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Standard-hopping wireless

A gadget capable of hopping between incompatible wireless standards that developers claim could revolutionise the telecommunications industry is being tested in Ireland.

The “software-defined radio” device, developed by a team at the Centre for Telecommunications Value-Chain Research (CTVR) in Dublin, can mimic many different wireless tools by using reconfigurable software to carry out tasks normally performed by static hardware.

The technology could cut through the myriad of conflicting frequencies and standards that currently control the telecoms industry by allowing future communications devices to jump between them.

For example, a mobile phone handset could automatically detect and jump to a much faster Wi-Fi network when the user enters a local hotspot. Devices could even decide for themselves the optimum standard to use in any given situation.

CTVR’s prototype uses a normal antenna and amplifier to receive a signal but differs fundamentally from traditional radio equipment. An analogue-to-digital converter changes the signal into a digital format, which can then be processed and manipulated by the software. The software can reconfigure itself to let the device retrieve information sent at alternative frequencies or encoded in a different way.

Now CTVR have been given the go ahead to test the technology outside the laboratory, receiving a license from Comreg, Ireland’s communications regulator, that permits a device to skip between between different frequencies within the radio spectrum.

The trial will involve testing communications between different applications such as audio, streaming video and data transmission and across different sites across the country, allowing several prototypes to automatically select the best standard to use.

The scientists also want to see how easily frequencies can be dynamically allocated to different devices, and they envisage a time in the future when companies could own a license to automatically “sublet” access depending on demand.

Centre for Telecommunications Value-Chain Research: http://www.ctvr.ie/

Optimism over “walk again” drugs

Scientists have been testing two antibodies that may one day help people to walk again by regenerating damaged spinal cords.

The antibodies work by blocking the action of Nogo - a protein that stops nerve cells sprouting new connections. However, concerns remained whether blocking Nogo would lead to uncontrolled neuronal rewiring in the brain or spinal chord, leading to conditions such as hyperalgesia - when even a simple touch is sensed as pain.

A team at the University of Zurich delivered the antibodies - 11C7 and 7B12 - into the severed spinal nerves of rats. They used an osmotic mini-pump connected to a fine catheter to deliver them straight into the cerebrospinal fluid surrounding the injured parts - a process the researchers say could easily be applied to humans.

The antibodies triggered regeneration of axons - the fine thread-like extensions that connect neurons and transmit messages like a feeling of pain or a command to move around the body.

Following the experiment, the injured rats could swim, walk along a ladder without slipping and cross a narrow beam. In addition, the there was no sign of hyperalgesia which would have indicated that wrong neural connections had been made.

The team, which is working with pharmaceuticals group Novartis to develop antibodies suitable for treating humans, is now looking to begin clinical tests. However, it remains to be seen whether the terrible events in London last week - when a clinical test of an antibody-based drug put six people in a critical condition - will set back research in this area.

The scientists themselves say that the antibodies would not necessarily lead to complete recovery and would likely be part of a combined approach to treating spinal injuries - with research needed in other areas such as finding growth factors that will stimulate nerves to keep sprouting and stay healthy.

University of Zurich: http://www.unizh.ch/index.en.html

Remote-controlled implants

Ear and retinal implants can bypass damaged cells and directly stimulate nerve endings with minute electrodes, helping to restore hearing in sight in sufferers.

However, it is a notoriously difficult process to get the implants into place and in contact with nerve endings.

But, according to NewScientist.com, researchers at the University of California’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory have invented a way to control implants from outside the body by remote control.

The device is constructed of an implant attached to a silicone tube - a few millimetres long - which has gold particles on its tip.

A current is passed wirelessly through the particles, creating a patterned magnetic field which can be used to move the implant remotely. For example, after injecting an implant into a patient’s head, an external electro magnetic could be used to manoeuvre the implant towards the target site.

Once the implant is in position the gold particles should also work as electrodes to feed signals into the nerves.

The team has applied for a patent for the technology, which they also see as having military uses, for example in building miniaturised weaponry.

Lawrence Livermore: http://www.llnl.gov/

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