Is a cure for Alzheimer's just years away?
German researchers report in Science that they developed a drug that may combat Alzheimer's disease, a neurodegenerative disorder that affects some five million Americans. The new therapy targets beta-secretase, an enzyme on neurons around which plaques (buildups of a protein called beta-amyloid) cluster in the brain. (Such plaques are a hallmark of the disorder and their discovery in a postmortem brain is the only way to confirm that a person had the illness.) Researchers at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics and the pharmaceutical company JADO Technologies, both in Dresden, Germany, say their drug, which targets beta-secretase erased 50 percent of plaques in test fruit flies and mice within four hours of its administration. The team plans to do more animal testing and, if successful, conduct human trials within two years. (The Telegraph)

Ennui makes brains more likely to err
Bored? Beware: a new study shows that the brains of people engaged in dull, monotonous tasks go into "rest mode," increasing the risk that they'll make mistakes. A team of researchers from the University of Bergen in Norway reports in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA that functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) can predict whether a person will err up to 30 seconds before they slip up based on a shift in brain activity patterns. The researchers gave 13 volunteers a simple visual recognition task to complete while scanning their brains. Their findings: activity dropped in the prefrontal cortex--which is implicated in planning as well as in the organization of functions performed by other brain regions--but it jumped in a cluster of brain regions implicated in daydreaming known as the "default mode network." The Norwegian team hopes to develop a hat-like device that can sense this shift in brain activity and warn users to keep their minds on the tasks at hand. (BBC)

Bar hopping? Beware: Robot bouncer on patrol
Who needs beefy bikers to bounce the riffraff from your watering hole when an armed robot bristling with a water cannon is ready to do clean house? You don't, says environmental engineer, bar owner and ex-Marine Rufus Terrill, who built an electronic vigilante dubbed "Bum Bot" to protect his Atlanta tavern, O'Terrill's. The Associated Press reports that the waist-high robot, on the job since September, is built atop a three-wheel scooter and features a home-alarm loudspeaker attached to a walkie-talkie that allows Terrill to order vagrants to clear out of his bar from a safe distance. Bum Bot, remote-controlled and powered by four car batteries, has a spotlight, an infrared video camera (on which to capture would-be guests), an old home meat-smoker for a head, red taillights from a 1997 Chevrolet (that light up to let you know the robot is active) and a water cannon at the ready in the spinning turret on top. Local police have received no formal complaints about Terrill's use of the robot (although homeless advocates reportedly claim the contraption is being used to intimidate indigents in the vicinity). It can't be worse than Terrill's previous security tactic, which was to patrol the grounds with an assault rifle. Footage of the Bum Bot in action can be found on, where else, YouTube.

Biodiversity loss depletes human medicine chest
Aspirin comes from willow bark. The rosy periwinkle yields treatments for cancer, as does a yellow, branching coral found off the coast of Japan. But a new book warns that a host of potential future treatments for heart disease, bone loss, cancer and other ailments may be lost as plants and animal species become extinct at record rates. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) this week released Sustaining Life, which details some losses already suffered, such as a treatment for ulcers that disappeared with the southern gastric brooding frog, which raised its young in its stomach. "Habitat loss, destruction and degradation of ecosystems, pollution, overexploitation and climate change are among the powerful and persistent impacts that are running down the planet's nature-based capital," UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner said in a statement announcing the book's release. Who knew that humans could suffer when animals die out? Oh, right—we did.

Fake volcanoes would further damage weakened ozone layer
So-called geoengineering, one of many proposals to fend off global warming, calls for injecting tiny particles of sulfur paired with oxygen molecules into the stratosphere to mimic a major volcanic eruption. The theory: this would cool Earth similarly to the "year without a summer" in 1816, which followed the eruptions of Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia, along with other volcanoes the previous year. But scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., report in Science what many have suspected: such a scheme might cause more problems than it solves. For example, they say, injecting sulfate particles into the atmosphere would largely destroy the ozone layer over the Arctic and set back attempts to mend the "hole" that appears seasonally over the Antarctic. "Our research indicates that trying to artificially cool off the planet could have perilous side effects," says NCAR's Simone Tilmes. "While climate change is a major threat, more research is required before society attempts global geoengineering solutions."
(National Science Foundation, AFP)

NASA looking to create online role-playing game on the cheap
As if sending robots to Mars wasn't enough, NASA is hoping to capitalize on the popularity of massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) like World of Warcraft and EverQuest by creating its own virtual world to get kids excited about the space program (not to mention about science, technology, engineering and mathematics).  The catch: NASA does not plan to write the game itself, and anyone the agency hires for the job will have to sign a non-reimbursable Space Act Agreement. Translation: he or she won't get paid, at least not by the feds. In an article posted to gaming news site GameCyte, assistant news editor Sean Hollister wrote that NASA is spending the $2 million to pay educators and experts within the space agency to serve as advisors to the game's development. (Originally $3 million was earmarked for the project but was slashed when it was delayed.) Daniel Laughlin, project manager at NASA Learning Technologies, says the game's creator may not profit up front but will reap the benefits of retail sales. "If it were a government contract," Laughlin says, "it would be illegal to be paid twice, once by the government and a second time by consumers." Under the proposed agreement, in addition to getting NASA's official stamp of approval, the game could be sold in retail shops. Now all they need is the game (and to get people to Mars).

Stephen Hawking bullish on alien life, would like to visit it
Famed wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking told a crowd at George Washington University in the nation's capital this week that primitive extraterrestrial life (that is, the nonintelligent kind) is probably "very common." Hawking, 66, speaking on NASA's 50th anniversary, also renewed his plea for human exploration of the solar system and beyond, calling for a moon base by 2040 and research into new propulsion systems that would allow humans to set out for habitable exoplanets in coming centuries. He likened his vision to Christopher Columbus's 1492 voyage—but not to the colonizers who enslaved and killed the natives. Don't say nobody warned you, ET.

Smooth sailing toward a solar-wind sail
If Stephen Hawking can wait a few years, maybe he can hitch a ride into space on a solar-wind sail now being developed in Finland for short trips in the solar system. Invented two years ago, the propulsion system would deploy long, positively charged metallic tethers to get a push from the breeze of charged particles wafting from the sun. Researchers at the Finnish Meteorological Institute in Helsinki said they may have a small version, measuring five miles (eight kilometers) across, ready for a test flight in three years. Their optimism comes from a new method for welding thin metal wires into tethers that can withstand micrometeoroid impacts. Japan's space agency launched a clover-shaped solar sail in 2004.