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Alt-week 4.7.13: Skylab II, reading your dreams and addiction fighting lasers

James Trew , @itstrew

Alt-week peels back the covers on some of the more curious sci-tech stories from the last seven days.

Evolution, devolution, review-lution. Okay, so we made that last one up. But if they ever do invent a machine that can re-view your dreams in full HD, we're betting that's what they'll be calling it. The even better news is that that's possibly not as crazy as it sounds as we learn this week. What week? Why, alt-week of course.

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Dreams are notoriously slippery customers, often popping like mental bubbles the moment we wake. New research, however, claims to be able to predict what you were seeing based on your nighttime neural patterns. By monitoring brain activity in awake subjects when being shown images, the team were able to compare the patterns with those taken during sleep. Importantly, the dreamer was woken shortly after the dream-scan was taken, and asked to describe what they saw. This would then be compared to the alert MRI records for further machine-learning models. Using these data, along with verbal and image databases the scientists were able to predict to some degree the type of images a dream contained. Worried about illicit agencies scooping up your most vulnerable, free running mental moments? Don't be. The work is nowhere near being able to determine color, let alone deeper aspects such as emotion. Likewise, the machine learning used is currently specific to each individual, but a more universal approach is hoped to be created at some point. Dreamy.

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Dreams are one thing, but this next story sounds like the stuff of nightmares. A new study claims to be able to turn cocaine addition off and on in rats with the use of lasers. Researchers at the National Institutes of Health and the Ernest Gallo Clinic and Research Center at UC San Francisco were able to switch off addictive behaviour in rats (and conversely, switch it on) by stimulating the prelimbic region of the prefrontal cortex. The study highlights the role that the prefrontal cortex plays in cocaine addiction, and also proposes a new (electromagnetic, rather than laser) therapy that could be tested in humans right away. Good news, too, as the rats had to have light-sensitive proteins inserted into neurones for this experiment to work. Something less popular with human subjects. Clinical trials are set to start soon at the NIH, with cocaine addicts receiving treatment called transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) a couple of times a week, with the aim of restoring functionality to that part of the brain, hopefully suppressing the impulse to take the drug.

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When NASA launched Skylab in 1973, it did so using a modified Saturn V moon rocket. Now, 30 years later, some researchers are suggesting that the new Space Launch System could be a good candidate for repurposing into a manned outpost in deep-space (beyond LEO / low-Earth Orbit). It's the upper-stage hydrogen propellant tank of the SLS that has been suggested as re-usable for a space station -- dubbed Skylab II -- capable of housing a crew of four. The tank section offers 17,481 cubic feet (495 cubic m) of space, comparable to a modest two storey house. Which is spacious if you put it next to the 14.8 feet (4.5 m) wide modules of the ISS. The knock-on benefit being that it would require less launches to construct, and benefit from an already in-place engineering process. These two factors alone are said to offer potentially significant financial savings. And let's face it... if you're potentially going to spend a few years cooped up at the furthest point man has yet to travel, we'd argue every extra square inch is greatly appreciated.

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Evolution is a long, delicate process. Nothing like the cut-throat, fast-moving world of software... is it? Well, new research suggests the two have more in common than you might initially think. Sergei Maslov of Brookhaven National Laboratory and Tin Yau Pang from Stony Brook University studied the "survival" of components in Linux distros compared to those in bacterial genomes. Essentially, they were looking for which bits of code, or genetic information were re-used, and passed along the generations. The results turned up some surprising parallels. It might seem obvious that the most useful elements, and those that other components depend on, will persist but Maslov and Pang also claim that they were able to predict the number of crucial components with a calculation that works whether the system is biological or technological (ie software). How long until yum list installed is adopted by the bacteria, however, is harder to predict.

Seen any other far-out articles that you'd like considered for Alt-week? Working on a project or research that's too cool to keep to yourself? Drop us a line at alt [at] engadget [dot] com.

[Image credits: BBC /, B.Chen / NIDA, Gearge G Simpson ]

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