2007 April 29 Sunday
60% Cancer Drop From Vitamin D Supplements

As regular readers know, I've been after you for years to raise your body vitamin D levels. If you haven't gotten off your duff yet to do anything about it how about this as something to get you going? A study coming out in June will report a more than halving of the incidence of cancer by taking vitamin D supplements.

But perhaps the biggest bombshell about vitamin D's effects is about to go off. In June, U.S. researchers will announce the first direct link between cancer prevention and the sunshine vitamin. Their results are nothing short of astounding.

A four-year clinical trial involving 1,200 women found those taking the vitamin had about a 60-per-cent reduction in cancer incidence, compared with those who didn't take it, a drop so large — twice the impact on cancer attributed to smoking — it almost looks like a typographical error.

How many people have doctors killed by advocating the avoidance of sun due to the risk of skin cancer?

How much would life expectancies rise if everyone got enough vitamin D?

One of the researchers who made the discovery, professor of medicine Robert Heaney of Creighton University in Nebraska, says vitamin D deficiency is showing up in so many illnesses besides cancer that nearly all disease figures in Canada and the U.S. will need to be re-evaluated. "We don't really know what the status of chronic disease is in the North American population," he said, "until we normalize vitamin D status."

Vitamin D could buy us some extra years while we try to stay alive waiting for rejuvenation therapies.

People are especially deficient during the winter.

Last month, a study of 7,500 men and women found that most don't have enough vitamin D in their bloodstream for at least six months of the year.

'By Easter, 90 per cent of the population are seriously depleted in the amount of vitamin D they have in their bodies,' says author of the study Dr Elina Hypponnen, of the Institute of Child Health in London.

As we get older and our skin ages it becomes less efficient at using light to catalyze the synthesis of vitamin D. So part of the rise in incidence of vitamin D with age is probably caused by worsening vitamin D deficiency.

Vitamin D might do what Linus Pauling claimed vitamin C could do: reduce the incidence of infections.

The malign consequences have been revealed by in a study from the United States which shows that boosting vitamin D may be the most effective way of warding off infections that cause winter colds.

The authors, from Winthrop University Hospital, Mineola, New York, who publish their findings in the journal Epidemiology and Infection, say vitamin D stimulates "innate immunity" by activating peptides in the body that attack bacteria, fungi and viruses.

"Vitamin D supplementation, particularly with higher doses, may protect against the typical winter cold and flu ... Since there is an epidemic of vitamin D insufficiency in the US, the public health impact of this observation could be great," they write.

Vitamin D deficiency is also linked to a higher incidence of auto-immune diseases. For example, multiple sclerosis occurs at higher rates in the more northern regions of North America where people get less sun in the winter due to both cold and shorter days.

The current max recommended limit of 2000 IU per day might be too low.

Calls to increase vitamin D intake have been growing. Indeed, only recently fifteen experts from universities, research institutes, and university hospitals around the world called for international agencies to "reassess as a matter of high priority" dietary recommendations for vitamin D because current advice is outdated and puts the public at risk of deficiency (The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, Vol. 85, pp. 860-868).

A recent review of the science reported that the tolerable upper intake level for oral vitamin D3 should be increased five-fold, from the current tolerable upper intake level (UL) in Europe and the US of 2000 International Units (IU), equivalent to 50 micrograms per day, to 10,000 IU (250 micrograms per day).

I would suggest refraining from doses above 2000 IU, at least for now. Vitamin D research has become such a hot topic that we should expect more clarification on the risks and benefits of higher doses. But my guess from what I've read so far is that a 2000 IU dose daily is enough to provide the vast majority of the benefit.

Also see some of my previous posts on vitamin D: Vitamin D Could Decrease Overall Cancer Risk 30%, Higher Vitamin D Reduces Aging Bone Fracture Risks, Vitamin D Reduces Breast Cancer Risk, Vitamin D Crucial For Long Term Lung Health, and Vitamin D Confirmed To Reduce Multiple Sclerosis Risk.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 29 07:46 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Aubrey de Grey: We Should View Aging As Curable

Reason at Longevity Meme points to a new paper by biogerontologist Aubrey de Grey where Aubrey argues that biogerontology's ultimate goal should be the defeat of processes which cause aging. We should view aging as ultimately curable just as cancer researchers view cancer as ultimately curable.

An interesting position paper from Aubrey de Grey via the Annals of the NYAS: "The early days of biogerontology were blessed with an undiluted forthrightness concerning the field's ultimate goals, epitomized by its leaders. Luminaries from Pearl to Comfort to Strehler declared the desirability of eliminating aging with no more diffidence than that with which today's oncologists aver that they seek a cure for cancer. The field's subsequent retreat from this position garnered a modicum of political acceptability and public financial support, but all biogerontologists agree that this fell, and continues to fall, vastly short of the funding that the prospect of even a modest postponement of aging would logically justify. "

Aubrey goes on to point out that the last 20 years of advances in genetic manipulations that extended life of model organisms make the prospect of reversing aging a lot easier to imagine as doable. I would go further and argue that the general advance in biotechnology, with the continuing development of much more powerful tools to measure and manipulate biological systems at the molecular level, makes the idea of rejuvenation seem much more attainable.

The nature of general line of advance in biotechnology (e.g. in microfluidics and in nanotechnology) should lead us to expect orders of magnitude more powerful tools in a couple of decades. Just as the shrinking size computer technology allows computer chips, hard drives, fiber optics, and transceivers to go through long series of doublings in capability so does the miniaturized level at which biological instrumentation advances.

Why shouldn't we treat aging as curable? The amazing physicist Richard Feynman gave a speech in 1959 entitled There is plenty of room at the bottom where he argued that we can develop the ability to manipulate matter at the molecular level. A continuing trend in technology since that speech has been the development of tools to better measure and manipulate increasingly smaller amounts of material. That trend made possible the sequencing of whole genomes and will eventually make possible sequencing of each person's genome for a very low cost. That trend is also going to lead to technology that allows us to make nanodevices that can repair human tissue at the level of individual cells and molecules.

Given this miniaturization trend and how far Feynman thought it can go I do not see why rejuvenation therapies are either impossible or a distant prospect. For many parts of our bodies we will develop the means to grow replacement parts. For other parts we will develop the means to send in stem cells to replace lost cells. For still other parts we will develop the ability to repair individual cells using gene therapy, nanodevices, and other methods. We need to start looking at aging as curable and start demanding bigger efforts to develop the cures.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 29 04:00 PM  Aging Debate
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Conjugated Linoleic Acid Boosts Inflammation Markers

Things that boost the level of inflammation in human bodies generally accelerate aging and are to be avoided. With that in mind, the popular use of conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) to take off fat might be a bad idea. In a controlled trial CLA lowered the good HDL cholesterol but boosted some markers for inflammation such as C-Reactive Protein (CRP).

Lean body mass increased by 0.64 kg in the 6.4 g/d CLA group (P < 0.05) after 12 wk of intervention. Significant decreases in serum HDL-cholesterol and sodium, hemoglobin, and hematocrit, and significant increases in serum alkaline phosphatase, C-reactive protein, and IL-6, and white blood cells occurred in the 6.4 g/d CLA group, although all values remained within normal limits. The intervention was well tolerated and no severe adverse events were reported, although mild gastrointestinal adverse events were reported in all treatment groups. In conclusion, whereas CLA may increase lean body mass in obese humans, it may also increase markers of inflammation in the short term.

Anyone taking CLA or thinking of doing so ought to think twice.

The study had pretty good controls.

Susan Steck (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA) and colleagues performed a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial among 48 adults who were obese but otherwise healthy.

I'd love to see the equivalent of this trial performed for a very large assortment of foods and supplements. Which foods raise HDL, lower inflammation, and maybe even reduce body fat? So an foods exist which provide benefits on all these measures at once?

By Randall Parker 2007 April 29 01:02 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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Creation Of North Atlantic Melted Ice Caps?

The creation of the North Atlantic Ocean might have spewed so much carbon dioxide that it toasted the Arctic ice covering.

Michael Storey at Roskilde University in Denmark and colleagues have found evidence that a huge volcanic eruption, 55 million years ago, unleashed so much greenhouse gas into the atmosphere that world temperatures rose by as much as 8°C – with the Arctic ocean reaching a toasty 25°C.

So then did polar bears evolve since then? Ditto for some of the other North American and Northern Russian cold weather animals?

Massive volcanic eruptions are a much bigger threat to humanity than asteroids. For the asteroid threat we could (if we were wiser) develop excellent systems for detecting and deflecting asteroids. But I doubt that we can do much to prevent massive eruptions (though if anyone has any ideas on that please post in the comments).

If geological scientists could predict a massive volcanic eruption on some part of the Earth I would take that prediction as an argument for a massive nuclear reactor construction project in other parts of the globe. In the early stages of eruption light from the sun would get blocked out. So solar panels would become worthless and the planet would become really cold. Later the planet might go through a big warming as Michael Storey thinks happened before. But first we'd need to survive the very cold and dark period. Nukes would help on that score.

The farther out a volcanic eruption prediction could be made the more we could do to reduce the loss of life. We could stockpile food and medicine, move people away from the eruption area, build cold weather shelters, and build nuclear power plants.

How big can a volcanic eruption get? Tambora in 1815 spewed 100 times as much as Mt. St. Helens in 1980 but Toba about 71,000 years ago spewed 2800 times as much as Mt. St. Helens. Toba's 2800 sq. km. spew is not the biggest in history. Note that the Yellowstone Caldera could become a supervolcano again and the current US territory has been the site of other supervolcanoes, including one that spewed up 5000 sq. km. of stuff.

Update: The scientists who conducted this research see it as evidence that a big spike in CO2 and methane can cause global warming.

The Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum, or PETM, was a period of intense warming that lasted roughly 220,000 years. In addition to the warming of sea surface waters, this event – characterized by scientists as a "planetary emergency" – also greatly increased the acidification of the world’s oceans and led to the extinction of numerous deep-sea species.

Warming periods in Earth’s history are of interest as analogs to today’s climate change, Duncan said.

The international science team was able to link the PETM with the breakup of Greenland from northern Europe through analyzing the ash layers deposited toward the end of the peak of the volcanic eruptions. Using chemical fingerprints and identical ages, they were able to positively match ash layers in east Greenland with those in marine sediments in the Atlantic Ocean.

"We think the first volcanic eruptions began about 61 million years ago and then it took another 5 million years for the mantle to weaken, the continent to thin and the molten material to rise to the surface," Duncan said. "It was like lifting a lid. The plate came apart and gave birth to the North Atlantic Ocean."

If the human race doesn't get wiped out by robots, nanotech replicators, or an invading alien species then at some point we are going to need to do large scale climate engineering to compensate for future periods of intense volcanic activity.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 29 12:54 PM  Dangers Natural Geological
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2007 April 26 Thursday
China Greenhouse Emissions Pass US In 2007 or 2008

International Energy Agency chief economist Fatih Birol says China will surpass the United States in greenhouse gas emissions in 2007 or 2008 at the latest.

Mr Birol, of the Paris-based IEA, which advises governments on energy policy, said: "China's economic growth and use of coal production over the last few months has surprised us all.

"If they continue to surprise us in terms of very high economic growth and corresponding coal production, China will overtake the US much earlier than 2009 - more like this year or the next."

China doesn't just overtake the United States and then stop. In 10 years time China's emissions might be double the US. Think about what that means. Projections of future atmospheric CO2 concentrations might be low. Efforts of industrialized countries to reduce emissions might get more than cancelled out by growth in China, India, and other Asian developing countries.

China is turning on a new coal-fired electric power plant once every 4 days.

Latest data shows China is building a coal-fired power plant every four days, British foreign ministry official John Ashton said on Monday.

China's rate of coal plant construction could even accelerate as compounding effects of economic growth increase the absolute amount of economic growth per year.

The attempt by European countries to decrease carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions counts for little compared to China's rapid expansion in coal mining and burning.

Growth in the emerging Asian giant's emissions puts in perspective Western efforts to fight climate change, Birol said.

"What we do in Europe may be with good intentions, may be very ethical... but if you put it in terms of numbers its meaning is very limited."

The international treaty approach to emissions is not going to work. The less developed countries are basically arguing that the more developed have polluted so much and the less developed are basically saying "you should stop so we can have our turn".

Poorer people are less concerned about pollution than richer people. Poorer people want more stuff. Richer people have enough stuff that they turn more of their attention to fulfilling other desires such as better esthetics and health.

In China the levels of conventional pollutants are way higher than what you'll find in industrialized countries. The Chinese aren't going to find it in themselves to care about CO2 emissions. They haven't even yet placed much importance on conventional pollutants which have much direct and immediate effects on health.

If human-caused global warming is a problem then the most efficacious way to slow and reverse CO2 emissions is to greatly accelerate the rate of development of clean energy technologies. The Chinese would give up coal and embrace cleaner sources of energy if those cleaner sources were cheaper than coal. Sufficiently advanced technologies will lower the costs of photovoltaics, wind, nuclear, and other non-fossil fuel energy sources. Prices will drop so far that market forces alone will cause a phase-out of fossil fuels use.

Clean energy technologies that cost less will provide many benefits. Even if you count yourself a global warming skeptic keep in mind that cheaper clean energy technologies will reduce conventional pollution. Also, lower costs mean higher living standards and less money sent to the Middle Eastern Muslim oil sheikdoms.

Some populations will subject themselves to carbon taxes and other costs to lower carbon dioxide emissions. But most won't. Even the countries that have imposed higher energy prices on themselves have limits to how far they'll go to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But cheap ways to produce clean energy could solve this problem. We need a big push to develop the needed technologies.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 26 10:44 PM  Energy Policy
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2007 April 25 Wednesday
Low Vitamin D Speeds Muscle Decline In Old Age?

Low levels of vitamin D might accelerate aging.

For the current study, researchers analyzed data from the InCHIANTI study, which evaluated factors contributing to the decline of mobility in late life. The study involved 976 people who were 65 years and older from two towns in the Chianti area of Italy. The mean age of participants was 74.8 years. Data were collected from Sept. 1998 through March 2000.

Participants completed a short physical performance test of their walking speed, ability to stand from a chair and ability to maintain their balance in progressively more challenging positions. In addition, handgrip strength, a predictor of future disability, was measured using a hand-held dynamometer.

The researchers found that physical performance and grip strength were about five to 10 percent lower in those who had low levels of vitamin D. After looking at other variables that could influence the results, such as body mass index, physical activity, the season of the year, mental abilities, health conditions and anemia, the results held true.

The study wasn’t designed to evaluate whether low vitamin D levels actually cause poor physical performance, but the results suggest the need for additional research in this area, said Houston. She said vitamin D plays an important role in muscle function, so it is plausible that low levels of the vitamin could result in lower muscle strength and physical performance.

“But it’s also possible that those with poor physical performance had less exposure to sunlight resulting in low vitamin D levels,” she said.

Current recommended daily intake for vitamin D might be too low.

Current recommendations call for people from age 50 to 69 to get 400 international units (IUs) of vitamin D per day and for those over age 70 to get 600 IUs. Many researchers, however, suggest that higher amounts may be needed.

“Higher amounts of vitamin D may be needed for the preservation of muscle strength and physical function as well as other conditions such as cancer prevention,” said Houston. “The current recommendations are based primarily on vitamin D’s effects on bone health.”

We spend less time outside than our ancestors did. It seems likely we do not make enough vitamin D from sun exposure. At the same time, many of us do not get much vitamin D from foods. So vitamin D deficiency might be common.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 25 10:59 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2007 April 24 Tuesday
Brain Scans To Pose Ethical Questions On Preemption Of Crimes?

Brain scans show that psychopaths are not like the rest of us in how their brains work.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers in the United States, Germany, and elsewhere have started taking scans of the brains of psychopaths while the patients view horrific images, such as photographs of bloody stabbings, shootings, or evisceration. When normal people view these images, fMRI scans light up to indicate heavy brain activity in sections of the emotion-generating limbic system, primarily the amygdala, which is believed to generate feelings of empathy. But in psychopathic patients, these sections of the amygdala remain dark, showing greatly reduced activity or none at all. This phenomenon, known as limbic underactivation, may indicate that some of these people lack the ability to generate the basic emotions that keep primitive killer instincts in check.

Should we use information from brain scans and other measurement methods to identify people to preemptively target before they commit crimes? Some day scientific measures will probably allow us to calculate different odds for each person on whether the person will kill or rape or molest children or otherwise violate the rights of others. How should we use the future ability to perform those odds calculations? I think the answer depends on a number of factors:

1) The cost of the preemptive action for us and those who feel its effects.

2) The efficacy of the preemptive action. How much would a given preemptive action reduce the odds of a person from committing rape, assault, theft, etc.

3) The avoided costs of whatever might be prevented. The costs depend on the potential crime(s) that a given person has a propensity to commit. But then what price tag to put on, say, a rape avoided?

4) The accuracy of the odds prediction. How high would the odds and the accuracy of the odds have to be to make you think the odds warrant action by the state against a currently innocent person?

5) The costs of identification of threats. Brain scans, blood tests, gene tests, and other tests will cost money to perform.

What sorts of preemptive actions to use? I can think of a lot of actions aside from preemptive imprisonment: For example:

A) Talk therapy. But would it help?

B) Drugs or other treatments that reduce violent behavior. Note that the power of these treatments will go up as biotechnology and medicine advance.

C) Exile. This can be from a country or a region or specific neighborhoods. For example, imagine an island to ship potential pedophiles to where there are no children.

D) Tracking bracelets. For example, track when a potential pedophile goes near a playground or school. Or track when a potential murderer is parked along a street at night watching.

E) Warn the neighbors. That way they can arm and otherwise protect themselves appropriately.

F) Outlaw the creation of offspring that carry genes that'll make them high risks to become murderers, rapists, etc. This intervention requires the existence of technology for offspring genetic engineering. That technology will come in 10 or at most 20 years.

Are you philosophically opposed to all preemption guided by the results of brain scans, genetic tests, and other methods of measurement? Or do you see it as valuable and worthwhile under some circumstances?

By Randall Parker 2007 April 24 11:10 PM  Brain Ethics Law
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Solar Energy Creates Chemical Energy

The ability to use solar power to generate liquid carbon-based fuels has the potential to generate energy for transportation much more efficiently than biomass, without biomass's water limitation, and with a much smaller land footprint. With all that in mind, some UCSD researchers have used solar power to partially reduce carbon dioxide.

Chemists have shown that it is possible to use solar energy, paired with the right catalyst, to convert carbon dioxide into a raw material for making a wide range of products, including plastics and gasoline.

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), recently demonstrated that light absorbed and converted into electricity by a silicon electrode can help drive a reaction that converts carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen. Carbon monoxide is a valuable commodity chemical that is widely used to make plastics and other products, says Clifford Kubiak, professor of chemistry at UCSD. It is also a key ingredient in a process for making synthetic fuels, including syngas (a mixture largely of carbon monoxide and hydrogen), methanol, and gasoline.

A method to attach hydrogens to the carbon, totally displacing the oxygen, would produce hydrocarbons. Hook them up into long enough chains and the hydrocarbons become liquid at room temperature. Then you can put it in a gas tank and cruise.

A cheap method to use of solar power to create chemical feedstocks and liquid fuels would solve one of solar's biggest problems: the sun does not always shine. We could use nuclear power as baseload electric power. Then use solar power to create liquid fuels. That could entirely break our dependence on fossil fuels.

Given a sufficiently advanced and cheap enough battery technology we could use solar or nuclear power to charge batteries for transportation. But batteries are not the only potential way to use solar power for transportation. Solar power could run chemical processes to produce liquid fuels too.

If we could produce all our liquid hydrocarbon fuels from carbon dioxide extracted from the atmosphere then burning of liquid hydrocarbons would no longer increase atmospheric carbon dioxide. Instead we'd have an artificial carbon cycle in parallel with the natural carbon cycle.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 24 10:52 PM  Energy Solar
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2007 April 23 Monday
Green Energy Means Power Lines Across Parks

Daniel B. Wood of the Christian Science Monitor reports on an environmental fight in California about "green" energy that requires ruination of beautiful views.

Los Angeles - California and the city of Los Angeles have set an ambitious goal for 'greener' power: obtain 20 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2010.

But to do that difficult decisions need to be made. Wind, solar, and geothermal electric power produced in the rural reaches of the state must be somehow be transported to faraway cities – meaning some transmission lines must cut through national forests, wildlife refuges, and other treasured land areas.

Solar panels require the expanse and cloudless climes of desert areas, wind requires the funneling effect of mountain passes, and geothermal power is derived from hot or steamed water underground.

Daniel Wood then raises the important question:

But how does the city get the energy to where it's needed without spoiling the pristine environments that it's trying to preserve?

Ooo, Ooo! I know! Do you? Obvious, isn't it? The pristine environments don't get preserved. Sorry.

If the city of Los Angeles wants power that doesn't require covering large areas of the desert with solar panels or wind towers and which doesn't require towers that cut across beautiful parklands then they ought to build some nuclear reactors near downtown. But nuclear power is taboo among most greenies. So here come the power lines across forests and land areas with lots of wind towers. It is all done in the name of environmental protection.

What does a growing population, expanding economy, and a legislature's demand for "green" power mean? Lots of power lines cutting across scenic vistas.

California is fast-tracking several big alternative-energy projects in the southernmost quarter of the state costing $4 billion. A proposal to build power lines, substations, and transmission towers through a national forest, two wildlife preserves, and a rural village used in TV and cinema westerns has provoked the ire of environmental groups even as authorities say no final decisions have been made.

Local renewable energy requires technological advances. Cheap photovoltaics with high conversion efficiency plus a cheap way to store the electricity for night use could allow use of building surfaces as electric generators rather than rural land areas. High efficiency photovoltaics would also avoid the need for power lines to bring wind energy from distant places. But the needed technologies are probably 10 or 20 years away.

Back in the 1970s California environmentalists preached a halt to population growth. They abandoned that position in order to seem non-racist (non-whites came to account for most population growth). Now they are fighting a losing battle. Their losses are accelerating. Enthusiasms for energy sources that require large land footprints (e.g. biomass energy) amplify the growing land footprints of growing populations.

Land is the natural resource in shortest supply. With enough energy we can create building materials from a large range of raw materials. But we can't create land area. Rising affluence increases the demand for land as people build bigger houses, vacation homes, and other structures along with more roads to reach them. Plus, greater demand for agricultural products for food, fiber, and energy add additional demands for land.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 23 10:51 PM  Energy Policy
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2007 April 22 Sunday
Brain Changes Detectable Years Before Alzheimers Diagnosis

Years before an Alzheimer's diagnosis scans of the brain show changes.

ST. PAUL, Minn – People who develop dementia or Alzheimer's disease experience brain structure changes years before any signs of memory loss begin, according to a study published in the April 17, 2007, issue of Neurology®, the scientific journal of the American Academy of Neurology. Researchers say these findings may help identify people at risk of developing mild cognitive impairment (MCI), which leads to Alzheimer's disease.

Researchers performed brain scans and cognitive tests on 136 people over the age of 65 who were considered cognitively normal at the beginning of the five-year study. Participants were then followed annually with neurologic examination and extensive mental status testing. By the end of the study, 23 people had developed MCI, and nine of the 23 went on to be diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The brain scans of the 23 people with memory loss were then compared to the 113 people who remained cognitively normal.

Compared to the group that didn't develop memory problems, the 23 people who developed MCI or Alzheimer's disease had less gray matter in key memory processing areas of their brains even at the beginning of the study when they were cognitively normal.

Your brain is aging. It is getting older every day. Alzheimer's Disease isn't something you just catch one day and start forgetting things the next day and get diagnosed a week later. Your brain accumulates damage over a period of years until finally the brain can't compensate for the losses.

Some people think aging is okay because it is graceful and you get old and wise and gray. But aging isn't nice. Aging is destruction, not wisdom. Brain aging will turn into Alzheimer's if you live long enough. A recent Plos One article states: Virtually the entire population has Alzheimer-related pathology (amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles) by age 90 years .

We need brain rejuvenation therapies. Vascular stem cells will help repair decaying arteries, capillaries, and veins to improve brain cell food supplies. Gene therapies will conduct repairs on genomes of neurons. Gene therapies, drugs and immunotherapies will help to clear away accumulated debris. We need a much larger research effort to develop all the therapies we need to make our minds young again. The costs will get paid back many times over in increased productivity and more rapid economic growth.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 22 09:20 PM  Brain Alzheimers Disease
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Abdominal Surgery Through Orifices

No need for cutting into the abdominal wall of muscles when doing surgery.

Doctors in New York have removed a woman’s gallbladder with instruments passed through her vagina, a technique they hope will cause less pain and scarring than the usual operation, and allow a quicker recovery. The technique can eliminate the need to cut through abdominal muscles, a major source of pain after surgery.

The operation was experimental, part of a study that is being done to find out whether people will fare better if abdominal surgery is performed through natural openings in the body rather than cuts in the belly. The surgery still requires cutting, through the wall of the vagina, stomach or colon, but doctors say it should hurt less because those tissues are far less sensitive than the abdominal muscles.

A couple of the surgeons quoted in the article claim to find this approach disgusting. But anything that makes surgery less traumatic seems like a good idea for all of us. Of course half of us aren't women. But never fear. Appendix removal through the mouth anyone?

At Stanford, Dr. Myriam J. Curet, a professor of surgery, said, “It has some promise, and there’s a lot of interest in the surgical community, a lot of attention being paid to it as a wave of the future.”

Dr. Curet acknowledged that the idea was a bit disturbing at first, and said that even an audience of doctors shuddered at the video of the appendix being pulled out through the patient’s mouth.

I'm reminded of the South Park episode where the adults got it into their heads to reverse the normal direction of passage of food through the body.

In animals researchers have removed many other organs by mouth or vagina.

Dr. Bessler said he and his colleagues had been doing practice operations in the laboratory on pigs for the past year, removing gallbladders, spleens, kidneys and stomachs through the mouth or vagina.

You might hope you never have to have an organ removed either with an abdominal incision or via some orifice. But once the growth of replacement organs from stem cells becomes commonplace surgery for installation of replacement parts will become quite desirable. Got old lungs which prevent you from doing sustained aerobic activities? Put in some replacement lungs. Why not replace a few other organs in the same surgical session and recover into a more vigorous and healthy person?

Gene therapies and stem cell therapies will reduce the need for surgery. But then we'll live longer and more parts will wear out and fail. So we'll end up needing some surgery. Small insertable surgical devices will continue to reduce the size of surgical incisions. But in the longer run I'm expecting nanodevices to do a lot of surgery. Even larger yet miniature devices which aren't connected to the outside via a cable will become maneuverable as remote-controlled surgical devices. Imagine swallowing devices that pass through intestinal walls and move to an organ. Then they could transmit information out to a surgeon who'd use remote controls to direct chopping pieces out of organs and reconnecting remaining pieces.

What I wonder: Will we eventually be able to grow replacement organs within us and by doing so eliminate the need for surgery to insert replacement organs?

By Randall Parker 2007 April 22 03:49 PM  Biotech Surgery
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Early Isolation Reduces Pandemic Losses

Philadelphia's public health officials were slow to react to the 1918 influenza epidemic and their slow reaction cost many lives.

By the time officials there grasped the threat of the virus, it was too late. The disease was rampaging through the population, partly because the city had allowed large public gatherings, including a citywide parade in support of a World War I loan drive, to go on as planned. In four months, more than 12,000 Philadelphians died, an excess death rate of 719 people for every 100,000 inhabitants.

The story was quite different in St. Louis. Two weeks before Philadelphia officials began to react, doctors in St. Louis persuaded the city to require that influenza cases be registered with the health department. And two days after the first civilian cases, police officers helped the department enforce a shutdown of schools, churches and other gathering places. Infected people were quarantined in their homes.

Excess deaths in St. Louis were 347 per 100,000 people, less than half the rate in Philadelphia. Early action appeared to have saved thousands of lives.

Until vaccines become widely available the extent of deaths from a highly lethal flu pandemic depend on how far governments, businesses, and individuals will go to reduce exposure of humans to other humans. Coming advances in biotechnology will decrease the length of the window from when a flu strain starts spreading to when vaccines become available to stop it. But if a dangerous pandemic started right now we'd be facing 6 to 12 months before vaccines become available in developed countries and longer in less developed countries.

Recent research papers show that extensive isolation of populations instituted starting early in a flu pandemic can greatly reduce the death toll.

This month, researchers published two new studies in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences comparing public-health responses in cities like St. Louis and Philadelphia.

Using mathematical models, they reported that such large differences in death rates could be explained by the ways the cities carried out prevention measures, especially in their timing. Cities that instituted quarantine, school closings, bans on public gatherings and other such procedures early in the epidemic had peak death rates 30 percent to 50 percent lower than those that did not.

If something with the lethality of the avian H5N1 flu breaks out into the human population with mutations that make it easily transmissible then you are going to face a decision: how much will you change your home and work life and family life to reduce or eliminate your exposure to others? Suppose the flu strain is like the 1918 strain and hits the middle aged much harder and, if infected, you face a 10% or 20% chance of dying. What would you do and sacrifice for a year to avoid dying? Mind losing your job or becoming very poor or isolated?

In the extreme you could go home with lots of food stocks and other supplies and stay there for 6 to 12 months. Or, if you live in an apartment building where sitting at home does not totally eliminate exposure risks (think of those Hong Kong apartment buildings which spread SARS infections through ventilation systems) then you could move out into a wilderness cabin or a houseboat or motorhome at an isolated location.

If you work in an occupation which is amenable what I call "workplace cocooning" (quarantined workplaces where people never leave or enter) then you can come through in better economic shape. Unless you already have all the money you need working through a pandemic is the best way to get through it.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 22 03:00 PM  Pandemic Quarantine
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2007 April 21 Saturday
Woman Freezes Her Eggs To Give To Daughter

7 year old Canadian Flavie Boivin might some day give birth to her brother or sister.

MONTREAL - In what is considered a world first, Melanie Boivin has donated her eggs to her daughter who is sterile because of a genetic condition called Turner's syndrome.

The Montreal lawyer's eggs are to be frozen until her seven-year-old daughter, Flavie, becomes of age to bear a child through in-vitro fertilization.

If Flavie has a daughter from one of these eggs the baby will have a grandmother who is also her mother. This opens up all sorts of possibilities. Suppose a woman gave birth to a daughter from eggs donated from her great grandmother. The daughter would also be her mom's great aunt.

Recent advances in egg freezing technology improve the odds of starting viable pregnancies from frozen eggs.

Kutluk Oktay, a renowned expert in preserving fertility at the Centre for Reproductive Medicine and Infertility at Cornell University in New York, said egg-freezing technology has "changed drastically in the last couple of years and is now being seen as the next breakthrough in reproductive medicine."

"The procedure will be seen as an established part of fertility care . . . within the next five years," he predicted.

Although questions remain around which method of freezing eggs is best, Dr. Oktay said McGill's fast-freezing technique -- known as vitrification -- "looks extremely promising."

Egg-freezing will become even more popular for women who want to assure that they still have viable eggs when they are able to afford the time to raise children. A woman pursuing a career and unable to find Mr. Right could put off children until her 40s by using frozen eggs she put away while still in her 20s.

I consider this all pretty small stuff compared to embryo genetic engineering. Imagine a woman deciding to build an embryo using chromosomes taken from 5 different men. Each man might carry some chromosome that has a genetic trait she wants. Or she might solicit all her girlfriends to chip in a chromosome or two. Get blue eyes and pretty face from Kathy, resistance to depression and stress from the indomitable Sally, and a sharp mind from Sue.

The ability to select individual chromosomes and assemble them together into an egg, sperm, or embryo will break the link between parenthood and parental genetic endowment. Add in the ability to modify genetic sequences and the rate of human evolution will skyrocket. Your guess is as good as mind on the question of where this will all lead.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 21 02:08 PM  Bioethics Reproduction
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Salt Increases Heart Disease Risk

A team at Harvard Medical School have the proof for what you already thought you knew: Yes, eating too much salt really is bad for your heart and cardiovascular system.

Boston, MA- Researchers at Brigham and Women's Hospital (BWH), in an extended follow-up of a randomized trial, found that reducing sodium intake among men and women lowered subsequent risk of cardiovascular disease by 25 percent more than 10 years after the trial ended.

BWH researcher, Nancy Cook, ScD, in a study to be published in the British Medical Journal, expanded upon the most recent findings from the analysis of the Trials of Hypertension Prevention (TOHP)- in which participants, ages 30 to 54 years with high normal blood pressure took part in a sodium intervention during which participants were taught to identify, select and prepare low-salt foods. The study demonstrated that by reducing dietary salt intake, an individual could lower the risk of developing cardiovascular disease 10 to 15 years post-trial. Specifically, participants who were randomized to a sodium lifestyle intervention during the study period experienced a 25 percent decreased risk of cardiovascular disease up to 15 years later. Total mortality was also reduced by 20%, a finding that was consistent, although not statistically significant. This study marks the only randomized sodium intervention that has been followed for later long-term cardiovascular disease risk.

It is not like you didn't already know this. But think of it as a reminder.

Heart disease and cancer are the two biggest killers. Heart disease is far easier to avoid than cancer. Don't smoke. Avoid saturated fats and trans fats. Eat lots of vegetables. Do not use table salt and avoid highly salted prepared foods. Try using vinegar and spices in place of salt. Works for me. Get exercise. How much? More than you are getting now in all likelihood (you long distance runners excepted).

Cancer is the tougher one. Just about all the things you should do for your heart will also reduce your cancer risk (and stop eating carcinogen-laden charbroiled foods - which are bad for your heart anyway). But with a great diet and lifestyle the cancer risk won't go down near as much as the heart disease risk. We really need cures for cancer. Given my diet and weight and blood lipids I do not worry about dying from heart disease. But cancer is something that strikes me as a big dice roll where the odds get higher every year. I'm always a few mutations away from a fatal case of cancer. The sooner it becomes curable the better.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 21 11:08 AM  Aging Diet Studies
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2007 April 19 Thursday
Omega 3 Fatty Acids Might Slow Alzheimers Disease

A fatty acid found in fish slows tau protein accumulation in genetically modified mice.

Irvine, Calif. — A type of omega-3 fatty acid may slow the growth of two brain lesions that are hallmarks of Alzheimer’s disease, UC Irvine scientists have discovered. The finding suggests that diets rich in docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) can help prevent the development of Alzheimer’s disease later in life.

This study with genetically modified mice is the first to show that DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid, can slow the accumulation of tau, a protein that leads to the development of neurofibrillary tangles. Such tangles are one of two signature brain lesions of Alzheimer’s disease. DHA also was found to reduce levels of the protein beta amyloid, which can clump in the brain and form plaques, the other Alzheimer’s lesion.

Previous studies have shown that DHA may have therapeutic value for Alzheimer’s patients, but this research is among the first to show that it may delay the onset of the disease. DHA is found in fish, eggs, organ meats, micro-algae, fortified foods and food supplements.

Since fisheries around the world are getting depleted by excessive demand for fish we really need genetically engineered crop plants that contain more omega 3 fatty acids such as DHA and EPA (eicosapentanoic acid). Monsanto, Dupont, BASF and other companies are chasing this goal.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 19 11:04 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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2007 April 18 Wednesday
Cured Meat Consumption Speeds Lung Aging?

Nitrites in foods might accelerate the aging of lungs and cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Frequent consumption of cured meats results in lower lung function test scores and increases the odds of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to a large cross-sectional survey of adults in the U.S.

The study results appear in the second issue for April 2007 of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, published by the American Thoracic Society.

Rui Jiang, M.D., Dr.P.H., of Columbia University Medical Center in New York, and three associates showed that the "odds ratio" for developing COPD among individuals who consumed cured meat products 14 times or more per month was 1.93, as compared with those who did not consume cured meats. An odds ratio greater than 1 implies that the event is more likely to occur within that group.

"Cured meats, such as bacon, sausage, luncheon meats and cured hams, are high in nitrites, which are added to meat products as a preservative, an anti-microbial agent, and a color fixative," said Dr. Jiang. "Nitrates generate reactive nitrogen species that may cause damage to the lungs, producing structural changes resembling emphysema."

What I'd like to see: studies on blood oxidative stress indicators with people who eat cured meat versus fresh meat. Do hot dog eaters have more signs of free radicals in their blood?

By Randall Parker 2007 April 18 11:17 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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Russian Tunnel To Alaska?

Picture a tunnel across the Bering Strait with oil and natural gas pipelines and a train.

A planned 3,700-mile transportation corridor from Siberia into the United States will feed into the tunnel, which at 64 miles will be more than twice as long as the underwater section of the Channel Tunnel between Britain and France, according to the plan. The tunnel would run in three sections to link the two islands in the Bering Strait between Russia and the United States.


The Bering Strait tunnel will cost an estimated $10 billion to $12 billion. The rest of the investment will be spent on the entire transportation corridor, according to the plan.

This may sound far-fetched. But the channel tunnel (chunnel) linking the UK and France is 31 miles long. Britain and France have more commerce flowing between them than Russia and the US would. Except the US has a huge appetite for oil and natural gas.

As for the $10-$12 billion cost for the tunnel and total of $65 billion for the larger project: At $50 per barrel and about 21 million barrels per day the United States spends the tunnel's cost on oil in less than 2 weeks. The US spends the whole project's cost on oil in about 2 months. That's chump change for energy projects. But does the project make economic sense? I suspect the Russian leaders want to avoid getting too dependent on oil and natural gas sales to China. Best to build up a few routes of export to different customers.

What I wonder: How could such a structure handle an 8+ Richter scale earthquake?

By Randall Parker 2007 April 18 11:03 PM  Engineering Large Scale
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2007 April 17 Tuesday
Water Shortages Mean Energy Shortages

Water to generate electricity for a household is 3 times as much as water used directly by a home.

Albuquerque, N.M. - The drive to build more power plants for a growing nation – as well as the push to use biofuels – is running smack into the limits of a fundamental resource: water.

Already, a power plant uses three times as much water to provide electricity to the average household than the household itself uses through showers, toilets, and the tap. The total water consumed by electric utilities accounts for 20 percent of all the nonfarm water consumed in the United States. By 2030, utilities could account for up to 60 percent of the nonfarm water, because they use water for cooling and to scrub pollutants.

Rising per capita energy consumption combined with rising populations is especially problematic for arid regions. But cheaper solar and wind power could reduce the use of water for electric generation. Also, superconductor technologies could enable placement of more generators near coastlines.

Biomass energy is also a big source of water usage and looks set to grow due to government subsidies.

Smaller populations would reduce environmental burdens and make per capita improvements in living standards easier to accomplish. But the idea of population growth control became taboo after the 1970s. Pity that.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 17 10:45 PM  Energy Policy
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FTO Gene Ups Odds Of Obesity

Why let your spouse blame your diet for your unwanted fat when you can blame your genes instead?

Scientists have identified the most clear genetic link yet to obesity in the general population as part of a major study of diseases funded by the Wellcome Trust, the UK's largest medical research charity. People with two copies of a particular gene variant have a 70 per cent higher risk of being obese than those with no copies.

We can probably expect discovery of more genetic variations that contribute to obesity. They all serve as clues for how the brain and body regulate weight. All these clues will lead to the development of drugs and other treatments that make obesity rare in developed countries. 20 years from now I expect obesity to be rare.

A variation of the gene FTO makes a big weight difference.

Scientists from the Peninsula Medical School, Exeter, and the University of Oxford first identified a genetic link to obesity through a genome-wide study of 2000 people with type 2 diabetes and 3000 controls. This study was part of the Wellcome Trust Case Control Consortium, one of the biggest projects ever undertaken to identify the genetic variations that may predispose people to or protect them from major diseases. Through this genome-wide study, the researchers identified a strong association between an increase in BMI and a variation, or 'allele', of the gene FTO. Their findings are published online today in the journal 'Science'.

The researchers then tested a further 37 000 samples for this gene from Bristol, Dundee and Exeter as well as a number of other regions in the UK and Finland.

Carrying 2 copies of the FTO allele brings with it about 3 kg or 6.6 lb more weight.

The study found that people carrying one copy of the FTO allele have a 30 per cent increased risk of being obese compared to a person with no copies. However, a person carrying two copies of the allele has a 70 per cent increased risk of being obese, being on average 3 kg heavier than a similar person with no copies. Among white Europeans, approximately one in six people carries both copies of the allele.

The existence of genetic variations that cause weight gain is not surprising. Calorie malnutrition was probably the biggest cause of death for most of human history. So genetic variations that cause weight gain during good times would have conferred survival advantages. But why don't all people have the same strongest tendency to weight gain? To put it another way: what diadvantages of this FTO allele prevented it from becoming the only version of the FTO gene in humans?

A continued decline in the cost of DNA testing will accelerate the rate of discovery of important genetic variations. In the next decade we are going to find out in enormous detail most of the genetic variations that control many aspects of who we are.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 17 10:29 PM  Brain Appetite
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2007 April 16 Monday
Most Active Kids Eat Most And Skinniest

Evidence for the idea that exercise is the key to controlling weight:

Teens who are most physically active and consume the most calories are the leanest, researchers say.

“The take-home message would be to encourage your child to do as much vigorous physical activity as possible, including at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity on a daily basis,” says Dr. Paule Barbeau, exercise physiologist at the Medical College of Georgia and corresponding author on the paper in the April issue of The International Journal of Obesity. “This allows your child to eat more calories, which encourages more healthy eating habits while remaining in energy balance.”

The kids who ate the least were the fattest:

Also interestingly, some teens who ate the least – they also moved the least and tended to be female – had the highest percent body fat. “If you think about teenagers trying to restrict their energy intake, they usually are not going to be doing a lot of physical activity to stay at that energy balance because they will be tired,” Ms. Stallmann-Jorgensen says. “We really expected the energy intake to be lower in kids who were leaner but when we started thinking about it we realized the leaner kids were at a different energy balance than the others,” Dr. Barbeau notes.

We need easier ways to mix exercise into our work schedules. I will repeat what I most want to see: Businesses should add exercise bicycles and stair stepper machines to meeting rooms. Then people called into status meetings, design meetings, and training classes could get exercise while doing meetings.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 16 10:04 PM  Brain Appetite
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2007 April 15 Sunday
US Auto Industry Desperate For Better Batteries

A Wall Street Journal article reports how much Detroit car company attitudes have shifted on batteries. American car companies feel an urgent need for leading edge domestic lithium ion battery suppliers.

Facing growing pressure to curtail greenhouse-gas emissions, U.S. auto makers are increasingly worried that the critical battery technology they'll need to compete is getting locked up by Japanese rivals who moved more quickly to develop gas-electric hybrid vehicles.

"It's important to have the knowledge base on advanced automotive battery technology and manufacturing capacity right here locally in the U.S." says Beth Lowery, GM vice president of Environment and Energy.

One of the biggest hybrid battery suppliers is owned by the most formidable competitor of the Detroit auto industry (Toyota). The American car companies finally figured out that's a problem. Fortunately for Detroit the Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH) batteries used in Toyota Priuses are a technological dead-end. The future lies with lithium ion chemistries and perhaps nanotubes and other nanotech. On that playing field US venture capital start-ups stand a good chance of winning. But a larger effort at funding university research would produce more advances in electrochemistry suitable for spinning off into VC battery start-ups.

A123 Systems is among the start-ups that are suddenly getting lots of attention from both government and corporate interests.

The U.S. Department of Energy, in collaboration with the U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium, which is made up of Detroit's three auto makers, last year awarded A123 a $15 million contract to develop its version of lithium-ion technology for hybrid-electric vehicle applications. In addition to the A123 contract, the Energy Department has requested $41 million this year to continue advanced battery research.

This is still chump change. Consider the benefits of battery advances. Sufficiently advanced battery technologies will some day enable cars to run 100 and more miles between recharges. This capability will end the use of liquid fuels for most local travel. Liquid fuels will continue to get used in longer road trips, air flights, and in ships. But for most commutes and trips to stores batteries will displace gasoline, diesel, and ethanol.

The ability to use batteries for transportation will, in turn, enable the use of nuclear, solar, geothermal, and wind power for transportation. Granted, today we are seeing a huge scaling up in the use of coal for electric generation. But that trend will end due to a combination of rising regulatory limits on emissions and dropping costs of cleaner competitors.

Smarter energy policies by governments could accelerate the development of next generation batteries and cleaner ways to generate electricity.

Milwaukee-based Johnson Controls, one of the biggest suppliers of lead acid batteries, has joined the growing list of groups attempting to produce next generation batteries. The race is on.

South Korea, China and the European Union also have government-supported advanced battery projects, according to U.S. and Japanese government officials and documents. And a joint venture between Johnson Controls and French battery cell producer SAFT, a €560 million ($751.9 million) a year maker of batteries for industrial and electronics uses, also is vying to supply GM.

A123 was founded in 2002 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Yet-Ming Chiang, former American Superconductor executive Bart Riley and entrepreneur Ric Fulop. The company, which has 250 workers compared with about 1,000 at Panasonic EV, has raised $100 million in capital from investors, including Sequoia Capital, a Menlo Park, Calif., venture capital firm, and General Electric Co.'s commercial-finance unit.

If Toyota comes out with a cheap lithium ion battery usable in pluggable hybrids and does this a few years before Detroit automakers find a supplier for such a battery then Toyota's gains in marketshare will accelerate. Both the American and European auto industries face the very real threat that an East Asian win in next gen batteries will translate into a big East Asian win in the automotive marketshare.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 15 09:39 AM  Energy Batteries
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2007 April 14 Saturday
Brain Genes On X Chromosome Speed Evolution?

An interesting article by Nicholas Wade in the New York Times surveys part of what is known about sexual orientation and other sexual differences in the brain. He discusses potential causes of homosexuality (while notably failing to mention Greg Cochran's germ theory) and quotes sexuality researcher Michael Bailey. All good stuff. But the most interesting part to me: the presence of genes on the X chromosome that get expressed in the brain may allow more rapid selection for favorable genetic variations which enhance cognitive function.

It so happens that an unusually large number of brain-related genes are situated on the X chromosome. The sudden emergence of the X and Y chromosomes in brain function has caught the attention of evolutionary biologists. Since men have only one X chromosome, natural selection can speedily promote any advantageous mutation that arises in one of the X’s genes. So if those picky women should be looking for smartness in prospective male partners, that might explain why so many brain-related genes ended up on the X.

The existence of only one X chromosome allows new genetic mutations to express their effects more drastically in men and therefore to get selected for more rapidly.

Several profound consequences follow from the fact that men have only one copy of the many X-related brain genes and women two. One is that many neurological diseases are more common in men because women are unlikely to suffer mutations in both copies of a gene.

Another is that men, as a group, “will have more variable brain phenotypes,” Dr. Arnold writes, because women’s second copy of every gene dampens the effects of mutations that arise in the other.

This probably at least partially explains why the standard deviation of IQ is higher in men than in women. That higher standard deviation means that compared to women there are more extremely brilliant men and also more very dim bulb men.

An interesting consequence of the higher male standard deviation for IQ is that women above average in IQ generally can find men who are as smart or smarter to pair up with. But in the below average territory the women are going to tend to be smarter than the males of their social class and neighborhoods.

What I've always wondered: When successful men divorce their middle aged wives and marry younger women are the second wives less bright on average than the first wives? In other words, do the men decide to be less choosy on IQ in order to get younger second wives? I'm not looking for anecdotes to the contrary. I want to know about averages. Also, are the children born to second marriages as smart on average as children born to first marriages?

By Randall Parker 2007 April 14 07:49 PM  Brain Evolution
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4 Genes Targets Against Breast Cancer Spread

Some new research demonstrates how puzzling out the genetic mechanisms of cancer spread points in the direction of useful therapies.

Studies of human tumor cells implanted in mice have shown that the abnormal activation of four genes drives the spread of breast cancer to the lungs. The new studies by Howard Hughes Medical Institute researchers reveal that the aberrant genes work together to promote the growth of primary breast tumors. Cooperation among the four genes also enables cancerous cells to escape into the bloodstream and penetrate through blood vessels into lung tissues.

Although shutting off these genes individually can slow cancer growth and metastasis, the researchers found that turning off all four together had a far more dramatic effect on halting cancer growth and metastasis.

Each individual drug under development most often gets tested by itself to determine its effectiveness. Drug developers realize this means they miss useful drugs. But since thousands of drugs exist the task of choosing drugs to try in combination seems impossible. The number of combinations becomes too great if one has to choose sets of 2 or 3 or 4 drugs to test in combination. But as this report shows, genetic research can show that a group of genes drive development of a disease. This allows researchers to narrow their focus toward drugs that target each of those genes. Then the potential combinations of drugs to test shrinks down to a practically testable set and the likelihood of finding synergistic combinations of drugs goes up by orders of magnitude.

In this case the researchers were lucky because 2 of the 4 genes they identified already have existing drugs that target them.

In the newly published experiments, the researchers also found that they could reduce the growth and spread of human breast tumors in mice by simultaneously targeting two of the proteins produced by these genes, using drugs already on the market. The researchers are exploring clinical testing of combination therapy with the drugs—cetuximab (trade name Erbitux) and celecoxib (Celebrex)—to treat breast cancer metastasis.

Think about that. Other existing drugs might be useful in combinations against cancer and we simply do not yet have enough genetic research information to point ourselves toward them.

This work builds on previous work that identified 18 genes involved in cancer metastasis. They narrowed their focus to 4 of those 18.

In an earlier study, Massagué and his colleagues had identified 18 genes whose abnormal activity is associated with breast cancer's ability to spread to the lungs. In the new study published in Nature, Massagué and his colleagues at Sloan-Kettering, along with researchers from Hospital Clinic de Barcelona and the Institute for Research in Biomedecine in Spain, focused on four of these genes. These genes, which code for proteins called epiregulin, COX2, and matrix metalloproteinases 1 and 2, were already known to help regulate growth and remodeling of blood vessels, said Massagué.

Blood vessel growth is key for cancer growth. Dr. Judah Folkman at Harvard Medical School has spent his career demonstrating that genes and proteins involved in blood vessel formation (angiogenesis) are useful targets for anti-cancer treatments. Anti-angiogenesis drugs are now useful against some forms of cancer.

Separate tests of these drugs against cancer did not suggest that in combination they'd turn out useful.

Two drugs already on the market act directly on proteins produced by the genes Massagué's group had been studying. Cetuximab is an antibody that blocks the action of epiregulin and is used to treat advanced colorectal cancer. Celecoxib is an inhibitor of COX2 that is used as an anti-inflammatory, and is being tested in clinical trials against many types of cancer. The researchers also tested whether cetuximab and celecoxib would work effectively in concert to reduce metastasis in mice.

“We found that the combination of these two inhibitory drugs was effective, even though the drugs individually were not very effective," said Massagué. “This really nailed the case that if we can inactivate these genes in concert, it will affect metastasis,” he said.

Research into interacting sets of genes will point us toward many more drug targets for cancer and for other diseases as well. Improvements in technologies for gene chips and other tools for watching gene activity will speed up the rate at which scientists can identify, monitor, and tweak sets of genes involved in disease progression. Therefore the rate at which we find relationships between genes will accelerate. In the next 10 years I expect that every single gene involved in cancer growth and spread will become a target of drug development. Once we have drugs that target large sets of genes I expect many cancers to become controllable and some to become curable.

What we really need in order to cure all cancers are gene therapies that will go into cancer cells and fix some of the mutations that make cells become cancers. This research also helps work in that direction because it helps identify genes to target for gene therapy.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 14 02:17 PM  Biotech Cancer
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New England States Push Mercury Emissions Reduction

The New England states are trying to force the US federal government to crack down harder on mercury polluters and FuturePundit cheers them on.

New York and six other Northeastern states announced yesterday that they have joined in a regional pact to try to force the federal government to enact tougher standards on mercury emissions.

New England can't get mercury pollution down far enough because much of its mercury is getting blown in from other states and presumably Canada as well. The Bush Administration has opposed more rapid reductions in emissions. SO the New England states are looking for ways to force changes in federal environmental policy.

Calculations of those maximum levels would recognize that the majority of mercury pollution in the region comes from other states.

Thus, for the Northeastern states to meet federal clean water standards, the other states would have to reduce the amount of mercury they put into the air.

The New England states want a reduction large enough to make their fish safe to eat.

According to the draft plan, reducing the amount of mercury contamination in the region by 86 percent to 98 percent would cause the amount of mercury in fish to decline to levels at which consumption advisories could be lifted.

This seems a reasonable goal. Our fish shouldn't contain toxic quantities of mercury. Mercury is bad, 'mmmmkay?

This move by New England states ends up targetting coal electric plants in other states..

Nationwide, power plants account for two thirds of all SO2, 22 percent of NOx, 40 percent of CO2, and a third of all mercury emissions."

Current regulations will not bring down mercury emissions from coal burners by the order of magnitude or more that the New England states seek.

Mercury: Emissions levels remain steady. Power plant mercury emissions remain steady as compared to previous years. EIP's report ranks plants based on 2004 data, which is the most recent publicly available information from EPA's Toxics Release Inventory. Roughly 400 plants emitted just over 47 tons of mercury. Many plants are installing scrubbers to control sulfur dioxide, and mercury emissions will decline with SO2 controls at these plants. But, EPA's new power plant mercury rule is unlikely to have any effect in the short-term. Power plant mercury emissions are expected to decline to roughly 24 tons in 2020 - significantly higher than EPA's so-called cap of 15 tons by 2018, as power plants "bank" pollution allowances in the early years of the rule's implementation. Widespread use of banked allowances means that EPA's cap of 15 tons will likely not be met until 2026 or beyond.

For all plants ranked for mercury, the top 50 plants with the highest emission rates together emitted 15 tons of mercury, just over 30 percent of all power plant mercury pollution, but generated only about 17 percent of the electricity. Plants in Texas and Pennsylvania topped the list for the nation's highest power plant mercury emission rates. AEP's Pirkey plant (Texas) and Reliant's Shawville plant (Pennsylvania) are the top two dirtiest plants based on mercury emission rates. The top 50 power plant mercury polluters accounted for more than 20 tons, or 43 percent of the industry's mercury emissions, and generated 33 percent of the electricity. TXU's Martin Lake (Texas) plant ranked number one, with more than 1,700 pounds of mercury emissions. Southern Company's Miller plant (Alabama) and Scherer plant (Georgia) came in second and third, emitting 1,544 and 1,465 pounds, respectively. Twenty-three plants in 13 states ranked in the top 50 for both emission rate and total pounds emitted. Two Texas power plants, TXU's Big Brown and American Electric Power's Pirkey, rank in the top 10 for both emission rate and total pounds.

Chlorine plants which use the chlor-alkali process are another big source of mercury pollution.

Two of the biggest sources of mercury pollution are chlorine chemical plants and coal-fired power plants. Chlorine plants, which use massive quantities of mercury to extract chlorine from salt, "lose" dozens of tons of mercury each year; power plants emit around 50 tons of mercury pollution annually. Facilities that recycle auto scrap are another big source of mercury pollution, pouring 10 to 12 tons of mercury into the air every year. The most common way Americans are exposed to mercury is through tuna fish.

The auto scrap yards do not try hard enough to remove mercury switches from old cars before they crush and melt them. They shouldn't be allowed to get away with that. The chlorine plants emit about as much as the coal electric plants. But that understates the contribution from coal since industrial coal-fired boilers are big mercury emitters.

Mercury is a neurotoxin. We shouldn't let mercury polluters turn fresh water fish into health hazards. First off, the pollutants violate our rights. Second, anything that reduces cognitive function imposes huge costs. Our brains matter far more than the cost of any capital equipment in determining how much economic output we'll produce in the future. Fish bestow brain benefits due to omega 3 fatty acids. We shouldn't let mercury polluters take away that benefit.

Tougher emissions regulations on coal use will reduce coal usage and increase usage of substitutes. The emissions regulations will increase the cost of coal electric and coal heat. That'll improve the competitiveness of nuclear, wind, and technologies that increase energy efficiency. Increased demand for the competitors will provide incentives to develop cheaper technologies for delivering energy from nuclear, solar, wind, geothermal, and other non-fossil fuel energy sources.

If you are concerned about greenhouse gas emissions then take note: to the extent that restrictions on conventional pollutant emissions make non-fossil fuel energy sources more attractive those emissions restrictions reduce greenhouse gases. Conventional emissions restrictions do not clearly reduce greenhouse gases. Some of the scrubber technologies used in coal plants take energy to run and therefore increase the amount of coal used per amount of electricity generated. But severe restrictions on conventional emissions would so raise the price of coal electric that nuclear electric might become cost competitive.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 14 10:50 AM  Pollution Policy
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2007 April 11 Wednesday
People Will Spend Money To Make Wealthier Poorer

James Fowler at UC San Diego and colleagues have performed an interesting study about the willingness of people to spend their own money to lower the wealth of others. (PDF format)

Participants in laboratory games are often willing to alter others’ incomes at a cost to themselves, and this behaviour has the effect of promoting cooperation1–3. What motivates this action is unclear: punishment and reward aimed at promoting cooperation cannot be distinguished from attempts to produce equality4. To understand costly taking and costly giving, we create an experimental game that isolates egalitarian motives. The results show that subjects reduce and augment others’ incomes, at a personal cost, even when there is no cooperative behaviour to be reinforced. Furthermore, the size and frequency of income alterations are strongly influenced by inequality. Emotions towards top earners become increasingly negative as inequality increases, and those who express these emotions spend more to reduce above-average earners’ incomes and to increase below-average earners’ incomes. The results suggest that egalitarian motives affect income-altering behaviours, and may therefore be an important factor underlying the evolution of strong reciprocity5 and, hence, cooperation in humans.

It is no wonder that redistributive taxes are popular. Economists argue against highly progressive taxes by claiming (probably accurately) that such taxes reduce economic growth. But the participants in this experiment showed themselves willing to reduce their own net worths in order to reduce the net worths of wealthier people. The economists therefore are arguing against a harm that many people are in fact quite willing to inflict on themselves. I see this as driven by a need to lower the status of others who have much higher status. The feeling of one's status position is a relative feeling. If the money spent lowering status of others is less than the money lost by others then policies that do offer considerable appeal.

To separate motives, we use a simple experimental design to examine whether individuals reduce or augment others’ incomes when there is no cooperative norm to advance (see Methods). We call these behaviours ‘taking’ and ‘giving’ instead of ‘punishment’ and ‘reward’ to indicate that income alteration cannot change the behaviour of the target. Subjects are divided into groups having four anonymous members each. Each player receives a sum of money randomly generated by a computer. Subjects are shown the payoffs of other group members for that round and are then provided an opportunity to give ‘negative’ or ‘positive’ tokens to other players. Each negative token reduces the purchaser’s payoff by one monetary unit (MU) and decreases the payoff of a targeted individual by three MUs; positive tokens decrease the purchaser’s payoff by one monetary unit (MU) and increase the targeted individual’s payoff by three MUs. Groups are randomized after each round to prevent reputation from influencing decisions; interactions between players are strictly anonymous and subjects know this. Also, by allowing participants more than one behavioural alternative, the experiment eliminates possible experimenter demand effects12—if subjects were only permitted to punish, they might engage in this behaviour because they believe it is what the experimenters want.

Over the five sessions income alteration was frequent. Among participants, 68% reduced another player’s income at least once, 28% did so five times or more, and 6% did so ten times or more. Also, 74% of participants increased another player’s income at least once, 33% did so five times or more, and 10% did so ten times or more. Most (71%) negative tokens were given to above-average earners in each group, whereas most (62%) positive tokens were targeted at below-average earners in each group.

I see a lesson here that is applicable to the immigration debate: Human societies have a limit to the amount of inequality that people will tolerate. Given that many of the forces that generate inequality do so by incentivizing the most productive to generate wealth we should ask whether we should avoid other policies that generate inequality without generating much wealth.

To put it another way: Think of societies as having inequality budgets. A society has a fixed amount of inequality to spend. In my view it is better to spend that inequality on policies that cause economies to generate the most wealth per person and the most new technology and science. Policies that generate a lot of inequality with little increase in productivity of wealth creators (e.g. immigration of people who have low skills and low earnings power) essentially waste inequality that would be better spent on incentive systems for those with the most potential to generate wealth.

Beyond some level of inequality the masses will demand taxes and other measures to limit the extent of inequality. The masses probably wont' show fairness or wisdom when they demand such taxes and other restrictions on the power of wealth. But by supporting such policies they are catering to their own very deeply felt needs for higher relative status and a reduction in the feeling that wealthier people control their lives.

One of the fundamental problems I see in the world: Globalization is making people part of much larger status hierarchies. In an earlier era of much less communications technology one could only worry about one's status vis a vis one's local community. Now one can develop an appreciation of what one's status is vis a vis all the billionaires or all the national leaders or all the corporate CEOs or all the best athletes or prettiest models around the room. This inevitably gives most people a much larger group of people who seem like they have higher status. Therefore global feelings of lower relative status might well be growing.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 11 11:56 PM  Brain Economics
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2007 April 10 Tuesday
Genetic Variation Makes Olive Oil A Weight Loss Food

A genetic variation seems to prevent higher fat consumption from contributing to obesity.

Boston — Research published in the Journal of Molecular Medicine examines how calories from fat, carbohydrate, and protein might interact with genes to affect body mass index (BMI), or body weight-for-height, and risk of obesity among adults in the Framingham Heart Study. Jose Ordovas, PhD, director of the Nutrition and Genomics Laboratory at the Jean Mayer US Department of Agriculture Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University, and colleagues analyzed several common gene variants known as single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs) of the apolipoprotein A5 gene (APOA5), which produces a protein (APOA5) involved in the metabolism of fats in the body. For 13 percent of people in the study with a specific SNP (-1131T>C), dietary fat intake was not significantly associated with BMI and risk of obesity.

Genetic testing will eventually allow us each to choose an optimal diet for our own genetic profiles. This report illustrates how nutritional genomics will enable us to customize our diets so that we each eat the diet that best works for our personal genetic profile.

For the people who carry this genetic variation the consumption of monounsaturated fats actually appears to keep weight off.

Ordovas determined that the interaction between the specific SNP (-1131T>C) and dietary fat was strongest for monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), found in foods such as olive oil and canola oil. People with the specific SNP who consumed 11 percent or more of total calories as MUFAs had a lower likelihood of obesity. “Basically, it appeared that the interaction of the specific SNP with MUFAs was the reason that fat intake did not affect BMI for this group,” says Ordovas. “This interaction between APOA5 and dietary MUFA intake may explain why the Mediterranean diet, which is rich in MUFAs, is not generally associated with an increase in body weight. However, more studies are needed to confirm this.

Yes, if you have this genetic variation you might need to pour more olive oil on your food in order to stay skinny! Science sure can be fun.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 10 09:57 PM  Brain Appetite
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Nanopore Channels Detect DNA Molecules

Some Purdue University researchers have developed a silicon-based device that can anchor strands of DNA in nanopores for use in DNA testing.

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Researchers at Purdue's Birck Nanotechnology Center have shown how "nanopore channels" can be used to rapidly and precisely detect specific sequences of DNA as a potential tool for genomic applications in medicine, environmental monitoring and homeland security.

The tiny channels, which are 10 to 20 nanometers in diameter and a few hundred nanometers long, were created in silicon and then a single strand of DNA was attached inside each channel.

Other researchers have created such channels in the past, but the Purdue group is the first to attach specific strands of DNA inside these silicon-based channels and then use the channels to detect specific DNA molecules contained in a liquid bath, said Rashid Bashir, a professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Weldon School of Biomedical Engineering.

The reuse of computer industry technologies to manipulate and measure biological materials at very small scales promises to accelerate the rate of advance of biotechnology and biological science.

The method makes use of known sequences to detect affinities between anchored and floating strands of DNA.

"When the DNA molecules in the bath are perfectly complementary to those in the channels, then this current pulse is shorter compared to when there is even a single base mismatch," Iqbal said. Being able to detect specific DNA molecules quickly and from small numbers of starting molecules without the need to attach "labels" represents a potential mechanism for a wide variety of DNA detection applications.

Note that this isn't really sequencing where any order of DNA letters can be detected. This approach requires use of strands of DNA that have known sequences. So it won't work well for detecting relatively rare genetic variations (and we each have some rare genetic variations). But nanopore-based DNA sequencers might eventually perform full sequencing of genomes so that all genetic variations existing in one organism can be detected.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 10 09:43 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Search Engine Recognizes Hummed Tunes

A search engine will find a tune based on your humming part of a melody.

Over and over, you hum a melody, trying to identify the song. You sing it to a friend, but either he doesn't know it, or he can't make out your tuneless drone. Until recently, you were out of luck. But now, a new website called Midomi.com can hunt down a tune for you when you hum or sing it into your computer's microphone. And it will even automatically correct for your mistakes, says Keyvan Mohajer, CEO of Melodis, the maker of Midomi.

I wonder if one can play a song off the radio into the microphone and then have the search engine tell you what song you are currently listening to. That would be handy.

I see each step forward in search technology as a step toward artificial intelligence. Search is pattern recognition. Pattern recognition is a key function of cognition. Humans take a pattern and find matching patterns all the time. Ever hummed a song to someone so that they could tell you who wrote it or what the lyrics are for it? Did you think you were doing something uniquely human when you did this? Not any more.

Pattern recognition can be done by computers with text, sound, still images, and video streams. With the development of the right sort of sensor a search engine could even tell you what you are smelling or tasting. The popularity of search engines has created a huge and growing demand for better pattern recognition software using larger data sets and more kinds of data. I expect this demand and the revenue that comes from it to accelerate the development of artificial intelligence.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 10 08:50 PM  AI Search
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2007 April 08 Sunday
Believers In Reincarnation Make Consistent Mental Mistake

Razib of the Gene Expression blog reports on a research paper which suggests people who believe in reincarnation make systematic errors in a measurable mental task and errors in their associational memory processing may account for their belief in reincarnation.

A new paper, The false fame illusion in people with memories about a previous life (popular press summary), sheds some light on the modal cognitive processes which might account for belief in past lives which seem to be a recurring phenomenon in human culture. Researchers found that those who claimed to have past life memories made consistent and systematic errors in a particular psychological task. In short, it seems that these individuals tended to be more suggestible and prone to allowing mistakes in associational memory creep into their recollections. It seems possible then that cognitive "misfiring" opens up an avenue whereby these strange mental concepts can easily slip into the domain of plausibility (innate mind-body duality already seems to convince us about the permanence of the soul). The control group was less likely to make these mistakes, and were also less likely to believe in reincarnation, but this does not negate the general relationship and the likelihood that similar (if attenuated) cognitive processes are at work on a broad scale across human societies.

Also see the Scientific American coverage. In a nutshell: people who are asked to imagine some past event who are especially good at creating imagined images in their minds tend to convert those images into beliefs that the event actually took place. Maybe this is why Hollywood people tend to embrace impractical political beliefs (e.g. many flocked to Marxism). They think some kind of world is possible because they've imagined parts of it in their own minds and their imaginings seem realistic to them.

Human beings make a variety of recurring errors which strongly suggest the human brain has innate flaws in its design. I think one of the reasons for this is that our ancestors had to work with such fragmentary information that the brain is not designed to work with the amount of data and sorts of data needed to really make sense of the work.

Consider our limitations with mathematical reasoning and with statistical reasoning in particular. For example, the human brain has a tendency to take greater notice of two events occurring together than when only one of them occurs. Hence the brain tends to form supersitious beliefs. For example, Friday the 13th is considered unlucky by many and therefore they'll remember better when bad things happen on the 13th than when they happen apart.

Another example that I repeatedly hear from a couple of friends is the idea that famous people die in threes. They'll point to 3 famous actors who all died within the space of a few weeks. Never mind that sometimes just one or two die (or one or two that they notice). Never mind that many more lesser name celebrities die without coming to their attention or that they'll pay less attention to the lesser name celebrity deaths when they do not die near the date of a bigger name's passing. Never mind that the time period over which the famous three get tallied up can be days or weeks or that they'll ignore a less famous death when they have 3 very famous deaths to group together but will include the less famous when they have only 2 very famous to include in their set.

Think about what these results portend for future offspring genetic engineering. Some will choose genes that make their kids more rational and less likely to make mental mistakes. Others will choose genes that assure their kids will be more prone to spiritual beliefs. I expect different alleles will be found that make people more prone to religious beliefs in different ways. For example, the ideal genetic choices to make a person more prone to accept Muslim teachings will probably be quite different than the ideal genetic choices make a person prone to Buddhism.

To repeat an argument regular readers have heard from me before: I expect offspring genetic engineering Will increase the diversity of patterns in human thinking. I realize the term "diversity" has become a popular term among intellectuals to utter as a talisman against all manner of evil. But when diversity takes the form of a clash of values and a clash in understanding of the nature of the world it can and does lead to violent conflicts over which vision of society will win out.

On the bright side, offspring genetic engineering to boost intelligence will increase the ability of humans to understand reality. The general IQ boost might swamp the effect of genetic choices that enhance particular patterns of thought and belief. But then again, it might not.

Also see my posts Genetic Influence For Religiosity And Altruism and Twins Study Finds Adult Religiosity Heritable.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 08 04:43 PM  Brain Spirituality
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Biomass Energy Sources Compared On Greenhouse Gases

A recent study attempts to measure the net changes in greenhouse gas emissions from using different forms of biomass energy.

The study, "Net greenhouse gas flux of bioenergy cropping systems using Daycent", was completed by Paul Adler (United State Department of Agriculture - USDA), Stephen Del Grosso (USDA and Colorado State University), and William Parton (Colorado State University). Results appear in the April issue of Ecological Applications.

"Biofuels have a great potential to reduce our dependence on gasoline and diesel fuel," says Parton. "We have performed a unique analysis of the net biofuel greenhouse emissions from major biofuel cropping systems by combining ecosystem computer model data with estimates of the amount of fossil fuels used to grow and produce crop biofuels."

Adler, Del Grosso and Parton used the Daycent biogeochemistry model, developed by Parton and Del Grosso to asses greenhouse gas fluxes and biomass yields for corn, soybean, alfalfa, hybrid poplar, reed canary grass and switchgrass.

I am guessing they are assuming the development of cheap and scalable methods to do biomass processing using cellulosic technologies. That seems a safe bet.

How could ethanol or electricity made from switchgrass and poplar reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 100%? By keeping some of the carbon anchored in roots after the surface biomass gets harvested?

The results of the study showed that when compared with gasoline and diesel, ethanol and biodiesel from corn and soybean rotations reduced greenhouse gas emissions by almost 40 percent, reed canarygrass by 85 percent. Greenhouse gas emissions were reduced by about 115 percent for switchgrass and hybrid poplar. Both switchgrass and hybrid poplar offset the largest amounts of fossil fuels reduced emissions compared to other biofuel crops and offset two times as much fossil fuels if they are used for electricity generation via biomass gasification.

On second thought: If the poplar gets burned in order to generate heat to generate electricity this creates the possibility of carbon sequestration. If the carbon dioxide from burned poplar trees gets captured and sequestered then the net effect would be to pull carbon out of the atmosphere! Such a process would go beyond carbon neutral to carbon negative. Using such an approach on a large scale to generate electricity the amount of carbon in the atmosphere would gradually go down.

Biomass energy production produces oxides of nitrogen.

Study results showed that nitrogen (N2O) emission resulting from production of the biofuel crops is the largest greenhouse gas source, while displaced fossil is the largest greenhouse gas sink followed by soil carbon sequestration.

Leave aside for the moment that the global climate computer models are huge simplifications of reality with huge errors in their predictions. Never mind that assorted confidently stated projections of future world temperatures are therefore not real science if by science we mean the ability to predict. Leave all that skepticism aside for the moment for the skepticism cuts both ways. While it is true that we do not know for a certainty that we are warming the planet we also do not know for a certainty that we aren't. All we know is that we are pumping up the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and that gas does - all else equal - cause warming. Therefore the possibility exists that we really are warming the planet. Those who can handle the state of uncertainty have to admit that, well, we don't know if we face a big problem or not.

Having said all that, here's my most important point: We might eventually find that we really are going to heat up the planet by several degrees Fahreneit or Celsius and that doing so will cause what most of us will decide is morally unacceptable damage to some peoples (e.g. Pacific islanders and Bangladeshis who'd get flooded by rising sea levels due to melting ice). In spite of the obvious benefits to humans living in northern Russia and other cold places we might decide we want to stop global warming. In that case it is good to know we could always shift to using poplar tree biomass to generate electricity with carbon sequestration and then use electricity for most transportation needs. Then we could pull down the level of atmospheric carbon dioxide and (since by the assumptions in this scenario CO2 really does heat the planet) cause as much cooling as we want to cause.

Mind you, we'd still probably need to generate most electricity using nuclear, wind, and solar power. Otherwise too much land surface would get used for poplar forests and switchgrass fields. But we could use some land areas for forests in order to do large scale atmospheric carbon extraction and help pay for these CO2 extraction operations by using the poplar to generate electricity.

While hype over the threat of global warming has recently taken the pattern of a crescendo leading up to the release of the latest IPCC report my own thinking is heading in the direction of worrying less about it. Why? In a nutshell: We are going to have the technological tools to stop and reverse it if necessary. Gregory Benford sees a cheap way to cool the planet. Should the need arise we could use his proposal as a temporary measure to cheaply buy time while we ramp up poplar forests to extract CO2. We'd still use nuclear, wind, and solar photovoltaics to provide most of our energy.

Technologies for biomass gasification, photovoltaics, batteries, nuclear power, and other needed elements will all get much cheaper. In a few decades time the potential problem of global warming will become solvable for an affordable price and pieces of the solution will become popular anyway because they'll become cheaper ways to get energy.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 08 12:41 PM  Energy Biomass
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2007 April 07 Saturday
Mycobacterial Vaccination Against Depression?

Vaccination of mice with Mycobacterium vaccae (M. vaccae) boosts their mood.

Treatment of mice with a ‘friendly’ bacteria, normally found in the soil, altered their behavior in a way similar to that produced by antidepressant drugs, reports research published in the latest issue of Neuroscience.

These findings, identified by researchers at the University of Bristol and colleagues at University College London, aid the understanding of why an imbalance in the immune system leaves some individuals vulnerable to mood disorders like depression.

Dr Chris Lowry, lead author on the paper from Bristol University, said: "These studies help us understand how the body communicates with the brain and why a healthy immune system is important for maintaining mental health. They also leave us wondering if we shouldn’t all be spending more time playing in the dirt."

This discovery was an accident. Dr. Lowry was experimenting with the use of M. vaccae to treat lung cancer and found that the mood and cognitive function of lung cancer patients were also boosted by the M. vaccae vaccination.

Interest in the project arose after human cancer patients being treated with the bacteria Mycobacterium vaccae unexpectedly reported increases in their quality of life. Lowry and his colleagues reasoned that this effect could be caused by activation of neurons in the brain that contained serotonin.

When the team looked closely at the brains of mice, they found that treatment with M. vaccae activated a group of neurons that produce the brain chemical serotonin. The lack of serotonin in the brain is thought to cause depression in people, thus M. vaccae’s effects on the behavior of mice may be due to increasing the release of serotonin in parts of the brain that regulate mood.

Vaccination of mice with M. vaccae boosts immune system cytokines and the mice acted less stressed.

As expected, cytokine levels rose. They then looked directly in their animals' brains for the effect of those cytokines.

Cytokines actually act on sensory nerves that run to the brain from organs such as the heart and the lungs. That action stimulates a brain structure called the dorsal raphe nucleus. It was this nucleus that Dr Lowry focused on. He found a group of cells within it that connect directly to the limbic system, the brain's emotion-generating area. These cells release serotonin into the limbic system in response to sensory-nerve stimulation.

The consequence of that release is stress-free mice. Dr Lowry was able to measure their stress by dropping them into a tiny swimming pool. Previous research has shown that unstressed mice enjoy swimming, while stressed ones do not. His mice swam around enthusiastically.

It is worth noting that this work fits in a larger context: the argument (known as the hygiene hypothesis) that humans are suffering more auto-immune diseases such as allergies and asthma due to a lack of exposure to bacteria, digestive tract worms (which might be key to prevention and treatment of inflammatory bowel disease- also see here), and other pathogens. According to this theory people living in modern clean industrialized societies with purified water, refrigerators, automated farms, flush toilets, warm showers, and hand soap the immune system doesn't get exposed to pathogens it is designed to handle. The immune system is designed to work properly only in the presence of those pathogens. So it goes awry and starts attacking things it ought not attack. Considerable amounts of evidence (see here and here) supports the idea that getting dirty might be good for you.

This latest result suggests that other functions of the immune system (e.g. interactions with the nervous system) aren't getting sufficiently stimulated in modern society. So maybe we are suffering from an epidemic of depression (and other mental illnesses while we are at it?) due to excessive purity of our environments. Well, I'm sure glad as a kid that I liked to go out in the yard and build dirt castles and mud walls. City kids didn't have that advantage.

What I'd like to know: Do kids with dogs have a lower risk of getting depressed when they grow up? Do kids who grow up on pig and cow farms similarly have lower risks of adult depression? Also, does depression vary by country due to different vaccination regimes used in different countries?

The larger lesson: We are not in our ancestral environments which we are genetically adapted to. So all bets are off. We need to develop technologies that adapt us to our new environments. Speaking of which: In addition to vaccinations that give our immune systems needed exercise we also need to reshape our work environments to give ourselves more exercise in cubicle land. My suggestion: move exercise bicycles and steppers into meeting rooms and training rooms so that we can get exercise while getting training and giving project status reports.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 07 09:09 AM  Brain Depression
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2007 April 06 Friday
Genetic Influence For Religiosity And Altruism

A twins study provides evidence for genetic causes of both altruism and religiousness.

Minneapolis – April 05, 2007 - A new study in Journal of Personality shows that selfless and social behavior is not purely a product of environment, specifically religious environment. After studying the behavior of adult twins, researchers found that, while altruistic behavior and religiousness tended to appear together, the correlation was due to both environmental and genetic factors.

According to study author Laura Koenig, the popular idea that religious individuals are more social and giving because of the behavioral mandates set for them is incorrect. “This study shows that religiousness occurs with these behaviors also because there are genes that predispose them to it.”

“There is, of course, no specific gene for religiousness, but individuals do have biological predispositions to behave in certain ways,” says Koenig. “The use of twins in the current study allowed for an investigation of the genetic and environmental influences on this type of behavior.”

This research is another example of the way that genes have an impact on behavior. “Society as a whole assumes that home environments have large impacts on behavior, but studies in behavior genetics are repeatedly showing that our behavior is also influenced by our genes,” says Koenig.

Famed University of Minnesota twins researcher Thomas Bouchard is one of the names on the research paper. Koenig is working with experienced twins researchers. Here's an excerpt from the paper's abstract:

In order to investigate this question, religiousness, antisocial behavior, and altruistic behavior were assessed by self-report in a sample of adult male twins (165 MZ and 100 DZ full pairs, mean age of 33 years). Religiousness, both retrospective and current, was shown to be modestly negatively correlated with antisocial behavior and modestly positively correlated with altruistic behavior.

So religious people are both more altruistic and less anti-social on average. This part is interesting. Sounds like the same genetic factors that increase religiousness also increase altruism. What does that tell us about religiousness?

Altruistic behavior also shared most all of its genetic influence, but only half of its shared environmental influence, with religiousness.

My question: Is altruism getting selected for in industrialized societies? I suspect so because religiousness is getting selected for. Also, selfish people are probably less willing to have kids due to all the work entailed.

Also see my post about previous research by Koenig: Twins Study Finds Adult Religiosity Heritable

By Randall Parker 2007 April 06 10:24 PM  Brain Genetics
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Study See Range Of Possible Nuclear Power Costs

Costs of new nuclear power plants are still the realm of speculation.

A new study appearing in the April 1 issue of the journal Environmental Science and Technology notes, however, that the country's history of unexpected cost overruns when building nuclear plants should sound a cautionary note for power companies that nuclear power may not be financially attractive.

We will only find out the real costs of new nuclear power plants in the United States when new plants get built here. Costs in countries which have more regulated electric markets can provide at best rough equivalents. Plus, international (and even regional) differences in labor costs and materials costs make international comparisons even more difficult.

One of the study co-authors says even costs for existing US nuclear plants are hard for researchers to get access to.

"For energy security and carbon emission concerns, nuclear power is very much back on the national and international agenda," said study co-author Dan Kammen, UC Berkeley professor of energy and resources and of public policy. "To evaluate nuclear power's future, it is critical that we understand what the costs and the risks of this technology have been. To this point, it has been very difficult to obtain an accurate set of costs from the U. S. fleet of nuclear power plants."

The study, conducted by a research team from Georgetown University, Stanford University and UC Berkeley, analyzes the costs of electricity from existing U.S. nuclear reactors and discusses the possibility for cost "surprises" in new energy technologies, including next-generation nuclear power.

What they found was a range of electricity costs, from 3 cents per kilowatt hour to nearly 14 cents per kilowatt hour, with the higher costs attributed to such problems as poor plant operation or unanticipated security costs.

At 3 cents per kwh nuclear would beat coal even before coal gets saddled with future tougher emissions restrictions. But we aren't going to know whether nuclear with the latest reactor designs can be that cheap until a few of those designs get built.

If the public becomes less tolerant of emissions from coal plants then expect to see more announcements of plans to build more nukes. For the record: I expect that as living standards rise and as research fleshes out the health costs of fossil fuels emissions the public will become less tolerant of coal plant emissions. As that happens the economics of nuclear power will become more attractive to electric utilities.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 06 01:33 PM  Energy Nuclear
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All Diets Fail To Keep Off Weight

UCLA researchers confirm what you already know: diets do not work for sustained weight loss.

Will you lose weight and keep it off if you diet? No, probably not, UCLA researchers report in the April issue of American Psychologist, the journal of the American Psychological Association.

"You can initially lose 5 to 10 percent of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back," said Traci Mann, UCLA associate professor of psychology and lead author of the study. "We found that the majority of people regained all the weight, plus more. Sustained weight loss was found only in a small minority of participants, while complete weight regain was found in the majority. Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people."

Mann and her co-authors conducted the most comprehensive and rigorous analysis of diet studies, analyzing 31 long-term studies.

The researchers analyzed all studies that followed dieters from 2 to 5 years. None of them worked. Worse, these studies contain biases that overstate the benefits of the diets.

Mann said that certain factors biased the diet studies to make them appear more effective than they really were. For one, many participants self-reported their weight by phone or mail rather than having their weight measured on a scale by an impartial source. Also, the studies have very low follow-up rates — eight of the studies had follow-up rates lower than 50 percent, and those who responded may not have been representative of the entire group, since people who gain back large amounts of weight are generally unlikely to show up for follow-up tests, Mann said.

Dieting is even worse than not dieting.

"Several studies indicate that dieting is actually a consistent predictor of future weight gain," said Janet Tomiyama, a UCLA graduate student of psychology and co-author of the study. One study found that both men and women who participated in formal weight-loss programs gained significantly more weight over a two-year period than those who had not participated in a weight-loss program, she said. Another study, which examined a variety of lifestyle factors and their relationship to changes in weight in more than 19,000 healthy older men over a four-year period, found that "one of the best predictors of weight gain over the four years was having lost weight on a diet at some point during the years before the study started," Tomiyama said. In several studies, people in control groups who did not diet were not that much worse off — and in many cases were better off — than those who did diet, she said.

In a way this is great news for anyone who doesn't want to diet. You don't need to feel guilty about it. If you diet you'll just gain more weight in the long run. My guess is the body treats the scarcity of food while on a diet as a sign that it needs to build up fat stores in case another lean period happens.

So how to lose weight? The Mann and Tomiyama suspect that exercise will best keep people skinny. But their latest analysis was restricted to the effects of dieting.

People faced with morbid obesity can do the stomach surgey that restricts stomach size. That appears to work pretty reliably. Also, get enough sleep. Lack of sleep has been found a contributor to weight gain in other studies. Also, at least eat healthy foods regardless of how much food you eat.

I'd like to see more studies on the effect of eating various ratios of different types of fats and sugars. Does fructose consumption contribute to obesity? Do some fats sate hunger for longer than other fats? Do low glycemic index foods sate hunger for longer? In addition to how much we eat, what we eat might matter for weight control.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 06 11:04 AM  Aging Diet Studies
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2007 April 04 Wednesday
Denmark Fertility Boosted By Reproductive Technologies

In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and other artificial reproductive technologies (ART) have helped keep Denmark's fertility rate (1.9 babies per woman) higher than most Western countries. IVF usage in Denmark is heavily subsidized and much more heavily used.

The secret of Denmark's success seems to be a strikingly high use of artificial reproductive technologies (ART), according to an analysis presented at a meeting of the Population Association of America in New York last week. The proportion of babies born in Denmark through ART was 4.2 per cent in 2002, compared with 1.4 per cent in the UK that year and 1.2 per cent in the US in 2004. The finding lends support to calls for increased government funding of IVF in other countries with flagging birth rates. In Denmark, IVF is widely accepted, heavily subsidised and waiting times are short.

For Danish women born in 1978 6 percent of their babies are getting born with the help of IVF and other reproductive technologies.

This provides evidence for an argument I've made here previously: fertility rates in developed countries will eventually rebound. Part of the rebound will be due to selective pressures. Those women who are having more kids have genes which give them cognitive characteristics that make them more fertile. So their kids will be more inclined to make choices that cause them to make babies. But another part of the rebound will come from technological advances.

As this story above illustrates, biotechnologies will provide an additional source of increase in fertility. IVF and other reproductive technologies keep getting better too. For example, see my posts Embryo Tests More Than Double IVF Pregnancy Rate, IVF Experts Call For Lower Fertility Drug Doses, Biopsy Doubles Success Rate For IVF Babies, and Lower Fertility Drug Doses Just As Effective For IVF. Stem cell research will eventually lead to ways for women to make fresh healthy eggs in their 40s and 50s. The effective period during which women can reproduce will get extended by decades.

I am also expecting a rebound in fertility due to effective declines in the cost of child raising. Computerized learning, computerized child-minding (picture an AI notifying mom when junior is about to wander out of the yard), and a huge rise in living standards as a result of the development of nanotech replicators.

Expect a far larger boost in fertility to come from rejuvenation therapies that make bodies young again. Women in their 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and beyond will gain the ability to make their bodies young again and fertile once more. Population growth will only be controllable by strict legal restrictions on reproduction. One of my open questions about the future: will humanity restrict population growth or will we fall back down into a Malthusian trap and wipe out most of the remaining wild natural areas in the process?

By Randall Parker 2007 April 04 06:28 PM  Trends Demographic
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2007 April 03 Tuesday
MIT Computer Model Equals Brain At Rapid Categorization

Here's one of the pieces needed to create an artificial intelligence.

Now, in a new MIT study, a computer model designed to mimic the way the brain itself processes visual information performs as well as humans do on rapid categorization tasks. The model even tends to make similar errors as humans, possibly because it so closely follows the organization of the brain's visual system.

"We created a model that takes into account a host of quantitative anatomical and physiological data about visual cortex and tries to simulate what happens in the first 100 milliseconds or so after we see an object," explained senior author Tomaso Poggio of the McGovern Institute for Brain Research at MIT. "This is the first time a model has been able to reproduce human behavior on that kind of task." The study, issued on line in advance of the April 10, 2007 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), stems from a collaboration between computational neuroscientists in Poggio's lab and Aude Oliva, a cognitive neuroscientist in the MIT Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences.

This new study supports a long–held hypothesis that rapid categorization happens without any feedback from cognitive or other areas of the brain. The results also indicate that the model can help neuroscientists make predictions and drive new experiments to explore brain mechanisms involved in human visual perception, cognition, and behavior. Deciphering the relative contribution of feed-forward and feedback processing may eventually help explain neuropsychological disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. The model also bridges the gap between the world of artificial intelligence (AI) and neuroscience because it may lead to better artificial vision systems and augmented sensory prostheses.

I am expecting artificial intelligence to come as a result of work by computer scientists to emulate each function that brains do. AI will emerge from putting together lots of models of subsystems that do various functions that the brain performs.

The development of true AI will likely shake up religious believers most of all. If a computer can think like a human the obvious implication is that human thinking is not by itself evidence for a soul. If a machine can think as well as a human then why should we expect humans to have souls? I'm not saying there isn't an answer to that question. My point is that the question will become important once we achieve AI.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 03 10:25 PM  Artificial Intelligence
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2007 April 02 Monday
Heart Valve Material Grown From Stem Cells

Grown replacement parts will some day make body repair as commonplace as car repair.

A British research team led by the world's leading heart surgeon has grown part of a human heart from stem cells for the first time. If animal trials scheduled for later this year prove successful, replacement tissue could be used in transplants for the hundreds of thousands of people suffering from heart disease within three years.

Sir Magdi Yacoub, a professor of cardiac surgery at Imperial College London, has worked on ways to tackle the shortage of donated hearts for transplant for more than a decade. His team at the heart science centre at Harefield hospital have grown tissue that works in the same way as the valves in human hearts, a significant step towards the goal of growing whole replacement hearts from stem cells.

Yacoub thinks his team might be able to grow a complete heart within 10 years. That's 2017. So if you need a new heart in 2025, no problem - at least if you can afford it. But if full replacement hearts become possible by, say, 2020 (add a few years for complications along the way) then why won't all the other organs follow shortly thereafter? By the year 2030 should anyone in an industrialized country die from internal organ failure? It seems totally avoidable.

Next throw in some stem cell therapies that repair blood vessels and muscles. We''ll also need therapies to repair immune cells. That will leave the last great rejuvenation frontier: the brain. Can't replace that. Need to repair the existing cells. Brain rejuvenation is the hardest challenge of all. For that we'll need excellent gene therapy and nano repair devices. I hope many of us do not become too brain aged and dumb before such therapies become available.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 02 10:42 PM  Biotech Organ Replacement
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2007 April 01 Sunday
Coffee Use Worse On Sleep For Night Shift Workers

If you use coffee to work a night shift then the coffee decreases the quality of your daytime recovery sleep.

Montreal, October 2, 2006 -- A new study at the Université de Montréal has concluded that people drinking coffee to get through a night shift or a night of studying will strongly hurt their recovery sleep the next day. The study published in the current issue of Neuropsychopharmacology was conducted by Dr. Julie Carrier from the Department of Psychology at the Université de Montréal. Dr. Carrier runs the Chronobiology Laboratory at the Hôpital du Sacré-Coeur de Montréal.

"We already knew that caffeine has important effects on nocturnal sleep. It increases the time taken to fall asleep, it increases the amount of awakenings, and it decreases the amount of deep sleep. We have shown that these effects of caffeine on sleep are way stronger when taken at night prior to a daytime recovery sleep episode than in the evening before a nocturnal sleep episode."

"Caffeine makes daytime sleep episodes too shallow to override the signal from the biological clock that tells the body it should be awake at this time of day," explains Dr. Carrier. "We often use coffee and other sources of caffeine during the nighttime to counteract sleepiness generated by sleep deprivation, jet lag, and shift-work. However, this habit may have important effects when you then try to recuperate during daytime."

Thirty-four moderate caffeine consumers participated in both caffeine (200 mg) and placebo (lactose) conditions in a double-blind crossover design. Seventeen subjects followed their habitual sleep–wake cycle and slept in the laboratory during the night (Night), while 17 subjects were sleep deprived for one night and recovery sleep started in the morning (DayRec). All subjects received a capsule of 100 mg of caffeine (or placebo) 3 hours before bedtime, and the remaining dose 1 hour before bedtime. Compared to placebo, caffeine lengthened sleep latency, increased stage 1, and reduced stage 2 and slow-wave sleep (SWS) in both groups. However, caffeine reduced sleep efficiency more strongly in the DayRec group, and decreased sleep duration and REM sleep only in that group.

People who stay up all night feel the greatest need to use coffee and other sleep-fighting stimulants. But they should most try to avoid use of coffee since they need quality deep sleep when they try to sleep during the day. Sorry about that late night workers.

Wondering whether to drink more coffee? Also see my posts Scientists Demonstrate Best Way To Use Caffeine and Coffee Drinking Slows Cognitive Decline.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 01 01:08 PM  Brain Sleep
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Trade-Off Between Working Memory And Memory Formation?

Blocking neurogenesis helped mice better use recently acquired information still in working memory.

NEW YORK – New research from Columbia University Medical Center may explain why people who are able to easily and accurately recall historical dates or long-ago events, may have a harder time with word recall or remembering the day’s current events. They may have too much memory – making it harder to filter out information and increasing the time it takes for new short-term memories to be processed and stored.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (March 13, 2007 issue), the research reinforces the old adage that too much of anything – even something good for you – can actually be detrimental. In this case, the good thing is the growth of new neurons, a process called neurogenesis, in the hippocampus, the region of the brain responsible for learning and memory.

I just had a conversation with a neuroscientist about neurogenesis and memory formation. He downplayed the need for neurogenesis to form at least some types of memories. A lot of memory formation gets done by protein synthesis and connection formation between existing neurons. Yet this press release implies a role for neurogenesis in longer term memory formation.

Here is the meat of the matter: A cut in neurogenesis allowed mice to use their working memory more efficiently.

Results of the study, conducted with mice, found that the absence of neurogenesis in the hippocampus improves working memory, a specific form of short-term memory that relates to the ability to store task-specific information for a limited timeframe, e.g., where your car is parked in a huge mall lot or remembering a phone number for few seconds before writing it down. Because working memory is highly sensitive to interference from information previously stored in memory, forgetting such information may therefore be necessary for performing everyday working memory tasks, such as balancing your check book or decision making.

“We were surprised to find that halting neurogenesis caused an improvement of working memory, which suggests that too much memory is not always a good thing, and that forgetting is important for normal cognition and behavior,” said Gaël Malleret, Ph.D., a research scientist at the Center for Neurobiology and Behavior at Columbia University Medical Center and the paper’s co-first author. “Altogether, our findings suggest that new neurons in the hippocampus have different, and in some cases, opposite roles in distinct types of memory storage, and that excess neurogenesis can be detrimental to some memory processes.”

Maybe there's a trade-off between better use of memory on a given day versus formation of long term memories. Enhancement of neurogenesis might turn out to boost, for example, the memory formation of a medical student who is trying to memorize all the bones and muscles in the body. Does halting of neurogenesis reduce the formation of long term memories in mice?

Attempts to achieve Artificial Intelligence (AI) will need to avoid excessive memory formation. Also, attempts to boost new memory formation in humans and other animals will need to weigh the costs to working memory function.

“We believe these findings have important implications for diverse disciplines ranging from medicine to artificial intelligence,” said Dr. Malleret. “In medicine, these findings have significant implications for possible therapeutic interventions to improve memory – a careful balance of neurogenesis would need to be struck to improve memory without overwhelming it with too much activity.”

I've love to double or triple my working memory set. This'll probably come much sooner for new babies by use of embryo genetic engineering. We'll probably gain the capability to boost offspring intelligence many years before we gain that same capability to change fully formed and extremely complex adult brains.

Then there are the memories that you don't much want to keep around. Some work is tedious and boring. Do you want to remember every time you did a highly repetitive task on an assembly line or other work setting? I guess you'd want to remember it only well enough to remind you to take steps necessary to avoid the need to work in such a job again.

By Randall Parker 2007 April 01 08:38 AM  Brain Memory
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