2010 June 30 Wednesday
Testosterone Gel Increases Heart Risks

Old guys with existing chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease had more cardiovascular events when receiving testosterone via a gel.

A clinical trial of testosterone treatment in older men, reported June 30 online in the New England Journal of Medicine, has found a higher rate of adverse cardiovascular events, such as heart attacks and elevated blood pressure, in a group of older men receiving testosterone gel compared to those receiving placebo. Due to these events, the treatment phase of the trial was stopped. The study was supported by a grant to Shalender Bhasin, M.D., at Boston Medical Center from the National Institute on Aging (NIA), part of the National Institutes of Health.

Is it possible to use hormone supplementation to achieve a net health benefit? The answer is not clear. These men had an average age of 74 and existing health problems. Does testosterone cause problems with slightly younger and healthier men?

Decreased muscle strength may contribute to difficulties in mobility, such as in walking or climbing stairs, which can limit older persons’ independence. Testosterone treatment has been shown to improve muscle strength in some older men, but it is not yet known whether it would reduce mobility limitations in older men with low testosterone levels. The TOM (Testosterone in Older Men) Trial was designed to address this question. It was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled clinical trial of the effects of six months of testosterone gel treatment on strength and ability to walk and climb stairs in 209 older men with low testosterone levels and mobility limitations. The testosterone gel used in this study was administered to the skin daily. The 209 men in the trial had an average age of 74 and high rates of chronic diseases such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

It is possible that at a younger age testosterone could deliver a net benefit. But this is speculation on my part. The problem is that as we age lots of mechanisms have gone so awry that stimulating them just causes them to go wrong faster. Though another recent study found that ovary transplants improve the health of aged female mice. Those ovaries pump out a lot of hormones and yet they deliver a net benefit. Maybe the reason the transplants deliver a net benefit is that the ovaries excrete multiple kinds of hormones and with hormone release patterns optimized to improve health. Internal organs have complex regulatory mechanisms. Whereas testosterone gels are not released in ways that precisely mimic what the brain will do.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 30 11:31 PM  Aging Treatment Studies
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High Phenolic Olive Oil Changes Gene Expression

Olive oil high in phenolic compounds turned down genes for inflammation in a group of volunteers.

Health conscious consumers have long known that virgin olive oil is a good choice when it comes to preparing meals and dipping breads. Now, a team of researchers, including one with the Agricultural Research Service (ARS), has found that phenolic components in olive oil actually modify genes that are involved in the inflammatory response.

The researchers knew from other studies that consuming high-phenolic-content virgin olive oil reduces pro-inflammatory, pro-oxidant and pro-blood-clotting biomarkers when compared with consuming low-phenolic-content olive oil. But they wanted to know whether olive oil’s beneficial effects could be the result of gene activity.

Use of low phenolic olive oil controls for the fat content and suggests that phenolic compounds deliver at least some of the health benefits from consuming olive oil.

Some of the turned down genes are linked to obesity. Would high phenolic olive oil reduce weight gain?

One of the experimental breakfasts contained virgin olive oil with high-content phenolic compounds (398 parts per million) and the other breakfast contained olive oil with low-content phenolic compounds (70 parts per million). All volunteers consumed the same low-fat, carbohydrate rich “background” diet during both study phases.

The researchers tracked the expression of more than 15,000 human genes in blood cells during the after-meal period. The results indicated that 79 genes are turned down and 19 are turned up by the high-phenolic-content olive oil. Many of those genes have been linked to obesity, high blood-fat levels, type 2 diabetes and heart disease. Importantly, several of the turned-down genes are known promoters of inflammation, so those genes may be involved in “cooling off” inflammation that often accompanies metabolic syndrome.

I'm thinking whole olives would deliver a bigger benefit since the ratio of phenolics to oil would likely be higher in whole olives.

Anyone know whether phenolics are stable in the presence of the oil that is used to turn some olives black?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 30 11:20 PM  Aging Diet Metabolism
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Multivitamin Causes Weight Loss In Obese

Neurobiology researcher and nutrition blogger Stephan Guyenet points to a study which found that a multivitamin supplement caused weight loss in obese people.

A new study in the journal Obesity, by Y. Li and colleagues, showed that compared to a placebo, a low-dose multivitamin caused obese volunteers to lose 7 lb (3.2 kg) of fat mass in 6 months, mostly from the abdominal region (4). The supplement also reduced LDL by 27%, increased HDL by a whopping 40% and increased resting energy expenditure.

Click thru to see a list of what was in the supplement and Stephan Guyenet's discussion of the study. He is correct that this study should be repeated with Western populations. Be sure to read the comments as he attracts some commenters who are familiar with research literature and his responses to commenters are enlightening. Note one commenter points to research on high doses niacin and niacinamide as potential contributors to obesity.

Has any reader come across a study comparing the diet of the average obese person to that of the average non-obese person of the same age? Do obese people eat food that is, on average, lower in micronutrients than non-obese people?

On a similar note: On average do obese people have lower levels of any micronutrients as compared to non-obese people?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 30 10:51 PM  Aging Weight Studies
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2010 June 29 Tuesday
Ovary Transplants Rejuvenate Old Mice

Another reason for guys to become a transvestite?

Rome, Italy: Scientists have discovered that when they transplant ovaries from young mice into aging female mice, not only does the procedure make the mice fertile again, but also it rejuvenates their behaviour and increases their lifespan. The question now is: could ovarian transplants in women have the same effect?

Dr Noriko Kagawa will tell the 26th annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Rome today (Tuesday) that successful ovarian transplants increased the lifespan of the mice by more than 40%. "At present ovarian transplants are performed with the aim of preserving a woman's fertility after cancer treatment for instance, or of extending her reproductive lifespan. However, the completely unexpected extra benefit of fertility-preserving procedures in our mouse studies indicates that there is a possibility that carrying out similar procedures in women could lengthen their lifespans in general," she said.

Imagine transplanted ovaries that didn't pop out eggs but which did pump out hormones. A way to slow aging?

40% longer life thru ovary transplants.

Dr Kagawa said: "All the mice in both experiments that had received transplants resumed the normal reproductive behaviour of young mice. They showed interest in male mice, mated and some had pups. Normally, old mice stay in the corner of the cage and don't move much, but the activity of mice that had had ovarian transplants was transformed into that of younger mice and they resumed quick movements. Furthermore, the lifespan of the mice who received young ovaries was much longer than that of the control mice: the mice that had received two ovaries lived for an average of 915 days, and the mice that had received one ovary, for an average of 877 days. The newest of our data show the life span of mice that received transplants of young ovaries was increased by more than 40%.

With humans the ovary transplants might help. But resulting hormone surge might boost the risk of breast and cervical cancer. The net effect on human lifespans is hard to estimate at this point. Though the eventual development of cures for cancer would eliminate some of the downsides of ovary transplants and of other means to restore youthful hormone levels.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 29 11:34 PM  Aging Treatment Studies
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Broccoli Compound Blocks Breast Cancer Cell Growth

A compound in broccoli and brussel sprouts blocks the growth of breast cancer cells. Frequent consumption of these vegetables might lower breast cancer risk.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Researchers at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center-Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC-James) have discovered how a substance that is produced when eating broccoli and Brussels sprouts can block the proliferation of cancer cells.

Compelling evidence indicates that the substance, indole-3-carbinol (I3C), may have anticancer effects and other health benefits, the researchers say. These findings show how I3C affects cancer cells and normal cells.

The laboratory and animal study discovered a connection between I3C and a molecule called Cdc25A, which is essential for cell division and proliferation. The research showed that I3C causes the destruction of that molecule and thereby blocks the growth of breast cancer cells.

The molecule Cdc25A probably also serves useful purposes in people who not happen to have early stage cancer. So an obvious question arises: Will higher daily doses of indole-3-carbinol (I3C) cause undesired side effects due to, for example, inhibition of cell growth to do repairs on aging body parts?

There's a real tension between blocking undesired cellular growth and allowing or even stimulating desired and needed cell growth.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 29 11:27 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Broccoli Compound Blocks Breast Cancer Cell Growth

A compound in broccoli and brussel sprouts blocks the growth of breast cancer cells. Frequent consumption of these vegetables might lower breast cancer risk.

COLUMBUS, Ohio – Researchers at the Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center-Arthur G. James Cancer Hospital and Richard J. Solove Research Institute (OSUCCC-James) have discovered how a substance that is produced when eating broccoli and Brussels sprouts can block the proliferation of cancer cells.

Compelling evidence indicates that the substance, indole-3-carbinol (I3C), may have anticancer effects and other health benefits, the researchers say. These findings show how I3C affects cancer cells and normal cells.

The laboratory and animal study discovered a connection between I3C and a molecule called Cdc25A, which is essential for cell division and proliferation. The research showed that I3C causes the destruction of that molecule and thereby blocks the growth of breast cancer cells.

The molecule Cdc25A probably also serves useful purposes in people who not happen to have early stage cancer. So an obvious question arises: Will higher daily doses of indole-3-carbinol (I3C) cause undesired side effects due to, for example, inhibition of cell growth to do repairs on aging body parts?

There's a real tension between blocking undesired cellular growth and allowing or even stimulating desired and needed cell growth.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 29 11:27 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Climate Engineering With White Clouds

One of the methods proposed to cool the planet involves building lots of large floating spray pump systems that would use wind or wave energy to spray water into the atmosphere. The purpose of the water would be to create more white clouds that would reflect away more sunlight and thereby cool the planet. Ken Caldeira and associates find that the ocean spray approach would increase the amount of precipitation on land.

Palo Alto, CA— One proposed emergency fix to halt global warming is to seed clouds over the ocean to make them more reflective, reducing the solar radiation absorbed by the Earth. But the scheme could also change global rainfall patterns, raising concerns of water shortages on land. A new study by the Carnegie Institution, in collaboration with the Indian Institute of Science, suggests that altered atmospheric circulation under the scheme in fact could increase monsoonal rains and cause the continents to become wetter, not drier, on average.

Whitening clouds over the ocean to reflect sunlight is one of several geoengineering schemes proposed to counter global warming. The whitening would be accomplished by reducing the size of the water droplets making up the clouds. "Rain clouds, which have big droplets, tend to be grey and absorb sunlight, whereas clouds with smaller droplets tend to be white and fluffy and reflect more sunlight to space," says co-author Ken Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology. "In practice this could be done by shooting a fine spray of seawater high into the air, where the tiny salt particles would create condensation nucleii to form small cloud droplets."

Cheaper ways to cool the planet exist. Silicon dioxide sprayed into the atmosphere might be the cheapest. The size of the fleet of automated water spraying ships strikes me as a lot more expensive. But increased precipitation might pay back the costs via higher crop yields and more water for cities.

Climate engineering without the continental drying.

To test the climate consequences of doing this, Caldeira and his coauthors* used a computer simulation of the global climate system in which atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations were set at approximately twice that of present day. Cloud droplets over the oceans in the model were reduced in size to make the clouds more reflective. Clouds over land were unaltered. As expected, the whitened clouds reflected more solar radiation and offset the warming effect of the high carbon dioxide levels.

What surprised the researchers, however, was that the model showed that the oceanic clouds caused the land surface to become cooler and wetter on average. In previous climate simulations diminishing solar radiation by geoengineering had reduced precipitation on land. "The drying of the continents has been a major concern with regard to geoengineering," says Caldeira. But in the model the runoff from the continents increased by 7.5% globally, with the effect being strongest in the tropics.

I would guess that stationing the spray ships upwind of continents would deliver the most precipitation onto land. Especially dry coastal areas such as most of the US west coast might benefit from increased rains.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 29 11:21 PM  Climate Engineering
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Brain Energy Molecule Surges During Sleep

The energy molecule ATP surges in rat brains during the early stages of sleep.

Washington, DC — In the initial stages of sleep, energy levels increase dramatically in brain regions found to be active during waking hours, according to new research in the June 30 issue of the Journal of Neuroscience. These results suggest that a surge of cellular energy may replenish brain processes needed to function normally while awake.

A good night's rest has clear restorative benefits, but evidence of the actual biological processes that occur during sleep has been elusive. Radhika Basheer, PhD, and Robert McCarley, MD, of Boston V.A. Healthcare System and Harvard Medical School, proposed that brain energy levels are key to nightly restoration.

As I sit here fighting off sleep in order to finish this post I'm thinking I need to get to sleep in order to process all the events of the day and clean out all the clutter of information and events of the day. Perhaps ATP gets used heavily to do that while asleep. But the real meaning of this study is not clear. Does more ATP get synthesized or does less ATP get used?

"This research provides intriguing evidence that a sleep-dependent energy surge is needed to facilitate the restorative biosynthetic processes," said Robert Greene, MD, PhD, of the University of Texas Southwestern, a sleep expert who was unaffiliated with the study. He observed that questions arise from the findings, such as the specific cause of the ATP surge. "The authors propose that the surge is related to decreases in brain cell activity during sleep, but it may be due to many other factors as well, including cellular signaling in the brain," he said.

Do you get enough sleep? If you don't you are probably missing out on the full restorative potential of sleep.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 29 11:02 PM  Brain Sleep
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Dopamine Makes People Go For Quick Rewards

Blame your desire for instant gratification on the neurotransmitter dopamine.

It's a common scenario: you're on a diet, determined to give up eating cakes, but as you pass the cake counter, all resolve disappears… Now, scientists at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging at UCL (University College London) have shed light on the brain processes that affect our will power and make us act impulsively.

In a study published today in the Journal of Neuroscience, funded mainly by the Wellcome Trust, researchers led by Professor Ray Dolan have shown that increased levels of dopamine – a chemical in the brain involved in mediating reward, motivation, and learning through reinforcement, – make us more likely to opt for instant gratification, rather than waiting for a more beneficial reward.

People with attention deficit have high dopamine in their brains?

The research may help explain why people affected by conditions such as Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), characterised by high levels of dopamine in the brain, tend to show extremely impulsive behaviour. Similarly, it highlights why such behaviour can be a potential negative side-effect of L-dopa, a drug used to help alleviate the symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

This claim sounds a bit overly broad because anti-ADHD drugs like Adderall and Ritalin are believed by other scientists to work by raising dopamine in the prefrontal cortex (PFC) of the brain. When it comes to the brain what a neuortransmitter does depends on where it is.

L-dopa boosts dopamine in the brain and caused subjects in the study to go for more immediate rewards.

To test the effect of dopamine on decision-making, Professor Ray Dolan and colleagues carried out a test with 14 healthy volunteers under two conditions: once when given a small (150mg) dose of L-dopa, once when given a placebo. Under each condition, the subjects were asked to make a number of choices consisting of either a 'smaller, sooner' option, for example receiving £15 in two weeks, or a 'larger, later' option, such as receiving £57 in six months.

"Every day we are faced with decisions that offer either instant gratification or longer-term, but more significant reward," explains Dr Alex Pine, first author of the study. "Do you buy your new iPhone today or wait six months till the price comes down? Do you diet or eat that delicious-looking cake? Do you get out your books to study for a future exam or watch some more TV?"

All expermental subjects shifted toward instant rewards under the influence of L-dopa and dopamine. This result undermines the view that we can each fully understand our own desires and make rational choices thru introspection. We are puppets in the hands of eurotransmitters.

The researchers found that every subject was more likely to behave more impulsively – choosing the 'smaller, sooner' option – when levels of dopamine in the brain were boosted. . On the whole, the number of sooner options chosen increased by almost a third, although each subject varied on this measure.

Possibly the L-Dopa boosts brain dopamine in different brain areas as compared to anti-ADHD drugs. Anyone have some insights on this to offer?

If a drug can reduce our future time orientation it stands to reason that some other drug might be able to increase our future time orientation. Does Ritalin increase future time orientation of people who do not have attention deficit? Could one improve one's decision making about career and investments by using drugs to shift one's orientation toward bigger long term rewards?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 29 10:35 PM  Brain Free Will
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2010 June 28 Monday
Some Men More Like Bonobos Or Chimps

In a competitive situation do you react more like a bonobo monkey or a chimpanzee?

DURHAM, N.C. -- The average man experiences hormone changes similar to the passive bonobo prior to competition, but a "status-striving" man undergoes changes that mirror those found in a chimpanzee, say researchers from Duke and Harvard universities.

Are you a status striver? Then you've got more in common with chimps.

A new study published Monday (today) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals differing hormone levels in our two closest relatives, bonobos and chimpanzees, in anticipation of competition.

Chimpanzees live in male-dominated societies where status is paramount and aggression can be severe. In bonobos, a female is always the most dominant and tolerance can allow for more flexible cooperation and food-sharing.

If your body pumps out more testosterone before competition then you are more like a chimp./

Human males usually experience an increase in cortisol before many types of competition in a similar way as seen in the bonobos. However, if men have what is called a "high power motive," or a strong desire to achieve high status, they experience an increase in testosterone before a competition.

"These results suggest that the steroid hormone shifts that are correlated with the competitive drive of men are shared through descent with other apes," Wobber said.

Human males who win react in an atypical manner by pumping out testosterone

While some men may seem more bonobo-like before competition and others more chimpanzee-like, something unique about human males is that after competition they experience an increase in testosterone if they win or a decrease in testosterone if they lose -- which accounts for giddy or depressed sports fans following a win or loss. This variation in hormones post-competition was not observed in either chimpanzees or bonobos.

Maybe guys like to watch sports and root for a team because they want to experience that testosterone high that comes from winning.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 28 11:13 PM  Brain Species Compare
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2010 June 27 Sunday
Sweden Lifts New Nuclear Reactor Ban

The Swedes have decided that the case for more nuclear power is too strong to ignore.

Sweden’s parliament on Thursday overturned a 30-year-old ban on new nuclear reactors, adding to the renewed momentum behind atomic power in Europe as countries try to reduce dependence on fossil fuels.

The left-of-center party that is now out of power vows to reverse this decision if elected. The proposal involves replacing the existing aging reactors with new reactors at the same sites. Currently about half of Sweden's electricity comes from nuclear power.

Northern Europe is in a difficult position given the desire to cut usage of fossil fuels. The winters are too long and dark for solar power to play a big role. The northern countries have peak electric power demand in winter, not summer. At the same time, wind power by itself can't replace fossil fuels. So that brings nuclear power back into the picture.

Nuclear power is definitely looking up in Scandinavia. Finland, undeterred by a few year delay and a 2.7 euro cost overrun on the Olkiluoto 3 nuclear reactor is nearing a decision to build 2 more nuclear reactors. One wonders what the negotiated prices will be on those reactors. Does Areva think it can build Olkiluoto 4 for less than it is costing to build Olkiluoto 3?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 27 06:24 PM  Energy Nuclear
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Finnish Heat Exchanger Raises Heating Efficiency

Michael Kanellos of GreenTechMedia reports on The development of a small yet highly efficient technology for heat exchange and heat pumping which captures over 90% of waste heat expelled in a home's expelled stale air.

Heat pumps and heat recovery systems will then be able to drop power consumption to 435 watts, Luukkainen said, by pre-heating incoming air to 14 Celsius or more and ejecting air at -17 degrees. In other words, the incoming air only will only require 7 degrees of heating (21 degrees minus 14 degrees), and a good portion of that energy will come from heat absorbed from outgoing air that is 38 degrees cooler (21 degrees minus -17 degrees) than it would be without this sort of heat recovery system.

Luukkainen put one in his own house. When it was minus 28 degrees Celsius outside, the incoming air came in at 22 degrees. He ejected air at minus 22 degrees.

Combined with better insulation the company claims their technology will reduce the energy required to keep a house warm in winter by a full order of magnitude.

Electric powered heat pumps and heat exchangers fit well with Finland's larger energy strategy. The new Olkiluoto 3 nuclear reactor's construction is nearing completion and, in spite of that reactor going over $2 billion over budget, the Finnish government looks set to approve construction of 2 more nuclear reactors. The Finns are setting themselves up to depend less on Russian natural gas for heating and electric power generation.

Heat pumps and heat exchangers cost more up front. But since they can use electric power so efficiently they pay off in the long term in avoided higher costs for oil or natural gas. Buildings can be powered by a mix of nuclear, wind, and solar electric power. Transportation and the chemicals industry face a much tougher task in breaking away from fossil fuels dependency.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 27 05:46 PM  Energy Heating
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Hormone Predicts Menopause Decades In Advance

A simple blood test of the level of anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH) predicts age of menopause with a third of a year accuracy.

Rome, Italy: Researchers have developed a way of accurately predicting when women will hit the menopause using a simple blood test. The average difference between the predicted age and the actual age that the women in their study reached the menopause was only a third of a year, and the maximum margin of error was between three and four years.

Dr Fahimeh Ramezani Tehrani will tell the 26th annual meeting of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Rome today (Monday) that her findings have implications for women and their doctors; if the results of the research are supported by larger studies, it means that women will be able to discover early on in their reproductive life what their expected age at menopause will be, so that they can plan when to start a family.

By taking blood samples from 266 women, aged 20-49, who had been enrolled in the much larger Tehran Lipid and Glucose Study, Dr Ramezani Tehrani and her colleagues were able to measure the concentrations of a hormone that is produced by cells in women's ovaries – anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH). AMH controls the development of follicles in the ovaries, from which oocytes (eggs) develop and it has been suggested that AMH could be used for measuring ovarian function. The researchers took two further blood samples at three yearly intervals, and they also collected information on the women's socioeconomic background and reproductive history. In addition, the women had physical examinations every three years. The Tehran Lipid and Glucose Study is a prospective study that started in 1998 and is still continuing.

Such a predictive capability certainly is useful for women who want to know when they'll lose their fertility. But it has additional uses in the study of the aging process. Methods for measuring rates of aging are useful because they enable researchers to much more rapidly check whether drugs, diet, and other measures to slow aging are actually providing any benefit. For example, drugs that might slow ovary aging could be tested for their effects on blood AMH levels.

A 20 year old who is going to experience early onset of menopause could be warned 15 to 20 years in advance.

"The results from our study could enable us to make a more realistic assessment of women's reproductive status many years before they reach menopause. For example, if a 20-year-old woman has a concentration of serum AMH of 2.8 ng/ml [nanograms per millilitre], we estimate that she will become menopausal between 35-38 years old. To the best of our knowledge this is the first prediction of age at menopause that has resulted from a population-based cohort study. We believe that our estimates of ages at menopause based on AMH levels are of sufficient validity to guide medical practitioners in their day-to-day practice, so that they can help women with their family planning."

Another advantage of being able to detect some aging or disease outcome decades in advance: One can study the diet and lifestyle of people decades before the change or disease manifests and one does not have to guess what happened decades previously that might or might not have contributed to the outcome.

Gene expression could also be studied in younger women to look for differences in patterns in gene expression and also in genetic sequences to try to pin down a genetic cause that plays out over decades.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 27 04:53 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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2010 June 24 Thursday
More Human Genetic Variation Found Than Expected

Jumping genes are jumping all over human genomes. They are out of control. Though some (probably most) of those jumps to new insertion points do not cause any functional differences.

Scientists are finding more variation in the human genome than they had previously expected, now that new technologies are allowing researchers a closer look at the genomes of many individuals, according to a new study from University of Maryland School of Medicine researchers. The study, to be published in the June 25 issue of the journal Cell, is one of the first to take an in-depth look at transposons, known as "jumping genes."

Transposons are segments of DNA that can replicate themselves — meaning that each generation of a human family has more transposons in its genome than its ancestors — and move to new sites in each individual person's genome. The researchers examined the genomes of 76 people and found that new occurrences of transposons were surprisingly prevalent. They also found that transposons are very active in lung cancer genomes.

I've never bought the "we are all genetically very similar" argument trumpeted in early announcements of progress in human genome sequencing. We are all too different in too many ways for that to be the case. I expect the discovery of lots of mutations that adapt people to fairly small ecological niches such as adaptations to better metabolize particular types of food.

More advanced genetic sequencing technologies made this new discovery possible. Such advances will continue at a rapid rate until genetic sequencing becomes extremely cheap and most people get full genome sequencing done on them.

"A key part of this study was that we developed new, next-generation sequencing and informatics technologies that allowed us to look at these variants for the first time in many human genomes," says Scott E. Devine, Ph.D., an associate professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a research scientist at the school's Institute for Genome Sciences.

More data, faster and cheaper. That's the way it is going in genetics.

If you can spare $10k you can get yourself sequenced. Though note that today's sequencing technologies won't catch all the large copy variations. You'll be able to get a much better sequence of your full genome in a few years.

Technological advances in DNA sequencing have made it possible to examine transposons in greater detail, Dr. Devine adds, and also have cut the cost of sequencing a human genome from millions of dollars just a few years ago to as little as $10,000 now.

The cheaper sequencing gets the more that sequencing data will be correlated with intellectual characteristics, physical appearances, and other characteristics. Some time in the next 10 years the amount of information available from sequencing will become great enough to make it worthwhile for individuals to pay to get sequenced.

We might each have our own unique jumping gene difference.

Transposons, or "jumping genes," make up roughly half of the human genome. Geneticists previously estimated that they replicate and insert themselves into new locations roughly one in every 20 live births.

New results, published in the June 25, 2010 issue of Cell, suggest that every newborn is likely to have a new transposon somewhere in his or her genome.

"Now it looks like every person might have a new insertion somewhere," says senior author Scott Devine, PhD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Institute for Genome Sciences. "This is an under-appreciated mechanism for continuing mutation of the human genome."

Here's where I think one of the biggest payoffs will come in the next 10 years from all the DNA sequencing work: figuring out the mutations that make each tumor spread.

Devine's team also showed that transposons frequently jump to new locations during the process of tumor formation. Surveying 20 lung tumors and comparing their genomes against the normal tissues they came from, the team found that six tumors had new transposon insertions that were not present in the normal adjacent tissues.

Cheap DNA sequencing will enable the sequencing of each tumor's cells. Treatments will become customized to aim at the mutations found in each tumor. Personalized cancer treatment will be the order of the day. Viruses or other packages will carry pieces of DNA or RNA into cancer cells to silence cancer-promoting genes or to order only cells with cancer-causing mutations to commit suicide.

Crowd sourcing with self-reported health data compared with genetic testing data can speed up discovery of genetic associations.

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA – (June 24, 2010) – 23andMe, Inc., a leading personal genetics company, announced today that it has published the first data to come out of its novel participant-driven research program. The results, available online in the journal PLoS Genetics, replicate several known genetic associations, validating 23andMe's methodology and ushering in an era of more efficient genetic research.

"This paper announces and validates a revolutionary way of conducting scientific research," said Anne Wojcicki, 23andMe President and Co-Founder. "In this paper we confirm that self reported data from our customers has the potential to yield data of comparable quality as data gathered using traditional research methods. We are excited about moving scientific research forward, faster," continued Wojcicki.

Imagine how much faster the associations between genetic sequences and human differences will be accelerated once millions of genetic differences are know for each of tens and hundreds of millions of people.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 24 10:23 PM  Biomedical Genetic Profile
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Mickey Foley: The Doomer's Curse

Mickey Foley takes a look at the underlying motivations of people who predict collapse of society as a result of Peak Oil, Anthropogenic Global Warming, or other causes. Foley sees Doomers motivated by an underlying desire to lower the status of others in order to boost their own relative status.

The Doomer is motivated by much more than a perverse sense of altruism. He mainly desires to see everyone brought down to his level. His fondest wish is for everyone to be as emotionally crippled as he is, and, if they could also be paralyzed fiscally, that would be great too. The argument for the necessity of disaster is merely an excuse for his vindictive fantasies. This is the Doomer's Curse: to wallow in despair, to sneer at the happiness of others, to revel in schadenfreude and to believe that he has humanity's best interests at heart. The Doomer honestly thinks that a universal depression (in the emotional sense) would lay the foundation for a better world, but this belief is rooted in his own selfishness, not in a rational socioeconomic analysis.

Unfortunately I think Foley gets this exactly right. I see doomerism as a product of the psychological impact of technological advance and rising living standards on perceived status. Humans have a huge instinctive need for higher status. At the same time, industrialization lowers relative status. How? Industrialization puts us into bigger status hierarchies. The bigger the hierarchy the fewer who will feel they are at or near the top.

Look at pre-train, pre-car, pre-telegraph, pre-TV society. The number of people that could be above you in a status hierarchy was orders of magnitude smaller. Why? Status hierarchies were small because the daily experience of humans was very local and involved only small numbers of other people. Therefore a much larger fraction of the total society was at the top of status hierarchies.

The development of faster means to communicate and to move around people and goods set the stage for the development of much bigger status hierarchies. For example, look at chain stores. Where there used to be many independent stores, each with one owner in charge (at the top of the hierarchy) we now have huge chain stores and the store manager has many people above him at distant corporate offices.

The bigger the status hierarchy the larger the fraction of the population who are many levels below the top. This loss of status is a breeding ground for fantasies about a simpler society without billionaires and huge mansions of the super wealthy.

The Doomer wants this world to end, because in this world he is a failure. He has failed to achieve his goals personally and/or professionally, but he lacks the maturity to take responsibility for his failure. He blames the rules of this world for his defeat, to the point of judging this world irredeemably corrupt. This belief makes a virtue of his failure, for only the corrupt could succeed in such a world. His moral integrity precludes his success in this den of iniquity. With a better perspective, he could see that it's not the world's corruption that condemns him to failure, but rather his failure that leads him to condemn the world. Therefore, instead of taking steps to improve his chances of success, he throws up his hands, picks up the remote (or the mouse) and eagerly awaits the end of the world that (he believes) is dead set against him.

Unfortunately discussions of real serious problems (e.g. the need to go to greater extremes to get what oil remains) get hijacked by disaster fantasists. There are certainly some nasty worst cases for Peak Oil. But the total collapse of society to a level that takes us back to 18th century living standards combined with a massive die-off of a large fraction of the populations of industrialized countries is very unlikely to come as a consequence of Peak Oil. Still, Peak Oil poses serious problems for us as do some other developments such as depletion of ocean fisheries, pollution, population growth, and depletion of some minerals.

I expect the problem with doomerism to grow as long as the world continues to integrate to one big massive market with huge economies of scale. The deeper the hierarchies of status and dominance the stronger the unfulfilled need for higher status and less feeling of being dominated.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 24 05:57 PM  Society Status Hierarchies
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Resveratrol Against Eye Aging Disease?

Experiments in a mouse model suggest that resveratrol might protect against age-related macular degeneration (AMD) and other eye diseases related to blood vessel growth.

Resveratrol — found in red wine, grapes, blueberries, peanuts and other plants — stops out-of-control blood vessel growth in the eye, according to vision researchers at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis.

The discovery has implications for preserving vision in blinding eye diseases such as diabetic retinopathy and age-related macular degeneration, the leading cause of blindness in Americans over 50.

For people diagnosed with age-related macular degeneration (AMD) this result might be immediately useful. One can buy resveratrol. Someone with AMD might want to bring up the idea with their eye doctor.

The investigators studied mice that develop abnormal blood vessels in the retina after laser treatment. Apte’s team found that when the mice were given resveratrol, the abnormal blood vessels began to disappear.

Would long term resveratrol supplementation by older folks prevent AMD development?

A reservation: In this study effectively resveratrol is working as an anti-angiogenesis (blood vessel growth inhibiting) compound (and notably not as a sirtuin activator). At a dosage sufficient to have this effect in humans the anti-angiogenesis effect might block blood vessel growth in other areas where new blood vessels are needed. For example, new blood vessels could be needed around the heart or in leg muscles (whose shrinkage with age might be due to aged capillaries with impaired ability to dilate). Make sure you know you have AMD before seriously considering resveratrol (or any other compound) to inhibit blood vessel formation.

Brain Scans Predict Sunscreen Lotion Use

Picture mom worrying about whether the kids will put on sunscreen at the beach if she's not around. Well, should she go along to make sure they do it? Not if she just happens to have a brain scanner down in the basement. Put the kids into the scanner, show them a public service announcement on the importance of skin protection to avoid skin cancer, and read what the scanner about activity in the medial prefrontal cortex. With a healthy level of activity in the medial prefrontal cortex the odds are high that the oil will get spread all over the skin.

"Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don't know which half." — John Wanamaker, 19th-century U.S. department store pioneer

In a study with implications for the advertising industry and public health organizations, UCLA neuroscientists have shown they can use brain scanning to predict whether people will use sunscreen during a one-week period even better than the people themselves can.

"There is a very long history within psychology of people not being very good judges of what they will actually do in a future situation," said the study's senior author, Matthew Lieberman, a UCLA professor of psychology and of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences. "Many people 'decide' to do things but then don't do them."

The new study by Lieberman and lead author Emily Falk, who earned her doctorate in psychology from UCLA this month, shows that increased activity in a brain region called the medial prefrontal cortex among individuals viewing and listening to public service announcement slides on the importance of using sunscreen strongly indicated that these people were more likely to increase their use of sunscreen the following week, even beyond the people's own expectations.

People are such liars. Brain scans predict behavior more accurately than what people say.

"From this region of the brain, we can predict for about three-quarters of the people whether they will increase their use of sunscreen beyond what they say they will do," Lieberman said. "If you just go by what people say they will do, you get fewer than half of the people accurately predicted, and using this brain region, we could do significantly better."

No need for expensive functional magnetic resonance imaging equipment to check out the kids in the basement. Cheaper scanners will do the job in the future.

"Given that there are emerging technologies that are relatively portable and approximate some of what fMRI can do at a fraction of the cost, looking to the brain to shape persuasive messages could become a reality," Lieberman said. "But we're just at the beginning. This is one of the first papers on anything like this. There will be a series of papers over the next 10 years or more that will tell us what factors are driving neural responses."

This opens up all sorts of possibilities. Show the kids videos on the dangers of illicit drug use and watch their brains. Are they going to go off sneaking around to take hallucinogens? The brain scan will tell you. Show pubescent adolescents a video on the dangers of teen sex. Are they going to sneak off and do the wild thing? You'll know. Break out the chastity belt of the scans do not look promising.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 24 12:02 AM  Brain Surveillance
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2010 June 22 Tuesday
Gay Male Facial Recognition More Like Female Speed

Homosexual men can recognize faces faster than heterosexual men. Apparently women are faster than men at facial recognition.

TORONTO, June 22, 2010 – Gay men can recall familiar faces faster and more accurately than their heterosexual counterparts because, like women, they use both sides of their brains, according to a new study by York University researchers.

I'm curious to know how homosexual women score on facial recall speed. Are they slower at the task than heterosexual women?

I'm also curious to know what the adaptive advantage was for women to recall faces faster than men. Why would facial recognition speed provide a selective advantage for producing offspring that would survive?

The study, published in the journal, Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition, examined the influence of gender, sexual orientation and whether we're right-or-left-handed on our ability to recognize faces. It found that when memorizing and discriminating between faces, homosexual men show patterns of bilaterality – the usage of both sides of the brain – similar to heterosexual women. Heterosexual men tend to favour the right hemisphere for such tasks.

"Our results suggest that both gay men and heterosexual women code faces bilaterally. That allows for faster retrieval of stored information," says study lead author Jennifer Steeves, Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health.

To put it another way: What was the selective advantage for men to use less of their left hemisphere for facial recognition? What does the left side of the male brain do instead of facial recognition?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 22 11:03 PM  Brain Sex Differences
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Personality Linked To Sizes Of Brain Parts

If you want to turn yourself into an extravert you'll need to find a way to grow your medial orbitofrontal cortex.

Personalities come in all kinds. Now psychological scientists have found that the size of different parts of people's brains correspond to their personalities; for example, conscientious people tend to have a bigger lateral prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain involved in planning and controlling behavior.

So the people I especially like in the work place have a big lateral prefrontal cortex. Good to know. I'm going to complement certain people for their fine lateral prefrontal cortexes.

Psychologists have worked out that all personality traits can be divided into five factors, commonly called the Big Five: conscientiousness, extraversion, neuroticism, agreeableness, and openness/intellect. Colin DeYoung at the University of Minnesota and colleagues wanted to know if these personality factors correlated with the size of structures in the brain.

For the study, 116 volunteers answered a questionnaire to describe their personality, then had a brain imaging test that measured the relative size of different parts of the brain. A computer program was used to warp each brain image so that the relative sizes of different structures could be compared. Several links were found between the size of certain brain regions and personality. The research appears in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.

Imagine employers doing brain scans to spot people who are especially conscientious. What's strikes me: Some personality traits are easier to spot. Extraverts stand out. You don't need to scan brains to identify them. By contrast, conscientious people aren't as obvious.

A bigger medial orbitofrontal cortex might make you more extraverted.

For example, "Everybody, I think, has a common sense of what extraversion is – someone who is talkative, outgoing, brash," says DeYoung. "They get more pleasure out of things like social interaction, amusement parks, or really just about anything, and they're also more motivated to seek reward, which is part of why they're more assertive." That quest for reward is thought to be a leading factor in extraversion. Earlier studies had found parts of the brain that are active in considering rewards. So DeYoung and his colleagues reasoned that those regions should be bigger in people who are more extraverted. Indeed, they found that one of those regions, the medial orbitofrontal cortex – it's just above and behind the eyes – was significantly larger in study subjects with a lot of extraversion.

What I want to know: Once prospective parents gain the ability to choose genes for their offspring that influence personality development which traits will they go for? I hope future generations aren't all extraverted. I like peaceful settings and people who can shut their yaps. Agreeableness: Too many people with this trait could create too much of a herd tendency.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 22 05:53 PM  Brain Personality
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2010 June 21 Monday
High Yield Agriculture Cuts CO2 Emissions

Rising yields in agriculture reduced the need to convert forests to farm land and by doing so reduced the amount of carbon dioxide released when forests get razed.

Advances in high-yield agriculture over the latter part of the 20th century have prevented massive amounts of greenhouse gases from entering the atmosphere – the equivalent of 590 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide – according to a new study led by two Stanford Earth scientists.

The yield improvements reduced the need to convert forests to farmland, a process that typically involves burning of trees and other plants, which generates carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases.

The researchers estimate that if not for increased yields, additional greenhouse gas emissions from clearing land for farming would have been equal to as much as a third of the world's total output of greenhouse gases since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in 1850.

There's an interesting twist here for greenies to note: Genetically engineered crops reduce CO2 emissions because genetic engineering raises crop yields. Funny but true. So Europeans opposed to genetic engineering of crops (and the center of such opposition seems squarely in Europe) are inadvertently working against a goal that the vast majority of them support: reduction of CO2 emissions in order to prevent global warming.

This report reminds me of Jevon's Paradox where part of improvements in fuel efficiency goes toward more energy usage as people do more things with the money saved on buying fuel. Well, in a similar manner improvements in agricultural efficiency raised living standards and boosted population growth. So how much of the improvements in agricultural efficiency really reduced the amount of farm land shifted into agriculture? Use of technological advances in farming to lower the cost of growing a ton of grain increases incentives for using more grain to feed animals (some of which emit warming gas methane btw).

For example, People respond to lower cost grain by feeding more grain to cattle, pigs, and chickens. So then they eat more meat and their indirect consumption of grain soars. Also, higher crop productivity per acre reduces the the amount of labor needed per ton of grain produced. That frees up labor work in factories and develop more capital equipment with which to burn fossil fuels. This cancels some of the effect of reduced CO2 emissions that would otherwise come from higher crop yields.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 21 10:57 PM  Climate Biosphere
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Vitamin D Deficiency Due To Genetic Variants

If you are low in vitamin D it might be due to your genes.

An international research consortium has identified four common gene variants that are associated with blood levels of vitamin D and with an increased risk of vitamin D deficiency. The report from the SUNLIGHT consortium – involving investigators from six countries – will appear in The Lancet and is receiving early online release.

"We identified four common variants that contributed to the risk for vitamin D deficiency," says Thomas Wang, MD, of the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) Heart Center, a co-corresponding author of the Lancet report. "Individuals inheriting several of these risk-associated variants had more than twice the risk of vitamin D deficiency as was seen in those without these variants."

So the obvious question: What selective pressure produced genetic variants that lower blood vitamin D level? What was (and perhaps still is) the selective benefit of absorbing less vitamin D, breaking it down more rapidly, or synthesizing less of it in the skin? Did people who work outside (i.e. most humans for most of human history) produce too much vitamin D?

Four common genetic variants contribute to higher risk of vitamin D deficiency.

The SUNLIGHT (Study of Underlying Genetic Determinants of Vitamin D and Highly Related Traits) Consortium involved a research team from the U.S., U.K., Canada, Netherlands, Sweden and Finland who pooled data from 15 epidemiologic studies of almost 32,000 white individuals of European descent. Results of the comprehensive genetic screening were correlated with participants' serum vitamin D levels. Statistically significant associations were found for four common variants, all in genes coding enzymes involved with the synthesis, breakdown or transport of vitamin D. The risk association was independent of geographic or other environmental factors; and the more variants an individual inherited, the greater the risk of vitamin D deficiency.

Should the recommended daily allowance of vitamin D be based results of genetic tests? Seems like that makes sense.

The big studies done on how diet, lifestyle and other factors influence disease risks should all include collection of genetic samples so that as genetic testing becomes cheaper the DNA of all study participants can be sequenced. An obvious question from this study: Do some of the genetic variants that lower blood vitamin D also increase risk of osteoporosis, cancer, heart disease, or other diseases? Or maybe do any of these genetic variants lower disease risks?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 21 10:36 PM  Nutrition Genomics
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2010 June 20 Sunday
Vitamin B6 Cuts Lung Cancer Risk

Protect your DNA with pyridoxine (vitamin B6) and methionine.

An analysis that included nearly 400,000 participants finds that those with higher blood levels of vitamin B6 and the essential amino acid methionine (found in most protein) had an associated lower risk of lung cancer, including participants who were current or former smokers, according to a study in the June 16 issue of JAMA.

Previous research has suggested that defi­ciencies in B vitamins may increase the probability of DNA damage and subse­quent gene mutations. "Given their involvement in maintaining DNA integrity and gene ex­pression, these nutrients have a potentially important role in inhibiting cancer devel­opment, and offer the possibility of modi­fying cancer risk through dietary changes," the authors write. They add that deficiencies in nutrient levels of B vitamins have been shown to be high in many western populations.

If you eat cereal then look for fortified cereals that are especially high in B6. Also, banana, whole potatoes in skin, salmon, turkey, chicken and spinach are all good sources. Ditto garbanzo beans. Plus, liver, rabbit, hazel nuts, cashews, and peanuts are all good sources. Wheat germ is a better source than all these other foods. You can find a much more detailed break-down of B6 in foods here.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 20 11:17 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Home Computers Lower School Performance?

At the risk of stating the obvious: technology isn't an unalloyed blessing. Technology sometimes creates problems while solving other problems. People sometimes respond to new technologies in ways that are harmful to self and others. With all that in mind: A big survey of kids in North Carolina found that home computers and high speed internet cut student test scores, especially among lower class kids.

DURHAM, N.C. -- Around the country and throughout the world, politicians and education activists have sought to eliminate the "digital divide" by guaranteeing universal access to home computers, and in some cases to high-speed Internet service.

However, according to a new study by scholars at Duke University's Sanford School of Public Policy, these efforts would actually widen the achievement gap in math and reading scores. Students in grades five through eight, particularly those from disadvantaged families, tend to post lower scores once these technologies arrive in their home.

Politicians and professional educators desperately want silver bullets that'll raise test scores, especially for lower scoring minorities. So they look for technologies that'll help. But the problem is that the streets find their own uses for technology. With access to the internet most people do not go searching for lectures on math and physics. Rather, porno, games, movies, music videos, chat, and other diversions are much more eagerly sought.

To make computers useful learning tools for kids the computers would need to have a really controlled set of learning applications and electronic books. The kids using these computers should have to earn access to fun diversions by doing productive learning work first. The learning applications might work better if some of them appeared as learning games. But even ideal computer software isn't going to do a lot to boost the performance of dumber kids or of kids that just don't have much natural curiosity.

What I'd like to know: If the kids were tested for IQ and exposure to computers is there an IQ level at which computer exposure raises performance? Or do computers distract kids of all IQ levels away from school work?

They collected data on 150,000 individuals. They stopped at 2005 in order to avoid the Facebook effect. You can bet that Facebook,Twitter, and the like are pulling kids even further away from books and school work.

"We cut off the study in 2005, so we weren't getting into the Facebook and Twitter generation," Vigdor said. "The technology was much more primitive than that. IM (instant messaging) software was popular then, and it's been one thing after the other since then. Adults may think of computer technology as a productivity tool first and foremost, but the average kid doesn't share that perception." Kids in the middle grades are mostly using computers to socialize and play games, Vigdor added, with clear gender divisions between those activities.

Computers are enabling both children and adults to create environments more closely suited to their desires and not always necessarily to the needs of their intellectual development.

Some evidence points to benefit from home libraries of plain old style books. Though the big collections of books in homes are also a proxy for smarter and more curious parents. Some of that smarts and curiosity is getting passed down to the kids thru genes. Again, studies are needed that control for IQ to measure whether the books in a home really make a big difference. Speaking as a child reading addict the benefit seems likely to be real. If I could go back in a time machine and change my childhood I'd give myself a much bigger and better collection of books to read.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 20 10:59 PM  Brain Development
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Cost Breakdown On Solar Panel Installations

An article about photovoltaic (PV) solar panel costs in Singapore breaks down the costs of PV.

According to Professor Joachim Luther, chief executive officer of the Solar Energy Research Institute of Singapore (SERIS), the breakdown cost of a PV system sees BOS accounting for the lion’s share at 39%.

The BOS, or balance of system, includes the cost of cabling, mounting system and inverters.

The silicon material accounts for 12% and the cells and modules take up 16% each, among others, says Professor Luther.

At first glance this seems to pose problems for the prospects of cutting the costs of PV. Even if the solar cells were literally free the cost of PV wouldn't even fall by half.

But bigger cost reductions still seem attainable for a couple of reasons. First off, higher efficiency solar cells would cut module costs by requiring less bracketing and glass cover for the same amount of electric power. Second, PV roofing tile for new houses and for when old roofs get replaced will avoid the need for much additional labor and special brackets to hold the PV. Integrated designs combined with higher PV efficiency could just be the ticket to very low costs.

A question for anyone who might know: What are the prospects for cheaper and/or longer lasting grid tie inverters?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 20 10:57 AM  Energy Solar
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2010 June 19 Saturday
40 Million Years Ago North America Volcanic Eruptions

North American volcanic eruptions of 40 million years ago spewed climate-cooling sulfur aerosols on a scale not seen in modern times.

Millions of years ago, volcanic eruptions in North America were more explosive and may have significantly affected the environment and the global climate. So scientists report in this week's issue of the journal Nature.

The researchers found the remains--deposited in layers of rocks--of eruptions of volcanoes located on North America's northern high plains that spewed massive amounts of sulfate aerosols into the atmosphere 40 million years ago. The scientists conducted their research at Scotts Bluff National Monument, Neb., and in surrounding areas.

"Combining measurements of the sulfate in ancient volcanic ash beds with a detailed atmospheric chemistry model, we found that the long-ago chemistry of volcanic sulfate gases is distinct from that of more modern times," says Huiming Bao, a geologist at Louisiana State University and lead author of the paper.

"This is the first example showing that the history of massive volcanic sulfate emissions, and their associated atmospheric conditions in the geologic past, may be retrieved from rock records."

The fact that the high sulfate emissions happened 40 million years ago doesn't demonstrate the final end of a geological era. This can happen again. About every 650,00 years or so the Yellowstone area erupts. The last eruption was 640,000 years ago and was 20 times as large as the 1815 Tambora eruption discussed below. This cycle of eruption might not be over yet.

A similar volcanic event to the long-ago past likely will happen again, Bao says: in the next Yellowstone eruption.

If we are lucky the next eruption large enough to prevent summers won't happen until we have enough technology (e.g. nanobots, fusion reactors) to enable us to easily deal with the consequences.

For almost the last couple of centuries have been sufficiently uneventful in terms of volcanic eruptions. So it might seem that nature isn't likely to send something at us that we can't easily handle. But go back just a little further and a different picture emerges.

The closest analog, Bao believes, is the 1783 Laki, Iceland, eruption and the subsequent "dry fogs" in continental Europe.

That event devastated Iceland's cattle population. People with lung problems suffered the worst, he says.

In North America, the very next year's winter, that of 1784, was the longest and one of the coldest on record. The Mississippi River froze as far south as New Orleans. The French Revolution in 1789 may have been triggered by the poverty and famine caused by the eruption, scientists believe.

Climate cooling from volcanoes on the scale of the1783 Laki, Iceland, eruption is not that rare. 1816 is know as the "Year Without Summer" due to the April 10, 1815 Tambora eruption, which was the biggest volcanic eruption in the last 200 years. It caused cold weather for 2 years and widespread hunger. The 1600 Huaynaputina Peru eruption was smaller than Tambora (volcanic explosivity index (VEI) of 6 versus 7 for Tambora). Yet it spewed as much sulfur as some VEI 7 eruptions and caused famine in Russia.

A VEI eruption like Tambora would cause famine in poorer countries. A VEI 8 eruption would cause famine even in some developed countries. A VEI 8 eruption in a developed country would kill millions near the eruption and, depending on where it happens, even kill tens of millions in that country.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 19 06:34 PM  Dangers Natural Geological
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2010 June 18 Friday
Quantum Dots For 60% Efficient Solar Cells?

A UT Austin chemist claims quantum dots can hit 66% efficiency in the conversion of light into electricity.

AUSTIN, Texas—Conventional solar cell efficiency could be increased from the current limit of 30 percent to more than 60 percent, suggests new research on semiconductor nanocrystals, or quantum dots, led by chemist Xiaoyang Zhu at The University of Texas at Austin.

Zhu and his colleagues report their results in this week's Science.

The scientists have discovered a method to capture the higher energy sunlight that is lost as heat in conventional solar cells.

The maximum efficiency of the silicon solar cell in use today is about 31 percent. That's because much of the energy from sunlight hitting a solar cell is too high to be turned into usable electricity. That energy, in the form of so-called "hot electrons," is lost as heat.

If the higher energy sunlight, or more specifically the hot electrons, could be captured, solar-to-electric power conversion efficiency could be increased theoretically to as high as 66 percent.

Photovoltaic cells of such a high efficiency would lower costs substantially. Some people are skeptical about the potential for cheap solar power. But my view is that while solar is still more expensive than wind, nuclear, coal, and other sources of electric power it will eventually become competitive. Its costs (though not always its market price) have steadily fallen for decades. First Solar continues to establish new lower cost points. Even potential for further cost cutting exists that solar should become cheap as a day time power source.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 18 06:51 AM  Energy Solar
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2010 June 16 Wednesday
Moral Beliefs On Illicit Drugs About Promiscuity

Views on promiscuity are more reliable predictors of a person's views about illicit drugs than one's professed religion or political ideology.

One theory -- the conventional wisdom in political science -- sees drug attitudes as primarily coming from people's political ideology, level of religious commitment, and personality, for example, openness to experience.

The other theory, proposed by the researchers and driven by ideas from evolutionary psychology, holds that drug attitudes are really driven by people's reproductive strategies.

So then slutty girls and pick-up artist guys are the biggest advocates of drug legalization? I'd be curious to know whether this connection between views on promiscuity and drugs holds equally well for men and women.The evolutionary psychology viewpoint also holds that women and men have different and conflicting reproductive strategies. Also, how do views about drug legalization change upon marriage and upon birth of a baby.

When the Penn researchers questioned almost 1,000 people in two subject populations, one undergraduate and one Internet-based, a clear winner emerged between the competing theories: Differences in reproductive strategies are driving individuals' different views on recreational drugs.

While many items predict to some extent whether people are opposed to recreational drugs, the most closely related predictors are people's views on sexual promiscuity. While people who are more religious and those who are more politically conservative do tend to oppose recreational drugs, in both study samples the predictive power of these religious and ideological items was reduced nearly to zero by controlling for items tracking attitudes toward sexual promiscuity.

If people use too many drugs they'll reproduce like bunnies. This has got to be stopped. Look at what happened when bunnies were introduced into Australia.

"This provides evidence that views on sex and views on drugs are very closely related," said Kurzban, associate professor in the Department of Psychology and director of the Pennsylvania Laboratory for Experimental Evolutionary Psychology at Penn. "If you were to measure people's political ideology, religiosity and personality characteristics, you can predict to some degree how people feel about recreational drugs. But if, instead, you just measure how people feel about casual sex, and ignore the abstract items, the predictions about people's views on drugs in fact become quite a bit better."

Didn't Alice see a bunny in wonderland? In the follow-up to Alice In Wonderland does she become a single mom with kids by 3 different guys? "Go ask Alice, I think she'll know." I can hear Gracie Slick singing.

Once genetic tests can at least partially predict sexua reproduction strategies will genetic tests also predict one's views on drug legalization? Will the legalizers or anti-legalizers make more babies and win in the field of public opinion in the long run by Darwinian natural selection?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 16 11:18 PM  Brain Ethics Law
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Alcohol Cuts Arthritis Risk

More alcohol, less arthritis risk.

Rome, Italy, Wednesday 16 June 2010: Alcohol consumption is associated with a significantly reduced risk of developing several arthritic conditions including Rheumatoid Arthritis (RA), Osteoarthritis (OA), reactive arthritis, psoriatic arthritis and spondylarthropathy, according to results of a new study presented today at EULAR 2010, the Annual Congress of the European League Against Rheumatism in Rome, Italy. Regardless of the type of arthritis, all patients reported drinking less alcohol than controls, leading to questions around the inflammatory pathways behind the effects seen.

In this Dutch study, alcohol consumption was associated with a significantly lower risk of developing RA (Odds Ratio (OR) 0.27 (0.22-0.34), Osteoarthritis (OR 0.31, (0.16-0.62), spondylarthropathy (OR 0.34, 0.17-0.67), psoriatic arthritis (OR 0.38, 0.23-0.62), and reactive arthritis (OR 0.27, 0.14-0.52). A particularly protective effect was shown in the RA population with the presence of Anti-Citrullinated Protein Antibodies (ACPA, potentially important surrogate markers for diagnosis and prognosis in RA), (OR 0.59, 0.30-0.99).

Alcohol strikes me as a great example of how choosing an ideal diet will some day depend on genetic profiling of relative health risks. Some people are genetically at greater risk of alcoholism. So they probably ought to avoid drinking much alcohol. At the same time, alcohol appears to boost cancer risk (possibly by stimulating blood vessel growth that enables cancer growth). So if one's genetic profile might indicate one's level of cancer risk one could know whether regular alcohol consumption was worth the risk. On the other side of the risk equation, alcohol probably cuts heart disease risk (and possibly via the same mechanism by which it boosts cancer risk. Plus, it cuts arthritis risk of the report above is correct. So you need to know your genetic risk of arthritis too.

Genes won't be the only source of information in forming detailed health risk profiles 5 or 10 years hence. Other biological tests already provide indications of risk for heart disease, stroke, and other diseases. The number of such tests and their power will steadily increase in coming years. We will therefore be able to buy services to create very detailed individual assessments of many of our disease risks.

To make a wise decision about alcohol you end up needing a detailed view into the extent that your potential risks will change from drinking alcohol. There's no one correct answer that applies to everyone.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 16 11:04 PM  Aging Diet Bone Studies
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Moon Water Supply Estimate Way Up

When you move up to an underground warren on the Moon you'll be able to take long showers and install a hot tub (with high walls to deal with low grav splashing). A new scientific estimate of Moon water paints a much rosier picture.

WASHINGTON -- NASA-funded scientists estimate from recent research that the volume of water molecules locked inside minerals in the moon's interior could exceed the amount of water in the Great Lakes here on Earth.

Scientists at the Carnegie Institution's Geophysical Laboratory in Washington, along with other scientists across the nation, determined that the water was likely present very early in the moon's formation history as hot magma started to cool and crystallize. This finding means water is native to the moon.

"For over 40 years we thought the moon was dry," said Francis McCubbin of Carnegie and lead author of the report published in Monday's Online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "In our study we looked at hydroxyl, a compound with an oxygen atom bound with hydrogen, and apatite, a water-bearing mineral in the assemblage of minerals we examined in two Apollo samples and a lunar meteorite."

The new estimate is at least 2 orders of magnitude greater water concentrations underground than previously thought.

McCubbin's team utilized tests which detect elements in the parts per billion range. Combining their measurements with models that characterize how the material crystallized as the moon cooled during formation, they found that the minimum water content ranged from 64 parts per billion to 5 parts per million. The result is at least two orders of magnitude greater than previous results from lunar samples that estimated water content of the moon to be less than 1 parts per billion.

With the low gravity think of the sports possible with underground water slides. Solar panels up on the surface could power the water pumps to feed the slides. How about underground creeks in big sealed tubes where rafts would move along side hydroponic food growing areas?

Water polo in low G would involve much higher jumps out of the water.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 16 06:50 PM  Space Colonization
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2010 June 15 Tuesday
H1N1 Flu Vaccine Protects Against 1918 Strain

The current H1N1 vaccine provides some protection against the 1918 strain that killed tens of millions of people.

WHAT: Mice injected with a 2009 H1N1 pandemic influenza vaccine and then exposed to high levels of the virus responsible for the 1918 influenza pandemic do not get sick or die, report scientists funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), part of the National Institutes of Health. The new vaccine works against the old virus because the 1918 and the 2009 strains of H1N1 influenza share features that allow vaccine-generated antibodies to recognize both viruses. To learn more, similar challenge studies need to be conducted in other animals, including monkeys, but the investigators say their results suggest people who are vaccinated against 2009 H1N1 influenza or were exposed to the virus could have similarly cross-protective antibodies against the 1918 strain of H1N1. This finding, they add, should help allay concerns about the potential consequences of an accidental release of the 1918 influenza virus from high-containment laboratories or its possible use as a bioterror weapon.

The recurrence of a strain like the 1918 influenza pandemic strain would kill tens of millions of people. Since it is possible for such a strain to emerge the ability to provide even partial immunity to a strain similar to the 1918 flu might just save your life.

Some lab mice are now fully prepared for a replay of the 1918 pandemic. I'm picturing these mice venturing out of a research lab into a post-apocalyptic landscape after most humans are dead from a killer flu. The mice head for the local cheese shop confident no humans will block their journey.

The researchers administered to three groups of mice either the 2009 H1N1 influenza vaccine, the seasonal influenza vaccine, or no vaccine at all. Twenty-one days later, the mice were exposed to a lethal dose of the 1918 Spanish influenza virus. The mice receiving the H1N1 vaccine were the only ones to survive, while also exhibiting limited morbidity following the vaccination.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 15 11:20 PM  Pandemic Vaccines
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Mediterranean Diet Improves Heart Function

A twins study finds evidences that good food will beneficially increase your heart rate variability (HRV). While this might seem counterintuitive, hearts that beat at a more consistent rate are less healthy.

DALLAS, June 15, 2010 – A study of twins shows that even with genes that put them at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, eating a Mediterranean-style diet can improve heart function, according to research reported in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, an American Heart Association journal.

Using data from the Emory Twins Heart Study, researchers found that men eating a Mediterranean-style diet had greater heart rate variability (HRV) than those eating a Western-type diet. Heart rate variability refers to variation in the time interval between heart beats during everyday life – reduced HRV is a risk factor for coronary artery disease and sudden death.

Your autonomic nervous system will work better on the Med diet.

“This means that the autonomic system controlling someone’s heart rate works better in people who eat a diet similar to a Mediterranean diet,” said Jun Dai, M.D., Ph.D., study author and assistant professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Indiana University in Bloomington.

The Mediterranean-style diet has just about all the classic healthy foods.

Eating a Mediterranean-style diet — one characterized by low saturated fats and high in fish, fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, olive oil, cereals and moderate alcohol consumption — reduces a person’s heart disease risk.

How does your diet measure up versus the Mediterranean diet? Try to just substitute out a few less healthy foods for foods in the Med diet. Take small steps toward a better diet rather than try to change all your food habits overnight.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 15 11:15 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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2010 June 14 Monday
2010 10 Gigawatts Solar Power Install Expected

Eric Wesoff of Green Tech Media reports on their projection that well over 10 gigawatts of solar cells will be installed in 2010.

In 2010, we will cross the threshold of 10 gigawatts of photovoltaic solar installed globally in a single year -- a record-setting and once-inconceivable number.

Rewind to ten years ago: the total amount of photovoltaics installed in the year 2000 was 170 megawatts.  Since then, the solar photovoltaic industry has grown at a 51 percent annual growth rate, and 170 megawatts is now the size of a healthy utility installation or a small solar factory. 

Contrast that with 200 gigawatts of wind installation this year. Wind continues to far surpass solar power due to lower costs.

Total new solar installations for 2010 will be around 11 gigawatts. By contrast, 7 gigawatts of solar was installed in 2009. This increase is partly driven by government policies around the world. But the rapid decline in solar photovoltaic (PV) module costs by about half from late 2008 till today also lowers the threshold for profitable solar projects.

Suntech Power VP Andrew Beebe says SunTech has a single manufacturing building in China which will have the capacity to produce 1 gigawatt of PV per year.

We have a building (that's one building!) in China that this year should be capable of cranking out one gigawatt of product per year. I think that's larger than the entire industry's capacity ten years ago.

Solar's got one big advantage over wind: electric power demand is strongest (and wholesale electric power spot market prices are highest) when the sun shines. Solar's output profile peaks earlier in the day than overall electric power demand. But solar's power output peak is much closer to peak demand than wind's night time output peak. Therefore solar doesn't have to be as cheap per kilowatt-hour to compete against wind.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 14 11:28 PM  Energy Solar
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2010 June 13 Sunday
Men Suffer More From Relationships Gone Bad?

Women aren't the emotionally more sensitive in relationships?

Winston-Salem, NC -- Contrary to popular belief, the ups and downs of romantic relationships have a greater effect on the mental health of young men than women, according to a new study by a Wake Forest University sociology professor.

In the study of more than 1,000 unmarried young adults between the ages of 18 and 23, Wake Forest Professor of Sociology Robin Simon challenges the long-held assumption that women are more vulnerable to the emotional rollercoaster of relationships. Even though men sometimes try to present a tough face, unhappy romances take a greater emotional toll on men than women, Simon says. They just express their distress differently than women.

Simon's research is published in the June issue of the Journal of Health and Social Behavior. Anne Barrett, associate professor of sociology at Florida State University, co-authored the article.

"Our paper sheds light on the association between non-marital romantic relationships and emotional well-being among men and women on the threshold of adulthood," Simon says. "Surprisingly, we found young men are more reactive to the quality of ongoing relationships."

The researchers argue that women have more non-romantic relationships to fall back on that make break-ups easier on them. But I suspect the evolutionary roles of men and women also account for part of the difference seen here. Men pursue women. Women choose. A woman who knows she'll get to make choices among future suitors can afford to feel less is at stake if the current relationship doesn't last.

What would be interesting to know: Do better looking women feel less upset when relationships go bad? Also, do women feel more upset the higher the status of the guy they are breaking up with?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 13 11:38 PM  Brain Sex Differences
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Chris Nelder: Replace Offshore Oil With Wind?

Chris Nelder looks at what it would take to replace US offshore Gulf of Mexico oil with a comparable amount of energy from wind power.

Federal offshore Gulf of Mexico has been our last great hope for domestic oil production against a four-decade declining trend. Offshore oil now accounts for 1.7 million barrels per day (mbpd), or over 30%, of our domestic production of 5.5 mbpd.What would it take to substitute wind for offshore oil? At 5.8 MBtu heat value in a barrel of oil and 3412 BTU in a kWh, 1.7 mbpd is equivalent to 2.9 billion kWh per day, or 1,059 billion kWh a year. By comparison, total 2008 wind generation was 14.23 billion kWh in Texas, and 5.42 billion kWh in California.

Therefore, to replace our offshore oil with wind, you’d need 195 Californias, or 74 Texases of wind, and probably 20 years to build it.

The comparison here between oil and wind electric power isn't exact for a number of reasons. On the one hand oil loses energy getting burned in engines and at other stages. On the other hand, wind doesn't always blow when you need it and electric power is hard to use for transportation. But these rough calculations at least start an analysis of oil substitutes. I'll go further with it below. But a full analysis of substitutes would require a write-up far bigger than a blog post.

Texas happens to have the most wind turbines of any US state. Multiply the number of existing Texas wind turbines (at least in 2008) by a factor of 74 to get a comparable amount of energy from wind power. Texas amounted of about a quarter of total US wind electric power in 2008.

In 2009 in the United States wind provided 70,761 thousand megawatt hours of electric power (70.8 billion kWh). Wind grew by 15,398 thousand megawatt-hours of actual output in 2009 or 28%. Compare that 15.4 billion kWh increase to the 1 trillion kWh per year of energy we currently get from the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) oil. If we built and installed wind turbines at a rate 10 times faster than the current rate we could produce as much energy from wind in about 7 years. Of course, you can't pour liquid electric power into your gas tank. A migration to wind power involves more than building wind farms. More on that below.

A rapid build-out of wind sites assumes these sites exist. Of course the transportation infrastructure in the United States is built to run on oil and conversion of that infrastructure to run on something other than oil couldn't happen in 7 years without a huge reduction in living standards to free up the industrial output to build the wind turbines, long distance electric power lines, batteries, electric cars, and other pieces needed to electrify transportation. A ramp-up of lithium mining to support such a large build of lithium batteries would take years to accomplish.

What about total cost? The first part of the cost equation is the wind turbines. Does anyone know of a good source for total sales of wind turbines (including installation) in the United States in 2009? Take that figure and multiply by about 65 to get a wind farm cost answer. But that might be low due to a need to use more lower quality wind farms. Also, there'd be some big cost (anyone have a good idea on how to estimate it?) for a big build-out of HDVC electric grid long range lines to deliver the electric power from the central plains states (where the wind is) to the coasts. I'll update the post with more cost info as any commenters find more or I find more.

The real problem (and the real reason we continue to so heavily rely on oil) comes when we try to use all that wind electric power. Most oil gets used in cars and trucks. Here's the problem in a picture: (data for 2008)

U.S. Primary Energy Consumption by Source and Sector diagram image

Aside: In 2004 only 67% of oil went for transportation as compared to 71% in 2008.Gradually many non-transportation uses of oil are getting squeezed out. This speaks to the difficult of substituting electric power for oil in transportation. Only oil's essential uses remain as prices rise. Transportation continues to make the cut.

Electric vehicles are not widely used mainly because batteries big enough to give them substantial range cost too much. With electric cars the batteries end up costing 2-4 times more than the electric power. Cars are the prime candidates for conversion to electric power because transportation is the biggest user of oil (about 71% of all oil in the US is for transportation). Since the question Nelder posed is only about how to replace GOM oil production (rather than all oil production) with electric power we do not have to figure out how to shift all transportation and chemical industry uses of oil to electric power. But we even then the going gets hard.

Suppose we do not include the 1.625 million barrels per day used by heavy trucks (and I'd really like to know what fraction of that oil is for long distance trucking). Trying to electrify trucking is much harder than electrifying cars because long haul trucks travel many more miles per day than the average car. Range is the big problem with batteries. Long haul trucks would need huge batteries and/or lots of stops for battery swapping. If we just aim for commuter and other local car usage we can focus on pluggable hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) like the Chevy Volt (range 40 miles on battery) and pure electric vehicles (EVs) such as the Nissan Leaf (range 100 miles on battery). If we make PHEVs and EVs as the main tools for electrification then we'd probably need to replace tens of million cars with PHEVs and EVs. That'd take years since not all vehicles could practically be PHEVs or EVs. Plus, the added cost of PHEVs and EVs would slow the adoption rate. Figure $5000 added cost per car we are up in trillions of dollars to make the transition. Possible if we are willing to pay the price.

We could electrify trains much more easily (relatively speaking, still with a big price tag) than we could electrify trucks. But trains only use about 220,000 barrels of oil per day. So train electrification would not do much to eliminate our dependence on oil unless we shifted a lot more shipping onto trains (and probably build more train tracks or moved closer to train tracks).

You can listen to an interview of Chris Nelder on the Financial Sense News Hour. He sees peak oil as imminent and therefore a migration away from oil as necessary but very difficult.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 13 01:54 PM  Energy Transportation
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Depression Predisposes To Obesity

Depression makes you fat?

“We found that in a sample of young adults during a 15-year period, those who started out reporting high levels of depression gained weight at a faster rate than others in the study, but starting out overweight did not lead to changes in depression,” said UAB Assistant Professor of Sociology Belinda Needham, Ph.D.. The study appears in the June issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

“Our study is important because if you are interested in controlling obesity, and ultimately eliminating the risk of obesity-related diseases, then it makes sense to treat people’s depression,” said Needham, who teaches in the UAB Department of Sociology and Social Work. “It’s another reason to take depression seriously and not to think about it just in terms of mental health, but to also think about the physical consequences of mental health problems.”

One can easily imagine a number of mechanisms for how this would work. For example, depressed people are more lethargic, often sleep longer hours, and therefore burn fewer calories. Also, depressed people might seek out the pleasure of eating food as a temporary relief from the pain of living.

The fact that humans get depressed in the first place is interesting. One evolutionary purpose might be to help people store up food and burn less food during winter months. In other words, depression could be a milder version of hibernation. Dampen down activity once the crops are in and just eat and gain weight until spring. This might explain seasonal affective depression which comes on when the days are shorter.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 13 10:54 AM  Brain Depression
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2010 June 10 Thursday
Scots Have Bad Health Habits

Almostr everyone in Scotland finds some way to be unhealthy.

Almost the entire adult population of Scotland (97.5%) are likely to be either cigarette smokers, heavy drinkers, physically inactive, overweight or have a poor diet. Researchers writing in the open access journal BMC Public Health also found a strong association between the presence of several of these risk factors and low income.

I'm thinking we need some sort of international contest in unhealthy living. Cities could compete for worst lifestyles from the standpoint of best health practices. Who smokes the most? Who drinks the most alcohol? Which people eat the least in vegetables and fruits and the most junk food?

Most Scottish people have poor diets. Two thirds are overweight or obese.

David Conway, from the University of Glasgow, Scotland, worked with a team of researchers to study data from 6574 participants in the Scottish Health Survey 2003. He said, "Our analysis shows that around two-thirds of the Scottish population is overweight or obese, a similar proportion are not sufficiently physically active, and most people have a poor diet – it is just that it is not the same majority for each factor. The most important determinants of multiple risk factors were low educational attainment and residence in our most deprived communities".

The least educated have the worst diets. Not surprising. People with low intelligence aren't smart enough to remember and understand what foods they ought to eat or avoid. Higher intelligence has been found to be positively correlated with life expectancy in all Scottish people born in 1921. Also see Batty, G. D., Deary, I. J., & Gottfredson, L. S. (2007). Pre-morbid (early life) IQ and later mortality risk: Systematic review. Annals of Epidemiology.

55% of the Scots have 3 or more of the 5 risk factors.

The prevalence of multiple behavioural risk factors was high, with 86% having at least two risk factors; 55% having three or more risk factors; and nearly 20% having four or all five risk factors. Furthermore these risk factors are strongly associated with low socio-economic circumstances. The researchers caution that, as the behaviours were self-reported, the real situation may be even worse than these figures suggest. According to Conway, "Respondents might tend to give answers that would convey more favourable behaviours. This was confirmed for alcohol consumption by an analysis comparing self-reported alcohol intake in the Scottish Health Surveys with alcohol sales estimates, which suggested that surveys may understate alcohol consumption by as much as 50%".

The use of heavy equipment and automation to do what were previously jobs performed with lots of human muscle. The success of industrialized countries probably widens the gap between best and worst health practices in a society. The increased availability of highly refined and processed foods poses a bigger health threat to poorer people who aren't smart enough to know to avoid junk foods. We did not evolve for industrial civilization and it is not surprising to me that so many people make bad decisions about what to eat or how to live as the choices they face become increasingly unlike what our distant ancestors had.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 10 10:26 PM  Aging Lifestyle Studies
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Noise During Sleep Impairs Morning Performance

If you live near a highway, train tracks, or an airport consider moving.

WESTCHESTER, IL – Nighttime noise from nearby road traffic, passing trains and overhead planes disturbs sleep and impairs morning performance, according to a research abstract that will be presented Tuesday, June 8, 2010, in San Antonio, Texas, at SLEEP 2010, the 24th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC.

Results indicate that mean reaction time on a morning psychomotor vigilance task slowed significantly by 3.6 ms after exposure to recorded traffic noise during sleep, and the slowing of reaction times was directly and significantly related to increases in both the frequency and sound-pressure level of the nightly noise events. The sound of passing trains caused the highest awakening and arousal probabilities followed by automobile traffic and airplane noise. However, this ranking was not reflected in the measures of morning neurobehavioral performance, as each mode of noise caused a similar level of impairment. Furthermore, exposure to more than one of the three modes of traffic noise did not lead to stronger performance impairments than exposure to only one noise source.

If moving isn't practical then consider sound-deadening curtains, double pane windows, acoustic insulation, and other materials (e.g. cork) that will cut your sound exposure. You can even get paint that contains ceramic hollow microspheres to cut noise.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 10 09:48 PM  Brain Sleep
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2010 June 09 Wednesday
Personality Plays Role In Political Orientation

Political views tend to flow from personality type.

TORONTO, ON - There is a strong relationship between a voter's politics and his personality, according to new research from the University of Toronto.

Researchers at UofT have shown that the psychological concern for compassion and equality is associated with a liberal mindset, while the concern for order and respect of social norms is associated with a conservative mindset.

"Conservatives tend to be higher in a personality trait called orderliness and lower in openness. This means that they're more concerned about a sense of order and tradition, expressing a deep psychological motive to preserve the current social structure," says Jacob Hirsh, a post-doctoral psychology student at UofT and lead author of the study.

How can someone's basic political orientation be the product of their genes if they are so certain that they rationally arrived at their political beliefs and preferences thru study and reasoning? That's an easy question to answer: People delude themselves about the role free will plays in making them what they are.

The study, which appears in this month's Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, may even lend some legitimacy to the term, 'bleeding-heart-liberal.'

"Our data shows that liberalism is more often associated with the underlying motives for compassion, empathy and equality," says Hirsh.

While some people think they formed their general political orientation thru reason genetics and innate cognitive tendencies play a large role in the formation of political orientations in humans

"People's values are deeply embedded in their biology and genetic heritage," says UofT Professor and co-author Jordan Peterson. "This means you have to take a deeper view of political values and morality in terms of where these motives are coming from; political preferences do not emerge from a simple rational consideration of the issues."

Once prospective parents gain the ability to select personality traits for their children will they choose, on average, to make their kids more conservative or liberal? Will people who are somewhere in between become more rare as people choose to create children who embrace the same values and even more emphatically than their parents do? Will the center fail to hold and will humans become divided into clashing camps which differ deeply and bitterly about values questions?

Update: Also see my post Moral Reasoning Done To Justify Intuitions?.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 09 10:44 PM  Brain Politics
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Polyphenols Cut Cancer Risk In Mice

Scientists are busy trying to improve the wretched lives of mice.

In what could lead to a major advance in the treatment of prostate cancer, scientists now know exactly why polyphenols in red wine and green tea inhibit cancer growth. This new discovery, published online in The FASEB Journal (http://www.fasebj.org), explains how antioxidants in red wine and green tea produce a combined effect to disrupt an important cell signaling pathway necessary for prostate cancer growth. This finding is important because it may lead to the development of drugs that could stop or slow cancer progression, or improve current treatments.

But we most want to know whether eating foods high in polyphenols or other compounds will reduce our risk of developing cancer or other diseases. The evidence on this question is less clear.

Keep in mind that cell signaling pathways exist because they serve useful functions. Chemicals from food that disrupt cellular pathways probably have downsides in addition to whatever protective properties they have.

"Not only does SphK1/S1P signaling pathway play a role in prostate cancer, but it also plays a role in other cancers, such as colon cancer, breast cancer, and gastric cancers," said Gerald Weissmann, MD, editor-in-chief of The FASEB Journal. "Even if future studies show that drinking red wine and green tea isn't as effective in humans as we hope, knowing that the compounds in those drinks disrupts this pathway is an important step toward developing drugs that hit the same target."

While less lucky mice were out struggling for survival these mice were getting fed chemicals that reduced their risk of cancer. On the other hand, these mice were bred to get cancer in the first place.

Scientists conducted in vitro experiments which showed that the inhibition of the sphingosine kinase-1/sphingosine 1-phosphate (SphK1/S1P) pathway was essential for green tea and wine polyphenols to kill prostate cancer cells. Next, mice genetically altered to develop a human prostate cancer tumor were either treated or not treated with green tea and wine polyphenols. The treated mice showed reduced tumor growth as a result of the inhibited SphK1/S1P pathway. To mimic the preventive effects of polyphenols, another experiment used three groups of mice given drinking water, drinking water with a green tea compound known as EGCg, or drinking water with a different green tea compound, polyphenon E. Human prostate cancer cells were implanted in the mice and results showed a dramatic decrease in tumor size in the mice drinking the EGCg or polyphenon E mixtures.

All the berries have polyphenols in them. So wine and green tea aren't your only food choices for potentially cutting cancer risks.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 09 10:29 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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2010 June 08 Tuesday
Neurotic Women In Poor Countries Make More Babies

Neuroticism and extraversion are being selected for in countries with the highest birth rates.

The study, which was published yesterday (7 June 2010) in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that women with higher levels of neuroticism and more extravert men, are likely to give birth to a larger number of children in societies with traditionally high birth rates.

I'd really like to know which personality traits are being selected for in Western industrial societies. Natural selection has not stopped. But in industrial societies selective pressures change. Since more educated people have fewer kids intelligence is being selected against. But what other cognitive traits are selected for or against?

Women with higher neuroticism were also less able to feed their children well.

The study also found evidence of a link between maternal personality traits and offspring´s physical condition, as women with higher neuroticism levels were more likely to have children with a decreased body mass index (BMI), reflecting malnutrition.

The existence of a wide range of personality traits might represent competing reproductive strategies where some women have more kids who suffer child mortality rates while other women have fewer kids and suffer lower child mortality rates. Relative reproductive success of the two strategies might vary over time as food availability waxes and wanes.

See the mention here of previous work in Western populations. Anyone know what the research has found on fertility and personality traits in the West?

Personality traits are increasingly being studied to understand individual-level determinants of fertility patterns, and how differences in personality can be maintained by natural selection. Previous work has been carried out in modern Western populations, but the current research was conducted in a more traditional population, enabling the team to test how personality affects fertility rates in a `natural environment´ characterized by high birth rates.

Humans are still evolving. That does not mean they necessarily are becoming more advanced. Rather, they are experiencing selective pressures and different genetic variants are getting selected for and against.

Human evolution accelerated in the last 10,000 years. The ability to do in vitro fertilization (IVF) embryo selection using genetic tests with detailed knowledge of the meaning of different genetic variants will soon cause an even greater acceleration of human evolution. Offspring will be chosen before embryo implantation to maximize desired traits and minimize undesired traits.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 08 10:25 PM  Evolution Human Nature
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More Heart Disease In Short People

Short people come up short on life expectancy in a meta-analysis of studies.

Short people are at greater risk of developing heart disease than tall people, according to the first systematic review and meta-analysis of all the available evidence, which is published online today (Wednesday 9 June) in the European Heart Journal [1].

The systematic review and meta-analysis, carried out by Finnish researchers, looked at evidence from 52 studies of over three million people and found that short adults were approximately 1.5 times more likely to develop cardiovascular heart disease and die from it than were tall people. This appeared to be true for both men and women.

My guess is the various causes of shortness (malnutrition, genetic limits on height, genetically caused diseases, toxin exposure during development, and other causes) play a big role in determining whether a short person is at increased risk. Genetic causes of shortness that do not involve diseases might not cause shorter life expectancies, or at least not to the extent that other causes of shortness do.

The 165.4 cm max for short men is 65.1 inches or 5 foot, 5 inches. The 153 cm max for short women is 60.2 inches or 5 feet tall.

From the total of 1,900 papers, the researchers selected 52 that fulfilled all their criteria for inclusion in their study. These included a total of 3,012,747 patients. On average short people were below 160.5 cms high and tall people were over 173.9 cms. When men and women were considered separately, on average short men were below 165.4 cms and short women below 153 cms, while tall men were over 177.5 cms and tall women over 166.4 cms.

Dr Paajanen and her colleagues found that compared to those in the tallest group, the people in the shortest group were nearly 1.5 times more likely to die from cardiovascular disease (CVD) or coronary heart disease (CHD), or to live with the symptoms of CVD or CHD, or to suffer a heart attack, compared with the tallest people.

Looking at men and women separately, short men were 37% more likely to die from any cause compared with tall men, and short women were 55% more likely to die from any cause compared with their taller counterparts.

I hear Randy Newman singing.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 08 09:56 PM  Aging Studies
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2010 June 07 Monday
3 Traits Key To Higher Violence From Video Games

Neurotic, less agreeable, and unconscientious kids are most likely to be made more violent from playing video games.

WASHINGTON – Playing violent video games can make some adolescents more hostile, particularly those who are less agreeable, less conscientious and easily angered. But for others, it may offer opportunities to learn new skills and improve social networking.

In a special issue of the journal Review of General Psychology, published in June by the American Psychological Association, researchers looked at several studies that examined the potential uses of video games as a way to improve visual/spatial skills, as a health aid to help manage diabetes or pain and as a tool to complement psychotherapy. One study examined the negative effects of violent video games on some people.

"Much of the attention to video game research has been negative, focusing on potential harm related to addiction, aggression and lowered school performance," said Christopher J. Ferguson, PhD, of Texas A&M International University and guest editor of the issue. "Recent research has shown that as video games have become more popular, children in the United States and Europe are having fewer behavior problems, are less violent and score better on standardized tests. Violent video games have not created the generation of problem youth so often feared."

So some kids are made more hostile and violent by playing video games. But most kids are made less violent by playing video games or are unchanged by the experience.

Some day genetic analyses, personality tests, and other assessments will be used to choose custom environments best suited for each kid. Though only the most agreeable and conscientious parents will be good about keeping their kids immersed in their personal ideal environments. Some disagreeable parents will put their kids into environments opposite of what experts recommend. So then social workers will try to anticipate this reaction and recommend environments the opposite of what the kids need.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 07 11:02 PM  Brain Violence
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Sexsomnia Sleep Disorder

Trying to have sex while you are asleep is a sexual sleep disorder. Who knew?

WESTCHESTER, IL – Sexsomnia was reported by almost eight percent of patients at a sleep disorders center and was more common in men than women, according to a research abstract that will be presented Monday, June 7, 2010, in San Antonio, Texas, at SLEEP 2010, the 24th annual meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies LLC.

Results indicate that 7.6 percent of patients (63 of 832) at a sleep disorders center reported that they had initiated or engaged in sexual activity with a bed partner while asleep. The prevalence of reported sexsomnia was nearly three times higher in men (11 percent) than in women (four percent).

"There have been no previous studies of how frequently sexsomnia occurs," said co-investigator Sharon A. Chung, PhD, Sleep Research Laboratory staff scientist in the department of psychiatry at the University Health Network in Toronto, Canada. "While our finding of eight percent of people reporting sexsomnia seems really a high number, it should be stressed that we only studied patients referred to a sleep clinic. So, we would expect the numbers to be much lower in the general population."

Some people have this happen while sleep-walking. Got any ideas on how to deal with that one?

I'm thinking a more realistic online dating service should check for qualities that have heretofore been beyond the bounds of discussion in polite society. Guy got sexsomnia? He could get matched up with an insomniac nymphomaniac. He might not remember it the next morning. But she'll be happier.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 07 10:44 PM  Brain Sleep
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Brief Flashes Increase Nocturnal Alertness

Just 2 milliseconds of a light flash per minute boost alertness when you really ought to be sleeping.

Results indicate that subjective sleepiness decreased and objective nighttime alertness improved after participants received a two-millisecond pulse of bright light once per minute for 60 minutes. Flash exposure, as compared with darkness, elicited significant improvement in self-rated alertness and a significant 57-millisecond improvement in median reaction time on the auditory Psychomotor Vigilance Test, compared with no significant improvement after 60 minutes of darkness. This was accompanied by significant changes in the faster frequencies of the EEG following exposure to the flashes.

"We found it shocking that light exposure as brief as a few milliseconds could engender changes in alertness and brain wave activity," said principal investigator Jamie M. Zeitzer, PhD, assistant professor in the department of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. "These results change the manner in which we think about the brain's capacity to respond to light."

Might be useful for night drivers.

How to rig up your own 2 millisecond flash? Anyone have a good idea of how short camera flashes can go?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 07 09:33 PM  Brain Sleep
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2010 June 06 Sunday
Genetic Activity Mapped In Mouse Hypothalamus

The genes which are active in the hypothalamus in the brain have been identified.

By analyzing all the roughly 20,000 genes in the mouse genome, the team identified 1200 as strongly activated in developing hypothalamus and characterized the cells within the hypothalamus in which they were activated. The team then characterized the expression of the most interesting 350 genes in detail using another gene called Shh, for sonic hedgehog, as a landmark to identify the precise region of the hypothalamus in which these genes were turned on. This involved processing close to 20,000 tissue sections - painstakingly sliced at one-fiftieth of a millimeter thickness and then individually examined.

While the hypothalamus is small compared to the brain as a whole it does many things including regulation of temperature, hunger, thirst, and other bodily functions. Since it is complex with many functions (e.g. it releases some hormones that regulate the pituitary gland) the scientists had to cut it into small slices to look for signs of different cells carrying out different functions.

But what's most interesting here isn't the particular genes turned on in various parts of the hypothalamus (though that is interesting and quite useful information). No, what's most interesting is that the technology exists to do this type of research.

Think about it. genes were checked for activity in 20,000 tissue slices removed from the mouse hypothalamus. That this is even possible to do such sensitive testing of gene expression on such a massive scale tells us that this sort of research is possible to do on many other tissue types. The development of gene chips and microfluidic devices is enabling orders of magnitude increases in the rates of measurement of gene activity and other activity of cells. This bodes well toward the goal of really getting control of our cells to manipulate them to do repair and rejuvenation.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 06 09:57 AM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Gulf Oil Spill Makes Alberta Tar Sands Look Good

What does Peak Oil look like? The world's so desperate for oil that a big oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico makes the oil in the Alberta tar sands look like an environmentally superior choice.

"In North America there are really only two places where you can see meaningful supply growth, one being in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, and the other being the oil sands," said Mark Frieson, an energy analyst with Versant Partners Inc. in Calgary. "We know what's happening with [the Gulf], and I think that has some potential positive implications for the oil-sands industry here in Alberta.

For example, BP is going to develop an Alberta oil sands (really tar sands) project that has 10 times the reserves as BP was drilling for with the Deepwater Horizon. No worry a blow-out.

These are the alternatives we are down to. You might think we can shift our purchases of oil to the Middle East as a way to get oil that is extracted with minimal environmental hazard. But no. Saudi Arabia is drilling heavily offshore in the Persian Gulf and plenty of rigs are busy offshore in the Persian Gulf. The US oil exploration drilling moratorium will free up offshore rigs to move to a number of other offshore regions including the Persian Gulf, Australia, Brazil, and quite possibly New Zealand. Some GOM (Gulf of Mexico) rigs will probably end up offshore of Nigeria. Nigeria's oil spills are large but ignored.

Why so much offshore activity? World onshore conventional oil production has peaked. Peak Oil has already happened for onshore conventional. We are left with frantic offshore drilling in deep water using rigs such as the Deepwater Horizon that cost $600+ million each to build. The US GOM is not the biggest user of deepwater rigs. Most of the deepwater rigs are operating off Brazil's coast. Deepwater Brazil is one of the great hopes for slowing the rate of world oil production decline.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 06 09:49 AM  Energy Fossil Fuels
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China To Subsidize Electric Cars

Government incentives for electric cars in China will be slightly larger than similar $7500 per electric car subsidies in the United States.

According to Xinhua, the official Chinese news agency, consumers in those urban areas will be able to get up to around $8,785 off the price of a battery car and about $7,320 off plug-in hybrids. The money will be paid directly to carmakers, which will reduce the vehicle price accordingly, the government said.

Since China's car market is now bigger than the US car market (yes, more cars are sold per year in China than in the United States) this incentive represents a large increase of incentives for development of better electric car batteries.

One of the biggest questions in my mind about Peak Oil is whether we will get the needed technologies in time to adjust to declining global oil production without an economic depression. I'm still undecided on the matter. One key question is on electric car battery costs. The optimistic camp holds that lithium batteries will drop rapidly in price. Well, maybe.

Subsidies for pluggable hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs, e.g. the Chevy Volt) and pure electric vehicles (EVs, e.g. Nissan Leaf) create incentives for companies to develop new battery technologies sooner than would be the case if the market only reacts to oil prices alone. But how rapidly can these now many competing battery companies find new ways to cut costs? Any readers understand what the main strategies are for cutting lithium battery costs and what are the major cost factors for lithium batteries? The cost of the lithium so far does not appear to be a large portion of the cost. So why are the batteries so expensive?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 06 08:40 AM  Energy Electric Cars
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2010 June 05 Saturday
Watching California Wind Power Output

The California Independent System Operator (Cal ISO), the organization which manages most of California's wholesale electric power grid, has a page where you can watch recent electric power demand in California. Note the second graph on the page which shows wind power output in California.

For the latest day I see on that page wind power output rises and peaks about 4 hours later than overall electric power demand. So wind power becomes more available when wholesale electric power prices are lower. You will probably see a later day's data by the time you read this post.

You can also load the Daily Renewables Watch PDF file for a picture of all types of renewable electric power output for the previous day.

Hydro can be used to back up less predictable and controllable electric power sources like wind. But since wind power is already generating more electric power than hydro the amount of hydro available in California is not enough to allow hydro by itself to handle wind output variations. Also of note: geothermal outproduces wind in California. Wind way outproduces solar. But what gets the most attention? The opposite order: solar the most, then wind, and geothermal gets the least press attention.

Update: It is less clear to me on inspection about how much of California's electric power comes from hydro. These web pages alternatively refer to hydro and small hydro and it is not clear in all cases when they are referring to total hydro or a subset.

You can also look at past daily renewables watch pages and not just the previous day's page. Try opening a couple of dozen pages in browser tabs and shift between the tabs quickly. A couple of patterns: wind power often peaks around midnite when electric power demand is very low. Wind bottoms out around 7 or 8 AM. Sometimes wind picks up in the late afternoon. But other times it doesn't pick up until the evening. Wind and solar clearly need natural gas electric generators as back-up. During winter the solar contribution is so low that natural gas and other variable power sources have to ramp up during the day.

If one goes thru the daily ouputs for the last couple of weeks and looks at totals then wind's variability becomes clear. On Tuesday June 1, 2010 wind generated 38,341 MWh. By contrast, on Saturday May 29, 2010 wind generated 9,989 MWh. That's almost a factor of 4 swing from Saturday till Tuesday. The managers at Cal ISO must have a hard time managing such a variable power source. In fact, in a meeting at Stanford Jim Detmers of Cal ISO voiced his frustration citing an example of when wind electric power output dropped to one half of one percentage of nameplate (max) capacity. Detmers thinks this variability means wind is costing us more than what the wind generators are getting paid to generate electricity.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 05 11:45 PM  Energy Electric Generators
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2010 June 03 Thursday
Allen Human Brain Atlas

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen has spent royally on research to chart which genes are active in each part of the human brain. One result is the Allen Human Brain Atlas. If you want to journey into the the world of brain's gene expression here's your chance.

SEATTLE, Wash.—May 24, 2010—The Allen Institute for Brain Science announced today that it has launched the Allen Human Brain Atlas, a publicly available online atlas charting genes at work throughout the human brain. The data provided in this initial data release represent the most extensive and detailed body of information about gene activity in the human brain to date, documenting which genes are expressed, or "turned on" where. In the coming years, the Atlas will be expanded with more data and more sophisticated search, analysis and visualization tools to create a comprehensive resource useful to an increasingly wide range of scientists and research programs worldwide.

The Allen Human Brain Atlas, available at www.brain-map.org, is a unique multi-modal atlas of the human brain that integrates anatomic and genomic information to create a searchable, three-dimensional map of gene activity in the brain. Data modalities in this resource include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), diffusion tensor imaging (DTI) and histology—providing information about gross neuroanatomy, pathways of neural connections, and microscopic anatomy, respectively—as well as gene expression data derived from multiple approaches.

Another research effort took a very detailed look at which genes are expressed in different parts of the hypothalamus in mice.

June 3, 2010- A Johns Hopkins and Japanese research team has generated the first comprehensive genetic “parts” list of a mouse hypothalamus, an enigmatic region of the brain — roughly cherry-sized, in humans — that controls hunger, thirst, fatigue, body temperature, wake-sleep cycles and links the central nervous system to control of hormone levels. 

Flaws in hypothalamus development may underlie both inborn and acquired metabolic balance problems that can lead to obesity, diabetes, mood disorders and high blood pressure, according to a report on the study published May 2 in the advance online publication ofNature Neuroscience.

Gene microarrays were used to measure gene expression of very small and thin slices of mouse brains.

The team’s first challenge was to dissect away, at the very start of neural development, the part of the mouse brain which develops into the hypothalamus, and then cut tiny slices of this region for use in microarray analysis, a technology that reveals multiple gene activity. By analyzing all the roughly 20,000 genes in the mouse genome, the team identified 1200 as strongly activated in developing hypothalamus and characterized the cells within the hypothalamus in which they were activated. The team then characterized the expression of the most interesting 350 genes in detail using another gene called Shh, for sonic hedgehog, as a landmark to identify the precise region of the hypothalamus in which these genes were turned on. This involved processing close to 20,000 tissue sections — painstakingly sliced at one-fiftieth of a millimeter thickness and then individually examined.

20 years ago research that looked at the genetic activity of so many genes simultaneously was not practical. Now the ability to look at gene activity of hundreds or thousands of genes at the same time makes possible a much more detailed look at how the brain functions. The tools for doing this are of such recent vintage that the full effects of the existence of these tools has yet to be felt. In the 2010s the amount of data collected about gene expression will go up by orders of magnitude and the meaning of brain genes will become much clearer.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 03 11:24 PM  Brain Genetics
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2010 June 02 Wednesday
Illusory Benefits Of Regular Coffee Use

German and British researchers find that ,edium to heavy coffee drinkers are no more alert than non-coffee drinkers. Basically, without coffee the regular drinkers are less alert than non-drinkers. The coffee just boosts alertness up to a level that non-drinkers already function at.

Speaking as someone who does not drink coffee: I've been waiting to see this result published for years. I have been skeptical that a body can have its alertness artificially boosted above natural alertness levels for sustained levels of time. There's got to be a cost to brain boosts. Either a drug boosts the brain and causes damage or the body adjusts to the drug and the brain isn't boosted.

I can see exceptions where drugs that calm the brain could boost performance in a sustained way. But I do not expect stimulant drugs to provide a sustained boost.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 02 11:44 PM  Brain Performance
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Nanosponges Against Cancer

Nanosponges carrying cancer chemo-therapy drugs selectively target cancer cells in mice.

When loaded with an anticancer drug, a delivery system based on a novel material called nanosponge is three to five times more effective at reducing tumor growth than direct injection.

That is the conclusion of a paper published in the June 1 issue of the journal Cancer Research.

"Effective targeted drug delivery systems have been a dream for a long time now but it has been largely frustrated by the complex chemistry that is involved," says Eva Harth, assistant professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt, who developed the nanosponge delivery system. "We have taken a significant step toward overcoming these obstacles."

So far these nanosponges have only been tested in mice.

The nanosponges work in a manner similar to viruses in that they bind to surface antigens on target cells.

To visualize Harth's delivery system, imagine making tiny sponges that are about the size of a virus, filling them with a drug and attaching special chemical "linkers" that bond preferentially to a feature found only on the surface of tumor cells and then injecting them into the body. The tiny sponges circulate around the body until they encounter the surface of a tumor cell where they stick on the surface (or are sucked into the cell) and begin releasing their potent cargo in a controllable and predictable fashion.

To make this delivery vehicle work well researchers must come up with antigens on the surface of each instance of cancer that are not found much in the rest of the body. Does anyone know whether cancer cell outer surfaces can be expected to contain unique antigens that are distinct from those found on the surfaces of non-cancer cells? Is this even a question that has a known answer yet for most types of cancer?

By Randall Parker 2010 June 02 11:34 PM  Biotech Cancer
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Calcium Poses Prostate Cancer Risk?

Higher calcium consumption might boost prostate cancer risk.

PHILADELPHIA — Among Chinese men, calcium consumption — even at relatively low levels and from non-dairy food sources such as soy, grains and green vegetables — may increase prostate cancer risk, according to results published in Cancer Research, a journal of the American Association for Cancer Research.

"Our results support the notion that calcium plays a risk in enhancing the role of prostate cancer development," said lead researcher Lesley M. Butler, Ph.D., assistant professor of epidemiology at Colorado State University, Fort Collins, Colo. "This study is the first to report an association at such low levels and among primarily non-dairy foods."

Some studies conducted in North American and European populations have linked high consumption of dairy products to an increased risk of prostate cancer. A few studies have suggested that calcium in milk is the causative factor, however the evidence is not clear.

What I wonder: Does the level of calcium needed to cause a prostate cancer risk rise with the amount of protein consumed? That might explain why a lower level of calcium consumption poses a risk in China which Western researchers only see at higher levels of calcium consumption.

This result is part of a larger body of evidence that too much calcium can boost prostate cancer risk.

Edward Giovannucci, M.D., Sc.D., professor of epidemiology and nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health, who is not associated with this study, said these results add more evidence that calcium is a causative factor of prostate cancer.

"However, there are some aspects that require further study," he said. "First, they found an association with relatively low intakes of calcium, whereas most previous studies suggested an association with high intake of calcium. Also, they found an association mostly in lean men, and whether this is true or is a chance finding requires further study."

An article in the the Journal of the American Society Nephrology (JASN) advises that too much calcium can cause calcium-alkali syndrome.

According to the authors, the obvious preventive strategy against the calcium-alkali syndrome is to limit the intake of calcium to no more than 1.2 to 1.5 grams per day. "Calcium supplements taken in the recommended amounts are not only safe but are quite beneficial. Taken to excess is the problem," said Dr. Goldfarb. "Even at the recommended dose, careful monitoring of any medication is wise and yearly determinations of blood calcium levels for those patients taking calcium supplements or vitamin D is a wise approach," he added.

Speaking as someone who takes vitamin D every day but calcium more sporadically so far the evidence for getting more vitamin D seems more compelling than the evidence for getting more calcium.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 02 11:15 PM  Aging Diet Cancer Studies
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Early And Late Puberty Makes Males Antisocial

Getting started into manhood too early or too late seems to cause more aggressive behavior.

Puberty that arrives earlier or later in adolescent boys relative to their peers can trigger chemicals that are related to antisocial behavior, according to researchers, whose findings have key implications for parents with aggressive boys.

"Aggressive behavior can begin very early, even in pre-school, and might be related to poor impulse control, difficulties in the family or just overall general problem behavior," said Elizabeth J. Susman, the Jean Phillips Shibley professor of biobehavioral health, Penn State. "We wanted to find out if earlier or later timing of puberty in adolescents has any biological factors related to it."

Susman and her colleagues looked at how the timing of puberty affects cortisol, a stress hormone, and salivary alpha amylase, an enzyme in saliva used as indicator of stress. Their findings appear in the May issue of Psychoneuroendocrinology.

But girls do not get turned into antisocial monsters by early or late puberty. (they've got other ways to become monsters)

The researchers found that lower levels of the alpha amylase in boys who experienced earlier maturity and higher levels of cortisol in boys who experienced later maturity are related to antisocial behavior. They found no similar correlation in girls.

I am not surprised by the results of early puberty. All pumped up with testosterone but with less than fully developed brains I'm not surprised they become more dangerous. But the older the kid the more developed the medial temporal lobe and other parts of the brain that help to exert control over beastly impulses. But the results from late puberty are surprising to me. Does a kid who enters puberty late also enter it more stressed to begin with? Or is the late arrival of hormones also too late to cause development of parts of the brain that control impulses?

Also see my post Adolescence Is Tough On The Brain.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 02 10:48 PM  Brain Development
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Teaching Hospital Deaths Peak In July

Each new crop of medical residents should be avoided.

Are new medical residents a threat to patients? According to Dr. David Phillips and Gwendolyn Barker from the University of California, San Diego in the US, fatal medication errors peak in July in teaching hospitals in particular, which coincides with the yearly influx of new medical residents who are given increased responsibility for patient care. Their findings1 are published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine², published by Springer.

If you are thinking about elective surgery then try to avoid July - at least at a teaching hospital.

They examined 244,388 US death certificates focusing on fatal medication errors as the recorded primary cause of death, issued between 1979 and 2006. They compared the observed number of deaths in July with the number of expected events in a given month for a given year. They also looked at whether there were any differences between deaths in and out of hospital in July as well as between counties with and without teaching hospitals

The authors found that inside medical institutions, fatal medication errors spiked in July and in no other month. This July peak was visible only in counties with teaching hospitals. In these counties, the number of July deaths from medication errors was 10 percent above the expected level. No similar link was observed for other causes of death or for deaths outside hospitals.

The medical profession needs to step up on the issue of quality control. Statistical process control, continuous improvement, root cause analysis, and the rest of the quality improvement techniques pioneered by the likes of W. Edwards Deming (one of my heroes) need to find a central place in how medicine gets done. Traditions like a huge turn-over in medical residents all in a single month need to be reexamined in light of the idea that fatal medical errors should be extremely rare. A 10% boost in death from medical errors in a single month due to an obvious cause should have been measured and detected many years ago.

While I'm at it: Medical residents forced to work long hours make more mistakes. Why is this still a problem in 2010? They also get into more car accidents. Hospitals falsify records in order to under-report resident hours worked. Beware.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 02 09:41 PM  Policy Medical
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2010 June 01 Tuesday
Artery Calcification, Heart Disease, Erectile Dysfunction Link

Get it up or die of a heart attack.

In the largest study to date evaluating erectile dysfunction (ED) and coronary artery calcification, researchers at Mount Sinai School of Medicine have determined that men with ED are at a significantly increased risk of high coronary artery calcification scores (CACS), a known predictor of future cardiovascular events. The research was presented this week at the American Urological Association (AUA) meeting in San Francisco.

The study, titled "Erectile Dysfunction is an Independent Risk Factor for the Presence of High Risk Coronary Artery Calcification," evaluated 1,119 men enrolled in the World Trade Center Medical Monitoring and Treatment Program, 327 of which had ED. The researchers learned that after adjusting for comorbidities men with ED had a 54 percent greater likelihood of having a high-risk CACS than men without ED. The increased risk was similar to that of patients with a history of hypertension and smoking.

Well, a lot of guys can't be bothered to worry about a heart attack. But a failure to perform in bed? That's a whole 'nuther kettle of fish. Luckily vitamin K2 might be just the thing to reverse arterial calcification, especially K2 in the menatetronone (MK-4) form. (more here) As Stephan Guyenet explains, we used to get more K2 MK-4 when we consumed dairy and meat from range-fed cattle and other range-fed animals.

The vitamin K I already take is in the K2 form with a large part of it as MK-4. So you can buy this stuff. I was aiming more at bone health when I started taking vitamin K. But the evidence for benefit to the vascular system seems compelling enough to make it worth taking for that reason, especially for guys who want to have sex lives.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 01 09:04 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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High Cognitive Ability In Some Old Folks

Some older minds can make smart and astute decisions about money.

DURHAM, N.C. – Just because your mother has turned 85, you shouldn't assume you'll have to take over her financial matters. She may be just as good or better than you at making quick, sound, money-making decisions, according to researchers at Duke University.

"It's not age, it's cognition that makes the difference in decision-making," said Scott Huettel, Ph.D., Associate Professor of psychology and neuroscience and director of the Duke Center for Neuroeconomic Studies. He recently led a laboratory study in which participants could gain or lose money based on their decisions.

"Once we accounted for cognitive abilities like memory and processing speed, age had nothing to do with predicting whether an individual would make the best economic decisions on the tasks we assigned," Huettel said.

Instead of federal laws against discrimination based on age it would be more useful to allow companies to test the cognitive abilities of aging workers. Someone whose mind is aging more slowly could be recognized as worth keeping around to do intellectually challenging work. Or, as is more often the case, an older laid off person applying for work would be able to prove that they still have their mental faculties.

Older and younger research subjects were measured in their cogniive abilities and also in their ability to wisely make financial decisions that put money at risk.

Duke researchers assigned a variety of economic tasks that required different types of risky decisions, so that participants could gain or lose real money. They also tested subjects' cognitive abilities – including both how fast they could process new information and how well they could remember that information. They worked with 54 older adults between 66 and 76 years of age and 58 younger adults between 18 and 35 years of age. .

Smarter older people can beat relatively less smart younger people. This isn't surprising. While old folks who are losing their reasoning abilities get a lot of attention the higher functioning ones attract less notice because they don't need help. Of course, some exceptional oldsters stand out. Warren Buffett is still making excellent financial decisions. Though he was such an outlier in ability he could fall quite a way before his capacity for making investment decisions would fall to the level of a lower ranked genius.

On a bell curve of performance, there was overlap between the younger and older groups. Many of the older subjects, aged 66 to 76, made similar decisions to many of the younger subjects (aged 18 to 35). "The stereotype of all older adults becoming more risk-averse is simply wrong," Huettel said.

"Some of the older subjects we studied were able to make better decisions than younger subjects who scored lower on tests of their cognitive abilities," Huettel said. "If I took 20 younger adults and 20 older adults, all of whom were above average on these measures, then on average, you could not tell them apart based on decisions. On the whole, it is true, more older people process slowly and has poorer memory. But there are also older people who do as well as younger people."

An older worker's mental abilities are at greater risk of deterioration a few years after hired. But some people are underemployed and could lose 5 or 10 IQ points and still have plenty of excess capacity to make their daily work decisions.

Since our populations are aging and governments are already deeply in debt the ability of future generations to retire in their 50s and early 60s is rapidly dwinding. We need to find ways to enable people to work into their 70s. The ability of smarter older people to prove their smarts to prospective employers could do a lot to help in making this adjustment possible.

By Randall Parker 2010 June 01 07:26 PM  Aging Brain Studies
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