Some great science fiction movies have depicted the protagonist sitting in front of a beautiful landscape with chirping birds and incredible gardens (Aliens, Total Recall, etc). Spooky Science Fiction has yet again struck close to reality.
Called the SkyCeiling, it uses high resolution imagery on embedded image tiles to give the looker a true 3D experience. Some of the technology they use in developing the SkyCeiling is used currently to treat seasonal depression. It provides “daylight-balanced light (the same light used to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder) for rich color rendition and recognition as ‘natural’ daylight.” The hope is that the product would help sooth and calm people in hospitals who are unnerved by the white and sterile environment.
One chapter of The End of the American Century focuses on the relatively poor levels of health care in the U.S., and how badly it fares in comparison to other wealthy countries. As I point out there, this is surprising in many ways “because the United States indeed does have available the best medical care in the world and spends more on health care than any other country.” But “because there are so many poor people in the United States and so many people without access to health care, the average level of health and medical care in the United States is among the worst in the developed world.” In the late 1990s, the World Health Organization ranked the U.S. at 37th in the world in the overall performance of the health system. This was the lowest ranking of any country in the OECD. “
New data reported in the New York Times confirms these disturbing trends. The United States now ranks 29th in the world on infant mortality rates which, as the Times points out, is “one of the most important indicators of the health of a nation and the quality of its medical system.” The U.S. ranking has declined sharply since 1960, when its ranking was 12th in the world.
This international gap has widened even though the U.S. spends far more on health care than most other wealthy countries, on both a per capita basis and as a percentage of GDP. In 2006, according to the Times, “Americans spent $6714 per capita on health—more than twice the average of other industrialized countries.”
Grace Marie Turner, president of the Galen Institute, a conservative research organization, told the Times “infant mortality and our comparison with the rest of the world continue to be an embarrassment to the United States.”
The changes that we observe around us are accelerating, and in a positive feedback loop the successive cycles feed on the previous ones’ effects. The source of these changes is technology, as application of the increased knowledge we have of the world around us. As individuals, and as societies we have demonstrated to be very capable of adapting to the changes of our environment, but this necessarily has limits.
Here’s another good reason to lay off that super-sized combo with extra fries: bad sperm. Besides being the cause of diabetes, heart disease, and back problems, a large waistline can also affect fertility. And not in a good way.
Researchers at the University of Aberdeen conducted a study involving the sperm of more than 2,000 men who were having trouble conceiving. The results, presented at a recent conference of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology in Barcelona, revealed a substantial difference between the sperm of obese men and those of normal weight. The men were divided into four different groups, depending on Body Mass Index. Men with an optimal BMI of 20 to 25 had a healthy level of normal sperm, while the opposite occurred with heavier men. Findings show obese men produce more abnormal sperm as well as lower volumes of seminal fluid.
My post last week on the Demise of Death received so many thought provoking comments that I feel compelled to further the discussion in another post. The new information and perspectives contained in the the comments have transformed the way I intend to approach parts of the debate. With such a fertile discussion ground, I felt I would be remiss if I did not give attention and thanks to several of the eloquently expressed ideas.
Here’s the point-by-point update:
Nanotech & Biotech Will Not Necessarily End Death: That death may remain even if aging is cured was a point raised by a few of the commentors. If our bodies did not deteriorate into death, fatal accidents, acts of violence etc. could still bring about mortality. I realize that my rationale for thinking we may be able to conquer death altogether was somewhat obscure in my first post. One theory proposed by futurists and transhumanists, is that to truly conquer aging, we will not be able to rely merely on stem cells, genetic therapies and drugs.
These treatments can, the theory argues, only go so far to combat cellular deterioration. If we are to truly end, and not merely delay aging, we would eventually have to develop nanobots capable of precisely repairing cells. My own logic followed that if we are able to create effective cellular-repair nanobots, we will have mastered nanotechnology and it will serve a number of other functions beyond cellular repair.
Prolific poster Dick Pelletier has pointed out a few times that if nanobot technology were mastered, we could, in theory, surround ourselves in a sort of thin nanobot shield that could, in theory, protect us from violence and accident. Perhaps I have taken this rationale too far. It does not logically follow that by ending aging we will necessarily end death by accident or violence, but I think it is at least a reasonable possibility.
Taking Control of Your Fate Opens Pandora’s Box: Let us consider my original conjecture is incorrect and that we will be able to bring an end to aging, but not death by accident or violence. If this becomes true, we will, in effect be gaining a greatly extended life at the expense of knowing that death will certainly come either by violence, violent accident or suicide. I cannot help but think these are all troubling ends.
Admittedly, most deaths now are troubling. Death by disease and aging is most often the end of a long, painful, degrading, messy battle. But, at present, we can at least hope to be one of the lucky few to die comfortably, unknowingly in their sleep. This hope will be eliminated if aging is defeated.
Even to me the benefits outweigh the downsides, but it is deeply disturbing to know you will one day kill yourself if you aren’t hit by a bus or murdered first. This is in part what I meant when I wrote that I considered myself a part of nature and do not wish to be removed from the natural process. Taking your fate out of the hands of nature results in some very difficult decisions.
Accepting Suicide? This idea of death occurring either by chance or choice is tied to another point raised in the comments. Johnfrink said, “I’m pretty sure if we conquer death eternal life will not be forced on anybody.” And I am inclined to agree. It is unlikely that in a future without aging, omniscient police will parole the streets taking into custody all those thinking of ending it all. But that doesn’t mean suicide will be any more desirable than it is today.
Mapping the human genome was a great accomplishment, but genes are little more than a list of chemicals – much like a parts list for a jumbo jet. The list isn’t much good unless you know what each part does and how it fits with other parts. Scientists are just now beginning to understand these inter-workings with our genes – how they keep our bodies young and fit, or allow aging and sickness to take over.
Recently, scientists at MIT’s Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research have, for the first time, revealed the “controlling elements” of the yeast genome – findings that can immediately be used towards deciphering the human genome.
The key to understanding how genes are controlled lies in tiny bits of chemicals called regulators that intermittently land on a region of DNA and switch that cell’s genes on or off. This switching responds to temperature changes in the body, availability of certain nutrients, and outside chemical messengers. If switched the wrong way, genes can make diabetes, cancer, and other debilitating diseases begin their horrifying trip – if switched the right way, they protect us.
To date, very few regulators have been identified. Locating their landing sites is essential to identifying their function, and therein lays the rub – gene regulators are hard to find. They typically just land on a small stretch of DNA, do their job, and then take off again. And owing to the vastness of the genome, locating just one gene regulator with conventional lab tools can take many years.
But the MIT team developed a method for scanning an entire genome and quickly identifying the precise landing sites for its gene regulators. As a result, scientists now understand how genes and their regulators “talk” to each other. The next challenge is to scale the platform so it can tackle the human genome, something that the researchers are gearing up to do now.
An honest assessment of my exposure to the extreme life-extension meme.
Since being exposed to the idea of extreme life extension, which admittedly was only several months ago, I’ve found myself reacting in a more skeptical and reactionary manner than I often do when confronted with other radical new futuristic ideas and technologies. When I read about possibilities of faster than light travel, I get excited. Predictions of nano-assemblers make me hopeful. I find designs for colonies on the Moon and Mars fascinating. But when I read about trends in regenerative medicine and nanotechnology that some experts believe will conquer death, I am not enthusiastic. Instead I become very skeptical, nervous and even angry. On one level, I am surprised that I could be anything other than overjoyed that ending death could be a possibility, I very much enjoy life and, as a living organism, I have a strong instinct to stay alive. Yet I find it extremely difficult to wrap my head around the idea of life without death.
So why does extreme life extension make me uncomfortable? I’m not, nor have I ever been a religious person, though I have respect for those who are. I was raised by two atheists with PhDs in science and I haven’t ever held out hope for an afterlife. It’s not that I don’t value human life – I value it very much. As a humanist, I believe very strongly that each human life is sacred and unique and believe it is within our power, and is indeed our responsibility, to work towards giving every person as good a life as possible. I also don’t believe I am a Luddite. I am increasingly excited about technology in general, I love my cellphone and the new snazzier one I will someday get. I love my computer and wonders of the Internet. I’m fascinated by the promise of the Semantic Web. I also embrace any technology that could cure diseases or repair injuries. But when it comes to anything that may fundamentally change the way I am or the way people are in general, I am very hesitant.
I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the reactions, thoughts and feelings I have when pondering extreme life extension, as I think they probably overlap with those of the people who have been or will be exposed to these ideas.
The logic problem: Defying death seems to break down logic
When I think about the end of death, I find it hard to express myself in logical, objective terms. I am tempted to call my reactions
against extreme life extension a “bias” because there is undoubtedly an emotional aspect and I do have a predisposition against the idea. But “bias” implies an illogical perspective – can considering death a certainty really be regarded as illogical? I begin to think, “Hasn’t everything that has ever lived also died?” Well, yes, except of course for the trillions of life forms that are alive right now. So the answer becomes not “Everything that has ever lived has died.” but “Everything that has ever died, has died.” This answer is so logically recursive that it isn’t even that useful.
Squirting a little nasal spray up the nose before
mealtime is helping obese people shed an average of 50 lbs in a
year. Nastech Pharmaceutical Company of Bothell, WA said its
compound, known as PYY, addresses obesity
and other ailments suffered by overweight patients – diabetes, high
blood pressure, heart disease, arthritis, and cancer.
Statistics show that 65% of Americans are overweight and nearly
half of them are considered obese. In an Associated Press
interview, Nastech CEO Steven Quay stated
that in tests, PYY reduced patients’
daily calorie intake by 30 percent.
PYY is a naturally occurring hormone
that our body sends to the brain 45 minutes after eating to tell us
we’re full. This mechanism kept our ancestors from eating too much,
but it doesn’t kick in fast enough for people eating today’s
high-calorie, high-fat foods. Obesity, researchers say, is a direct
result of our inherited genes.
Genes control every function of our body, and are essentially
the same as those of our early ancestors. Feed those genes well,
and they do their job – keeping us healthy. Give those genes
nutrients that are unfamiliar or in the wrong ratios, and they
speed up aging and lead to disease.
In the past we have consumed certain drugs because they keep us
awake or make us feel good, even if they had dangerous side
effects; but soon we will come across powerful drugs and techniques
to boost our cognitive capabilities.
As an example, a recently developed drug has caught some
attention. In the healthy human being, Provigil
fatigue and suppresses sleep. That sounds great when you walk into
your office exhausted and you can’t imagine going through the rest
of the day without it; but it was originally used in the treatment
of narcolepsy. (The off-label use of this drug resulted in a $425
million penalty for Cephalon), the
producer.) Provigil is known to boost working memory, executive
function and attention and has attracted a variety of fans ranging
from athletes to the French military.
In comparison, tobacco was promoted in 1560 for their medicinal
uses, and as early as the Stone Age humans chewed plants containing
caffeine to stimulate awareness, ease fatigue, and elevate mood.
We’ve seen how both the caffeine and nicotine industries have
shaped today. Provigil, our contemporary counterpart, is newer to
the game but its effects are stronger and safety is still debated.
Might they be even safer than caffeine and nicotine? How will
Provigil and other developing enhancers shape the future?
From an ethical dimension, humans have been taking drugs for a
while, including the aforementioned, and in a way we have
co-evolved together with them. They were useful to us, and so we
helped them to reproduce and scale. We might try to imagine how the
world would be without coffee and cigarettes – might that lead to
lower productivity or other negatives? It’s certainly difficult to
quantify. Jumping forward, what if we increased productivity by 10%
by using new drugs such as Provigil? How would/will this transform
our economy? How intrusive are we willing to get?
Our understanding of aging in animals owes a great debt to a
large body of careful work in a single-celled organism, the
brewer’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Indeed, as I’ve
before, yeast is one of the two organisms with the strongest
credible claim to have started modern biogerontology. An unusually
large crop of yeast aging papers have appeared over the last few
months, and I thought it would be appropriate to spend a few
paragraphs describing them — in honor of this humble organism that
rises our bread, ferments our beer, and has done so much to open
our eyes to the fundamental mechanisms of aging.
For those unfamiliar with the yeast field or simply wishing a
clearly written and nearly comprehensive summary, Steinkraus et al. provide the historical
perspective. The piece thoroughly reviews the development of yeast
as a model system in aging, as well as the arguments in favor of a
connection between results in yeast and well-established (but
sometimes hard-to-test) hypotheses in animals.
Based on the influence that yeast has already had on
biogerontology as a whole, it seems fair to claim that it will
continue to reveal fundamentals of aging that are conserved across
Stress resistance at the cellular level is correlated with
longevity at the organismal level, to such an extent that one can
screen for longevity mutants by first identifying
stress-resistant animals. Conversely, the cells of prematurely
aging mutants tend to be
hypersensitive to stress. The idea here is that longevity is
controlled in part by basal and inducible molecular defenses like
antioxidants and chaperones, and that high levels of such factors
confer both stress resistance and enhanced longevity.
What’s interesting about this pattern is that it seems to apply
to a wide range of multiple stresses, with very different physical
bases: oxidation, irradiation, starvation, heavy metal toxicity,
and temperature, to name a few. Without a great deal of
experimental proof to support it, one can imagine some central
homeostatic integrator of cellular well-being, upon which all
manner of perturbations might impinge and which might in turn
control both the appropriate defensive responses and factors that
It would therefore come as a surprise if a long-lived organism
turned out to be unusually sensitive to stress — and in particular,
sensitive to particular stresses. In one fell swoop, this
would falsify both the general, well-accepted correlative pattern
(stress resistance = longevity) and the somewhat more fanciful
model of a central homeostatic integrator.
align=”right” width=”100”>Lo, the naked mole rat,
Heterocephalus glaber. A eusocial rodent roughly
intermediate in size between a mouse and a rat (depending on where
you shop), and slightly less aesthetically pleasing than an
overcooked boudin blanc with teeth, the naked mole rat has
recently drawn the attention of model-hungry biogerontologists
worldwide: Perhaps because of the
quirky selection pressures on eusocial animals, H.
glaber is unusually long-lived compared to animals of similar
size and body plan (like mice and rats). Like, ten times
longer-lived. So, compared to mice and rats, mole rats should be
much more resistant to all stresses, right? (cont.)