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June 24, 2002 at 4:45 AM
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A NEW TOOL FOR EYE DOCTORS

The same technology that astronomers are using to sharpen the images from ground-based telescopes will give eye specialists a powerful new tool for studying and correcting human vision. Adaptive optics, as the technology is called, uses a laser beam reflected off the retina. The light passes out through the eye's optics and onto an array of tiny spots on a detector, producing a wavefront pattern that is like a fingerprint of the eye's optical defects. Researchers at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who developed the technology, said adaptive optics deliver a high resolution image of the different layers of cells within the retina, revealing nerve fibers, blood vessels and light receptors with great clarity. The imaging should greatly improve an eye doctor's ability to diagnose and monitor retinal diseases, including macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in the United States.


'KILLER' PROTEIN FIGHTS INFECTIONS

An international team of researchers has identified a protein that plays a critical role in the regulation of "natural killers cells" in the immune system's battle against disease. The protein, called SSPase, helps the body's T-cells "examine" protein fragments on a cell's surface. If the fragments are recognized as friendly, the T-cells move on. Otherwise, the fragments might mean the cell is harboring a virus or is making cancerous proteins, in which case the T-cells attack. Some virus and tumor cells circumvent the T-cells by hiding their disease-signaling proteins. As a countermeasure, the researchers found, SSPase regulates the natural killer cells, an elite unit that double-checks viruses and abnormal cells that try to bypass the immune system's first line of defense. The discovery might lead to drugs that boost the ability of all T-cells to fight cancer and deadly viruses such as HIV.


ENERGY EFFICIENT LOW-INCOME HOUSING

Oak Ridge National Laboratory researchers are helping to build up to 20 Habitat for Humanity houses with state-of-the-art energy efficient building technologies. The new houses -- which will showcase different technologies -- will provide living laboratories for developing integrated building systems, the researchers said. The homes are prototypes of a concept called "zero net energy design," which equips homes to produce more energy than they consume. Researchers are using technologies including solar photovoltaics, biomass-microturbines, fuel cells and thermal and electric storage. Their construction techniques also include structural insulated panels and raised metal-seamed roofs.


OUTGOING PEOPLE LIKE HAPPY FACES

The brains of outgoing people react more positively to happy faces than the brains of shy people, Stanford University researchers have found. Although scary things tend to affect everyone the same way, upbeat people's brains are more likely to react to something positive, such as a happy face. The research focused on the amygdala, a pea-sized area of the brain associated with threat evaluation that is found in the middle of the head behind the eyes. The amygdalas of all study subjects who were shown fearful faces lit up under MRIs. But when the subjects looked at happy faces, the amygdalas lit up more in people classified as extroverts in personality tests. "We think this is a nice example of the way the brain supports both universal human traits or characteristics, and variations that make one person different from the other," researchers said. "We don't know to what extent this is a cause or a consequence of your view of the world."


(Editors: For more information about ADAPTIVE OPTICS, contact Tim Stephens at 831-459-4352 or stephens@cats.ucsc.edu. For KILLER PROTEIN, Janet Wong at 416-978-5949 or jf.wong@utoronto.ca. For EFFICIENT HOUSING, Fred Strohl at 865-574-4165 or strohlhf@ornl.gov. For HAPPY FACES, Lisa Trei at 650-725-0224 or lisatrei@stanford.edu)

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