This Week in Genius

We live in Boston, home to really smart people. So many, in fact, that sometimes their otherwise brilliant ideas are swallowed whole by the sea of incandescent brilliance (also known as the River Charles). Fortunately, we are here to rescue their genius from the depths of the dirty river.

In-gene-ious discovery
Researches at Harvard working at Children’s Hospital Boston have identified a half-dozen new genes in autism by studying large Middle Eastern families. Large families are ideal for mapping genes; in traditional Arab societies, it is common for cousins to marry (gross but true), increasing the likelihood that offspring will inherit rare mutations.

The genes discovered all seem to be part of a molecular network that refines brain connections in response to input from the outside world. This supports the idea that autism stems from disruptions in the brain’s ability to form these new connections. As a result, behavioral therapies, which expose children to a rich environment and highly repetitive activities, may help turn on dormant genes and strengthen brain connections.

iShoe keeps Grandma in step
An MIT grad student invented the “iShoe” insole, a foot-based instability detector originally designed to aid space-to-earth gravity adjustment stumbles. Pending a patent, the shoe accessory could alert doctors to off-kilter elderly patients, preventing hip fractures and other spill-related injuries. A future version of the shoe pad could actually cure these wipe outs by shooting sensory stimulants into unsteady soles. MIT is now testing the shoe on 60 people.

Making solar energy less painful, more pane-ful
By trapping the energy of sunlight as it shines through window panes, MIT Engineers have discovered a new way to harness natural power. The windows, called solar concentrators, collect light energy across the glass surface and pocket it at the pane’s corners. The MIT researchers hope to begin installing these solar concentrators as cheaper additions to rooftop solar-panel systems within three years.

Now you feel it, now you don’t
Just as optical illusions fool your sense of vision into seeing what’s not really there, a team of MIT, Harvard and McGill scientists have discovered the existence of sensory illusions that trick your sense of touch into feeling false motions. Imagine it this way: In an optical illusion you see the same pattern, after repeated viewings, in a different way. The same is true with this research. The more your skin is touched in the same pattern, the more likely you’ll feel the touches in a way that is different from what is actually happening.

Researchers don’t yet understand how the brain processes these illusions, but believe the discovery will lead to a better understanding of the relationship between the senses.

Under pressure
Tufts researchers discovered that abnormal blood vessels can be a major cause of high blood pressure, not just the kidneys, as was previously thought. The study used an altered form of protein that occurs naturally and causes smooth muscles in blood vessels to relax. The protein was engineered to not interact with a blood enzyme that dilates vessel walls, and therefore lowers blood pressure. This lack of communication between the proteins proved that there is a link between high blood pressure and molecular-level miscommunication. The findings are especially important to those who suffer from high blood pressure for seemingly no reason.

Edited by Julie Onufrak. Written by same, and several interns.