[From CASE Reports, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1999]

IN BRIEF: Science and Technology Notes from Around Connecticut

WIRED UP. Cox Communications is in the process of replacing its current cable service with a new fiber optics network that will enable customers to take advantage of more than 200 new TV and music channels, a blocking system that allows parents to control a child’s viewing choices, long distance phone service, and high-speed internet transmissions. Conversion has already been completed in Meriden, Cheshire, Southington, South Windsor, and Manchester, and is expected to include Wethersfield, Newington, Glastonbury and Rocky Hill in 1999. Switching to fiber optics will upgrade the Cox network from 550 megahertz to 750 megahertz, allowing simultaneous use of the telephone, internet, and cable TV on the same line. It also will increase the speed of internet transmissions: A file that takes 20 minutes to receive by traditional modem will take about 3 seconds over the new fiber optic network.

BETWEEN BRAIN CELLS. A family of ancient proteins appears to manage the way brain cells use neurotransmitters such as serotonin to communicate. A study led by Yale scientist Axel T. Brunger indicates that neurotransmitters are carried in tiny sacs, known as vesicles, from within the brain cell out to its membrane (“skin”). Two proteins from the membrane form a complex that is joined by a third protein from the vesicle; together, the three assemble into a configuration that sets up electrical and chemical forces that fuse the membrane with the vesicle. This fusion causes the neurotransmitter to be spewed out, carrying its signal to another brain cell. The research, which is the first to show how neurotransmitters move between brain cells, uses x-ray crystallography to determine the atom-by-atom shape of the protein configuration; 3-dimensional computer reconstructions provide clues about how the configuration may actually function.

EASY LISTENING. Mathematics provides the key to designing acoustically optimal buildings, with calculations performed by a Hamden-based company started by Yale mathematics professor and CASE member Ronald Coifman. Fast Mathematical Algorithm and Hardware (FMAH) is a pioneer in cataloging the algorithms needed in industry and technology; in 1997, it was named one of the state’s fastest growing companies. A typical client, says Coifman, might be an architect designing an orchestral hall. A computer mockup of the hall would be used to measure the reflection of the orchestral sounds, and to determine where reflectors should be placed to obtain the best blend of music. Algorithms would be used to calculate the numerical frequencies of every instrument’s sound.

MATH CHALLENGE. Over 200 children and adults joined in Bolton Center School’s first annual Family Math Night, playing games that incorporated concepts from counting to algebra. Activities ranged from Metric Olympics, where youngsters tossed a paper plate discus, and then measured their throws in centimeters, to Three Bean Salad, where they used limas, peas, and red beans to practice ratios and proportions with their parents. “Many of the activities we’re doing are used by teachers in their classrooms, so this is a way of acquainting parents with them,” said mathematics coordinator Ruth Buteau, who also hoped that the evening would encourage adults to enjoy math games with their children at home.

STRESS-BASED LEARNING? Even mild stress impairs the functioning of the pre-frontal cortex of the brain, where attentiveness resides, says Amy F.T. Arnsten, a neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. This makes it difficult to concentrate, which could reduce the ability to learn. On the other hand, stress seems to improve both long-term memory and the performance of well learned tasks. Arnsten, who studies the pre-frontal cortex, cites the example of a much-drilled soldier, who performs his job without thinking during a battle, and who will remember the event always. This may be due, says Arnsten, to a family of compounds called catecholamines, which the body produces in response to stress.

PHYSICS OLYMPICS. A team of four Guilford high school seniors outperformed 24 other schools to come in first in the Yale Physics Olympics. The event, held at Yale’s Sloane Physics Laboratory, was intended to stimulate interest in science and provide support for physics teachers in the region. About 120 students attended the competition, which included such challenges as using a nail, bare wire, plastic tape and two batteries to construct a magnet.

Sound Project. Nearly 400 high school students joined in a Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection project last fall to study salt marshes on Long Island Sound. Led by University of Connecticut professor Joseph Crivello, the students used minnow traps baited with English muffins to catch mummichogs. The one-to-six-inch green and black fish, a critical part of the marsh food chain, provide important evidence about area pollution. By analyzing information about fish liver size, glycogen content, and the growth of proteins associated with pollutants, students could determine whether the health of mummichogs in their area differed from that of others along the coastline.

BIOSPHERE 2. At the Biosphere 2 Center, an eight-story high, three-acre sealed glass structure in the middle of the Sonoran Desert, University of Connecticut (UConn) students study the intricacies of the planet’s ecosystems. The center contains a microcosm of the Earth: it holds agricultural, desert, savannah, and rain forest zones, as well as a 900,000-gallon ocean. These different ecosystems are enclosed in glass and metal shells, forming a series of self-sustaining biological domes (biomes) connected by air-lock-sealed tunnels. Although the primary research at Biosphere 2 evaluates the greenhouse effect in the different biomes, UConn biology major Mariah Kachmarik conducted surveys of plant species in the thorn scrub biome, a transition area between the rain forest and the desert ecosystems.

THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES. For the third time, a Yale student has won the BFGoodrich National Collegiate Inventors Program competition. Graduate student Jin-Ping Han garnered the award for her invention of a new kind of semiconductor memory—a Dynamic Random Access Memory (DRAM) cell that offers faster operating speed, longer data retention, a simpler structure and lower power consumption than conventional DRAM cells. While conventional DRAM have at least one transitor and one capacitor in each cell, Han’s cell requires only a single transitor, eliminating the costly storage capacitor by storing data in the enhanced capacitance of the transistor itself. “Her invention will change future generations of memory,” said her advisor, electrical engineering professor and CASE member Tso-Ping Ma.

THEM'S THE BREAKS. With the partial discharge locator developed by University of Connecticut engineering professor and CASE member Matthew S. Mashikian, utility companies can pinpoint within three feet defects in their underground cables. This allows them to repair defective cable for under $2,000; formerly, repairs required replacing mile-long cable sections, at a cost of about $160,000. The locator works by sending increased voltage through the questionable cable, which causes the defective section to leak very small electrical pulses. Mashikian’s equipment detects these pulses, and, through a process known as reflectometry, can determine the location of the partial discharge.

GAS-FUELED TAXIS. The Yellow Cab Co. of Bloomfield plans to replace its entire fleet of taxis with natural gas-powered cars, said company president Marco J.C. Henry. The company has already bought six Honda Civic GXs, which will be the first cabs in the Connecticut to run on natural gas. The cost of the switch will be about $2 million, according to Henry. However, the new cars will be cheaper to run: A 300-mile trip in a regular gasoline car costs about $30; in a gas-powered car, it would cost about $6 to $8.

BEETLE THREAT. The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station has announced an effort to locate and eradicate a beetle from Asia found so far in Greenwich, Milford, North Haven and Stamford. Callidiellum rufipenne, known as the smaller Japanese longhorn beetle, does not usually attack healthy trees. It was, however, found in an arborvitae brought to the Experiment Station. Station director and CASE member John F. Anderson has asked for the public’s help in examining arborvitae planted in 1997–98 for bark split by tunneling beetles. Because adult beetles will not emerge until spring, there is still opportunity to find and destroy them before they mate. If not eradicated, the beetle threatens junipers and white and red cedars, in addition to arborvitae. For more see www.state.ct.us/caes/newsbeetl.htm.

FLUTTER BY. An unusual invasion of southern butterflies brought several species rarely seen in Connecticut to the state last fall. “We think it has to do with major weather movements that bring in these various things from the south,” said Yale professor emeritus Charles L. Remington, an authority on butterflies. Among the species reported were the cloudless sulphur, the little sulphur, the ocola skipper, and the long tailed skipper.

SILT CONTROL. Three silt control devices, which will be partly funded by a $102,850 state grant, will be installed on the southwestern side of Coventry Lake, according to town manager John Elsessor. The town plans to set up two vortex basins, sophisticated traps that collect sediment more effectively than catch basins, which simply retain water as silt settles. The town will also build a dam, by raising a section of South Street about three feet. This will enable a nearby swamp to slow down storm water flow, and to eliminate silt by acting as a biological filter.

MOVING ALONG. Because the sea level is rising, scientists expected that the tidal marshes along the Connecticut shoreline would gradually migrate inland. Yet not all the marshes have adapted. While some are gradually accumulating sediments and shifting their distinctive grasses further inland, others are developing bare patches, and continuing to grow the grasses that usually belong at the water’s edge. Lenny Bellet, a Connecticut College graduate student, is studying two adjacent Stonington marshes to determine why one is adapting and the other is not. One possibility is that sulfates in seawater may be accumulating too quickly in some marshes, depriving them of the ability to adjust to a rise in the sea level. Another may be the proximity of man-made structures, such as pathways.

WEATHER WATCH. Sixty-six years of weather statistics collected by Edward C. Childs and his son Starling W. Childs at their weather observation station in the Great Mountain Forest in Norfolk provide a rare, long-term weather record that is increasingly valuable to scientists, not only because of the longevity of the record-keeping, but because the reference station is located in a largely undeveloped area, allowing the Childs’ data to serve as a natural benchmark. Scientists use data collected at the station in research that ranges from learning to predict snow accumulations to determining the effect of trees on climate.

EARTHQUAKE ZONE. Water released by rocks 6 to 12 miles beneath the Earth’s surface could trigger repeated earthquakes, according to a computer model developed by three Yale geologists. Water can be freed when surface rocks are carried deep into the Earth, where temperatures are high. “At the high pressures and temperatures found in the middle crust, minerals in rocks recrystallize into other minerals by releasing water trapped in their crystalline structures,” said rock specialist Jay J. Ague. The newly liberated water can cause rocks to fracture, which could trigger an earthquake if it occurs near an active fault; it would, says Ague, require only a small volume of water to cause such a seismic event.

PRECAMBRIAN WIGGLERS. Burrows found by Yale researchers in rocks that are over 1 billion years old suggest that multi-celled animals may have evolved at least 500 million years before most scientists believe. The scientists discovered the tunnels in the Chorhat Sandstone formation in India, in an area that was once a shallow sea. They may have been made by worm-like creatures about one-fifth of an inch in diameter, who searched for food in sediments just below the ocean floor. The animals would have been surprisingly complex, with muscles, left-and-right symmetry, and a digestive system. “This completely changes the timing of evolution,” says Yale paleontologist Friedrich Pflueger.

FRESH TOMATOES. Using hydroponic farming techniques in an 18-acre greenhouse in Suffield, the Rainbow Growers Group, an international agricultural consortium, plans to provide supermarkets with locally grown sweet peppers and tomatoes for ten months of the year. The Dutch cooperative, which is also building a 100,000-square-foot distribution and refrigeration packing center near Bradley International Airport, imports foreign produce; it will use the vegetables from the greenhouse to fill last-minute orders that cannot be supplied with imported goods.

MICROORGANISMS IN SPACE. Antibiotics seem to ferment 30% to 190% faster in outer space than on Earth, and researchers at Bristol-Myers Squibb in Wallingford hope to learn why. The scientists, whose experiments were included in the space shuttle Discovery’s recent trip, are studying the fermentation rates of monerdin, an antibiotic, and actinomycin D, an anti-cancer drug. Their findings could show the company how to use organisms in a different way, said John Houston, the company’s vice-president for lead discovery. New compounds, for example, could be created in zero gravity, leading to the discovery of new medicines; or techniques could be developed to produce more of existing medicines at lower costs.

SPORTING NEW COLORS. University of Connecticut (UConn) plant scientist Mark Brand has developed a series of cold-hardy, colorful rhododendrons, naming them in honor of UConn basketball. With monikers like Buzzer Beater and Slam Dunk, the plants, which have been under development for about 30 years, bloom in colors from light yellow to rose to a frilly wine/burgundy. Two varieties, March Madness and Tip Off, flower two to three weeks before other large-leaf rhododendrons. The plants, which are all under consideration by commercial growers for wholesale production, should appear in local nurseries in three to five years.

TRICKY TARGET. According to University of Connecticut professor and CASE member David R. Miller, 1% to 5% of most sprayed pesticides ends up polluting the atmosphere. Miller has developed guidelines for aerial spraying that control pesticide drift by taking into account varying atmospheric conditions. Air turbulence, temperature, and humidity all affect the path and evaporation rate of droplets released from an airplane and, while atmospheric conditions can’t be controlled, sprayers can affect drift by altering droplet size and the duration and time of spraying.

MOOMIES. By developing techniques that enable heifers who have not yet reached puberty to produce calves, University of Connecticut animal science professor Xiangzhong Yang hopes to shorten the time to create a herd of transgenic—or genetically modified—cows. Transgenic animals can be used as bioreactors: they might, for example, be altered so that their milk contains medicines that humans need. Yang collects eggs from the mother cow once or twice weekly through a non-invasive procedure known as ultrasound-guided transvaginal oocyte pick-up (OPU). The eggs are matured and fertilized outside the body, and carried to term in surrogate mother cows.

FISH TALE. Developing fetuses and nursing infants must rely on their mothers for a fatty acid vital to brain development, according to a study by University of Connecticut professor Carol Lammi-Keefe. She showed that babies cannot produce enough of the fat, docosahexanoic (DHA), but it can be passed to them in the womb and through breast milk. The best source of DHA, says Lammi-Keefe, is cold-water marine fish such as salmon, herring, swordfish, sardines, and trout. It is important for mothers, she said, to include these foods in their diet. Commercial infant formulas do not include DHA.

ORIGINS OF MADNESS. Monkeys whose brains were damaged during fetal development developed schizophrenia-like symptoms after reaching puberty, according to a study performed at the Yale University School of Medicine. Radiation was used to selectively destroy portions of the primates’ brains and the study showed a link between the severity of symptoms and the area of the brain that was affected: monkeys whose cortex was harmed developed greater impairments than those who lost part of their thalamus. “This is the first evidence suggesting that schizophrenia in humans might be caused by damage to neurons in the cortex or thalamus during fetal development,” said Yale neurobiology professor Patricia S. Goldman-Rakic. Goldman-Rakic hopes to treat the monkeys with neuroleptics, such as clozapine or haloperidol, drugs which are commonly used to alleviate hallucinations in schizophrenics.

QUESTIONING PROZAC. Seventy-five percent of the response of patients to depression medication is a placebo effect, according to a new study by University of Connecticut psychology professor Irving Kirsh. Kirsh reviewed data from 19 studies in which 2,318 people took part. His analysis, he believes, suggest that anti-depressants might function largely as active placebos, in which the side effects amplify the placebo effect by convincing patients that they are receiving a potent drug.

AGING RELATIONS. Decreasing production of androgen in post-menopausal women may cause a loss of sexual desire, according to a study recently performed at the Yale University School of Medicine. (Androgen is a steroid hormone that controls the development and maintenance of masculine characteristics.) While estrogen therapy alone did not promote sexual function, the combined estrogen-androgen theory improved sexual sensation and desire in post-menopausal women who were dissatisfied with estrogen alone. “These findings have significant implications for women who are taking hormone replacement therapy,” said Philip Sarrel, the study’s principal investigator.

IMMUNE ANCESTRY. A key part of the human immune system may have evolved from a virus-like fragment of DNA that inserted itself into the mammalian genome over 450 million years ago, according to a recent study led by Yale immunobiology professor David G. Schatz. The lymphocytes (white blood cells) that comprise this adaptive system possess the ability to move small gene segments and paste them together, a rare skill found also in two closely linked genes, RAG1 and RAG2. RAG1 and RAG2 are found in all jawed vertebrates, which also all have shuffle-and-paste adaptive immune systems. But nothing similar is found in the jawless vertebrates that evolved earlier. Based on this, Schatz suggests that RAG genes must have once behaved like viruses, using their ability to snip and join to insert themselves into the genome that would eventually be passed on to humans.

MEASURED SLEEP. Hartford Hospital is among the first in the state to use a Bispectral Index (BIS monitor) to regulate the amount of anesthesia given to patients. The 3-pound device, attached to the patient’s forehead with adhesive sensors, measures electrical activity in the brain. At a level of 100, the patient is conscious; at 60 to 65, he or she is fully sedated. Without a BIS monitor, anesthesiologists must estimate the correct dosage, monitoring its effect by imprecise symptoms like pulse rate and sweat production. But the monitor “gives us specific and accurate feedback, so we can adjust the medication to the patient’s response,” said Hartford Hospital anesthesiologist Joseph H. McIsaac.

FAT CITY. Leptin, the hormone that blocks a feeling of hunger in the brain, has been found to stimulate the growth of blood vessels in fat tissue. This unexpected finding, made by researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine and the Institutes for Pharmaceutical Discovery, in Branford, may generate ways to treat obesity, cancer, and other problems. Researchers speculate that fat cells can stimulate the growth of blood vessels because, like any other cells, fat cells rely on blood to bring them oxygen and nutrients. But, in addition, building blood vessels may be a way for the body to metabolize fat, maintain a steady temperature, and balance activity and the use of energy.

MECHANICAL HEART. A battery-powered bionic pump, implanted in a Connecticut patient for the first time at Yale-New Haven Hospital, uses electromagnet-controlled bellows to aid damaged hearts in keeping blood circulation strong. The $47,000 Left Ventricular Assist System, which took 28 years to develop, connects the patient’s left ventricle to the aorta. Its battery plugs into the metal and plastic pump through a cord in the patient’s side, and a computerized control box automatically keeps the machine in tune with the rest of the heart. Right now, the device is intended as a temporary fix, keeping the patient alive and healthy until a transplant can be found. Eventually smaller, complete artificial hearts may replace transplants, said Yale-New Haven surgeon George Tellides.

QUANTUM COMPUTERS. Physicists at Yale University and Bell Labs have used nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) to examine electron spin states deep inside semiconductors, finding that spin states are surprisingly long-lived. To study electron spin, researchers cooled a thin layer of semiconductor compound to near absolute zero, which restricted electron motion to two directions. Then they applied a magnetic field 240,000 times as strong as Earth’s, which forced the electron system into a novel “quantum liquid” state. The researchers found that spin states last about 1/10,000 of a second—which is at least 1,000 times longer than other electron processes measured in semiconductors. This discovery could be used to develop quantum computers, which might code information in a variety of spin states—up, down, or a mixture of both—instead of simply using just binary (1 and 0) digits.

ART FOR THE AGES. New state-of-the-art technology allows conservators at the Yale Center for British Art to more effectively and safely restore and preserve damaged works of art. The equipment includes a ventilation system with a large chemical hood, a chemical exhaust canopy, and a flexible vapor extractor arm, all of which are designed to control the vapors of the hazardous chemicals used to treat artwork. In addition, an improved water purification system allows the aqueous cleaning of paper-based artwork, which, according to chief conservator Theresa Fairbanks, “not only improves their appearance, but chemically helps neutralize acid papers, prolonging the life of the artwork.”

WHAT A SHOCK. A pacemaker-like implant that works by electrically stimulating the sacral nerves at the base of the spine can successfully control urge incontinence—a sudden, uncontrollable urge to urinate. Jill Peters, director of the Continence Program for Women’s Health Connecticut, recently performed the first procedures at the University of Connecticut Health Center using InterStim Continence Control Therapy, which was recently approved by the Federal Drug Administration. The device, which uses electrical pulses to help control bladder function, is a totally implantable system, including a lead and a pulse generator. Urge incontinence affects an estimated 5 million American women.

LOOK AT THIS. University of Connecticut Health Center dental professor Linda Otis participated in a team that has developed an improved way to detect cavities and gum disease; their invention has been listed by R&D Magazine as one of the top 100 technological discoveries of the year. The optical ultra-high resolution dental imaging system uses near infrared light to obtain high-resolution images of dental tissues. Unlike x-rays, the apparatus can view both hard and soft tissue. That means that in addition to detecting small cavities before they become large, the dentist can also look inside gums to detect the early stages of gum disease. The apparatus can also check for deterioration in fillings and other dental work.

OIL DETECTOR. When ultraviolet light is reflected off oil, its wavelength increases. That’s the key to finding oil spills for North Haven’s Spectrogram Corp., which provides oil detection devices for companies like Exxon, Texaco, and Hess. OSPRA (Oil Spill Remote Alarm System), the company’s most popular product, measures the ultraviolet reflections, sending information back to a receiver by radio. A computer monitors the data, and if the shift in wavelengths indicates an oil spill, an alarm is sounded. OSPRA can be mounted on land or on a buoy, and can be powered by solar energy as well as by conventional batteries or generators.

CLEANING UP. Stamford-based Xerox Corp. is using a device developed by NASA to study the influence of potential contamination on various manufacturing processes, especially the bonding of materials. The OSEE (optically stimulated electron emission) device was developed by NASA to measure contamination on the interior surface of the space shuttle’s solid rocket booster casing. It uses a photoelectric process to detect contamination at levels as low as 5 mg/cm2, an amount so slight it cannot be seen. For many applications in the electronics industry, even tiny levels of contaminant can prevent materials from joining properly, and thus are intolerable.

RUSSIAN DESIGNS. The IBP Aerospace Group, which manufactures Russian designed Zvezda K-36 ejection seats for US and foreign military aircraft, plans to open a new assembly plant in East Hartford. The K-36 is “the best aircraft ejection seat available,” according to Kenneth J. Szalai, the company’s president, and a former NASA official. In one demonstration, a Russian MiG-29 pilot safely ejected 200 feet from the ground. The Connecticut-built seats will be the first Russian military aircraft technology produced in the United States, according to a company spokeswoman.

ADVANCES IN MICROSPECTROMETRY. Shelton-based Spectra-Tech, Inc., in collaboration with Nicolet Instrument Corporation of Madison, WI, has developed a new infrared microspectrometer that offers researchers the highest level of optical automation now available. The Nic-Plan microscope is controlled by software that can switch optical modes and adjust sample positioning, allowing scientists to develop methods that can later be run by less-skilled personnel or without operator intervention at all. Key to this development is the use of compact ball slides, manufactured by Del-Tron Precision, Inc. of Bethel. The slides provide highly accurate optical positioning, low torque requirements, and require minimal space. Infrared spectrometry utilizes electromagnetic waves to analyze the structure and chemistry of organic and molecular compounds.

AT SEA. The $2.3 billion nuclear-powered submarine Connecticut, considered the most technologically advanced craft ever made, was commissioned for service in December. Built by Electric Boat, a division of General Dynamics, the 353-foot long attack submarine weighs more than 9,000 tons submerged. It is the most heavily armed submarine in the world, carrying eight torpedo tubes and an array of Tomahawk cruise missiles, and it can reach speeds of greater than 25 knots. So self sufficient that it needs to surface only once every three months, the Connecticut is less detectable traveling at high speed than previous models were when sitting at a pier.

LOSING CONTROL. With a new “skid car system,” state police recruits are learning to handle icy roads and high-speed chases without ever driving over 25 miles per hour. The system uses a hydraulic machine to simulate loss of traction by lifting the front or rear wheels of an ordinary police cruiser. Most troopers put about 50,000 miles a year on their cars, and chances are that sooner or later they are going to skid, said trooper Joe Biela. The hydraulic system trains police to handle conditions that range from a skid at 65 miles per hour to simply rounding a corner too fast.

PARAMEDIC PATROL. Specially trained mountain bikers carrying 60 pounds of medical equipment are bringing emergency care to places that ambulances cannot go. The Norwalk Hospital bike unit, which began as a way to treat accidents in mountain bike races, now provides care at street festivals and other city gatherings that are too crowded for larger vehicles to move through safely. Carrying a full range of life-support equipment, from oxygen to defibrillators to bandages to medications, bike squad paramedics can treat almost any type of medical emergency.

—Compiled and edited by Karen Miller

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