that was how we did it up until the mid-90s.

Dr. Joel Schuman is a professor and the chairman of ophthalmology at NYU Langone Health.

He was part of the team that invented optical coherence tomography.

It is a way of making a three-dimensional map of the back of the eye.

And in this case, we're talking about eyes.

And it can see the retina, which is the nerve tissue in the back of the eye.

It's sort of like an ultrasound, but using light instead of sound waves.

So, what that does is it allows us to diagnose disease much earlier than we ever could before and to follow treatment of disease.

So, is my treatment working or not?

Is somebody getting worse or not?

The first time the patient comes in, you know -- or you can figure out, 'Does this patient have some sort of disease?'

And all of these things can be measured very accurately and precisely with OCT.

Dr. Schuman says ophthalmology before OCT was similar to neurology before the advent of CT scans or MRIs, when neurologists would have to make judgment calls on where in the nervous system an abnormality originated.

What OCT does -- and one of the reasons that I was interested in being involved in inventing OCT -- is that it allows us to take the subjectivity out of the assessment of eye disease and out of the question of whether or not somebody is getting worse.

We can actually measure the tissue.

It's done objectively, quantitatively, and it is non-contact and non-invasive and very quick.

Now, decades after OTC first changed the field, Schumann is researching ways to use the technology as a foundation for new innovations in eye treatment.

In terms of where OTC is now we're able to measure structures in the eye, but where we're going is being able to measure how the tissue is working.

The nerve tissue that's in the back of the eye, the retina, is part of the brain.

And the brain doesn't regenerate.

Because it doesn't regenerate, damage to the retina is really serious 'cause the retina doesn't get better.

Now, we are doing experiments here to try to restore function to retina that's been damaged.

And we're excited about that.

Schuman's team is looking into utilizing different wavelengths of light to determine how much oxygen is getting into the tissue.

And they're using a technology called adaptive optics to actually see cells damaged by glaucoma.

The team is also collaborating with IBM to develop artificial intelligence capable of predicting the trajectory of a disease based on patients' OCT images.

What we're working on is using deep learning to analyze OCT images and also visual fields to determine whether or not somebody is likely to get worse or not and also to analyze that image itself -- So, kind of an automated way, where the machine could do the reading.

The team provides IBM with de-identified data, keeping patients anonymous.

And IBM works on developing machine learning.

And so that collaboration brings these different skill sets together in order to create a greater whole, which is algorithms, these ways of analyzing OCT, analyzing visual fields, putting everything together, and being able to say, 'Okay, this patient has disease.

This patient doesn't.

This patient is gonna get worse quickly.

You better act.

This patient's gonna get worse slowly.

Maybe you don't need to see them that often or treat that aggressively.'

Schuman says some of NYU Langone Health's current research on eye treatment is 'a little far out,' experiments that very well could fail but evidence suggests could be successful.

And one of the things that we're doing like that is a gentle electrical stimulation in order to restore vision.

And specifically we're looking at this in people with glaucoma.

Have you had any changes in your health or glaucoma treatment regimen?


Associate research scientist Dr. Heather Livengood heads up the study at NYU Langone health, collaborating with a colleague in Germany.

Today she's meeting with patient Curt Macomber, a professional violinist diagnosed with glaucoma.

We're doing an experimental intervention that's called repetitive transorbital alternating current stimulation.

And we call it 'rtACS' for short.

We use a low electrical current, and we place two electrodes, one above each eyebrow.

And we deliver a stimulation over 10 days for 30 to 45 minutes.

We're trying to mimic that natural process of how the cells communicate from the eye to the brain by using this electrical stimulation.

And the idea is for those cells in the eyes, in the retina, that aren't working to their full capacity -- we want to see, if we provide this external stimulation, will we help them to function a little bit better, more effectively, more efficiently, so that communication -- the information they send back to the brain may be improved so that people may ultimately perceive an improvement in their vision?

OCT imaging will allow Dr. Livengood to determine whether the stimulation is working or not.

She says the experimental medical intervention won't change the mechanism of glaucoma, but that it may help slow the progression of the disease.

That's the outcome that Macomber, Livengood, Schuman, and the team are hoping for.

I certainly hope that after these sessions are over that I will notice some -- some improvement in my vision.

I understand that that may not happen, but I'd like to see if it may.

Research is often exciting.

It often doesn't work.

But I've been lucky to be in several studies that have looked at new things that actually do work.

Like optical coherence tomography.

And while NYU Langone Health's experimental treatments are still in the early stages of research, one of them could be the next big breakthrough in eye care.

In Maui, trash is washing up on the shores of paradise.

Now teams of citizen scientists are cleaning the beaches and cataloging a problem that keeps coming back.

'PBS NewsHour' Student Reporting Labs has the story.

[Indistinct conversations]

'Citizen science' is a pretty broad term.

What it means for me is all of us being aware of what's happening around us.

And to me, science means creating a solution to this.

And by 'this,' Mike Ottman, the chair of the Maui Surfrider chapter, means plastic.

And Jenny Roberts from the Pacific Whale Foundation explains just how dangerous plastic is to our environment.

Actually, we are finding that the microplastics -- or the small pieces of plastics -- are actually the bigger problem.

So, plastic never truly biodegrades.

The first piece of plastic ever created still exists today.

And all it does is it photodegrades, which means it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, and those smaller pieces are what we call microplastics.

And those can be even more dangerous than the big ones because those microplastics are what the microorganisms are eating.

And then the bigger fish that eats those microorganisms -- then they're ingesting plastic.

And then up the food chain it goes to the fish you eat on your dinner plate.

And one of the best places to collect data on this plastic problem is the Northwest coast of Maui.

Here, Cheryl King, a marine biologist on Maui, collects data on the many plastics she finds.

Everything you can possibly imagine washes ashore here.

And we record all that.

And then at the end of the day, we have all that information to show that, 'Okay, we have a serious problem for these items.'

You know, that's a good thing.

Then we've got to look at --

Pacific, the Atlantic, the Indian Ocean -- they all have these concentration points of debris because of the way the currents and the winds move.

It's not like a floating island that you can go out and just pick it up really easily.

It's more of a plastic suit that's not just floating, but it's also down -- all the way down to the seafloor.

It's not very exact, is it?

You know, we're trying.

Like, endeavors that we can do on a local basis and a global basis -- it's changing.

It's definitely getting out there, as far as the message.

And it's not enough to know what the problem is, but how to take action.

Oh, wow.

I think beach cleanups are the first step.

For me, it created awareness that, 'Oh, my gosh.'

Actually, when you look down, you see all the little bits of trash on our favorite beaches.

The turtles, the fish, the wildlife eating it.

So, to me, the beach cleanup is creating that awareness that will move towards making steps towards change.

And these steps are creating a path that many around the world are following, including Amy Laframboise, a volunteer on one of the many beach cleanups on Maui.

Anywhere I go, I always try and get involved in the community and get to know people and their perspective on the local aspect because I think that's really important, especially with tourism nowadays.

It's become so mass-- like, such a large aspect of everyone's, really, routine or lifestyle that when you do travel, I think it's important to give back to the communities that you're traveling to.

In the long run, if everyone really takes those little steps, it would really become a massive movement.

And I think our society is really coming a long way with that.

And Claire agrees.

All kids should clean up the mess.


This is Cailyn Omuro reporting for Student Reporting Lab.

[ Computer keys clacking ] ♪♪

Up next, we take a look at the issue of climate change in this segment from our ongoing public media reporting initiative called 'Peril & Promise,' a series of reports on the human impact and solutions for climate change.

''You are dreaming,' they sang as I swam on.'

♪♪ ''You are dreaming,' the bubbles whispered against my skin.'

'Every mother dreams.'

''You are dreaming,' sobbed the slow, endless tide.'

'I was born on a green eon.'

''You are dreaming.

You are dreaming.''

'The earth blinks black.

But the cosmos blinks back.'

♪♪ [ Indistinct conversations ]

Excellent. Okay.

Now what I want you to do -- Hearing those lines again, I want you to think about what order you guys have put that in as a group, right?

I've really liked, like, performance poetry for a long time.

So I saw this as, like, an opportunity to get into something that I was interested in.

And also, like, climate change is, like, a big problem.

And, like, I knew that I needed to do something about it, and this was, like, perfect.

And we need everybody on board because all the scientific data in the world does not match an evening like this when people can be moved and touched and feel what's really at stake.

'Dear greenhouse gas, I can't believe I thought I'd like you, that I fooled myself into thinking that I wasn't like you.'

'The world will never be the same.

Call the crisis by its name -- climate denial.'

'All it takes to break those chains is mindful living and small steps that still make a difference.'

[ Cheers and applause ]

My poem is about how childhood and innocence was lost as the climate crisis grows larger.

My poem is about how climate change really affects the youth.

And I drew from my personal experience with natural disasters.

The other big note that I would give everybody is, points of focus, I think, will help you.

We all have a lot of beautiful, vivid imagery, right?

And so when you have that, I would say make sure that you're -- keep your image out there, right?

When you're talking about what you're seeing and what you're describing, see it out there.

It doesn't need to be internal.

'Sorry, little girl dreaming of octopi and jellyfish.

Sorry, little sister.


We did not try to swim until we were drowning, and some of us not even then.'

''Climate change?

Oh, that's just a theory.'

I scoff.

If it's not real, why do I feel the symptoms of an incoming epidemic?'

'The doctor said there was only a sliver of a chance that I could survive this.

So he told me not to get my hopes up.'

I think that it's just really important to think before you act in general and that solving any environmental issue isn't an easy task.

And it's important to really take some time to deeply think through the best solutions before you take action.

So, my poem essentially personifies Earth as a mother, like the common saying 'Mother Nature.'

And in this poem, she is asking humans, her children, to come to terms with the damage they've wrought on the environment.

'One day, I'm going to have a daughter.

I see myself holding my baby named Love, and I see her first breaths being contaminated with pollutants and chemicals.

I see her first tears to signal her first breath, and they're coming out in streams of oil.'

'Wildfires crackling, smoke darkening, children asphyxiated by a cloud of debris.

No more movies.'

'Even so, I am bartered, traded for new factory here, a new mine there.

I am affected when my relatives in Greece have to evacuate their homes just miles from raging wildfires spurned by climate change.'

'Even when the weatherman said it would hurricane, I swept the tropical storm under the carpet category of mythological weather phenomenons.'

'I have heard the screams of the young.'

Oh, yeah.

'They are breaking sound barriers, telling the people with power that their beautiful Earth needs to be salvaged, that she is dying.'

'But you are not there to mourn the mother's dream set alight by factory fumes.'

'But I told them that even though my cells have produced enormous amounts of carbon emission, waste, and lit my lungs on fire, I still believe they will one day redeem themselves and realize that my body is their home and, through their actions, show they have come to understand that.'

I think, like, from this experience, the youth is really concerned with climate change.

And I think it should be an issue that everyone is concerned about.

I want people to see that things that they do have an impact and that it's a bigger problem than just themselves and that they really need to start doing something now because, like, the children are the only ones who are speaking up right now.

And they need to do something because they caused the problem.

'Once upon a time, I believed that the world was perfect.'


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 Srinivasan.

Thanks for watching.

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