2010 October 31 Sunday
Home Colon Cancer DNA Tests Under Development

One of the biggest benefits from the continuing plunge in DNA testing costs is going to be earlier diagnosis of cancers. One DNA test under development for colon cancer detection will be usable at home.

David Ahlquist, M.D., professor of medicine and a consultant in gastroenterology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, said much of that low rate may be due to inconveniences associated with conventional approaches.

"There is definitely an incentive and legitimate justification to be designing a screening approach that is user friendly, affordable and has the ability to detect pre-cancers," said Ahlquist. "The noninvasive stool DNA test we have developed is simple for patients, involves no diet or medication restriction, no unpleasant bowel preparation, and no lost work time, as it can be done from home. Positive tests results would be followed up with colonoscopy."

Some might think "home stool DNA tester, how gross". But I'll tell you what's gross: watching an adult you've known and loved for years experiencing excruciating pain from cancer metastases throughout their bones while they lose so much weight that they shrink up to skin-and-bones worse than concentration camp survivors.

The test that Ahlquist and colleagues evaluated is under development by Exact Sciences, a molecular diagnostics company in Wisconsin.

The test, which is not yet approved by the FDA, is conducted using a stool sample and works by detecting tumor-specific DNA alterations in cells that are shed into the stool from pre-cancerous or cancerous lesions.

As Nicholas Wade reports, the Exact Sciences test is one of two colon cancer DNA tests headed to market. The second test would require a blood sample.

The other test looks in blood for changes in a single gene, called Septin 9, which is not in the Exact Sciences’ panel of four genes. The test has been developed by Epigenomics AG in Germany. Both tests would be less expensive than colonoscopy, and potentially more effective. Compliance with colonoscopy is low, since people don’t want to have one, and the overall cost per detection is high because most people are healthy, and even colonoscopy misses many tumors in the upper part of the intestine.

Click thru and read Wade's articles for the caveats. But note that whatever limitations these tests have today they are just the beginning.

You only get colonoscopy results when you go to the trouble, cost, and small but real risk of getting a colonoscopy. Whereas a home DNA test would cost much less and could be done much more often. The higher frequency of testing would in theory catch the cancer at a much earlier stage. Once the home DNA test turns up positive the person could go in for a colonoscopy to remove polyps or other growths.

Since some cancers develop literally over almost 2 decades early diagnosis opens up the potential of finding and removing cancers long before they become life threatening. Once home tests of blood and saliva for DNA (and likely for antigens) to detect cancer become cheap and widely available the challenge is going to be to find the early stage cancers. Early stage means they will be small. How to find them?

If the tests can narrow down the cancer source to a single organ then excising the cancerous tissue might not be continue to be necessary. Eventually we'll be able go in for new replacement organs. If a test could, for example, indicate presence of a pancreatic cancer 10 years before it will metastasize then in 2030 the solution might be to start growing a new one in a lab. Get the new one after 6 months or a year and toss out the old one.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 31 07:16 PM  Biotech Cancer
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NASA Solar Shield Predicts Dangerous Current Flows

Coronal Mass Ejections (CMEs) from the Sun can cause magnetic field fluctuations that induce destructive current flows in electric power transformers. A large CME can potentially cause very large scale and long lasting electric grid failures. NASA has a computer software project to try to predict dangerous current flows so that utilities can take steps to protect their equipment.

Every hundred years or so, a solar storm comes along so potent it fills the skies of Earth with blood-red auroras, makes compass needles point in the wrong direction, and sends electric currents coursing through the planet's topsoil. The most famous such storm, the Carrington Event of 1859, actually shocked telegraph operators and set some of their offices on fire. A 2008 report by the National Academy of Sciences warns that if such a storm occurred today, we could experience widespread power blackouts with permanent damage to many key transformers. What's a utility operator to do?

How bad would be a repeat of the Carrington Event? See my post: Solar Carrington Event Repeat Today Would Collapse Civilization. Therefore this is a worthwhile project.

Think of it as a magnetic vibration forecasting system.

A new NASA project called "Solar Shield" could help keep the lights on.

"Solar Shield is a new and experimental forecasting system for the North American power grid," explains project leader Antti Pulkkinen, a Catholic University of America research associate working at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We believe we can zero in on specific transformers and predict which of them are going to be hit hardest by a space weather event."

The troublemaker for power grids is the "GIC" – short for geomagnetically induced current. When a coronal mass ejection (a billion-ton solar storm cloud) hits Earth's magnetic field, the impact causes the field to shake and quiver. These magnetic vibrations induce currents almost everywhere, from Earth's upper atmosphere to the ground beneath our feet. Powerful GICs can overload circuits, trip breakers, and in extreme cases melt the windings of heavy-duty transformers.

As compared to most of the other things that NASA does this strikes me as more important. We know from the 1859 event that the Sun can throw up solar storms big enough to disrupt our electric power supplies. Since we are so heavily dependent on electric power we ought to have better ways to predict and ameliorate the effects of extreme solar events.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 31 10:18 AM  Dangers Natural General
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2010 October 29 Friday
Order Of Magnitude More Gene Sequencing In 2011

Nature estimates that the number of sequenced human genomes will go up by about an order of magnitude between now and the end of 2011.

Although far from comprehensive, the tally indicates that at least 2,700 human genomes will have been completed by the end of this month, and that the total will rise to more than 30,000 by the end of 2011.

This is an example of why I keep saying that the floodgates on genetic data are opening, that the rate of discovery of what genetic mutations mean is rapidly accelerating, and that we will soon learn enormous amounts about what many thousands of our genetic variants mean. The utility of getting yourself genetically tested is going to rise sharply.

Whole genome sequencing has started to enter into clinical medical practice.

It may be small-scale and without fanfare, but genomic medicine has clearly arrived in the United States. A handful of physicians have quietly begun using whole-genome sequencing in attempts to diagnose patients whose conditions defy other available tools.

The cost of full genome sequencing is now below $20k and falling. The ability of moderately affluent individuals to pay for their own genome sequencing for diagnostic purposes creates an additional source of genetic data. Unless regulators get in the way the ability of individuals to get their genomes sequenced will soon make individuals rather than large research centers the largest source of demand for genome sequencing services. This is a healthy development because individual demand will generate more sequence data and therefore more data to analyze to discover the meaning of human genetic variations. Anyone who pays to get their own genome sequenced who also volunteers to allow their genetic data to be used by researchers will help speed the search for the functional significance of all the genetic variants in humans.

Rapid changes often elicit opposition. In this case some commentators raise objections to personal genetic profiling services. But I see the direct-to-consumer (DTC) model of genetic testing and genetic sequencing as a great accelerator of the rate of production of genetic sequence information. I want the right to get myself thoroughly genetically tested. Tell your elected officials the law should recognize your right to get yourself genetically tested.

We are all genetically unique. You probably have about 60 unique genetic mutations. So the search for all the genetic variants is not going to end until all humans have their genomes sequenced.

Earlier this year, Jorde, who is on the 1000 Genomes Project steering committee, was part of the team that was the first to sequence the genome of an entire family – two parents and two children who live in Utah. As part of that study, published in March in Science, he estimated the rate at which genetic mutations are passed from generation to generation at 60 – meaning each parent passes 30 genetic mutations to their offspring. Most gene mutations are harmless, but understanding the rate at which mutations are passed among generations is an essential part of understanding the human biological clock, according to Jorde. To confirm his estimated mutation rate, which was half of what had been estimated previously by indirect methods, researchers in the current study sequenced the genomes of two families of three people each.

"We were delighted that the mutation rate estimate obtained from the 1000 Genomes Project was exactly the same as our estimate," Jorde said.

Scientists involved with the 1000 Genomes Project think they've now identified 95% of all genetic variations. Next comes the meaning of all these genetic differences and the ability to get yourself genetically tested for a low price. You can already get hundreds thousands of genetic differences checked for several hundred dollars. I'm starting to think seriously about getting detailed genetic tests.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 29 12:18 AM  Biotech Advance Rates
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2010 October 28 Thursday
Earth Sized Planets Very Common

Raising hopes that somewhere out there a planet is going thru a creative musical phase akin to the 1960s level of Rock and Roll music.

Nearly one in four stars like the sun could have Earth-size planets, according to a University of California, Berkeley, study of nearby solar-mass stars.

UC Berkeley astronomers Andrew Howard and Geoffrey Marcy chose 166 G and K stars within 80 light years of Earth and observed them with the powerful Keck telescope for five years in order to determine the number, mass and orbital distance of any of the stars' planets. The sun is the best known of the G stars, which are yellow, while K-type dwarfs are slightly smaller, orange-red stars.

The researchers found increasing numbers of smaller planets, down to the smallest size detectable today – planets called super-Earths, about three times the mass of Earth.

"Of about 100 typical sun-like stars, one or two have planets the size of Jupiter, roughly six have a planet the size of Neptune, and about 12 have super-Earths between three and 10 Earth masses," said Howard, a research astronomer in UC Berkeley's Department of Astronomy and at the Space Sciences Laboratory. "If we extrapolate down to Earth-size planets – between one-half and two times the mass of Earth – we predict that you'd find about 23 for every 100 stars."

I know, some of you are worried about the many invasion armadas sent in response to receiving 1950s TV shows. But there's upside potential: alien Elvis fans might be on their way to visit Graceland.

Any aliens that show up are either going to be robots or long-lived creatures who have long mastered the most advanced biotechnologies for rejuvenation and tissue regeneration. So if they do not want to wipe us out they might be willing to help make us all young again.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 28 11:40 PM  Space Alien Intelligence
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Reproduction Expert: Freeze Your Ovary When Young

That loud ticking clock of an aging reproductive tract in women can be muffled by freezing an ovary at age 19 to reimplant to make babies after age 40.

Dr Sherman Silber told the American Society for Reproductive Medicine meeting in Denver a woman could freeze her ovary at 19 to use when she was 40.

Dr Silber, who says the procedure would work better than egg freezing, did the first full ovary transplant in 2007.

Any doctors reading this: Will removing just one ovary place a heavier pressure on the other ovary? Will menopause come sooner with less total ovary mass present to keep up the monthly cycle? Also, once the frozen ovary is reimplanted will menopause come later?

Don't wait till your desperate 30s to take steps to ensure you can still start a successful pregnancy.

He said of his present clients: "These women all come to us aged 35 or 38 after they've broken up with their boyfriend of 10 years and they are worried about the future." Women should think about it earlier when they have more, better quality eggs.

Doctor Silber says with an ovary safely frozen women could take a more relaxed view of their eventual motherhood.

My guess is few women will take Dr. Silber's advice. But on the bright side: A 19 year old today will turn 40 around the year 2031. Organ growth biotechnologies might be sufficiently advanced to grow replacement ovaries by then. Sound far fetched? Anthony Atala of the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine leads a team which is the first to implant laboratory-grown organs (bladders) into humans. Check out Atala's TED talk on regenerative medicine and the future of laboratory-grown organs.

Growth of replacement ovaries offers a number of advantages over freezing ovaries. First off, you do not need to undergo surgery when young to remove an ovary. Second, aging organs are at increasing risk of cancer. The accumulation of mutations that lead to cancers occur over decades. Replacing your ovaries (or pancreas or liver or kidneys) at age 40 would set back the age of the organs to a much earlier, less mutated, and therefore less risky stage.

To grow replacement organs that have a much lower chance of becoming cancerous requires excellent genetic testing to identify starter cell lines that do not have any mutations that boost cancer risk. Note that genetic testing is not just about your genetic inheritance or family tree (though it is great for that). Genetic testing is also a key component of strategies for regenerative medicine.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 28 10:16 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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2010 October 27 Wednesday
Pancreatic Cancer Develops For 20 Years Before Killing

Pancreatic cancer has long been viewed as a rapidly developing cancer because life expectancy from day of diagnosis is usually less than 3 years with 95% of those diagnosed dead within 5 years. But use of DNA sequencing technology has enabled researchers Christine Iacobuzio-Donahue, Bert Vogelstein, and evolutionary biologist Martin Nowak to determine that most pancreatic cancers almost 20 years to develop enough to kill their victims.

Pancreatic tumors are one of the most lethal cancers, with fewer than five percent of patients surviving five years after diagnosis. But a new study that peers deeply into the genetics of pancreatic cancer presents a bit of good news: an opportunity for early diagnosis. In contrast to earlier predictions, many pancreatic tumors are, in fact, slow growing, taking nearly 20 years to become lethal after the first genetic perturbations appear.

The great hope from this finding is that blood or stool tests will enable identification of cancer at a much earlier and treatable stage. Early detection might involve genetic testing. Or possibly the mutations cause differences in surface proteins that could be detected with an immune protein test.

Imagine getting extensive tests done to your blood and assorted secretions every few years to detect early stage cancers and other disease processes. Acting on the results seems very hard though. Suppose a blood test showed you to have early stage pancreatic cancer 10 years before you'd otherwise be diagnosed. Okay, how to find it? Sure, it is in your pancreas. But how to identify which part of the pancreas to remove? Lots of biopsies where each biopsy gets genetically tested? Would that work? Remember, the earlier the cancer gets detected the smaller it'll be. What are the odds of narrowing down its precise location 15 years before it will make you ill?

My guess is that very early stage pre-cancerous pancreatic cell mutations either won't be detectable via blood tests or they'll be too small to find. Another possibility: many more pre-cancers will be detected than actually go on to become cancers. The trick will be to only go in surgically to remove the intermediate stage cancers that are not yet metastatic but sufficiently mutated to pose such a high enough risk as to warrant treatment.

Working with Iacobuzio-Donahue, Vogelstein obtained samples of primary pancreatic tumors from seven autopsied patients, as well as metastatic lesions from their lungs, liver, and other organs. Their team sequenced the DNA of every gene in each metastatic tumor as well as in the primary tumor. These genetic read-outs provided data to compare the genetic mutations found in each patient’s metastatic lesions with the mutations found in the primary tumor.

This research was made possible by advances that lowered the cost of genetic sequencing. Future declines in genetic sequencing costs will enable even faster rates of discovery of genetic mutations which contribute to the development and spread of cancer.

Want to know a decade in advance that you are at high risk of future pancreatic cancer?

The technique showed that it took a surprisingly long time – 11.7 years on average – for a mature pancreatic tumor to form after the appearance of the first cancer-related mutation in a pancreatic cell. Another 6.8 years passed, on average, before the primary tumor sent out a metastatic lesion to another organ. From that point, another 2.7 years went by, on average, before the patient died. In total, more than 20 years elapsed between the appearance of the first mutated pancreatic cell and death.

“This time scale is similar to what we’ve previously seen in colorectal cancers,” says Vogelstein. “These tumors evolve over long periods --decades.”

I am reminded of the late cancer researcher Judah Folkman's observation that we've got many small cancers in our bodies that have not mutated enough to cause blood vessel growth (by mutations that increase angiogenesis compound secretion). So we have lots of cancers that are stuck in our organs at very small sizes (yes, you probably have cancer cells in you). The hard part of trying to remove cancers at that stage is finding them.

Another useful result from this research: each of the metastases is genetically distinct. This makes killing al the metastases hard. Each has its own unique resistances to different chemotherapeutic agents. But the earlier cancer gets detected the less genetically heterogeneous it will be.

"We have always known that pancreatic cancer is a particularly aggressive disease," says Dr Peter Campbell, from the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute and first author on the paper. "This study illustrates why it is so challenging. Each metastasis is its own tumour, each evolving, each striving for dominance, each adapting to life outside the pancreas. When we treat cancer that has spread through the body, we're not just treating one tumour, we might be treating tens of genetically distinct tumours."

Cancerous intestinal polyps are pretty easy to discover with colonoscopy. Unfortunately the pancreas isn't as easy to inspect as the colon. But we need the ability to remove the pancreatic equivalents of colon polyps.

The Hopkins work, published in the October 28 issue of the journal Nature, suggests that it takes at least a decade for the first cancer-causing mutation that occurs in a cell in a pancreatic lesion to turn into a full-fledged cancer cell. At this point, the lesion is called "high-grade" and should be removed, much like polyps are removed from the colon.

After the first cancer cell appears, it takes an average of nearly seven years for that cell to turn into the billions that make up a cancerous tumor the size of a plum, after which at least one of the cells within the tumor has the potential and ability to spread to other organs. Patients die an average of two and a half years after this metastasis.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 27 11:24 PM  Biotech Cancer
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Dopamine Gene Variant Predisposes To Liberalism

Blame genetic defects for the folly of your political opponents.

Liberals may owe their political outlook partly to their genetic make-up, according to new research from the University of California, San Diego, and Harvard University. Ideology is affected not just by social factors, but also by a dopamine receptor gene called DRD4. The study's authors say this is the first research to identify a specific gene that predisposes people to certain political views.

So is the liberal version of DRD4 a genetic defect or is the conservative version a genetic defect? Which version needs to be wiped out of the human race with offspring genetic engineering? Will wars be fought to control offspring genetic engineering practices? If such wars are fought which side will be evil?

Combine a specific variant of DRD4 with an active social life in adolescence and the risk of liberalism goes up. So then if you send your kids to a remote small town in adolescence can you compensate for that dangerous mutation they got from, say, your genetically defective ex-wife?

Appearing in the latest edition of The Journal of Politics published by Cambridge University Press, the research focused on 2,000 subjects from The National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health. By matching genetic information with maps of the subjects' social networks, the researchers were able to show that people with a specific variant of the DRD4 gene were more likely to be liberal as adults, but only if they had an active social life in adolescence.

Imagine how many genetic influences on political beliefs and values will be found as genetic sequencing costs keep falling. The flood of genetic sequencing data is going to revolutionize the way we see human nature in the next decade. Then comes the Genetic Inquisition. Nobody expects the Genetic Inquisition (unless they read FuturePundit).

Novelty-seeking is a genetically driven risk factor for unrealistic political views that endanger the Republic?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter affecting brain processes that control movement, emotional response, and ability to experience pleasure and pain. Previous research has identified a connection between a variant of this gene and novelty-seeking behavior, and this behavior has previously been associated with personality traits related to political liberalism.

Lead researcher James H. Fowler of UC San Diego and his colleagues hypothesized that people with the novelty-seeking gene variant would be more interested in learning about their friends' points of view. As a consequence, people with this genetic predisposition who have a greater-than-average number of friends would be exposed to a wider variety of social norms and lifestyles, which might make them more liberal than average. They reported that "it is the crucial interaction of two factors – the genetic predisposition and the environmental condition of having many friends in adolescence – that is associated with being more liberal." The research team also showed that this held true independent of ethnicity, culture, sex or age.

I'm still waiting for reports on the genetic factors that cause libertarianism and Objectivism. Also, what genetic defect causes some people to set their horns to beep when they lock their car? I want to call the Genetic Inquisition in on that one.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 27 10:43 PM  Brain Politics
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IUCN Report On Species Extinction Trends

You weren't expecting good news, were you?

A new assessment conducted by 174 scientists from around the world underscores a growing concern about the health of the world's biodiversity, quantifying the rate of decline among vertebrate species on a global scale for the first time. The team's results support the idea that our planet is currently experiencing its sixth mass extinction—nearly one fifth of all known vertebrate species are currently classified as Threatened on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List, and an average of 52 species of mammals, birds, and amphibians move one category closer to extinction each year. The team, which includes California Academy of Sciences mammalogist Dr. Galen Rathbun, notes that over the past four decades, species extinction rates have exceeded normal background rates by two to three orders of magnitude. However, the team reports that species losses and declines would have been 20% worse in the absence of conservation efforts to protect threatened species. Thus, while current conservation efforts remain insufficient to offset the main drivers of biodiversity loss—including habitat loss, over-exploitation, and invasive alien species—targeted conservation efforts have had a measurable positive impact on the planet's vertebrate species. The research is reported in the October 26 issue of Science Express, the website for the journal Science (publication in the print version of Science will follow at a later date).

It could have been 20% worse. But the extinction acceleration is three or four orders of magnitude above the natural background rate. So human interventions against extinctions have pretty small impacts as compared to human interventions that cause faster rates of extinction.

Accomplished entomologist E. O. Wilson says we are losing biodiversity.

"The 'backbone' of biodiversity is being eroded," said the great American ecologist and writer Professor Edward O. Wilson, at Harvard University. "One small step up the Red List is one giant leap forward towards extinction. This is just a small window on the global losses currently taking place."

The tropics are especially hard hit.

To assess the status of the world's vertebrates, a large, international research team lead by Michael Hoffmann of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission and Conservation International analyzed data for over 25,000 vertebrate species categorized on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

They report that one-fifth of species is classified as Threatened, and this figure is increasing. On average, 52 species of mammals, birds and amphibians move one category closer to extinction each year. The tropics, especially Southeast Asia, are home to the highest concentrations of Threatened animals, and the situation for amphibians is particularly serious.

A third of all shark, skate, and ray species are threatened with extinction.

Dr. Jack Musick, emeritus professor at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, has overseen a global study suggesting that 33 percent of shark, skate, and ray species are threatened with extinction.

The work is part of a major new study of vertebrates by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), the world's oldest and largest environmental network. The IUCN study shows that conservation actions have benefitted a few species of vertebrates around the world during the last few decades, but are too few and far between to slow an overall rapid increase in the number of threatened species.

A summary of the study, "The Impact of Conservation on the Status of the World's Vertebrates," will appear in this week's issue of the flagship journal Science. The study is based on an on-going appraisal of the IUCN Red List, the worldwide standard for assessing the status of species. Red List categories run from "least concern" to "near threatened," "vulnerable," "endangered," "critically endangered," "extinct in the wild," and "extinct."

Will we lose another 15% of global forest cover in 20 years?

Among the brightest spots of hope: recent scenarios show that slowing climate change and deforestation can go hand-in-hand to reduce biodiversity loss thanks to "significant opportunities to intervene through better policies, such as those aimed at mitigating climate change without massive conversion of forests to biofuel plantations" says Dr. Leadley. But action must be taken quickly, as the study indicates the window of opportunity is closing rapidly, as differences in policy action taken now could either lead to an increase in global forest cover of about 15% in the best case or losses of more than 10% in the worst case by 2030.

Overfishing is one cause of extinctions. With rising human populations and rising buying power I expect that trend to continue.

For example the continuing overall decline in populations of large-bodied fish species due to over-fishing, the poleward migration of marine species at a rate of more than 40 km per decade due to climate change, and the 10 to 20% decline in the abundance of terrestrial species by mid-century primarily due to land-use change.

Regards the land use changes: The human population has gotten so large and its demands on the planet so great that humans are out-competing and wiping out other species. Expanding cities and farms and logging operations all cut into habitats. That trend will continue.

I do not expect the gloomier predictions of species losses to be prevented. Human population growth and industrialization will drive humans to use more of the Earth's surface and oceans for human purposes. Less of the planet will be left in its natural state.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 27 12:20 AM  Trends Extinction
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2010 October 26 Tuesday
Alcohol Release More Dopamine In Men Than In Women

Men become alcoholics at higher rates than women. Why? Could be that men get more pleasure from drinking alcohol due to more dopamine neurotransmitter release.

Researchers from Columbia and Yale studied male and female college-age social drinkers in a laboratory test of alcohol consumption. After consuming an alcoholic or non-alcoholic drink, each participant underwent a specialized positron emission tomography (PET) scan, an imaging technique that can measure the amount of alcohol-induced dopamine release.

Dopamine has multiple functions in the brain, but is important in this context because of its pleasurable effects when it is released by rewarding experiences, such as sex or drugs.

When you feel pleasure from drinking alcohol that's your ventral striatum talking.

Despite similar consumptions of alcohol, the men had greater dopamine release than women. This increase was found in the ventral striatum, an area in the brain strongly associated with pleasure, reinforcement and addiction formation.

"In men, increased dopamine release also had a stronger association with subjective positive effects of alcohol intoxication," explained Dr. Nina Urban, corresponding author for this study. "This may contribute to the initial reinforcing properties of alcohol and the risk for habit formation."

If you do repeated heavy drinking episodes you won't experience as much pleasure from the later episodes. So find some other way to get your kicks.

Dr. Anissa Abi-Dargham, senior author on this project, notes that "another important observation from this study is the decline in alcohol-induced dopamine release with repeated heavy drinking episodes. This may be one of the hallmarks of developing tolerance or transitioning into habit."

If you are feeling less pleasure from a potentially addictive substance then stop using it for a while or stop permanently.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 26 11:41 PM  Brain Addiction
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2010 October 25 Monday
Vibrations Slow Bone Aging?

Shake away those aged aching bones?

AUGUSTA, Ga. - A daily dose of whole body vibration may help reduce the usual bone density loss that occurs with age, Medical College of Georgia researchers report.

Twelve weeks of daily, 30-minute sessions in 18-month old male mice – which equate to 55- to 65-year-old humans – appear to forestall the expected annual loss that can result in fractures, disability and death. Dr. Karl H. Wenger, biomedical engineer in the MCG Schools of Graduate Studies and Medicine, reported the findings with his colleagues in the journal Bone.

Researchers found vibration improved density around the hip joint with a shift toward higher density in the femur, the long bone of the leg, as well. Hip fractures are a major cause of disability and death among the elderly.

They also found a reduction in a biomarker that indicates bone breakdown and an increase in the surface area involved in bone formation in the vibrating group.

Remember those vibration machines that fat people using to try to shake off the weight back in the 1960s or 1970s? I have only very faded recollections of what those belted vibrator machines were used for. Weight loss? Muscle toning? Well, maybe machines like them will make your bones stay stronger longer.

So I went poking around looking for those body vibration machines of yesteryear with the leather belts that wrap around your body and shake it. Couldn't find any of those kind. But I did find body vibration machines that appear to work from your feet up. They are touted for weight loss and massage. No mention of slowed bone aging. But that might be their biggest real benefit.

The vibrations are thought to stimulate activity by bone-building osteoblasts.

The findings provide more scientific evidence that the technique, which dates back to the 1800s and is now showing up in homes, gyms and rehabilitation clinics, has bone benefit, particularly as a low-risk option for injured individuals with limited mobility, Wenger said.

The scientists theorize that the rhythmic movement, which produces a sensation similar to that of a vibrating cell phone but on a larger scale, exercises cells so they work better. Vibration prompts movement of the cell nucleus, which is suspended by numerous threadlike fibers called filaments. "The filaments get all deformed like springs and then they spring back," Wenger said.

All the movement releases transcription factors that spur new osteoblasts, the cells that make bone. With age, the balance of bone production and destruction – by osteoclasts – tips to the loss side.

I like the idea that vibrations will help because it is such a lazy treatment. This report also claims vibrations really do help with weight loss and muscle strength. Who knew?

Update: A thought occurs to me: Motorcycles, ATVs, and other vehicles that have higher levels of vibrations could actually be good for you, Off-road driving in vehicles which do not much dampen the effects of uneven terrain could deliver real benefit to your bones.

Update II: Mthson reminds me of my October 2007 post: Vibrated Mice Form More Bone And Less Fat. Want your office chair to vibrate?

By Randall Parker 2010 October 25 10:33 PM  Aging Bones Joints Studies
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Poland Debates IVF Regulation Or Ban

The Polish Parliament is debating laws to regulate in vitro fertilization (IVF). Since no consensus has emerged 6 proposals that span a wide range of possible approaches are being debated.

The Sejm is debating a total of six bills, which range far and wide in their approach to the procedure. One bill for example proposes state subsidization for IVF, while another wants those that offer and use the procedure to be imprisoned.

The Catholic Church in Poland is strongly opposed to IVF. That they call it "the younger sister of eugenics" as a way to smear it is curious. What is morally wrong with trying to give your children a better average genetic complement than you have in your own body?

Bishops of Poland's influential Roman Catholic Church have branded in vitro fertilization (IVF) "the younger sister of eugenics" in a letter aimed at swaying lawmakers ahead of a parliamentary debate.

What is evil about wanting to give your kids better genes? To put it another way: Suppose you were going to have kids. If you could get your full genome sequenced along with that of your husband or wife (or sperm donor or egg donor) and then select which chromosome from each chromosome pair to give to your future son or daughter would you do it?

Progeny get only half of each parent's DNA. Currently which chromosome from each pair goes to make each baby is a random process for almost all babies. Well, some if your chromosomes have more harmful mutations than the other member of each pair. So you can deal your kids a better genetic deck if you can control which chromosome gets donated from each pair. In essence the Catholic Church in Poland is trying to avoid the day when people will do just that.

While a ban on IVF would not have a big impact today it will have a tremendous impact 10 years from when when it becomes possible to do orders of magnitude more kinds of genetic testing of embryos. Advances in techniques for embryo testing combined with a coming huge flood of genetic knowledge derived from cheap DNA sequencing technologies will make embryo genetic testing extremely powerful. On average parents in 2020 who embrace IVF with genetic testing will have healthier, smarter, and better-looking kids than parents who do not do so. If Poland does not allow IVF plus genetic testing then the Poles will literally fall behind in human evolution.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 25 12:01 AM  Bioethics Reproduction
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2010 October 24 Sunday
Beware Marathon Heart Injury

If you haven't built up to a marathon with a lot of training you can inflict heart damage on yourself that'll take up to 3 months to heal.

Montreal - Is running a marathon good for you or can it damage the heart?

A team of researchers and runners from the Heart and Stroke Foundation have come up with a practical way of answering the question. They used data from magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to find out what is really going on in the marathoner's heart as the kilometers pile up.

"Marathon runners can be a lot less fit than they think," Dr. Eric Larose today told the Canadian Cardiovascular Congress 2010, co-hosted by the Heart and Stroke Foundation and the Canadian Cardiovascular Society.

Lack of real aerobic fitness may directly impact the ways the heart organizes itself to survive the stress of marathon running, says Dr. Larose.

His research found that the magnitude of abnormal heart segments was more widespread and significant in a group of less fit runners. During the marathon, they had signs the heart might be at greater risk of damage than that of runners who had better training or at least had better exercise capacity.

It can take up to 3 months to recover from exercise-induced heart injury. I had no idea.

"Without proper training, marathon running can damage your heart. Fortunately the exercise-induced injury is reversible over time," said Dr. Larose. "But it could take up to three months to completely recover."

Any reader have a better understanding of just how severe exercise injury to muscles can be? Does an 18 year old need to worry? A 40 year old? When does it become a concern?

By Randall Parker 2010 October 24 11:33 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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2010 October 23 Saturday
New Moms Experience Mid-brain Growth

The gush of hormones in a new mother causes a spurt of brain growth.

WASHINGTON — Motherhood may actually cause the brain to grow, not turn it into mush, as some have claimed. Exploratory research published by the American Psychological Association found that the brains of new mothers bulked up in areas linked to motivation and behavior, and that mothers who gushed the most about their babies showed the greatest growth in key parts of the mid-brain.

Contra the press release, I do not think these results address the question of whether women perform at a lower intellectual level while pregnant. All the blood flowing to the fetus or hormones released during pregnancy might cause expectant mom to think fewer complex thoughts. I know women who feel like they got dumber during pregnancy and husbands who agree.

The scientists expected the hormones released after birth to cause brain changes.

Led by neuroscientist Pilyoung Kim, PhD, now with the National Institute of Mental Health, the authors speculated that hormonal changes right after birth, including increases in estrogen, oxytocin and prolactin, may help make mothers’ brains susceptible to reshaping in response to the baby. Their findings were published in the October issue of Behavioral Neuroscience.

The motivation to take care of a baby, and the hallmark traits of motherhood, might be less of an instinctive response and more of a result of active brain building, neuroscientists Craig Kinsley, PhD, and Elizabeth Meyer, PhD, wrote in a special commentary in the same journal issue.

Given the existing research literature these speculations were no great leap. For example, prolactin increases nerve myelin sheath production and repair. Prolactin also rises during pregnancy. So prolactin probably alters brain development during pregnancy as well. In rodents neuronal production increases during pregnancy and while raising pups. So these results from humans are not surprising.

Gray matter volume increased in new mothers in several areas of the brain.

The researchers performed baseline and follow-up high-resolution magnetic-resonance imaging on the brains of 19 women who gave birth at Yale-New Haven Hospital, 10 to boys and nine to girls. A comparison of images taken two to four weeks and three to four months after the women gave birth showed that gray matter volume increased by a small but significant amount in various parts of the brain. In adults, gray matter volume doesn’t ordinarily change over a few months without significant learning, brain injury or illness, or major environmental change.

The areas affected support maternal motivation (hypothalamus), reward and emotion processing (substantia nigra and amygdala), sensory integration (parietal lobe), and reasoning and judgment (prefrontal cortex).

Women most thrilled by their babies underwent the greatest brain remodeling.

In particular, the mothers who most enthusiastically rated their babies as special, beautiful, ideal, perfect and so on were significantly more likely to develop bigger mid-brains than the less awestruck mothers in key areas linked to maternal motivation, rewards and the regulation of emotions.

The emotional reactions and stimuli women receive from looking at, holding, and smelling their babies probably also contribute to the brain changes these researchers find. There could be a positive feedback loop between the hormone surges, sensory stimuli, emotional reactions, and brain changes.

These changes caused by becoming mothers likely cause permanent changes in brains. Longitudinal studies of women before any have children and then followed for decades could demonstrate whether this is the case. The change should be measurable using pictures and the sounds of babies combined with either MRI scans or to measure emotional responses.

Update: Another study finds oxytocin levels rise in both mom and dad after a baby shows up.

A fascinating new paper by Gordon and colleagues reports the first longitudinal data on oxytocin levels during the initiation of parenting in humans. They evaluated 160 first-time parents (80 couples) twice after the birth of their first child, at 6 weeks and 6 months, by measuring each parents' oxytocin levels and monitoring and coding their parenting behavior.

Three important findings emerged. At both time-points, fathers' oxytocin levels were not different from levels observed in mothers. Thus, although oxytocin release is stimulated by birth and lactation in mothers, it appears that other aspects of parenthood serve to stimulate oxytocin release in fathers.

Higher oxytocin is associated with more parenting behavior.

Finally, the findings revealed that oxytocin levels were associated with parent-specific styles of interaction. Oxytocin was higher in mothers who provided more affectionate parenting, such as more gazing at the infant, expression of positive affect, and affectionate touch. In fathers, oxytocin was increased with more stimulatory contact, encouragement of exploration, and direction of infant attention to objects.

"It is very interesting that elevations in the same hormone were associated with different types of parenting behaviors in mothers and fathers even though the levels of oxytocin within couples were somewhat correlated. These differences may reflect the impact of culture-specific role expectations, but they also may be indicative of distinct circuit effects of oxytocin in the male and female brain," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

Yet another study found that oxytocin nasal spray increased trust. Oxytocin reduces fear. Parenting probably affects how parents emotionally react the rest of the world. Infant suckling boosts oxytocin release by nerve dendrites. So women who breast feed probably undergo more mental changes than women who bottle feed and therefore it seems reasonable to expect different parenting behavior between breast feeding and bottle feeding parents.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 23 05:51 PM  Brain Development
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2010 October 21 Thursday
Another Study Against Refined Grains

Don't eat that white bread or pasta.

BOSTON (October 20, 2010) - People who consume several servings of whole grains per day while limiting daily intake of refined grains appear to have less of a type of fat tissue thought to play a key role in triggering cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes, a new study suggests. Researchers at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Researcher Center on Aging (USDA HNRCA) at Tufts University observed lower volumes of Visceral Adipose Tissue (VAT) in people who chose to eat mostly whole grains instead of refined grains.

“VAT volume was approximately 10 % lower in adults who reported eating three or more daily servings of whole grains and who limited their intake of refined grains to less than one serving per day,” says first author Nicola McKeown, PhD, a scientist with the Nutritional Epidemiology Program at the USDA HNRCA. “For example, a slice of 100% whole wheat bread or a half cup of oatmeal constituted one serving of whole grains and a slice of white bread or a half cup of white rice represented a serving of refined grains.”  

The whole wheat wasn't protective for those study participants who also ate a lot of refined grains. So the whole grains aren't so much beneficial as just not harmful or perhaps less harmful than refined grains.

Paelo Diet advocate Loren Cordain says avoid grains. Stephan Guyenet says grain preparation techniques make a difference in determining whether grains are good or bad for us. Whole grains might even be harmful, but less harmful than white bread.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 21 11:36 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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Mayan Calendar Already Expired?

How to align the Mayan calendar with the Western world's calendar is disputed by an academic who thinks the Mayan calendar might already have expired.

It's a good news/bad news situation for believers in the 2012 Mayan apocalypse. The good news is that the Mayan "Long Count" calendar may not end on Dec. 21, 2012 (and, by extension, the world may not end along with it). The bad news for prophecy believers? If the calendar doesn't end in December 2012, no one knows when it actually will — or if it has already.

Click thru and read the details. The academic who disputes the widely accepted December 2012 date does not know what the correct date is. So the world could end at any time. This takes up back to where we were before the Mayan calendar came to be viewed as the reliable source of end of world predictions for Hollywood movies.

There are so many reasons the world might end. If you are the solipsist whose imagination dreams up this world then your breaking up with someone could end the world for all of us.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 21 11:13 PM  Dangers Prophesized
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2010 October 20 Wednesday
Gene Therapy Lifts Depression In Mice

Gene therapy to deliver the gene for a protein p11 in to mouse brains lifted their depressive state. The thinking is this technique could be replicated with humans. Want to reprogram your brain genes to make you happier? You okay with permanently altering your pesonality using gene therapy.

NEW YORK (Oct. 20, 2010) -- In a report published in the Oct. 20 issue of Science Translational Medicine, researchers at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center say animal and human data suggest gene therapy to the brain may be able to treat patients with major depression who do not respond to traditional drug treatment.

The researchers hope to rapidly translate their findings into a human clinical trial using the same kind of gene therapy modality the investigators have pioneered to treat Parkinson's disease. A 45-patient randomized blinded phase II multicenter clinical trial using the gene therapy to treat Parkinson's has recently ended and results are being readied for publication.

"Given our findings, we potentially have a novel therapy to target what we now believe is one root cause of human depression," says the study's senior investigator, Dr. Michael Kaplitt, associate professor and vice chairman for research of neurological surgery at Weill Cornell Medical College and a neurosurgeon at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Suppose this will really work in humans. Okay, so a gene therapy could permanently alter your mental state. Is this the last gene therapy discovered that alters personality or brain performance? Most certainly not. We will witness the development of more ways to alter the brain's performance via gene therapies and other long-lasting methods of altering the brain.

This has suspense thriller science fiction potential. Use gene therapy tourn a guy into an amoral killer before sending him on a killing mission. Then when he comes back and his handlers reprogram him again to lack killer ambitions.

Imagine rich or powerful people getting gene therapy without their even knowing it in order to make them do the bidding of a rival group (e.g. a mugging could include an injection of a gene therapy or a the gene therapy could be delivered by a lover). Their personality would be altered and they'd start making decisions in ways that play to the Machiavellian plans of the group that surreptitiously delivered gene therapy into their brains.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 20 11:32 PM  Brain Depression
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Low B12 Boosts Alzheimer's Disease Risk?

Low vitamin B12 and high serum homocysteine are associated with higher risk of developing Alzheimer's Disease.

The odds ratio for developing Alzheimer's disease after about seven years was increased, at 1.16 (95% CI 1.04 to 1.31) for each 1 μmol/L elevation in baseline homocysteine, according to Babak Hooshmand, MD, of Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and colleagues.

In contrast, for each 1 pmol/L increase in the baseline level of the vitamin B12 fraction holotranscobalamin (holoTC), the odds ratio for later Alzheimer's disease was decreased, at 0.980 (95% CI 0.965 to 0.995), the investigators reported in the Oct. 19 issue of Neurology.

This is not the first research report to make this connection. However, since one cause of lower serum B12 is poorer intestinal absorption lower B12 might be a sign of an especially aged digestive tract and poorer general nutritional state. The impaired digestive tract might boost Alzheimer's risk via mechanisms other than via B12 deficiency.

If you are older it still would be prudent to get your blood B12 level checked. Deficiency of B12 is harmful to health for other reasons aside from Alzheimer's risk. Periodic B12 injections can get around the absorption problem.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 20 11:22 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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2010 October 19 Tuesday
Social Media To Produce More Entrepreneurs?

Facebook isn't as shallow and meaningless as it seems? Social media will drive more people to network with friends and business contacts and ultimately to start their own businesses? Social media will reduce the power of big corps and empower small businesses?

Superficial contacts on Facebook, apparently unnecessary comments, and banal status updates may be more worthwhile than we think. This is shown in a new report from the National IT User Center. The report also predicts the new social media will ultimately lead to more individual entrepreneurs.

Many people are critical of those who collect hundreds of so-called friends on Facebook. Often the majority of these "friends" are old classmates, acquaintances of acquaintances, and the like, relationships that are fundamentally weak. The comments and updates of relatively banal nature that appear on Facebook have also generated a great number of snide remarks, not least in the media, in recent times. But a report compiled by Håkan Selg, a doctoral candidate at the Department of Information Technology, Uppsala University, reveals that these contacts in fact constitute highly useful networks, networks that make use of the ostensibly meaningless comments and updates.

Just the sense of being well connected might give more people the confidence to start their own business. If they spend more time relating to others this might be social skills exercise and confidence-building that emboldens people to start businesses. Seem plausible?

"The portrait, comments, and updates provide constant reminders of the existence of 'friends.' The content is not all that important, but the effect is that we perceive our Facebook friends as closer than other acquaintances who are not on Facebook," says Håkan Selg.

What I wonder: Have Facebook and other social media made us perceive to be more closer to more people than was previously the case? The internet makes one virtually closer to a far larger number of people. So are more connections formed and more interactions happening as a result?

I am curious to know whether LinkedIn causes people to change jobs more often and to try harder to get ahead. Does the ability to maintain business contact links that persist beyond the time one leaves a company cause a person to move ahead faster and do more business deals?

By Randall Parker 2010 October 19 11:50 PM  Comm Tech Society
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Low Testosterone Increases Heart Death Risk?

Too little T is a risk as we age?

Low testosterone levels seem to be linked to a heightened risk of premature death from heart disease and all causes, suggests research published online in Heart.

The finding refutes received wisdom that the hormone is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease.

I'm not so sure about the refutation of received wisdom. Toxins depend on dose. Likely there's an ideal range of testosterone and outside of that range either above or below one is at increased risk of death. The trick is to know what is the ideal range. That's hard to figure out without double blind prospective studies. Also, likely: the ideal range varies by person. But customizing testosterone replacement based on genes and metabolic tests still lies many years into the future.

Since one in four men had low T I would be very curious how a control group of similar age men without heart disease would compare.

The researchers base their findings on 930 men, all of whom had coronary artery heart disease, and had been referred to a specialist heart centre between 2000 and 2002. Their heart health was then tracked for around 7 years.

On referral, low testosterone was relatively common. One in four of the men was classified as having low testosterone, using measurements of either bioavailable testosterone (bio-T) - available for tissues to use - of under 2.6 mmol/l or total testosterone (TT) of under 8.1 mmol/l.

They are defining low as clinical testosterone deficiency. Well, how common is that in older men?

These measures indicate clinically defined testosterone deficiency, referred to as hypogonadism, as opposed to a tailing off in levels of the hormone as a result of ageing.

During the monitoring period almost twice as many men with low testosterone died as did those with normal levels. One in five (41) of those with low testosterone died, compared with one in eight (12%) of those with normal levels.

The argument against hormone replacement is that some of the decline in testosterone with age might lower risk of diseases by basically turning down the RPM on an old engine. The male body pays a price from being ramped up by testosterone. Look at risks discovered with hormone replacement therapies for women as a cautionary tale. It is hard to second guess nature to produce a long term gain in our health.

Update: Hormone replacement therapy for women might increase the risk of several cancers by boosting blood vessel formation (angiogenesis). If that is the correct mechanism for boosted cancer risk it illustrates the problem with turning up metabolism in old age. Just like in cars old parts can not be pushed to higher levels of performance without risk of damage. The body slows down with age probably in part to prevent cells and organs from malfunctioning in deadly ways. Cures for cancer would enable us to turn up our metabolisms in old age.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 19 11:19 PM  Aging Cardiovascular Studies
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2010 October 18 Monday
Love Seen As Pain Killer

Love is like an illicit drug that kills pain.

STANFORD, Calif. — Intense, passionate feelings of love can provide amazingly effective pain relief, similar to painkillers or such illicit drugs as cocaine, according to a new Stanford University School of Medicine study.

"When people are in this passionate, all-consuming phase of love, there are significant alterations in their mood that are impacting their experience of pain," said Sean Mackey, MD, PhD, chief of the Division of Pain Management, associate professor of anesthesia and senior author of the study, which will be published online Oct. 13 in PLoS ONE. "We're beginning to tease apart some of these reward systems in the brain and how they influence pain. These are very deep, old systems in our brain that involve dopamine — a primary neurotransmitter that influences mood, reward and motivation."

These practical scientists want want to find ways to deliver the pain-killing benefits of love without all that heavy emotional baggage that comes from being in love with someone else.

Scientists aren't quite yet ready to tell patients with chronic pain to throw out the painkillers and replace them with a passionate love affair; rather, the hope is that a better understanding of these neural-rewards pathways that get triggered by love could lead to new methods for producing pain relief.

An obvious form of pain relief that is needed: Relief from the pain of a failed love affair. Think about it. If being in love is like a drug that lessens pain then getting jilted is like going thru drug withdrawal.

People who are thinking about a loved one are doing something equivalent to taking cocaine. Should they be arrested for illicit drug use?

"It turns out that the areas of the brain activated by intense love are the same areas that drugs use to reduce pain," said Arthur Aron, PhD, a professor of psychology at State University of New York at Stony Brook and one of the study's authors. Aron has been studying love for 30 years. "When thinking about your beloved, there is intense activation in the reward area of the brain — the same area that lights up when you take cocaine, the same area that lights up when you win a lot of money."

Love has downsides. If you need to do some serious planning then you might want to avoid getting into a new relationship until your plans are well under way. Also see my post Love Deactivates Brain Areas For Fear, Planning, Critical Social Assessment.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 18 11:08 PM  Brain Love
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Use Cash, Not Cards, To Buy Better Food?

For those who fully embrace the the Paleo lifestyle this won't come as a shock: Credit and debit cards are so unnatural they cause us to make worse food buying choices as compared to buying with cash. Weird wild stuff.

People are more likely to buy unhealthy foods when they pay using credit or debit cards, according to a new study in the Journal of Consumer Research.

"Two factors contribute to this intriguing effect," write authors Manoj Thomas (Cornell University), Kalpesh Kaushik Desai (State University of New York, Binghamton), and Satheeshkumar Seenivasan (State University of New York, Buffalo). "First, there is a correlation between unhealthiness and impulsiveness of food items: Unhealthy food items also tend to elicit impulsive responses. Second, cash payments are psychologically more painful than card payments, and this pain of payment can curb the impulsive responses to buy unhealthy food items."

This serves as a reminder: Our technological advances have enabled us to create environments that our instincts are not well adapted for. We need to make choices that make our environments better suited to our natures.

If spending money hurts then using cash will be especially effective in encouraging better food-buying behavior.

The authors conducted an analysis of actual shopping behavior of 1,000 households over a period of six months. They found that shopping carts had a larger proportion of food items rated as impulsive and unhealthy when shoppers used credit or debit cards versus cash. In follow-up studies they found that the vice-regulation effect of cash payment is due to the "pain" of paying in cash, and that the effect is stronger in consumers who are chronically more sensitive to the pain of payment.

Though if you can manage to use credit to buy Paleo Diet food and eat like Loren Cordain then you have managed to insulate yourself from at least one of the damaging effects of our credit culture.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 18 10:12 PM  Aging Diet Studies
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2010 October 17 Sunday
Better IVF Embryo Selection Technique Tested

A research effort to test a technique to better identify IVF embryos with better odds of success when implanted in wombs.

Two women taking part in the world's first controlled study of a comprehensive genetic screening test before IVF have given birth to healthy babies. The babies, twin girls born in Germany in June and a singleton boy born in Italy in September, are the first deliveries in a pilot study of comparative genomic hybridisation (CGH) by microarray, a new method of screening oocytes for IVF for a full range of chromosomal disorders.

Dr Cristina Magli, embryologist at the SISMER Centre in Bologna, one of the two centres taking part in the trial, said: " All the babies and their mothers are doing very well in terms of weight and overall developmental performance."

One goal here is to increase the rate of successful pregnancies when doing in vitro fertilization (IVF). But continued improvement in embryo selection techniques inevitably will lead to healthier babies since some flaws that aren't bad enough to cause miscarriage will also be avoided. Big strides in embryo selection will very likely eventually lead to healthier babies via IVF than via natural sexual reproduction.

Once the stage is reached where IVF is safer then starting a pregnancy in the lab will become preferred by a substantial percentage of the population. What comes next? Selection of embryos for a larger list of reasons having to do with physical appearances, athletic ability, intelligence, personality, and other attributes.

The births, as well as several ongoing pregnancies in the study group, are the final stage in the "proof of principle" that the screening of oocytes and embryos before transfer in IVF can increase birth rates; both these pregnancies were derived from oocytes whose complete chromosomal status had been assessed by microarray CGH.

The study, which was conducted in Bologna, Italy, and Bonn, Germany, was designed and organised by a task force of ESHRE to determine the clinical value of CGH as a non-subjective means of genetic screening before embryo transfer.

A substantial fraction of all embryos miscarry in humans.

Another recent report on techniques for identifying healthy embryos shows that while most human embryos fail to reach the blastocyst stage it is possible to predict which ones will succeed.

STANFORD, Calif. — Two-thirds of all human embryos fail to develop successfully. Now, in a new study, researchers at the Stanford University School of Medicine have shown that they can predict with 93 percent certainty which fertilized eggs will make it to a critical developmental milestone and which will stall and die. The findings are important to the understanding of the fundamentals of human development at the earliest stages, which have largely remained a mystery despite the attention given to human embryonic stem cell research.

A much higher percentage of human embryos fail to reach blastocyst stage. Lots of silent failures of conceptions to fail to turn into detectable pregnancies. If life begins at conception then most humans die undetected.

"In mice, about 80 to 90 percent of embryos develop to the blastocyst stage. In humans, it's about 30 percent," said Reijo Pera. "In addition, about one in 100 mouse embryos are chromosomally abnormal, versus about seven out of 10 human embryos. That's why human studies like these are so important. Women, their families and their physicians want to increase the chances of having one healthy baby and avoid high-risk pregnancies, miscarriages or other adverse maternal and fetal outcomes. It's truly a women's health issue that affects the broader family."

Why the higher rate of chromosome abnormality in human embryos? Does this happen as a result of some complex method of checking by the cells about whether they have good genetic integrity? There's a much bigger investment by parents in a human's development than is the case with mice. So tossing out questionable embryos at a very early stage of development reduces the costs of poor investments.

I see two parallel threads of biotechnological advance that will spur a shift toward IVF as the preferred method for starting human pregnancies: A) Better ways to detect defects in IVF embryos to the point where IVF becomes the safer choice; and B) knowledge derived from cheap genetic sequencing that will identify the significance of most genetic variants. Once IVF becomes safer and it becomes a way to select for desired genetic traits IVF will become the preferred way to start pregnancies, especially for the most ambitious parents.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 17 10:42 PM  Biotech Reproduction
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2010 October 15 Friday
Exercise Increases Food Satiety?

In obese rodents exercise increased sensitivity for hormones that restrain appetite.

There is now another good reason to exercise. Besides burning calories, exercise restores the sensitivity of neurons involved in the control of satiety (feeling full), which in turn contributes to reduced food intake and consequently weight loss. This is the conclusion of a study led by Brazilian researchers at the University of Campinas, and the findings will be published next week in the online, open access journal PLoS Biology. This disclosure may bring hope to over 40% of the population that suffers from weight problems and obesity around the world.

Exercise might make weight loss easier to do by reducing appetite.

The group led by José Barreto C. Carvalheira demonstrated that exercising obese rodents showed signals of restored satiety in hypothalamic neurons and decreased food intake. "In obese animals, exercise increased IL-6 and IL-10 protein levels in the hypothalamus, and these molecules were crucial for increasing the sensitivity of the most important hormones, insulin and leptin, which control appetite," Carvalheira explained. Physical activity contributes to the prevention and treatment of obesity, not only by increasing energy expenditure but also by modulating the signals of satiety and reducing food intake.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 15 12:02 AM  Brain Appetite
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2010 October 14 Thursday
Old Universe Shrank To Create Ours?

Our universe came from a big bounce rather than a big bang?

Enter loop quantum gravity, devised by Abhay Ashtekar of Pennsylvannia State University (PSU) in University Park and colleagues to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics. When Ashtekar's team created cosmological models inspired by LQG in 2006, these suggested the universe emerged from the remnants of an earlier universe that was crunched down to a tiny volume by gravity, not from the big bang (see diagram).

If that's the eventual fate of our own universe then what of all the events happening to us? "All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain."

By Randall Parker 2010 October 14 11:55 PM  Space Multiverse
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2010 October 13 Wednesday
Silicon Lithium Battery Could Increase Capacity

A promising approach using silicon might boost lithium battery capacity by a factor of 10.

A team of Rice University and Lockheed Martin scientists has discovered a way to use simple silicon to radically increase the capacity of lithium-ion batteries.

Sibani Lisa Biswal, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, revealed how she, colleague Michael Wong, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering and of chemistry, and Steven Sinsabaugh, a Lockheed Martin Fellow, are enhancing the inherent ability of silicon to absorb lithium ions.

They believe they've figured out how to prevent silicon from cracking after a couple of cycles of absorbing and releasing lithium atoms.

Silicon has the highest theoretical capacity of any material for storing lithium, but there's a serious drawback to its use. "It can sop up a lot of lithium, about 10 times more than carbon, which seems fantastic," Wong said. "But after a couple of cycles of swelling and shrinking, it's going to crack."

Other labs have tried to solve the problem with carpets of silicon nanowires that absorb lithium like a mop soaks up water, but the Rice team took a different tack.

Their approach might increase lithium battery storage capacity by an order of magnitude.

With Mahduri Thakur, a post-doctoral researcher in Rice's Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering Department, and Mark Isaacson of Lockheed Martin, Biswal, Wong and Sinsabaugh found that putting micron-sized pores into the surface of a silicon wafer gives the material sufficient room to expand. While common lithium-ion batteries hold about 300 milliamp hours per gram of carbon-based anode material, they determined the treated silicon could theoretically store more than 10 times that amount.

We'd all benefit from a large increase in battery capacity. Of course laptop computers and cell phones would work much longer between charges. But also, an order of magnitude increase in battery capacity would make electric cars feasible for most uses. Oil price worries would gradually fade away. We'd breathe cleaner air and cars would last longer with less need for maintenance.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 13 11:04 PM  Energy Batteries
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Walk To Cut Memory Decline In Half

6 to 9 miles per week will reduce the rate of loss of gray matter volume and lower risk of memory problems.

For the study, 299 dementia-free people recorded the number of blocks they walked in one week. Then nine years later, scientists took brain scans of the participants to measure their brain size. After four more years, the participants were tested to see if they had developed cognitive impairment or dementia.

The study found that people who walked at least 72 blocks per week, or roughly six to nine miles, had greater gray matter volume than people who didn't walk as much, when measured at the nine-year time point after their recorded activity. Walking more than 72 blocks did not appear to increase gray matter volume any further.

By four years later, 116 of the participants, or 40 percent, had developed cognitive impairment or dementia. The researchers found that those who walked the most cut their risk of developing memory problems in half.

If you walk 3 miles per hour then that's about 2 to 3 hours walking per week. You doing that? if not, what could you add to your routine to get that amount of walking in per week?

By Randall Parker 2010 October 13 10:45 PM  Aging Exercise Studies
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Environmental Changes Lowering Rice Yield

Using original seeds from a high yield rice called IR8 some agricultural scientists demonstrated that genetic changes in IR8 are not responsible for the drop in yield seen for this variety.

Los Baños, Philippines – Environmental changes are to blame for a 15% drop in the yield of "miracle rice" – also known as rice variety IR8 – since the 1960s when it was first released and lauded for its superior yields that helped avert famine across Asia at the time.

IR8 used to produce 9.5 to 10.5 tons per hectare, significantly more than other varieties in the 1960s when average global rice yields were around only 2 tons per hectare. But, when grown today, IR8 can yield only around 7 tons per hectare.

"IR8 still performs very well considering global average rice yields still hover around 4 tons per hectare, but a 15% yield drop is significant and we needed to find out what was happening," said Dr. Shaobing Peng, a crop physiologist from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and coauthor of a study published in Field Crops Research about the declining yields of IR8.

The troubling idea here is that the environmental problems might not be tractable and, worse yet, the environmental problems could get even worse. Hence yields could fall even further as the world's population grows by another 2 or 3 billion people.

"Hotter nights, which are known to reduce rice yields, and other environmental changes such as modifications in soil properties from maintaining the soil under flooded conditions and air pollution are all possible contributing factors," he added.

That population growth won't only increase the demand for food. It will also shift farm land toward use for housing. Plus, more humans mean more pollution.

Meanwhile corn prices are on track to achieve a yearly average record high.

Dr. Good said the average price for the new crop, which will encompass sales through next August, is expected to be a record, at about $5 a bushel, well above the $3.95 average price for the last three crops.

The government’s latest harvest forecast suggests that corn supplies into next year will be “precariously tight,” said Don Roose, president of U.S. Commodities, a consulting and brokerage firm in West Des Moines, Iowa. “At these levels, we have to cut back on our usage,” he said. “We can either cut back on exports, our ethanol consumption or our feed.”

It is not yet clear who will be forced to cut corn consumption.

Using corn to make ethanol is a bad idea. But government policies force a mixing of ethanol with gasoline that creates a demand for ethanol that isn't very price sensitive. Rising affluence in some Asian countries increases demand for corn to feed to livestock to make more meat. So, absent a much deeper economic downturn demand for corn looks set to grow.

Back in the 1940s and 1950s it was much easier to boost crop yields than it is today. There are diminishing returns on efforts to improve crop efficiency. We run up against limits to efficiency due to inefficient photosynthesis in plants. Plus, aquifers are depleted, fossil fuels for making artificial fertilizer are being depleted, and other physical constraints are becoming bigger problems.

Some people oppose genetic engineering of organisms. But here's the necessity of crop genetic engineering as I see it:

- The world is overpopulated.

- The world will become even more overpopulated.

- The overpopulation will cause more destruction of habitats, cutting down of rain forests, and damage to the environment.

- Industrial development, by boosting buying power, will reduce hunger. But it will also increase the buying power available to fund shifting of more land into agriculture as rising affluence shifts food consumption patterns toward more calories, more grains, more meats, more fish.

- Since population growth control is taboo the only options we have to respond to the environmental problem are technological.

- Biotechnology is a major potential way to reduce the habitat destruction by boosting yields of existing farmed land.

- Biotechnology can even reduce damage to farmed land by, for example, converting grain crops into perennials (no need to replant each year). This reduces nutrient run-off, top soil loss, and energy and chemicals used.

One can oppose genetic engineering of crops for a variety of reasons. But those reasons seem like small potatoes to me when compared to the scale of the problem which biotech seeks to address.

If someone wants to propose an alternative to biotech for the problems I outlined I'd like to hear it.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 13 05:41 PM  Trends Agriculture
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2010 October 12 Tuesday
Most Bt Corn Benefits To Farmers Not Using It

Genetically engineered Bt corn, which contains a bacterial protein that kills the European corn borer (itself an invasive species), so suppresses the corn borer in a region that most of the economic benefits of Bt corn flow to the farmers who do not use Bt corn seed.

Widespread planting of genetically modified Bt corn throughout the Upper Midwest has suppressed populations of the European corn borer, a major insect pest of corn, with the majority of the economic benefits going to growers who do not plant Bt corn, reports a multistate team of scientists in the Oct. 8 edition of the journal Science.

In Wisconsin, 75 percent of the $325 million cumulative economic benefit linked to Bt corn's pest suppression between 1996-2009 went to non-Bt corn growers. Wisconsin currently has about 3.9 million corn acres, with approximately half in Bt corn.

Total cumulative economic benefits from Bt corn run into the billions of dollars in the United States.

Bt corn is genetically modified (GM) to contain a protein from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) that kills insect pests. According to the team's calculations, the total economic benefit of Bt corn's pest suppression across Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa and Nebraska between 1996-2009 adds up to about $6.9 billion. When the team broke the numbers out by Bt and non-Bt fields, they were initially surprised to find that 62 percent of Bt corn's economic benefit — about $4.3 billion — went to non-Bt corn fields.

Whle I expect genetic engineering will eventually lead to the creation of species that are highly problematic for humanity I do not expect the big troubles to come from crop genetic engineering. The goals for crop genetic engineering are not very ambitious and focused on reducing costs and improving product quality. The big risks will come when small groups of people create species in order to achieve political goals. When the genetic equivalent of computer script kiddies allow less skilled people to enhance and create species I am expecting some serious mischief.

Other forms of benefit from Bt corn were not captured in this research. So the benefits go beyond those captured by looking at corn alone.

The authors note that their analysis does not consider benefits for other important Midwestern crops affected by European corn borer, such as sweet corn, potatoes and green beans. "Additionally, environmental benefits from corn borer suppression are likely occurring, such as less insecticide use, but these benefits have yet to be documented," says Hutchinson.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 12 10:23 PM  Biotech Crops
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Optimistic Dogs Have Less Separation Anxiety

Pessimistic dogs are more likely to be upset by separation from others.

A study has gained new insight into the minds of dogs, discovering that those that are anxious when left alone also tend to show 'pessimistic' like behaviour.

The research by academics at the University of Bristol, and funded by the RSPCA is published in Current Biology tomorrow (12 October). The study provides an important insight into dogs' emotions, and enhances our understanding of why behavioural responses to separation occur.

Professor Mike Mendl, Head of the Animal Welfare and Behaviour research group at Bristol University's School of Clinical Veterinary Science, who led the research, said: "We all have a tendency to think that our pets and other animals experience emotions similar to our own, but we have no way of knowing directly because emotions are essentially private. However, we can use findings from human psychology research to develop new ways of measuring animal emotion.

Researchers found a way to measure a dog's optimism.

In order to study 'pessimistic' or 'optimistic' decisions, dogs at two UK animal re-homing centres were trained that when a bowl was placed at one location in a room (the 'positive' position) it would contain food, but when placed at another location (the 'negative' position) it would be empty. The bowl was then placed at ambiguous locations between the positive and negative positions.

Professor Mendl explained: "Dogs that ran fast to these ambiguous locations, as if expecting the positive food reward, were classed as making relatively 'optimistic' decisions. Interestingly, these dogs tended to be the ones who also showed least anxiety-like behaviour when left alone for a short time.

A dog should have more of a Monty Python sensibility if it wants to be happy. Life Of Brian famously closes with an appeal for an optimistic view with Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 12 09:38 PM  Brain Species Compare
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2010 October 11 Monday
Smaller Earthquakes Can Cause Tsunamis

Geologists at UT Austin are doing research that lays the foundations for new disaster movie plot lines.

Geologists studying the Jan. 12 Haiti earthquake say the risk of destructive tsunamis is higher than expected in places such as Kingston, Istanbul, and Los Angeles.

Like Haiti's capital, these cities all lie near the coast and near an active geologic feature called a strike-slip fault where two tectonic plates slide past each other like two hands rubbing against each other.

Until now, geologists did not consider the tsunami risk to be very high in these places because when these faults rupture, they usually do not vertically displace the seafloor much, which is how most tsunamis are generated. This latest research suggests even a moderate earthquake on a strike-slip fault can generate tsunamis through submarine landslides, raising the overall tsunami risk in these places.

The plot: A series of moderate earthquakes off coasts around the globe suddenly flood many port cities. A pretty young scientist tries to warn governments but is met with scorn. A surfer cult believes her warnings because she has a sexy body. They decide to live offshore of the first city (LA naturally) predicted to get the tsunami so that at a moment's notice they can paddle surfboards off their houseboats to get ready to ride the wave in. The earthquake happens and they surf up into the Hollywood Hills. After that ride they pack it up and go to Kingston Jamaica and buy cheap houseboats there to do it again. Days later they ride waves up into the hills there too. Oh, and one of them films all this in order to make a great surf movie.

Meanwhile, she's trying to figure out how to save Istanbul. Since the surfers are also skilled scuba divers she appeals to them for help in saving Istanbul. They are naturally torn by this request since preventing the Istanbul tsunami means losing a great ride. But saving the city involves swimming into submerged ancient Greek ruins. That sounds like fun so they decide to help her.

Naturally there's a scary part: The earthquakes that cause the tsunamis can be small. That' makes it easier.

"The scary part about that is you do not need a large earthquake to trigger a large tsunami," said Matt Hornbach, research associate at The University of Texas at Austin's Institute for Geophysics and lead author on a paper describing the research in the Oct. 10 online edition of the journal Nature Geoscience.

"Organizations that issue tsunami warnings usually look for large earthquakes on thrust faults," said Hornbach. "Now we see you don't necessarily need those things. A moderate earthquake on a strike-slip fault can still be cause for alarm."

By Randall Parker 2010 October 11 11:39 PM  Dangers Natural Geological
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2010 October 09 Saturday
How Will Humans Evolve?

Alex Tabarrok and Tyler Cowen have been arguing with each other about how humans evolve. Tyler sees better looking people who are less creative and less driven.

Let us assume that scientific progress continues. My view is that parents don't so much like "difference," unless it is very directly in their favor. Using technology, parents will select for children who are taller, smarter in the way that parents value, better looking, and perhaps also more loyal to their families. The people in the wealthy parts of the world will look more like models and movie stars, but they will be quite recognizable. These children may also be less creative and some of them will be less driven. It's a bit like the real estate market, where everyone wants their house to be special, but not too special, for purposes of resale or in this case mating and career prospects.

Evolutionary biologist Michael Lynch argues that medical advances are making possible a higher rate of collection of harmful mutations in humans. Makes sense. Lots more pregnancies, babies, and adolescents with genetically caused health problems are saved by medical advances and that trend will continue. However, I expect that trend to stop and reverse once genetic testing for embryo selection with IVF becomes widely used to start pregnancies.

My take: Technology will enable humans to make reproductive choices (e.g. thru in vitro fertilization combined with genetic testing for embryo selection) that will reduce some forms of variation in the short run. However, in the long run I expect humans to make decisions that cause divergences that might eventually lead to the generation of multiple new species.

Starting some time in the next 10 years genetic testing will enable embryo selection that will start off the trend toward healthier, sexier, and smarter offspring. That trend will accelerate in the 2020s and 2030s. Therefore in the 2040s and beyond we (at least those of us who live long enough to get rejuvenation therapies that make us young again) will witness a trend toward higher attractiveness. People will become more perfect-looking and more able. Parents will generally want children capable of achieving more success. This will tend to select for intelligence, looks, height, stamina, and motivation. The choices made to get these desired traits will select against genetic diversity in the humans species.

What I'm not sure about: Will a subset of parents go for kids that are more relaxed with personalities that are happy without achieving much success? If so, we could witness a split to two groups in the population where one is hard-charging and wealthy and the other is poorer, lazier, and more content and happy. Granted these types exist today, but more on a continuum. We might witness the development of gaps between the groups with less of middle-of-the road types of personalities.

Genetic variations that reduce desired attributes will get selected against. Notably, all genetic mutations that are only harmful (and we each probably have hundreds of such mutations) will get selected against. Therefore the genetic load in humans will decline.

But in the longer run a number of other factors come into play. One of the weirder ones: People could start tinkering with genes that control just what we find attractive. As people make different decisions about what instinctual desires for mates to put into their offspring different subsets of the human race could diverge into groups that find other groups much less attractive.

What I wonder about: What sorts of personality types will each personality type choose for their offspring once personality type becomes selectable when a pregnancy is started. Will all personality types choose offspring with the same personality type? Or will couples with a pair of personality types have a more dominant member choose the personality of themself for the offspring so that less dominant personalities get selected against? Or will couples make choices for female personalities different than for male personalities so that average male personalities and average female personalities become more different? There are a lot of possibilities and it is not clear to me what choices will be made.

One possibility: People in different cultures will could different choices about offspring personalities and other qualities. So humans in different regions could diverge from each other to become more unalike. However, a drive toward higher intelligence offspring might have the opposite effect since very smart people might all reach more similar conclusions about what attributes are most ideal for offspring. It is not clear to me how this will go.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 09 10:47 PM  Evolution Human Nature
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Google Robotic Cars On California Highways

The science fiction future is going to become the real future in the lives of many people reading this. In an effort to build a practical robotic car Google hired a Stanford researcher who led a team that won the DARPA robotic car contest in 2005. A Google team led by this researcher has developed a robotic car system that has already logged many miles with cars under robotic control on real city streets and highways.

With someone behind the wheel to take control if something goes awry and a technician in the passenger seat to monitor the navigation system, seven test cars have driven 1,000 miles without human intervention and more than 140,000 miles with only occasional human control. One even drove itself down Lombard Street in San Francisco, one of the steepest and curviest streets in the nation. The only accident, engineers said, was when one Google car was rear-ended while stopped at a traffic light.

The article is worth reading in full. Truly amazing. Google researchers believe the cars are already legal because human drivers can take over control of the computer system starts to make wrong decisions.

The researchers think such a car is at least 8 years away from deployment. I see both legal (who is responsible in event of an accident) and engineering challengers for its release. Among the engineering challenges: How to test under a wide enough range of conditions that one can know the computers will always make the right decision? This is a far more difficult challenge than the verification and validation of airplane automatic pilots because the variations in ground conditions are much more numerous.

A robotic car could refuse to go somewhere off known roads under its own control. But conditions on known roads could change in ways that make them unknown. For example, floods could wash out a road section or construction workers could build in detour strips around road pieces being reworked. These sorts of conditions would need to be recognized and the car would need to start insisting that manual control be resumed.

Likely in 10 or 20 years robotic cars will take over much of the work of driving. When that happens accident rates and death rates will go down. After a much longer time of development and use a more mature robotic car capability will enable even non-drivers to be taken places. Among the occupations that will get automated out of existence: taxi drivers. This will lower the cost of taxis and shift more rides to taxis and away from cars owned by individuals. This probably will lead to a reduction in car ownership.

Automation will also reduce the demand for truck drivers and delivery vehicle drivers. The receivers of goods will have to do their own unloading. Do-it-yourself unloading delivery will compete by offering lower prices. I expect this to eventually make home grocery delivery commonplace. Robots in local warehouses (using lots of technologies and business practices already getting developed) will pack trucks with food and other products for a delivery route once enough people signal they are ready to accept deliveries. Therefore fewer trips will be made to stores.

Here's a blog post from Google engineer Sebastian Thrun (and former Stanford lead for their 2005 DARPA automated car win) about their robotic car technology.

To develop this technology, we gathered some of the very best engineers from the DARPA Challenges, a series of autonomous vehicle races organized by the U.S. Government. Chris Urmson was the technical team leader of the CMU team that won the 2007 Urban Challenge. Mike Montemerlo was the software lead for the Stanford team that won the 2005 Grand Challenge. Also on the team is Anthony Levandowski, who built the world’s first autonomous motorcycle that participated in a DARPA Grand Challenge, and who also built a modified Prius that delivered pizza without a person inside. The work of these and other engineers on the team is on display in the National Museum of American History.

Safety has been our first priority in this project. Our cars are never unmanned. We always have a trained safety driver behind the wheel who can take over as easily as one disengages cruise control. And we also have a trained software operator in the passenger seat to monitor the software. Any test begins by sending out a driver in a conventionally driven car to map the route and road conditions. By mapping features like lane markers and traffic signs, the software in the car becomes familiar with the environment and its characteristics in advance. And we’ve briefed local police on our work.

So Google, as usual, hired the best and is playing a key role in transforming another part of our lives.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 09 04:36 PM  Robotics Cars
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2010 October 08 Friday
Total 2009 US Medical Research $139 Billion

People want relief from disease and public and private sources spend big to find better ways to cure and avoid disease.

WASHINGTON—October 7, 2010—The U.S. invested $139 billion last year in health research from all public and private sources, according to Research!America's latest annual estimate. That amount represents only 5.6% of the $2.47 trillion overall U.S. health spending in 2009—or 5.6¢ of every health dollar—which varies no more than 0.2% from 2005 levels.

The estimate is available here: http://www.researchamerica.org/uploads/healthdollar09.pdf.

The 2009 investment grew by only 0.1% over 2008. This small increase can be attributed largely to the federal stimulus funding for research provided through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Federal research investment was nearly $46.8 billion in 2009, up from $38.6 billion in 2008.

We are all growing old. We are all aging and our parts are breaking down and wearing out. A portion of those billions of dollars flows toward science technologies that will eventually put an end to aging. Human bodies will become as repairable as cars. Replacement organs, cell therapies, gene therapies, and even nanobots will, at some point in the 21st century, halt and reverse the process of aging. Will you still be alive when that day is reached?

By Randall Parker 2010 October 08 12:09 AM  Policy Medical
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2010 October 07 Thursday
Thinking About Time Or Money

People who think about time decide to socialize more while people who think about money want to work more.

Does thinking about time or money make you happier? A new study published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, finds that people who are made to think about time plan to spend more of their time with the people in their lives while people who think about money fill their schedules with work, work, and—you guessed it—more work. 

To find out how thinking about time or money makes people feel, Cassie Mogilner of the University of Pennsylvania designed an experiment, carried out online with adults from all over the United States, in which they concentrated on money or time. In this experiment, volunteers were asked to unscramble a series of sentences. Some participants were presented with sentences containing words related to time (e.g., “clock” and “day”), whereas others’ sentences contained words related to money (e.g., “wealth” and “dollar”). Next all participants were asked how they planned to spend their next 24 hours. The ones who had been primed to think about time planned to spend more time socializing. People who’d been primed to think about money planned to spend more time working. 

Can one motivate oneself to work harder by putting money cues in one's environment? Say, a dollar bill in a picture frame on a shelf? I am interested in the more general topic of how to construct one's personal environment to cause one to behave more to one's liking. Have any interesting tricks for motivating yourself?

Poor people did not react the same way.

She also carried out the experiment on low-income people and found that having them think about time had the same effect, but having them think about money did not. This may mean that low-income people already live concerned about and, therefore, highly focused on money, Mogilner speculates.

Another interpretation: For some their poverty is caused by less desire to work. They are not easily motivated to work. Another similar possibility: Poor people feel too inefficacious and do not think they can raise their living standards by working harder.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 07 10:08 PM  Brain Economics
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2010 October 06 Wednesday
Testosterone, Alzheimer's Disease Link Seen

Wondering if you should take testosterone when you get older? A study on Chinese men finds a link between low testosterone and onset of Alzheimer's.

ST. LOUIS -- Low levels of the male sex hormone, testosterone, in older men is associated with the onset of Alzheimer's disease, according to research by a team that includes a Saint Louis University scientist.

Of course a study like this one does not prove a direction of cause and effect. It could be that poor circulation and other factors that boost Alzheimer's risk also cause lower blood testosterone.

"Having low testosterone may make you more vulnerable to Alzheimer's disease," said John E. Morley, M.D., director of the division of geriatric medicine at Saint Louis University and a study co-investigator. "The take-home message is we should pay more attention to low testosterone, particularly in people who have memory problems or other signs of cognitive impairment."

The guys who developed Alzheimer's also had high blood pressure. Well, cardiovascular problems can accelerate aging of the brain. So at least part of the cause and effect does not involve testosterone.

Researchers studied 153 Chinese men who were recruited from social centers. They were at least 55 years and older, lived in the community and didn't have dementia. Of those men, 47 had mild cognitive impairment - or problems with clear thinking and memory loss.

Within a year, 10 men who all were part of the cognitively impaired group developed probable Alzheimer's disease. These men also had low testosterone in their body tissues; elevated levels of the ApoE 4 (apolipoprotein E) protein, which is correlated with a higher risk of Alzheimer's disease; and high blood pressure.

The press release mentions a previously established connection between low testosterone, impaired thinking, and Alzheimer's Disease in Caucasian men. This report therefore shows the same pattern in a different racial group and culture.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 06 11:04 PM  Aging Brain Studies
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Dopamine Genes Influence Sensation Seeking

If you seek out intense thrills you can probably blame (or thank) your genes.

Sensation seeking has been linked to a range of behavior disorders, such as drug addiction. It isn't all bad, though. "Not everyone who's high on sensation seeking becomes a drug addict. They may become an Army Ranger or an artist. It's all in how you channel it," says Jaime Derringer, a PhD student at the University of Minnesota and the first author of the study. She wanted to use a new technique to find out more about the genetics of sensation seeking. Most obvious connections with genes, like the BRCA gene that increases the risk for breast cancer, have already been found, Derringer says. Now new methods are letting scientists look for more subtle associations between genes and all kinds of traits, including behavior and personality.

Derringer used a kind of mutation in DNA called a single-nucleotide polymorphism, or SNP. A SNP is a change in just one "letter" of the DNA.

Note that single letter differences are just one of a few genetic differences possible. But SNPs are cheaper to test for. So they get more research attention.

She started by picking eight genes with various roles related to the neurotransmitter dopamine, which has been linked to sensation seeking in other studies. She looked at group of 635 people who were part of a study on addiction. For each one, she had genetic information on 273 SNPs known to appear in those 8 genes and a score for how much they were inclined to sensation seeking. Using that data, she was able to narrow down the 273 SNPs to 12 potentially important ones. When she combined these 12 SNPs, they explained just under 4 percent of the difference between people in sensation seeking. This may not seem like a lot, but it's "quite large for a genetic study," Derringer says.

Note that the 12 genes suspected of having influence might only explain 4% of the variation in sensation seeking. The emerging picture with genetic variants that influence cognitive processes is that each variant makes only a small contribution. The same has been found in the search for genetic variants that influence intelligence. This highlights the need for very large populations of study subjects in order to discover the signal of very small genetic influences.

In this study the researchers used only used genetic material 635 people. Not enough to discover hundreds of genetic variants that each might contribute a fraction of one percent to the total tendency toward sensation seeking. What's needed are full genetic sequences of hundreds of thousands of people. But that would cost orders of magnitude more to do. Fortunately the cost of genetic testing and genetic sequencing continues to fall by orders of magnitude. So the flood of data needed to tease out of the contributing genetic variants is going to come in the next 5 years. We'll see bigger data sets and larger number of genetic influences identified each year.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 06 10:45 PM  Brain Genetics
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Some Consumer Preferences Heritable

A study on consumer preferences of twins found many preferences are at least partially inherited.

"We examine a wide range of consumer judgment and decision-making phenomenon and discover that many—though not all of them—are in fact heritable or influenced by genetic factors," write authors Itamar Simonson (Stanford University) and Aner Sela (University of Florida, Gainesville).

The authors studied twins' consumer preferences to determine whether or not certain behaviors or traits have a genetic basis. "A greater similarity in behavior or trait between identical than between fraternal twins indicates that the behavior or trait is likely to be heritable," the authors explain.

The preference for a sure gain versus a gamble has a substantial genetic component. Not surprising. Utilitarian versus self-indulgent choices also not surprisingly have a genetic influence. Some specific products including chocolate have a genetic influence. It is good to know I have a genetic bond with fellow science fiction lovers. Hello brothers and sisters. Isn't Blade Runner great?

The authors discovered that people seem to inherit the following tendencies: to choose a compromise option and avoid extremes; select sure gains over gambles; prefer an easy but non-rewarding task over an enjoyable challenging one; look for the best option available; and prefer utilitarian, clearly needed options (like batteries) over more indulgent ones (gourmet chocolate). They also found that likings for specific products seemed to be genetically related: chocolate, mustard, hybrid cars, science fiction movies, and jazz.

A liking for tattoos does not appear to be heritable. But I'm hoping that an aversion to tattoos could some day be genetically engineered into offspring using a new genetic variation.

The researchers also found that some tendencies did not seem to be heritable—for example, a preference for a smaller versus larger product variety or likings for ketchup and tattoos.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 06 10:27 PM  Brain Genetics
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US Food Waste: 350 Million Barrels Of Oil Per Year?

Translated into the oil used to make it Americans might waste 350 million barrels of oil per year or almost 1 million barrels per day. That's almost 5% of current daily oil consumption.

WASHINGTON, Oct. 2, 2010 — Scientists have identified a way that the United States could immediately save the energy equivalent of about 350 million barrels of oil a year — without spending a penny or putting a ding in the quality of life: Just stop wasting food. Their study, reported in ACS' semi-monthly journal Environmental Science & Technology, found that it takes the equivalent of about 1.4 billion barrels of oil to produce, package, prepare, preserve and distribute a year's worth of food in the United States.

Michael Webber and Amanda Cuéllar note that food contains energy and requires energy to produce, process, and transport. Estimates indicate that between 8 and 16 percent of energy consumption in the United States went toward food production in 2007. Despite this large energy investment, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that people in the U.S. waste about 27 percent of their food. The scientists realized that the waste might represent a largely unrecognized opportunity to conserve energy and help control global warming.

Whenever I read about energy waste I think of that as good news. If we did not waste any oil then we'd be much harder pressed to cut back when world oil production goes into permanent decline. But all those SUVs and the wasted food means we've got lots of areas where we can cut back on waste.

We also have the potential to save energy by using more energy efficient means to produce, process, and transport it. Changes in farming methods, more sold in bulk (therefore less packaging costs), greater use of rail, less use of air cargo, and other changes could (and eventually will) greatly reduce the amount of energy used per unit of food consumed.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 06 10:04 PM  Energy Peak Oil Adaptations
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2010 October 05 Tuesday
Saturated Fat Heart Harm Questioned

Comic characters in Sleeper proclaiming the benefits of "deep fat" are now known to be prophetic.

(Rosemont, IL) Oct. 1 – For the past three decades, saturated fat has been considered a major culprit of cardiovascular disease (CVD) and as a result dietary advice persists in recommending reduced consumption of this macronutrient. However, new evidence shows that saturated fat intake has only a very limited impact on CVD risk -- causing many to rethink the "saturated fat is bad" paradigm.

A series of research articles published in the October issue of Lipids provides a snapshot of recent advances in saturated fat and health research, based on science presented at the 100th American Oil Chemists' Society (AOCS) annual meeting in Orlando, Florida (May 2009). During a symposium entitled "Saturated Fats and Health: Facts and Feelings," world-renowned scientists specializing in fat research analyzed the evidence between saturated fat intake and health, and overall agreed upon the need to reduce over-simplification when it came to saturated fat dietary advice.

Deep fat is better than refined carbohydrates.

Results from a research review conducted by Dariush Mozaffarian, MD, MPH, Department of Epidemiology and Nutrition at Harvard University School of Public Health, found that the effects of saturated fat intake on CVD risk depend upon simultaneous changes in other nutrients. For example, replacing saturated fat with mono-unsaturated fat yielded uncertain effects on CVD risk, while replacing saturated fat with carbohydrates was found to be ineffective and even harmful especially when refined carbohydrates such as starches or sugars were used in place of fat . Replacing saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat gave a small reduction in CVD risk, but even with optimal replacement the magnitude of the benefit was very small. According to Mozaffarian it would be far better to focus on dietary factors giving much larger benefits for CVD health, such as increasing intake of seafood/omega-3 fatty acids, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and decreasing intake of trans fats and sodium.

''Carbohydrate intake has been intimately linked to metabolic syndrome, which is a combination of risk factors that can increase CVD risk,'' said Jeff Volek, PhD, RD, Department of Kinesiology, University of Connecticut. His research showed that very low carbohydrate diets can favorably impact a broad spectrum of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular risk factors, even in the presence of high saturated fat intake and in the absence of weight loss.

These researchers seem to be getting closer to the Paleo Diet.

Would you believe that dairy is actually associated with a decrease in cardiovascular disease risk?

A recent meta-analysis of epidemiological and intervention studies of milk fat conducted by Peter Elwood, DSc, MD, FRCP, FFPHM, DUniv, Hon DSc, Honorary Professor at the School of Medicine, Cardiff University, found that milk and dairy consumption actually was associated with a decrease in CVD risk .

Deep fat.

Oh, and if the fudge is made with very dark chocolate or cocoa powder then that's healthy too.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 05 10:08 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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Rod Cells Control Circadian Clock

The rod cells in the eye (used for seeing black and white under low light conditions) are the only eye cell type involved in controlling the body's circadian rhythm.

But a Johns Hopkins biologist – working in collaboration with scientists at the University of Southern California and Cornell University -- unlocked part of that mystery recently. Their study found that rod cells – one of three kinds of exquisitely photosensitive cells found in the retina of the eye – are the only ones responsible for "setting" those clocks in low light conditions. What's more, the study found that rods – which take their name from their cylindrical shape – also contribute (along with cones and other retinal cells) to setting internal clocks in bright light conditions. The study appeared in a recent issue of Nature Neuroscience.

Aging people have worse sleep cycles and perhaps not coincidentally fewer rod cells. Probably yet another example of a vicious cycle in aging since insufficient sleep accelerates aging.

"Older adults often lose their rod cells to age, which means that their caretakers would be well advised to regularly and deliberately expose them to bright natural daylight in order to make sure that their natural, biological rhythms remain in sync so their sleep-wake cycles remain accurately set," Hattar said. "Otherwise, they could have sleep disturbances, such as intermittent waking or difficulty falling asleep, not to mention the impact on their appetite and other bodily functions."

So future eye rejuvenation therapies will not only help you see better but probably also help you sleep better as well.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 05 07:56 PM  Brain Sleep
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2010 October 04 Monday
Genes Lower Serotonin, Boost ADHD Risk

People with impaired serotonic neurotransmitter synthesis have greater risk of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Children whose mothers are genetically predisposed to have impaired production of serotonin appear more likely to develop attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) later in life, according to a report in the October issue of Archives of General Psychiatry, one of the JAMA/Archives journals.

Would tryptophan or serotonin supplementation cut the risk of developing ADHD as a child?

Anne Halmøy, M.D., of University of Bergen, Norway, and colleagues studied 459 adult outpatients with ADHD, 97 of their family members and 187 control individuals recruited from across Norway. Participants provided blood samples for gene sequencing along with information about psychiatric diagnoses and symptoms.

By sequencing 646 individuals, the researchers identified nine different mutations, of which eight were significantly associated with impaired function of the enzymes. Family analysis of 38 individuals who carried these mutations and 41 of their offspring revealed that children of mothers who had one of the mutations—and, therefore, had impaired serotonin production—had a 1.5- to 2.5-time higher risk of ADHD than control individuals or offspring of fathers with the mutations.

I think we are getting close to the age when most genetic factors that contribute to cognitive performance become known. This makes the advantages from in vitro fertilization combined with genetic testing. The advantage from starting pregnancies will become so compelling that a rising fraction of all pregnancies will be started with IVF.

In children inattention leads to depression but hyperactivity ups the risk of suicide. Makes sense in a way: hyperactive people have the energy to kill themselves.

The authors also categorized ADHD into three subtypes and found that each one (inattentiveness, hyperactivity and/or a combination of the two) predicted somewhat different outcomes. While children who have a combination of inattention and hyperactivity predicted both depression and attempted suicide, children who experience only inattentiveness predicted only depression. Children showing only hyperactivity predicted suicide attempts but not depression.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 04 11:12 PM  Brain Genetics
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Walnut Cut Blood Pressure Stress Response?

Walnuts cut markets for inflammation.

A diet rich in walnuts and walnut oil may prepare the body to deal better with stress, according to a team of Penn State researchers who looked at how these foods, which contain polyunsaturated fats, influence blood pressure at rest and under stress.

Previous studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids -- like the alpha linolenic acid found in walnuts and flax seeds -- can reduce low density lipoproteins (LDL) -- bad cholesterol. These foods may also reduce c-reactive protein and other markers of inflammation.

"People who show an exaggerated biological response to stress are at higher risk of heart disease," said Sheila G. West, associate professor of biobehavioral health. "We wanted to find out if omega 3-fatty acids from plant sources would blunt cardiovascular responses to stress."

Walnuts reduced blood pressure when under stress.

After each diet, the participants underwent two stress tests. In the first test, they received a topic; and they were given two minutes to prepare a three-minute speech, which they presented while being videotaped. The second stressor was a standard physical test of stress consisting of submerging one foot in ice-cold water. Throughout these tests, the researchers took blood pressure readings from the participants.

Results showed that average diastolic blood pressure -- the "bottom number" or the pressure in the arteries when the heart is resting -- was significantly reduced during the diets containing walnuts and walnut oil.

So is nut consumption a good idea? Perhaps in moderation. But keep in mind that our ancestors did not eat nuts in large quantities. We probably didn't evolve to do well with heavy nut consumption.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 04 11:01 PM  Aging Diet Heart Studies
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2010 October 03 Sunday
MicroRNA Testing For Early Bladder Cancer Diagnosis

DENVER — Scientists may have discovered a way to diagnose bladder cancer at its earliest and, therefore, most treatable stages by measuring the presence or absence of microRNA using already available laboratory tests.

They found these microRNA fingerprints for bladder cancer in blood, not urine. This suggests the same can be done for other cancers. If so, early stage cancer diagnosis for just about all cancers could some day be done with blood tests for patterns of microRNAs. To state the obvious: The earlier the diagnosis the easier a cancer is to cure. Get it before it metastasizes, remove it, and then avoid losing your hair, pucking up your guts, becoming extremely emaciated, and dying with cancer in your bones that makes the end of your existence total agony.

"Measuring expressions of microRNA in bodily fluid represents a very promising tool with widespread implications for screening," said Liana Adam, M.D., Ph.D., assistant professor in urology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Only frequent and cheap testing can catch all cancers at an early enough stages. This has important implications for policies governing medical device regulation. In a nutshell: We need to allow the masses to test themselves (a.k.a. Direct To Consumer - DTC).

At an intermediate stage of expense and complexity it should be possible to get your secretions extensively tested at a drug store with sample drop-off at any time the store is open. We need a suite of fairly cheap tests of microRNA and other molecules that are reliable indicators for all the cancers as well as some other diseases.

As medical testing devices get shrunken down into mass produced microfluidic devices and costs drop by orders of magnitude much of that testing capability should move into the home. The goal should be to move toward constant home monitoring. All secretions should be testable once a week or even daily. We need to move beyond the model of visits to doctors' offices for medical testing.

The testing that saves your life has to happen much more often than doctor's office visits would make practical. So we need medical testing to become far more accessible. Plus, in order for it to be done monthly, weekly, or even daily for a large number of cancers and other diseases it has to become orders of magnitude cheaper. Microfluidics and a favorable (i.e. much different) regulatory environment are key to making this happen.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 03 09:03 PM  Biotech Assay Tools
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Eric Schmidt: No Embedded Google Implant

In an interview with The Atlantic the CEO of Google reveals he does not want to implant a Google interface into people's brains. Luddite.

The end of the interview turned to the future of technology. When Bennet asked about the possibility of a Google "implant," Schmidt invoked what the company calls the "creepy line."

"Google policy is to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it," he said. Google implants, he added, probably crosses that line.

This brings back memories of the 1967 classic The President's Analyst starring James Coburn where the "Phone Company" kidnaps him to try to convince him to support the implantation of a mini-phone into the brain of all American citizens. Here is a clip from the movie about the Cerebrum Communicator. I can't understand his character's skepticism. Today such a device would include web search capability integrated with blog post capability. I could write my blog with my eyes closed.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 03 07:00 PM  Cyborg Tech
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Weight Gain Reduces Food Pleasure

Eric Stice, Cara Bohon, and other researchers find that as a group of women gained weight their brains showed less signs of pleasure under a brain scan when eating sweet foods.

In a new study published Sept. 29 in the Journal of Neuroscience, Bohon fed milkshakes to a group of overweight women and monitored their brains' response to the combination of Häagen Dazs ice cream and Hershey's chocolate syrup. She used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to measure changes in brain blood flow and found that the sugary treat stimulated activity in the striatum. The striatum, located deep inside the brain, is a primitive mass of brain cells that, among other things, release feelings of pleasure when we eat foods we like.

Six months later, the women returned and repeated the experience. Some had gained a few pounds. The more weight they had gained during those months, the less their brains responded to the second milkshake, as compared to the first.

You can see a vicious cycle here that the researchers liken to cocaine addiction: The need for a bigger dose to get the same pleasure. In this case the need for the bigger dose causes weight gain which causes the deadening of taste response.

So how to restore taste sensitivity? I'd like to see a study done on whether weight loss alone fully restores taste sensitivity.

By Randall Parker 2010 October 03 02:12 PM  Brain Appetite
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