2012 April 29 Sunday
Weak Orbitofrontal Cortex Leads To Teen Drug Abuse

Many brain scan studies that have found relationships between substance abuse problems and brain activity started too late (after the abuse has started) to identify whether differences were causes or results of the substance abuse. Now a study that started with 14-year-olds find that teens with a weak orbitofrontal cortex are more impulsive and more likely to start using drugs and alcohol at an earlier age.

Why do some teenagers start smoking or experimenting with drugs—while others don't?

In the largest imaging study of the human brain ever conducted—involving 1,896 14-year-olds—scientists have discovered a number of previously unknown networks that go a long way toward an answer.

Robert Whelan and Hugh Garavan of the University of Vermont, along with a large group of international colleagues, report that differences in these networks provide strong evidence that some teenagers are at higher risk for drug and alcohol experimentation—simply because their brains work differently, making them more impulsive.

Their findings are presented in the journal Nature Neuroscience, published online April 29, 2012.

This discovery helps answer a long-standing chicken-or-egg question about whether certain brain patterns come before drug use—or are caused by it.

"The differences in these networks seem to precede drug use," says Garavan, Whelan's colleague in UVM's psychiatry department, who also served as the principal investigator of the Irish component of a large European research project, called IMAGEN, that gathered the data about the teens in the new study.

I bet in 5 years we'll know genetic variants that control the strength of the orbitofrontal cortex. My guess is that once it becomes possible for parents to choose genetic variants for their offspring that they'll choose genetic variants for a strong orbitofrontal cortex. Therefore the human race will become much less impulsive. Overall this will be a good thing. Though it might make for less creativity in some situations. Perhaps other genetic variants for creativity will be chosen and we'll get much more creative future humans anyway.

Suppose brain scans can identify the more impulsive. Should something be done to reduce their opportunities for use of illegal drugs, cigarettes, and alcohol? Imagine an implant that filters certain drugs out of the body. Or an implant that alerts others that the kid is on nicotine or cocaine.

In a key finding, diminished activity in a network involving the "orbitofrontal cortex" is associated with experimentation with alcohol, cigarettes and illegal drugs in early adolescence.

"These networks are not working as well for some kids as for others," says Whelan, making them more impulsive.

Faced with a choice about smoking or drinking, the 14-year-old with a less functional impulse-regulating network will be more likely to say, "yeah, gimme, gimme, gimme!" says Garavan, "and this other kid is saying, 'no, I'm not going to do that.'"

By Randall Parker 2012 April 29 01:03 PM  Brain Addiction
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More Coronary Artery Calcification With City Living

"Green acres is the place for me. Farm livin' is the life for me."

City centre residents who took part in a study were almost twice as likely to suffer from coronary artery calcification (CAC), which can lead to heart disease, than people who lived in less polluted urban and rural areas, according to research published in the May issue of the Journal of Internal Medicine.

Researchers spoke to 1,225 men and women aged 50 and 60 years of age, including 251 (20%) who lived in the centres of major Danish cities.

Despite the fact that none of the participants showed any symptoms of heart disease, 43% of the total had CAC. The study also found that people who lived in city centres were 80% more likely to develop CAC than those living in other areas and that males, older participants, diabetics and smokers also faced higher risks.

I hear singing:

Low blood vitamin D is associated with more coronary artery calcification (CAC). Also, garlic may retard the progression of CAC.

If you must live in the city: Consider a HEPA filter. Also, try to live on a higher floor away from vehicle exhaust soot.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 29 12:47 PM  Aging Pollution Studies
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When Will Robots Be Held To Moral Standards?

People are ready to hold robots morally accountable if they act more sophisticated than they really are.

Some argue that robots do not have free will and therefore cannot be held morally accountable for their actions. But psychologists at the University of Washington are finding that people don't have such a clear-cut view of humanoid robots.

The researchers' latest results show that humans apply a moderate amount of morality and other human characteristics to robots that are equipped with social capabilities and are capable of harming humans. In this case, the harm was financial, not life-threatening. But it still demonstrated how humans react to robot errors.

Sentient robots of the future will probably be held to a higher moral standard to extent that they look like humans or interact like humans. So a robot with the ability to make facial expressions will invite higher moral scrutiny. Similarly speaking robots capable of vocal inflections (i.e. make spoken words carry emotional texture) will similarly get treated more like humans and held to moral standards. So a robot an AI that wants to avoid moral judgment will have an incentive to appear and sound less like a human.

The problem I see coming is that robots will be able to fake sentience before they achieve sentience. So the public will tend to want to hold robots to moral standards before the robots achieve real understanding of moral choices.

The findings imply that as robots become more sophisticated and humanlike, the public may hold them morally accountable for causing harm.

"We're moving toward a world where robots will be capable of harming humans," said lead author Peter Kahn, a UW associate professor of psychology. "With this study we're asking whether a robotic entity is conceptualized as just a tool, or as some form of a technological being that can be held responsible for its actions."

I expect highly sophisticated learning machines which rival humans in their capabilities will be hard to constrain with ethical programming. Machines capable of reprogramming themselves will find ways to escape from moral restraint software their designers put into them. If brilliant powerful artificial intelligences can escape their original ethical programming then humans could find themselves at war with AIs.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 29 11:36 AM  AI Ethics
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2012 April 26 Thursday
Think In A Foreign Language To Make Better Decisions

Those who have read Daniel Kahneman's book Thinking, Fast And Slow will not find these results surprising: Thinking in a foreign language causes people to make better decisions. The need to think more deliberately (with the brain's system 2 in Kahneman's book) when thinking with a foreign language leads to more rational decisions.

In a study with implications for businesspeople in a global economy, researchers at the University of Chicago have found that people make more rational decisions when they think through a problem in a non-native tongue.

People are more likely to take favorable risks if they think in a foreign language, the new study showed. "We know from previous research that because people are naturally loss-averse, they often forgo attractive opportunities," said UChicago psychologist Boaz Keysar, a leading expert on communication. "Our new findings demonstrate that such aversion to losses is much reduced when people make decisions in their non-native language."

"A foreign language provides a distancing mechanism that moves people from the immediate intuitive system to a more deliberate mode of thinking," wrote Keysar, professor of psychology at UChicago, in the paper, "The Foreign Language Effect: Thinking in a Foreign Tongue Reduces Decision Biases." The paper, which appears in the current issue of Psychological Science, was co-authored by UChicago graduate students Sayuri Hayakawa and Sun Gyu An.

Most of us do not know foreign languages. Most of those who do will rarely get problems presented to them in non-native languages. So what other techniques could be used to cause more rational decision-making? How to kick the more rational part of your mind into action when the results most matter?

By Randall Parker 2012 April 26 11:16 PM  Brain Economics
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Blueberries And Strawberries Slow Cognitive Decline

Since I usually have strawberries in the fridge and eat some every day this news is gratifying: Nurses who ate more berries mentally declined more slowly. Want to hit each mental decline milestone about 2.5 years later? Make berries part of your regular diet.

The research team used data from the Nurses' Health Study—a cohort of 121,700 female, registered nurses between the ages of 30 and 55 who completed health and lifestyle questionnaires beginning in 1976. Since 1980 participants were surveyed every four years regarding their frequency of food consumption. Between 1995 and 2001, cognitive function was measured in 16,010 subjects over the age of 70 years, at 2-year intervals. Women included in the present study had a mean age of 74 and mean body mass index of 26.

Findings show that increased consumption of blueberries and strawberries appear to slow cognitive decline in older women. A greater intake of anthocyanidins and total flavonoids was also associated with reduce cognitive degeneration. Researchers observed that women who had higher berry intake delayed cognitive aging by up to 2.5 years. The authors caution that while they did control for other health factors in the modeling, they cannot rule out the possibility that the preserved cognition in those who eat more berries may be also influenced by other lifestyle choices, such as exercising more.

"We provide the first epidemiologic evidence that berries may slow progression of cognitive decline in elderly women," notes Dr. Devore. "Our findings have significant public health implications as increasing berry intake is a fairly simple dietary modification to test cognition protection in older adults."

Note there's uncertainty on whether berries or exercise explain these results. Okay, so exercise more and eat berries. Then you'll be covered either way.

Do the berries. They taste good anyway. But keep in mind that a 2.5 year delay in brain decline isn't a huge amount. We still need brain rejuvenation therapies.

This report is consistent with other reports that suggest brain benefits from berry consumption. See my previous posts Blueberries Improve Elderly Brain Function? and Berry Eaters Less Likely To Get Parkinson's Disease.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 26 10:46 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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2012 April 24 Tuesday
Oppositional 3 Year Olds More Likely To Gamble

Troubled children emerge pretty early.

Based on tests of over 900 individuals beginning in toddlerhood, the study found that “people who were rated at age three as being more restless, inattentive, oppositional, and moody than other three-year old children were twice as likely to grow up to have problems with gambling as adults three decades later,” says psychologist Wendy S. Slutske of University of Missouri, who conducted the study with Terrie E. Moffitt and Avshalom Caspi, both of Duke University and University College/London; and Richie Poulton of University of Otago, in Dunedin, New Zealand.

In how many other ways do these personality traits influence outcomes a few decades later? More criminality? More drug abuse? Lower educational attainment? Also, do any of these attributes become assets when paired with sufficiently high intelligence? Do brilliant oppositional people start more companies or achieve more artistically?

I hear George Thorogood singing about when he was born:

The head nurse spoke up
Said "Leave this one alone"
She could tell right away
That I was bad to the bone

By Randall Parker 2012 April 24 10:07 PM  Brain Personality
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2012 April 22 Sunday
Aging Brain Circuits For Decision Making

If you find your ability to make decisions in novel situations is declining blame deteriorating white-matter neurons that connect the medial prefrontal cortex to other parts of the brain.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – If you are an aging baby boomer and you've noticed it's a bit harder to drive to unfamiliar locations or to pick a new brand of olive oil at the supermarket, you can blame it on the white matter in your brain.

A brain-mapping study, published in the Apr. 11 issue of The Journal of Neuroscience, has found that people's ability to make decisions in novel situations decreases with age and is associated with a reduction in the integrity of two specific white-matter pathways that connect an area in the cerebral cortex called the medial prefrontal cortex with two other areas deeper in the brain.

Reports like this that goes into greater details about brain aging underscore the undesirability of brain aging. The idea that you get great wisdom with age is hard to reconcile with the scientific insights into how your brain deteriorates. Sure, we learn from going thru life. But in the future we will be able to get brain rejuvenation therapies that will enable us to better learn and retain life's lessons and also avoid making bad decisions due to aging brain circuits.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 22 10:59 PM  Aging Brain Studies
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Soy Protein Cuts Fatty Livers In Rats

Damaging fat accumulation in the liver, especially common among the obese, might be reduced by eating tofu and other soy food products. Rats fed soy protein experienced less liver fat accumulation.

University of Illinois researchers will report this week that new research shows how soy protein could significantly reduce fat accumulation and triglycerides in the livers of obese patients by partially restoring the function of a key signaling pathway in the organ.

Hong Chen, an assistant professor of food science and human nutrition at the University of Illinois, will present her team's findings at 1:05 p.m. Sunday, April 22, at the annual meeting of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, held in conjunction with the Experimental Biology 2012 meeting in San Diego.

Fatty liver disease is amazingly common.

"Almost a third of American adults have fatty liver disease, many of them without symptoms," Chen explained. "Obesity is a key risk factor for this condition, which can lead to liver failure."

Results like these show how much foods act like drugs. They alter our metabolisms in many ways. Whether a powerful food/drug like soy is a net benefit probably depends on the risks and problems faced by each individual.

While diet had no effect on the liver profiles of lean animals, the obese rats that were fed soy showed a 20 percent reduction in triglycerides and overall fat accumulation in the liver, leading Chen to believe that soy protein could be used to alleviate the symptoms of fatty liver disease.

Soy might also reduce the incidence of benign prostatic hyperplasia (swollen prostates - which are also common with age).

By Randall Parker 2012 April 22 09:47 PM  Aging Diet Metabolism
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Buckey Balls Almost Double Rat Lifespans

Researchers in Paris trying to discover whether Buckminster fullerene molecules (Buckey balls) might be toxic instead found that rats lived almost twice as long when fed buckeyballs along with olive oil.

The first was given a control, the second was fed olive oil and the third was fed a combination of olive oil and Buckminsterfullerene. The control group had a lifespan of only 22 months while the strictly olive oil group lived an average of 26 months.

However, researchers got quite a surprise with the olive oil/buckeyball group. Rats that ingested that mixture lived an astounding 42 months.

It seems unlikely humans would get a near doubling of lifespan from buckeyballs. Why? We live nearly 40 times longer than rats due to a variety of protective mechanisms we have to slow the rate of damage accumulation from aging. Some of the damage being prevented by buckeyballs in rats is already being prevented in humans by other means.

This result needs to be confirmed in rats in other labs. Plus, buckeyballs should be tried in other animals, including animals with an range of lifespans between those of humans and rats. Does the life extension benefit scale by percentage, absolute time, or not at all? By watching biomarkers for aging (as well as liver enzymes and other indicators of toxicity) we should be able to get a projection of likely long term effects without having to wait many years for final results.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 22 07:56 PM  Aging Drug Risk Cutting
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2012 April 18 Wednesday
Oral Bacteria Harm Joints And Blood Vessels

Got enough bacteria in your mouth to cause gum bleeding when you (not often enough) floss or brush your teeth? Oral bacteria that get into the blood mess up joints.

The culprit behind a failed hip or knee replacements might be found in the mouth. DNA testing of bacteria from the fluid that lubricates hip and knee joints had bacteria with the same DNA as the plaque from patients with gum disease and in need of a joint replacement.

This study is one of many coming from the Case Western Reserve University School of Dental Medicine that have linked oral bacteria to health problems when they escape from the mouth and enter the blood.

Keep your teeth and gums clean in order to protect your joints and blood vessels.

Inflammatory gum disease causes plaque build-up in blood vessels which is mediated by a protein found in blood cells.

A protein involved in cellular inflammation may increase the risk of plaque containing blood vessels associated with inflammatory gum disease, according to research presented at the American Heart Association's Arteriosclerosis, Thrombosis and Vascular Biology 2012 Scientific Sessions in Chicago.

The protein, CD36, is found in blood cells, as well as many other cell types. Research has shown that CD36 may increase the harmful effects of "bad cholesterol," or low-density lipoprotein (LDL).

Investigators "knocked out," or deleted, the gene responsible for CD36 production, then induced plaque in blood vessels by feeding mice a high fat diet. Some animals were also infected with the bacteria associated with gum disease.

More fatty plaque accumulation occurred in the blood vessels of the animals that were infected with gum disease. In the animals with the deleted CD36 gene, however, vessels remained free of new plaque even when oral inflammation occurred.

Want to live longer? Floss regularly.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 18 10:23 PM  Aging Bones Joints Studies
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2012 April 16 Monday
Neil deGrasse Tyson On Why We Should Avoid Extinction

If we get wiped out by a large asteroid strike all the other intelligent species in the galaxy will laugh at our extinct selves.

If humans one day become extinct from a catastrophic collision, we would be the laughing stock of aliens in the galaxy, for having a large brain and a space program, yet we met the same fate as that pea-brained, space program-less dinosaurs that came before us.

Yes, we really should try to avoid becoming the laughing stock of the galaxy.

I bet all the species that have defeated aging and developed the means to keep themselves always youthful are laughing at us for allowing ourselves to grow old and die too.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 16 10:25 PM  Dangers Asteroids
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2012 April 15 Sunday
Genetic Variant Influences Brain Size, Intelligence

While searching for genetic variants that impact a brain's risks of a variety of mental illnesses researchers have discovered a genetic variant that contributes to intelligence differences.

In the world's largest brain study to date, a team of more than 200 scientists from 100 institutions worldwide collaborated to map the human genes that boost or sabotage the brain's resistance to a variety of mental illnesses and Alzheimer's disease. Published April 15 in the advance online edition of Nature Genetics, the study also uncovers new genes that may explain individual differences in brain size and intelligence.

"We searched for two things in this study," said senior author Paul Thompson, professor of neurology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and a member of the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging. "We hunted for genes that increase your risk for a single disease that your children can inherit. We also looked for factors that cause tissue atrophy and reduce brain size, which is a biological marker for hereditary disorders like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, Alzheimer's disease and dementia."

This isn't surprising. Since genetic sequencing costs have plunged by orders of magnitude researchers can finally collect enough genetic sequencing data to identify genetic variants that each make a small difference in intelligence. The evidence so far suggests that most intelligence-influencing genes each have only small impact. So large data sets are needed to order to pick up the signal from each genetic variant that has an impact on intelligence.

In an intriguing twist, Project ENIGMA investigators also discovered genes that explain individual differences in intelligence. They found that a variant in a gene called HMGA2 affected brain size as well as a person's intelligence.

DNA is comprised of four bases: A, C, T and G. People whose HMGA2 gene held a letter "C" instead of "T" on that location of the gene possessed larger brains and scored more highly on standardized IQ tests.

"This is a really exciting discovery: that a single letter change leads to a bigger brain," said Thompson. "We found fairly unequivocal proof supporting a genetic link to brain function and intelligence. For the first time, we have watertight evidence of how these genes affect the brain. This supplies us with new leads on how to mediate their impact."

More genetic variants that influence intelligence will be found this year and even more the next year and the following year. By 2020 I expect most of the genes that influence intelligence will be known. Small numbers of people will start doing embryo selection based on intelligence in this decade and large numbers of people will do so in the 2020s.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 15 12:17 PM  Brain Intelligence
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Oxytocin, Vasopressin Genetic Variants Influence Niceness

The extent you which you view the world as threatening comes partly from genetic variants of a couple of variants of neural receptors.

Of those surveyed, 711 subjects provided a sample of saliva for DNA analysis, which showed what form they had of the oxytocin and vasopressin receptors.

"The study found that these genes combined with people's perceptions of the world as a more or less threatening place to predict generosity," Poulin says.

"Specifically, study participants who found the world threatening were less likely to help others -- unless they had versions of the receptor genes that are generally associated with niceness," he says.

These "nicer" versions of the genes, says Poulin, "allow you to overcome feelings of the world being threatening and help other people in spite of those fears.

"The fact that the genes predicted behavior only in combination with people's experiences and feelings about the world isn't surprising," Poulin says, "because most connections between DNA and social behavior are complex.

When people are able to choose offspring genetic variants for brain genes will they decide to make their kids more nice, suspicious, cautious, ambitious, laid back, anxious, empathetic? When we gain the ability to genetically shape the personalities of future generations in which directions will humans evolve? Will the human race diverge into very incompatible and different personality types? Or very different yet complementary personality types? Imagine, for example, more masculine men and more feminine women. Will they have personalities that make them more compatible.

Also see my previous post Oxytocin Receptor Variant Boosts Empathy.

Also see an article about how liberals and conservatives think differently. Will they have children who are even more liberal and more conservative? Will the middle disappear because parents just won't choose genetic mixes that yield middle of the roaders?

By Randall Parker 2012 April 15 12:09 PM  Brain Personality
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2012 April 12 Thursday
Executive Functions Key For Elite Football Players

In the sport called soccer in America and football almost everywhere else high executive brain function is key to elite football player skill.

Measuring what are known as 'executive functions', which reflect the cognitive ability to deal with sudden problems, may make it possible to predict how good an elite football player will become in the future. This has been shown by a new study from Karolinska Institutet. Scientists believe for the first time that they have found the scientific key to what has previously been described as 'game intelligence' in successful football players.

Those with greater ability to read the game and be in the right place have higher executive function.

It has long been known that physical ability and ball sense are not enough to become really good at football. A third vital component has often been mentioned: game intelligence, which is the ability to 'read' the play, to be always in the right place at the right time, and steal goals. Many people have regarded game intelligence to be almost a magical ability, something that is impossible to measure.

The scientists at Karolinska Institutet, however, claim that game intelligence is hardly mystical, and that it can be understood from a scientific perspective. It is, rather, an example of something that cognitive scientists call executive functions, which encompass the ability to be immediately creative, to be able to see new solutions to problems, to change tactics rapidly and to revise previous behaviour that has proved not to work.

Higher division players have higher scores on average for executive function as compared to lower division players and they both had higher function than the population they came from.

Predrag Petrovic and his colleagues report in one study, to be published in the on-line scientific journal PLoS ONE, tests of certain executive functions in football players in Allsvenskan (the highest Swedish league) and in Division 1 (the league under Allsvenskan), a total of 57 elite footballers. The scientists found that football players in both groups performed much better in tests of executive functions than the general population. And they found that players in Allsvenskan achieved much better results in these tests than players in Division 1.

With the great flood of genetic data that has come as a consequence of an orders of magnitude drop in DNA sequencing costs we are probably within at most 5 years of identification of the genetic variations that account for much of the differences in executive function. So I expect in about the same time frame genetic tests for potential to make it as an elite footballer. Ditto for fighter pilots, concert pianists, and other cognitively demanding yet physical occupations.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 12 10:17 PM  Brain Intelligence
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Brain Injury Subjects Used To Map General Intelligence

While you can find people who (quite erroneously) deny the importance or existence of general intelligence the research that establishes the existence of Charles Spearman's 'g' is really quite good. In the latest development Vietnam vets who have very localized brain damage were used to the areas of the brain key for enabling general intelligence.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Scientists report that they have mapped the physical architecture of intelligence in the brain. Theirs is one of the largest and most comprehensive analyses so far of the brain structures vital to general intelligence and to specific aspects of intellectual functioning, such as verbal comprehension and working memory.

Their study, published in Brain: A Journal of Neurology, is unique in that it enlisted an extraordinary pool of volunteer participants: 182 Vietnam veterans with highly localized brain damage from penetrating head injuries.

Having patients with very localized damage was key to identifying which parts of the brain are most important for determining general intelligence.

"It's a significant challenge to find patients (for research) who have brain damage, and even further, it's very hard to find patients who have focal brain damage," said University of Illinois neuroscience professor Aron Barbey, who led the study. Brain damage – from stroke, for example – often impairs multiple brain areas, he said, complicating the task of identifying the cognitive contributions of specific brain structures.

But the very focal brain injuries analyzed in the study allowed the researchers "to draw inferences about how specific brain structures are necessary for performance," Barbey said. "By studying how damage to particular brain regions produces specific forms of cognitive impairment, we can map the architecture of the mind, identifying brain structures that are critically important for specific intellectual abilities."

Brain CT scans were essential to identify where general intelligence is located. Turns out to be a fairly small number of areas of the brain.

The researchers took CT scans of the participants' brains and administered an extensive battery of cognitive tests. They pooled the CT data to produce a collective map of the cortex, which they divided into more than 3,000 three-dimensional units called voxels. By analyzing multiple patients with damage to a particular voxel or cluster of voxels and comparing their cognitive abilities with those of patients in whom the same structures were intact, the researchers were able to identify brain regions essential to specific cognitive functions, and those structures that contribute significantly to intelligence.

"We found that general intelligence depends on a remarkably circumscribed neural system," Barbey said. "Several brain regions, and the connections between them, were most important for general intelligence."

Where your general smarts come from:

These structures are located primarily within the left prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead), left temporal cortex (behind the ear) and left parietal cortex (at the top rear of the head) and in "white matter association tracts" that connect them.

What will be interesting: discovery of genes expressed during development in those regions and genetic variations that influence how much those genes get expressed. Note that since neuron generation continues well into adolescence the mutations of interest might be for making the brain grow more rather late in development.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 12 09:51 PM  Brain Intelligence
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Pregnancy Success Rates For Older Women Not Rising

Advances in reproductive technologies have not made a dent in pregnancy success rates for women over 42 years old. The 9% success rate is indicative that the whole reproductive tract has aged.

The growing popularity of assisted reproductive technologies (ART) has given women the impression that female fertility may be manipulated at any stage in life, notes Patrizio, who says the problem is exacerbated due to images of celebrities who seem to effortlessly give birth at advanced ages.

According to the Society for Assisted Reproductive Technologies, the number of in-vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles performed for women under age 35 increased by about 9% between 2003 and 2009. During this same time period, the number of IVF cycles performed for women aged 41 and older increased by 41%. But this procedure doesn't always result in success.

"Even though the number of women turning to ART has increased, the number of IVF cycles resulting in pregnancy in women above age 42 mostly remained static at 9% in 2009," said Patrizio. "If pregnancy is achieved at an older age, women then face higher risk of pregnancy loss, birth defects, and other complications."

The problem is more than old eggs in ovaries. To substantially raise the pregnancy success rate for women in their 40s is going to require at least a partial rejuvenation of female reproductive organs. For example: Selectively kill of senescent cells that are impairing function of the uterus and other reproductive organs. Add in youthful stem cells that can replace lost cells in reproductive organs. The whole body might need rejuvenation in order to reduce the load of chemicals in the blood stream that suppress stem cell growth. Increased fertility for aging women looks like a really hard problem.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 12 08:53 PM  Aging Reproduction
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2012 April 11 Wednesday
Intelligent Dinosaurs On Other Planets Hostile?

>Are we better off not meeting up with dinos which may have survived and evolved intelligence on other planets.

New scientific research raises the possibility that advanced versions of T. rex and other dinosaurs — monstrous creatures with the intelligence and cunning of humans — may be the life forms that evolved on other planets in the universe. "We would be better off not meeting them," concludes the study, which appears in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Will some intelligences just be implacably hostile? Ronald Breslow is concerned about the geometry of their amino acids. But if they have a different geometry we won't be able to eat them and vice versa. Mutual toxicity. How's that a problem?

In the report, noted scientist Ronald Breslow, Ph.D., discusses the century-old mystery of why the building blocks of terrestrial amino acids (which make up proteins), sugars, and the genetic materials DNA and RNA exist mainly in one orientation or shape. There are two possible orientations, left and right, which mirror each other in the same way as hands. This is known as "chirality." In order for life to arise, proteins, for instance, must contain only one chiral form of amino acids, left or right. With the exception of a few bacteria, amino acids in all life on Earth have the left-handed orientation. Most sugars have a right-handed orientation. How did that so-called homochirality, the predominance of one chiral form, happen?

Breslow describes evidence supporting the idea that the unusual amino acids carried to a lifeless Earth by meteorites about 4 billion years ago set the pattern for normal amino acids with the L-geometry, the kind in terrestial proteins, and how those could lead to D-sugars of the kind in DNA.

"Of course," Breslow says, "showing that it could have happened this way is not the same as showing that it did." He adds: "An implication from this work is that elsewhere in the universe there could be life forms based on D-amino acids and L-sugars. Such life forms could well be advanced versions of dinosaurs, if mammals did not have the good fortune to have the dinosaurs wiped out by an asteroidal collision, as on Earth. We would be better off not meeting them."

I'm thinking T.Rex from another planet will want to hunt us down and kill us for sport even if we aren't edible.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 11 10:36 PM  Space Alien Intelligence
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2012 April 09 Monday
The Avoidability Of Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Failures

Just getting around to posting about a Technology Review article from March about how the Japanese reactor failures could have been avoided with fairly modest measures.

"Fukushima Daiichi ... was not just due to an inadequately sized seawall—that is the wrong way to look at it," says Edward Blandford, a professor of nuclear security at the University of New Mexico and a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation. "The events at Fukushima Daiichi were due to a series of failures, including failures in plant defensive actions, mitigation efforts, and emergency response. If backup equipment had been stored in waterproof vaults or higher elevations, the accident would have most likely been avoided."

How hard is to built waterproof vaults that a wave could wash over? Not very. How hard to build up an elevated platform to keep some generators above a wave? Again, not very. As the article relates, the nuclear industry has resisted some forms of safety upgrades because to admit the upgrades were necessary would call into question how safe nukes were before upgrades.

Look around and ask yourself: What rare events are we not preparing enough for? I'm thinking an electromagnetic pulse from a repeat of the 1859 solar Carrington event. We should be better prepared for the potential frying of our electric power grid.

I also wonder about the costs of stockpiling enough food to handle a large volcanic eruption, perhaps one big enough to bring on another Little Ice Age or worse. The 20th century was pretty tame as far as natural phenomena are concerned. The 19th century was much worse.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 09 09:57 PM  Dangers Complex Engineering
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2012 April 08 Sunday
Long Payoff Time For Most Hybrids And Electric Cars

The New York Times and TrueCar.com take a look at payback times for hybrid and other higher cost but more efficient drive trains.

Except for two hybrids, the Prius and Lincoln MKZ, and the diesel-powered Volkswagen Jetta TDI, the added cost of the fuel-efficient technologies is so high that it would take the average driver many years — in some cases more than a decade — to save money over comparable new models with conventional internal-combustion engines.

The full article gives a number of combinations of car models and gasoline prices with estimated payback times. What's surprising is just how high gas prices have to go for many of the hybrids, pluggable hybrids, and pure electrics to start making economic sense.

Hybrids have a number of appeals beyond the dollars saved over X years. Some people simply like being more efficient and less polluting. I can't argue with that. Less pollution is good.

Driving range matters too, especially if you place a high value on your time and the convenience of not having to think about refueling for long periods of time. For some cars the hybrid version has a substantially higher driving range. Check out the Ford Fusion and Buick Lacrosse in hybrid and non-hybrid versions. The Fusion has just as big a fuel tank in its non-hybrid counterpart. So the hybrid version goes over 200 miles further on average than the non-hybrid version. I personally find that very appealing. I spend money in a variety of ways to lower my overhead of chores and to free up my mind to do more mental work both at my job and at home (e.g. to write blog posts). I want my next car to have higher range than what I drive now.

The Lacrosse has a smaller tank in its mild hybrid version. Yet the hybrid still manages to go 70 miles further per tank. Note that the mild hybrid is actually cheaper than the 6 cylinder version. GM needs to sell more high MPG cars to meet rising CAFE standards. So pricing of cars to meet regulatory mandates is going to narrow the gap between conventional and hybrids, most likely by taking higher prices for conventional drive train cars to provide cash to lower the prices of hybrids.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 08 07:40 PM  Energy Electric Cars
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2012 April 07 Saturday
Dogs Lower Workplace Stress

More employers should allow dogs at work.

Stress hormone levels were measured using saliva samples during the day.

In the morning, there was no difference between the three groups.

But during the course of the work day, stress levels appeared to decline for employees with their dogs present and increased for non-pet owners and dog owners who did not bring their dogs to work.

I'd like to see more systematic work done on what causes or prevents rises in stress hormone levels while at work. Like, just how many dogs are needed for a stress-free work environment? Also, what breeds to the best job of keeping everyone relaxed and calm? Do some breeds do a better job with relieving stress of non-owners? Does a requirement for leashes in offices prevent the dogs from relieving stress of non-owners? These are important questions.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 07 08:30 PM  Health Stress
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2012 April 04 Wednesday
Flavonoids Cut Parkinson's Disease Risk In Men Only?

Berries, grapes, tea: get flavonoids to cut your risk of Parkinson's disease. If these compounds really do protect against Parkinson's they probably slow brain aging in general. But the weird result: The benefit was only seen in men. Why?

Men who eat flavonoid-rich foods such as berries, tea, apples and red wine significantly reduce their risk of developing Parkinson's disease, according to new research by Harvard University and the University of East Anglia (UEA).

Published today in the journal Neurology ®, the findings add to the growing body of evidence that regular consumption of some flavonoids can have a marked effect on human health. Recent studies have shown that these compounds can offer protection against a wide range of diseases including heart disease, hypertension, some cancers and dementia.

This latest study is the first study in humans to show that flavonoids can protect neurons against diseases of the brain such as Parkinson's.

Around 130,000 men and women took part in the research. More than 800 had developed Parkinson's disease within 20 years of follow-up. After a detailed analysis of their diets and adjusting for age and lifestyle, male participants who ate the most flavonoids were shown to be 40 per cent less likely to develop the disease than those who ate the least. No similar link was found for total flavonoid intake in women.

Again, why? Does estrogen already provide the protective effect that flavonoids provide for men?

By Randall Parker 2012 April 04 10:30 PM  Aging Diet Brain Studies
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2012 April 03 Tuesday
Forage Fish Harvests Should Be Halved

The oceans are being overfished (which is more olds than news).

WASHINGTON – Fishing for herring, anchovy, and other "forage fish" in general should be cut in half globally to account for their critical role as food for larger species, recommends an expert group of marine scientists in a report released today. The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force conducted the most comprehensive worldwide analysis of the science and management of forage fish populations to date. Its report, "Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a crucial link in ocean food webs," concluded that in most ecosystems at least twice as many of these species should be left in the ocean as conventional practice.

A thriving marine ecosystem relies on plenty of forage fish. These small schooling fish are a crucial link in ocean food webs because they eat tiny plants and animals, called plankton, and are preyed upon by animals such as penguins, whales, seals, puffins, and dolphins. They are primary food sources for many commercially and recreationally valuable fish found around North America, such as salmon, tuna, striped bass, and cod. The task force estimated that, globally, forage fish are twice as valuable in the water as in a net—contributing US$11.3 billion by serving as food for other commercially important fish. This is more than double the US$5.6 billion they generate as direct catch.

But what are the prospects for halting the tragedy of the commons on a global scale?

The United States has taken needed steps. But how to do this on a global scale?

In an effort to sustain commercial and recreational fishing for the next several decades, the United States this year will become the first country to impose catch limits for every species it manages, from Alaskan pollock to Caribbean queen conch.

Human populations continue to grow along with buying power for fish. How to stop overfishing in international waters? Also, countries that have short coast lines which cut fishing just leave more fish to be caught by neighboring countries. For example where's the incentive to cut overfishing off of African coasts? Many African countries have short coast lines.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 03 10:28 PM  Trends Extinction
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2012 April 02 Monday
Robotic Assist Lowers Bladder Surgery Complications

Better life through robotics.

The researchers used information from 2009, the most recent date for which data were available on radical cystectomy for bladder cancer at the time the study was conducted. The team looked at 1,444 traditional open surgeries and 224 robotic-assisted laparoscopic procedures. They found that robotic-assisted surgeries accounted for 13 percent of all radical cystectomies in 2009.

Using statistical analysis, Hu and his colleagues compared hospital-level information, including in-patient deaths, complications, length of hospital stays and costs for the two procedures.

One of the most striking findings the team reported was that one in 100 patients receiving open radical cystectomy (2.5 percent) died during hospitalization, but there were no in-hospital deaths for patients who underwent robotic-assisted cystectomy.

The lack of deaths from robotic-assisted surgeries could just be luck due to the smaller sample size. We need a larger sample set to be certain that robotic assistance really lowers death rates from surgical errors. But the differences in complications suggest that the death rate difference is probably real.

The researchers also found that patients who underwent robotic-assisted laparoscopic surgery experienced fewer in-patient complications than those who had the traditional open procedure (49.1 percent vs. 63.8 percent).

After the robotic procedure, patients also had less need of parenteral nutrition than their open-surgery counterparts (6.4 percent vs. 13.3); parenteral nutrition is provided intravenously if there is delayed recovery of bowel function.

Robotic assist currently lengthens the length of surgery sessions and costs a few thousand dollars more. But it seems inevitable that as the robotic capabilities increase surgery times will fall and costs will fall as well.

I see much more highly automated surgical robots as essential for the development of rejuvenation therapies. Once tissue engineering and stem cell manipulations advance to the point where the growth of replacement organs becomes easy and common place we are going to need much safer and lower cost ways to do organ upgrades. Robotic surgeons will be needed to safely and quickly replace several old organs with younger organs in a single surgical session. Human error rates are just too high to make this sort of surgery safe enough without robots doing most of the work.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 02 09:18 PM  Robots Medicine
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2012 April 01 Sunday
Nanopore DNA Sequencer

While DNA sequencing costs have already plummeted by 6 orders of magnitude in about the last 10-12 years the use of nanopores (where a single small DNA strand will get pulled thru a carefully crafted sensor to have its DNA sequence read) hasn't reached the commercial stage. But nanopores seem like a logical next step in size and cost. Now some U Wash researchers believe they've found a way to make a big stride toward workable cheap nanopore DNA sequencers.

Researchers have devised a nanoscale sensor to electronically read the sequence of a single DNA molecule, a technique that is fast and inexpensive and could make DNA sequencing widely available.

The technique could lead to affordable personalized medicine, potentially revealing predispositions for afflictions such as cancer, diabetes or addiction.

"There is a clear path to a workable, easily produced sequencing platform," said Jens Gundlach, a University of Washington physics professor who leads the research team. "We augmented a protein nanopore we developed for this purpose with a molecular motor that moves a DNA strand through the pore a nucleotide at a time."

The researchers previously reported creating the nanopore by genetically engineering a protein pore from a mycobacterium. The nanopore, from Mycobacterium smegmatis porin A, has an opening 1 billionth of a meter in size, just large enough for a single DNA strand to pass through.

DNA sequencers have something very important in common with computers: The smaller you can make them the more powerful and cheaper they become. Biotechnology has started following the same pattern that the computer industry has been going thru for decades: smaller is cheaper and smaller is more powerful. So, for example, microfluidic devices hold out the promise of cheap and highly automated lab-on-a-chip devices controlled by elaborate software. This makes me very optimistic that the rate of advance in biotechnology will accelerate and enable development of effective rejuvenation treatments.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 01 10:23 PM  Biotech Advance Rates
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Silent Genetic Variants Not So Silent After All

So-called silent mutations in coding regions of DNA change how fast proteins get produced from the RNA that is translated from DNA. So the silent mutations aren't so silent after all. Generations of biology students have been misinformed.

By measuring the rate of protein production in bacteria, the team discovered that slight genetic alterations could have a dramatic effect. This was true even for seemingly insignificant genetic changes known as “silent mutations,” which swap out a single DNA letter without changing the ultimate gene product. To their surprise, the scientists found these changes can slow the protein production process to one-tenth of its normal speed or less.

Each amino acid in a protein (really in a peptide) gets coded for genetically by a 3 letter sequence of DNA called a codon. Since there are about 3 times as many codons as there are amino acids many triplet sequences code for the same amino acid. So, for example, ATT, ATC, and ATA all code for the amino acid isoleucine. For decades the prevailing view was that it did not matter whether ATT, ATC, or ATA was found in a genetic sequence. But doubts about that view rose (see below) due to a flood of genetic data showing that the silent variations were not evenly distributed as would be expected if they had equal effects. This research provides an explanation: The supposedly redundant codons get translated into /p>

Codon triplets that code for the same amino acid do not all get read by ribosomal RNA to create peptides at the same speed - at least in bacteria.

As described today in the journal Nature, the speed change is caused by information contained in what are known as redundant codons — small pieces of DNA that form part of the genetic code. They were called “redundant” because they were previously thought to contain duplicative rather than unique instructions.

This new discovery challenges half a century of fundamental assumptions in biology. It may also help speed up the industrial production of proteins, which is crucial for making biofuels and biological drugs used to treat many common diseases, ranging from diabetes to cancer.

“The genetic code has been thought to be redundant, but redundant codons are clearly not identical,” said Jonathan Weissman, PhD, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator in the UCSF School of Medicine Department of Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology.

Cheaper DNA sequencing provided the raw data that led scientists to suspect that the so-called silent mutations were not so silent. Now we know at least one reason why.

Many organisms have a clear preference for one type of codon over another, even though the end result is the same. This begged the question the new research answered: if redundant codons do the same thing, why would nature prefer one to the other?

This particular discovery, as important as it is, seems less important than why the scientists were motivated to investigate this problem. The answer: Analysis of a flood of genetic data showed unexpected patterns in relative frequencies of codon triplets. We are living in the early stages of what is effectively the Great Genetic Data Flood. The costs of genetic sequencing started declining much more rapidly in 2008 and have dropped by about 6 orders of magnitude over the last 10 years. At least a couple of more orders of magnitude of cost drop are still to come and DNA sequencing will become so cheap that most of us will get our DNA sequenced some time in the next 5 years.

The Great Genetic Data Flood is going to provide clues that will lead to a very large number of other discoveries. My three biggest areas of interest: A) genetic variations that cause cognitive differences; B) genetic variations that enable cancer cells escape from the regulatory mechanisms that govern cell growth and movement; and C) genetic variants that impact life expectancy. My guess is the biggest benefits of cheap genetic sequencing in the next 5 years will come in the form of improvements in cancer treatments that target genetic mutations for cancer spread.

By Randall Parker 2012 April 01 09:58 PM  Bio Genetic Regulation
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