2008 December 31 Wednesday
Neanderthals Lost Out From Competition Not Climate Change

The Neanderthals were out-classed by the upstarts and just couldn't compete.

In a recently conducted study, a multidisciplinary French-American research team with expertise in archaeology, past climates, and ecology reported that Neanderthal extinction was principally a result of competition with Cro-Magnon populations, rather than the consequences of climate change.

The study, reported in the online, open-access journal PLoS ONE on December 24, figures in the ongoing debate on the reasons behind the eventual disappearance of Neanderthal populations, which occupied Europe prior to the arrival of human populations like us around 40,000 years ago. Led by Dr William E. Banks, the authors, who belong to the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, l'Ecole Pratique d'Hautes Etudes, and the University of Kansas, reached their conclusion by reconstructing climatic conditions during this period and analyzing the distribution of archaeological sites associated with the last Neanderthals and the first modern human populations with an approach typically used to study the impact of climate change on biodiversity.

This method uses geographic locations of archaeological sites dated by radiocarbon, in conjunction with high-resolution simulations of past climates for specific periods, and employs an algorithm to analyze relationships between the two datasets to reconstruct potential areas occupied by each human population and to determine if and how climatic conditions played a role in shaping these areas. In other words, by integrating archaeological and paleoenvironmental datasets, this predictive method can reconstruct the regions that a past population could potentially have occupied. By repeating the modeling process hundreds of times and evaluating where the errors occur, this machine-learning algorithm is able to provide robust predictions of regions that could have been occupied by specific human cultures.

In a few weeks I'm going to review an exciting new book that, among other claims, argues humans benefited from an introgression (in flow) of Neanderthal genes that helped humans evolve more rapidly. So not only did our ancestors wipe out Neanderthals but humanity even gained genetically from the interaction.

Why didn't Neanderthals instead take some of our genes and out-compete early modern humans? Not sure. I can think of some possibilities. Even if the hybrids possessed some advantages they existed in small numbers. The beneficial genetic alleles humans gained from Neanderthal genes might not have become widespread until well after Neanderthal numbers had greatly dwindled. Humans might have had such large competitive advantages that Neanderthals couldn't absorb beneficial human genes fast enough to be able to compete. Also, maybe the hybrids were more often born in human communities than in Neanderthal communities. Or maybe humans were more accepting of raising hybrids.

Anyone have a clue on this?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 31 03:40 PM  Evolution Primates
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Fresher Blood Cuts Cancer In Animals

Transfusions with fresher blood might improve outcomes of cancer surgery.

“New blood” can revitalize a company or a sports team. Recent research by Tel Aviv University finds that young blood does a body good as well, especially when it comes to fighting cancer.

The TAU researchers, led by Prof. Shamgar Ben-Eliyahu from the Department of Psychology’s Neuroimmunology Research Unit, discovered that a transfusion of “young” blood — blood which has been stored for less than 9 days — increased the odds of survival in animals challenged with two types of cancer. This finding, reported in the journal Anesthesiology, may solve an age-old mystery as to why some blood transfusions during cancer-related surgeries may lead to an increased recurrence of cancer and others do not.

“There is anecdotal evidence pointing to the fact that some surgeons really prefer to use younger blood units. They insist on it. Our research shows their reasoning might be sound,” says Prof. Ben-Eliyahu, explaining that the oldest blood in a blood bank usually sits on the shelf anywhere from 40 to 42 days before it expires.

Using an animal model, the researchers conducted tests on rats with leukemia and breast cancer. The odds of surviving the cancer, they found, were only compromised if the transfusion blood had been stored for nine or more days.

This result is not surprising. A group at Wake Forest University discovered that some mice have immune systems that are very effective against cancer and that group later discovered that rare people have extreme anti-cancer immune systems and that immune systems decline in their ability to attack cancer cells as we age. Blood that has not been stored as long probably is more capable for immune response.

I think the Wake Forest work demonstrates that not only should doctors use fresh blood with cancer patients but that they should use blood from younger donors and especially from donors which assays show to have especially effective immune responses against cancer.

The future development of immune system rejuvenation therapies will cut the incidence of cancer. Also, those rare people who have especially anti-cancer immune systems probably have genetic sequences for antibodies or perhaps for other parts of the immune system that make them fight cancer especially well. The eventual discovery of what makes their immune systems more effective will lead us toward the development of gene therapies or cell therapies to allow us to rev up our immune systems to protect against cancer.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 31 12:15 AM  Biotech Cancer
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2008 December 30 Tuesday
US Policy To Shift Toward Insulation For Heating Subsidies

Better to reduce the need for heat than subsidize the purchase of oil, natural gas, and other sources of heat.

Correct those flaws, and heating and cooling costs are typically cut by 20 percent to 30 percent, a saving of more than $1,000 annually in some households. In addition, carbon dioxide emissions and the strain on the national electric and gas systems are reduced.

About 140,000 houses will be weatherized with public help this year, a total that President-elect Barack Obama has promised to raise to one million, to reduce energy consumption and cut energy costs for households and taxpayers, who often absorb those costs for the poor. This would represent a historic shift in emphasis for the federal and state governments, reducing poor people’s energy bills instead of helping to pay them.

One can argue whether governments should subsidize home heating. But leave that aside. If a government is going to subsidize heating I'd rather in subsidize insulation rather than fuel supply. Insulation is far more cost effective. It reduces pollution, reduces waste, and cuts our dependence on dwindling supplies of imported oil.

I've made this argument in the past. A lot of leaky older houses are cheaper to seal up and insulate than to pay higher costs for heating for many years. What would help this process: more automated methods to measure heat leaks and detect their sources. Lots of contractors will quote assorted ways to improve a house's insulation. But uncertainty about how much such work will cut energy bills reduces the motive of home owners to upgrade their insulation.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 30 11:54 PM  Energy Policy
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2008 December 29 Monday
Cell Phones To Become Star Trek Medical Tricorders

Cell phones are already absorbing the functions of handheld games and MP3 music players and look set to replace laptop computers for many functions. Well, the idea of a separate handheld device for medical scanning turns out to be so 1960s. Cell phones will eventually scan blood and saliva.

Cell phones have already revolutionized the way people around the world communicate and do business. Thanks to advances being made at UCLA, they are about to do the same thing for medicine.

In the lab of UCLA electrical engineering professor Aydogan Ozcan, a prototype cell phone has been constructed that is capable of monitoring the condition of HIV and malaria patients, as well as testing water quality in undeveloped areas or disaster sites. The innovative imaging technology was invented by Ozcan, a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA, and has been miniaturized by researchers in his lab to the point that it can fit in standard cell phones.

The imaging platform, known as LUCAS (Lensless Ultra-wide-field Cell monitoring Array platform based on Shadow imaging), has now been successfully installed in both a cell phone and a webcam. Both devices acquire an image in the same way, using a short wavelength blue light to illuminate a blood, saliva or other fluid sample. LUCAS captures an image of the microparticles in the solution using a sensor array.

So you will feel lousy, point your cell phone at your mouth as you stick out your tongue, and the cell phone will tell you what ails you. Beyond what is getting reported here I also expect eventually cell phones will either contain microfluidic devices (i.e. lab-on-a-chip) or will provide a UI into microfluidic devices. The cell phone will report the test results to an A.I. running on a server and will direct you to a local drug store to pick up a treatment.

Dr. McCoy won't even enter into it.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 29 08:43 PM  Biotech Assay Tools
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Gene Therapy Reverses Heart Deterioration In Rats

If you can just flick the right switch you can stop a heart from deteriorating.

Long-term gene therapy resulted in improved cardiac function and reversed deterioration of the heart in rats with heart failure, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at Thomas Jefferson University’s Center for Translational Medicine. The study was published online in Circulation.

The delivered gene inhibits another gene that has higher activity in diseased hearts.

The rats were treated with a gene that generates a peptide called βARKct, which was administered to hearts in combination with recombinant-adeno-associated virus serotype 6 (rAAV6). βARKct works by inhibiting the activation of G protein-coupled receptor kinase 2 (GRK2).

In order to do this experiment the scientists first needed to know that the kinase enzyme GRK2 is expressed more in failing hearts and that it contributes to the failure. Then they needed to know which gene to use to inhibit this kinase. Then they needed a delivery vehicle for getting this gene into the heart. A lot of work went into each of these pieces of the puzzle.

GRK2 is a kinase that is increased in heart failure myocardium. Enhanced GRK enzymatic activity contributes to the deterioration of the heart in heart failure, according to Walter J. Koch, Ph.D., the W.W. Smith Professor of Medicine and the director of the Center for Translational Medicine at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University. Dr. Koch’s research team carried out the study, which was led by Giuseppe Rengo, M.D., a post-doctoral fellow.

“The theory is that by inhibiting this kinase, the heart will recover partially due to reversal of the desensitization of the β-adrenergic receptors,” Dr. Koch said. “The expression of βARKct leads to a negative neurohormonal feedback that prevents the heart from continuing on the downward slope during heart failure. This was one novel finding of the study.”

Dr. Koch and his colleagues used five groups of rats in their study. Two groups received rAAV6 with the βARKct peptide, two groups received rAAV6 with green fluorescent protein (GFP), and the last group received a saline treatment. One of the βARKct groups and one of the GFP groups also received the beta blocker metoprolol concurrently.

Twelve weeks after receiving the treatment, the rats who received the βARKct had a significantly increased left ventricular ejection fraction. The treatment also reversed the left ventricular deterioration and normalized the neurohormonal status. Dr. Koch said that targeting the GRK2 enzyme with βARKct was sufficient to reverse heart failure even without concomitant metoprolol.

One of the ways that cheap DNA sequencing helps is that it leads to the identification of genes that contribute to heart disease risk. Those genes then become candidates to use in gene therapy to either turn them up or turn them down or modify how they work. The expanding knowledge about which genes get more or less expressed in disease tissue will help in the identification of potential targets for gene therapy. Though there's a lot more work involved beyond just identifying which genes are turned up or down in diseased tissue.

Gene therapy has been pretty slow in coming. The problem isn't just in identifying which gene(s) to deliver but also how to package them, how to get them into only the cell types you want to treat (turning on heart genes in the liver is not a good idea), and how to do all this without damaging the genome of the targeted cells. Cancer is a real threat and some gene therapy development efforts have failed due to cancer.

The experiment above suggests some good news. If we can find a way to deliver gene therapy safely into heart cells then at least some types of heart disease can be stopped and reversed.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 29 04:49 PM  Biotech Gene Therapy
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Big Genetic Contribution To Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

I picture Jack Nicholson saying "you can't handle the truth" and Tom Cruise says "I got the genetic profile that says I can". Of course, maybe he doesn't. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has a big genetic component for vulnerability to it after a great shock.

Earthquakes have aftershocks — not just the geological kind but the mental kind as well. Just like veterans of war, earthquake survivors can experience post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and anxiety.

In 1988, a massive earthquake in Armenia killed 17,000 people and destroyed nearly half the town of Gumri. Now, in the first multigenerational study of its kind, UCLA researchers studying survivors of that catastrophe have discovered that vulnerability to PTSD, anxiety and depression runs in families.

Armen Goenjian, a research psychiatrist in the UCLA Department of Psychiatry and Biobehavioral Sciences, and colleagues studied 200 participants from 12 multigenerational families exposed to the earthquake. Participants suffered from varying degrees of the disorders. The researchers found that 41 percent of the variation of PTSD symptoms was due to genetic factors and that 61 percent of the variation of depressive symptoms and 66 percent of anxiety symptoms were attributable to genetics. Further, they found that a large proportion of the genetic liabilities for the disorders were shared.

The research appears in the December issue of the journal Psychiatric Genetics.

These genetic factors that contribute to PTSD will eventually be identified. I see this as a problematic turn of events for police departments, fire departments, militaries, and other organizations that put people in dangerous situations. People whose genetic profiles show they will get messed up permanently from getting into firefights are better off not getting into combat. Of course, combat poses other threats like getting one's leg or arm blown off that are going leave you seriously messed up or dead regardless of your genetic inheritance. But the total average cost of going into combat will be higher for people who have a genetic predisposition to get PTSD.

On the bright side, a discovery of which genes contribute to PTSD risk will help in the development of drugs that will prevent PTSD. That'll work better for combat troops than for people who get into natural disasters since the combat troops can start taking the protective drugs before they go into battle. Whereas many types of disasters like tornadoes and volcanic eruptions can come on too quickly for people to start using drugs in advance to prevent mental changes that'll permanently scar them.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 29 03:38 PM  Brain Genetics
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Mirror Neurons Activate When Watching Others Do Or Feel

We model what others are doing or feeling by activation of the same neurons as we activate when doing or feeling the same thing for ourselves.

The old adage that we can only learn how to do something by trying it ourselves may have to be revised in the light of recent discoveries in neuroscience. It turns out that humans, primates, some birds, and possibly other higher animals have mirror neurons that fire in the same pattern whether performing or just observing a task. These mirror neurons clearly play an important role in learning motor tasks involving hand eye coordination, and possibly also acquisition of language skills, as well as being required for social skills, but the exact processes involved are only just being discovered. In particular the relationship between mirror neural networks and social cognitive tasks has been unclear, and greater knowledge of it could shed light on problems such as autism that may arise when this process goes wrong.

It could be that some on the autistic spectrum (high functioning autistics and Aspergers) are able to do more original mental work because they spend less of their mental resources activating neurons to mirror what others are feeling and doing.

Mirror neurons fire not only when watching someone else perform a task but also when watching someone else experience an emotion.

Just as the same mirror neurons fire when observing and doing certain tasks, so other mirror neurons may be triggered both when experiencing a particularly emotion and when observing someone else with that emotion. At the ESF conference it emerged that mirror neurons involved in emotion resided in both the insula and cingulate cortexes, two regions of the brain known to play roles in emotions and feelings. However until recently the mechanisms of interaction between these two had been largely unknown. "In the case of emotions, we can say that there is a good deal of overlap between areas from the insula and cingulate cortexes," said Viale. "These areas become active both when individuals feel an emotion (e.g. disgust) and also when they watch someone else feeling that emotion."

Mirror neurons were discovered in the 1980s by an Italian group led by Giacomo Rizzolatti, which placed electrodes in the inferior frontal cortex of macaque monkeys' brains to study neurons dedicated to control of hand movement. This led to the surprising observation that some of the neurons responded in the same way when monkeys saw a person pick up a piece of food as when they were doing it themselves. This introduced the principle of the mirror neuron as a neuron capable of being triggered by imitation, as a mechanism both for learning and empathising in social situations.

While mirror neutrons cannot be observed directly in humans because electrodes cannot be inserted into their brains, the action has been inferred by imaging of the whole brain using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This showed patterns of brain activity consistent with the firing of motor neurons.

More recently motor neurons have also been discovered in birds.

Modest proposal: Rate a movie by having people watch it and measure their emotional responses with fMRI scanners. A movie that activates a lot of mirror neurons might be successful. However, the feeling of being disgusted or angry with the movie needs to be separated from feelings of empathy for characters in the movie.

What I wonder: do any psychopaths have a diminished ability to feel emotions that mirror the emotions that others feel? Could one detect psychopaths by showing test subjects tragic and painful pictures and then see if their mirror neurons get activated?

Also, could intelligence agencies discover moles by showing them images of enemy countries and their own country and see if they more mirror neuron activation for happiness or friendliness from enemy country ideological images and less from their own?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 29 03:20 PM  Brain Evolution
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2008 December 27 Saturday
Residential Use Of Coal Up In United States

Bad news for the environment:

Burning coal at home was once commonplace, of course, but the practice had been declining for decades. Coal consumption for residential use hit a low of 258,000 tons in 2006 — then started to rise. It jumped 9 percent in 2007, according to the Energy Information Administration, and 10 percent more in the first eight months of 2008.

Online coal forums are buzzing with activity, as residential coal enthusiasts trade tips and advice for buying and tending to coal heaters. And manufacturers and dealers of coal-burning stoves say they have been deluged with orders — many placed when the price of heating oil jumped last summer — that they are struggling to fill.

In the United States wood burning stoves are more regulated than coal burning stoves for residential heating. That should change. Coal contains more toxins (e.g. mercury) than wood and so burning coal is worse than burning wood in residences. At least when coal is used in big electric power generation plants the expertise and capital are available to burn it very cleanly - if only the regulations were tough enough to require extremely clean coal burning for electric power generation.

Burning coal saves a lot of money for houses in colder areas. For people who are spending thousands of dollars per winter on heating oil the use of coal can cut out most of those costs.

Coals vary in quality, but on average, a ton of coal contains about as much potential heat as 146 gallons of heating oil or 20,000 cubic feet of natural gas, according to the Energy Information Administration. A ton of anthracite, a particularly high grade of coal, can cost as little as $120 near mines in Pennsylvania. The equivalent amount of heating oil would cost roughly $380, based on the most recent prices in the state — and over $470 using prices from December 2007. An equivalent amount of natural gas would cost about $480 at current prices.

Ground sink heat pumps, insulation upgrades, solar heating systems, and other cleaner alternatives are environmentally better than coal for heating. Anyone who is thinking about installing a coal heater ought to investigate alternatives. Coal is much less convenient. The need to empty out the ash on a daily basis and to shovel coal into feeders is also more laborious. Plus, coal requires constant residence in a house to prevent freezing up.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 27 11:36 PM  Energy Heating
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Passive House Design Takes Off In Germany

The idea of extremely well insulated houses which need little heating is not a new one. But advances in design made at an institute in Darmstadt Germany are making so-called passive houses more practical. A New York Times article takes a look at the growing popularity of passive house designs for heating.

The concept of the passive house, pioneered in this city of 140,000 outside Frankfurt, approaches the challenge from a different angle. Using ultrathick insulation and complex doors and windows, the architect engineers a home encased in an airtight shell, so that barely any heat escapes and barely any cold seeps in. That means a passive house can be warmed not only by the sun, but also by the heat from appliances and even from occupants’ bodies.

And in Germany, passive houses cost only about 5 to 7 percent more to build than conventional houses.

The article reports higher costs in the US because some of the special windows and other supplies are harder to come by here.

This is still a pretty small scale phenomenon with only 15,000 passive houses built so far - most in northern European countries.

“The myth before was that to be warm you had to have heating. Our goal is to create a warm house without energy demand,” said Wolfgang Hasper, an engineer at the Passivhaus Institut in Darmstadt. “This is not about wearing thick pullovers, turning the thermostat down and putting up with drafts. It’s about being comfortable with less energy input, and we do this by recycling heating.”

There are now an estimated 15,000 passive houses around the world, the vast majority built in the past few years in German-speaking countries or Scandinavia.

You can't build this sort of house on a north-facing hillside or in a city street with a skyscraper shading your property. The development of this technology for cooling is nowhere near as far along.

I like this idea because it reduces our vulnerability to disruptions in energy flows in an industrial society. Loss of electric power doesn't mean a freezing house. The use of wood heating for this purpose doesn't scale as well due to limited supplies of trees. Also, putting wood on the fire is a chore and the resulting smoke isn't good for health.

Passive houses also reduce usage of limited supplies of fossil fuels, reducing pollution in the process as well as saving money in the long run.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 27 12:52 PM  Energy Heating
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2008 December 26 Friday
More Sleep Reduces Coronary Artery Calcification

Some people want to know which vitamin pills to take to slow aging. But I see far bigger benefits from focusing on the basics first. Here's an example of a basic good health practice with big benefits. Get enough sleep to reduce calcification of your arteries.

One extra hour of sleep per night appears to decrease the risk of coronary artery calcification, an early step down the path to cardiovascular disease, a research team based at the University of Chicago Medical Center reports in the Dec. 24/31 issue of JAMA. The benefit of one hour of additional sleep was comparable to the gains from lowering systolic blood pressure by 17 mm Hg.

About 12 percent of those in the study, healthy volunteers in their 40s, first developed coronary artery calcification over five years of follow-up. Calcified arteries, however, were found in 27 percent of those who slept less than five hours a night. That dropped to 11 percent for those who slept five to seven hours and fell to six percent for those who slept more than seven hours a night.

The benefits of sleep appeared to be greater for women. They did not vary according to race.

"The consistency and the magnitude of the difference came as a surprise," said study director Diane Lauderdale, PhD, associate professor of health studies at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

Sleep might benefit by lowering blood pressure or maybe stressed-out people just have less time for sleep.

The authors suggest three possible ways that shorter sleep could connect to calcification. First, there may be some factor not yet identified that can both reduce sleep duration and increase calcification. Second, although blood pressure measured during examinations did not seem to explain the association, blood pressure generally declines during sleep, so the 24-hour average blood pressure of those who sleep less may be higher, and that could lead to calcification. Finally, stress or a stress hormone like cortisol, which has been tied to decreased sleep and increased calcification, may play a role. Cortisol data were not available for all study participants.

You can't miss out on sleep without it costing you in a variety of ways. Reduced sleep for a single night increases harmful inflammatory response in the body.

Philadelphia, PA, September 2, 2008 – Loss of sleep, even for a few short hours during the night, can prompt one's immune system to turn against healthy tissue and organs. A new article in the September 15th issue of Biological Psychiatry, by the UCLA Cousins Center research team, reports that losing sleep for even part of one night can trigger the key cellular pathway that produces tissue-damaging inflammation. The findings suggest a good night's sleep can ease the risk of both heart disease and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis.

UCLA Cousins Center researchers reported similar results in 2006 as well.

Sleeps helps you learn complicated tasks too.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 26 03:31 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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2008 December 24 Wednesday
Glucose Shortage In Brain Causes Alzheimer's Disease?

Constricted blood vessels caused by aging might set in motion the sequence of events that cause proteins to clump up and cause Alzheimer's Disease progression.

CHICAGO --- A slow, chronic starvation of the brain as we age appears to be one of the major triggers of a biochemical process that causes some forms of Alzheimer's disease.

A new study from Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine has found when the brain doesn't get enough sugar glucose -- as might occur when cardiovascular disease restricts blood flow in arteries to the brain -- a process is launched that ultimately produces the sticky clumps of protein that appear to be a cause of Alzheimer's.

Robert Vassar, lead author, discovered a key brain protein is altered when the brain has a deficient supply of energy. The altered protein, called elF2alpha, increases the production of an enzyme that, in turn, flips a switch to produce the sticky protein clumps. Vassar worked with human and mice brains in his research.

The study is published in the December 26 issue of the journal Neuron.

"This finding is significant because it suggests that improving blood flow to the brain might be an effective therapeutic approach to prevent or treat Alzheimer's," said Vassar, a professor of cell and molecular biology at the Feinberg School.

This is good news and bad news. The good news is that a rejuvenating therapy for the vascular system will probably prevent Alzheimer's Disease. The bad news is that we might need a rejuvenating therapy for the vascular system to prevent Alzheimer's Disease.

Of course there are many things we can do dietarily and otherwise to slow the rate of decay of our veins and arteries. But all those good things to do just slow the decay. Very worth doing. But we still need the rejuvenating stem cells and gene therapy to fix up our piping.

Also, short of a rejuvenated circulatory system we can expect to see the development of therapies that block various steps involved in Alzheimer's development. But this result is an example of how the best strategy for attacking most of the diseases of old age is to reverse the aging process.

A team at U Rochester is chasing down what they think is a mechanism by which poor circulation turns on two proteins which block the removal of toxic amyloid beta.

"To some, it might seem odd that a cardiovascular group would intersect with a neuroscience group to study Alzheimer's disease," Miano said. "But there's a great deal of evidence to suggest that Alzheimer's disease is a problem having much to do with the vascular plumbing. And Rochester is the type of institution where partnerships like these are easy to strike up."

For 15 years Zlokovic's laboratory has focused on the molecular mechanisms regulating blood supply and the role of the blood-brain barrier in the development of Alzheimer's disease. It's not simply that reduced blood supply hurts brain cells by causing a shortage of oxygen and other nutrients. Rather, deterioration of blood flow seems to gum up the brain's ability to remove toxic amyloid beta.

These researchers have previously published results which suggest that a drug that blocks the proteins SRF and myocardin might improve brain blood circulation.

Two years ago, Zlokovic and Miano published a study showing that the two proteins are much more active in the blood vessels of brains of people with Alzheimer's disease than in people who do not have the disease. They showed that when they reduced the activity of the proteins, blood flow in the brain increased, and when the genes were more active, blood flow decreased.

The latest report goes further, implicating the molecular duo in the slowed removal of amyloid beta. The team found that SRF and myocardin working together turn on a molecule known as SREBP2. That protein inhibits a molecule known as LRP-1, which helps the body remove amyloid beta. In other words, when SRF and myocardin are active, toxic amyloid beta accumulates.


Now the team has turned its attention to studying the role of hypoxia, which seems to play a role in turning on myocardin, as well as searching for molecules that block the hookup between SRF and myocardin.

Even if these mechanisms become well understood and toxic protein accumulation becomes blockable with drugs our brains still need a circulatory system that works well enough to deliver sufficient sugar, oxygen, and other nutrients. Drugs that improve circulation are certainly within the realm of the plausible. But ultimately we still need rejuvenated circulatory systems.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 24 10:08 PM  Brain Alzheimers Disease
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Aubrey de Grey Google Tech Talk On Defeat Of Aging

A friend points out that Aubrey de Grey's October 8, 2007 Google Tech Talk on the defeat of aging has only 402 views. That's a waste of a valuable talk on a very important topic. So here's a post to begin to remedy this waste:

Aubrey and Dave Gobel co-founded the Methuselah Foundation to accelerate the defeat of the aging process. Toward this goal Aubrey proposes Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS) to reverse the aging process and repair our bodies to save us from the ravages of aging.

If you are new to SENS and or just haven't heard a recent talk by Aubrey on this topic then watch his lecture.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 24 04:04 PM  Aging Debate
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Space Station Cargo Delivery Still Expensive

Orbital Sciences Corp has won a $1.9 billion contract to carry 20 metric tons of cargo to the International Space Station in 8 flights. Think about those numbers. That's $95 million per metric ton to move cargo from ground level to low orbit. Those deliveries start in 2011 and run through 2015. A metric ton is 1000 kilograms or 2204.6 lbs. So the cost of putting stuff into low Earth orbit in 2015 is still going to be around $43k per lb or $95k per kg. At these prices large scale human colonization of space still seems a very distant prospect.

Those costs will come down a lot if a beanstalk into space built using nanotubes becomes possible. A bigger cost reduction for a Mars mission will come from nanotech advances. A bunch of nanodevices that can transform Mars landscape and produce needed supplies for a colony would reduce the size of the payload needed for setting up an initial colony.

The idea of moving to Mars remains unattractive to me at least until it becomes possible to massively terraform the planet. Move massive amounts of oxygen and nitrogen from Titan and Triton and suddenly a Mars where we could walk around outside and breath its air becomes a lot more appealing.

Nanotech assemblers will be the enabling technology for large scale colonization because they will lower the cost of creating the spaceships needed for terraforming.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 24 01:26 PM  Space Exploration
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2008 December 23 Tuesday
Platelets Produced From Umbilical Cord Stem Cells

Rather than continue to have large numbers of people donate blood to isolate needed platelets a group at Ohio State University is producing platelets using stem cells in laboratory bioreactors.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – It might be possible to grow human blood platelets in the laboratory for transfusion, according to a new study at The Ohio State University Medical Center.

The findings, published in the January 1, 2009 issue of the journal Experimental Hematology, might one day enable blood banks to grow platelets continuously and in quantities that can ease the chronically tight supply of these critical blood components.

About 13 million platelet concentrates are collected annually in the United States at a cost of about $1 billion. They are needed by people who lack platelets or whose platelets function improperly, such as certain cancer chemotherapy patients, bone marrow transplant patients, trauma patients given massive blood transfusions and people with aplastic anemia.

Reports about stem cells getting manipulated to produce useful products are great news. An industry built up around getting people to donate blood won't produce all that much in the way of biotechnological innovations since the most important part of the process happens in a person's body before they donate the blood. A movement of that process into bioreactors creates an industry that will improve the state of the art in tissue engineering. The more types of tissues that get grown in bioreactors the sooner we'll get to full internal organs getting grown outside the body to serve as needed replacement parts as we age.

Stem cells isolated from umbilical cord blood were combined with growth factors to stimulate production of megakarocyte cells which shed platelets. This is all good.

For this study, Lasky and his colleagues isolated hematopoietic stem cells, which produce blood cells, from blood taken from umbilical cords following normal, full-term deliveries. The stem cells were grown to greater numbers, then added to the bioreactors – chambers with several layers for gas and growth-media control. Control cells were grown in culture flasks. Other attempts to grow platelets have usually used culture flasks or similar two-dimensional systems.

After a few days of growth, a solution of growth factors was added to both groups to stimulate the cells to form large, bone-marrow cells called megakaryocytes, which shed bits of themselves as platelets.

The three-dimensional bioreactor produced up to 1.2 million platelets per day, with production continuing for more than 32 days, while the two-dimensional system generated a maximum of about 350,000 platelets per day over a ten-day period.

This research team is working on ways to increase yields. They are at an early enough stage that many process improvements lie ahead.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 23 03:03 PM  Biotech Tissue Engineering
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2008 December 22 Monday
Serotonin Gene Makes Some More Popular?

Does a genetic variant cause rule-breaking and therefore popularity?

EAST LANSING, Mich. — A groundbreaking study of popularity by a Michigan State University scientist has found that genes elicit not only specific behaviors but also the social consequences of those behaviors.

According to the investigation by behavioral geneticist S. Alexandra Burt, male college students who had a gene associated with rule-breaking behavior were rated most popular by a group of previously unacquainted peers.

The devil made me do it by giving me a serotonin gene variant.

Burt collected DNA from more than 200 male college students in two separate samples. After interacting in a lab setting for about an hour, the students filled out a questionnaire about whom they most liked in their group. In both samples, the most popular students turned out to be the ones with a particular form of a serotonin gene that was also associated with rule-breaking behavior.

“So the gene predisposed them to rule-breaking behavior and their rule-breaking behavior made them more popular,” Burt said.

Break the rules to become more popular. Blame your genes if you get caught.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 22 10:35 PM  Brain Genetics
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2008 December 21 Sunday
Chimps And Humans Activate Same Brain Areas For Faces

Lisa Parr, a researcher at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University, finds that the brains of chimps trying to identify faces show activity in the same areas of the brain that humans show doing the same activity.

In the study, the researchers examined brain activity (as reflected by blood sugar metabolism) in five chimpanzees by using Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans. (Parr noted that the Yerkes National Primate Research Center is the only center of its kind to have on-site MRI, PET, and cyclotron facilities, making studies like Parr's possible.) The chimps were shown three faces, two of which were identical, while the third was of a different chimp. Subjects were then asked to indicate the faces that matched. In other trials, the chimpanzees did the same matching task with clip art images.

The imaging studies revealed significant face-selective activity in brain regions known to make up the distributed cortical face-processing network in humans. Further study showed distinct patches of activity in a region known as the fusiform gyrus—the primary site of face-selective activity in humans—when chimps observed faces.

The researchers concluded that the brain regions that are active during facial recognition may represent part of a distributed neural system for face processing in chimpanzees, like that proposed in humans, in which the initial visual analysis of faces activates regions in the occipital and temporal lobes of the cerebral cortex (a portion of the brain involved in memory, attention, and perceptual awareness) followed by additional processing in the fusiform gyrus and other regions.

Many like to think we are unique and different from all the other animal species on the planet. But while some parts of our brains are more complex the similarities are pretty extensive. Makes sense when you think about it: Chimps have mostly the same senses and appendages. They need to solve many of the same basic problems with sensory input processing.

Comparisons of genetic sequences will lead to identification of genetic differences that cause cognitive differences. Once we identify some of those differences gene therapy will provide a way to introduce human genetic variations into chimp embryos. That's when things get really interesting. How many human genetic sequences will genetic hackers of the future need to add to chimps to make them able to score 100 on an IQ test? Some of us are going to live long enough to find out.

What I want to know: once scientists discover the genetic causes of psychopathy will they find that chimps are more like psychopaths or more like the rest of us?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 21 11:00 PM  Brain Species Compare
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Experimental Subjects Obey Killer Orders Just As In 1961

Think over the last 50 years that society has gone through huge changes that make people less willing to blindly follow authority? Think that the 1960s were a big turning point that caused people to question authority? Think they passed this down to their children and altered our relationship to authority figures? Nope. In a repeat of Stanley Milgram's classic experiment on obedience in experimental subjects the subjects of today are just as willing to deliver lethal electricity doses.

WASHINGTON – Nearly 50 years after one of the most controversial behavioral experiments in history, a social psychologist has found that people are still just as willing to administer what they believe are painful electric shocks to others when urged on by an authority figure.

Jerry M. Burger, PhD, replicated one of the famous obedience experiments of the late Stanley Milgram, PhD, and found that compliance rates in the replication were only slightly lower than those found by Milgram. And, like Milgram, he found no difference in the rates of obedience between men and women.

Burger's findings are reported in the January issue of American Psychologist, the flagship journal of the American Psychological Association. The issue includes a special section reflecting on Milgram's work 24 years after his death on Dec. 20, 1984, and analyzing Burger's study.

Burger conducted his experiment at Santa Clara University. Milgram originally conducted his experiment at Yale. My guess is that a lot of Yale students would recognize this experiment and therefore refuse to play along. But it would have been a lot more interesting if a group of professors had gotten together and repeated this experiment at several universities before publishing their results.

Stanley Milgram was an assistant professor at Yale University in 1961 when he conducted the first in a series of experiments in which subjects – thinking they were testing the effect of punishment on learning – administered what they believed were increasingly powerful electric shocks to another person in a separate room. An authority figure conducting the experiment prodded the first person, who was assigned the role of "teacher" to continue shocking the other person, who was playing the role of "learner." In reality, both the authority figure and the learner were in on the real intent of the experiment, and the imposing-looking shock generator machine was a fake.

Milgram found that, after hearing the learner's first cries of pain at 150 volts, 82.5 percent of participants continued administering shocks; of those, 79 percent continued to the shock generator's end, at 450 volts. In Burger's replication, 70 percent of the participants had to be stopped as they continued past 150 volts – a difference that was not statistically significant.

"Nearly four out of five of Milgram's participants who continued after 150 volts went all the way to the end of the shock generator," Burger said. "Because of this pattern, knowing how participants react at the 150-volt juncture allows us to make a reasonable guess about what they would have done if we had continued with the complete procedure."

This experiment did not exactly mirror Milgram's original experiment. So it is not a true comparison of attitudes now and almost 50 years ago. We really need experiments like this that compare different types of people in different settings. Will people all around the world do the same? Will smart and dumb people do the same as average people? How do young and old differ? Conservative, liberal, and libertarian, communist, socialist, and Episcopalian? Are the people who refuse to go all the way up in voltages wired up differently due to their genes? Are they otherwise better or worse citizens than those who followed orders up to a high voltage?

Also, are highly empathetic people more or less likely to turn up the voltage all the way? Are extroverts or introverts more likely to follow instructions even when they suspect someone is suffering as a result? We are eventually going to know much more about biological mechanisms as well as developmental influences and environmental factors that cause differences in behavior toward authority and differences in empathy, altruism, and many other traits. Once we know more we are going to be faced with a very difficult problem which we do not face today: what to choose once we can choose more traits for offspring?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 21 10:28 PM  Brain Obedience Authority
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Regular Drinking Women See Male Faces As More Symmetric

Even when sober women who drink more are less able to detect male facial asymmetry. So crooked-faced guys should look for female regular drinkers.

Researchers found that women who drink even moderately develop a reduced ability to rate attractiveness in male faces, even when they are sober.

Those who drank were less able to detect male facial symmetry, a marker of attractiveness and good genes which is thought to play an important role in the choice of a partner.

Even 5 drinks per month diminished ability to score facial symmetry. Researcher Kirsten Oinonen at Lakehead University in Thunderbay Ontario expects that women whose minds are altered in this way will find less attractive guys more attractive when their decreased attractiveness is caused by facial asymmetry.

If a woman stops drinking entirely does her ability to measure facial symmetry gradually return? I am reminded of my previous post Sexual Attraction By Odor Changed By Contraceptive Pill. The Pill is probably causing women to hook up with men who they will eventually find to smell bad once they stop taking the Pill. Marriages probably dissolve as a result. Does the same thing happen in relationships because one member of the couple stops drinking? Or does the alcohol cause a permanent alteration in brain function in an area that processes facial images?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 21 09:52 AM  Brain Sexuality
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2008 December 19 Friday
David Rutledge Sees Far Less Coal Remaining

Projections of future coal burning maybe excessively optimistic or pessimistic (depending on your point of view) because the amount recoverable from the ground might be far less than governments project.

David Rutledge, a professor of engineering at Caltech, estimates economically recoverable coal reserves at 400 billion tons worldwide. By comparison, governments claim 850 billion to 998 billion tons of recoverable coal.

Rutledge presented this analysis at the annual meeting of the American Geological Union . He has also made this argument previously. Sounds like he's done more number crunching since the previous report.

If Rutledge is right then people fighting global warming are fighting the wrong battle. CO2 emissions are going to peak because of geological limitations.

The figure is substantially lower than the ones used in assessments by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to gauge possible future emissions scenarios.

"This is a radically different number from what is conventionally assumed," said Professor David Rutledge from the California Institute of Technology, who led the analysis.

"The IPCC assumes that about five times as much coal is available for burning."

I am more certain about the coming of Peak Oil than I am about Peak Coal. Oil fields appear to have attracted a lot more study.

Rutledge says governments over-predict coal reserves.

"The record of geological estimates made by governments for their fossil fuel estimates is really horrible," Rutledge said during a press conference at the American Geological Union annual meeting. "And the estimates tend to be quite high. They over-predict future coal production."

More specifically, Rutledge says that big surveys of natural resources underestimate the difficulty and expense of getting to the coal reserves of the world. And that's assuming that the countries have at least tried to offer a real estimate to the international community. China, for example, has only submitted two estimates of its coal reserves to the World Energy Council — and they were wildly different.

We need lots more nuclear reactors and wind turbines. We also need better batteries for electric cars and genetic engineering of microorganisms for practical biomass energy.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 19 10:50 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2008 December 18 Thursday
Post-Pandemic Reforestation Triggered Little Ice Age?

Here's another argument that pre-industrial age human populations altered the world's climate.

In recent years, there has been growing evidence for the hypothesis that the effect of the pandemics in the Americas wasn't confined to killing indigenous peoples. Global climate appears to have been altered as well.

Stanford University researchers have conducted a comprehensive analysis of data detailing the amount of charcoal contained in soils and lake sediments at the sites of both pre-Columbian population centers in the Americas and in sparsely populated surrounding regions. They concluded that reforestation of agricultural lands—abandoned as the population collapsed—pulled so much carbon out of the atmosphere that it helped trigger a period of global cooling, at its most intense from approximately 1500 to 1750, known as the Little Ice Age.

"We estimate that the amount of carbon sequestered in the growing forests was about 10 to 50 percent of the total carbon that would have needed to come out of the atmosphere and oceans at that time to account for the observed changes in carbon dioxide concentrations," said Richard Nevle, visiting scholar in the Department of Geological and Environmental Sciences at Stanford. Nevle and Dennis Bird, professor in geological and environmental sciences, presented their study at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union on Dec. 17, 2008.

We change the climate with our actions. We probably prevented an Ice Age thousands of years ago. Now these Stanford researchers think we contributed to the Little Ice Age of a few hundred years ago.

What we do and what we do not do changes the climate. We have been unknowing climate engineers for thousands of years. We should get more intentional about it. If we paid women to have fewer children we could cool the Earth by gradually shrinking the human population. A return of trees would lower atmospheric CO2.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 18 11:56 PM  Climate Engineering
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Genetically Engineered Bacteria Make Longer Chain Fuel

UCLA researchers genetically manipulated E. Coli bacteria to make hydrocarbons for fuel with more carbon atoms for easier processing.

For the first time, researchers at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science have successfully pushed nature beyond its limits by genetically modifying Escherichia coli, a bacterium often associated with food poisoning, to produce unusually long-chain alcohols essential in the creation of biofuels.

"Previously, we were able to synthesize long-chain alcohols containing five carbon atoms," said James Liao, UCLA professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering. "We stopped at five carbons at the time because that was what could be naturally achieved. Alcohols were never synthesized beyond five carbons. Now, we've figured out a way to engineer proteins for a whole new pathway in E. coli to produce longer-chain alcohols with up to eight carbon atoms."

The new protein and metabolic engineering method developed by Liao and his research team is detailed in the Dec. 30 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The paper is currently available online.

Longer-chain alcohols, with five or more carbon atoms, pack more energy into a smaller space and are easier to separate from water, making them less volatile and corrosive than the commercially available biofuel ethanol. The greater the number of carbon atoms, the higher the density of the biofuel. Ethanol, most commonly made from corn or sugarcane, contains only two carbon atoms.

If we can solve part of our problem with dwindling oil reserves by using biomass it is my expectation that the solution will come from genetic engineering of microorganisms. Small organisms are easier to genetically engineer. Whether the solution will come from genetically engineered bacteria or algae is less clear to me. Bacteria are easier to modify. But algae which can better grow in water might be the better longer term bet. Anyone have any insights on this?

While corn and cellulosic technology have so far favored ethanol the genetically engineered microorganisms will probably be more likely to produce more reduced (having more hydrogens and fewer oxygens) hydrocarbon chains. Diesel might become the most cost effective fuel to produce with a biomass energy approach. So genetically engineered biomass energy microorganisms probably favor increased popularity of diesel engines.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 18 11:47 PM  Energy Biomass
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2008 December 17 Wednesday
Humans Prevented Ice Age Thousands Of Years Ago?

Our ancestors intervened and prevented a natural ice age from happening thousands of years ago.

SAN FRANCISCO — The common wisdom is that the invention of the steam engine and the advent of the coal-fueled industrial age marked the beginning of human influence on global climate.

But gathering physical evidence, backed by powerful simulations on the world's most advanced computer climate models, is reshaping that view and lending strong support to the radical idea that human-induced climate change began not 200 years ago, but thousands of years ago with the onset of large-scale agriculture in Asia and extensive deforestation in Europe.

What's more, according to the same computer simulations, the cumulative effect of thousands of years of human influence on climate is preventing the world from entering a new glacial age, altering a clockwork rhythm of periodic cooling of the planet that extends back more than a million years.

"This challenges the paradigm that things began changing with the Industrial Revolution," says Stephen Vavrus, a climatologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Center for Climatic Research and the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. "If you think about even a small rate of increase over a long period of time, it becomes important."

Was this intervention morally wrong? Should some ancient Al Gorestone have lobbied Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble to stop using agriculture?

While I do not see how climate engineering can prevent the oceans from becoming too acidic from dissolved CO2 I do not have a problem with using climate engineering. If climate engineering was good enough for Trog then it is good enough for me. But some scientists are skeptical that we can use climate engineering successfully.

Global warming, some have argued, can be reversed with a large-scale "geoengineering" fix, such as having a giant blimp spray liquefied sulfur dioxide in the stratosphere or building tens of millions of chemical filter systems in the atmosphere to filter out carbon dioxide.

But Richard Turco, a professor in the UCLA Department of Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences and a member and founding director of UCLA's Institute of the Environment, sees no evidence that such technological alterations of the climate system would be as quick or easy as their proponents claim and says many of them wouldn't work at all.

Turco will present his new research on geoengineering — conducted with colleague Fangqun Yu, a research professor at the State University of New York–Albany's atmospheric sciences research center — today and Thursday at the American Geophysical Union's annual meeting in San Francisco.

"We're talking about tinkering with the climate system that affects everybody on Earth," said Turco, an atmospheric chemist with expertise in the microphysics of fine particles suspended in the atmosphere. "Some of the ideas are extreme. There would certainly be winners and losers, but no one would know who until it's too late.

Climate engineering would create different winners and losers than reduced CO2 emissions would create. But either way there are going to be winners and losers. Also, if we do not restrict CO2 emissions there'll be winners and losers. Certainly that makes it very hard to form a consensus on the decision to do climate change. But should that be an argument to totally abandon intentional climate engineering? If we place intentional climate engineering beyond the pale we will just get unintentional climate engineering. That's what Fred and Wilma did way back when.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 17 11:20 PM  Climate Engineering
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Gene Therapy Selectively Targets Cancer Cells

In a PNAS paper some U Rochester researchers report they've discovered a modified gene which expresses itself 5 times more in cancer cells than in regular cells.

Vera Gorbunova, assistant professor of biology at the University of Rochester, and her team, Andrei Seluanov, assistant professor of biology, and graduate student Christopher Hine, were investigating Rad51, a protein that is expressed at about five times higher level in cancer cells than in healthy cells, when they stumbled on something very unexpected.

Think of DNA as software. We need software that acts like a killer virus in cancer cells but which doesn't do anything harmful in regular cells. The ability to deliver a piece of software into a cell that can execute in a way that only kills cancer cells would put curing cancer within reach. This discovery is a useful step toward that capability.

"We stripped off some of the Rad51 gene and replaced it with a marker protein DNA to see why Rad51 was five times more abundant in cancer cells," says Gorbunova. "We wanted to see if there was any way we could boost that difference and create a really useful cancer-targeting tool. We couldn't believe it when we saw the cancer cells expressing the engineered Rad51 around a thousand times more."

When Gorbunova first saw the huge discrepancy, she thought one of her graduate students had fumbled the lab test. Further tests showed that the altered Rad51 was expressed in some cancer cells as much as 12,500 times as often as healthy cells, says Gorbunova. Such a large discrepancy means scientists should be able to use it to create versions of Rad51 that carry a "toxic bomb," which only the cancer cells will trigger.

Rad51 is normally involved in DNA repair, which explains why it's more often expressed in cancer cells. Cancer cells reproduce at accelerated rates, often "not stopping to fix their DNA when they should," says Gorbunova. In these cancer cells, Rad51 is working overtime to repair all the damage, so it's not surprising that it is expressed more often.

Gorbunova believes that when she stripped out part of the Rad51-coding gene, she also stripped out some regulatory elements, which control the production of the protein. Without these elements, healthy cells ignore the gene and do not make the protein. However, these changes have opposite the effect on cancer cells, causing elevated, uncontrolled protein production.

Given a gene that will get turned on much more in cancer cells it becomes possible to tack something toxic onto it to do far more damage in cancer cells than in normal cells.

Gobunova and her team have already fused a variant of diphtheria toxin into the Rad51 gene as a "toxic bomb" and tested it on a variety of cancer cell types, including breast cancer, fibrosarcoma, and cervical cancer cells. The results look very promising, she says.

To make a gene therapy against cancer capable of a cure we would need a way to deliver gene therapy into almost all cells or at least almost all cells in an organ or almost all cells of some type. Otherwise a few cancer cells will escape and continue replicating.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 17 11:00 PM  Biotech Cancer
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Which Transhuman Upgrades Do You Want?

Recently listening to music too loud caused nerves in one of my ears to produce a sort of whistling sound afterward. The sound eventually went away. It occurred to me that while loud music often sounds better our ears are not designed to sustainably handle it. So I know one transhumanist upgrade I want for my body: ear cells (or perhaps some nanomaterial) that can better resist damage from loud sounds.

People who like the X-Men and other superheroes with superpowers have fantasized about all sorts of super enhancements such as super muscular strength. Surely some superheroes have ears that can hear at much lower sound volumes or eyes that can clearly focus on much smaller or more distant objects. But I got to thinking: what practical upgrades do you want for your body for daily life?

I see ears that can let me listen to louder music as something that would enrich my every day life. I do not need to be climbing Mount Everest or fighting a super evil genius to benefit from ears that can safely listen to Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezade or the Rolling Stones' Exile On Main Street turned up really loud. What other body upgrades would come in handy in a similar manner?

I know a lot of people who would benefit from stronger knee, elbow, and back designs. I know people who can't jog any more or who can't bicycle any more due to knee or back injuries. Some got their injuries in their 20s. These injuries are therefore more the result of exceeding design specifications than from aging. This is what I'm interested in here.

Sure, we need rejuvenation therapies. But once such therapies become available and your body returns to a teenage level of youthfulness. What parts of your fully rejuvenated body would still not let you engage in some pretty commonplace activity to the level you want to do it?

Of course, rejuvenation therapies will also be able to repair ears damaged by loud music, knees damaged in football, or elbows worn out in tennis. But I'd rather avoid the need for frequent repairs and ruggedize some body parts.

So what are your upgrade needs and desires?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 17 09:54 PM  Transhumans Upgrades
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2008 December 16 Tuesday
Low Glycemic Index Diet Cuts Heart Risk With Diabetics

A diet very much like the Mediterranean diet causes favorable blood chemistry changes in peope with type II insulin-resistant diabetes.

A new study found that a diet of "low-glycemic foods" -- such as beans, nuts, peas, lentils and pasta -- was superior to a high-cereal-fiber diet -- think pumpernickel, rye pita, quinoa, large flake oatmeal and oat bran -- when it comes to lowering blood sugar and other risk factors for heart disease in people with diabetes.

"These findings fit with the general tenor of what's gone before. The trouble is that those studies tended to be considerably smaller and for shorter periods of time, and they didn't always show the effects significantly," said study author Dr. David J.A. Jenkins, Canada research chair in nutrition and metabolism at the University of Toronto and St. Michael's Hospital in Canada. "I think this certainly supports a recommendation to people that this is an extra tool in the tool kit."

Nuts and beans are good. Cut back on refined grains.

Pasta is in the lower glycemic index diet in this study. Surprised? Pasta has a much lower glycemic index than bread. It is made from different kinds of wheat.

In the St. Michael's study, roughly half the 210 participants were fed such a diet, which included includes beans, peas, lentils and nuts, as well as pasta, rice boiled briefly, large-flake oatmeal, oat bran and pumpernickel, rye, pita, quinoa and flaxseed breads.

A second group was fed a high-cereal diet that included whole-grain breads and cereals, brown rice, potatoes with skins and whole-wheat bread and crackers. The high-cereal diet did not contain nuts, beans or lentils, which are among the foods with the lowest glycemic indexes.

My reaction to rice on the higher glycemic index diet: Types of rice vary substantially in their glycemic index. The sticky rice has a very high glycemic index. Search the database at that link for rice. The higher amylose rices have much lower glycemic index. I wish rices in stores came with percent amylose ratings on their labels.

The Hemoglobin A1c (HbA1c) is a measure of sugar exposure levels.

"Low glycemic index diets may be useful as part of the strategy to improve glycemic control in patients with type 2 diabetes taking antihyperglycemic medications," Dr. Jenkins and colleagues wrote.

"The reduction in HbA1c was modest, but we think it has clinical relevance," they said, noting that improvements only slightly larger had been found to reduce microvascular complications by 21% to 37% in other prospective studies.

David Jenkins also developed the "Ape Diet". He also found that pistachios reduce blood sugar rise after meals. So the presence of nuts in the low glycemic index diet has a purpose.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 16 11:29 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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Older Brains Process Negative Pictures Differently

When viewing pictures of negative events older folks did more thinking and less emotional reacting to negative images and they formed fewer memories about negative images.

It turns out there's a scientific reason why older people tend to see the past through rose-coloured glasses.

So then older people share something in common with Eric Idle nailed to a cross singing "Always look on the bright side of life".

A University of Alberta medical researcher, in collaboration with colleagues at Duke University, identified brain activity that causes older adults to remember fewer negative events than their younger counterparts.

"Seniors actually use their brain differently than younger people when it comes to storing memory, especially if that memory is a negative one," said study author Dr. Florin Dolcos, an assistant professor of psychiatry and neuroscience in the Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

The study, published online in December in the U.S.-based journal Psychological Science, found age-related changes in brain activity when participants with an average age of 70 where shown standardized images that depicted either neutral or strongly negative events.

The research team asked older and younger participants to rate the emotional content of these pictures along a pleasantness scale, while their brain activity was monitored with a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine, a high-tech device that uses a large magnet to take pictures inside the brain. Thirty minutes later, participants were unexpectedly asked to recall these images. The older participants remembered fewer negative images than the younger participants.

Brain scans showed that although both groups had similar activity levels in the emotional centres of the brain, they differed when it came to how these centres interacted with the rest of the brain.

The older participants had reduced interactions between the amygdala, a brain region that detects emotions, and the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory, when shown negative images. Scans also showed that older participants had increased interactions between the amygdala and the dorsolateral frontal cortex, a brain region involved in higher thinking processes, like controlling emotions. The older participants were using thinking rather than feeling processes to store these emotional memories.

The greater emotional reaction of younger people probably tends to elicit a bigger behavioral response from younger people. What I wonder: Is the change in the older response due to physical aging or accumulation of learning from experience?

Does the different system of memory encoding occur because the older system is worn out?

Young adults used more of the brain regions typically involved in emotion and recalling memories.

"The younger adults were able to recall more of the negative photos," said Roberto Cabeza, Ph.D., senior author and Duke professor in the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. If the older adults are using more thinking than feeling, "that may be one reason why older adults showed a reduction in memory for pictures with a more negative emotional content."

"It wasn't surprising that older people showed a reduction in memory for negative pictures, but it was surprising that the older subjects were using a different system to help them to better encode those pictures they could remember," said lead author Peggy St. Jacques, a graduate student in the Cabeza laboratory.

One of my questions about future rejuvenation therapies: How much will rejuvenated minds become youthful in their thought patterns and behavior? Some aspects of youthful function will be restored by rejuvenation. But other aspects might not. We might even need to choose among various youthful patterns of thinking to restore. Restore a stronger tendency to form negative memories? Restore more intense reactions of anger, sadness, or other emotions?

Long time readers know I've argued that the brain is most problematic for rejuvenation because it must be repaired rather than replaced. It is very complex. Repair will be extremely difficult. But the difficulty of brain rejuvenation doesn't just flow from the complexity, size, and need to repair billions of individual cells. We also face the difficult question of deciding which sorts of age-related brain changes to reverse and which to leave in their changed older patterns of functioning.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 16 10:34 PM  Brain Aging
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2008 December 15 Monday
Adult To Pluripotent Stem Cell Conversion Improves

Just a year ago Jamie Thomson's lab at U Wisc showed how to insert 4 genes to convert adult skin cells into pluripotent stem cells that are just as flexible as embryonic stem cells (i.e. they can become all the cell types in the body). Thomson commented more recently that his lab could have done the work 5 years sooner if he'd only believed it was not a hard problem. Well, the technique for doing this has just gotten easier and safer. MIT Whitehead Institute researchers have shown they can use a single virus to deliver 4 genes in a safer way to convert cells into the pluripotent state.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. (Dec. 15, 2008) — Whitehead Institute researchers have greatly simplified the creation of so-called induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, cutting the number of viruses used in the reprogramming process from four to one. Scientists hope that these embryonic stem-cell-like cells could eventually be used to treat such ailments as Parkinson's disease and diabetes.

The earliest reprogramming efforts relied on four separate viruses to transfer genes into the cells' DNA--one virus for each reprogramming gene (Oct4, Sox2, c-Myc and Klf4). Once activated, these genes convert the cells from their adult, differentiated status to an embryonic-like state.

However, this method poses significant risks for potential use in humans. The viruses used in reprogramming are associated with cancer because they may insert DNA anywhere in a cell's genome, thereby potentially triggering the expression of cancer-causing genes, or oncogenes. For iPS cells to be employed to treat human diseases, researchers must find safe alternatives to reprogramming with such viruses. This latest technique represents a significant advance in the quest to eliminate the potentially harmful viruses.

Bryce Carey, an MIT graduate student working in the lab of Whitehead Member Rudolf Jaenisch, spearheaded the effort by joining in tandem the four reprogramming genes through the use of bits of DNA that code for polymers known as 2A peptides. Working with others in the lab, he then manufactured a so-called polycistronic virus capable of expressing all four reprogramming genes once it is inserted into the genomes of mature mouse and human cells.

The ability to convert adult cells into pluripotent cells has practical benefits aside from getting around political opposition to human embryonic stem cell work. The ability to create stem cells from adult cells without using a human egg also gets around the limited supply of human eggs as well as making it possible to use the same mitochondria as exist in the donor adult cells. So this opens up the possibility of creating pluripotent stem cells that immunologically and functionally match each person's existing cells.

I am eager to see the development of cell therapies derived from pluripotent stem cells. We all have parts that are wearing out. I see people around me with chronic knee pain, back pain, and other joint and connective tissue problems and think how much better their lives will be once we can repair their worn out knees, spinal disks, elbows, shoulders, and other worn out mechanical parts. I look at people who need to restore their receded gums, replace tissue scarred from burns, or who just have aged and easily scratched skin and think how better off they'd be with some rejuvenated tissues. I think about people who suffer from failing hearts, kidneys, or livers and imagine a future where we can grow replacement organs from stem cells. I want that future to arrive as soon as possible.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 15 11:15 PM  Biotech Stem Cells
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Truffles Lead To Food Abuse

You hear people argue that legalizing chocolate truffles will not lead to use of more powerful food drugs. But the evidence says otherwise. Truffles are the gateway to indulgence and food abuse.

Indulging in just one small chocolate truffle can induce cravings for more sugary and fatty foods—and even awaken a desire for high-end status products, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

Truffles even awaken a desire for high-end status products? First you eat a truffle. Then you eat a pizza. Before you know it you find yourself shopping for a Rolls Royce or maybe a Patek Philippe watch. Just say no.

In a study that examined goals and behavior in consumers, authors Juliano Laran (University of Miami) and Chris Janiszewski (University of Florida) found that study participants who consumed a chocolate truffle desired ice cream, pizza, and potato chips more than people who were told to resist eating a truffle.

When participants were allowed eat a truffle, they unconsciously activated a goal of indulgence, the authors explain. Likewise, those who were asked to resist the treat activated health goals. Once people felt their goals were met, they tended to reverse their behaviors. For example, when people who resisted the truffle were told they did a good job, they indicated that they desired fatty foods more than healthy foods.

"Once people feel like they have achieved a certain goal, they tend to pursue the opposing goal. When asked about their behaviors, no participant related their desires to the initial chocolate consumption, indicating the operation of a non-conscious system that guides people's behaviors," write the authors.

Truffles even awaken a desire for high-end status products? How rapidly has truffle consumption grown in recent years? Does this account the unsustainable US trade deficit, excessive personal indebtedness, and government budget deficits? Are truffles handed out by lobbyists?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 15 05:30 PM  Brain Appetite
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2008 December 14 Sunday
6 Genes Found To Contribute To Obesity

6 genetic variants variants have been identified as possible contributing factors for obesity. 5 of them are expressed in the brain.

A genetic study of more than 90,000 people has identified six new genetic variants that are associated with increased Body Mass Index (BMI), the most commonly used measure of obesity. Five of the genes are known to be active in the brain, suggesting that many genetic variants implicated in obesity might affect behaviour, rather than the chemical processes of energy or fat metabolism.

Obesity is an increasing problem that results in individual risk to health as well as increasing burdens on health care systems. By identifying genetic variants that affect obesity, researchers hope to understand better the mechanisms regulating energy balance, which will guide the development of new therapies and help to develop improved diagnosis.

These genes reduce the human capacity to exercise free will. People who want to lose weight but find themselves compelled to eat do not have free will over the amount of food they consume.

3 of the genes influenced weight levels in early childhood.

For example, one of the genes, NEGR1, controls how your brain is wired as it is developing by regulating neuronal growth, Abecasis said.

"In younger children, ages 5-10, we found that with three of (the genes) the children were already heavier at that young age, and with the other three genes, we saw that there was no effect on children," he said. "For those, we only saw an effect in much older individuals. This points to different mechanisms influencing your weight at different ages."

Another example is SH2B1, which was first discovered by U-M researchers studying mice, Abecasis said. Researchers created an obese mouse then returned it to its normal weight by turning on the SH2B1 gene in the brain.

We are going to hear about many more genetic variants that influence behavior every year. The cost of genetic testing has dropped so far that studies search through large amounts of genetic data are becoming cheaper and more feasible to do. Costs of genetic testing and genetic sequencing will continue to plummet and the rate of discovery will continue to rise.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 14 10:24 PM  Brain Appetite
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Alberta Oil Sands Production To Fall Short Of Goal

The long term growth in capital infrastructure to extract more oil out of tar sands in Alberta is called into question as large tar sands projects get canceled in response to the oil price decline.

Bob Dunbar, president of Strategy West, a Calgary oil sands consulting firm, says the risk of a no-growth period in the oil sands is high.

"If we have a prolonged financial economic crisis, then I think this industry is coming to a halt, other than startup and completion of projects that are already underway," says Mr. Dunbar, who was one of the oil sands' first regulators three decades ago with the Alberta government.

He sees oil sands production growing to 2-million barrels a day, from the current 1.3-million barrels a day, as projects under construction are completed by 2010-2011.

Then, the pipeline dries up. The industry's goal was to produce about 3.5-million barrels a day by 2015.

How long will the recession last? I wish I knew.

The Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers expects a smaller decline in expected tar sands oil production growth.

Deferred and cancelled oilsands projects could result in 300,000 fewer barrels a day flowing from northeast Alberta by 2017, the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) said Friday.

The industry association expects oilsands spending to drop more than 25 per cent, to $16 billion in 2009 from a previous estimate of more than $20 billion. Overall upstream spending - including the East Coast offshore - is expected to fall about 15 per cent to $43 billion from $50 billion in 2008, said Greg Stringham, the group's vice-president of markets and fiscal policy.

If OPEC and Russia manage to make a bigger oil production cutback now then fewer projects will get canceled. But if OPEC can't get it together and the recession is long then we are going to be set up for a bigger surge in oil prices when they finally bounce back.

Jeff Rubin, chief economist at CIBC World Markets, sees an 800,000 barrels per day loss in new Alberta oil sands capacity.

"In the Alberta oil sands alone, we estimate that project cancellations and delays, affecting $100 billion of investment, will shave over 800,000 barrels from daily new capacity, roughly half of earlier projected growth in the next five years. And what is happening there is occurring in Brazil, West Africa and the Middle East itself."

I look on the bright side: oil not burned in the next few years due to project cancellations and delays is oil we'll have after world oil production goes into sharp permanent decline.

Update: The many oil project cancellations and delays are driven by oil prices that have fallen below project costs. Many projects require at least $55 per barrel to break even.

Goldman Sachs analysts Giovanni Serio and Jeffrey Currie identified 30 oil projects that require a price of $55 to break even, according to a Dec. 10 research note. Those ventures include Petroleo Brasileiro SA’s Tupi field, the biggest oil discovery in the Americas since 1976, and deepwater concessions in Angola belonging to BP Plc and Total SA.

Project delays might cut available oil by 4 million barrels per day. That's more than OPEC is expected to cut in order to restore prices.

These delays could curb future global fuel supplies by the equivalent of four million barrels a day within the next five years, according to Peter Jackson, an energy analyst at Cambridge Energy Research Associates. That is equal to 5 percent of current oil supplies.

One reason projects are being shut down so fast is that costs throughout the industry, which had surged in recent years, are still elevated despite the drop in oil prices. Many companies are waiting for those costs to come down before deciding whether to go forward with new projects.

Exxon, however, is unbowed by the oil price drop and will increase spending in 2009.

Dec. 11 (Bloomberg) -- Exxon Mobil Corp., the world’s largest company, may raise spending on oil exploration and refineries by $5 billion next year as rival energy producers reduce budgets to cope with falling prices and a recession-driven drop in demand.

Exxon has not been investing enough to maintain oil production. Partly, this is a result of inability to get access to fields where most of the remaining oil resides. At this point national oil companies control most of the remaining oil and the big international oil companies are slowly shrinking as their own fields deplete.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 14 01:33 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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US Driving Decline Continued In October 2008

The American driving behavioral changes caused by high oil prices earlier in 2008 have not reversed yet with declining oil and gasoline prices. At least through October 2008 driving continues to decline.

WASHINGTON - Americans drove more than 100 billion fewer miles between November 2007 and October 2008 than the same period a year earlier, said U.S. Transportation Secretary Mary E. Peters, making it the largest continuous decline in American driving in history.

That's a few hundred miles per person. But not everyone drives. There are about 250 million registered vehicles in the US. So that works out to about 400 fewer miles per vehicle. Another way to look at it: about 200 million licensed drivers work out to about 500 fewer miles per year per driver. That's about 10 fewer miles per week. The difference is even greater if one looks at long term trends where typically vehicle miles traveled increases due to population growth and changing lifestyles (e.g. more McMansions in the exurbs). Obviously lifestyles have begun changing in a different direction. How long will this last?

"As driving decreases and vehicle fuel efficiency continues to improve, the long term viability of the Highway Trust Fund grows weaker. The fact that the trend persists even as gas prices are dropping confirms that America's travel habits are fundamentally changing. The way we finance America's transportation network must also change to address this new reality, because banking on the gas tax is no longer a sustainable option," said Secretary Peters.

The sharpness of the decline suggests that the financial crisis plays a big role. My guess is fear plays a big role. People are pulling back even if they haven't lost their jobs yet.

The Secretary noted that Americans drove 3.5 percent less, or 8.9 billion fewer vehicle miles traveled (VMT), in October 2008 than October 2007, making it the sharpest decline of any October since 1971.

For the second month in a row, the data show the South Atlantic region - a bloc of eight states and Washington, D.C. - experienced the biggest decline of any region, 5.0 percent fewer VMT compared to the previous October. At 8.4 percent fewer VMT, Montana led the nation with the largest single-state decline that month. Utah and South Carolina followed with declines of 7.4 percent and 6.7 percent, respectively.

It says something about the high inelasticity of oil supply in the short term that a substantial destruction in oil demand due to less travel caused oil prices to fall by two thirds. Oil projects take years to construct and make operational. But this big change in driving behavior today is setting us up for lower oil production in the future and at least a partial recovery in oil prices. Drivers who were scared by the high prices this summer who need to buy a new car ought to look at hybrids.

Thought hybrids were too hard to buy? Not any more. Hybrid sales are down even more than the rest of the market.

Altogether, automakers sold 16,536 gas-electric hybrids last month, down from 21,979 in October.

To make matter worse, consumers purchased twice as many hybrids - 33,063 of them - in November 2007, when there were several fewer models available.

Hybrids' market share dropped to 2.21 percent in November, down from 2.62 percent in October and 2.82 percent in November 2007.

Car makers have more hybrid designs in the pipeline. The next one to hit the market is the 2010 Ford Fusion Hybrid which will be out in early 2010. Note the improved efficiency in regenerative braking. Hybrid tech is still improving. I could stand to drive this.

On the other hand, I usually walk to work. So highly fuel efficient vehicles are wasted on me.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 14 09:57 AM  Energy Transportation
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2008 December 13 Saturday
Microtube Could Catch Cancer Cells From Bloodstream

Most cancers kill because they metastasize by traveling in the bloodstream, landing in other parts of the body, and then growing in each of these other locations. If cancer cells could be captured and killed in the bloodstream the chances of dying from cancer would go down substantially. Well, a Cornell University researcher has developed an implantable microtube that can capture cancer cells from the bloodstream and instruct them to die.

In a new tactic in the fight against cancer, Cornell researcher Michael King has developed what he calls a lethal "lint brush" for the blood -- a tiny, implantable device that captures and kills cancer cells in the bloodstream before they spread through the body.

Humans in the future are going to walk around with assorted biomedical implants. Sensors, cancer cell catchers, little drug reservoirs, and little chemical factories will all work to keep us healthy and control disease...

In research conducted at the University of Rochester and to be published in an upcoming issue of the journal Biotechnology and Bioengineering, King showed that two naturally occurring proteins can work together to attract and kill as many as 30 percent of tumor cells in the bloodstream -- without harming healthy cells.

King's approach uses a tiny tubelike device coated with the proteins that could hypothetically be implanted in a peripheral blood vessel to filter out and destroy free-flowing cancer cells in the bloodstream.

A cancer capturing microtube could also serve to detect cancer at early stages. For example, if the microtube started capturing a lot of cells that seem cancerous the microtube could change an attached bar code reader to a configuration that would signal "cancer" the next time it was read.

To capture the tumor cells in the blood, King used selectin molecules -- proteins that move to the surface of blood vessels in response to infection or injury. Selectin molecules normally recruit white blood cells (leukocytes) which "roll" along their surfaces and create an inflammatory response -- but they also attract cancer cells, which can mimic the adhesion and rolling process.

Once bound to selectin the cancer cells get exposed to the protein TRAIL (Tumor Necrosis Factor Related Apoptosis-Inducing Ligand) which connects to receptors on the cancer cells and send a signal for the cancer cells to die. One can imagine that some cancer cells will have genetic mutations that will cause them to ignore the suicide signal. So maybe this technique will need further enhancement to provide additional ways to cause the cancer cells to die.

King sees the device as years away from human use. I wonder if in the long run the tube will be replaced with genetically engineered cells that specialize in creating surfaces that catch cancer cells.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 13 10:21 PM  Biotech Cancer
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Dark Chocolate Cuts Appetite More Than Milk Chocolate

News you can use: Dark chocolate, which basically is the purer stronger chocolate with more flavonoids and other chocolate compounds, cuts appetite as compared to milk chocolate.

To compare the effects of dark and milk chocolate on both appetite and subsequent calorie intake, 16 young and healthy men of normal weight who all liked both dark and milk chocolate took part in a so-called crossover experiment. This meant that they reported for two separate sessions, the first time testing the dark chocolate, and the second time the milk chocolate.
They had all fasted for 12 hours beforehand and were offered 100g of chocolate, which they consumed in the course of 15 minutes. The calorific content was virtually the same for the milk and dark chocolate.

During the following 5 hours, participants were asked to register their appetite every half hour, i.e. their hunger, satiety, craving for special foods and how they liked the chocolate.


Two and a half hours after eating the chocolate, participants were offered pizza ad lib.
They were instructed to eat until they felt comfortably satiated. After the meal, the individuals’ calorie intake was registered.

The results were significant. The calorie intake at the subsequent meal where they could eat as much pizza as they liked was 15 per cent lower when they had eaten dark chocolate beforehand.

The participants also stated that the plain chocolate made them feel less like eating sweet, salty or fatty foods.

So if you are trying to cut back on your pizza eating then dark chocolate might help.

Why this result? What in chocolate cuts appetite? Anyone know of any clues?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 13 03:57 PM  Brain Appetite
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2008 December 11 Thursday
Methane Hydrate Extraction To Become Viable?

Maybe methane hydrates will become an economically affordable source of methane for natural gas.

Hydrates have been hailed as a paradigm shift in how to achieve energy independence and as a massively abundant source of cleaner-burning natural gas. Others fear it represents an environmental disaster in the making. Until recently it was thought too dangerous and too costly to extract to be of use.

That view is beginning to change. In a recently released report, the USGS for the first time announced details of large hydrate reserves in the Alaskan permafrost that should be recoverable using existing technology. The vast field could hold as much as 85 trillion cubic feet of gas – an amount far less than the dream scenarios put forward in the past, but still massive. Even more important, such movement makes the possibility of getting at the mother lode of hydrate resources – those located offshore – increasingly realistic.

“I never thought this would happen so quickly,” says Carolyn Ruppel, a USGS research geophysicist who was heavily involved in prior hydrate research expeditions, referring to the planned production test. While the number of proposed drilling programs is small and significant obstacles remain, “there has been a real change these past four years,” Dr. Ruppel says. “It’s partially from market pressures.”

If the offshore methane hydrates become reachable then I fear we really will melt the polar ice caps with all the carbon we'll release from the oceans.

To put it in perspective, that 85 trillion cubic feet of gas from the Alaska permafrost is less than the amount of natural gas consumed by the whole world in a year.

Worldwide, total natural gas consumption increases from 104 trillion cubic feet in 2005 to 158 trillion cubic feet in 2030 in the IEO2008 reference case (Figure 35). World oil prices are expected to remain high, and as a result natural gas replaces oil wherever possible.

I am expecting Peak Oil to prevent the scenarios of very high atmospheric carbon dioxide from happening. But if methane hydrates from the oceans become economically extractable I fear we'll hit much higher levels of carbon dioxide.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 11 11:46 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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Brain Performance Lowered On Low Carb Diet

The brain is very sensitive to blood sugar level. The brain also craves carbo and sugars. Not coincidentally, women who go on a low carb diet perform more poorly at some cognitive tasks than women who go on low calorie diets which cut all types of calories.

MEDFORD/SOMERVILLE, Mass. -- A new study from the psychology department at Tufts University shows that when dieters eliminate carbohydrates from their meals, they performed more poorly on memory-based tasks than when they reduce calories, but maintain carbohydrates. When carbohydrates were reintroduced, cognition skills returned to normal.

The more general lower calorie diet has more carbs in it than the low carb diet. The sugars in those carbs probably helps feed the brain and cause higher brain performance.

Low-carb dieters showed a gradual decrease on the memory-related tasks compared with the low-calorie dieters. Reaction time for those on the low-carb diet was slower and their visuospatial memory was not as good as those on the low-calorie diet. However, low-carb dieters actually responded better than low-calorie dieters during the attention vigilance task. Researchers note that past studies have shown that diets high in protein or fat can improve a person's attention in the short-term, which is consistent with the results in this study.

Participants were also asked about their hunger levels and mood during each session. The hunger-rating did not vary between participants on a low-carb diet and those on a low-calorie diet. The only mood difference between dieters was confusion, which was higher for low-calorie dieters during the middle of the study.

This was only a 3 week study. Possibly on a longer diet the result would be different. A diet with severe carbo restriction which drives the body to make ketones might performance higher cognitive performance than the low-carb diet used above.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 11 11:09 PM  Brain Appetite
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2008 December 10 Wednesday
Different Brain Parts Judge Crime And Punishment

Neuroscience catches up with Fyodor Dostoevsky.

When someone is accused of committing a crime, it is the responsibility of impartial third parties, generally jurors and judges, to determine if that person is guilty and, if so, how much he or she should be punished. But how does one’s brain actually make these decisions? The researchers found that two distinct areas of the brain assess guilt and decide penalty.

This work is the joint effort of Owen Jones, professor of law and of biology, and René Marois, a neuroscientist and associate professor of psychology. Together with neuroscience graduate student Joshua Buckholtz, they scanned the brains of subjects with a highly sensitive technique called functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI. Their goal was to see how the brain was activated when a person judged whether or not someone should be punished for a harmful act and how severely the individual should be punished.

The right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decides whether to convict. Surely potential jurors should undergo testing of their right dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes to make sure they work within acceptable ranges. Then the amygdala and other parts of the brain decide how much punishment to dole out.

The researchers found that activity in an analytic part of the brain, known as the right dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, tracked the decision of whether or not a person deserved to be punished but, intriguingly, appeared relatively insensitive to deciding how much to punish. By contrast, the activity in brain regions involved in processing emotions, such as the amygdala, tracked how much subjects decided to punish.

“These results raise the possibility that emotional responses to criminal acts may represent a gauge for assessing deserved punishment,” said Marois.

“There are long-running debates about the proper roles in law of ‘cold’ analysis and ‘hot’ emotion,” said Jones. “Our results suggest that, in normal punishment decisions, the distinct neural circuitries of both processes may be jointly involved, but separately deployed.”

Neuroscientists will discover much more about the inner workings of brains and how they differ. Those discoveries will likely lead to the development of ways to measure how well people judge. This won't just be a measure of how smart each person is. The ability to judge - especially to judge human behavior - using many types of evidence has got to be a rather complex skill and the ability to do that judging varies greatly between people. Ideally a jury should be made up of people with exceptional skill at judging.

If you are going to get judged by a jury of your peers should it be a jury of people whose right dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes are similar to your own?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 10 11:25 PM  Brain Ethics Law
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Exercise Changes Appetite Hormone Levels

Aerobic exercise more powerfully suppresses appetite than non-aerobic exercise.

A vigorous 60-minute workout on a treadmill affects the release of two key appetite hormones, ghrelin and peptide YY, while 90 minutes of weight lifting affects the level of only ghrelin, according to a new study. Taken together, the research shows that aerobic exercise is better at suppressing appetite than non-aerobic exercise and provides a possible explanation for how that happens.

This line of research may eventually lead to more effective ways to use exercise to help control weight, according to the senior author, David J. Stensel of Loughborough University in the United Kingdom.

Ghrelin and peptide YY have opposite effects on appetite.

There are several hormones that help regulate appetite, but the researchers looked at two of the major ones, ghrelin and peptide YY. Ghrelin is the only hormone known to stimulate appetite. Peptide YY suppresses appetite.

Think of this research as part of a drive to simulate the effects of exercise as a substitute for real exercise. By discovering all the changes that exercise causes in the body scientists can pinpoint all signaling systems in the body that will have to be tweaked in order to emulate the effects of exercise. Want the weight-losing effects of exercise? You'll need to boost peptide YY and lower ghrelin for starters.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 10 10:57 PM  Brain Appetite
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Multigenerational Households Boost Heart Risk In Japanese Women

Living with your in-laws is bad for your heart health.

During the monitoring period, which ended in 2004, 671 people were newly diagnosed with coronary artery disease, 339 died of coronary heart disease, and 6255 died from other causes.

After taking account of factors likely to influence the results, women who lived with a partner, children, and their parents, or their spouse's parents, were two to three times more likely to be diagnosed with coronary heart disease than women who just lived with a partner.

But they were no more likely to die of their disease than their peers who lived with just a partner, suggesting that while living arrangements may boost the risk of diagnosis, it does not affect prognosis, say the authors.

The stress of dealing with so many other people probably boosts stress hormones and inflammation.

But the stress of fulfilling multiple roles as daughter/daughter in law, mother and partner probably has a deleterious effect on heart health, they suggest.

Over the long term, this is likely to boost levels of stress hormones and inflammatory proteins, which in turn may strengthen the effects of other risk factors, such as high blood pressure, or diabetes, they conclude.

Anyone surprised by this result?

I say live wtih a great dog or two. Pet them every day too. That'll reduce stress. Dogs are better than in-laws. What's needed: a study with blood tests to compare people living with dogs to people living with in-laws. I can tell you in advance what the study will show. But we need the research in order to give daughters-in-law and sons-in-law the intellectual ammunition (or plain courage) they need to get out of stressful situations.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 10 10:30 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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2008 December 09 Tuesday
Gene Variant Makes Nicotine Withdrawal Harder

Smokers with a certain variant of the a gene involved in neurotransmitter dopamine, catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT), experience stronger withdrawal symptoms and reductions in working nemory and brain function when they quit smoking. No wonder people with that genetic variant have a higher rate of relapse into smoking.

(PHILADELPHIA) – A new study from the Abramson Cancer Center and Department of Psychiatry in the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine shows that smokers who carry a particular version of a gene for an enzyme that regulates dopamine in the brain may suffer from concentration problems and other cognitive deficits when abstaining from nicotine – a problem that puts them at risk for relapse during attempts to quit smoking. The findings, newly published in the journal Molecular Psychiatry, pave the way to identify novel medications to treat nicotine addiction.

"These findings also provide an important step toward personalized therapy for nicotine addiction by clarifying the role of inherited genetic variation in smoking abstinence symptoms that promote relapse," says senior author Caryn Lerman, PhD, the Mary W. Calkins Professor in Penn's Department of Psychiatry and Scientific Director of Penn's Abramson Cancer Center.

Smoking can be seen as self medication for the brain. Granted, it is highly toxic self medication. But it provides an immediate benefit along with the many costs.

Spurred by their previous findings that carriers of the catechol-O-methyltransferase (COMT) val gene variant are more susceptible to smoking relapse, the Penn researchers set out to learn if smokers with this genetic background would be more likely to exhibit altered brain function and cognitive deficits during periods of abstinence from smoking.

"Inability to concentrate after quitting is reported by many patients, and this leads them to smoke to reduce these impairments," Loughead says.

In this study, 33 smokers underwent functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) during periods of both abstinence from smoking and while smoking as usual. During the brain scans, subjects were asked to hold in their minds a series of complex geometric figures. Subjects were also asked to complete a withdrawal symptoms checklist and a questionnaire about their smoking urges. Results showed that smokers with the COMT val/val genotype suffered greater deficits in working memory and brain function when they had refrained from smoking for 14 or more hours, compared to their performance on this task when they had been smoking as usual. This group also exhibited significant increases in withdrawal symptoms during the abstinence challenge session, compared to the other two genotype groups in the study.

The development of compounds which share some of nicotine's effects on the brain might enable smokers to both quit and to function at a higher cognitive level.

Inhibitors of this COMT enzyme might work to ease withdrawal from nicotine. Inhibitors of COMT already are known to increase working memory.

One method may be to offer carriers of this gene targeted therapies with drugs like COMT inhibitors, some of which have been shown to increase working memory in healthy volunteers.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 09 11:30 PM  Brain Addiction
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Male Faces More Red, Female Faces More Green

Guys, don't go getting green with envy. If you do that you might undermine your masculine appearance. Women have more green coloring in their faces whereas men have more red.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Men are red. Women are green.

Michael J. Tarr, a Brown University scientist, and graduate student Adrian Nestor have discovered this color difference in an analysis of dozens of faces. They determined that men tend to have more reddish skin and greenish skin is more common for women.

The finding has important implications in cognitive science research, such as the study of face perception.  But the information also has a number of potential industry or consumer applications in areas such as facial recognition technology, advertising, and studies of how and why women apply makeup.

Digitized pictures of male and female faces showed different ratios of colors.

To conduct the study, Tarr needed plenty of faces. His lab analyzed about 200 images of Caucasian male and female faces (100 of each gender) compiled in a data bank at the Max Planck Institute in Tübingen, Germany, photographed using a 3-D scanner under the same lighting conditions and with no makeup. He then used a MatLab program to analyze the amount of red and green pigment in the faces.

Additionally, Tarr and his lab relied on a large number of other faces photographed under similar controlled conditions. (Tarr has made them available on his web site, www.tarrlab.org.)

What he found: Men proved to have more red in their faces and women have more green, contrary to prior assumptions.

The scientists also created androgynous faces but then altered them with more green or red coloring. Then a few students were asked to sort thousands of these faces into piles for male and female appearances. Well, the greener faces ended up more in the female pile while the redder faces ended up more in the male pile. So people use coloring of faces to categorize faces as male or female.

Next we need studies on the attractiveness of male and female faces with more green or red in them. Do women prefer more red in male faces and do men prefer more green in female faces? Also, how do heterosexual and homosexual preferences differ?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 09 11:08 PM  Brain Sexuality
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Scientists See Brain Enhancement As Making Better World

While most rhetoric about making the world a better place speaks in terms of less hunger, less disease, less war, less injustice, and less environmental damage a group of scientists see the boosting of cognitive abilities as a path toward a better world.

A commentary appearing today online in the journal Nature advocates for broad access to brain-boosting drugs. According to the piece, written by a group of ethicists, psychologists, and cognitive neuroscientists, "cognitive enhancement, unlike enhancement for sports competitions, could lead to substantive improvements in the world." While opponents have argued that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is unfair and could undermine the value of hard work, the authors say that these drugs fall into the same category as more common efforts to increase brain function, such as drinking a cup of coffee, or getting a good night's sleep, and thus should be regulated accordingly.

I like the "unlike enhancement for sports competitions". Why should we see enhancements for sports competitions as unethical? Biotechnology used to enhance sports performance prevents us from discovering each person's natural genetic potential. But why do so many object to this? Could it be a deep innate desire to evaluate the reproductive potential of others is threatened if others can run faster, throw farther, or dodge more adeptly with the help of biotech? If people can use gene therapy to athletically outperform their natural potential then we can't see what sorts of babies they'd make naturally.

But what about the brain? Way more important obviously. We've got machines that'll do much of the brawn work and brawn worker status is way down and still declining - with rare exceptions in sports. But we still need lots of people with lots of brain power, the more the merrier. So the advantages of cognitive enhancement are not just for the people who get the enhancements. A cognitively enhanced scientist discovers more. A brain boosted inventor comes up with more inventions. A doctor with a better memory and faster reasoning figures out diagnostic puzzles sooner and more accurately.

Of course, there are problematic facets to brain tinkering. Biotech will come along that'll allow people to suppress their consciences or make them get more pleasure out of making others suffer. Our emotions and desires will become more manipulable with biotechnology. As that happens humanity runs the chance of developing deeper cognitive incompatibilities that make the maintenance of peace and civilization problematic.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 09 10:41 PM  Bioethics Brain Reordering
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2008 December 08 Monday
Mediterranean Diet Plus Nuts Cuts Metabolic Syndrome

More evidence that vegetables, olive oil, nuts, and other elements of the Mediterranean diet really are good for you:

A traditional Mediterranean diet with an additional daily serving of mixed nuts appears to be useful for managing some metabolic abnormalities in older adults at high risk for heart disease, according to a report in the December 8/22 issue of Archives of Internal Medicine, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Avoid insulin resistant diabetes and some other bad changes in your metabolism by eating this diet.

At the beginning of the study, 61.4 percent of the participants met criteria for the metabolic syndrome. After one year, 409 participants in the Mediterranean diet plus olive oil group, 411 in the Mediterranean diet plus nuts group and 404 in the control group of low-fat diet advice were available for evaluation. The prevalence of metabolic syndrome decreased by 13.7 percent among those in the nut group, 6.7 percent in the olive oil group and 2 percent in the control group.

Participants' weight did not change over the one-year period. However, the number of individuals with large waist circumference, high triglycerides or high blood pressure significantly decreased in the Mediterranean diet plus nuts group compared with the control group. This suggests that components of the diet, principally the nuts, may have beneficial effects on pathophysiological characteristics of metabolic syndrome, such as oxygen-related cell damage, resistance to the effects of insulin or chronic inflammation. The Mediterranean diet is high in unsaturated fatty acids; in addition, nuts also contain beneficial nutrients such as fiber, arginine, potassium, calcium and magnesium.

Here is the Mediterranean Diet:

  • high consumption of fruits, vegetables, bread and other cereals, potatoes, beans, nuts and seeds
  • olive oil is an important monounsaturated fat source
  • dairy products, fish and poultry are consumed in low to moderate amounts, and little red meat is eaten
  • eggs are consumed zero to four times a week
  • wine is consumed in low to moderate amounts

Anybody follow this diet?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 08 11:50 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2008 December 07 Sunday
Roman Empire Felled By Declining Rains?

Did declining precipitation bring down the Roman and Byzantine Empires?

MADISON — The decline of the Roman and Byzantine Empires in the Eastern Mediterranean more than 1,400 years ago may have been driven by unfavorable climate changes.

Based on chemical signatures in a piece of calcite from a cave near Jerusalem, a team of American and Israeli geologists pieced together a detailed record of the area's climate from roughly 200 B.C. to 1100 A.D. Their analysis, to be reported in an upcoming issue of the journal Quaternary Research, reveals increasingly dry weather from 100 A.D. to 700 A.D. that coincided with the fall of both Roman and Byzantine rule in the region.

The researchers, led by University of Wisconsin-Madison geology graduate student Ian Orland and professor John Valley, reconstructed the high-resolution climate record based on geochemical analysis of a stalagmite from Soreq Cave, located in the Stalactite Cave Nature Reserve near Jerusalem.

They didn't have diesel fuel to power irrigation pumps. They didn't have diesel bulldozers, trucks, steel, and concrete to construct massive water reservoirs and dams. They didn't have weather satellites or drought resistant crop strains. We have all those things and more. So we are more insulated (though not entirely so) from climate changes.

Regardless of whether humans are causing huge climate changes the climate will change. Look back over the last five hundred years and we see pretty big changes in climate. We will see more big changes. The Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire went through big climate changes.

Their detailed climate record shows that the Eastern Mediterranean became drier between 100 A.D. and 700 A.D., a time when Roman and Byzantine power in the region waned, including steep drops in precipitation around 100 A.D. and 400 A.D. "Whether this is what weakened the Byzantines or not isn't known, but it is an interesting correlation," Valley says. "These things were certainly going on at the time that those historic changes occurred."

Today we are less dependent on the weather. Our biggest vulnerability is in energy supply. With enough energy we can desalinate and pump water long distances. If (or, rather, when) we develop the technologies needed to produce non-fossil fuels energy sources at low cost then I think we will be able to insulate ourselves (at least in most developed countries) from most climate changes.

Granted, a new ice age would require evacuation of some regions and countries. The melting of the polar ice caps would require other evacuations. But the richer we get the more easily we can adapt to climate changes. Given sufficient capital and energy we can handle anything short of a severe ice age and still maintain an industrial civilization.

Melting ice caps are avoidable with climate engineering. But food production could be maintained with sufficiently large amounts of cheap energy. We can desalinate water and pump it great distances. We can genetically engineer crops to handle different climates.

If we build enough nuclear reactors we can stop using coal for baseline electric power and also have plenty of energy to use to keep food production up in case of climate change. Also, if we go into a cooling period some day we could add coal electric to supplement the nuclear for heating and for crop production.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 07 07:57 PM  Climate Trends
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Supersonic Jets Sonic Booms Could Stop Hurricanes?

A couple of scientists originally from Russia propose using sonic booms to suppress hurricanes.

A Russian professor at an Ohio university has applied to patent a method for snuffing out hurricanes by flying jet fighters around the eye of the storm at supersonic speeds.

Professor Arkadii Leonov and his collaborator Atanas Gagov, both of Akron Uni, actually filed their patent application "Hurricane Suppression by Supersonic Boom" last year. It was unearthed by the New Scientist patents column this week.

The article points out that The US Air Force's new F-22 Raptors can sustain supersonic speed without afterburners. They would need to make several big circles around the hurricane. So they might need either refueling or multiple Raptors to do the job. Will the USAF include this potential capability as a justification to avoid budget cuts?

The patent states that supersonic airplanes would disrupt a hurricane by flying in and out of it in elliptical patterns.

Jet fighters flying at supersonic speeds along special trajectories with a hurricane/typhoon at various altitudes would create supersonic booms. In one such embodiment, the trajectories for the supersonic booms of the present invention are counter to the rotational component of the hurricane and/or typhoon being targeted. As such, supersonic booms can be tailored and/or designed to partially and/or fully -negate the basic rotational contribution in a hurricane by slowing down a hurricane's/typhoon's rotation. Additionally, when supersonic booms propagate downward to the surface of the ocean they also destabilize a hurricane's/typhoon's structure by increasing the pressure in the central part of a hurricane's/typhoon's eye.

The patent cites other proposed methods of hurricane suppression including cloud seeding and pumping water from deep to the surface to lower surface temperatures.

To date a number of methods/theories relating to hurricane/typhoon control, dissipation and/or suppression have been offered. Most have focused on ways to achieve air cooling, considered by their proponents as a main source and/or reason for the continuance of hurricane/typhoon strength. One early attempt slightly reduced a hurricane's intensity by dispersing at high altitude silver iodine particles. This caused an increase in condensation in the seeded portion of the cloud mass of a hurricane and a heat-reducing (or cooling) rainfall. Another mitigation proposal focused on cooling a large area of ocean by pumping cold sea water from well below the surface of the ocean. Also forwarded as a possible hurricane/typhoon control, dissipation and/or suppression methods is the use of various powdered chemicals to achieve a cooling (or exothermic) effect within a hurricane/typhoon. Unfortunately, the most effective endothermic chemicals are detrimental to the environment and expensive. Environmentally friendly chemicals such as potassium chloride (KCI) are cheap and easy to use, but not very effective as the amount needed to actually impact a hurricane/typhoon is on the order of about 40 tons per second of KCI in an area having a radius of about 20 km to about 30 km around a hurricane's/typhoon's eye wall. This amount of powdered KCI is generally necessary in order to achieve 0.80C cooling under ideal conditions. Accordingly, it is believed that such methods are unrealistic for one reason or another.

The water pump approach sounds capital intensive. One big advantage of the supersonic aircraft approach is that the aircraft are going to exist anyway and would be available for use against the occasional category 4 or category 5 hurricane.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 07 06:10 PM  Climate Engineering
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2008 December 06 Saturday
Charley Maxwell On Problems With Peak Oil

Energy industry analyst Charley Maxwell wonders whether democracy will fare well after oil production goes into permanent decline and economies around the world contract year after year.

I think it’d be fair to say that our sponsorship of democracy around the world was rather presumptively based on the fact that there would be an expansion of living standards that you and I would understand would have to be based on hydrocarbons. The question is: can it be based on hydrocarbons? I think the answer is plainly no….

Our modern world is based on hydrocarbons. I think it’s going to slow and maybe even stop. And now I think the question is…

RB: It’s going to slow? You mean our way of life?

CM: Our rising standard of living. This is the first time you are getting people saying, “Every generation has created children who have a better standard of living than their parents. This is the first generation where that is not proving to be so.” And I think there will be more generations where it’s proving not to be so. To me, that’s the final problem here, that we lose our political way on the basis of economic problems that really are not so much bad policy as they are the misadventure of running out of fundamental materials that we need to support our economy in sustained growth.

People say, well, we have the scientific ability to work around that. And I think that we do over time. So I would expect that 100 years from now, the world will have a higher standard of living than [we do] now.

But nevertheless, it will slow. We can’t innovate scientifically as fast as the problems are going to accrue. So we are either going to slow to zero growth or to very low growth, perhaps something equivalent to our population growth, and then your per capita ceases to grow. Anyway, that’s what I fear.

Will an extended period of economic contraction cause the failure of democracy in some countries? Sounds plausible.

Some are more optimistic about our ability to handle declining oil production. But Maxwell argues many of the potential substitutes for oil require capital expenditures (capex) that take too many years to effectively respond to declining oil production. For example, nuclear power plants take several years to build. But Maxwell also mentions rail capacity increases that would be needed for big increases in coal production. I've made this same argument in comments of previous threads here. I do not see how we can capex fast enough even if have the technologies.

The capex argument is an interesting one from another standpoint: Energy sources that have short build times have the potential to play an outsized role in replacing oil. Solar photovoltaics looks like the strongest candidate by that measure. A PV factory can make solar panels rapidly and the panels can be installed rapidly. Any idea on how long it takes to build a PV factory? Probably depends heavily on type of PV. Maybe scaling up of thin film PV is faster than silicon because the silicon PV factories are dependent on silicon crystal factories. Anyone have insight on this?

But PV poses a big problem because PV puts out electricity. In order for electricity to substitute for oil in most transportation applications we need better batteries. In order for electricity to substitute in rail we need a big rail build of electric lines along the rails as well as construction of electric engines. Not sure what is the time line required to do that. But we have a basic problem with how to use electricity to substitute for oil.

The big liquid hope for oil substitution comes from biomass energy to produce ethanol or biodiesel. If we need genetic engineering of algae to make this happen then that could take several years. Scaling it up would take years too. Obviously corn ethanol can't scale far enough. Cellulosic technology would scale higher than corn ethanol. But we'd lose a lot of wildlife habitat to forest destruction if we went with cellulosic technology to make ethanol.

Maxwell sees Peak Oil as very near and expects an accelerating decline in oil as a source of our energy.

What I’m saying is that as oil withdraws, it hits America with particular force because of our heavy dependence. I think oil is 40 percent of our total energy; worldwide, by the way, I think it’s 39. But I see it something like this, and I’m quoting from the BP Statistical Review: in 1996, oil was 40 percent of the world’s energy. In 2006 it was 39. So oil is not growing as fast as some others, or it wouldn’t be losing ground. So [that’s been in the last] 10 years, exactly a decade. I think it is going to take five years to lose the next percentage. And then I’ve calculated that it’s going to take three years to lose the next percentage. And then two years. Then a year and a half, and then a year. Something like that. It won’t be that exact. But I am just trying to give you the scale of what’s happening.

Maxwell thinks we'll hit the final oil production peak plateau in the 2013-2017 time period. After that the decline starts. He does not see how we can maintain economic growth during a period of declining oil production.

Maxwell says he was originally unenthusiastic at the prospects for compressed natural gas (CNG) as a transport fuel. But he says he's rethinking his position because he only sees batteries for electric cars as the only other possible alternative. We do not know yet when or even if batteries will become cheap enough and sufficiently high in energy density to make electric cars suitable substitutes for internal combustion engine (ICE) cars.

T. Boone Pickens is promoting the CNG car idea. He combines it with a big build of wind turbines as a means to free up natural gas from its current use to generate electric power. Maxwell thinks the assorted shale natural gas finds in the United States put the US in a good position to maintain natural gas production for the next 20 years.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 06 10:54 PM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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2008 December 04 Thursday
Wine Boosts Blood Omega 3 Fatty Acids?

A possible explanation for the claimed heart health benefits from drinking wine:

Moderate alcohol intake is associated with higher levels of omega-3 fatty acids in plasma and red blood cells. This is the major finding of the European study IMMIDIET that will be published in the January issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, an official publication of the American Society for Nutrition and is already available on line (www.ajcn.org ). The study suggests that wine does better than other alcoholic drinks. This effect could be ascribed to compounds other than alcohol itself, representing a key to understand the mechanism lying behind the heart protection observed in moderate wine drinkers.

Alcohol consumption seems to boost blood omega 3 fatty acids. It is not clear how.

"Several studies have shown that moderate alcohol consumption, including wine, is associated with protection against coronary heart disease and ischemic stroke - says Romina di Giuseppe, lead author of the study, from the Research Laboratories at Catholic University of Campobasso - Although the mechanisms are not completely defined, there was some evidence that alcohol intake might influence the metabolism of essential polyunsaturated fatty acids, as omega-3. That is exactly what we found in our population study. People drinking moderate amounts of alcohol, one drink a day for women and two for men, had higher concentration of omega-3 fatty acids in plasma and red blood cells independently of their fish intake".

What I'd like to know: Can one boost plasma and red blood cell omega 3 as high by consuming more omega 3 as by drinking wine?

"Analysis carried out on different alcoholic beverages –argues Licia Iacoviello coordinator of the IMMIDIET study at Catholic University of Campobasso - showed that the association between alcohol and omega-3 fatty acids was present in both wine drinkers and beer or spirits drinkers. However, the association was stronger between wine drinking and omega-3 fatty acids levels. This suggests that components of wine other than alcohol is associated with omega-3 fatty acids concentration. We may guess this effect can be ascribed to polyphenols".

If polyphenols cause this effect it should be possible to cause this same effect by eating cranberries or blueberries or some other polyphenol source. Anyone aware of any studies showing an omega 3 boost from consuming high polyphenol foods?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 04 11:24 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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Acid From Protein And Grains Increases Calcium Excretion

Bottom line: yet another reason to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Chevy Chase, MD—Diets that are high in protein and cereal grains produce an excess of acid in the body which may increase calcium excretion and weaken bones, according to a new study accepted for publication in The Endocrine Society's Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism (JCEM). The study found that increasing the alkali content of the diet, with a pill or through a diet rich in fruits and vegetables has the opposite effect and strengthens skeletal health.

"Heredity, diet, and other lifestyle factors contribute to the problem of bone loss and fractures," said Bess Dawson-Hughes, M.D., of Tufts University in Boston, Mass. and lead author of the study. "When it comes to dietary concerns regarding bone health, calcium and vitamin D have received the most attention, but there is increasing evidence that the acid/base balance of the diet is also important."

Most people do not eat enough vegetables. Are you like most people? Or are you special?

Either eat your veggies or take potassium bicarbonate.

Average older adults consume diets that, when metabolized, add acid to the body, said Dr. Dawson-Hughes. With aging, we become less able to excrete the acid. One way the body may counteract the acid from our diets is through bone resorption, a process by which bones are broken down to release minerals such as calcium, phosphates, and alkaline (basic) salts into the blood. Unfortunately, increased bone resorption leads to declines in bone mass and increases in fracture risk.

"When fruits and vegetables are metabolized they add bicarbonate, an alkaline compound, to the body," said Dr. Dawson Hughes. "Our study found that bicarbonate had a favorable effect on bone resorption and calcium excretion. This suggests that increasing the alkali content of the diet may attenuate bone loss in healthy older adults."

In this study, 171 men and women aged 50 and older were randomized to receive placebo or doses of either: potassium bicarbonate, sodium bicarbonate, or potassium chloride for three months. Researchers found that subjects taking bicarbonate had significant reductions in calcium excretion, signaling a decrease in bone resorption.

"In this study, we demonstrated that adding alkali in pill form reduced bone resorption and reduced the losses of calcium in the urine over a three month period," said Dr. Dawson-Hughes. "This intervention warrants further investigation as a safe and well tolerated supplement to reduce bone loss and fracture risk in older men and women."

Do you want to become like those shrunken old women who are a half a foot shorter and visibly folding inward? Or will you eat more veggies and less grain and meat?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 04 01:01 AM  Aging Diet Bone Studies
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Solar Thermal Cheaper Than Solar Photovoltaics

Regulations requiring utilities to use more renewable power provides an incentive for the construction of solar thermal electric power generation sites. Solar thermal has a cost advantage over silicon-based photovoltaics.

Costing about 18 cents a kilowatt-hour at present, solar thermal power is roughly 40% cheaper than that generated by the silicon-based panels that sit on the roofs of homes and businesses, according to a June report by Clean Edge Inc. and the Co-op American Foundation. Analysts say improved technology and economies of scale should help lower the cost of solar thermal to about 5 cents a kilowatt-hour by 2025. That would put it on par with coal, the cheap but carbon-spewing fuel that generates about half the nation's electricity.

Should we attach much credence to cost projections for solar thermal? Why expect that it can become that cheap? I see photovoltaics (PV) has having greater potential for cost reductions because PV is simpler in operation. So I expect PV will eventually cost less than solar thermal.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 04 12:47 AM  Energy Solar
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Nursing Women More Attracted To Higher Pitch Male Voices

Harvard University anthropologist Coren Apicella finds that nursing women prefer men whose voices have higher pitched tones. The non-nursing women looking for mating material prefer deeper voices.

When she started analysing the data, Apicella realized that about half the women she tested had been nursing children. When she divided women by this characteristic, a trend emerged. Nursing women favoured higher-pitched tones, while fertile women showed a slight preference for the deeper voices.

When Hadza women start breast-feeding, their foraging falls off. "They rely on men a lot more to bring in food and resources," says Apicalla. "Maybe a higher-pitched voice is signalling pro-social behaviour."

This makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint. The men with deeper voices are probably more masculine and less likely to help raise the kids. Women seek to mate with men who are more masculine. But then to raise the kids they look for men who have a stronger feminine side. I bet that men who help women raise children of other men are less masculine on average than the men who got the women pregnant.

Previous research would lead one to expect this result. Women who ovulate are most attracted to men outside their relationship at the time when they are ovulating.

Normally ovulating women have been found to report greater sexual attraction to men other than their own partners when near ovulation relative to the luteal phase. One interpretation is that women possess adaptations to be attracted to men possessing (ancestral) markers of genetic fitness when near ovulation, which implies that women's interests should depend on qualities of her partner. In a sample of 54 couples, we found that women whose partners had high developmental instability (high fluctuating asymmetry) had greater attraction to men other than their partners, and less attraction to their own partners, when fertile.

At the same time men are attracted to the voices of women who are most fertile.

A woman's voice becomes more attractive when she is most fertile. That's according to Nathan Pipitone and Gordon Gallup of the State University of New York at Albany.

The pair recorded women counting from 1 to 10 at four occasions during their menstrual cycle. They then replayed the recordings at random to male and female students and asked them to rate the attractiveness of the voices. Both males and females judged the women's voices to be most attractive if they were recorded during the peak fertility period of the menstrual cycle, and less attractive if they were recorded during non-fertile periods (Evolution and Human Behavior, DOI: 10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2008.02.001).

We are wired up by our evolutionary history to follow genetic programs for mating.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 04 12:27 AM  Brain Sexuality
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2008 December 02 Tuesday
Exercise Improves Aging Brain Blood Circulation

If you do not exercise much is there any amount of scientific evidence that will get you off your duff? Maybe not. But if you do exercise regularly here is another reason to feel satisfied with yourself for getting enough exercise.

"Our results show that exercise may reduce age-related changes in brain vasculature and blood flow," said presenter Feraz Rahman, M.S., currently a medical student at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia. "Other studies have shown that exercise prevents cognitive decline in the elderly. The blood vessel and flow differences may be one reason."

The researchers recruited 12 healthy adults, age 60 to 76. Six of the adults had participated in aerobic exercise for three or more hours per week over the last 10 years, and six exercised less than one hour per week. All of the volunteers underwent MRI to determine cerebral blood flow and MR angiography to depict blood vessels in the brain.

Using a novel method of three-dimensional (3-D) computer reconstruction developed in their lab, the researchers were able to make 3-D models of the blood vessels and examine them for shape and size. They then compared the blood vessel characteristics and how they related to blood flow in both the active and inactive groups.

The results showed that the inactive group exhibited fewer small blood vessels in the brain, along with more unpredictable blood flow through the brain.

I could tell you that eating more fruits and vegetables will slow your brain aging. But you already know that.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 02 11:34 PM  Brain Aging
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Choline During Pregnancy Slows Rat Breast Cancer

At least if you are a rat (and some people are) if your mom consumed a lot of choline during pregnancy she probably slowed the development of eventual breast cancer.

A stunning discovery based on epigenetics (the inheritance of propensities acquired in the womb) reveals that consuming choline—a nutrient found in eggs and other foods—during pregnancy may significantly affect breast cancer outcomes for a mother's offspring. This finding by a team of biologists at Boston University is the first to link choline consumption during pregnancy to breast cancer. It also is the first to identify possible choline-related genetic changes that affect breast cancer survival rates.

"We've known for a long time that some agents taken by pregnant women, such as diethylstibesterol, have adverse consequences for their daughters," said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The FASEB Journal. "But there's an upside. The emerging science of epigenetics has yielded a breakthrough. For the first time, we've learned that we might be able to prevent breast cancer as early as a mother's pregnancy."

The researchers made the discovery in rats by studying females whose mothers were fed varying amounts of choline during pregnancy. Different groups of pregnant rats received diets containing standard amounts of choline, no choline at all, or extra choline. Then the researchers treated the female offspring with a chemical that causes cancer of the mammary gland (breast cancer). Although animals in all groups developed mammary cancer, the daughters of mothers that had received extra choline during pregnancy had slow growing tumors while daughters of mothers that had no choline during pregnancy had fast growing tumors.

So if you see a pregnant rat feed it some hard boiled eggs. Think of the children.

Seriously though, suppose we eventually get sound advice for what dietary factors during pregnancy will influence eventual cancer risk. Will this do any good? I don't think so. If we know by 2015 what is the best cancer-minimizing diet during pregnancy the result will be to protect against diseases that won't develop until 2045 and mostly much later. By 2045 I will be very surprised if cancer isn't totally and easily cured.

What would be more useful to know: Does choline consumption decrease breast cancer risk if the choline consumption is started later?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 02 11:31 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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2008 December 01 Monday
Turbine With Shroud Could Cut Wind Power Costs In Half

A shroud that reduces loss due to wind going around the blade might cut total costs of wind power by half or more.

FloDesign Wind Turbine, a spin-off from the aerospace company FloDesign based in Wilbraham, MA, has developed a wind turbine that could generate electricity at half the cost of conventional turbines. The company recently raised $6 million in its first round of venture financing and has announced partnerships with wind-farm developers.

So far the company has only a small prototype. They need to do a lot of work to show it can scale and that the net cost really is lower. But if it works it will allow much more wind power to be tapped per area of land.

Combine that advance with the prospect of an electric generator that can generate electricity over a wider range of air speeds and we might be looking at much cheaper wind power that operates over a wider range of wind speeds.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 01 11:07 PM  Energy Wind
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DNA Chip Detects More Fetal Genetic Defects

Baylor researchers used DNA chips to test 270 genetic conditions in developing fetuses.

Many pregnant women have their unborn children screened for genetic abnormalities, such as Down syndrome. But standard tests cannot identify all problems, and many extremely serious conditions go undetected until birth. In a new study, researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston used DNA chips to test unborn babies for more than 270 genetic syndromes. They found that this procedure provided a more detailed and accurate view of the fetus's genetic profile than the approach commonly used today.

The study was done on 300 women, mostly at older ages. The cost at this time is $1600 but the researchers expect the price to drop. I also expect we will see more powerful DNA chips that can test tens of thousands and even hundreds of thousands of genetic differences.

What will people do with this information? More selective abortion. See my post Eugenics Cuts Down's Syndrome In Half In Denmark.

But selective abortion allows a woman only a binary decision: abort or not. It is also a tough decision. Some see it as killing a human life. Some others are uncertain and at least uneasy about it. Though still others do not see it as an act with moral significance or see a net moral benefit from it.

Granted, some women will use genetic testing information to decide on a medical intervention to fix a fetal problem. But the ability to do that sort of intervention will come many years after the ability to do very detailed genetic testing. So cheap powerful fetal genetic testing is going to be used mostly to decide whether to abort.

That binary decision of whether to abort will eventually be supplanted by the decision of which embryo to choose from among embryos created by in vitro fertilization (IVF). The increasing power of gene chips and what they can tell us will reach a threshold where IVF babies become superior in average looks, healthiness, intelligence and other characteristics as compared to babies born from naturally started pregnancies. IVF with in vitro maturation plus genetic testing will become the preferred way to start pregnancies, especially among the most educated and affluent.

The Brave New World is starting to come into view around the bend.

By Randall Parker 2008 December 01 10:55 PM  Bioethics Reproduction
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Lipid From Small Intestine Suppresses Appetite In Rats And Mice

A Yale researcher has discovered that the lipid NAPE—N-acylphosphatidylethanolamine, excreted by the small intestine, travels to the brain,concentrates in the hypothalamus, and suppresses hunger in rats and mice. Rats wearing an IV vest that delivers NAPE for days ate less than controls and lost weight.

Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Gerald Shulman at Yale School of Medicine led the research team, which reported its findings in the November 26, 2008, issue of the journal Cell. Shulman's research group is well known for its work on understanding how insulin resistance develops and leads to diabetes. In the course of that research, his team developed a sensitive system to identify and measure lipids in tissue samples. After seeing the power of that system in his diabetes research, Shulman was eager to see if it might also be applied to understanding obesity.

Note that a low fat and high carbo diet might set you up for more hunger (this is obviously not an original thought). Only fat causes NAPE release and appetite suppression in rats.

They found only low levels of NAPE in the blood of rats that had fasted for 12 hours. The level of NAPE shot up 40 to 50 percent in animals that had dined on high-fat chow. Furthermore, NAPE didn't increase in rodents that ate only protein or carbohydrate, suggesting that NAPE levels reflect the amount of fat eaten in a meal.

The researchers found that when they injected synthetic NAPE into the abdominal cavity or blood, the rodents' appetites diminished substantially. The more NAPE they received, the less food they ate. "It's really quite effective," Shulman says. "At the highest doses, it keeps the animals from eating for up to 12 hours." At a low dose—comparable to the spike in NAPE that occurs naturally after a meal—the rodents still ate 25 percent less than controls. They even acted full, going into "siesta mode" as if they had just eaten, Shulman says, noting that additional tests confirmed that the animals were only lethargic, not ill or incapacitated.

The scientists are going to study NAPE in primates and humans with the hope of finding evidence to justify clinical trials.

If periodic injections or some other method of delivery could work for humans then NAPE might serve as an effective compound for weight loss. Though I'm concerned how the clinical trials would get funding. NAPE occurs naturally in the body. Can a drug company get a patent on it for weight loss so that an incentive would exist to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars needed to go through the clinical trials and drug application process?

Human appetite, like many other basic human desires, is going to become very manipulable with pharmaceuticals. Which basic desire do you most want to increase or decrease?

By Randall Parker 2008 December 01 08:06 PM  Brain Appetite
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