2007 November 30 Friday
Suppression Of NF-kappa-B Makes Old Mice Look Younger

What, a way to look younger? Suddenly many readers are paying more attention.

STANFORD, Calif. - Researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have reversed the effects of aging on the skin of mice, at least for a short period, by blocking the action of a single critical protein.

The work could one day be useful in helping older people heal from an injury as quickly as they did when they were younger, said senior author Howard Chang, MD, PhD, assistant professor of dermatology. However, Chang and his colleagues warned their finding will likely be useful in short-term therapies in older people but not as a potential fountain of youth.

Imagine the size of the market if this could be done safely. Even a risky way to do this would have a big market if regulatory agencies allowed drugs for restoring youthful appearances to be sold with known publicized risks.

NF-kappa-B regulates gene expression. Gene expression changes as we get older. Suppression of NF-kappa-B restored a more youthful pattern of gene expression and made mice look younger.

Chang said people had long known that NF-kappa-B winds its way into a cell's nucleus to control which genes were active. What they didn't know is that many of those genes regulated by the protein have a role in aging.

Chang and Adler tested whether blocking the activity of NF-kappa-B in the skin of older mice for two weeks had a youthful effect. "We found a pretty striking reversal to that of the young skin," Chang said.

First they looked at the genetic changes resulting from blocking NF-kappa-B. After two weeks, the skin of 2-year-old mice had the same genes active as cells in the skin of newborn mice-a striking difference when compared with the skin of a normal 2-year-old mouse. The skin looked more youthful too. It was thicker and more cells appeared to be dividing, much like the skin of a younger mouse.

Sounds great. So why not just develop drugs that suppress NF-kappa-B and slather them on our faces? We'd run the risk of getting cancer.

Chang and Adler caution that their findings aren't likely to be the source of the long-sought fountain of youth. That's because they don't know if the rejuvenating effects of NF-kappa-B are long-lasting. Also, the protein has roles in cancer, the immune system and a range of other functions throughout the body. Suppressing the protein on a long-term basis could very well result in cancers or other diseases that undermine its otherwise youthful effect.

Effective non-toxic cures for cancer would enable the use of many rejuvenation therapies. Lots of mechanisms by which cells become less active as we age are probably anti-cancer defenses. Turning down the metabolism of old damaged cells reduces their ability to start dividing uncontrollably. Only a very very small fraction of all old cells have accumulated the right set of mutations needed to start a cancer. But the body has to suppress a much larger number of cells in order to make sure the smaller number which are near cancerous won't develop into fully cancerous cells.

Another possibility: Gene therapies will some day repair cells that have mutations that increase the risk of cancer. Then drugs that suppress NF-kappa-B could be applied to the skin without risk of cancer.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 30 12:54 AM  Aging Appearances
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2007 November 28 Wednesday
New Exxon Mobil Film For Lithium Ion Car Batteries

This discovery is not consistent with conspiracy theories about how oil companies are holding back discoveries of substitutes. Though I'm confident dedicated conspiracists can reconcile this announcement with their beliefs. Anyway, ExxonMobil claims a discovery by their researchers will make lithium ion batteries usable in cars.

ExxonMobil Chemical and ExxonMobil's Japanese affiliate, Tonen Chemical, have developed new film technologies for lithium-ion batteries with the potential to improve the energy efficiency and affordability of next generation hybrid and electric vehicles.

These new film technologies are expected to significantly enhance the power, safety and reliability of lithium-ion batteries, thereby helping speed the adoption of these smaller and lighter batteries into the next wave of lower-emission vehicles.

“By developing new film technologies that allow lithium-ion batteries to meet hybrid and electric vehicle requirements, ExxonMobil Chemical is helping to make next generation vehicles more energy and cost efficient, as well as lighter,” said Jim P. Harris, senior vice president, ExxonMobil Chemical Company. “We are currently working with industry-leading battery manufacturers to expand the boundaries of current hybrid and electric vehicle applications.”

The nickel metal hydride batteries found in hybrids like the Toyota Prius don't have enough storage capacity and low enough cost to make pluggable hybrids and pure electric cars practical. The great hope is for both cost and safety breakthroughs with lithium-based batteries. A number of companies are chasing this goal. A123Systems and LG Chem are both in the running to supply next gen batteries to General Motors for the Chevy Volt pluggable hybrid. ExxonMobil apparently is making it easier for more lithium battery makers to compete. Sounds good to me.

The film protects batteries from overheating of the sort that caused laptop batteries to catch fire.

Exxon Mobil developed its film with Japanese affiliate Tonen Chemical. Invented in research labs at Exxon Mobil's Baytown complex, the film is the first to squeeze multiple layers of plastic into a single white sheet the width of a human hair.

The added layers enable the batteries to run at higher temperatures — and produce more power — while still protecting them from overheating, company officials said. It also incorporates features that cause it to shut down if there is a short circuit in the battery.

Exxon and Tonen are going into production with this film at a plant in Gumi South Korea.

Exxon says this film will make a new generation of hybrids possible.

"This new technology for making films, will make the next generation of hybrid and electric vehicles possible," said Jim Harris, a senior vice president at ExxonMobil Chemical Co.

The world is in a race between population growth and resource depletion that cause problems and technological advances that solve at least some of those problems. Advances in battery technologies definitely fit the bill as necessary to deal with resource depletion and population growth.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 28 10:32 PM  Energy Batteries
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2007 November 27 Tuesday
Higher Testosterone Men Face Lower All Cause Mortality

If your high testosterone doesn't get you killed from recklessness it probably makes you live longer.

CAMBRIDGE, England, Nov. 26 -- In otherwise healthy men, low testosterone is associated with an increased risk of death from any cause as well as from cardiovascular causes and cancer, researchers here said.

For all-cause mortality, each increase of six nanomoles of testosterone per liter of serum was associated with about a 14% drop in the risk of death, Kay-Tee Khaw, M.B.B.Ch., of the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, and colleagues reported in the Dec. 4 issue of Circulation.

These results come from a study on over eleven thousand men enrolled in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer in Norfolk England. If you have low testosterone you especially ought to try to reduce other risk factors.

Lead author Dr Kay-Tee Khaw (University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine, UK) commented to heartwire: "This is the largest study of testosterone levels ever conducted. We don't know whether the association shown between higher levels of testosterone and lower mortality is causal or just a marker of something else, but regardless of this, it appears that low testosterone levels do identify a group at increased risk of cardiovascular death who could benefit from more aggressive treatments in terms of cholesterol and blood-pressure lowering."

Curiously, the men with higher testosterone did not appear to have higher risk of prostate cancer.

This result is consistent with some other recent studies on this topic. See my posts Low Testosterone Men Die More Rapidly and Low Testosterone Men Die Sooner.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 27 10:57 PM  Aging Drugs
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Insulin Resistant Diabetes Boosted By High Glycemic Index Diet

Instead of avoiding fats it probably makes a lot more sense to eat less carbo.

Eating foods high on the glycemic index, which measures the effect of carbohydrates on blood glucose levels, may be associated with the risk for developing type 2 diabetes in Chinese women and in African-American women, according to two studies in the November 26 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals. However, eating more cereal fiber may be associated with a reduced risk for type 2 diabetes in African-American women.

Researchers remain uncertain regarding exactly how diet, including carbohydrate intake, affects the development of type 2 diabetes, according to background information in the articles. Studies have revealed that the body absorbs carbohydrates from different foods at different rates. This leads to varying effects on levels of blood glucose and the hormone insulin, which converts glucose into energy. Foods high on the glycemic index, such as rice and other simple carbohydrates, cause a rapid spike and then a drop in blood glucose, whereas high-fiber foods tend to be lower on the glycemic index and have a more gradual effect. Some evidence has linked high–glycemic index foods with the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In one study, Supriya Krishnan, D.Sc., of Boston University School of Public Health, and colleagues examined data from 40,078 U.S. black women who filled out a food questionnaire in 1995. The glycemic index and glycemic load—a measure of the amount of carbohydrates from glucose—were calculated. Every two years through 2003, the women answered follow-up questionnaires about their weight, health and other factors.

A high carbohydrate diet with high glycemic index foods almost doubled the risk of type 2 insulin resistant diabetes.

During the study, 1,608 of the women developed diabetes. Women who consumed more carbohydrates overall were more likely to develop diabetes—when they were split into five groups based on carbohydrate intake, those in the group consuming the most (about 337.6 grams per day) had a 28 percent higher risk than those in the group consuming the least (about 263.5 grams per day). Women who ate diets with a higher glycemic index and who ate more staples such as bread, noodles and rice specifically also had an increased risk. Women who ate 300 grams or more of rice per day were 78 percent more likely to develop diabetes than those who ate less than 200 grams per day.

Chinese women who eat more rice are at higher risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus. Cut way back on grains consumption. If you eat grains then at least eat whole grains. Also, pasta is lower in glycemic index than bread. Check out this long list of foods and their glycemic index values. Shift toward beans and away from grains. Eat more fruits and vegetables and nuts. Also see this cool sortable database of glycemic index and glycemic load of foods.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 27 10:42 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2007 November 26 Monday
Omega 3 Fatty Acids Protect Against Parkinsons Disease?

Here is yet another reason to eat more salmon.

Quebec City, November 26, 2007—Omega-3 fatty acids protect the brain against Parkinson’s disease, according to a study by Université Laval researchers published in the online edition of the FASEB Journal, the journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology. This study, supervised by Frederic Calon and Francesca Cicchetti, is the first to demonstrate the protective effect of a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids against Parkinson’s.

Parkinson’s disease is caused by the progressive death of the neurons responsible for producing dopamine, a neurotransmitter closely linked with movement control. The disease is usually diagnosed when 50 to 80% of these neurons are already dead, and there is currently no medication to stop that process.

The Université Laval research team’s findings could help prevent the disease and, potentially, slow down its progression.

The researchers observed that when mice were fed an omega-3 rich diet, they seemed immune to the effect of MPTP, a toxic compound that causes the same damage to the brain as Parkinson’s. “This compound, which has been used for more than 20 years in Parkinson’s research, works faster than the disease itself and is just as effective in targeting and destroying the dopamine-producing neurons in the brain,” points out Calon.

By contrast, another group of mice that were fed an ordinary diet developed the characteristic symptoms of the disease when injected with MPTP, including a 31% drop in dopamine-producing neurons and a 50% decrease in dopamine levels.

Analyses revealed that omega-3 fatty acids—in particular DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), a specific type of omega-3—had replaced the omega-6 fatty acids already present in the brains of the mice that had been given omega-3 supplementation.

I eat salmon 5 times a week. Most other omega 3 fatty acid sources are inferior in comparison. Though mackerel, sardines, and herring have high omega 3 concentrations close to salmon. But if you are worried about mercury then avoid mackerel since it has very high mercury concentrations.

A combination of omega 3 fatty acid DHA, choline, and uridine boosted synapse regeneration in rodents.

MIT researchers have shown that a cocktail containing three compounds normally in the blood stream promotes growth of new brain connections and improves cognitive function in rodents. The treatment is now being tested in Alzheimer's patients and could hold promise for other brain diseases and injuries.

The mixture, which includes a type of omega-3 fatty acid, is part of a new approach to attacking Alzheimer's. That approach focuses on correcting the loss of synapses, or connections between neurons, which characterizes the disease.

Each of the components of the mixture boosted synapse growth. But the combination of the 3 substances produced the biggest increase.

In the Brain Research paper, the MIT team reported that rodents given a cocktail of DHA (a type of omega-3 fatty acid), uridine and choline showed a greatly increased concentration of dendritic spines, which receive messages in the postsynaptic neuron. That indicates that synapse regeneration has occurred, which is unusual, Wurtman said.

Synapse regrowth could also prove an effective treatment for other brain diseases, such as Parkinson's, or for brain injuries, he said.

Salmon and eggs might deliver a double punch for increased brain performance.

Omega-3 fatty acids are not produced in the body but are found in a variety of sources, including fish, eggs, flaxseed and meat from grass-fed animals. Choline can be synthesized in the body and obtained through the diet; it is found in meats, nuts and eggs. Uridine cannot be obtained from food sources, but is a component of human breast milk and can be produced in the body.

Nuts and eggs and salmon. That's the ticket.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 26 11:48 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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2007 November 25 Sunday
Obstacles And Opposition To Wind Power

A couple of New York Times pieces on wind power illustrate some of the obstacles in the way of growth in wind power.

In the United States, one of the areas most suited for wind turbines is the central part of the country, stretching from Texas through the northern Great Plains — far from the coastal population centers that need the most electricity.

In Denmark, which pioneered wind energy in Europe, construction of wind farms has stagnated in recent years. The Danes export much of their wind-generated electricity to Norway and Sweden because it comes in unpredictable surges that often outstrip demand.

In 2003, Ireland put a moratorium on connecting wind farms to its electricity grid because of the strains that power surges were putting on the network; it has since begun connecting them again.

Denmark was able to scale up wind power because it can buy electricity from neighbors when the wind doesn't blow. But if the neighbors do it as well then Denmark will eventually need to build more fossil fuel backup power plants to run when the wind doesn't blow.

The article says that Sweden is better suited for an increase in wind energy because they can use wind electric to pump water up into reservoirs to flow downhill later to generate electricity when the wind doesn't blow. But what's the cost of doing that?

Germany is also hitting limits on wind power.

In Germany, where 20,000 wind turbines generate 5 percent of the electricity, advocates say wind will be critical to meeting the government’s goal of generating at least 20 percent of all power from renewable methods by 2020. But the industry’s growth is slowing for a variety of reasons.

Germany is running out of places to put the turbines because of restrictions on the location and height of the devices. And rising raw material prices are making wind farms more expensive to build.

Germany is responsible for over half the world's photovoltaic demand even though it is so far north and therefore receives lower amounts of sunlight. The Germans are trying very hard to get green with energy. But their country is so densely populated and so far north that they are not well suited for wind and solar as compared to, say, the US great plains for wind or Arizona for sun. The Germans are better candidates for nuclear power than the United States but greenie opposition to nukes there currently has nuclear power on a path to a phase-out there. German Chancellor Angela Merkel might succeed in turning around that phase-out though.

Rising raw materials prices are also making coal plants, nuclear plants, and other electric power plants more expensive to build as well. So it is not clear that wind's relative competitive position is declining due to cost reasons. I suspect in wind's case part of the problem is that manufacturing capacity needs to catch up with the surge in demand.

What I'd like to know: Are more advanced wind turbine designs going to lower wind's cost more rapidly than that of other electric power sources?

The Europeans are putting in wind farms in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Since we are running out of fossil fuels this is the wrong motivation. But fortunately these wind farms will provide needed energy when Russian oil deliveries start declining and later when natural gas deliveries start declining as well.

A proposal to put up 33 wind turbines to power 43,000 homes in upstate New York has heavily divided a community.

So on the road from Grand Gorge to Stamford you see the yard signs popping up in front of barns and houses — “Yes to Clean Energy” on some, “No Industrial Wind Turbines” or “Save Our Mountains” on others.

It’s a long way from the hellish fires in Southern California or the scary drought in the Southeast to the Catskills. But for those contemplating the issues of climate change and the roadway to greener energy, it’s not so far away at all. Whatever role climate change may be playing right now, it’s clear that even something so elemental as the wind is as subject to the vagaries of politics, self-interest and community dynamics as anything else.

“I will say this just once: not in my backyard,” Mr. Many said, when asked to characterize the discord. “People in Delaware County think it ought to be in the Adirondacks. People in the Adirondacks think it should be in the ocean off Massachusetts. Teddy Kennedy thinks it should be somewhere else. Everyone wants alternative energy, but no one wants it where they have to look at it.”

I love NIMBYism. In this era of so much faux concern for others it is refreshing to hear such clear selfish declarations. But can't we be more practical in our NIMBYism? Both nuclear and solar have much less esthetic impact. If I was going to get my view of mountains and valleys ruined by a wind farm that covers a wide area I'd argue for a nuclear plant that covers a much smaller area and produces far more power. I'd also argue for an acceleration of research on photovoltaic materials such as thin films and nanotubes.

Wind electric is growing most rapidly of all electric sources when looked at in terms of percentage increase.

Of the big four sources of net generation (coal, nuclear, natural gas, and conventional hydroelectric), only hydroelectric generation showed a decrease from August 2006 to August 2007, as it was down by 7.9 percent. According to NOAA, “severe to extreme drought” affected about 29 percent of the contiguous United States and approximately 44 percent of the contiguous United States fell in the “moderate to extreme drought” category. Coal generation in August 2007 was up 0.6 percent from August 2006 and net generation attributable to nuclear sources was up 1.0 percent over the same period. Natural gas-fired generation was up 13.6 percent from its August 2006 level as more peaking generation was needed in the warmer month. Petroleum liquid-fired generation was down 10.9 compared to a year ago, and its overall share of net generation was still quite small compared to coal, nuclear, and natural gas-fired sources. Wind-powered generation was 47.8 percent higher in August 2007 than it was in August 2006.

But a look at wind's contribution in absolute terms yields a different picture. The absolute increase in nuclear generation, at 6.2 million MWh more, was much greater than the absolute increase in wind generation, at 3.6 million MWh more. To put dollar signs on this keep in mind that average retail electricity sells for about 10 cents per kilowatt-hour. So that represents an increase in nuclear power sales of about $620 million and for wind power about $360 million. Maybe cut those numbers in half to get an idea of how much money was paid to the actual generating companies. Anyone have a more accurate way to estimate that?

The biggest absolute increase came from natural gas and the second biggest came from coal. Even the increase from petroleum liquids was greater than that from wind.

Year-to-date, net generation was 1.6 percent higher (43.1 million MWh more) than the same period in 2006, as the economy continued to grow, according to the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis. Net generation attributable to coal-fired plants was up by 1.4 percent (19.0 million MWh more) compared to the same period in 2006, and nuclear net generation was up by 1.2 percent (6.2 million MWh more). Generation from petroleum liquids was 19.8 percent higher (6.3 million MWh higher) while generation from natural gas was 6.9 percent higher (39.0 million MWh higher). Year-to-date, net generation attributable to conventional hydroelectric sources was 13.4 percent lower (down 28.5 million MWh) than it was in 2006 due to the aforementioned drought conditions. Wind-powered generation year-to-date was 21.0 percent higher than in 2006 and contributed over 3.6 million MWh, or 8.4 percent of the increase in net generation year to date. Even with these significant increases, the contribution of wind-powered net generation to the National total year-to-date was only 0.7 percent through August 2007.

At 0.7% wind power is still a very minor electric power contributor. Electricity, in turn, is only one of the ways we use energy. Given all the non-electric use of natural gas, oil, and other fossil fuels wind power's contribution to the total power usage is even smaller.

I find the increase electric generation from petroleum liquids puzzling. Oil is about 3 times more expensive than natural gas per million BTUs. So why the big increase in petroleum liquids for electricity? Anyone know?

We need to shift more uses of energy from oil to electricity. Oil production is near a peak and we are going to need to move away from it by using more electrically powered devices. Cheaper wind (though not in my backyard or on any mountain range I like to look at) is part of the solution. But we really need photovoltaics cost breakthroughs, more nuclear power, and more research into ways to make nuclear power cheaper. I think solar and nuclear power should be our biggest sources of energy in the future with wind in third place.

Update: Another New York Times article discusses the growing anti-wind movement in many countries due mostly to esthetic considerations.

Supporters see modern wind turbines not as Don Quixote’s ferocious giants but as elegant symbols of a clean-energy future. But as the industry expands amid global pressure to cut carbon emissions and fight climate change, an increasingly mobilized anti-wind farm lobby in Europe, North America and elsewhere is decrying the turbines as ugly, noisy and destructive, especially for picturesque locales that rely on tourism. “These are not just one or two turbines spinning majestically in the blue sky and billowing clouds,” said Lisa Linowes, executive director of Industrial Wind Action Group, an international advocacy group based in New Hampshire that opposes wind farms.

Greeks are fighting against wind because 16% of their economy is based on tourism. Englishmen don't want their views of castles and Hadrian's Wall ruined by 100 meter high wind towers with huge blades.

“The eyes are constantly drawn to them,” said John Ferguson, a member of S.O.U.L. (or Save Our Unspoilt Landscape), a group opposing the nine-turbine Barmoor Wind Farm in the lush northeastern English county of Northumberland. Several wind farm developers are considering Northumberland, whose castles and national parks are a big tourist draw.

There's a solution to this problem. It is called nuclear power. SOUL has used Photoshop or a similar program to show what huge wind towers will look like in different locations in English countryside. I've been unenthused about wind power for a long time on aesthetic grounds. I'm happy to hear opposition has become more organized. If you are wondering whether wind towers might get built near you check out maps of wind speed at 80 meters high above the ground.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 25 10:41 AM  Energy Wind
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2007 November 23 Friday
Even Low Blood Lead Levels Lower IQ?

Lead toxicity to the brain appears to kick in at pretty low blood levels of lead.

Even very small amounts of lead in children's blood -- amounts well below the current federal standard -- are associated with reduced IQ scores, finds a new six-year Cornell study.

The study examined the effect of lead exposure on cognitive function in children whose blood-lead levels (BLLs) were below the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) standard of 10 micrograms per deciliter (mcg/dl) -- about 100 parts per billion. The researchers compared children whose BLLs were between 0 and 5 mcg/dl with children in the 5-10 mcg/dl range.

"Even after taking into consideration family and environmental factors known to affect a child's cognitive performance, blood lead played a significant role in predicting nonverbal IQ scores," says Richard Canfield, a senior researcher in Cornell's Division of Nutritional Sciences and senior author of the study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. "We found that the average IQ scores of children with BLLs of only 5 to 10 mcg/dl were about 5 points lower than the IQ scores of children with BLLs less than 5 mcg/dl. This indicates an adverse effect on children who have a BLL substantially below the CDC standard, suggesting the need for more stringent regulations," he said.

Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) and B1 (thiamine) enhance lead excretion. Screening of children in high risk neighborhoods might identify neighborhoods where children should take a multivitamin that will raise their IQs by reducing lead toxicity. A 5 point IQ jump would pay back the cost of the screening and vitamins many times over.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 23 11:26 PM  Brain Development
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New Moms Who Lack Sleep Gain Weight

Some people think women need to go on diets after giving birth in order to take off weight gained while pregnant. But the weight gained while pregnant might not be the biggest problem. Time taken to care for babies might cause a state of sleep deficiency that causes weight gain.

Mothers who reported sleeping five hours or less per day when their babies were six months old had a threefold higher risk for substantial weight retention (11 pounds or more) at their baby’s first birthday than moms who slept seven hours per day, according to a new study by Kaiser Permanente and Harvard Medical School / Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

The study, published in the November issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, is the first to look at the impact of sleep deprivation on postpartum weight retention. Previous studies have looked at the effect of early postpartum sleep deprivation on mothers’ cognitive and emotional health but never associated weight gain.

“We’ve known for some time that sleep deprivation is associated with weight gain and obesity in the general population, but this study shows that getting enough sleep – even just two hours more – may be as important as a healthy diet and exercise for new mothers to return to their pre-pregnancy weight,” said Erica P. Gunderson, PhD, an investigator at the Kaiser Permanente Division of Research in Oakland and the lead author of the study.

This result is consistent with other studies which find sleep deficiency promotes weight gain. The interesting twist on this study is that the stereotype of women losing their figures when they have kids might be explained by lack of sleep rather than by a permanent change in their metabolism caused by pregnancy.

What to do about it? Babies are oblivious to the needs of their mothers and some babies wake up a lot in the middle of the night.

The lack of sleep is stressful and increases disease risks.

The study also found that mothers who slept fewer hours at one year postpartum than they did at six months postpartum had twice the risk of substantial weight retention. Other studies have shown that persistent sleep deprivation causes hormonal changes that may stimulate appetite. Shorter sleep duration has not only been linked to obesity in women, but coronary artery disease and diabetes as well.

Some research backs up the idea of letting babies cry themselves to sleep.

Mothers who learn to let their babies cry themselves to sleep have better nights and suffer less postnatal depression, research suggests.

A report in the British Medical Journal found that teaching mothers "controlled crying" techniques significantly reduced sleep problems.

Another method is called core night. See some other techniques for getting babies to sleep/.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 23 11:04 PM  Brain Appetite
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Young Babies Prefer Altruists?

Babies reach for wooden dolls which they see help other dolls?

New Haven, Conn.—In the first evidence of its kind to date, Yale researchers find that infants prefer individuals who help others to those who either do nothing, or interfere with others’ goals, it is reported today in Nature.

“This supports the view that our ability to evaluate people is a biological adaptation—universal and unlearned,” said the authors of the study.

The study included six-and-10-month-old babies whose preferences were determined by recording which of two actors they reached towards.

In the first experiment, infants saw a wooden character with large glued-on eyes known as “The Climber.” At first, the climber rested at the bottom of a hill. The climber repeatedly tried without success to make it up the hill and was then either helped to the top by a triangular character that pushed the climber from behind, or hindered by a square character that pushed the climber down the hill.

During the test phase—after the infants had sufficiently processed the events—the researchers measured the infants’ attitudes towards the helper and hinderer by seeing which characters they reached for. Fourteen of the 16 10-month-olds, and all 12 six-month-olds, preferred the helper. A second experiment ruled out the possibility that the infants were merely responding to the direction in which the figures were moving. In a third experiment, infants of both ages preferred a helper to a neutral party, and then a neutral party over one who hindered.

What about the two infants that reached for the hinderer? Young Eric Cartmans? Bad to the bone? Or dumb clueless Forrest Gumps? Do the kids with autism or Asperger's Syndrome express a preference for the helpers?

By Randall Parker 2007 November 23 06:06 PM  Brain Altruism
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Pedometers With Goals Up Exercise And Lower Weight

Get a pedometer to measure your walking and adopt a goal.

Dena M. Bravata, M.D., M.S., of Stanford University, Calif., and colleagues evaluated the association between pedometer use and physical activity and health outcomes among adults. The authors searched databases for studies and articles on this topic, and identified 26 studies with a total of 2,767 participants that met inclusion criteria (eight randomized controlled trials [RCTs] and 18 observational studies). The participants’ average age was 49 years and 85 percent were women. The average intervention duration was 18 weeks.

In the RCTs, pedometer users significantly increased their physical activity by 2,491 steps per day more than control participants. Among the observational studies, pedometer users significantly increased their physical activity by 2,183 steps per day over baseline (2,000 steps is about one mile). Overall, pedometer users increased their physical activity by 26.9 percent over baseline. Among the intervention characteristics, having a step goal was the key predictor of increased physical activity. The three studies that did not include a step goal had no significant improvement in physical activity with pedometer use in contrast to increases of more than 2,000 steps per day with the use of a 10,000-step-per-day goal or other goal.

Intervention participants significantly decreased their body mass index by 0.38 from baseline. This reduction was associated with older age and having a step goal. Participants also significantly decreased their systolic blood pressure by 3.8 mm Hg, which was associated with greater systolic blood pressure at baseline and change in steps per day.

Use technology to give you immediate feedback in progress toward goals. Makes sense.

I'm thinking I ought to get a pedometer.Go for the the pocket Omron HJ-720ITC or the corded Omron HJ-112? Does the pocket one work as well?

By Randall Parker 2007 November 23 03:53 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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Grapes Might Reduce Colon Cancer Risk

A moderate dose of grapes per day seems to suppress a genetic pathway involved in colon cancer development.

Led by Dr. Randall Holcombe, director of clinical research at the Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center at UC Irvine, the study followed up on previous in vitro studies showing that resveratrol, a nutritional supplement derived from grape extract, blocks a cellular signaling pathway known as the Wnt pathway. The Wnt pathway has been linked to more than 85 percent of sporadic colon cancers, which is the most common form of colon cancer.

The UC Irvine researchers conducted their study with colon cancer patients. One group was given 20 milligrams daily of resveratrol as a pill; another drank 120 grams daily of grape powder mixed in water; and a third drank 80 grams daily of grape powder.

While the supplements did not have an impact on existing tumors, biopsied colon tissue showed that Wnt signaling in the patients taking 80 grams of grape powder was significantly reduced. Similar changes were not seen in patients taking the higher dose of grape powder or the resveratrol pills.

So excess is not always best and the whole food has advantages over the supplement pill.

Up for a pound of grapes every day?

Eighty grams of grape powder equal a half glass of wine or 1 pound of grapes, which is equivalent to three dietary servings of grapes, according to the USDA.

The wine has alcohol that will increase your risk of some cancers. Grape juice might be more effective.

My general take on studies about specific foods is that they typically are too short in duration and each food has such limited effect that we can't tell whether eating that food for years and years will increase your odds of survival. Remember, you can reduce your risk of a single disease but as a side effect increase your risk of something else. Or maybe you weren't at much risk of, say, colon cancer in the first place.

Whereas studies about whole categories of foods (e.g. vegetables and fruits) typically involve larger groups of people for longer periods of time. So we can state with some confidence that eating lots of fruits and vegetables will increase your life expectancy. But how much of the benefit is coming from particular fruits or vegetables is less clear.

Some of the benefit of fruits and vegetables is probably coming from a displacement effect. The fruits and vegetables displace less healthy foods from the diet. Eat a lot of vegetables and therefore eat less white flour and other refined high glycemic index foods.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 23 02:22 PM  Aging Diet Resveratrol
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2007 November 22 Thursday
Heating Furnace Efficiency Mandates And Comparison Of Heat Sources

The US federal government isn't doing much to improve home heating furnace energy efficiency.

Under the new rule, the US Department of Energy (DOE) in 2015 will require nonweatherized gas-fired furnaces – the kind most used for home heating – to be 80 percent energy efficient. That's up from the current mandate of 78 percent.


But that slight uptick won't have much impact on natural gas use since 99 percent of furnaces sold are already at that level, industry data show.

The manufacturers didn't want to be forced to a higher minimum standard since that would make the cheapest gas burning furnace more expensive. That would cause them to lose some sales to heat pumps, oil furnaces, and other heat generators. Well, the industry got its way.

My guess is a higher standard would have been cost justifiable. I especially suspect that since I expect natural gas prices to go up faster than the overall rate of inflation.

Under the DOE's new efficiency standards, consumers will save $700 million and prevent 7.8 million metric tons of carbon dioxide from wafting into the atmosphere, over 24 years, DOE says. Had DOE instituted a 90 percent standard, consumers would save at least $11 billion and prevent the release of 141 metric tons of CO2 over the same time period, according to separate analyses from the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy as well as Dow Chemical and the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Some states (at least Maryland, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island) impose higher standards. So how much more do gas furnaces cost in those states?

Various heating devices come at more than one efficiency level. For example, heat pumps from the same manufacturer come at different efficiency levels. So if you want to get a new furnace or heat pump make sure you compare and consider how much efficiency you gain in the more expensive models.

I found a web calculator page for comparing cost effectiveness of different heating methods. Note that their default values for the energy sources are from a few years back and you need to put higher costs in for just about every energy source. For electricity use 10 cents per kwh or use the number for your state in that chart or check your electric bill. At the time of this writing heating oil in the US is averaging $3.21 per gallon. For propane the cost is $2.43 per gallon. At those prices a ground source (geothermal) heat pump is about a fourth the cost of oil or propane per BTU of generated heat. At least in the Baltimore area natural gas is going for about 92 cents per therm. That makes natural gas less than a third the cost of oil for heating. Geothermal heat pumps produce the most heat per dollar spent on energy inputs than other sources. But geothermal heat pumps also cost the most for initial installation ($18,000.00 to $35,000.00).

In colder climates where natural gas is not available the geothermal heat pumps already pay back quickly enough. Plus, since heat pumps run off of electricity their operating costs won't go up as fast as oil or natural gas. Natural gas prices are going to rise as US and Canadian natural gas production declines and as more users of oil shift to natural gas. But I do not expect the inflation rate for electricity to be as high as the inflation rates for oil or natural gas. Electricity has a long run cost ceiling that isn't much higher than the cost of electricity today because nuclear power only costs about 2 cents a kwh more than coal. Though electricity prices can go higher when fossil fuels start running out and before a lot of nuclear plants and wind towers can get built. But once oil production starts declining the cost advantage of using electricity to drive heat pumps will become much bigger.

Space heat and hot water account for about 4.9% of US oil usage. So a replacement all oil furnaces by geothermal and air heat pumps would reduce US oil usage by almost 5%. This is a shift that will pay for itself in dollars saved.

Update If you are considering putting in a wood boiler furnace regulatory risk should be a consideration. Many municipalities are restricting or banning wood boilers as heat sources due to air quality concerns.

Concerned about air quality and neighborhood disputes, Hampden joined a growing number of communities nationwide setting their own rules on the increasingly popular wood boilers, which are not federally regulated. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends emissions and air quality standards, but does not regulate where and when the wood-fired burners can be installed or used.

Rules are patchy on the state level, too.

Some states, including Connecticut and Maine, have regulations and let their municipalities adopt even stricter limits or ban the boilers altogether. Massachusetts has considered statewide rules but has not enacted them, while Michigan offers a model ordinance that local governments can adopt in the absence of statewide standards.

More sparsely populated rural areas are less likely to regulate the use of wood for heat. So if you have few neighbors you probably have minimal regulatory risk from spending $10,000 to $15,000 on a wood furnace. Though once fossil fuels production declines the rising demand for wood for both heating and biomass energy conversion will probably drive up prices of wood. My guess is electricity doesn't face as much upside price risk as wood.

Update: Migration of heating to geothermal heat pumps should be treated as an urgent matter. Why? See the October 23, 2007 CalTech lecture by Matthews Simmons "Is The Future Of Energy Sustainable" (PDF format). The production of oil is going to go into steep decline. We need to shift in advance as many processes as possible away from oil before that decline becomes steep and highly disruptive.

Update II: Also read the excellent Simmons Bermuda presentation (PDF format).

By Randall Parker 2007 November 22 11:01 PM  Energy Heating
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2007 November 20 Tuesday
Skin Cells Reprogrammed Into Pluripotent Stem Cells

Adult human cells can be reprogrammed to act like embryonic stem cells (which are notable for their ability to become all other cell types in the body).

In a paper to be published Nov. 22 in the online edition of the journal Science, a team of University of Wisconsin-Madison researchers reports the genetic reprogramming of human skin cells to create cells indistinguishable from embryonic stem cells.


The new study was conducted in the laboratory of UW-Madison biologist James Thomson, the scientist who first coaxed stem cells from human embryos in 1998. It was led by Junying Yu of the Genome Center of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center.

For several years I've been expecting clever scientists to figure out ways to basically program around the limitations on embryonic stem cell research. By finding ways to turn the knobs on genetic switches in the cell it was inevitable that scientists would figure out how to make cells change state into embryonic cells. They will next find more genetic knobs to turn in order to convert embryonic cells into precisely desired cell types and they will even find ways convert between various non-embryonic cell types while totally avoiding an intermediate state where the cells are like embryonic cells. Cells are just complex state machines. The next few decades of advance in biotechnology can be seen as a series of advances in techniques for causing desired and useful cell state transitions.

Shinya Yamanaka of Kyoto University led a separate team that also accomplished this same goal of reprogramming adult skin cells to turn them into pluripotent stem cells

The same feat is reported in the journal Cell by Prof Yamanaka with colleagues in Japan and America, the scientist who pioneered this approach of "nuclear reprogramming" in mice. He too reports that a simple recipe turns human skin cells into embryonic stem cell-like cells, he calls "iPS" cells.

From about 50,000 human cells treated with four factors introduced by a virus, his team obtained 10 distinct kinds of embryonic like cells.

"This efficiency may sound very low," said Prof Yamanaka but in practice it means a single experiment in a Petri dish will yield several lines of embryo like cells, while cloning would require dozens of human eggs to achieve the same feat.

Each team introduced 4 genes into the nucleus to create this effect.

Doug Melton, a stem-cell researcher at Harvard University, heralded the breakthrough.

Yamanaka, of Kyoto University in Japan, last year was the first to reveal the successful creation of reprogrammed cells in mice; he and two other research groups published improvements on that step this July. Many scientists thought it would take years to do the same with human cells.

"We appear to be closer than we ever thought we might be to a day when we could use this alternative method," Melton said in prepared remarks.

Though Thomson and Yamanaka both reprogrammed human skin cells using four genes, their methods differed slightly. They used different viruses to deliver the genes. Both used genes called Oct4 and Sox2, but Thomson used two others called Nanog and Lin28, while Yamanaka used c-Myc and Klf4.

These results aren't surprising. The most important difference between embryonic cells and adult cells is whch genes are activated. These scientists basically figured out how to apply a software patch to human cells that made them express genes that make them act like embryonic cells. Scientists have already identified these genes as active in early stage embryonic stem cells and have experimented with activating them in mouse cells.

These results might not yet provide perfect substitutes for embryonic stem cells.

"While this is exciting basic research, it could still take years to get this to work in humans in a way that could be used clinically," said Robert Lanza, chief scientific officer of Advanced Cell Technology in Worcester, Mass. "I cannot overstate that this is early-stage research and that we should not abandon other areas of stem cell research."

It seems unlikely that these cells have been pushed into a state that is exactly like the state of an embryonic stem cell. That state might have very subtle aspects that are important in ways we have not yet discovered. The cells created by these two new methods might suffer lingering effects from the introduced genes and a technique to silence those genes at some later step might be needed. But then cloning didn't produce perfect embryonic stem cells either.

Christian opponents of embryonic stem cell research are celebrating this discovery since the result reduces the advantage of working with embryo-derived cells.

Today, Family Research Council President Tony Perkins praised the research of Dr. James Thomson and Dr. Shinya Yamanaka. Thomson, the first to grow human embryonic stem cells, and Yamanaka from Japan, published results in the journals Science and Cell, respectively, showing that embryonic-type stem cells can be produced directly from ordinary human skin cells, without first creating or destroying human embryos

Here's yet another group opposed to embryonic stem cell research who are hailing this result

Wesley J. Smith, the Discovery Institute's Senior Fellow in Bioethics and author of Consumer's Guide to a Brave New World, hailed the breakthrough as demonstrating that ethical science is also good science: "Everyone should applaud this tremendous scientific achievement. We now have the very real potential of developing thriving and robust stem cell medicine and scientific research sectors that will bridge, rather than exacerbate, our moral differences over the importance and meaning of human life."

They are happy about this result because it probably will make the use of embryonic stem cells unnecessary. But the result also seems to show that the difference between embryonic stem cells and other cells is just different settings on a few genetic switches in the cell. So doesn't this result make embryonic stem cells seem less magical and less supernatural?

By Randall Parker 2007 November 20 11:27 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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2007 November 19 Monday
Wall Street Journal Takes Peak Oil Seriously

On the front page today the Wall Street Journal basically legitimized the coming of peak oil.

A growing number of oil-industry chieftains are endorsing an idea long deemed fringe: The world is approaching a practical limit to the number of barrels of crude oil that can be pumped every day.

Some predict that, despite the world's fast-growing thirst for oil, producers could hit that ceiling as soon as 2012. This rough limit -- which two senior industry officials recently pegged at about 100 million barrels a day -- is well short of global demand projections over the next few decades. Current production is about 85 million barrels a day.

The WSJ writers refer to peak oil theorists as "debased" and try to put distance between the supposedly more legitimate statements now coming from the titans of the oil industry and the predictions of supposed peak oil nuts. I think these writers are unfair in their treatment of the lower status and, in their eyes, less legitimate theorizing of petroleum geologists and physicists. How dare anyone but owners and top managers of capital get taken seriously? But the titans of industry were not long ago painting a far rosier energy picture (as were inept national and international energy information agencies) and I'm finding it hard to see them as the more legitimate experts on this topic. The sharpest peak oil theorists are looking a lot more accurate in their assessments than the CEOs of big oil companies.

It is becoming harder to label someone as a fringe kook for saying that Peak Oil is coming Real Soon Now. You can still tell us we are wrong. But I'm no longer fringe on this topic and that of course makes all the difference in the world. It creates a problem for me personally. How can I be cutting edge? Now I've got to find more topics to be fringe on since some of my major themes are heading into mainstream legitimacy and acceptance.

Who are these non-fringe people who say we are nearing the peak? ConocoPhillips CEO James Mulva says we'll never hit 100 million barrels per day.

"I don't think we're going to see the supply go over 100- million barrels a day. Where is it all going to come from?" Conoco CEO Jim Mulva said at an investor conference in New York.

I've got readers complaining to me that I need to take global warming seriously and get out of the denial mode. Well, Peak Oil is going to do far more to cut CO2 emissions than the Kyoto Accords would have done had they actually been adhered to. All those models that projected future CO2 emissions based on the world using 130+ million barrels of oil a day are based on unrealistic assumptions. I doubt we'll even reach 95 million barrels per day. Then comes the downhill slope. Or are we already on it?

Jeffrey J. Brown (aka Westexas at The Oil Drum) says the real problem is that net exports will decline even more rapidly than total production.

Kenneth Deffeyes predicted that world oil production (note that he used crude + condensate, not total liquids) would peak between 2004 and 2008, most likely in 2005. He observed that world crude oil production probably peaked in 2000, but he never backed off what his mathematical model showed.

The cumulative shortfall between what the world would have produced at the May, 2005 rate and what it has actually produced is over 700 mb (EIA, crude + condensate). So, the crude oil data suggest that we probably did peak in 2005.

However, the real problem is net export capacity. We are working on our final written report on the top five net oil exporters (about half of current world net oil exporters), but note that their total liquids net exports fell by -3.3%/year from 2005 to 2006, and the decline in net exports is almost certainly going to accelerate from 2006 to 2007. This is the fundamental reason for high oil prices--we are bidding against other importers for declining net oil exports.

Brown and his often co-writer khebab (Samuel Foucher) argue that oil exported from current net oil exporters (countries that make more oil than they use internally) will decline more rapidly than oil production in those exporters. They call this the Export Land Model as they group all the oil exporters into "Export Land" and the rest of us in "Import Land". They expect more rapid growth in demand in oil exporters will cause their exports to drop even before their production does. This is an extremely important observation. The amount of oil available to buy will go down even faster than the decline rate of oil production. Worse yet, the number of people bidding on that oil is going up due to population growth and economic growth. Asian economic growth - especially in China - is going to bid oil prices up so much that oil imports into the United States, Europe, and Japan will decline more rapidly than oil exports from producers.

Think about that.

There's a wild card that could make the short to medium term picture even worse: Countries with large oil reserves could decide to lower production even more rapidly in order to conserve oil to sell later. With prices in the stratosphere why sell as much as you can sell now if the high prices at a lower production rate will give you plenty of cash to run your government and placate your population?

Given the plateau and decline in world oil production (the second graph is really bad news) and khebab's guesses on possible future trends in production I gotta say I'm feeling job insecurity. Stuart Staniford thinks production declines in some big existing fields might even accelerate. Not good. China might take any increase in oil production in 2008 (but Hamish McRae is being optimistic in assuming there'll be an increase for China to take).

The present climb in the oil price has coincided with rising demand from China. Put it this way: China used about three-quarters of the additional supply of oil in the world last year. The economic team at ING Bank notes that China may account for all the additional production this year. If China is to go on using all the additional oil that is available, or more, the rest of the world will have to get by with less. This makes the present surge in the oil price different from all previous oil shocks: it is caused by rising demand rather than restricted supply.

Recently I've gone through a shift in my thinking about Peak Oil. I'm no longer worried about trying to figure out when it will come. The analytical curiosity about future events has been replaced with something that is beginning to feel more like fear. Peak Oil looks to be coming soon enough that I'm thinking more along the line of how to earn a decent living while economies around the world go through one year after another of wrenching recession.

Got any constructive thoughts about adaptation? I'm keen to hear them.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 19 10:50 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2007 November 18 Sunday
Energy And Environmental Venture Capital Funding Up

Given the trend in world oil production (the second graph is really bad news) we urgently need new energy technologies. Luckily, we can find plenty of signs that venture capitalists recognize the scope of the problem and the opportunity to massively profit from new energy sources. (and you VCs feel free to offer me a job)

Nick Parker, chairman of the Cleantech Group of analysts, said: "There is no doubt this year will break records in terms of the amount invested. But this year will also be notable for the amount of commercial take-up of clean technologies."

Last year, more than $4bn (£1.9bn) of venture capital was invested in environmental technologies such as renewable energy, water technologies and carbon reduction technologies. The sector is now the biggest recipient of venture capital funds in the US, and in the first three quarters alone about $3.8bn of venture capital was invested, Mr Parker said.

Take all these figures with a grain of salt. There are lots of types of investments getting counted up together in broad categories relating to energy and the environment. But all signs are that energy has become a very attractive area for VC funding.

Venture capital firms poured nearly $900 million - a record - into U.S. startups developing clean and green energy systems in the three months that ended Sept. 30, according to a report out today.

The total flow of dollars to all U.S. startups - $8.07 billion - rose 8 percent compared with the same three months last year, and the energy category soared 28 percent, according to data furnished by the San Francisco office of Dow Jones Venture One.

The quarterly MoneyTree report by the accounting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers and the trade group National Venture Capital Association finds venture capital funding going up in general with a big surge in energy.

With investments in the emerging "clean tech" industry continuing to soar, Silicon Valley companies received more than $2.48 billion in venture capital in the third quarter of 2007 - a sign that the valley's entrepreneurial culture is thriving despite broader economic worries.

The quarterly MoneyTree Report found that the valley's total venture investments, while dipping slightly from the previous quarter, represented robust 9 percent year-over-year growth. As usual, Silicon Valley and the broader Bay Area outpaced other tech hubs by a wide margin, reaping 35 percent of the $7.1 billion in venture investments in the United States.

My guess is that the big surge in clean tech funding is due to rising oil prices. The regulatory environment for pollution and recycling just hasn't tightened up fast enough this year to account for such a huge surge in funding.

Nationally, the clean tech industry, which crosses traditional MoneyTree sectors and comprises alternative energy, pollution and recycling, power supplies and conservation, saw record investment levels with $844 million going into 62 deals in the third quarter. This represented an 80 percent increase in the dollar level and 35 percent increase in the number of deals in the sector over the second quarter of the year.

A list of top 10 VC deals in 3Q 2007 has 2 energy entrants.

2. $100 million in GreatPoint Energy, which converts coal and biomass into clean, natural gas.


4. $77 million in HelioVault, developer of technology for depositing thin-film photovoltaic coatings.

Also in 3Q Konarka got $45 million for solar photovoltaics.

Interest in clean energy was especially keen, as oil prices soared toward $90 a barrel. In addition to the GreatPoint deal, one of the largest financing rounds ever in the alternative energy field, Konarka Technologies Inc., a Lowell company developing solar cells for building materials and mobile phones, raised $45 million.

Some of these companies are going to succeed. I am cheering them on. Declining world oil production is going to make the development of substitutes a very urgent matter. The economic disruption due to declining oil is going to be enormous. Even with great substitutes hitting the market in the nick of time we are still going to get hit by obsolescence of massive amounts of capital equipment and personal possessions that are dependent on oil-based products to make them work. The need to replace all that equipment will therefore lower living standards during the transition period to solar, wind, nuclear, and geothermal power.

This trend toward larger amounts of VC funding for energy did not just start. See my December 2005 and March 2007 posts about venture capital funding for energy.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 18 12:37 PM  Energy Policy
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2007 November 17 Saturday
Asian Industrialization Threatens Many Species

Saiga antelopes are getting wiped out as a side effect of an attempt to save rhinos in Africa from use in Chinese folk medicine treatments.

A decade ago, the saiga antelope seemed so secure that conservationists fighting to save the rhino from poaching suggested using saiga horn in traditional Chinese medicines as a substitute for rhino horn.


In 1993, over a million saiga antelopes roamed the steppes of Russia and Kazakhstan. Today, fewer than 30,000 remain, most of them females. So many males have been shot for their horns, which are exported to China to be used in traditional fever cures, that the antelope may not be able to recover unaided.

By way of Alex Tabarrok.

The demand for folk medicine in China is wiping out lots of species. The World Conservation Union says most of the bear species are threatened with extinction and Chinese medicine is one of the causes.

Six of the world's eight species of bear are threatened with extinction, according to a report from the World Conservation Union (IUCN).

The smallest species of bear, the sun bear, has been included on the list for the first time, while the giant panda remains endangered, despite comprehensive conservation efforts in China.

China is going to keep industrializing and Chinese buying power for parts of endangered species is going to keep rising. At the same time, deforestation driven by Asian industrialization, population growth, and other factors will continue.

The main threat to bears across south-east Asia comes from poaching. Although illegal, poachers are prepared the risk the small chance of being caught against the lucrative gains they can make from sales on the black market.

Prized bear body parts include the gall bladder, which is used in traditional Chinese medicine, and their paw, which is considered to be a delicacy.

Another threat to bear populations comes from living in close proximity to human settlements. Bears are often killed when they prey on livestock or raid crops, or killed when the roam too close to a village because they are seen as a threat to human safety.

The Chinese raise incarcerated bears to extract bile for medicine. That probably saves some of the wild bears from death. But animal rights campaigners oppose using captive bears for bile extraction.

Even with a new state-approved "free drip" method of extracting bile, China's incarcerated bears lead miserable, pain-wracked lives, said campaigner Jill Robinson, who says she won't rest until the 7,000 bears kept on China's farms are free.

Tigers are in rapid decline too.

In the past 100 years, tiger populations around the world have declined by 95 percent. In India, home to at least half of the world’s tigers, only an estimated 1,500 remain, a decline of more than 50 percent since 2001, according to the government-run National Tiger Conservation Authority. In the past six years, it is believed, tigers have been killed at a rate of nearly one a day.

Over the next 20 years, the tiger population could “disappear in many places, or shrink to the point of ecological extinction,” according to a 2006 report by the World Wildlife Fund and the Smithsonian National Zoological Park in Washington.

Several factors have contributed to the decline in India, including a growing human population. There is also a demand for tiger parts from places such as China, where tiger skins priced at $12,000 and more are used for luxury clothes and wall hangings, and where equally pricey tiger bones are used in traditional medicines. Compounding the problem, wildlife activists say, is a pro-development Indian government more concerned with the economy than the environment.

Other types of species are also threatened.

More than 30 per cent of the world's amphibians, 23 per cent of mammals and 12per cent of birds are now threatened with extinction. More than 75 per cent of fish stocks are fully or overly exploited. Six in 10 of the world's leading rivers have been either dammed or diverted. One in 10 of these rivers no longer reaches the sea for part of the year. More than two million people die prematurely every year from indoor and outdoor pollution. Less than 1 per cent of the world's marine ecosystems are protected.

Humans are like "a plague of ravenous insects".

Humans affect, and are affected by, the environment to an enormous degree. The GEO-4 report includes a number of disquieting statistics on humanity. The global population has grown by 1.7 billion in the 20 years since 1987, to a grand total of 6.7 billion. And these 6.7 billion humans consume like a plague of ravenous insects. One small example noted in the report: every year, 1.1million to 3.4million tonnes of undressed wild animal meat, or bushmeat, is eaten by people living in the Congo basin.

Except the insects serve as food for birds and other animals. Humans are on the top of food chains.

Humanity's footprint on ecosystems keeps getting larger. This can't continue indefinitely. All exponential trends must stop eventually. I would like this one to stop short of ecological disaster.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 17 10:51 PM  Environment Species Loss
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2007 November 15 Thursday
Cocaine Alters Brain Gene Expression

A study in Plos One reports cocaine abuse alters gene expression in ways that might make coke heads remember and hunger for another dose of coke.

The chronic effects of cocaine abuse on brain structure and function are blamed for the inability of most addicts to remain abstinent. Part of the difficulty in preventing relapse is the persisting memory of the intense euphoria or cocaine “rush”. Most abused drugs and alcohol induce neuroplastic changes in brain pathways subserving emotion and cognition. Such changes may account for the consolidation and structural reconfiguration of synaptic connections with exposure to cocaine. Adaptive hippocampal plasticity could be related to specific patterns of gene expression with chronic cocaine abuse. Here, we compare gene expression profiles in the human hippocampus from cocaine addicts and age-matched drug-free control subjects. Topping the list of cocaine-regulated transcripts was RECK in the human hippocampus (FC = 2.0; p<0.05). RECK is a membrane-anchored MMP inhibitor that is implicated in the coordinated regulation of extracellular matrix integrity and angiogenesis. In keeping with elevated RECK expression, active MMP9 protein levels were decreased in the hippocampus from cocaine abusers. Pathway analysis identified other genes regulated by cocaine that code for proteins involved in the remodeling of the cytomatrix and synaptic connections and the inhibition of blood vessel proliferation (PCDH8, LAMB1, ITGB6, CTGF and EphB4). The observed microarray phenotype in the human hippocampus identified RECK and other region-specific genes that may promote long-lasting structural changes with repeated cocaine abuse. Extracellular matrix remodeling in the hippocampus may be a persisting effect of chronic abuse that contributes to the compulsive and relapsing nature of cocaine addiction.

If genes cause people to act compulsively then, what, we don't have total free will?

If we don't have total free will then doesn't that at least partially undermine arguments from political ideologies and philosophies that extol free societies? Do we need free wills in order for free societies to be intellectually defendable? I suppose your genes might be getting expressed in way s that will cause you to argue that we really do have free wills or that the real answer doesn't matter and has no implication for debates about freedom.

Also, does this result have any implications for drug legalization debates? (me thinks libertarian legalizers will say NO).

By Randall Parker 2007 November 15 11:43 PM  Brain Addiction
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ADHD Kids Have Slower Developing Brains

Kids with attention deficit experience brain growth in some areas their brains 3 years later than non-ADHD kids.

In youth with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), the brain matures in a normal pattern but is delayed three years in some regions, on average, compared to youth without the disorder, an imaging study by researchers at the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) has revealed. The delay in ADHD was most prominent in regions at the front of the brain’s outer mantle (cortex), important for the ability to control thinking, attention and planning. Otherwise, both groups showed a similar back-to-front wave of brain maturation with different areas peaking in thickness at different times (see movie below).

“Finding a normal pattern of cortex maturation, albeit delayed, in children with ADHD should be reassuring to families and could help to explain why many youth eventually seem to grow out of the disorder,” explained Philip Shaw, M.D., NIMH Child Psychiatry Branch, who led research team.

So then maybe all those ADHD boys shouldn't be on Ritalin. Maybe we should let restless boys be restless and not expect them to act like calm girls.

Do ADHD kids who took Ritalin for years demonstrate higher or lower cognitive performance as adults than ADHD kids who do not take Ritalin?

Also, while I'm asking: Do the brains of ADHD kids develop more slowly because of genes, nutrition, or some other reason? I'm guessing it is at least partly genetic.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 15 11:33 PM  Brain Development
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2007 November 14 Wednesday
Spherical Solar Photovoltaics To Cut Costs In Half?

A Japanese spherical solar cell design promises a big photovoltaic power price drop.

A company in Japan has developed a novel way of making solar cells that cuts production costs by as much as 50 percent. The photovoltaic (PV) cells are made up of arrays of thousands of tiny silicon spheres surrounded by hexagonal reflectors.

The key advantage of the system is that it reduces the total amount of silicon required, says Mikio Murozono, president of Clean Venture 21 (CV21), based in Kyoto, Japan. "We use one-fifth of the raw silicon material compared with traditional PV cells," he says.

I am optimistic about cheaper photovoltaics for two reasons. First, it is a solvable problem. Second, many more teams in academia, government, and industry are trying to solve it.

A halving of photovoltaic prices would make photovoltaics competitive in much of the US southwest. So if this company achieves its goal photovoltaics sales will take off.

CV21 started production of its cells in October; the first of its 10-kilowatt modules go on sale this month. While these modules will initially cost about the same as the traditional variety, the price is set to drop by 30 percent in 2008, as production increases in May from 1,000 cells a day to 60,000 cells a day, says Murozono. The ultimate goal is to make them 50 percent cheaper than existing cells by 2010, he says.

Some people believe that once we pass the peak in world oil production we are at risk of deindustrialization. I don't see it. Sure some parts of the world are going to be very hard hit. Some oil emirates and less advanced countries are at risk. For fully industrialized countries I expect some deep recessions and a period of stagnant or declining living standards. But I do not think that the industrialized countries are at risk for total collapse. We have too many sharp scientists and technologists and too many ways to solve the problem of dwindling reserves of liquid hydrocarbons.

Our current high oil prices and this period of a world oil production plateau are actually fortunate for our prospects in a post-peak world. The higher prices are providing incentives for the development of substitutes. The post peak decline hasn't come on so suddenly that we lack time to adjust. People who want to feel total doom and gloom about the future should look elsewhere. Energy shortages aren't going to bring down industrial civilization.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 14 11:04 PM  Energy Solar
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China Embraces Local Area Climate Engineering

Chinese cities compete to extract rain from passing clouds.

When next summer's Olympics roll around, the Beijing Weather Modification Office will be poised to intercept incoming clouds, draining them before they get to the festivities. No fewer than 32,000 people nationwide are employed by the Weather Modification Office -- "some of them farmers, who are paid $100 a month to handle anti-aircraft guns and rocket launchers" loaded with cloud-seeding compounds. Some estimate that up to 50 billion tons of artificial rain will be produced by 2010. But Taylor noted that this has resulted in competition between cities to seed clouds first, and bitter acrimony when when region receives water claimed by another.

This reminds me of cities and states in the US West (and other parts of the world) fighting over who gets to use the water in rivers passing through their territories. The Colorado River turns into a trickle by the time it reaches Mexico.

But atmospheric tinkering is likely to have much further reaching effects than using water out of rivers. Clouds probably bring a lot more water across international borders than rivers do. Also clouds, by their very presence, cause light to be reflected into space. Reduce cloud cover by massive seeding projects for rain and the net effect is probably to warm the Earth. But Willie Nelson might be tempted. There's only going to be blue skies for now on.

Weather delivers great benefits but also inflicts large costs. The development of cheap climate engineering technologies will provide a big temptation to reduce the costs. For example, hurricane cloud seeding could reduce hurricane intensity and even change hurricane direction.

Moshe Alamaro, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), told The Sunday Telegraph of his plans to "paint" the tops of hurricanes black by scattering carbon particles – either soot or black particles from the manufacture of tyres – from aircraft flying above the storms. The particles would absorb heat from the sun, leading to changes in the airflows within the storm. Satellites could also heat the cloud tops by beaming microwaves from space.

"If they're done in the right place at the right time they can affect the strength of the hurricane," Mr Alamaro said.

Imagine a category 3 hurricane (similar to the 1938 Long Island Express hurricane) was bearing down on Manhattan. Would it be worth it to shift its land collision point toward an outlying suburb on Long Island or New Jersey? The total amount of damage caused might be reducible by an order of magnitude. But who suffers the damage changes with the directional shift.

A massive hurricane is about to cause tens of billions of dollars in damage to New York City. Picture insurance companies offering to pay the losses of all the uninsured of Long Island if the US government agrees to divert a hurricane away from New York City. A good idea?

About global warming: China is establishing an interesting precedent. By intervening routinely in the climate it is making it easier for other governments to do as well. Suppose global warming becomes a real problem. What's to stop, say, India and Bangladesh from using cheap climate engineering in order to easily reverse a warming trend? If the rest of the world makes the planet heat up (and I'm not saying this is really going to happen) then why shouldn't India and Bangladesh use climate engineering to prevent melting water from submerging their lowlands?

By Randall Parker 2007 November 14 09:24 PM  Climate Engineering
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Fish, Fruits, Vegetables Slow Brain Aging

Of course fish, fruits, and vegetables slow brain aging. You already know that. But the purpose of my posting the studies on diet and aging is to remind you that, yes, the bad foods really are bad for you and the good foods really are good for you. There's a big difference between an ideal diet and a typical diet. An ideal diet delivers benefits in many forms. When you eat wisely you aren't just reducing your risk of cancer and heart disease. Fish, fruit, and vegetables really are good for your brain.

ST. PAUL, Minn. – A diet rich in fish, omega-3 oils, fruits and vegetables may lower your risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, whereas consuming omega-6 rich oils could increase chances of developing memory problems, according to a study published in the November 13, 2007, issue of Neurology®, the medical journal of the American Academy of Neurology.

Do you need to know the statistical details in order to improve your diet? If not, go on to the next story. If you really need to know then keep reading. Or if you are already eating a wise scientifically informed diet then read on so you that can feel really good about yourself and your health choices.

I so do not want to get Alzheimer's and forget who I am or where's the bathroom or which house I live in or whether I ate breakfast or who my friends are. Isn't that a really terrible way to go? Luckily, we can change our odds with better diet choices.

For the study, researchers examined the diets of 8,085 men and women over the age of 65 who did not have dementia at the beginning of the study. Over four years of follow-up, 183 of the participants developed Alzheimer’s disease and 98 developed another type of dementia.

The study found people who regularly consumed omega-3 rich oils, such as canola oil, flaxseed oil and walnut oil, reduced their risk of dementia by 60 percent compared to people who did not regularly consume such oils. People who ate fruits and vegetables daily also reduced their risk of dementia by 30 percent compared to those who didn’t regularly eat fruits and vegetables.

Vegetables aren't much fun unless someone with considerable culinary skills transforms them into something tasty. Still, I managed to eat half a head of cabbage today.

But if you have the ApoE4 genetic variant the story is not so good. Does any kind of food help those who have ApoE4?

The study also found people who ate fish at least once a week had a 35-percent lower risk of Alzheimer’s disease and 40-percent lower risk of dementia, but only if they did not carry the gene that increases the risk of Alzheimer’s, called apolipoprotein E4, or ApoE4.

“Given that most people do not carry the ApoE4 gene, these results could have considerable implications in terms of public health,” said study author Pascale Barberger-Gateau, PhD, of INSERM, the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research, in Bordeaux, France. “However, more research is needed to identify the optimal quantity and combination of nutrients which could be protective before implementing nutritional recommendations.”

In addition, the study found people who did not carry the ApoE4 gene and consumed an unbalanced diet characterized by regular use of omega-6 rich oils, but not omega-3 rich oils or fish were twice as likely to develop dementia compared to those who didn’t eat omega-6 rich oils, which include sunflower or grape seed oil. The study did not find any association between consuming corn oil, peanut oil, lard, meat or wine and lowering risk of dementia.

I find it curious that corn oil and peanut oil didn't appear to deliver a net harm. However, given that you are limited in how many calories you can consume corn and peanut oil really have a cost: They reduce the amount of healthier oils and healthier other foods you can eat.

Beta carotene, a nutrient found in many vegetables and fruits, seems to slow down cognitive decline if taken for 15 years or longer.

Men who take beta carotene supplements for 15 years or longer may have less cognitive decline, according to a report in the November 12 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Decreases in cognitive ability—thinking, learning and memory skills—strongly predict dementia, a growing public health issue, according to background information in the article. Long-term cellular damage from “oxidative stress” may be a major factor in cognitive decline. Some evidence suggests that antioxidant supplements may help preserve cognition, although previous studies have been inconclusive, the authors note.

Francine Grodstein, Sc.D., of Brigham and Women’s Hospital (BWH) and Harvard Medical School, Boston, and colleagues studied the antioxidant beta carotene and its effect on cognitive ability in two groups of men. The long-term group included 4,052 men who in 1982 had been randomly assigned to take placebo or 50 milligrams of beta carotene every other day. Between 1998 and 2001, an additional 1,904 men were randomly assigned to one of the two groups. Both groups were followed through 2003, completing yearly follow-up questionnaires with information about their health and their compliance with taking the pills. The men were assessed by telephone for cognitive function at least once between 1998 and 2002.

Rather than take beta carotene you are better off eating the fruits and vegetables that contain the beta carotene and other antioxidants.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 14 07:39 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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2007 November 13 Tuesday
Facial Bone Growth Contributes To Aged Appearances

If we could control facial bone growth we could prevent a substantial portion of aged appearances of faces.

Using CT scans of 100 men and women, the researchers discovered that the bones in the human skull continue to grow as people age. The forehead moves forward while the cheek bones move backward. As the bones move, the overlying muscle and skin moves as well and that subtly changes the shape of the face. "The facial bones also appear to tilt forward as we get older," explains Richard, "which causes them to lose support for the overlying soft tissues. That results in more sagging and drooping."

The problems from these aging changes extend beyond cosmetic concerns. Drooping tissues around the eyelids can lead to vision problems, dry eyes, and excessive tearing.

Richard and colleague Julie Woodward, MD, Duke's head of oculoplastic and reconstructive surgery, also determined that women experience more rapid bone changes then men. That, says Richard, opens new areas of research, including the role of menopause in facial bone growth, and whether drugs commonly used for osteoporosis may affect the aging changes seen in the facial skeleton.

This study by researchers at Duke University reaches conclusions similar to a previous study at Stanford. For the results from Stanford see my post. Facial Bone Aging Contributes To Aged Appearances.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 13 11:23 PM  Aging Appearances
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State Incentives Boost Home Photovoltaics

Among the American states California has the strongest incentives for installing photovoltaics .

In its Northern California service territory, PG&E charges tiered rates for electricity, between 11.4 cents and 36.4 cents a kilowatt-hour, depending on usage. (A kilowatt-hour equals the energy needed to run a 100-watt bulb for 10 hours.) Utility spokesman John Tremayne says the average PG&E customer pays about 15 cents a kilowatt-hour, including surcharges and fees.

Solar power generated with photovoltaic panels, meanwhile, will run a homeowner about 18 to 19 cents a kilowatt-hour, assuming a cost of $24,000 to install a system that produces 4,300 kilowatt-hours of electricity, over 30 years, according to Barry Cinnamon, president and chief executive of Akeena Solar Inc., a solar-power installer based in Los Gatos, Calif.

Some customers have managed to cut their installation costs to as little as $15,000 after state rebates and a $2,000 federal tax credit, which, over a 30-year period, would produce power for about 10 to 14 cents a kilowatt-hour, according to Mr. Cinnamon, who says PG&E rates in his area are around 36 cents a kilowatt-hour, after surcharges and fees.

Half of the growth in solar power in the US until 2015 is expected to come in California. The article emphasizes state government incentives as an explanation for this. But California also has electricity costs that are, at the time of this writing about 37% above the national average. So solar doesn't have to become as cheap in California as it does in really cheap electricity states (below 8 cents per kwh) like Washington, North Dakota, Idaho, or Kentucky. Also, southern California has less clouds and more sunshine than most US states (Arizona notably excepted). So the same solar panels produce a lot more electricity in San Diego than they do in Milwaukee or Bangor or Seattle.

I think it hard to project solar installation growth out to 2015 for a reason that seems obvious from the excerpt above: Solar power's cost is not enormously above existing utility power. A reduction in solar's cost by a half or two thirds would make solar pretty competitive in Arizona and southern California. By 2015 Solar's cost could conceivably fall to a point where it becomes competitive in the most sunny areas.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 13 11:19 PM  Energy Solar
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2007 November 12 Monday
Diesels And Hybrids Seen As Net Money Savers

A study from the Rand Corporation finds that diesels pay off bigger than hybrids but both are net money savers.

Fuel taxes are excluded in the societal case, which is typical of benefit-cost analysis. And the costs are estimations that illustrate relative performance.

The results assume fuel prices of $2.50 per gallon for gasoline, $2.59 per gallon for diesel fuel, and $2.04 per gallon for E85 (including tax credit). The report also examines scenarios where fuel costs are much higher and much lower.

Among the key findings from the consumer perspective:

  • For all three vehicle types, the advanced diesel offers the highest savings over the life of the vehicle among the options considered. These savings increase with the size and fuel use of the vehicle: $460 for the car, $1,249 for the SUV and $2,289 for the large pick-up truck;
  • The hybrid option has smaller but still considerable savings for SUV applications ($1,066), moderate savings for pick-up applications ($505) but minimal savings over the life of the vehicle for car owners ($198);
  • The vehicles operating on E85 cost all three owners more over the vehicle life, with a greater net cost burden for larger vehicles and increased fuel consumption: (-$1,034 for cars, -$1,332 for SUVs, -$1,632 for pick-ups).

Of course they found E85 ethanol to be a loser. But what is getting the biggest push in Washington DC? Ethanol of course. Stupid is as stupid does? Or corrupt is as corrupt does?

Both the hybrid and diesel vehicles are more fuel efficient than their gasoline-powered counterparts: 25 to 40 percent better for hybrid and 20 to 30 percent for diesel, depending on the vehicle.

These numbers suggest that from the standpoint of what is in the best economic interest of car buyers people seem to be underusing both hybrid and diesel technologies. After all, a number of SUVs and regular cars are available in hybrid versions yet most of those models are sold in non-hybrid configurations. Why is that? I can think of two reasons. First off, lack of knowledge. People lack the economic chops to calculate the economic costs and benefits of hybrids and diesels. Another potential reason is more problematic. People might have such high discount rates (preferences for quicker gratification) that they aren't willing to spend more on a car now to gradually derive benefits of saved gas money over a period of years.

If you are expecting still higher prices then the benefits of diesels and hybrids are even more compelling. When you buy a car try to guess what is going to happen with the prices of gasoline and diesel fuel.

If we can believe the information coming out of Mercedes Benz about their forthcoming E320 hybrid diesel then combination of diesel and hybrid technologies will almost double highway fuel miles per gallon. Beyond that additional efficiency can be achieved with lighter weight materials, aerodynamic improvements, and smaller cars. But at current prices in the United States of about $3 per gallon the value proposition for diesel hybrid as compared to diesel is likely to be negative. I say that because the value proposition for just plain hybrid above is not that big and adding hybrid to a diesel vehicle won't boost its fuel efficiency by as large a percentage as it does for gasoline vehicles. Until gasoline prices go much higher we are not going to see many diesel hybrids on the road.

On the bright side, when oil production starts declining we already have existing technologies to embrace that will provide large boosts in fuel efficiency. Plus, battery technology advances look promising. General Motors and Volt might manage to produce a pluggable hybrid electric vehicle in a few years time.

On the not-so-bright side, I see multiple reasons why even with current technological capabilities such as diesels and hybrids we are going to be economically hard hit if we come off of the world oil production plateau in a downward direction. First off, a decline in oil production will obsolesce an absolutely huge amount of capital equipment. Chemical plants, oil refineries, farm tractors, and huge numbers of other pieces of equipment will have less oil and oil-derived products to use as inputs. Plus, it will necessitate big shifts in spending toward insulation, newer cars (more like the cars in Europe) which are more efficient, and other measures. These shifts in spending will happen while economies shrink. So I expect drops in living standards, at least during the early years of the post-peak oil period.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 12 09:52 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2007 November 11 Sunday
Rising Palm Oil Demand Destroying Rainforests

A new Greenpeace report Cooking The Climate highlights the huge amount of carbon dioxide getting released into the atmosphere as a result of rainforest destruction. Destruction of rain forests for palm oil plantation production is a major cause of carbon dioxide emissions.

Greenpeace investigations centred on the tiny Indonesian province of Riau on the island of Sumatra which contains 25 per cent of Indonesia's palm oil plantations. Its peat swamps and forests are among the world's most concentrated carbon stores.

They contain an estimated 14.6bn tonnes of carbon and their destruction would release the equivalent of total global greenhouse gas emissions for a year.

Greenpeace claims the burning of Indonesia's peatlands and forests releases 1.8bn tonnes of greenhouse gases annually - equal to four per cent of the global total - even though it occupies 0.1 per cent of the land on Earth.

Note that the push for biomass energy from Brazil and other equatorial countries is leading to huge CO2 emissions as forests get ripped down and burned. A lot of this is happening to feed a growing population of humans. Also, Asian industrialization is increasing the amount of spending money people have for food and so Chinese, Indians, and others are spending more on types of foods (e.g. meats) that require more land usage to produce. This increases food imports by these countries and forest destruction by food exporters.

Making a bad trend even worse, some Westerners who pose as environmentalists are promoting biomass energy usage. Well, because of the CO2 released by rainforest clearing equatorial region biomass production expansion causes a net boost in CO2 emissions. So people who worry about global warming and therefore advocate biodiesel are not just wiping out species (and I'm not trying to belittle the importance of this problem). They are increasing atmospheric concentrations of a gas whose rise they view as a big problem.

Fossil fuels burning attracts a lot of attention for its effect on global temperatures. But Greenpeace says that forest destruction is also very important for global climate warming.

About three million hectares (7.5 million acres) of these peatland forests are earmarked for conversion to palm oil plantations over the next decade, Greenpeace said. This "climate bomb" is ticking loudly in the run-up to December's United Nations' climate change meeting in Bali, which is expected to debate forests' role in accelerating -- and slowing -- climate change, said Sue Connor, Greenpeace International Forests Campaigner.

"(If the Riau peatlands are cleared) it would wipe out any chance we have of keeping the temperature increase below two degrees Celsius," she said, referring to a threshold given by the UN's climate panel. Palm oil is used in anything from body lotions and toothpaste to chocolate bars, crisps and as a component of biofuels, such as biodiesel.

I am more concerned about the destruction of habitats and species. My guess is that CO2 emissions will peak some time in the next 20 years and then decline as fossil fuels reserves depletion causes fossil fuels extraction to decline. This will happen first for oil, then natural gas, and eventually even coal.

Don't go getting happy at the taste of a KitKat bar.

Indonesia — If, as you read this, you're tucking into a KitKat or dipping into a tube of Pringles, you might be interested to know that these products contain palm oil that is linked to the destruction of forests and peatlands in Indonesia. As our new report "How the palm oil industry is cooking the climate" shows, it's a recipe for disaster.

The manufacturers of these products - Nestlé, Procter & Gamble, and Unilever - are sourcing their palm oil from suppliers who aren't picky about where they site their plantations. As the volunteers at the Forest Defenders Camp in Sumatra have seen, this includes tearing up areas of pristine forest then draining and burning the peatlands.

Continued rapid Asian industrialization, population growth in the less developed countries, and growing use of palm oil for biofuels all are feeding the continued destruction of the rainforests. The rainforest trees are getting cut down for wood. Crops are being planted in cleared out areas for human food, animal feed, fiber for textiles, and biomass energy.

Industrialization, population growth, and a misguided attempt to reduce carbon dioxide emissions are not the only forces driving this trend. Rising energy demand is colliding with the world oil production plateau (and a decline that could start any year now). The oil production plateau and decline are going to increase the destruction of rainforests for a few reasons:

  • The demand for biomass energy will rise as the price of oil rises. Huge areas of land will get shifted into sugar cane and other biomass energy crops.
  • Yield per acre will stagnate and decline as the cost of fertilizer (made from fossil fuels) rises. So more acres will be put into production to compensate.
  • Rising costs of pumping water will reduce the amount of water available for irrigation and therefore reduce yield per acre and therefore increase land usage for farming. Increased demand for water for hydroelectric power might exert a similar effect.

Borneo is also getting cleared for crop production.

I am staying at the Borneo Rainforest Lodge in the middle of the largest surviving area of primary forest in Sabah. Today, palm-oil plantations cover most of north Borneo, and lorries laden with hardwood trundle in convoys from other remnants of jungle. But the Sabah state government has decreed a 30-year ban on logging from 2008, and in the Danum Valley, 175 square miles of lowland rainforest have been designated a protected reserve.

Brazil's rainforests are also getting cleared for crop production.

While the mention of Amazon destruction usually conjures up images of vast stretches of felled and burned rainforest trees, cattle ranches, and vast soybean farms, some of the biggest threats to the Amazon rainforest are barely perceptible from above. Selective logging -- which opens up the forest canopy and allows winds and sunlight to dry leaf litter on the forest floor -- and 6-inch high "surface" fires are turning parts of the Amazon into a tinderbox, putting the world's largest rainforest at risk of ever-more severe forest fires. At the same time, market-driven hunting is impoverishing some areas of seed dispersers and predators, making it more difficult for forests to recover. Climate change -- and its forecast impacts on the Amazon basin -- further looms large over the horizon.

In order to at least slow habitat destruction we need to accelerate the development of non-fossil fuels and non-biomass energy sources. Nuclear power and not biomass energy is a friend of the environment.

We also need to try ways to slow population growth in the less developed countries. The projected rise of the human population to 9 billion people is going to be a multi-decade environmental disaster in slow motion.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 11 02:12 PM  Energy Biomass
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Optimism Best In Moderation

Optimism is more adaptive than pessimism. But too much optimism is destructive.

Optimists, the Duke finance scholars discovered, worked longer hours every week, expected to retire later in life, were less likely to smoke and, when they divorced, were more likely to remarry. They also saved more, had more of their wealth in liquid assets, invested more in individual stocks and paid credit-card bills more promptly.

Yet those who saw the future too brightly -- people who in the survey overestimated their own likely lifespan by 20 years or more -- behaved in just the opposite way, the researchers discovered.

Rather than save, they squandered. They postponed bill-paying. Instead of taking the long view, they barely looked past tomorrow. Statistically, they were more likely to be day traders. "Optimism is a little like red wine," said Duke finance professor and study co-author Manju Puri. "In moderation, it is good for you; but no one would suggest you drink two bottles a day."

When people start genetically engineering their offspring I hope prospective parents don't become too optimistic about what optimism can accomplish. Sure, give your kids some leaning toward an optimistic outlook. But don't create reckless children who gamble and ring up debts.

The article also describes recent research about optimism coming from the rostral anterior cingulate cortex (rACC) of the brain. I've previously reported about that .

By Randall Parker 2007 November 11 11:38 AM  Brain Economics
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2007 November 10 Saturday
Exercise Pleasure Compounds Protect Heart

When you exercise and get an endorphin high the chemicals that cause that high are what deliver the heart benefits of exercise.

Endorphins and other morphine-like substances known as opioids, which are released during exercise, don't just make you feel good -- they may also protect you from heart attacks, according to University of Iowa researchers.


The UI study investigated the idea that the opioids produced by exercise might have a direct role in cardio-protection. The researchers compared rats that exercised with rats that did not. As expected, exercised rats sustained significantly less heart damage from a heart attack than non-exercised rats. The researchers then showed that blocking opioid receptors completely eliminated these cardio-protective effects in exercising rats, suggesting that opioids are responsible for some of the cardiac benefits of exercise.

This result raises the possibility that some day an opioid/endorphin injection or pill might deliver the benefits to your heart that you currently have to get by hard and time-consuming exercise. Time for your exercise injection.

When you can get all the health benefits of exercising without exercising will you still exercise? (assuming that you exercise now)

By Randall Parker 2007 November 10 08:43 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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Curvy Women Have Smarter Kids

Children whose mothers have lower waist-hip ratio (WHR) are smarter.

Upper-body fat has negative effects and lower-body fat has positive effects on the supply of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids that are essential for neurodevelopment. Thus, waist-hip ratio (WHR), a useful proxy for the ratio of upper-body fat to lower-body fat, should predict cognitive ability in women and their offspring. Moreover, because teenage mothers and their children compete for these resources, their cognitive development should be compromised, but less so for mothers with lower WHRs. These predictions are supported by data from the Third National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. Controlling for other correlates of cognitive ability, women with lower WHRs and their children have significantly higher cognitive test scores, and teenage mothers with lower WHRs and their children are protected from cognitive decrements associated with teen births. These findings support the idea that WHR reflects the availability of neurodevelopmental resources and thus offer a new explanation for men's preference for low WHR.

They suspect the omega-3 fatty acids in particular as beneficial. So women should eat salmon while pregnant and while nursing.

The answer could be encountered in omega-3 fatty acids, stored in the hips and thighs and which make a large percentage of the human brain. This type of fatty acids is stored by the female body below the waist with the installation of the puberty.

The male obsession with curviness shows how responsible we are to want smarter kids.

"Men respond because it's reproductively important," Lassek says.

This is not the only evolutionary reason why men prefer curvier women. Women With Hourglass Bodies Have More Reproductive Hormones.

What I wonder: Does the draining of omega 3 fatty acids from a woman in the last trimester of pregnancy contribute to post-partum depression? Check out some of the evidence on omega 3 fatty acids and depression here and here and here.

Also see my post Higher Fish Diet Seems To Make Babies Smarter.

Update: In fact, Joseph R. Hibbeln of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, National Institutes of Health, has found evidence that postpartum depression is more common among women with lower omega 3 fatty acids (PDF format).

Higher fish consumption looks highly beneficial as protection against postpartum depression.

The new study is an analysis of 11,721 British women. Researchers found that the more omega-3 fatty acids a woman consumed in seafood during the third trimester, the less likely she was to show signs of major depression at that time and for up to eight months after the birth.

In fact, the rate of depression in the women with the highest intakes was only about half that of women with the lowest intakes, says senior author and psychiatrist Dr. Joseph R. Hibbeln.

Omega 3 fatty acids is one of the two nutrients most people should try to get more of. Vitamin D is the other one. Go for salmon and sardines to get more omega 3 fatty acids. It'll even reduce the chances you'll commit a crime.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 10 09:40 AM  Brain Development
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2007 November 08 Thursday
Telomeres Shorten Quicker If You Have Less Vitamin D

Yet another reminder that you probably ought to increase your vitamin D intake.

WASHINGTON, D.C. (November 8, 2007)- There is a new reason for the 76 million baby boomers to grab a glass of milk. Vitamin D, a key nutrient in milk, could have aging benefits linked to reduced inflammation, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition.

In a genetic study of more than 2,100 female twin pairs ages 19-79, British and American researchers found that higher vitamin D levels were linked to improved genetic measures of lifelong aging and chronic stress. Using a genetic marker called leukocyte telomere length (LTL), they found those with the highest vitamin D levels had longer LTL, indicating lower levels of inflammation and body stress. The telomere difference between those with the highest and lowest vitamin D levels was equivalent to 5 years of aging.

Previous research has found that shortened LTL is linked to risk for heart disease and could be an indication of chronic inflammation – a key determinant in the biology of aging. While there are several lifestyle factors that affect telomere length (obesity, smoking and lack of physical activity), the researchers noted that boosting vitamin D levels is a simple change to affect this important marker.

Why use telomere length as a proxy for aging and stress? See my post Telomere Length Indicates Mortality Risk.

Also see my posts Chronic Stress Accelerates Aging As Measured By Telomere Length and Telomeres Wear Down Quicker In Men Than Women. Don't stress out guys. It is slowly killing you.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 08 09:50 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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Royal Dutch Shell In Lead With Oil Shale Technology

Royal Dutch Shell decided to lift some (though not all) of the secrecy surrounding their research into extracting oil from oil shale in Colorado and Wyoming. Jon Birger of Fortune magazine was given access to Shell oil shale researchers and has written a pretty good piece on the prospects for oil shale energy production.

Spanning some 17,000 square miles across parts of Colorado, Utah and Wyoming, this underground lakebed holds at least 800 billion barrels of recoverable oil. That's triple the reserves of Saudi Arabia.

Since Saudi Arabia's reserves are well below their claimed reserves the multiple between oil shale reserves and Saudi reserves is probably more than triple. If Shell can extract that oil it will change the relative economic power of nations.

The reason you probably haven't heard about the Green River Formation is that most of the methods tried for turning oil shale into oil have been deeply flawed - economically, environmentally or usually both. Because there have been so many false starts, oil shale tends to get lumped with cold fusion, zero-point energy, and other "miracle" fuels perpetually just over the horizon.

"A lot of other companies have bent their spears trying to do what we're now doing," Vinegar says of his 28-year quest to turn oil shale into a commercial energy source. "We're talking about the Holy Grail."

Unlike the Grail, though, Shell is convinced that oil shale is no myth and that after years of secret research, it is close to achieving this oil-based alchemy. Shell is not alone in this assessment. "Harold has broken the code," says oil shale expert Anton Dammer, director of the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Naval Petroleum and Oil Shale Reserves.

Shell physicist Harold Vinegar thinks the oil can be extracted for a cost of $30 per barrel but not before 2015. So oil shale isn't going to do anything to relieve our near term woes with rising oil prices.

But while the amount of oil available for eventual extraction from the shale is enormous the peak production rate will not entirely offset the coming decline in production of conventional oil.

Shell declines to get too specific about how much oil it thinks it can pump at peak production levels, but one DOE study contends that the region can sustain two million barrels a day by 2020 and three million by 2040. Other government estimates have posited an upper range of five million. At that level, Western oil shale would rival the largest oilfields in the world.

Of course, considering the U.S. uses almost 21 million barrels a day and imports about ten million (and rising), even the most optimistic projections do not get the country to the nirvana of "energy independence.

Shell's work in this area has stretched over decades. Their research puts them well ahead of other oil companies and have lots of patents which will likely let them start producing before their competitors.

Oil shale and oil sands are good because they'll make the world oil production decline less sharp. If the coming decline in oil production is too sharp the economic downturns in many societies could lead to breakdown of order and mass starvation as modern agriculture loses the ability to run on oil. The rate of decline which causes a collapse varies depending on the circumstances of each individual society. France with a large number of nuclear reactors is less vulnerable than Britain with a much smaller number. Countries with highly skilled populaces and lots of capital will be better able to rush into nuclear reactor construction, build wind turbines, rework houses to increase insulation, and engage in many other adaptive adjustments to the oil production decline.

Follow the link to the article to read about Shell's method of in situ oil shale extraction. If their planned experiments produce successful results America especially will be able to better adjust to the post peak oil world.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 08 09:24 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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Peer Review Of Grants Stifles Scientific Innovation?

Former Intel CEO Andy Grove has Parkinson's Disease and he believes the rate of advance in biomedical research is far too slow and one of the reasons is the conformity enforced by peer grant reviews.

What stands in the way of more and faster success in getting cures to patients?
The peer review system in grant making and in academic advancement has the major disadvantage of creating conformity of thoughts and values. It's a modern equivalent of a Middle Ages guild, where you have to sing a particular way to get grants, promotions and tenure. The pressure to conform [to prevailing ideas of what causes diseases and how best to find treatments for them] means you lose the people who want to get up and go in a different direction. There is no place for the wild ducks. The result is more sameness and less innovation. What we need is a cultural revolution in the research community, academic and non-academic. We need to give wild ducks the opportunity to emerge and quack their way to success. But cultural change can be driven only by action at the top.

I would like to know what Grove would propose as an alternative to grant peer reviews. Scientific research is sufficiently distant from product development that markets (at least not markets for cures) can't provide the needed guidance or method of distributing rewards.

I don't have a good idea on this one. How would you distribute research money in way that would accelerate the rate of progress?

By Randall Parker 2007 November 08 05:48 PM  Policy Science
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2007 November 07 Wednesday
Trust Your Medial Temporal Lobe Memories

"Your honor, I swear my memory of this business deal comes from my medial temporal lobe." Trust your memories from the medial temporal lobe (MTL) of your brain but don't get fooled by your frontal parietal network (FPN).

Cabeza wanted to understand why someone could have such strong feelings of confidence about false memories. In his experiments, he scanned the brains of healthy volunteers with functional MRI as they took well-established tests of memory and false memory. Functional MRI is an imaging technique that shows what areas of the brain are used during specific mental tasks.

During the brain scans, Cabeza found that volunteers who were highly confident in memories that were indeed true showed increased activity in the fact-oriented MTL region.

“This would make sense, because the MTL, with its wealth of specific details, would make the memory seem more vivid,” Cabeza said. “For example, thinking about your breakfast this morning, you remember what you had, the taste of the food, the people you were with. The added richness of these details makes one more confident about the memory’s truth.”

On the other hand, volunteers who showed high confidence in memories that turned out to be false exhibited increased activity in the impressionistic FPN. The people drawing from this area of the brain recalled the gist or general idea of the event, and while they felt confident about their memories, they were often mistaken, since they could not recall the details of the memory.

Imagine a witness being grilled while under a functional MRI brain scan device that tells whether answers to questons are coming from memories recalled from a reliable part of the brain.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 07 11:24 PM  Brain Memory
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Small Carbon Tax Would Make Nuclear Power Cheaper Than Coal

With a carbon tax of a mere $10 per metric ton nuclear power might become cheaper than coal for generating electricity.

The Electric Power Research Institute’s staff estimates the effect of a charge on carbon dioxide emissions on the price of a kilowatt-hour, the amount of electricity needed to run 10 100-watt bulbs for an hour. Natural gas produces 0.84 pounds of carbon dioxide per kilowatt-hour, and coal produces more than twice as much, 1.9 pounds.

At $10 per metric ton, the impact is minimal. But at $50 a ton, for example, the cost of a kilowatt-hour produced by coal goes from about 5.7 cents to about 10 cents. Wind power currently isn’t competitive, according to the institute’s calculation, but it becomes competitive when carbon dioxide costs $25 a ton. By their calculations, nuclear energy, with negligible carbon dioxide emissions, looks sensible at a small carbon charge.

Thanks to "Fat Man" for the article tip. He suspects that the New York Times is using Nuclear Energy Institute estimates for nuclear costs (PDF) by way of an Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) report. Until we see some nuclear power plants built in the United States using the newer designs we aren't going to know for sure. But my guess is that the NEI numbers aren't too far from reality. Otherwise we wouldn't be seeing so many plans for new nuclear power plant construction.

The nuclear revival got its official kickoff last month with an application from NRG Energy Inc., Princeton, N.J., for the first new nuclear plant in three decades. The NRC is preparing for 32 nuclear-power-plant applications by 2009, including as many as nine this year.

The electric power industry is factoring in some probability of a carbon tax in coming years and it is hedging its bets. The passage of a carbon tax of just $10 per metric ton would likely stop all new coal electric plant construction in the United States. I'd like to see that happen just to prevent mercury, particulates, and other conventional pollution. However, even if that happens Asian demand for electricity looks set to put new 1000 coal plants online in just the next 5 years alone.

More than 1,000 coal-fed power plants will be built in the next five years, mostly in China and India, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. China, the world's biggest coal producer, became a net importer for the first time this year, taking supplies from Indonesia, Australia and South Africa and reducing the amount available for Europe.

The mind boggles. Asian economic development makes so many Western debates about the environment seem almost irrelevant. Decades after the environmental movement took off in the United States the world is going to become a more polluted place. Our best hope is the development of cheaper ways to generate electricity using nuclear, solar, and wind power. A carbon tax in China or India seems a distant prospect.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 07 10:59 PM  Energy Electric Generators
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2007 November 06 Tuesday
Oxytocin Infusion Makes People More Generous With Money

Paul Zak, a professor at Claremont, Angela Stanton at Chapman University, and Sheila Ahmadi at UCLA Geffen School of Medicine have found that injecting people with oxytocin makes them more generous.

Human beings routinely help strangers at costs to themselves. Sometimes the help offered is generous—offering more than the other expects. The proximate mechanisms supporting generosity are not well-understood, but several lines of research suggest a role for empathy. In this study, participants were infused with 40 IU oxytocin (OT) or placebo and engaged in a blinded, one-shot decision on how to split a sum of money with a stranger that could be rejected. Those on OT were 80% more generous than those given a placebo. OT had no effect on a unilateral monetary transfer task dissociating generosity from altruism. OT and altruism together predicted almost half the interpersonal variation in generosity. Notably, OT had twofold larger impact on generosity compared to altruism. This indicates that generosity is associated with both altruism as well as an emotional identification with another person.

The idea is that if you increase the extent to which you care about the feelings of others then you'll behave in ways that reduce the amount of negative response they'll have. Obviously, the extent to which humans feel empathy for others varies enormously. We feel different amounts of empathy depending on who the other person is and what the circumstances are. Also, people differ from each other in the amount of empathy they feel in similar circumstances. Some really lack in empathy.

They draw a distinction between altruism and generosity and find that oxytocin (OT) boosts generosity more than it boosts altruism.

In this paper we investigate a mechanism that may produce generosity while dissociating generosity from altruism. Altruism is defined as helping another at a cost to oneself [Sober, p 17, 15]. Generosity is defined as “liberality in giving” [16] or offering more to another than he or she expects or needs. Generosity is therefore a subset of altruism. For example, one may give a homeless person 25 cents (altruism) or ten dollars (altruism and generosity).

I think use of a homeless person is a poor example. I once read an article by a police officer arguing against donations to homeless people because the homeless in my town have plenty of food and places to sleep and use the money to buy alcohol and drugs. In other words, altruism doesn't always help recipients.

They were trying to figure out how much the feeling of empathy causes altruistic and generous behavior.

We investigated the role of empathy in producing generosity by manipulating a physiologic mechanism hypothesized to instantiate empathy, the neuromodulator oxytocin (OT). A substantial animal literature has established that OT facilitates attachment to offspring, and in monogamous mammals, cohabiting sexual partners and same-sex conspecifics [31][33]. Recent human studies have shown that OT facilitates a temporary attachment between strangers, increasing trust and reciprocity [34][38]. In the present paper, we test whether OT is a proximate mechanism prompting generosity between anonymous human strangers. Two tasks were used to dissociate the physiologic role of empathy in producing generosity and altruism using monetary transfers. Monetary transfers were used to obtain objective and active measures of generosity and altruism.

They used two different games where one person was given cash and the games provided different incentives to the person who started out with the cash as to whether to give to the other person in the game. The differences between the games allowed them to separate out the influence which OT has on altruism versus generosity. Well, OT boosts generosity more than it boosts altruism. Read the full paper (it is open access on Plos One) for a longer description of their findings.

I suspect altruism and generosity will become less common in the future. Selective pressures and genetic engineering will reduce the incidence of these traits because the traits are less adaptive in really large scale societies. You don't have enough repeat dealings with a small group of people to make altruistic behavior a big benefit. I also suspect humans will become more clannish and there'll be less a sense of a common interest and the belonging to a commonwealth.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 06 09:24 PM  Brain Altruism
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Gene Boosts IQ Benefit Of Breast Feeding

Here is news some new moms can use. Whether breast feeding will boost offspring IQ comes down to which genetic variations the babies carry.

DURHAM, N.C. – The known association between breast feeding and slightly higher IQ in children has been shown to relate to a particular gene in the babies, according to a report this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

In two studies of breast-fed infants involving more than 3,000 children in Britain and New Zealand, breastfeeding was found to raise intelligence an average of nearly 7 IQ points if the children had a particular version of a gene called FADS2.

The distribution of FADS2 genetic variants probably varies around the world. Anyone know of a source of data for FADS2 genetic variant distributions in human races and local ethnic groups? That information would probably indicate whether results would hold up in all human populations.

"There has been some criticism of earlier studies about breastfeeding and IQ that they didn't control for socioeconomic status, or the mother's IQ or other factors, but our findings take an end-run around those arguments by showing the physiological mechanism that accounts for the difference," said Terrie Moffitt, a professor of psychological and brain sciences in Duke University's Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy.

Moffitt, who performed the research with her husband and co-author Avshalom Caspi at King's College in London, found that the baby's intellectual development is influenced by both genes and environment or, more specifically, by the interaction of its genes with its environment.

"The argument about intelligence has been about nature versus nurture for at least a century," Moffitt said. "We're finding that nature and nurture work together."

These results suggest that most women should breast feed. Only 10% of the women in the study groups had babies with genetic profiles which prevented a benefit from breast feeding.

Ninety percent of the children in the two study groups had at least one copy of the "C" version of FADS2, which yielded higher IQ if they were breast-fed. The other 10 percent, with only the "G" versions of the gene, showed no IQ advantage or disadvantage from breastfeeding.

A cheap test for FADS2 variants could help millions of women weigh the costs and benefits of breast feeding. Find out from a genetic test whether newly born junior will turn out smarter if you structure your life so that breast feeding is practical.

The benefit of the "C" version of FADS2 might come from its ability to convert other fatty acids to DHA.

The gene was singled out for the researchers' attention because it produces an enzyme that helps convert dietary fatty acids into the polyunsaturated fatty acids DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and AA (arachidonic acid) that have been shown to accumulate in the human brain during the first months after birth.

A baby formula high in DHA might deliver the same benefit as breast feeding and deliver that benefit regardless of genetic variations carried by a baby. Mom eating salmon every day and then breast feeding might similarly deliver that benefit regardless of genetic variation.

A 7 point IQ boost is a really big deal. A country that boosted its average IQ by 7 points would experience a huge boost in economic growth and a rise in per capita GDP as the smarter kids made their way into the labor market.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 06 08:25 PM  Brain Development
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2007 November 05 Monday
Americans Sicker Than Canadians Due To Lifestyle

Harvard economist Gregory Mankiw has an interesting article in the New York Times about medical spending. Differences in life expectancies between Americans and Canadians are not due to superior medical care under a socialist system.

The differences between the neighbors are indeed significant. Life expectancy at birth is 2.6 years greater for Canadian men than for American men, and 2.3 years greater for Canadian women than American women. Infant mortality in the United States is 6.8 per 1,000 live births, versus 5.3 in Canada.

These facts are often taken as evidence for the inadequacy of the American health system. But a recent study by June and Dave O’Neill, economists at Baruch College, from which these numbers come, shows that the difference in health outcomes has more to do with broader social forces.

For example, Americans are more likely than Canadians to die by accident or by homicide. For men in their 20s, mortality rates are more than 50 percent higher in the United States than in Canada, but the O’Neills show that accidents and homicides account for most of that gap.

Mankiw points out that Americans also have a higher incidence of obesity than Canadians. This makes Americans less healthy than Canadians. Mankiw wrote his article in order to make economic arguments about health care policy. But there's also a lesson here down below the level of national policy: The odds are that you can do far more for your health by improving your diet and lifestyle than you can by getting more health care. Think about that. Sure, there are people out there who would benefit from early detection of cancer or by taking statin drugs. But you probably could do more for your health by changing your diet and getting more exercise than by getting more medical care.

To put it another way: Medical treatments today have pretty severe limits on what they can accomplish. For many diseases we have no cures. For other diseases where cures are sometimes available the treatments have success rates well below 100%. You are better off adopting diet and lifestyle practices (more vegetables, more exercise) that will reduce your odds of getting sick in the first place. There's no magical place in the world (at least not yet) where either capitalism or socialism will supply you with cure-all health care.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 05 10:55 PM  Aging Studies
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Alzheimers Gene Lowers Childhood Cognitive Performance

The variation of apolipoprotein E known as apoE4 gene doesn't just increase the risk of Alzheimer's Disease. Carriers of the apoE4 genetic variant show differences in mental performance as children.

PORTLAND, Ore. - Children who possess a gene known to increase the risk of Alzheimer's disease already show signs of reduced cognitive function, an Oregon Health & Science University study has found.

Scientists in the OHSU School of Medicine discovered that 7- to 10-year-olds with a member of a family of genes implicated in development, nerve cell regeneration and neuroprotection display reduced spatial learning and memory, associated with later-life cognitive impairments.

Results of the study, presented today at Neuroscience 2007, the 37th annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in San Diego, suggest that changes predisposing a person to Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia might occur much sooner in the brain than previously thought.

"One of our questions has been is this a risk that only happens with age, or is it already - early on - the cause of differences in performance," said study co-author Jacob Raber, Ph.D., associate professor of behavioral neuroscience and neurology in the OHSU School of Medicine. "This study suggests there already are cognitive differences very early on in life."

The researchers looked at 55 kids aged 7 to 10.

"When we looked at non-demented healthy elderly, we saw the clear effect of apoE4," he said. "So it's not just Alzheimer's disease. ApoE4 carriers generally do worse in our tests. Among the nondemented oldest old, where the mean age is 82, those who have apoE4 do less well" on cognitive tests.

In their study on children, Raber and colleagues - lead author Summer Acevedo, Ph.D., OHSU postdoctoral fellow, and Byung Park, Ph.D., senior biostatistics associate in the OHSU Biostatistics & Bioinformatics Shared Resource - examined 55 healthy boys and girls ages 7 to 10. Among them were eight girls and six boys who carried the apoE4 gene, and 17 girls and 24 boys who didn't.

Quite a few leftists want us to accept as a matter of secular faith that genetic variants don't create substantial differences in intellectual performance. But the accumulating evidence unsurprisingly (after all, the mind is a manifestation of physical phenomena) says otherwise.

Falling costs and falling risks for starting pregnancies in vitro are probably going to lead many prospective parents to select against embryos that carry apoE4. What ambitious parent wants their son or daughter to do poorly on the "Memory Island" test? None I hope.

Raber, Acevedo and Park found that apoE4 carriers scored lower in location recognition tests, and non-apoE4 carriers outperformed apoE4 carriers in the "Memory Island" test by navigating closer to the visible target location. Also, non-apoE4 carriers showed spatial memory retention when a target wasn't present and searched more frequently for the targets in the appropriate quadrants while apoE4 carriers did not.

In all, 75.6 percent non-apoE4 carriers showed target preference compared with only 43 percent of apoE4 carriers.

I'd like to know the frequency of apoE4 as a function of social class, level of education, tested IQ, and income. Does apoE4 show up at lower frequency in smarter people?

I'd also like to know what advantage apoE4 confers that allowed it to become fairly frequent in human populations. One source on apoE4 frequencies in different populations puts it at 11.7% in Tyrolean Europeans, 37% in Khoi San blacks, and 4.9% in Chinese. In recent centuries has apoE4 experienced selective pressure against it?

By Randall Parker 2007 November 05 10:22 PM  Brain Genetics
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2007 November 04 Sunday
Stem Cells Boost Damaged Mouse Brain Memory

Mice subjected to brain damage were able to form new memories with the help of stem cell therapy.

New UC Irvine research is among the first to demonstrate that neural stem cells may help to restore memory after brain damage.

In the study, mice with brain injuries experienced enhanced memory – similar to the level found in healthy mice – up to three months after receiving a stem cell treatment. Scientists believe the stem cells secreted proteins called neurotrophins that protected vulnerable cells from death and rescued memory. This creates hope that a drug to boost production of these proteins could be developed to restore the ability to remember in patients with neuronal loss.

Youthful stem cell therapy to replace aged stem cell reservoirs in the brain will be one of the methods for slowing and eventually reversing brain aging. Success in mice is a good sign for future stem cell therapies for human brains.

Mice with damage to the hippocampus who were given stem cells formed new memories just as well as undamaged mice did.

Three months after implanting the stem cells, the mice were tested on place recognition. The researchers found that mice with brain injuries that also received stem cells remembered their surroundings about 70 percent of the time – the same level as healthy mice. In contrast, control mice that didn’t receive stem cells still had memory impairments.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 04 10:05 PM  Brain Stem Cells
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US Kidney Disease In 2020 To Be 60% Higher

An aging population is going to create far heavier cost burdens to treat a sicker population.

San Francisco, CA (Friday, October 26, 2007) — Although estimates have been adjusted downward in light of the most recent data, researchers still predict sharp increases in the U.S. incidence and prevalence of end-stage renal disease (ESRD) in the years ahead, according to a paper being presented at the American Society of Nephrology's 40th Annual Meeting and Scientific Exposition in San Francisco.

"The expected number of patients with ESRD in 2020 is almost 785,000, which is an increase of over 60 percent compared to 2005," comments Dr. David T. Gilbertson of the U.S. Renal Data System (USRDS) and the Minneapolis Medical Research Foundation, Minneapolis, Minn. Using data available through 2005, the study updates previous estimates based on data through 2000.

The development of tissue engineering technologies and stem cell therapies to repair failing organs will some day drastically reduce the cost of medical care. The sooner these treatments come the more we will save. Treatments that are not effective typically cost more than treatments that are effective. Degenerative diseases of old age that slowly kill people over a period of years are expense to treat. Growth of replacement organs or use of stem cell therapies to do repairs will cost less once those treatments become available.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 04 09:46 PM  Aging Population Problems
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Hearts Eject Less As We Get Older

Your heart squeezes and relaxes more slowly every year as you get older.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins have evidence to explain why the supposedly natural act of aging is by itself a very potent risk factor for life-threatening heart failure.

In a study to be presented Nov. 4 at the American Heart Association’s (AHA) annual Scientific Sessions in Orlando, Fla., the Hopkins team analyzed more than a half-dozen measurements of heart structure and pumping function to assess minute changes in the hearts of 5,004 men and women, age 45 to 84, of different ethnic backgrounds and with no existing symptoms of heart disease.

Researchers found that each year as people age, the time it takes for their heart muscles to squeeze and relax grows longer, by 2 percent to 5 percent.

Test results were obtained from study participants who had undergone high-tech magnetic resonance imaging of the heart - tagged MRI - which measures individual muscle segment changes with each heartbeat.

We need stem cell therapies and other therapies that can reverse the changes that happen as our hearts age.

Our hearts eject less blood on every beat each year we get older.

The current gold standard, he says, is the heart’s ejection fraction, a ratio of the amount of blood pumped out with each heartbeat to the total volume of blood available for pumping. An ejection fraction of 50 percent to 65 percent is considered normal.

Study results showed that ejection fraction actually rose by 0.01 percent with every year. But Lima calls this figure misleading because the total amount of blood available for pumping, the bottom number in the ratio, decreases as the size of the heart cavity shrinks and heart walls thicken, falsely boosting test results when heart function is actually failing.

When researchers separated the numbers, the actual amount of blood pumped out by the heart fell by 8 milliliters per year, says Lima, an associate professor at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and its Heart Institute.

All of these changes will become reversible. The aging process is not set in stone. The changes that come with aging will some day be reversed with gene therapies, cell therapies, and other treatments.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 04 09:40 PM  Aging Mechanisms
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2007 November 03 Saturday
Cellphone Jammers Grow In Popularity

The New York Times reports on the growing use of illegal cellphone jammers by people who do not want to hear one side of many different phone conversations.

As cellphone use has skyrocketed, making it hard to avoid hearing half a conversation in many public places, a small but growing band of rebels is turning to a blunt countermeasure: the cellphone jammer, a gadget that renders nearby mobile devices impotent.

The technology is not new, but overseas exporters of jammers say demand is rising and they are sending hundreds of them a month into the United States — prompting scrutiny from federal regulators and new concern last week from the cellphone industry. The buyers include owners of cafes and hair salons, hoteliers, public speakers, theater operators, bus drivers and, increasingly, commuters on public transportation.

The development is creating a battle for control of the airspace within earshot. And the damage is collateral. Insensitive talkers impose their racket on the defenseless, while jammers punish not just the offender, but also more discreet chatterers.

My sympathy is with the jammers. I'd love to see jammers used during concert, movie, and opera performances. We need a political movement in support of the legalization of jammers under at least some conditions.

Cellphones are not just a hazard while driving. Cellphones make many otherwise peaceful settings into irritations. Restaurants become less enjoyable. Meetings of people get interrupted by cellphone ringtones. Why don't people put their phones on vibrate? Given that a substantial fraction of humanity has no problem with imposing themselves on others we need technological counters to these impositions.

Hearing half of a phone conversation is more distracting than hearing both sides. The brain can't make sense of it and that causes greater distraction (and I can't find a report on a study that showed this result - anyone know the study I'm referring to?). If you are sitting somewhere trying to think it sure is handy to have a way to block out electronic sources of distraction.

The article above reports that the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and cellphone companies such as Verizon try to catch the people who use jammers. Business owners who are trying to jam continuously in a fixed location are most likely to get caught since a place that consistently has no reception gets reported and investigated.

Also see my posts Work Distractions Lower Effective IQ and Brain Limits Ability To Multitask Interruptions. Oh, and don't forget Locking A Car With A Short Horn Blast Is Rude And Obnoxious.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 03 06:04 PM  Comm Tech Society
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Neural Stem Cell Delivery System For Genetic Diseases

Some Carnegie Mellon researchers are developing genetically engineered neural stem cells to treat rare genetic diseases.

PITTSBURGH — Carnegie Mellon University's Stefan F. Zappe is using adult neural stem cells to develop a new stem cell-based drug delivery therapy that may ultimately help treat a variety of inherited genetic disorders like Hunter syndrome.

Zappe, an assistant professor of biomedical engineering at Carnegie Mellon, and his graduate student Sasha Bakhru, are creating genetically engineered adult neural stem cells for delivery to patients' brains, where they will be programmed to produce an essential missing protein. In Hunter syndrome, for example, patients are lacking the enzyme iduronate-2-sulfatase that helps cells break down certain waste products. One in every 130,000 boys is born with the rare but deadly genetic disorder.

Successful development of this therapy will move us much closer toward being able to do one form of brain rejuvenation: take out the extracellular and intracellular junk that accumulates with age. A neural stem cell therapy that can get rid of wastes that accumulate due to a genetic defect would provide many of the biotechnological pieces needed to create a neural stem cell therapy to get rid of wastes that accumulate due to old age. For example, genetically engineered neural stem cells could clear out beta amyloid plaques which accumulate in the brains of Alzheimer's Disease sufferers.

Keep in mind that they have a lot of problems to solve before they come up with an effective therapy for the disease they are targeting. But the pursuit of treatments for existing neural genetic diseases is sending scientists down roads where they will solve many of the problems which stand in the way of effective rejuvenation therapies.

This team has developed microcapsules to deliver the stem cells into the brain.

To support their therapeutic goals, Zappe and his team have developed cell-instructive microcapsules that contain neural stem cells. These microcapsules efficiently control whether stem cells proliferate (multiply), differentiate into more specialized cell types like neurons and to what extent implanted stem cells will be allowed to migrate to the host tissue.

Zappe will be using these caviar-sized capsules specifically for rapid manipulation of stem cells outside the body and for reliable delivery of stem cells to the brain. The acute inflammatory response that usually occurs from implantation would normally cause implanted neural stem cells to differentiate into mature cell types that are not able to migrate extensively. Encapsulated stem cells will be protected from such premature differentiation.

Once the brain has healed from the initial implant of the encapsulated stem cells, the stem cells are genetically engineered to produce an enzyme that eats the microcapsule, freeing the neural stem cells. The stem cells can then migrate deep into the surrounding brain tissue where they provide the missing enzyme.

They have a lot of work cut out for them. It might take them well over 10 years to succeed. But once they and other researchers like them succeed in sending genetically engineered stem cells into various nooks and crannies of the brain the techniques they develop for doing this will be reusable for therapies aimed at rejuvenating aging brains.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 03 05:23 PM  Brain Stem Cells
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2007 November 01 Thursday
High Blood Sugar Increases Colorectal Cancer Risk

Here's yet another reason to get lots of exercise, control your weight, and eat a low glycemic index and unrefined diet: The higher blood sugar that comes from eating a highly refined diet and from being a couch potato puts you at greater risk of colon cancer.

The glucose levels observed by researchers in the Polyp Prevention Trial, of which this study was a subset analysis, and the levels of exposure that led to the increased risk, were not unusually elevated. Researchers used a glucose concentration of 99 mg/dl as the cut point for the patients in the high group in the study; a fasting blood glucose level between 100 and 125 mg/dl signals pre-diabetes. The levels used in the study are reflective of those in the general U.S. population, therefore it is important to note that even a modest elevation of fasting glucose can affect a patient’s risk of colorectal cancer.

Patients who presented with the highest levels of both insulin and glucose had an approximately 50 percent increased risk of colorectal tumor recurrence. The Polyp Prevention Trial found a recurrence for colorectal tumors of 39.6 percent over four years, meaning the recurrence rate in this subset of patients represents a large increase in absolute risk. Patients who had a high concentration of glucose experienced more than 2.4 times increased odds of advanced tumor recurrence. The subjects with the highest glucose concentration also tended to be slightly older and have higher body mass index (BMI) and waist to hip ratios. Additionally, they were more likely to be male, current smokers, a member of a minority group and less likely to have advanced beyond a high school education. For those without a family history of colorectal cancer, researchers observed an even greater risk with elevated concentrations of insulin and glucose compared to the overall study population.

Shift your diet toward vegetables, fruits, beans, and other healthier foods. If you must eat grains then eat whole grains. I realize you know all this. But reminders are helpful.

By Randall Parker 2007 November 01 05:23 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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