You might have missed: salt-sized sensors; distorted faces; tuneable coloured films; and ancient stilt-houses

Rare insight into the condition that distorts perception of faces

When a person with the very rare condition prosopometamorphopsia looks at a face, its features appear distorted in some way. The symptoms of the condition vary from case to case, but the person’s perception can alter the shape, size, colour, and position of facial features.

A new study in The Lancet is the first to provide an accurate and photorealistic visualisation of the facial distortions experienced by an individual with prosopometamorphopsia or PMO.

“In other studies of the condition, patients with PMO are unable to assess how accurately a visualisation of their distortions represents what they see because the visualisation itself also depicts a face, so the patients will perceive distortions on it too,” says lead author Antônio Mello, a PhD student in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Dartmouth University in the US. 

In contrast, the patient in this study – a 58-year-old male with PMO – sees faces without any distortions when they are viewed on a screen and on paper but sees distorted faces when viewed in-person.

The researchers hope to increase public awareness of PMO, which is caused by a problem with the visual system of the brain.

Images of a man and a woman's face. Unaltered on the left side and altered on the left.
Computer-generated images of the distortions of a male face (top) and female face (bottom), as perceived by the patient in the study. Credit: A. Mello et al.

Tuneable coloured films for displays and sensors

Some striking natural phenomena, such as gemstones, mollusc shells, and peacock feathers, get their dazzling colours from structural colouration. Micro or nanostructures arranged periodically on their surface interact with light to produce different colours and effects, like iridescence.

Researchers at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) have taken inspiration from nature to develop flexible films that can change colour in response to mechanical stimulus, according to a paper in Nature Nanotechnology.

To do this they deposited an array of gallium nanoparticles, which interact with light, on a biocompatible polymer called polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS). PDMS is made by mixing 2 liquid-like components – an oligomer and a cross-linker – which react with each other to form a solid polymer.

They found that when the PDMS is stretched, the unreacted liquid portion of the oligomer seeps into the gaps between the nanoparticles. This changes the gap size between them, and therefore their interaction with light, resulting in a change in the perceived colour.

The team says the technology could be used as a body movement sensor or eventually in energy harvesting applications.

Photograph of a gloved hand pinching a blue strip of material. Where it is pinched the material changes colour to a gold
Sample exhibiting colour change from blue to yellow on bending, by virtue of changing gallium nanostructures. Credit: Mark Vailshery

Remains of stilt-house dwellers uncovered in England

The excavated remains of a stilt village that was engulfed in flames almost 3,000 years ago has revealed details of the daily lives of the people living there.

Must Farm, a late Bronze Age settlement dating to around 850 BCE, was constructed on stilts above a slow-moving river. The entire hamlet stood about 2 metres above the riverbed, had walkways bridging some of the main houses, and was surrounded by a two-metre-high fence of sharpened posts.

The settlement was less than a year old when it was destroyed by a catastrophic fire, with buildings and their contents collapsing into the muddy river below. The combination of charring and waterlogging preserved the site exceptionally well, allowing researchers to map the layout of the structures and identify the objects in each room.

The full findings from the site, which was excavated by the Cambridge Archaeological Unit in 2015-2016, are published in 2 new reports.

Illustration of a cluster of round buildings built on stilts over water, there is smoke rising from the tops of the conical roofs.
An illustrated reconstruction of the Bronze Age stilt settlement unearthed at Must Farm in the east of England. Credit: Cambridge Archaeological Unit

New approach advances wireless sensor technology

Researchers have developed a new approach for a wireless communication network, using thousands of microelectronic chips each smaller than a grain of salt. The sensor network is designed so the chips can be implanted into the body or integrated into wearable devices.

The submillimeter-sized silicon sensors mimic how neurons in the brain communicate through spikes of electrical activity. The sensors detect specific events as spikes and then transmit that data wirelessly in real time using radio waves.

“Our brain works in a very sparse way,” says Jihun Lee, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University in the US and lead author of a new study in Nature Electronics.

Photograph of a tiny sensor, the size of a grain of salt, next to a coin for scale
The sensor network is designed so the chips can be implanted into the body or integrated into wearable devices. Each submillimeter-sized silicon sensor mimics how neurons in the brain communicate through spikes of electrical activity. Credit: Nick Dentamaro/Brown University

“Neurons do not fire all the time. They compress data and fire sparsely so that they are very efficient. We are mimicking that structure here in our wireless telecommunication approach.

“The sensors would not be sending out data all the time — they’d just be sending relevant data as needed as short bursts of electrical spikes, and they would be able to do so independently of the other sensors and without coordinating with a central receiver.

“By doing this, we would manage to save a lot of energy and avoid flooding our central receiver hub with less meaningful data.”

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