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Living in the Future: Search for ET made easier, Telepathic implants, and mild shocks to the brain treat Parkinsons

This week on We Are Living in the Future:

Scientists get a break while searching for extraterrestrial life, as finding oxygen atmospheres is much easier around white dwarf stars – or stars that have used up most of the fuel and shrunk to a small size. Despite their small size, planets with an atmosphere can still exist around them, but they have to be in closer orbits than Earth is to our Sun. A habitable planet around a white dwarf would circle it every 10 hours – but that regular period makes finding the planet easier, as it would appear to “blink” as the planet passed in front of it. And that “transit” also allows light from the star to shine through the planet’s atmosphere – which lets us check its spectrum. Now, to find the planets!

Telepathy, or direct mind-to-mind communication, is a dream and fear of many, and the subject of many a science fiction novel. For neuroscientist Miguel Nicolelis, it’s the next stage of his progress. Nicolelis has been experimenting with rats implanted with a device that reads and transmits electrical signals in their motor cortex. The rats are trained to step on levers when they see certain lights, but the rat in the cage with the lever that works only knows the proper course of action when the other rat sees the light. And 85% of the time, the message gets across – even though the rats may be separated by thousands of miles, and connected through the internet. The device is still in early testing stages, but it suggests that science may offer a controllable telepathy within our lifetimes.

Another brain-implant in the news is one that delivers mild shocks deep within the brain. As unpleasant as that sounds, the device has shown promise in preventing the progress of Parkinson’s Disease. For patients with early stage Parkinsons, the device resulted in across the board improvement in quality of life – but for 20% of those implanted, complications from the surgery lead to serious adverse affects. The science is there – but the procedure still needs work. In any case, this is new ground for Parkinson’s research, as traditionally, patients in the early stages would be given medication alone. While work is still ongoing, this research looks promising for the future.