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Ward Plunet

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Report: Ukrainian malware author working with FBI on Russian hacking investigation

In a scene out of a spy novel, a Ukrainian malware author who designed a tool alleged to have been used by Russian hackers during the 2016 U.S. presidential election is reported to be now working with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The man, known only by the online alias “Profexer,” is alleged to have gone dark online in January, writing as his last post that “I don’t know what will happen,” and that “it won’t be pleasant. But I’m still alive” before volunteering to provide his service to Ukranian police before becoming a witness for the FBI. Profexer has not been charged with any crime. Although he is alleged to have written a tool used by hackers, he is not accused of using it for nefarious purposes himself. The tool in question is said to be a remote-access tool, commonly known as a RAT, by the name of PAS Web shell. Profexer offered it for free on his members-only website and also offered to build custom versions and provide training for a fee. At least one of his customers is claimed to have used the tool in connection with malware used by Fancy Bear to gain access to the Democratic National Committee’s computer network.

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Brain protein found to control appetite and body fat composition

NPGL, a recently discovered protein involved in brain signalling, has been found to increase fat storage by the body – even when on a low-calorie diet. In addition, NPGL was shown to increase appetite in response to high caloric food intake, suggesting that perhaps we shouldn't feel so guilty about gorging on junk food from time to time. This latest discovery by Hiroshima University's Professor Kazuyoshi Ukena, along with collaborators from Japan and UC Berkeley, adds to our understanding of how the brain regulates energy usage and feeding habits – the control mechanisms of which are not yet fully understood. For most of our evolutionary history, the brain did a seemingly good job of regulating body fat composition, accumulating fat essential for survival during times of famine. Unfortunately, in our modern age of extreme food abundance, overeating is a common occurrence - often leading to obesity. With the brain still operating in evolutionary survival mode, this latest study, revealing NPGL as a brain chemical that regulates hunger and fat storage in mammals, has broad clinical and societal implications for the study and treatment of obesity and its associated diseases.

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Therapeutic cocktail could restore motor skills after spinal cord injury, stroke

After spinal cord injury or stroke, axons originating in the brain's cortex and along the spinal cord become damaged, disrupting motor skills. Now, according to new findings published today in Neuron, a team of scientists at Boston Children's Hospital has developed a method to promote axon regrowth after injury. The team developed a therapeutic cocktail of molecules, which they administered to mice with either a spinal cord injury or stroke and observed that the mice were able to recover fine motor skills. "In our lab for the first time we have a treatment that allowed the spinal cord injury and the stroke model to regain functional recovery," says senior author on the paper Zhigang He, PhD, of Boston Children's Hospital and Harvard Medical School. He's team designed the mixture by building off some of their earlier collaborative work with Dr. Joshua Sanes group at Harvard, in optical nerve injury, when they had observed that the combination of insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF1) and a protein called osteopontin (OPN) promoted nerve regrowth and vision improvement in optically-injured mice.

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Industrial-scale high-resolution brain mapping for neuroscience

Neuroscientists who painstakingly map the twists and turns of neural circuitry through the brain are about to see their field expand to an industrial scale. A huge facility set to open in Suzhou, China, next month should transform high-resolution brain mapping, its developers say. Where typical laboratories might use one or two brain-imaging systems, the new facility boasts 50 automated machines that can rapidly slice up a mouse brain, snap high-definition pictures of each slice and reconstruct those into a 3D picture. This factory-like scale will “dramatically accelerate progress”, says Hongkui Zeng, a molecular biologist at the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington, which is partnering with the centre...The institute, which will also image human brains, aims to be an international hub that will help researchers to map neural connectivity for everything from studies of Alzheimer’s disease to brain-inspired artificial-intelligence projects, says Qingming Luo, a researcher in biomedical imaging at the Huazhong University of Science and Technology (HUST) in Wuhan, China....Old maps often require months or years of effort. The process involves shaving centimetre-long mouse brains into 15,000 ultrathin slices with a diamond blade, staining each layer with chemicals or fluorescent tags to pick out particular features, imaging each layer with a microscope and then reconstructing the images into a 3D map. That’s where Luo’s institute can help. Its vast number of machines have impressive speed and resolution, collaborators say. According to Zeng, the devices can gather the same amount of detail on a mouse brain in two weeks as would require months using other technologies, such as super-resolution confocal imaging.

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“Alternative” medicine’s toll on cancer patients: Death rate up to 5X higher

Unproven alternative treatments are clearly risky. Some carry the risk of direct harms, such as improperly diluted homeopathic tablets, blinding stem cell injections, contaminated supplements, or tainted placenta pills. And others, such as magic healing crystals and useless detoxes, may risk indirect harm by taking the place of evidence-based treatments. However obvious the risks, measuring them has been tricky. For one thing, patients aren’t always eager to provide data, let alone admit to their doctors that they’ve ditched conventional therapies. But, by digging into the National Cancer database, researchers at Yale have finally quantified one type of risk for cancer patients—the risk of death. And the results are grim. Those who skipped or delayed conventional treatment to use alternative ones had as much as a 5.7-fold increased risk of dying within five years than those who stuck with conventional medicine, the researchers reported in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. Though the study was small and had several gaps—including not knowing the types of alternative treatments patients had tried—the researchers hope that it spurs discussion and “greater scrutiny of the use of [alternative medicine] for the initial treatment of cancer.”...Overall, those in the alternative treatment group were 2.5 times more likely to die within five years of treatment than the conventional group. But, that figure is dragged down by cases of prostate cancer, which tend to progress slowly. The researchers found no statistically significant difference in mortality risks among prostate cancer patients regardless of what types of treatments they chose. But, among patients with breast cancer, alternative medicine users were 5.7 times more likely to die within five years than their conventional counterparts. Those with colorectal cancer were 4.6 times more likely to die if they used alternative medicine. And those with lung cancer who opted for alternative medicine were 2.2 times more likely to die.

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It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s Microsoft using artificial intelligence to teach a machine to stay aloft

Paying attention to the “rise of the machines” increasingly means scanning the skies for things other than conventional aircraft or birds. But what if the line between the two begins to blur and autonomous planes can somehow be taught to mimic nature? That’s the hope of researchers from Microsoft who are using artificial intelligence to keep a sailplane aloft without the help of a motor. A new report on the Redmond, Wash.-based tech giant’s website details the efforts of scientists launching test flights in a Nevada desert. The researchers have found that through a complex set of AI algorithms, they can get their 16 1/2-foot, 12 1/2-pound aircraft to soar much like a hawk would, by identifying things like air temperature and wind direction to locate thermals — invisible columns of air that rise due to heat. “Birds do this seamlessly, and all they’re doing is harnessing nature. And they do it with a peanut-sized brain,” Ashish Kapoor, a principal researcher at Microsoft, said in the report.

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Working memory may compensate for lack of attention

A study shows that, when remembering a sequence of events, the brain focuses on the event paid the least attention, rather than replaying the events in the order they occurred. This finding suggests that attention during the initial encoding of a memory influences how information is manipulated in working memory.

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Andrew Ng is raising a $150M AI Fund

We knew that Andrew Ng had more than just a series of deep learning courses up his sleeve when he announced the first phase of his last week. It’s clear now that the turn of Ng’s three part act is a $150 million venture capital fund targeting AI investments. Ng, who formerly founded Google’s Brain Team and served as chief scientist at Baidu has long evangelized the benefits AI could bring to the world. During an earlier conversation, Ng told me that his personal goal is to help bring about an AI-powered society. It would follow that education via his deep learning classes is one step of that and providing capital and other resources is another....It’s unclear at this point how Ng’s AI Fund will differentiate from the pack. Many of these funds are putting time and resources into securing data sets, technical mentors and advanced simulation tools to support the unique needs of AI startups. Of course Ng’s name recognition and network should help ensure solid deal flow and enable Ng to poach and train talent for startups in need of scarce deep learning engineers.

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Has World GDP in current US dollars peaked?

World GDP in current US dollars is in some sense the simplest world GDP calculation that a person might make. It is calculated by taking the GDP for each year for each country in the local currency (for example, yen) and converting these GDP amounts to US dollars using the then-current relativity between the local currency and the US dollar. To get a world total, all a person needs to do is add together the GDP amounts for all of the individual countries. There is no inflation adjustment, so comparing GDP growth amounts calculated on this basis gives an indication regarding how the world economy is growing, inclusive of inflation. Calculation of GDP on this basis is also inclusive of changes in relativities to the US dollar. What has been concerning for the last couple of years is that World GDP on this basis is no longer growing robustly. In fact, it may even have started shrinking, with 2014 being the peak year. Figure 1 shows world GDP on a current US dollar basis, in a chart produced by the World Bank.

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Firmer, fitter frame linked to firmer, fitter brain

To determine why more aerobically fit individuals have better memories, scientists used magnetic resonance elastography (MRE), which measures the elasticity of organs, and found that fit individuals had a firmer, more elastic hippocampus—a region of the brain associated with memory. Scientists have observed that more aerobically fit individuals have better memories. To investigate this phenomenon, they used magnetic resonance elastography (MRE), which measures the firmness and elasticity of organs, and found that fit individuals had a firmer, more elastic hippocampus -- a region of the brain associated with memory. "Most of the work in this area has relied on changes in the size of the hippocampus as a measure of hippocampal health and function. However, in young adults, although we see an increase in memory in more aerobically fit individuals, we did not see differences in hippocampal size," said Barbey. "Because size is a gross measure of the structural integrity of the hippocampus, we turned to MRE, which provides a more thorough and qualitative measure of changes associated with function -- in this case memory." The investigators explained that MRE gives a better indication of the microstructure of the hippocampus -- the structural integrity of the entire tissue. And it does this by basically "bouncing" the organ, very gently, and measuring how it responds.

MRE is often described as being similar to a drop of water hitting a still pond to create the ripples that move out in all directions. A pillow under the subject's head generates harmless pulses, known as shear waves, that travel through the hippocampus. MRE instruments measure how the pulsed waves change as they move through the brain and those changes give an extremely accurate measure -- and a color-coded picture -- of the consistency of the tissue: soft, hard and stiff, or firm with some bounce or elasticity._

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