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Vice-Chancellor visits North West to encourage more Cambridge applications

University News - Fri, 23/02/2024 - 14:24

The trip aims to build on the progress made in recent years to welcome a more diverse group of students at Cambridge. Accompanied by Baroness Sally Morgan of Huyton, Master of Fitzwilliam College, who comes from Liverpool herself, Professor Prentice is speaking to students, teachers and education leaders to hear about their experiences and the challenges they face.

The Liverpool Echo has covered the visit and has also published an op-ed by Professor Prentice, sharing her concerns that admissions to Cambridge are skewed towards London and the South East, and reflecting on a recently published Echo piece by Cambridge graduate Eva Carroll, from Everton, who wants to inspire more people in the region to follow in her footsteps.

Professor Prentice writes:

I smiled with warm recognition last month when I read an inspiring article by one of our recent graduates in the Liverpool Echo. Eva Carroll, who comes from Everton, described arriving at the University of Cambridge and settling in, learning new ways and ancient traditions.

Eva’s story is not completely different to my own – although a few thousand miles and some decades apart. We both grew up with single parents and were the first in our families to go to university.

I’ve been Vice-Chancellor at Cambridge for just over seven months now. On arriving here, like Eva, I noticed many of the traditions and have quickly grown used to them. I do know that it is a place of extraordinary beauty, and the punting and gowns still exist against a backdrop of amazing history and achievement.

Yet it is also a vibrant place where people of all backgrounds come to learn, study and carry out world-leading research on issues which affect the lives of people right here in Liverpool and around the world, such as progress on cancer, on other areas of public health, plus AI and climate.

Today, I am getting to visit Liverpool for the first time, a great city which I have always wanted to see for myself. Growing up in a modest corner of Oakland, California in the 1960s, and loving music as my passion, I could only imagine this place, whose musical talent conquered the world.

Cambridge has a huge impact on the economy of the North West: a recent analysis showed that Cambridge contributes around £769m a year to the region’s economy through outstanding research that leads to new companies and economic activity taking place here, and delivering thousands of jobs.

And the university has made real progress in recent years in welcoming a more diverse group of students, and the proportion of students who join from state schools has risen significantly.

Despite this, I share Eva's concern that admissions to Cambridge - which is most certainly a national university - is skewed towards London and the South East. In 2022 nearly half of our undergraduate students came from those areas, while just 7.7% of applications came from the North West. I want the university to serve the UK as a whole.

We want to attract the best talent and the brightest minds wherever they are, and whatever their backgrounds. So my visit is a listening journey. I’m hearing from hard-working staff and the students themselves, and education leaders, about the challenges they face.

I will also hear what they think about Cambridge. Of course this city, and this region – I also visited Manchester University yesterday - has brilliant universities, and we aren’t trying to draw students away from those.

We know that there are many students in the North West, and beyond, who – for whatever reason - will get the grades but will not think of applying to Cambridge. Our aim is that those talented students will think about doing so.

Today, with Baroness Sally Morgan of Huyton (a proud Liverpudlian colleague who runs one of our Cambridge Colleges, Fitzwilliam), I am visiting St Michael’s Church of England School in Crosby which serves as the hub for the University’s HE+ programme on Merseyside, to talk with students who have applied to the University, and the teachers who have been supporting them, about their experiences.

I will also meet trustees from the Liverpool Aspire project, which supports students considering applications to both Cambridge and Oxford, and which Eva wrote about so positively.

It hosts workshops with students in Years 10 and 12 when students are making important choices, and it helps them to maximise their potential and make applications to university. Aspire has helped 120 talented students to get a place at Cambridge and Oxford to date. It is a fantastic initiative.

I may still be relatively new to the role, but I hope that encouraging more people from all backgrounds to apply to Cambridge from great places such as Liverpool, and right across the North West, can be one of my legacies. Cambridge needs more Eva Carrolls, and we must work hard to make that possible.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice is this week visiting the North West of England ­– including Manchester and Liverpool – as part of the University’s work to encourage more applications from the region.

Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice


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Having a ‘regular doctor’ can significantly reduce GP workload, study finds

University News - Fri, 23/02/2024 - 01:11

In one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers from the University of Cambridge and INSEAD analysed data from more than 10 million consultations in 381 English primary care practices over a period of 11 years.

The results, reported in the journal Management Science, suggest that a long-term relationship between a patient and their doctor could both improve patient health and reduce workload for GPs.

The researchers found that when patients were able to see their regular doctor for a consultation – a model known as continuity of care – they waited on average 18% longer between visits, compared to patients who saw a different doctor. The productivity benefit of continuity of care was larger for older patients, those with multiple chronic conditions, and individuals with mental health conditions.

Although it will not always be possible for a patient to see their regular GP, this productivity differential would translate to an estimated 5% reduction in consultations if all practices in England were providing the level of care continuity of the best 10% of practices.

Primary care in the UK is under enormous strain: patients struggle to get appointments, GPs are retiring early, and financial pressures are causing some practices to close. According to the Health Foundation and the Nuffield Trust, there is a significant shortfall of GPs in England, with a projected 15% increase required in the workforce. The problem is not limited to UK, however: the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates a shortfall of between 21,400 and 55,200 primary care physicians in the US by 2033.

“Productivity is a huge problem across all the whole of the UK – we wanted to see how that’s been playing out in GP practices,” said Dr Harshita Kajaria-Montag, the study’s lead author, who is now based at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. “Does the rapid access model make GPs more productive?” 

“You can measure the productivity of GP surgeries in two ways: how many patients can you see in a day, or how much health can you provide in a day for those patients,” said co-author Professor Stefan Scholtes from Cambridge Judge Business School. “Some GP surgeries are industrialised in their approach: each patient will get seven or ten minutes before the GP has to move on to the next one.”

At English GP practices, roughly half of all appointments are with a patient’s regular doctor, but this number has been steadily declining over the past decade as GP practices come under increasing strain.

The researchers used an anonymised dataset from the UK Clinical Practice Research Datalink, consisting of more than 10 million GP visits between 1 January 2007 and 31 December 2017. Using statistical models to account for confounding and selection bias, and restricting the sample to consultations with patients who had at least three consultations over the past two years, the researchers found that the time to a patient’s next visit is substantially longer when the patient sees the doctor they have seen most frequently over the past two years, while there is no operationally meaningful difference in consultation duration.

“The impact is substantial: it could be the equivalent of increasing the GP workforce by five percent, which would significantly benefit both patients and the NHS,” said Scholtes. “Better health translates into less demand for future consultations. Prioritising continuity of care is crucial in enhancing productivity.”

“The benefits of continuity of care are obvious from a relationship point of view,” said Kajaria-Montag. “If you’re a patient with complex health needs, you don’t want to have to explain your whole health history at every appointment. If you have a regular doctor who’s familiar with your history, it’s a far more efficient use of time, for doctor and patient.”

“A regular doctor may have a larger incentive to take more time to treat her regular patients thoroughly than a transactional provider,” said Scholtes. “Getting it right the first time will reduce her future workload by preventing revisits, which would likely be her responsibility, while a transactional provider is less likely to see the patient for her next visit.”

The researchers emphasise that continuity of care does not only have the known benefits of better patient outcomes, better patient and GP experience, and reduced secondary care use, but also provides a surprisingly large productivity benefit for the GP practices themselves. 

 

Reference:
Harshita Kajaria-Montag, Michael Freeman, Stefan Scholtes. ‘Continuity of Care Increases Physician Productivity in Primary Care.’ Management Science (2024). DOI: 10.1287/mnsc.2021.02015

If all GP practices moved to a model where patients saw the same doctor at each visit, it could significantly reduce doctor workload while improving patient health, a study suggests. 

The Good Brigade via Getty ImagesDoctor examining a patient


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Shimmering seaweeds and algae antennae: sustainable energy solutions under the sea

University News - Thu, 22/02/2024 - 16:40

Funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, the Bio-inspired and Bionic materials for Enhanced Photosynthesis (BEEP) project, led by Professor Silvia Vignolini in the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, studied how marine organisms interact with light.

The four-year sustainable energy project brought together nine research groups from across Europe and drew its inspiration from nature, in particular from the marine world, where organisms including algae, corals and sea slugs have evolved efficient ways to convert sunlight into energy. Harnessing these properties could aid in the development of new artificial and bionic photosynthetic systems.

Some of the brightest and most colourful materials in nature – such as peacock feathers, butterfly wings and opals – get their colour not from pigments or dyes, but from their internal structure alone. The colours our eyes perceive originate from the interaction between light and nanostructures at the surface of the material, which reflect certain wavelengths of light.

As part of the BEEP project, the team studied structural colour in marine species. Some marine algae species have nanostructures in their cell walls that can transmit certain wavelengths of visible light or change their structures to guide the light inside the cell. Little is known about the function of these structures, however: scientists believe they might protect the organisms from UV light or optimise light harvesting capabilities.

The team studied the optical properties and light harvesting efficiency of a range of corals, sea-slugs, microalgae and seaweeds. By understanding the photonic and structural properties of these species, the scientists hope to design new materials for bio-photoreactors and bionic systems.

“We’re fascinated by the optical effects performed by these organisms,” said Maria Murace, a BEEP PhD candidate at Cambridge, who studies structural colour in seaweeds and marine bacteria. “We want to understand what the materials and the structures at the base of these colours are, which could lead to the development of green and sustainable alternatives to the conventional paints and toxic dyes we use today.”

BEEP also studied diatoms: tiny photosynthetic algae that live in almost every aquatic system on Earth and produce as much as half of the oxygen we breathe. The silica shells of these tiny algae form into stunning structures, but they also possess remarkable light-harvesting properties.

The BEEP team engineered tiny light-harvesting antennae and attached them to diatom shells. “These antennae allowed us to gather the light that would otherwise not be harvested by the organism, which is converted and used for photosynthesis,” said Cesar Vicente Garcia, one of the BEEP PhD students, from the University of Bari in Italy. “The result is promising: diatoms grow more! This research could inspire the design of powerful bio-photoreactors, or even better

The scientists engineered a prototype bio-photoreactor, consisting of a fully bio-compatible hydrogel which sustains the growth of microalgae and structural coloured bacteria. The interaction of these organisms is mutually beneficial, enhancing microalgal growth and increasing the volume of biomass produced, which could have applications in the biofuel production industry.

Alongside research, the network has organised several training and outreach activities, including talks and exhibitions for the public at science festivals in Italy, France and the UK.

“Society relies on science to drive growth and progress,” said Floriana Misceo, the BEEP network manager who coordinated outreach efforts. “It’s so important for scientists to share their research and help support informed discussion and debate because without it, misinformation can thrive, which is why training and outreach was an important part of this project.”

“Coordinating this project has been a great experience. I learned immensely from the other groups in BEEP and the young researchers,” said Vignolini. “The opportunity to host researchers from different disciplines in the lab was instrumental in developing new skills and approaching problems from a different perspective.”

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under a Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant.

How could tiny antennae attached to tiny algae speed up the transition away from fossil fuels? This is one of the questions being studied by Cambridge researchers as they search for new ways to decarbonise our energy supply, and improve the sustainability of harmful materials such as paints and dyes.

BEEPSeaweeds showing structural colour


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Long COVID linked to persistently high levels of inflammatory protein: a potential biomarker and target for treatments

University News - Wed, 21/02/2024 - 18:45

A University of Cambridge-led study identifies the protein interferon gamma (IFN-γ) as a potential biomarker for Long COVID fatigue and highlights an immunological mechanism underlying the disease, which could pave the way for the development of much needed therapies, and provide a head start in the event of a future coronavirus pandemic. 

The study, published today in Science Advances, followed a group of patients with Long COVID fatigue for over 2.5 years, to understand why some recovered and others did not. 

Long COVID continues to affect millions of people globally and is placing a major burden on health services. An estimated 1.9 million people in the UK alone (2.9% of the population) were experiencing self-reported Long COVID as of March 2023, according to the ONS. Fatigue remains by far the most common and debilitating symptom and patients are still waiting for an effective treatment.

The study shows that initial infection with SARS-CoV-2 triggers production of the antiviral protein IFN-γ, which is a normal reaction from the immune system. For most people, when their infection clears, COVID-19 symptoms cease and production of this protein stops, but the researchers found that high levels of IFN-γ persisted in some Long COVID patients for up to 31 months.

“We have found a potential mechanism underlying Long COVID which could represent a biomarker – that is, a tell-tale signature of the condition. We hope that this could help to pave the way to develop therapies and give some patients a firm diagnosis,” said co-author, Dr Benjamin Krishna, from the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology & Infectious Disease (CITIID).

The research began in 2020 when Dr Nyarie Sithole set up a Long COVID clinic in Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital, where he started collecting blood samples from patients and set about studying their immunology. Sithole soon enlisted the support of Dr Benjamin Krishna and Dr Mark Wills from the University of Cambridge’s Dept. of Medicine.

“When the clinic started, a lot of people didn't even believe Long COVID was real,” Dr Sithole said. “We are indebted to all the patients who volunteered for this study, without whose support and participation we would obviously not have accomplished this study”.

The team studied 111 COVID-confirmed patients admitted to Addenbrooke’s Hospital CUH, Royal Papworth Hospital and Cambridge and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trusts at 28 days, 90 days and 180 days following symptom onset. Between August 2020 and July 2021, they recruited 55 Long COVID patients – all experiencing severe symptoms at least 5 months after acute COVID-19 – attending the Long COVID clinic at Addenbrooke’s.

The researchers analysed blood samples for signs of cytokines, small proteins crucial to the functioning of immune system cells and blood cells. They found that the white blood cells of individuals infected with SARS-CoV-2 produced IFN-γ, a pro inflammatory molecule, and that this persisted in Long COVID patients.

Dr Krishna said: “Interferon gamma can be used to treat viral infections such as hepatitis C but it causes symptoms including fatigue, fever, headache, aching muscles and depression. These symptoms are all too familiar to Long COVID patients. For us, that was another smoking gun.”

By conducting ‘cell depletion assays’, the team managed to identify the precise cell types responsible for producing IFN-γ. They pinpointed immune cells known as CD8+ T cells but found that they required contact with another immune cell type: CD14+ monocytes.

Previous studies have identified IFN-γ signatures using different approaches and cohorts, but this study’s focus on fatigue revealed a much stronger influence. Also, while previous studies have noticed IFN-y levels rising, they have not followed patients long enough to observe when they might drop back down.

The Cambridge team followed its Long COVID cohort for up to 31 months post-infection. During this follow up period, over 60% of patients experienced resolution of some, if not all, of their symptoms which coincided with a drop in IFN-γ.

 

Vaccination helping Long COVID patients


The team measured IFN-γ release in Long COVID patients before and after vaccination and found a significant decrease in IFN-γ post vaccination in patients whose symptoms resolved.

“If SARS-CoV-2 continues to persist in people with Long COVID, triggering an IFN-γ response, then vaccination may be helping to clear this. But we still need to find effective therapies,” Dr Krishna said.

“The number of people with Long COVID is gradually falling, and vaccination seems to be playing a significant role in that. But new cases are still cropping up, and then there is the big question of what happens when the next coronavirus pandemic comes along. We could face another wave of Long COVID. Understanding what causes Long COVID now could give us a crucial head start.”

 

Microclotting

Some well-publicised previous studies have proposed microclotting as a principle cause of Long COVID. While not ruling out a role of some kind, these new findings suggest that microclotting cannot be the only or the most significant cause.


Classifying long COVID

This study argues that the presence of IFN-γ could be used to classify Long COVID into subtypes which could be used to personalise treatment. 

“It’s unlikely that all the different Long COVID symptoms are caused by the same thing. We need to differentiate between people and tailor treatments. Some patients are slowly recovering and there are those who are stuck in a cycle of fatigue for years on end. We need to know why,” Dr Krishna said.

 
Reference
 

B. A. Krishna et al., ‘Spontaneous, persistent, T-cell dependent IFN-γ release in patients who progress to long COVID’, Science Advances (2024). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adi9379

SARS-CoV-2 triggers the production of the antiviral protein IFN-γ, which is associated with fatigue, muscle ache and depression. New research shows that in Long COVID patients, IFN-y production persists until symptoms improve, highlighting a potential biomarker and a target for therapies. 

We hope that this could help to pave the way to develop therapies and give some patients a firm diagnosisBenjamin KrishnaAnnie Spratt via Unsplashwoman sat on sofa in the dark placing a hand to her forehead


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Vice-Chancellor visits Cambridge University Boat Club training

University News - Tue, 20/02/2024 - 15:53

It might have been a chilly and dark 6am start, but a warm welcome awaited Professor Deborah Prentice, who joined Chief Women’s Coach Paddy Ryan on a launch following the crews out on the River Great Ouse.

Professor Prentice said it was an opportunity to witness the dedication of the students, who routinely set off from Cambridge at five in the morning, arrive at Ely Boathouse just after six, then complete around an hour’s training before needing to get back to Cambridge in time for morning lectures.

“These students and their coaches are doing unbelievable work, they’re out here every day at six in the morning,” said Professor Prentice.

“The fact that they are combining this training with study is a reminder of how disciplined and committed our students are. Rowing is a team sport and they are a fantastic team for sure.”

Annamarie Phelps, CUBC Club Chair, said she was delighted the Vice-Chancellor was able to visit and meet the students, coaches and staff.

“It was fantastic to welcome the Vice-Chancellor to our Ely Boathouse, where she was able to see first-hand the dedication of these student athletes and their coaches.

“We were also able to show Professor Prentice the amazing facilities we have here – something made possible only with the generous support of the University and alumni.

“We’re now looking forward to welcoming Professor Prentice to the Boat Race itself next month, when she will be presenting the Boat Race Trophies - hopefully to Cambridge!”

This year’s race, on 30th March, will mark the 78th Women’s race and the 169th Men’s race, with Cambridge leading across all categories in historic results.

With The Boat Race 2024 just weeks away, the Vice-Chancellor has been to meet Cambridge University Boat Club students and staff at their Ely training centre.

Nick Saffell


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New Cambridge-developed resources bring infectious diseases into the maths classroom

University News - Mon, 19/02/2024 - 07:00

From measles and flu to SARS and COVID, mathematicians help us understand and predict the epidemics that can spread through our communities, and to help us look at strategies that we may be able to use to contain them.

The project, called Contagious Maths, was led by Professor Julia Gog from Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), and was supported by a Rosalind Franklin Award from the Royal Society.

The curriculum-linked resources will give students between the ages 11 and 14 the opportunity to join researchers on the mathematical frontline to learn more about infectious disease spread, along with interactive tools to try mathematical modelling for themselves. Teachers receive full lesson plans, backed up by Cambridge research.

“I’ve always loved maths. I was lucky enough to have amazing teachers at sixth form who challenged me and were 100% behind me pursuing maths at the highest level, but maths as it’s taught in school can be highly abstract, so students often wonder what the point of maths even is,” said Gog, who is also Director of the Millennium Maths Project. “This is something I’m trying to help with now: to offer a glimpse from school to the research world to see the role mathematics can play in tackling important real-world problems.”

The Contagious Maths project introduces mathematical modelling; explores how mathematicians can model the spread of disease through a population and the type of questions we might think about when looking at models; and gives an insight into what mathematics researchers working on these real-life problems actually do.

“I’ve been engaged in outreach for many years at Cambridge, and the Contagious Maths project grew out of discussions with colleagues who have expertise in reaching school-age children,” said Gog. “The 11-14 age group we are targeting is a real crunch point for retaining girls in maths, and future female mathematicians. What exactly happens is complex and multifaceted, but this is a period when people form their views on how they fit with maths and science.

“Many of them disengage, as it can seem that maths at school is utterly disconnected from the real world. It can also be a time when maths appears very starkly right or wrong, whereas any research mathematician can tell you it’s always so much more subtle that than, and therefore so much more interesting!”

Gog hopes the Contagious Maths resources might be able to help, as they are designed to be used in regular school lessons, and cover a topic with clear real-world importance.

“The maths is never black and white in this field: there are always ways to challenge and develop the models, and some tricky thinking to be done about how the real epidemics and the simulations are really related to each other,” she said. “I suspect some students will find this frustrating, and just want maths to be algorithmic exercises. But some will be intrigued, and they are the ones we are trying to reach and expose to this larger world of applied maths research.”

Contagious Maths also provides teachers with all the ideas and tools they need, so they have at their fingertips all they need to deliver these lessons, even if they have no experience with research mathematics. “We hope this project will help these teachers to bring in the wider view of mathematics, and we hope it inspires them too,” said Gog. “It’s been really fun developing these resources, teaming up with both NRICH and Plus to make the most of our combined expertise.”

Maths teachers can attend a free online event on 20 March to learn more about the project.

In addition to the school resources, Gog and her colleagues have designed another version of Contagious Maths for a more general self-guided audience, which will work for students older than 14 or anyone, of any age, who is interested in learning about mathematical modelling.

“The paradox between the cleanness and precision of mathematics, and the utter hot mess of anything that involves biological dynamics across populations – like an outbreak of an infectious disease, is what intrigued me to stay in mathematics beyond my degree, and to move into research in mathematical biology,” said Gog. “Elegant theoretical ideas can tell us something valuable and universal about mitigating the devastating effects of disease on human and animal populations. Super abstract equations can hold fundamental truths about real-world problems - I don't think I will ever tire of thinking about that.”

Adapted from a Royal Society interview with Professor Julia Gog.

Cambridge mathematicians have developed a set of resources for students and teachers that will help them understand how maths can help tackle infectious diseases.

Orbon Alija via Getty ImagesAerial view of crowd connected by lines


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Scientists identify genes linked to DNA damage and human disease

University News - Fri, 16/02/2024 - 10:17

The work, published in Nature, provides insights into cancer progression and neurodegenerative diseases as well as a potential therapeutic avenue in the form of a protein inhibitor.

The genome contains all the genes and genetic material within an organism's cells. When the genome is stable, cells can accurately replicate and divide, passing on correct genetic information to the next generation of cells. Despite its significance, little is understood about the genetic factors governing genome stability, protection, repair, and the prevention of DNA damage.

In this new study, researchers from the UK Dementia Research Institute, at the University of Cambridge, and the Wellcome Sanger Institute set out to better understand the biology of cellular health and identify genes key to maintaining genome stability.

Using a set of genetically modified mouse lines, the team identified 145 genes that play key roles in either increasing or decreasing the formation of abnormal micronuclei structures. These structures indicate genomic instability and DNA damage, and are common hallmarks of ageing and diseases.

The most dramatic increases in genomic instability were seen when the researchers knocked out the gene DSCC1, increasing abnormal micronuclei formation five-fold. Mice lacking this gene mirrored characteristics akin to human patients with a number of rare genetic disorders, further emphasising the relevance of this research to human health.

Using CRISPR screening, researchers showed this effect triggered by DSCC1 loss could be partially reversed through inhibiting protein SIRT1. This offers a highly promising avenue for the development of new therapies.

The findings help shed light on genetic factors influencing the health of human genomes over a lifespan and disease development.

Professor Gabriel Balmus, senior author of the study at the UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, formerly at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Continued exploration on genomic instability is vital to develop tailored treatments that tackle the root genetic causes, with the goal of improving outcomes and the overall quality of life for individuals across various conditions.”

Dr David Adams, first author of the study at the Wellcome Sanger Institute, said: “Genomic stability is central to the health of cells, influencing a spectrum of diseases from cancer to neurodegeneration, yet this has been a relatively underexplored area of research. This work, of 15 years in the making, exemplifies what can be learned from large-scale, unbiased genetic screening. The 145 identified genes, especially those tied to human disease, offer promising targets for developing new therapies for genome instability-driven diseases like cancer and neurodevelopmental disorders.”

This research was supported by Wellcome and the UK Dementia Research Institute.

Reference
Adams, DJ et al. Genetic determinants of micronucleus formation in vivo. Nature; 14 Feb 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-023-07009-0

Adapted from a press release from the Wellcome Sanger Institute.

Cambridge scientists have identified more than one hundred key genes linked to DNA damage through systematic screening of nearly 1,000 genetically modified mouse lines.

Continued exploration on genomic instability is vital to develop tailored treatments that tackle the root genetic causesGabriel BalmusqimonoDNA puzzle


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School uniform policies linked to students getting less exercise, study finds

University News - Thu, 15/02/2024 - 00:01

The University of Cambridge study used data about the physical activity participation of more than a million five-to-17-year-olds internationally. It found that in countries where a majority of schools require students to wear uniforms, fewer young people tend to meet the average of 60 minutes of physical activity per day recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Regardless of uniform policies, across most countries fewer girls than boys reach those recommended exercise levels. Among primary school students, however, the difference in activity between girls and boys was found to be wider in countries where most schools mandated uniforms. The same result was not found in secondary school-aged students.

The authors suggest that this could be explained by the fact that younger children get more incidental exercise throughout the school day than older students; for example, through running, climbing and various other forms of active play at break and lunchtimes. There is already evidence that girls feel less comfortable in participating in active play if they are wearing certain types of clothing, such as skirts or dresses.

Importantly, the results do not definitively prove that school uniforms limit children’s physical activity and the researchers stress that “causation cannot be inferred”. Previous, smaller studies however provide support for these findings, indicating that uniforms could pose a barrier. For the first time, the research examines large-scale statistical evidence to assess that claim.

The study was led by Dr Mairead Ryan, a researcher at the Faculty of Education and Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge.

“Schools often prefer to use uniforms for various reasons,” Dr Ryan said. “We are not trying to suggest a blanket ban on them, but to present new evidence to support decision-making. School communities could consider design, and whether specific characteristics of a uniform might either encourage or restrict any opportunities for physical activity across the day.”

The WHO recommends that young people get an average of 60 minutes of at least moderate-intensity physical activity per day during the week. The study confirms previous observations that most children and adolescents are not meeting this recommendation, especially girls. The difference in the percentage of boys and girls meeting physical activity guidelines across all countries was, on average, 7.6 percentage points.

Existing evidence suggests that uniforms could be a factor. Previous concerns have, for example, been raised about girls’ PE uniforms and school sports kits. A 2021 study in England found that the design of girls’ PE uniforms deterred students from participating in certain activities, while the hockey player Tess Howard proposed redesigning gendered sports uniforms for similar reasons, after analysing interview and survey data.

Children often get their exercise away from PE and sports lessons, however.

“Activities like walking or cycling to school, breaktime games, and after-school outdoor play can all help young people incorporate physical activity into their daily routines,” Ryan said. “That’s why we are interested in the extent to which various elements of young people’s environments, including what they wear, encourage such behaviours.”

The study analysed existing data on the physical activity levels of nearly 1.1 million young people aged five to 17 in 135 countries and combined this with newly collected data on how common the use of school uniforms is in these countries.

In over 75% of the countries surveyed, a majority of schools required their students to wear uniforms. The study found that in these countries, physical activity participation was lower. The median proportion of all students meeting the WHO recommendations in countries where uniform-wearing was the norm was 16%; this rose to 19.5% in countries where uniforms were less common.

There was a consistent gender gap between boys’ and girls’ physical activity levels, with boys 1.5 times more likely to meet WHO recommendations across all ages. However, the gap widened from 5.5 percentage points at primary school level in non-uniform countries to a 9.8 percentage point difference in countries where uniforms were required in most schools.

The finding appears to match evidence from other studies suggesting that girls are more self-conscious about engaging in physical activity when wearing uniforms in which they do not feel comfortable.

“Girls might feel less confident about doing things like cartwheels and tumbles in the playground, or riding a bike on a windy day, if they are wearing a skirt or dress,” said senior author Dr Esther van Sluijs, MRC Investigator. “Social norms and expectations tend to influence what they feel they can do in these clothes. Unfortunately, when it comes to promoting physical health, that’s a problem.”

The authors of the study argue that there is now enough evidence to warrant further investigation into whether there is a causal relationship between school uniforms and lower activity levels. They also highlight the importance of regular physical activity for all young people, regardless of their gender.

“Regular physical activity helps support multiple physical, mental, and well-being needs, as well as academic outcomes,” Dr Ryan said. “We now need more information to build on these findings, considering factors like how long students wear their uniforms for after school, whether this varies depending on their background, and how broader gendered clothing norms may impact their activity.”

The findings are reported in the Journal of Sport and Health Science.

School uniform policies could be restricting young people from being active, particularly primary school-aged girls, new research suggests.

Social norms and expectations tend to influence what they feel they can do in these clothes. Unfortunately, when it comes to promoting physical health, that’s a problemEsther van SluijsThirdmanSchool children watching a sports game from indoors


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£11m semiconductor research centre could be key player in UK’s net zero mission

University News - Tue, 13/02/2024 - 13:24

Semiconductors, also known as microchips, are a key component in nearly every electrical device from mobile phones and medical equipment to electric vehicles.

They are increasingly being recognised as an area of global strategic significance due to the integral role they play in net zero, AI and quantum technology.

Co-created and delivered with industry, the REWIRE IKC is led by the University of Bristol, in partnership with Cambridge and Warwick Universities.

The IKC will accelerate the UK’s ambition for net zero by transforming the next generation of high-voltage electronic devices using wide/ultra-wide bandgap (WBG/UWBG) compound semiconductors.

The project is being led by Professor Martin Kuball and his team at the University of Bristol. Cambridge members of the IKC team include Professors Rachel Oliver, Florian Udrea and Teng Long.

The centre will advance the next generation of semiconductor power device technologies and enhance the security of the UK’s semiconductor supply chain.

Compound semiconductor WBG/UWBG devices have been recognised in the UK National Semiconductor Strategy as key elements to support the net zero economy through the development of high voltage and low energy-loss power electronic technology.

They are essential building blocks for developing all-electric trains, ships and heavy goods electric vehicles, better charging infrastructure, renewable energy and High Voltage Direct Current grid connections, as well as intelligent power distribution and energy supplies to telecommunication networks and data centres.

“Power devices are at the centre of all power electronic systems and pave the way for more efficient and compact power electronic systems, reducing energy loss,” said Kuball. “The REWIRE IKC will focus on power conversion of wind energy, electric vehicles, smart grids, high-temperature applications, device and packaging, and improving the efficiency of semiconductor device manufacture.”

Our home electrical supply is at 240 Volts, but to handle the power from offshore wind turbines, devices will have to operate at thousands of Volts. These very high voltages can easily damage the materials normally used in power electronics.

“Newly emerging ultra-wide bandgap materials have properties which enable them to handle very large voltages more easily,” said Oliver, who Director of the Cambridge Centre for Gallium Nitride. “The devices based on these materials will waste less energy and be smaller, lighter and cheaper. The same materials can also withstand high temperatures and doses of radiation, which means they can be used to enable other new electricity generation technologies, such as fusion energy.”

“The REWIRE IKC will play a prominent role within the UK’s semiconductor strategy, in cementing the UK’s place as a leader in compound semiconductor research and development, developing IP to be exploited here in the UK, rebuilding the UK semiconductor supply chain, and training the next generation of semiconductor materials scientists and engineers,” said Professor Peter Gammon from the University of Warwick.

Industry partners in the REWIRE IKC include Ampaire, BMW, Bosch, Cambridge GaN Devices (CGD), Element-Six Technologies, General Electric, Hitachi Energy, IQE, Oxford Instruments, Siemens, ST Microelectronics and Toshiba.

REWIRE is one of two new IKCs announced being funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Innovate UK, both part of UK Research and Innovation. The second IKC at the University of Southampton will improve development and commercialisation of silicon photonics technologies in the UK.

“This investment marks a crucial step in advancing our ambitions for the semiconductor industry, with these centres helping bring new technologies to market in areas like net zero and AI, rooting them right here in the UK,” said Minister for Tech and the Digital Economy Saqib Bhatti. “Just nine months into delivering on the National Semiconductor Strategy, we’re already making rapid progress towards our goals. This isn’t just about fostering growth and creating high-skilled jobs, it's about positioning the UK as a hub of global innovation, setting the stage for breakthroughs that have worldwide impact.”

Adapted from a University of Bristol media release.

For more information on energy-related research in Cambridge, please visit the Energy IRC, which brings together Cambridge’s research knowledge and expertise, in collaboration with global partners, to create solutions for a sustainable and resilient energy landscape for generations to come.

The University of Cambridge is a partner in the new £11m Innovation and Knowledge Centre (IKC) REWIRE, set to deliver pioneering semiconductor technologies and new electronic devices.

Yuichiro Chino via Getty ImagesRobot arms and semiconductor wafer


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£3 million UKRI funding to support research into better health, ageing, and wellbeing

University News - Mon, 12/02/2024 - 10:20

UKRI funding of £3 million is awarded today to support a new research cluster, as part of the MRC National Mouse Genetics Network (MRC NMGN), focused on improving existing models of ageing with the aim of improving lifelong health and wellbeing. The cluster is led by scientists at the Universities of Cambridge and Newcastle.

The MRC NMGN focuses on age-related biological changes in model organisms, particularly the mouse, to try and improve our understanding and diagnosis of the most challenging disease area of our time - and generate therapeutic avenues.

This award brings the UKRI’s total investment in the MRC NMGN to £25 million.

The need to improve how people age has become a major requirement of modern societies. Regular increases in life expectancy result in older populations, making healthy ageing essential for a better quality of life and a reduced burden on health and social services. 

Understanding the biological mechanisms underlying the ageing process is paramount for tackling the challenges brought about by our older populations.

The new tools generated as a result of this research will be made available to the scientific community to improve understanding of the ageing process, and to provide a resource for preclinical testing and intervention.

Professor Walid Khaled from Cambridge’s Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute and Department of Pharmacology, and Co-lead of the new MRC National Mouse Genetics Network Ageing Cluster, said: “I am very pleased to be co-leading this project from Cambridge and I am looking forward to working with the rest of the team from around the UK. ‘Prevention is better than cure’ and so our project will generate a reference map that we will use in the future to assess interventions that could prevent ageing related health decline.”

Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Research & International Partnerships) and Arthur Balfour Professor of Genetics at Cambridge, said: "Collaboration is central to our research activities in Cambridge. The new Ageing Cluster is a fine example of multiple institutions working together to add value and bring exciting new insight and expertise to advance the critically important field of healthy ageing. I am proud to be part of this important initiative which can deliver new routes to improved health span."

Professor David Burn, Pro Vice Chancellor, Faculty of Medical Sciences at Newcastle University, added: "I am delighted that Newcastle University is an important part of the UKRI Mouse Genetics Network Ageing Cluster.  This cluster offers researchers the opportunity to develop new animal models so that we may better understand ageing.  This, in turn, will allow us to translate this research into extending healthy lifespan in humans in the future.”

The University is bringing together its world leading expertise to tackle the topic of extending the healthy lifespan. Scientists in the School of Biological Sciences are addressing some of the biggest questions in human biology, including: What if we could identify those at risk of developing chronic age-related conditions before they present in the clinic? What if we could intervene before any symptoms arise and prevent disease onset?

UKRI’s strategy for 2022-2027 aims to harness the full power of the UK’s research and innovation system to tackle major national and global challenges. A total of £75m has been allocated to the theme of Securing better health, ageing and wellbeing, which aims to improve population health, tackle the health inequalities affecting people and communities, and advance interventions that keep us healthier for longer.

Read more about Cambridge research into extending the healthy lifespan.

The University of Cambridge has received UKRI funding for research on age-related biological changes in model organisms as part of a national collaboration.

‘Prevention is better than cure’ and so our project will generate a reference map that we will use in the future to assess interventions that could prevent ageing related health declineWalid KhaledUnderstanding Animal ResearchBrown GM mouse on hand


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Sensors made from ‘frozen smoke’ can detect toxic formaldehyde in homes and offices

University News - Fri, 09/02/2024 - 19:00

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, developed sensors made from highly porous materials known as aerogels. By precisely engineering the shape of the holes in the aerogels, the sensors were able to detect the fingerprint of formaldehyde, a common indoor air pollutant, at room temperature.

The proof-of-concept sensors, which require minimal power, could be adapted to detect a wide range of hazardous gases, and could also be miniaturised for wearable and healthcare applications. The results are reported in the journal Science Advances.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are a major source of indoor air pollution, causing watery eyes, burning in the eyes and throat, and difficulty breathing at elevated levels. High concentrations can trigger attacks in people with asthma, and prolonged exposure may cause certain cancers.

Formaldehyde is a common VOC and is emitted by household items including pressed wood products (such as MDF), wallpapers and paints, and some synthetic fabrics. For the most part, the levels of formaldehyde emitted by these items are low, but levels can build up over time, especially in garages where paints and other formaldehyde-emitting products are more likely to be stored.

According to a 2019 report from the campaign group Clean Air Day, a fifth of households in the UK showed notable concentrations of formaldehyde, with 13% of residences surpassing the recommended limit set by the World Health Organization (WHO).

“VOCs such as formaldehyde can lead to serious health problems with prolonged exposure even at low concentrations, but current sensors don’t have the sensitivity or selectivity to distinguish between VOCs that have different impacts on health,” said Professor Tawfique Hasan from the Cambridge Graphene Centre, who led the research.

“We wanted to develop a sensor that is small and doesn’t use much power, but can selectively detect formaldehyde at low concentrations,” said Zhuo Chen, the paper’s first author.

The researchers based their sensors on aerogels: ultra-light materials sometimes referred to as ‘liquid smoke’, since they are more than 99% air by volume. The open structure of aerogels allows gases to easily move in and out. By precisely engineering the shape, or morphology, of the holes, the aerogels can act as highly effective sensors.

Working with colleagues at Warwick University, the Cambridge researchers optimised the composition and structure of the aerogels to increase their sensitivity to formaldehyde, making them into filaments about three times the width of a human hair. The researchers 3D printed lines of a paste made from graphene, a two-dimensional form of carbon, and then freeze-dried the graphene paste to form the holes in the final aerogel structure. The aerogels also incorporate tiny semiconductors known as quantum dots.

The sensors they developed were able to detect formaldehyde at concentrations as low as eight parts per billion, which is 0.4 percent of the level deemed safe in UK workplaces. The sensors also work at room temperature, consuming very low power.

“Traditional gas sensors need to be heated up, but because of the way we’ve engineered the materials, our sensors work incredibly well at room temperature, so they use between 10 and 100 times less power than other sensors,” said Chen.

To improve selectivity, the researchers then incorporated machine learning algorithms into the sensors. The algorithms were trained to detect the ‘fingerprint’ of different gases, so that the sensor was able to distinguish the fingerprint of formaldehyde from other VOCs.

“Existing VOC detectors are blunt instruments – you only get one number for the overall concentration in the air,” said Hasan. “By building a sensor that can detect specific VOCs at very low concentrations in real time, it can give home and business owners a more accurate picture of air quality and any potential health risks.”

The researchers say the same technique could be used to develop sensors to detect other VOCs. In theory, a device the size of a standard household carbon monoxide detector could incorporate multiple different sensors within it, providing real-time information about a range of different hazardous gases. The team at Warwick are developing a low-cost multi-sensor platform that will incorporate these new aerogel materials and, coupled with AI algorithms, detect different VOCs.

“By using highly porous materials as the sensing element, we’re opening up whole new ways of detecting hazardous materials in our environment,” said Chen.

The research was supported in part by the Henry Royce Institute, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Tawfique Hasan is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge.

Reference:
Zhuo Chen et al. ‘Real-time, noise and drift resilient formaldehyde sensing at room temperature with aerogel filaments.’ Science Advances (2024). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adk6856

Researchers have developed a sensor made from ‘frozen smoke’ that uses artificial intelligence techniques to detect formaldehyde in real time at concentrations as low as eight parts per billion, far beyond the sensitivity of most indoor air quality sensors.

NASA/JPL-CaltechSilica aerogel


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Ice cores provide first documentation of rapid Antarctic ice loss in the past

University News - Thu, 08/02/2024 - 10:00

The evidence, contained within an ice core, shows that in one location the ice sheet thinned by 450 metres — that’s more than the height of the Empire State Building — in just under 200 years.

This is the first evidence anywhere in Antarctica for such a fast loss of ice. Scientists are worried that today’s rising temperatures might destabilize parts of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in the future, potentially passing a tipping point and inducing a runaway collapse. The study, published in Nature Geoscience, sheds light on how quickly Antarctic ice could melt if temperatures continue to soar.

“We now have direct evidence that this ice sheet suffered rapid ice loss in the past,” said Professor Eric Wolff, senior author of the new study from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences. “This scenario isn’t something that exists only in our model predictions and it could happen again if parts of this ice sheet become unstable.”

From west to east, the Antarctic ice sheets contain enough freshwater to raise global sea levels by around 57 metres. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is considered particularly vulnerable because much of it sits on bedrock below sea level.

Model predictions suggest that a large part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet could disappear in the next few centuries, causing sea levels to rise. Exactly when and how quickly the ice could be lost is, however, uncertain.

One way to train ice sheet models to make better predictions is to feed them with data on ice loss from periods of warming in Earth’s history. At the peak of the Last Ice Age 20,000 years ago, Antarctic ice covered a larger area than today. As our planet thawed and temperatures slowly climbed, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet contracted to more or less its current extent.

“We wanted to know what happened to the West Antarctic Ice Sheet at the end of the Last Ice Age, when temperatures on Earth were rising, albeit at a slower rate than current anthropogenic warming,” said Dr Isobel Rowell, study co-author from the British Antarctic Survey. “Using ice cores we can go back to that time and estimate the ice sheet’s thickness and extent.”

Ice cores are made up of layers of ice that formed as snow fell and was then buried and compacted into ice crystals over thousands of years. Trapped within each ice layer are bubbles of ancient air and contaminants that mixed with each year’s snowfall — providing clues as to the changing climate and ice extent.

The researchers drilled a 651-metre-long ice core from Skytrain Ice Rise in 2019. This mound of ice sits at the edge of the ice sheet, near the point where grounded ice flows into the floating Ronne Ice Shelf.

After transporting the ice cores to Cambridge at -20C, the researchers analysed them to reconstruct the ice thickness. First, they measured stable water isotopes, which indicate the temperature at the time the snow fell. Temperature decreases at higher altitudes (think of cold mountain air), so they could equate warmer temperatures with lower-lying, thinner ice.

They also measured the pressure of air bubbles trapped in the ice. Like temperature, air pressure also varies systematically with elevation. Lower-lying, thinner ice contains higher-pressure air bubbles.

These measurements told them that ice thinned rapidly 8,000 years ago. “Once the ice thinned, it shrunk really fast,” said Wolff, “this was clearly a tipping point — a runaway process.”

They think this thinning was probably triggered by warm water getting underneath the edge of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which normally sits on bedrock. This likely untethered a section of the ice from bedrock, allowing it to float suddenly and forming what is now the Ronne Ice Shelf. This allowed neighbouring Skytrain Ice Rise, no longer restrained by grounded ice, to thin rapidly. 

The researchers also found that the sodium content of the ice (originating from salt in sea spray) increased about 300 years after the ice thinned. This told them that, after the ice thinned, the ice shelf shrunk back so that the sea was hundreds of kilometres nearer to their site.

“We already knew from models that the ice thinned around this time, but the date of this was uncertain,” said Rowell. Ice sheet models placed the retreat anywhere between 12,000 and 5,000 years ago and couldn’t say how quickly it happened. “We now have a very precisely dated observation of that retreat that can be built into improved models,” said Rowell.

Although the West Antarctic Ice Sheet retreated quickly 8,000 years ago, it stabilised when it reached roughly its current extent. “It’s now crucial to find out whether extra warmth could destabilise the ice and cause it to start retreating again,” said Wolff.

Reference:
Grieman et al. (2024) Abrupt Holocene ice loss due to thinning and ungrounding in the Weddell Sea Embayment. Nature Geoscience. DOI: 10.1038/s41561-024-01375-8

Researchers from the University of Cambridge and the British Antarctic Survey have uncovered the first direct evidence that the West Antarctic Ice Sheet shrunk suddenly and dramatically at the end of the Last Ice Age, around eight thousand years ago.

University of Cambridge / British Antarctic SurveyTents at Skytrain Ice Rise


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Strongest evidence to date of brain’s ability to compensate for age-related cognitive decline

University News - Tue, 06/02/2024 - 14:00

As we age, our brain gradually atrophies, losing nerve cells and connections and this can lead to a decline in brain function. It’s not fully understood why some people appear to maintain better brain function than others, and how we can protect ourselves from cognitive decline.

A widely accepted notion is that some people’s brains are able to compensate for the deterioration in brain tissue by recruiting other areas of the brain to help perform tasks. While brain imaging studies have shown that the brain does recruit other areas, until now it has not been clear whether this makes any difference to performance on a task, or whether it provides any additional information about how to perform that task.

In a study published in the journal eLife, a team led by scientists at the University of Cambridge in collaboration with the University of Sussex have shown that when the brain recruits other areas, it improves performance specifically in the brains of older people.

Study lead Dr Kamen Tsvetanov, an Alzheimer's Society Dementia Research Leader Fellow in the Department of Clinical Neurosciences, University of Cambridge, said: “Our ability to solve abstract problems is a sign of so-called ‘fluid intelligence’, but as we get older, this ability begins to show significant decline. Some people manage to maintain this ability better than others. We wanted to ask why that was the case – are they able to recruit other areas of the brain to overcome changes in the brain that would otherwise be detrimental?”

Brain imaging studies have shown that fluid intelligence tasks engage the ‘multiple demand network’ (MDN), a brain network involving regions both at the front and rear of the brain, but its activity decreases with age. To see whether the brain compensated for this decrease in activity, the Cambridge team looked at imaging data from 223 adults between 19 and 87 years of age who had been recruited by the Cambridge Centre for Ageing & Neuroscience (Cam-CAN).

The volunteers were asked to identify the odd-one-out in a series of puzzles of varying difficulty while lying in a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scanner, so that the researchers could look at patterns of brain activity by measuring changes in blood flow.

As anticipated, in general the ability to solve the problems decreased with age. The MDN was particularly active, as were regions of the brain involved in processing visual information.

When the team analysed the images further using machine-learning, they found two areas of the brain that showed greater activity in the brains of older people, and also correlated with better performance on the task. These areas were the cuneus, at the rear of the brain, and a region in the frontal cortex. But of the two, only activity in the cuneus region was related to performance of the task more strongly in the older than younger volunteers, and contained extra information about the task beyond the MDN.

Although it is not clear exactly why the cuneus should be recruited for this task, the researchers point out that this brain region is usually good at helping us stay focused on what we see. Older adults often have a harder time briefly remembering information that they have just seen, like the complex puzzle pieces used in the task. The increased activity in the cuneus might reflect a change in how often older adults look at these pieces, as a strategy to make up for their poorer visual memory.

Dr Ethan Knights from the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit at Cambridge said: “Now that we’ve seen this compensation happening, we can start to ask questions about why it happens for some older people, but not others, and in some tasks, but not others. Is there something special about these people – their education or lifestyle, for example – and if so, is there a way we can intervene to help others see similar benefits?”

Dr Alexa Morcom from the University of Sussex’s School of Psychology and Sussex Neuroscience research centre said: “This new finding also hints that compensation in later life does not rely on the multiple demand network as previously assumed, but recruits areas whose function is preserved in ageing.”

The research was supported by the Medical Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, the Guarantors of Brain, and the Alzheimer’s Society.

Reference

Knights, E. et al. Neural Evidence of Functional Compensation for Fluid Intelligence Decline in Healthy Ageing. eLife; 6 Feb 2024; DOI: 10.7554/eLife.93327

Scientists have found the strongest evidence yet that our brains can compensate for age-related deterioration by recruiting other areas to help with brain function and maintain cognitive performance.

Now that we’ve seen this compensation happening, we can start to ask questions about why it happens for some older people, but not others - is there something special about these people?Ethan KnightsCDCWoman in purple and white floral shirt washing a carrot


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New report into Turkey-Syria earthquakes uncovers deficiencies in building structures and construction shortcuts were the main cause of casualties

University News - Mon, 05/02/2024 - 17:19

A new, independent field investigation into the aftermath of the Turkey-Syria earthquakes has found that a drive for profit has pushed all players within the construction industry to take shortcuts, with building stock primarily made of Reinforced Concrete (RC) structures, being the main cause of the casualties. 

Findings show that deficiencies were also recorded among even the newest building stock. This is despite established technical know-how, state-of-the-art building codes and rigorous building regulations. 

The longitudinal study report published here today by the Institution of Structural Engineers for EEFIT, was co-led by Cambridge's Professor Emily So, Professor of Architectural Engineering and Director of the Cambridge University Centre for Risk in the Built Environment (CURBE). Some of the findings include:

  • The drive for profit pushes players within the construction industry to take shortcuts. The auditing and quality control mechanisms embedded in the legal and bureaucratic processes should be strengthened to ensure code compliance. The legalisation of non-compliant buildings through amnesties cannot continue. 
  • Critically, despite established technical know-how, state-of-the-art building codes and rigorous building regulations, deficiencies in Reinforced Concrete (RC) structures were found even in the newest building stock. This demonstrates that seismic resilience is not only a technical problem in Turkey, but one that demands a multi-sectoral and interdisciplinary dialogue, scrutinising the regulatory system, bureaucracy, the legal and political backdrop within which the construction sector operates in Turkey. 
  • Building stock is primarily composed of Reinforced Concrete structures, which were therefore the main cause of the casualties. The team saw problems with such structures across their whole lifecycle from design to implementation and post-occupancy stages. The structures therefore did not withstand the seismic pressures.  
  • A review of building stock and infrastructure is critical to understand risk levels for future earthquakes. Lack of publicly available data is a big problem in Turkey, hindering not only a robust inquiry into damage and associated building characteristics, but also reliably establishing the risk profiles for future events. 
  • Debris management and demolishment practices have not fully recognised the potential of mid-/long-term environmental and public health implications. Field observations and contacts in the affected communities show that they are already affected by the poor air quality. The Compulsory Earthquake Insurance (CEI) is a system that was put in place in Turkey following the 1999 earthquakes to provide monetary reserves to fund the management of future disasters. The extent to which these funds have been used and how resources have been allocated remain unclear.' 

Read the full report and findings here.

Professor So says: “The 2023 Türkiye and Syria earthquakes were truly tragic, hitting an already fragile population, including migrants. Our field work and remote analysis revealed many issues, including the issue of non-compliant buildings with little seismic resilience. Building code compliance needs to be strengthened.” 

EEFIT - a joint venture between industry and universities - gathered a team of 30 global experts to assess the damage and develop suggestions to reduce future impacts and vulnerabilities. They studied the science, engineering and data related to the earthquakes including geotechnics, the structural and infrastructure impact, and the relief response and recovery.

 

 

The Earthquake Engineering Field Investigation Team (EEFIT), co-led by Professor Emily So, today publishes its findings and recommendations.

Our field work and remote analysis revealed many issues, including the issue of non-compliant buildings with little seismic resilience. Building code compliance needs to be strengthened.” Professor Emily SoEEFITA partially-collapsed building in the aftermath of the Turkey-Syria earthquakes in 2023.


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Ancient seafloor vents spewed tiny, life-giving minerals into Earth’s early oceans

University News - Fri, 02/02/2024 - 16:38

Their study, published in Science Advances, examined 3.5-billion-year-old rocks from western Australia in previously unseen detail and identified large quantities of a mineral called greenalite, which is thought to have played a role in early biological processes. The researchers also found that the seafloor vents would have seeded the oceans with apatite, a mineral rich in the life-essential element phosphorus.

The earliest lifeforms we know of—single-celled microorganisms, or microbes—emerged around 3.7 billion years ago. Most of the rocks that contain traces of them and the environment they lived in have, however, been destroyed. Some of the only evidence we have of this pivotal time comes from an outcrop of sediments in the remote Australian outback.

The so-called Dresser Formation has been studied for years but, in the new study, researchers re-examined the rocks in closer detail, using high magnification electron microscopes to reveal tiny minerals that were essentially hidden in plain sight.

The greenalite particles they observed measured just a few hundred nanometres in size—so small that they would have been washed over thousands of kilometres, potentially finding their way into a range of environments where they may have kick-started otherwise unfavourable chemical reactions, such as those involved in building the first DNA and RNA molecules.

“We’ve found that hydrothermal vents supplied trillions upon trillions of tiny, highly-reactive greenalite particles, as well as large quantities of phosphorus,” said Professor Birger Rasmussen, lead author of the study from the University of Western Australia.

Rasmussen said scientists are still unsure as to the exact role of greenalite in building primitive cells, “but this mineral was in the right place at the right time, and also had the right size and crystal structure to promote the assembly of early cells.”

The rocks the researchers studied contain characteristic layers of rusty-red, iron-rich jasper which formed as mineral-laden seawater spewed from hydrothermal vents. Scientists had thought the jaspers got their distinctive red colour from particles of iron oxide which, just like rust, form when iron is exposed to oxygen.

But how did this iron oxide form when Earth’s early oceans lacked oxygen? One theory is that photosynthesising cyanobacteria in the oceans produced the oxygen, and that it wasn’t until later, around 2.4 billion years ago, that this oxygen started to skyrocket in the atmosphere.

The new results change that assumption, however, “the story is completely different once you look closely enough,” said study co-author Professor Nick Tosca from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences.

The researchers found that tiny, drab, particles of greenalite far outnumbered the iron oxide particles which give the jaspers their colour. The iron oxide was not an original feature, discounting the theory that they were formed by the activity of cyanobacteria.

“Our findings show that iron wasn’t oxidised in the oceans; instead, it combined with silica to form tiny crystals of greenalite,” said Tosca. “That means major oxygen producers, cyanobacteria, may have evolved later, potentially coinciding with the soar in atmospheric oxygen during the Great Oxygenation Event.”

Birger said that more experiments are needed to identify how greenalite might facilitate prebiotic chemistry, “but it was present in such vast quantities that, under the right conditions its surfaces could have synthesized an enormous number of RNA-type sequences, addressing a key question in origin of life research – where did all the RNA come from?” 

Reference:
Rasmussen, B., Muhling, J., Tosca, N.J. 'Nanoparticulate apatite and greenalite in oldest, well-preserved hydrothermal vent precipitates.' Science Advances (2024). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adj4789

Researchers from the universities of Cambridge and Western Australia have uncovered the importance of hydrothermal vents, similar to underwater geysers, in supplying minerals that may have been a key ingredient in the emergence of early life.

MARUM − Zentrum für Marine Umweltwissenschaften, Universität BremenThe hydrothermal vent "Candelabra" in the Logatchev hydrothermal field on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge at a water depth of 3300 m


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Swarming cicadas, stock traders, and the wisdom of the crowd

University News - Thu, 01/02/2024 - 14:36

Pick almost any location in the eastern United States – say, Columbus Ohio. Every 13 or 17 years, as the soil warms in springtime, vast swarms of cicadas emerge from their underground burrows singing their deafening song, take flight and mate, producing offspring for the next cycle.

This noisy phenomenon repeats all over the eastern and southeastern US as 17 distinct broods emerge in staggered years. In spring 2024, billions of cicadas are expected as two different broods – one that appears every 13 years and another that appears every 17 years – emerge simultaneously.

Previous research has suggested that cicadas emerge once the soil temperature reaches 18°C, but even within a small geographical area, differences in sun exposure, foliage cover or humidity can lead to variations in temperature.

Now, in a paper published in the journal Physical Review E, researchers from the University of Cambridge have discovered how such synchronous cicada swarms can emerge despite these temperature differences.

The researchers developed a mathematical model for decision-making in an environment with variations in temperature and found that communication between cicada nymphs allows the group to come to a consensus about the local average temperature that then leads to large-scale swarms. The model is closely related to one that has been used to describe ‘avalanches’ in decision-making like those among stock market traders, leading to crashes.

Mathematicians have been captivated by the appearance of 17- and 13-year cycles in various species of cicadas, and have previously developed mathematical models that showed how the appearance of such large prime numbers is a consequence of evolutionary pressures to avoid predation. However, the mechanism by which swarms emerge coherently in a given year has not been understood.

In developing their model, the Cambridge team was inspired by previous research on decision-making that represents each member of a group by a ‘spin’ like that in a magnet, but instead of pointing up or down, the two states represent the decision to ‘remain’ or ‘emerge’.

The local temperature experienced by the cicadas is then like a magnetic field that tends to align the spins and varies slowly from place to place on the scale of hundreds of metres, from sunny hilltops to shaded valleys in a forest. Communication between nearby nymphs is represented by an interaction between the spins that leads to local agreement of neighbours.

The researchers showed that in the presence of such interactions the swarms are large and space-filling, involving every member of the population in a range of local temperature environments, unlike the case without communication in which every nymph is on its own, responding to every subtle variation in microclimate.

The research was carried out Professor Raymond E Goldstein, the Alan Turing Professor of Complex Physical Systems in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), Professor Robert L Jack of DAMTP and the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, and Dr Adriana I Pesci, a Senior Research Associate in DAMTP.

“As an applied mathematician, there is nothing more interesting than finding a model capable of explaining the behaviour of living beings, even in the simplest of cases,” said Pesci.

The researchers say that while their model does not require any particular means of communication between underground nymphs, acoustical signalling is a likely candidate, given the ear-splitting sounds that the swarms make once they emerge from underground.

The researchers hope that their conjecture regarding the role of communication will stimulate field research to test the hypothesis.

“If our conjecture that communication between nymphs plays a role in swarm emergence is confirmed, it would provide a striking example of how Darwinian evolution can act for the benefit of the group, not just the individual,” said Goldstein.

This work was supported in part by the Complex Physical Systems Fund.

Reference:
R.E. Goldstein, R.L. Jack, and A.I. Pesci. ‘How Cicadas Emerge Together: Thermophysical Aspects of their Collective Decision-Making.’ Physical Review E (2024). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevE.109.L022401

The springtime emergence of vast swarms of cicadas can be explained by a mathematical model of collective decision-making with similarities to models describing stock market crashes.

Ed Reschke via Getty ImagesAdult Periodical Cicada


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Shadow Science and Technology Secretary discusses AI and innovation during Cambridge visit

University News - Tue, 30/01/2024 - 15:08

The visit took place at Cambridge Innovation Capital and was hosted by Innovate Cambridge – an initiative which is bringing together partners across the city region to deliver an inclusive future for Cambridge and its science and technology cluster. The Shadow Minister met with experts on AI from the University and from industry, discussing both the challenges it presents, as well as the enormous potential for AI to serve science, people, and society.

At the opening roundtable, academics including Professor Dame Diane Coyle (Director of the Bennett Institute of Public Policy), Professor Neil Lawrence (DeepMind Professor of Machine Learning), and Professor John Aston (Professor of Statistics in Public Life), provided expert analysis on AI policy challenges as well as the role AI can play in public service reform. The group discussed how governance systems need to evolve for the AI era, and how an increasingly complex information infrastructure can be managed. In addition, they considered the opportunity that AI presents for improving public services and breaking down siloed decision-making within government.

Mr Kyle took part in a series of ‘flash talks’, focused on areas where research in AI is delivering benefits to society. These included work by Dr Ronita Bardhan, from the University’s Department of Architecture, on a new deep-learning model which makes it far easier and cheaper to identify ‘hard-to-decarbonise’ houses and develop strategies to improve their green credentials. Dr Anna Moore presented her work in the Department of Psychiatry, using AI systems to speed up the diagnosis of mental health conditions in children.

In the afternoon, Mr Kyle met with leaders representing civic institutions, academia and business organisations from across the city, including Councillor Mike Davey, Leader of Cambridge City Council, and Andrew Williamson, Managing Partner at Cambridge Innovation Capital. They spoke about their shared vision and strategy for the region to ensure Cambridge remains a globally leading innovation centre, and a collective desire to deliver benefits both locally and across the UK.

The day concluded with a spin-out and business roundtable at which participants discussed the need for government and the private sector to be active in ensuring AI benefits all parts of the UK, and people are re-skilled as jobs change. Mr Kyle was also interested to explore how the UK can become a more attractive place to scale companies. Key considerations included the need to improve access to talent, capital and infrastructure, as well tackling the regulatory barriers which can make the UK less competitive.

Peter Kyle MP, the Shadow Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology, met academics from the University of Cambridge and leaders from the Cambridge community for a day focused on AI policy and innovation.


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Scientists identify how fasting may protect against inflammation

University News - Tue, 30/01/2024 - 09:55

In research published in Cell Reports, the team describes how fasting raises levels of a chemical in the blood known as arachidonic acid, which inhibits inflammation. The researchers say it may also help explain some of the beneficial effects of drugs such as aspirin.

Scientists have known for some time that our diet – particular a high calorie Western diet – can increase our risk of diseases including obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease, which are linked to chronic inflammation in the body.

Inflammation is our body’s natural response to injury or infection, but this process can be triggered by other mechanisms, including by the so-called ‘inflammasome’, which acts like an alarm within our body’s cells, triggering inflammation to help protect our body when it senses damage. But the inflammasome can trigger inflammation in unintentional ways – one of its functions is to destroy unwanted cells, which can result in the release of the cell’s contents into the body, where they trigger inflammation.

Professor Clare Bryant from the Department of Medicine at the University of Cambridge said: “We’re very interested in trying to understand the causes of chronic inflammation in the context of many human diseases, and in particular the role of the inflammasome.

“What's become apparent over recent years is that one inflammasome in particular – the NLRP3 inflammasome – is very important in a number of major diseases such as obesity and atherosclerosis, but also in diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, many of the diseases of older age people, particularly in the Western world.”

Fasting can help reduce inflammation, but the reason why has not been clear. To help answer this question, a team led by Professor Bryant and colleagues at the University of Cambridge and National Institute for Health in the USA studied blood samples from a group of 21 volunteers, who ate a 500kcal meal then fasted for 24 hours before consuming a second 500kcal meal. 

The team found that restricting calorie intake increased levels of a lipid known as arachidonic acid. Lipids are molecules that play important roles in our bodies, such as storing energy and transmitting information between cells. As soon as individuals ate a meal again, levels of arachidonic acid dropped.

When the researchers studied arachidonic acid’s effect in immune cells cultured in the lab, they found that it turns down the activity of the NLRP3 inflammasome. This surprised the team as arachidonic acid was previously thought to be linked with increased levels of inflammation, not decreased.

Professor Bryant, a Fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge, added: “This provides a potential explanation for how changing our diet – in particular by fasting – protects us from inflammation, especially the damaging form that underpins many diseases related to a Western high calorie diet.

“It’s too early to say whether fasting protects against diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease as the effects of arachidonic acid are only short-lived, but our work adds to a growing amount of scientific literature that points to the health benefits of calorie restriction. It suggests that regular fasting over a long period could help reduce the chronic inflammation we associate with these conditions. It's certainly an attractive idea.”

The findings also hint at one mechanism whereby a high calorie diet might increase the risk of these diseases. Studies have shown that some patients that have a high fat diet have increased levels of inflammasome activity.

“There could be a yin and yang effect going on here, whereby too much of the wrong thing is increasing your inflammasome activity and too little is decreasing it,” said Professor Bryant. “Arachidonic acid could be one way in which this is happening.”

The researchers say the discovery may also offer clues to an unexpected way in which so-called non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as aspirin work. Normally, arachidonic acid is rapidly broken down in the body, but aspirin stops this process, which can lead to an increase in levels of arachidonic acid, which in turn reduce inflammasome activity and hence inflammation.

Professor Bryant said: “It’s important to stress that aspirin should not be taken to reduce risk of long terms diseases without medical guidance as it can have side-effects such as stomach bleeds if taken over a long period.”

The research was funded by Wellcome, the Medical Research Council and the US National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute Division of Intramural Research.

Reference
Pereira, M & Liang, J et al. Arachidonic acid inhibition of the NLRP3 inflammasome is a mechanism to explain the anti-inflammatory effects of fasting. Cell Reports; 23 Jan 2024; DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2024.113700

Cambridge scientists may have discovered a new way in which fasting helps reduce inflammation – a potentially damaging side-effect of the body’s immune system that underlies a number of chronic diseases.

Our work adds to a growing amount of scientific literature that points to the health benefits of calorie restrictionClare BryantCarol Yepes (Getty Images)Intermittent fasting conceptual image


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Religious people coped better with Covid-19 pandemic, research suggests

University News - Tue, 30/01/2024 - 09:21

People of religious faith may have experienced lower levels of unhappiness and stress than secular people during the UK’s Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020 and 2021, according to a new University of Cambridge study released as a working paper.

The findings follow recently published Cambridge-led research suggesting that worsening mental health after experiencing Covid infection – either personally or in those close to you – was also somewhat ameliorated by religious belief. This study looked at the US population during early 2021.

University of Cambridge economists argue that – taken together – these studies show that religion may act as a bulwark against increased distress and reduced wellbeing during times of crisis, such as a global public health emergency.

“Selection biases make the wellbeing effects of religion difficult to study,” said Prof Shaun Larcom from Cambridge’s Department of Land Economy, and co-author of the latest study. “People may become religious due to family backgrounds, innate traits, or to cope with new or existing struggles.”

“However, the Covid-19 pandemic was an extraordinary event affecting everyone at around the same time, so we could gauge the impact of a negative shock to wellbeing right across society. This provided a unique opportunity to measure whether religion was important for how some people deal with a crisis.”

Larcom and his Cambridge colleagues Prof Sriya Iyer and Dr Po-Wen She analysed survey data collected from 3,884 people in the UK during the first two national lockdowns, and compared it to three waves of data prior to the pandemic.

They found that while lockdowns were associated with a universal uptick in unhappiness, the average increase in feeling miserable was 29% lower for people who described themselves as belonging to a religion.*

The researchers also analysed the data by “religiosity”: the extent of an individual’s commitment to religious beliefs, and how central it is to their life. Those for whom religion makes “some or a great difference” in their lives experienced around half the increase in unhappiness seen in those for whom religion makes little or no difference.**

“The study suggests that it is not just being religious, but the intensity of religiosity that is important when coping with a crisis,” said Larcom.

Those self-identifying as religious in the UK are more likely to have certain characteristics, such as being older and female. The research team “controlled” for these statistically to try and isolate the effects caused by faith alone, and still found that the probability of religious people having an increase in depression was around 20% lower than non-religious people.

There was little overall difference between Christians, Muslims and Hindus – followers of the three biggest religions in the UK. However, the team did find that wellbeing among some religious groups appeared to suffer more than others when places of worship were closed during the first lockdown.

“The denial of weekly communal attendance appears to have been particularly affecting for Catholics and Muslims,” said Larcom.

For the earlier study, authored by Prof Sriya Iyer, along with colleagues Kishen Shastry, Girish Bahal and Anand Shrivastava from Australia and India, researchers used online surveys to investigate Covid-19 infections among respondents or their immediate family and friends, as well as religious beliefs, and mental health. 

The study was conducted during February and March 2021, and involved 5,178 people right across the United States, with findings published in the journal European Economic Review in November 2023.

Researchers found that almost half those who reported a Covid-19 infection either in themselves or their immediate social network experienced an associated reduction in wellbeing.

Where mental health declined, it was around 60% worse on average for the non-religious compared to people of faith with typical levels of “religiosity”.***

Interestingly, the positive effects of religion were not found in areas with strictest lockdowns, suggesting access to places of worship might be even more important in a US context. The study also found significant uptake of online religious services, and a 40% lower association between Covid-19 and mental health for those who used them****.

“Religious beliefs may be used by some as psychological resources that can shore up self-esteem and add coping skills, combined with practices that provide social support,” said Prof Iyer, from Cambridge’s Faculty of Economics.

“The pandemic presented an opportunity to glean further evidence of this in both the United Kingdom and the United States, two nations characterised by enormous religious diversity.” 

Added Larcom: “These studies show a relationship between religion and lower levels of distress during a global crisis. It may be that religious faith builds resilience, and helps people cope with adversity by providing hope, consolation and meaning in tumultuous times.”  

Two Cambridge-led studies suggest that the psychological distress caused by lockdowns (UK) and experience of infection (US) was reduced among those of faith compared to non-religious people.  

Getty/Luis AlvarezPeople in church praying with covid-19 restrictions Notes

* The increase in the mean measure for unhappiness was 6.1 percent for people who do not identify with a religion during the lockdown, compared to an increase of 4.3 percent for those who do belong to a religion – a difference of 29%.

**For those that religion makes little or no difference, the increase was 6.3 percent.  For those for whom religion makes some or a great difference, the increase was around half that, at 3 percent and 3.5 percent respectively.

*** This was after controlling for various demographic and environmental traits, including age, race, income, and average mental health rates prior to the pandemic.

**** The interpretation is from Column 1 of Table 5: Determinants of mental health, online access to religion. Where the coefficients of Covid {Not accessed online service} is 2.265 and Covid {Accessed online service} is 1.344. Hence the difference is 2.265-1.344 = 0.921 which is 40% of 2.265.


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Robot trained to read braille at twice the speed of humans

University News - Mon, 29/01/2024 - 06:04

The research team, from the University of Cambridge, used machine learning algorithms to teach a robotic sensor to quickly slide over lines of braille text. The robot was able to read the braille at 315 words per minute at close to 90% accuracy.

Although the robot braille reader was not developed as an assistive technology, the researchers say the high sensitivity required to read braille makes it an ideal test in the development of robot hands or prosthetics with comparable sensitivity to human fingertips. The results are reported in the journal IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters.

Human fingertips are remarkably sensitive and help us gather information about the world around us. Our fingertips can detect tiny changes in the texture of a material or help us know how much force to use when grasping an object: for example, picking up an egg without breaking it or a bowling ball without dropping it.

Reproducing that level of sensitivity in a robotic hand, in an energy-efficient way, is a big engineering challenge. In Professor Fumiya Iida’s lab in Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, researchers are developing solutions to this and other skills that humans find easy, but robots find difficult.

“The softness of human fingertips is one of the reasons we’re able to grip things with the right amount of pressure,” said Parth Potdar from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering and an undergraduate at Pembroke College, the paper’s first author. “For robotics, softness is a useful characteristic, but you also need lots of sensor information, and it’s tricky to have both at once, especially when dealing with flexible or deformable surfaces.”

Braille is an ideal test for a robot ‘fingertip’ as reading it requires high sensitivity, since the dots in each representative letter pattern are so close together. The researchers used an off-the-shelf sensor to develop a robotic braille reader that more accurately replicates human reading behaviour.

“There are existing robotic braille readers, but they only read one letter at a time, which is not how humans read,” said co-author David Hardman, also from the Department of Engineering. “Existing robotic braille readers work in a static way: they touch one letter pattern, read it, pull up from the surface, move over, lower onto the next letter pattern, and so on. We want something that’s more realistic and far more efficient.”

The robotic sensor the researchers used has a camera in its ‘fingertip’, and reads by using a combination of the information from the camera and the sensors. “This is a hard problem for roboticists as there’s a lot of image processing that needs to be done to remove motion blur, which is time and energy-consuming,” said Potdar.

The team developed machine learning algorithms so the robotic reader would be able to ‘deblur’ the images before the sensor attempted to recognise the letters. They trained the algorithm on a set of sharp images of braille with fake blur applied. After the algorithm had learned to deblur the letters, they used a computer vision model to detect and classify each character.

Once the algorithms were incorporated, the researchers tested their reader by sliding it quickly along rows of braille characters. The robotic braille reader could read at 315 words per minute at 87% accuracy, which is twice as fast and about as accurate as a human Braille reader.

“Considering that we used fake blur the train the algorithm, it was surprising how accurate it was at reading braille,” said Hardman. “We found a nice trade-off between speed and accuracy, which is also the case with human readers.”

“Braille reading speed is a great way to measure the dynamic performance of tactile sensing systems, so our findings could be applicable beyond braille, for applications like detecting surface textures or slippage in robotic manipulation,” said Potdar.

In future, the researchers are hoping to scale the technology to the size of a humanoid hand or skin. The research was supported in part by the Samsung Global Research Outreach Program.

 

Reference:
Parth Potdar et al. ‘High-Speed Tactile Braille Reading via Biomimetic Sliding Interactions.’ IEEE Robotics and Automation Letters (2024). DOI: 10.1109/LRA.2024.3356978

Researchers have developed a robotic sensor that incorporates artificial intelligence techniques to read braille at speeds roughly double that of most human readers.

Parth PotdarRobot braille reader


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Award winning author and former MPhil in African Studies student Mary Ononokpono talks about how her work has been inspired by our MPhil programme

 

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