Tech and the science of dogs’ olfactory receptors combat avalanche threats
Two-and-a-half year-old Huckleberry, a blue merle Australian shepherd, pulls hard at her leash; her yelps can be heard by skiers and boarders high above on the chairlift that carries them over the ski patrol hut to the top of the mountain. Huckleberry is an avalanche rescue dog — or avy dog, for short. She lives and works with her owner and handler, a ski patroller at Breckenridge Ski Resort in Colorado. As she watches the trainer play a game of hide-and-seek with six-month-old Lume, a golden retriever and avy dog-in-training, Huckleberry continues to strain on her leash; she loves the game. Hide-and-seek is one of the key training methods for teaching avy dogs the rescue skills they need to find someone caught in an avalanche — skier, snowmobiler, hiker, climber.
Lume’s owner waves a T-shirt in front of the puppy. While another patroller holds him back, Lume’s owner runs away and hides. About a minute later — after a lot of barking — Lume is released and commanded to “search.” He springs free, running around the hut to find his owner who reacts with a great amount of excitement and fanfare. Lume’s scent training will continue for the rest of the ski season (Breckenridge plans operating through May or as long as weather permits) and through the off-season. “We make this game progressively harder by not allowing the dog watch the victim run away,” explains Dave Leffler, Breckenridge's ski patroller and head of the avy dog program, who has owned, trained and raised many of them. Eventually, the trainers “dig an open hole in the snow to duck out of sight and gradually turn the hole into a cave where the dog has to dig to get the victim,” explains Leffler.
By the time he is three, Lume, like Huckleberry, will be a fully trained avy pup and will join seven other avy dogs on Breckenridge ski patrol team. Some of the team members, both human and canine, are also certified to work with Colorado Rapid Avalanche Deployment, a coordinated response team that works with the Summit County Sheriff’s office for avalanche emergencies outside of the ski slopes’ boundaries.
There have been 19 avalanche deaths in the U.S. this season, according to avalanche.org, which tracks slides; eight in Colorado. During the entirety of last season there were 17. Avalanche season runs from November through June, but avalanches can occur year-round.
High tech and high stakes
Complementing avy dogs’ ability to smell people buried in a slide, avalanche detection, rescue and recovery is becoming increasingly high tech. There are transceivers, signal locators, ground scanners and drones, which are considered “games changers” by many in avalanche rescue and recovery
For a person buried in an avalanche, the chance of survival plummets after 20 minutes, so every moment counts.
A drone can provide thermal imaging of objects caught in a slide; what looks like a rock from far away might be a human with a heat signature. Transceivers, also known as beacons, send a signal from an avalanche victim to a companion. Signal locators, like RECCO reflectors which are often sewn directly into gear, can echo back a radar signal sent by a detector; most ski resorts have RECCO detector units.
Research suggests that Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR), an electromagnetic tool used by geophysicists to pull images from inside the ground, could be used to locate an avalanche victim. A new study from the Department of Energy’s Sandia National Laboratories suggests that a computer program developed to pinpoint the source of a chemical or biological terrorist attack could also be used to find someone submerged in an avalanche. The search algorithm allows for small robots (described as cockroach-sized) to “swarm” a search area. Researchers say that this distributed optimization algorithm can help find avalanche victims four times faster than current search mechanisms. For a person buried in an avalanche, the chance of survival plummets after 20 minutes, so every moment counts.
An avy dog in training is picking up scent
While rescue gear has been evolving, predicting when a slab will fall remains an emerging science — kind of where weather forecasting science was in the 1980s. Avalanche forecasting still relies on documenting avalanches by going out and looking,” says Ethan Greene, director of the Colorado Avalanche Information Center (CAIC). “So if there's a big snowstorm, and as you might remember, most avalanches happened during snowstorms, we could have 10,000 avalanches that release and we document 50,” says Greene. “Avalanche forecasting is essentially pattern recognition,” he adds--and understanding the layering structure of snow.
However, determining where the hazards lie can be tricky. While a dense layer of snow over a softer, weaker layer may be a recipe for an avalanche, there’s so much variability in snowpack that no one formula can predict the trigger. Further, observing and measuring snow at a single point may not be representative of all nearby slopes. Finally, there’s not enough historical data to help avalanche scientists create better prediction models.
That, however, may be changing.
Last year, an international group of researchers created computer simulations of snow cover using 16 years of meteorological data to forecast avalanche hazards, publishing their research in Cold Regions Science and Technology. They believe their models, which categorize different kinds of avalanches, can support forecasting and determine whether the avalanche is natural (caused by temperature changes, wind, additional snowfall) or artificial (triggered by a human or animal).
With smell receptors ranging from 800 million for an average dog, to 4 billion for scent hounds, canines remain key to finding people caught in slides.
With data from two sites in British Columbia and one in Switzerland, researchers built computer simulations of five different avalanche types. “In terms of real time avalanche forecasting, this has potential to fill in a lot of data gaps, where we don't have field observations of what the snow looks like,” says Simon Horton, a postdoctoral fellow with the Simon Fraser University Centre for Natural Hazards Research and a forecaster with Avalanche Canada, who participated in the study. While complex models that simulate snowpack layers have been around for a few decades, they weren’t easy to apply until recently. “It's been difficult to find out how to apply that to actual decision-making and improving safety,” says Horton. If you can derive avalanche problem types from simulated snowpack properties, he says, you’ll learn “a lot about how you want to manage that risk.”
The five categories include “new snow,” which is unstable and slides down the slope, “wet snow,” when rain or heat makes it liquidly, as well as “wind-drifted snow,” “persistent weak layers” and “old snow.” “That's when there's some type of deeply buried weak layer in the snow that releases without any real change in the weather,” Horton explains. “These ones tend to cause the most accidents.” One step by a person on that structurally weak layer of snow will cause a slide. Horton is hopeful that computer simulations of avalanche types can be used by scientists in different snow climates to help predict hazard levels.
Greene is doubtful. “If you have six slopes that are lined up next to each other, and you're going to try to predict which one avalanches and the exact dimensions and what time, that's going to be really hard to do. And I think it's going to be a long time before we're able to do that,” says Greene.
What both researchers do agree on, though, is that what avalanche prediction really needs is better imagery through satellite detection. “Just being able to count the number of avalanches that are out there will have a huge impact on what we do,” Greene says. “[Satellites] will change what we do, dramatically.” In a 2022 paper, scientists at the University of Aberdeen in England used satellites to study two deadly Himalayan avalanches. The imaging helped them determine that sediment from a 2016 ice avalanche plus subsequent snow avalanches contributed to the 2021 avalanche that caused a flash flood, killing over 200 people. The researchers say that understanding the avalanches characteristics through satellite imagery can inform them how one such event increases the magnitude of another in the same area.
Avy dogs trainers hide in dug-out holes in the snow, teaching the dogs to find buried victims
Lifesaving combo: human tech and Mother Nature’s gear
Even as avalanche forecasting evolves, dogs with their built-in rescue mechanisms will remain invaluable. With smell receptors ranging from 800 million for an average dog, to 4 billion for scent hounds, canines remain key to finding people caught in slides. (Humans in comparison, have a meager 12 million.) A new study published in the Journal of Neuroscience revealed that in dogs smell and vision are connected in the brain, which has not been found in other animals. “They can detect the smell of their owner's fingerprints on a glass slide six weeks after they touched it,” says Nicholas Dodman, professor emeritus at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University. “And they can track from a boat where a box filled with meat was buried in the water, 100 feet below,” says Dodman, who is also co-founder and president of the Center for Canine Behavior Studies.
Another recent study from Queens College in Belfast, United Kingdom, further confirms that dogs can smell when humans are stressed. They can also detect the smell of a person’s breath and the smell of the skin cells of a deceased person.
The emerging avalanche-predicting human-made tech and the incredible nature-made tech of dogs’ olfactory talents is the lifesaving “equipment” that Leffler believes in. Even when human-made technology develops further, it will be most efficient when used together with the millions of dogs’ smell receptors, Leffler believes. “It is a combination of technology and the avalanche dog that will always be effective in finding an avalanche victim.”
Inside the Atlantis Space Shuttle, astronauts waited for liftoff. At T-minus six seconds, the main engines ignited, rattling the capsule “like a skyscraper in an earthquake,” according to astronaut Tom Jones, describing the 1988 launch in Air & Space Magazine. Liftoff came with what felt like “a massive kick in the back,” he recalled, along with more shaking. As the rocket accelerated to three times the force of gravity on Earth, “It felt as if two of my friends were standing on my chest and wouldn’t get off!” Finally, at 25 times the speed of sound, Atlantis reached orbit. The main engines cut off, and the astronauts were weightless.
Since 1961, NASA has sent hundreds of astronauts into space while working to making their voyages safer and smoother. Yet, challenges remain. Weightlessness may look amusing when watched from Earth, but it has myriad effects on cognition, movement and other functions. When missions to space stretch to six months or longer, microgravity can harm astronauts’ health and performance, making it more difficult to operate their spacecraft.
Yesterday, NASA astronaut Frank Rubio returned to Earth after over one year, the longest single spaceflight for a U.S. astronaut. But this is just the start; longer and more complex missions into deep space loom ahead, from returning to the moon in 2025 to eventually sending humans to Mars. Understanding how spaceflight affects the body is vital to success. By studying these impacts, NASA aims to help astronauts perform in space as well as they do on Earth.
The dangers of microgravity are real
A NASA report published in 2016 details a long list of incidents and near-misses caused – at least partly – by space-induced changes in astronauts’ vision and coordination. These issues make it harder to move with precision and to judge distance and velocity.
According to the report, in 1997, a resupply ship collided with the Mir space station, possibly because a crew member bumped into the commander during the final docking maneuver. This mishap caused significant damage to the space station.
Returns to Earth suffered from problems, too. The same report notes that touchdown speeds during the first 100 space shuttle landings were “outside acceptable limits. The fastest landing on record – 224 knots (258 miles) per hour – was linked to the commander’s momentary spatial disorientation.” Earlier, each of the six Apollo crews that landed on the moon had difficulty recognizing moon landmarks and estimating distances. For example, Apollo 15 landed in an unplanned area, ultimately straddling the rim of a five-foot deep crater on the moon, harming one of its engines.
Spaceflight causes unique stresses on astronauts’ brains and central nervous systems. NASA is working to reduce these harmful effects.
Space messes up your brain
In space, astronauts face the challenges of microgravity, ionizing radiation, social isolation, high workloads, altered circadian rhythms, monotony, confined living quarters and a high-risk environment. Among these issues, microgravity is one of the most consequential in terms of physiological changes. It changes the brain’s structure and its functioning, which can hurt astronauts’ performance.
The brain shifts upwards within the skull, displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes.
That’s partly because of how being in space alters blood flow. On Earth, gravity pulls our blood and other internal fluids toward our feet, but our circulatory valves ensure that the fluids are evenly distributed throughout the body. In space, there’s not enough gravity to pull the fluids down, and they shift up, says Rachael D. Seidler, a physiologist specializing in spaceflight at the University of Florida and principal investigator on many space-related studies. The head swells and legs appear thinner, causing what astronauts call “puffy face chicken legs.”
“The brain changes at the structural and functional level,” says Steven Jillings, equilibrium and aerospace researcher at the University of Antwerp in Belgium. “The brain shifts upwards within the skull,” displacing the cerebrospinal fluid, which reduces the brain’s cushioning. Essentially, the brain becomes crowded inside the skull like a pair of too-tight shoes. Some of the displaced cerebrospinal fluid goes into cavities within the brain, called ventricles, enlarging them. “The remaining fluids pool near the chest and heart,” explains Jillings. After 12 consecutive months in space, one astronaut had a ventricle that was 25 percent larger than before the mission.
Some changes reverse themselves while others persist for a while. An example of a longer-lasting problem is spaceflight-induced neuro-ocular syndrome, which results in near-sightedness and pressure inside the skull. A study of approximately 300 astronauts shows near-sightedness affects about 60 percent of astronauts after long missions on the International Space Station (ISS) and more than 25 percent after spaceflights of only a few weeks.
Another long-term change could be the decreased ability of cerebrospinal fluid to clear waste products from the brain, Seidler says. That’s because compressing the brain also compresses its waste-removing glymphatic pathways, resulting in inflammation, vulnerability to injuries and worsening its overall health.
The effects of long space missions were best demonstrated on astronaut twins Scott and Mark Kelly. This NASA Twins Study showed multiple, perhaps permanent, changes in Scott after his 340-day mission aboard the ISS, compared to Mark, who remained on Earth. The differences included declines in Scott’s speed, accuracy and cognitive abilities that persisted longer than six months after returning to Earth in March 2016.
By the end of 2020, Scott’s cognitive abilities improved, but structural and physiological changes to his eyes still remained, he said in a BBC interview.
“It seems clear that the upward shift of the brain and compression of the surrounding tissues with ventricular expansion might not be a good thing,” Seidler says. “But, at this point, the long-term consequences to brain health and human performance are not really known.”
NASA astronaut Kate Rubins conducts a session for the Neuromapping investigation.
Staying sharp in space
To investigate how prolonged space travel affects the brain, NASA launched a new initiative called the Complement of Integrated Protocols for Human Exploration Research (CIPHER). “CIPHER investigates how long-duration spaceflight affects both brain structure and function,” says neurobehavioral scientist Mathias Basner at the University of Pennsylvania, a principal investigator for several NASA studies. “Through it, we can find out how the brain adapts to the spaceflight environment and how certain brain regions (behave) differently after – relative to before – the mission.”
To do this, he says, “Astronauts will perform NASA’s cognition test battery before, during and after six- to 12-month missions, and will also perform the same test battery in an MRI scanner before and after the mission. We have to make sure we better understand the functional consequences of spaceflight on the human brain before we can send humans safely to the moon and, especially, to Mars.”
As we go deeper into space, astronauts cognitive and physical functions will be even more important. “A trip to Mars will take about one year…and will introduce long communication delays,” Seidler says. “If you are on that mission and have a problem, it may take eight to 10 minutes for your message to reach mission control, and another eight to 10 minutes for the response to get back to you.” In an emergency situation, that may be too late for the response to matter.
“On a mission to Mars, astronauts will be exposed to stressors for unprecedented amounts of time,” Basner says. To counter them, NASA is considering the continuous use of artificial gravity during the journey, and Seidler is studying whether artificial gravity can reduce the harmful effects of microgravity. Some scientists are looking at precision brain stimulation as a way to improve memory and reduce anxiety due to prolonged exposure to radiation in space.
To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Additionally, NASA is scrutinizing each aspect of the mission, including astronaut exercise, nutrition and intellectual engagement. “We need to give astronauts meaningful work. We need to stimulate their sensory, cognitive and other systems appropriately,” Basner says, especially given their extreme confinement and isolation. The scientific experiments performed on the ISS – like studying how microgravity affects the ability of tissue to regenerate is a good example.
“We need to keep them engaged socially, too,” he continues. The ISS crew, for example, regularly broadcasts from space and answers prerecorded questions from students on Earth, and can engage with social media in real time. And, despite tight quarters, NASA is ensuring the crew capsule and living quarters on the moon or Mars include private space, which is critical for good mental health.
Exploring deep space builds on a foundation that began when astronauts first left the planet. With each mission, scientists learn more about spaceflight effects on astronauts’ bodies. NASA will be using these lessons to succeed with its plans to build science stations on the moon and, eventually, Mars.
“Through internally and externally led research, investigations implemented in space and in spaceflight simulations on Earth, we are striving to reduce the likelihood and potential impacts of neurostructural changes in future, extended spaceflight,” summarizes NASA scientist Alexandra Whitmire. To boldly go where no astronauts have gone before, they must have optimal reflexes, vision and decision-making. In the era of deep space exploration, the brain—without a doubt—is the final frontier.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.