Welcome to the Altmetric High Five! On a monthly basis, my High Five posts examine a selection of the most popular research outputs Altmetric has seen attention for that month.
This month’s most popular research papers all describe findings of rather large proportions – some on firm footing and some on less solid ground. By the end of this article, your brain will be buzzing with questions.
Paper #1. Paralysed Monkeys Walk Again
Our first High Five paper is “A brain–spine interface alleviating gait deficits after spinal cord injury in primates,” published in Nature in November. Using electrical brain implants, researchers enabled paralysed monkeys to walk again.
“As early as six days post-injury and without prior training of the monkeys, the brain–spine interface restored weight-bearing locomotion of the paralysed leg on a treadmill and overground. The implantable components integrated in the brain–spine interface have all been approved for investigational applications in similar human research, suggesting a practical translational pathway for proof-of-concept studies in people with spinal cord injury.” – Capogrosso et al. 2016
Nearly 130 news outlets and 20 blogs covered the study. Nature News headlined, “Brain implants allow paralysed monkeys to walk.” The technology is based upon wireless information transfer from a brain implant to electrodes embedded in the lower spinal cord, “bypassing” or going around a site of injury in the spinal cord, or where the cord has been cut. The technology has been in development for many years, but was only recently tested successfully in the primate context.
“[A] wireless brain implant — that stimulates electrodes in the leg by recreating signals recorded from the brain — has enabled monkeys with spinal-cord injuries to walk.” – David Cyranoski, Nature News.
How soon could the technology be translated to humans? Not very soon, according to the study authors. The translation of brain activity to fine motor movement in humans would be much more complicated. But this is a step in the right direction.
“Normally, the brain is giving commands, and the legs are responding to the commands through the spinal cord. When you have a spinal cord lesion, then this command is interrupted.” – Study author Jocelyne Bloch, quoted by NPR
- Scientists have developed a wireless implant that gave paralyzed monkeys the ability to walk again, by Katherine Ellen Foley, Quartz
- Monkeys Regain Control Of Paralyzed Legs With Help Of An Implant, by Rae Ellen Bichell, NPR
- Wireless Brain-Spine Connection Overcomes Paralysis in Monkey, by James Gorman, New York Times
Paper #2. Facial recognition for criminality? Proceed with caution.
Our second High Five paper is “Automated Inference on Criminality using Face Images,” posted to ArXiv.org in November 2016. Using automated inference based on still face images, researchers Xiaolin Wu and Xi Zhang concluded that “the faces of general law-biding public have a greater degree of resemblance compared with the faces of criminals, or criminals have a higher degree of dissimilarity in facial appearance than normal people.” They also discovered particular facial structural features that predicted criminality.
The study garnered news stories in over 20 news outlets, and was highly tweeted by members of the public according to Altmetric data. Many of these news stories and tweets raised ethics concerns regarding use of facial recognition to identify criminals. There were also many concerns about the methods of the study.
“[E]ven where the science is sound, ethical questions arise over how these algorithms should be applied to real-world situations. Detecting someone’s ethnicity, for example, could be used to better target services, but it could also be used to discriminate.” – Timothy Revell, NewScientist
“’Researchers trained an algorithm using more than 1,500 photos of Chinese citizens, hundreds of them convicts. They said the program was then able to correctly identify criminals in further photos 89% of the time. But the research, which has not been peer reviewed, has been criticized by criminology experts who say the AI [artificial intelligence] may reflect bias in the justice system. ‘This article is not looking at people’s behaviour, it is looking at criminal conviction,’ said Prof Susan McVie, professor of quantitative criminology at the University of Edinburgh. ‘The criminal justice system consists of a series of decision-making stages, by the police, prosecution and the courts. At each of those stages, people’s decision making is affected by factors that are not related to offending behaviour – such as stereotypes about who is most likely to be guilty.’” – BBC
In other words, the algorithms could have picked up on shared facial characteristics among people who fit negative stereotypes that might influence decisions in the justice system. Or the algorithm could even have picked up on systematic differences between identification photos taken of criminals and profile photos of non-criminal citizens. All-in-all, the study appears to need a “proceed with caution” disclaimer.
Paper #3. The Ocean Under Pluto’s Heart
Our next High Five study is “Reorientation of Sputnik Planitia implies a subsurface ocean on Pluto,” published in Nature this month.
Nearly 140 news outlets covered the study. Vox headlined, “Under Pluto’s icy heart, a slushy sea may stir.”
“We expected that Pluto would be full of surprises, but this one knocked our socks off.” – Richard Binzel, MIT, quoted by Vox
“An ocean under the heart of Pluto [including a region called Sputnik Planitia] is the leading theory to explain a mystery about why Pluto’s heart-shaped basin never faces Pluto’s moon, called Charon. Pluto and Charon are tidally locked in orbit. That means the planet and its moon always have the same sides facing each other. […] So what could cause Pluto’s ‘heart’ to line up in this way? One explanation: There’s something there throwing Pluto off balance. ‘There’s a little extra mass there [in the heart],’ [Richard] Binzel says. ‘We’re trying to understand what it is that could contribute that mass. And the answer we come to is maybe there’s this dense subsurface layer of liquid water, or a slushy layer … pushing up in the region.’” – Brian Resnick, Vox
Researchers proposed that “a large impact on Pluto’s surface carved away ice to form the Sputnik Planitia basin”, thus allowing Pluto’s subsurface ocean to find its way into the basin and throw the planet “off balance.” Mystery solved?!
- Pluto’s frozen heart may hide an ocean inside – The heavy heart may have tipped the world over, by Sarah Fecht, Popular Science
- New Analysis Adds Support For A Subsurface Ocean On Pluto, Archaeology News Network
Paper #4. From Microwave to Spaceship Engine – Myth or Reality?
Our next High Five paper is “Measurement of Impulsive Thrust from a Closed Radio-Frequency Cavity in Vacuum,” published in the Journal of Propulsion and Power in November 2016. The paper has an obscure title and even more obscure abstract. So what’s the fuss about?
“The internet has gone into overdrive about the peer-reviewed publication of a test into a new type of rocket known as a RF resonant cavity thruster. Also termed the EM drive this device has been discussed for several years but this is a significant advance in terms of scientific respectability. Imagine a home microwave oven, bash one side down creating a cone, now turn it on. You wouldn’t imagine it could fly and neither do most scientists and yet controversially this is precisely what the EM drive claims. In effect it appears to be able to generate a forward thrust without apparently pushing anything backwards.” – Alan Duffy, The Conversation
Some science writers have cast significant doubts on whether this device, or mechanism for propulsion, could actually work. Is this idea for a spaceship engine impossible?
“After years of speculation, a maverick research team at NASA’s Johnson Space Center has reached a milestone that many experts thought was impossible. This week, the team formally published their experimental evidence for an electromagnetic propulsion system that could power a spacecraft through the void – without using any kind of propellant. […] In this paper, the authors identify and discuss nine potential sources of experimental errors, including rogue air currents, leaky electromagnetic radiation, and magnetic interactions. Not all of them could be completely ruled out, and more experimentation is definitely needed … perhaps next time in space.” – Nadia Drake and Michael Greshko, National Geographic
Paper #5. (Not So) Sweet Sleep
Our final High Five paper is “Short and sweet: Associations between self-reported sleep duration and sugar-sweetened beverage consumption among adults in the United States,” published in Sleep Health this month. Researchers used self-reported sleep duration and beverage intake data from nearly 19,000 adults to study the relationship between drinking sugary, caffeinated drinks and sleep patterns.
“Short sleep is associated with greater intake of sugared caffeinated sodas, a relationship that may have important, though unrecognized, implications for physical health. Directionality of this relationship cannot be determined from this study. Although caffeinated drinks could account for impaired sleep, it is possible that short sleep could influence one’s appetitive drive for sugared caffeine drinks.” – Prather et al. 2016
Nearly 180 news outlets, including many television outlets, covered the study. This isn’t surprising, considering the eternal newsworthiness of health information, especially related to soda.
Most outlets headlined something akin to, “Sugary, caffeinated drinks could cost you sleep,” even though the study authors clearly state that this study doesn’t establish a clear direction of the relationship between consuming such drinks and sleep duration. In other words, it could also be that lack of sleep drives intake of soda.
“We think there may be a positive feedback loop where sugary drinks and sleep loss reinforce one another, making it harder for people to eliminate their unhealthy sugar habit.” – Aric Prather, study author, press release
“After controlling for a host of sociodemographic factors and health variables that could potentially impact sugary beverage consumption and sleep, the researchers found that people who regularly slept five or fewer hours per night also drank 21 percent more caffeinated sugar-sweetened beverages – including both sodas and non-carbonated energy drinks – than those who slept seven to eight hours a night. People who slept six hours per night regularly consumed 11 percent more caffeinated sugar-sweetened beverages. On the other hand, the team found no association between sleep duration and consumption of juice, tea or diet drinks.” – ScienceBlog.com