The Planarian Flatworm: A Gateway to Human Immortality?

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A planarian is a species one of many non-parasitic flatworms. Planaria are common to many parts of the world, living in both salt-water and in freshwater ponds and rivers.  They are remarkable creatures. Some planarians exhibit an extraordinary ability to regenerate lost body parts. For example, a planarian split either lengthwise or crosswise will regenerate into two separate individuals.

Recently, one particular species of planarian,  S. mediterranea has emerged as the species of choice for modern molecular biological and genomic research due to its diploid chromosomes and the existence of both asexual and sexual strains. Recent genetic screens utilizing double-stranded RNA technology have uncovered 240 genes that affect regeneration in S. mediterranea. Many of these genes have “Orthologs” in the human genome. Orthologs are genes in different species that evolved from a common ancestral gene by speciation. Normally, orthologs retain the same function in the course of evolution. Identification of orthologs is critical for reliable prediction of gene function in newly sequenced genomes.

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The life cycle and  traits of planarians make them a model system for investigating a number of biological processes, many of which may well have implications for human health and disease. Even immortality. However, the flatworm’s regeneration ability has attracted a lot of attention. It may pave the way for humans to gain the ability to regenerate lost limbs and perhaps even organs. More recently Planarians are being examined in reserach into ageing.  That is because these animals have an apparently limitless regenerative capacity, and the asexual animals seem to maintain their “telomerase” levels throughout their lifetime, making them effectively immortal.

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Telomerase is an enzyme, active chiefly in tumours and reproductive cells, that  facilitates cell division and may account for the immortality of some cancer cells.

As we humans share a number of genes with Planaria, in theory it may be possible to use the planaria genes in bio-engineering the human body, so that we too can regenerate and have infinite longevity.

 

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Soylent…And it’s not Green!

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At first it may seen disingenuous to create an edible product and call it Soylent. For those of a certain age (ahem!) we might associate Soylent with “Soylent Green” the movie set in the future and featuring Charlton Heston as a Law Enforcer in a  world where there are too many people and not enough food. He discovers the secret of the new wonder product that is feeding masses, Soylent Green- it’s reconstituted dead human flesh!

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However to call a truly revolutionary product “Soylent” makes sense. That film was set in a world where the population was growing and while more and more land had to be turned over into mega-farms to feed people, more and more people were starving.  The film was made in 1973, yet does the main theme sound familiar today?

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Robert Rhinehart (pictured above) set out to create a food product that was relatively cheap, very nutritional, and that didn’t require acres of arable land to be carved from the rain forests or other precious land spaces of our world. Rhinehart wanted to develop a simpler food source that didn’t take producers and consumers time, energy, money and space to create nutritionally complete meals.

 Soylent is a food product (classified as a food, not a supplement, by the US FDA) designed for use as a staple meal by any and all adults. Each serving of Soylent provides maximum nutrition with minimum effort. As the primary source of energy for the body, carbohydrates are the largest component of Soylent by mass.  Soylent comes in a dry powder form along with an oil blend. You mix both of these with water for each serving. It requires no heating or other cooking and has an extended shelf life. Quick, easy and (without the fish oil blend) totally Vegan, if that’s your bag- you’ll just have to add your own plant-based oil blend in order to get the right nutritional profile.

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The powdered component of Soylent is vegan. Our separate oil blend contains non-vegan ingredients (fish oil). If you are vegetarian/vegan, you can opt out of receiving our oil blend. Once you get your powder, make sure to add your own plant-based oil blend in order to ensure the correct nutritional profile.

Costwise, you will spend less than $10 per day on food, and less than $4 per meal – get more than a day’s worth of meals for less than the cost of takeaway. In terms of sterling, a month’s worth of food will cost a mere £40 if you take only Soylent.

The 25-year-old entrepreneur puts his money (and his product) where his mouth is: He has been living off his Soylent invention for almost a year now. There are reports that it’s to be tested by the US military, too, where logistics for supplying and feeding troops in the field can be a major headache when operating in remote and inhospitable regions.

With so many cooking programmes and celebrity chefs around, one might think that a food drink that has a neutral taste, may not find favour. But not everyone wants to wax lyrical or spend time and money over a small plate of expensive exquisitely prepared food.  Over 10,00 people are day are reported to now be placing orders on-line for Soylent to be delivered to them.

Shipments to Britain are reportedly coming soon.

In a long profile of the entrepreneur in the New Yorker recently, he recounted how he first developed Soylent after the cost of food became a “burden” while working for a cash-strapped tech start-up in California. In his blog he says that drinking it for the first time left him feeling like the “six million dollar man” with “clearer” skin, “whiter” hair and a “notably improved” physique.

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There are sceptics, of course. Some scientists claim that Soylent misses some essential ingredients for the adult male, namely sulphur, lycopene (found in tomatoes) and trace elements. They also say that the absence of mastication (chewing food, rather than drinking only) will have long-term effects on the mouth gums and teeth. Maybe Soylent chewing gum next?

Foodies laugh at a food product that has no taste, yet there are a growing number of people, fuelled by the many scandals about food preparation (Halal?), contents (horse-meat?), and poisoning incidences (salmonella?) that are turning their back on what they call the “tyranny” of the food industry, who are turning to Soylent.

Me? I just couldn’t bear living in a world without a traditional English breakfast, fish and chips and a Sunday roast. But each to his or her own. I wonder what Charlton Heston would think?

 

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Immortality: It’s Here Already!

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Immortality is already here… but only if you are a certain species of jellyfish!
Now we’re not talking Portuguese Man-o-War giant jellyfish, but Turritopsis nutricula which weighs in at a mere 5mm in length. It has the ability to revert its cells back to their earliest form and start growing anew. Over and over again. This usually happens in response to a crisis, but scientists have seen this occur repetitively. Just imagine if we could revert back to being a new-born babe in response to a crisis such as learning that you’re going to get the sack from work, you’ve got rising damp in the downstairs kitchen, or, best of all, you’ve been told you’ve got a rare disease and only weeks to live!
The tiny creature was discovered in the Mediterranean Sea in 1883, but its unique ticket to immortality through regression and then  regeneration was not known until the mid-1990s.
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If a mature Turritopsis is threatened and this can include  receiving actual injury or lack of food and starvation,  it attaches itself to a surface in warm ocean waters and converts itself  into a micro-blob. From that state, its cells undergo “transdifferentiation”,  transforming into different types of cells. Muscle cells can become sperm or eggs, or nerve cells can change into muscle cells. This is something never before seen in the animal kingdom, and may be the only creature capable of doing this.
Is every Turritopsis immortal and death-defying? No. Before they are mature adults, they can die of injury, disease, being eaten by predators,  or starvation  without having the ability to revert back to a blob, regenerate and save themselves. Even after maturation, they can still die through an instant trauma, such as being eaten, washed up out of the sea, or sucked into a cargo-ships tanks and poisoned. But if there’s enough warning and the environment itself isn’t hostile, then hey-presto- transdifferentiation and a new phase of life begins, which can be repeated ad nauseum.
The trick of course is to see if the mini-jellyfish DNA is compatible with other animals, and eventually humans. For now, we’ve just got to look after ourselves, and take it on the chin and carry on whenever we encounter crises!
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Action! Directing your Dreams may soon be Possible

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It’s always been one of our dreams… to be able to direct our dreams. it’s known as lucid dreaming. A dream state where you are totally or partially aware of being in a dream and being able to act and direct yourself and others within it. Imagine being the star, director, and scriptwriter for your own ultra-realistic dream-film!

Scientists have discovered that it is possible to induce lucid dreaming in sleepers by applying mild electrical currents to their scalps, a recent  study reported in the publication Nature Neuroscience says.

Professor J Allan Hobson, from Harvard Medical School co-authored the paper. He said:

“The key finding is that you can, surprisingly, by scalp stimulation, influence the brain. And you can influence the brain in such a way that a sleeper, a dreamer, becomes aware that he is dreaming.” 

It is a continuation of previous research in this field  led by Dr Ursula Voss of Johann Wolfgang Goethe-University in Germany who said:

“Lucid dreaming is a very good tool to observe what happens in the brain and what is causally necessary for secondary consciousness.”

Prof. Hobson also thought it could have medical benefits:

As a model for mental illness, understanding lucid dreaming is absolutely crucial. “I would be cautious about interpreting the results as of direct relevance to the treatment of medical illnesses, but [it’s] certainly a step in the direction of understanding how the brain manages to hallucinate and be deluded.”

By examining the sleepers’ REM (Rapid Eye Movements- the indicator of deep sleep dreaming) and brainwaves over a range of frequencies, scientists have found that lucid dreamers demonstrate a shift towards a more “awake-like” state in the frontal and temporal parts of the brain, with the peak in increased activity occurring around 40Hz.

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The study involved 27 volunteers, none of whom had experienced lucid dreaming before. The researchers waited until the volunteers were experiencing uninterrupted REM sleep before applying electrical stimulation to the frontal and temporal positions of the volunteers’ scalps. The applied stimulation had a variety of frequencies between two and 100Hz, but neither the experimenter nor the volunteer was informed which frequency was used, or even whether a current was applied. Five to 10 seconds later the volunteers were roused from their sleep and asked to report on their dreams. Brain activity was monitored continuously throughout the experiment.

The results showed that stimulation at 40Hz (and to a lesser extent at 25Hz) resulted in an increase in brain activity of around the same frequency in the frontal and temporal areas. They  found that such stimulation, more often than not, induced an increased level of lucidity in the dreams of  the sleepers.

The authors suggest triggering lucid dreaming in sleepers might enable them to control nightmares, for example returning soldiers  suffering with PTSD; post-traumatic stress disorder.

But for others, the chance to be “awake within a dream” may be possible… perhaps a dream come true?

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The AI that Knows What You’re Thinking….

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If you are a scientist specialising in the development of AI, artificial intelligence,  then you are in demand, big time! Silicon Valley Facebook, Google and other leading tech companies are jockeying to hire top scientists in the field of artificial intelligence, while spending heavily on a quest to make computers think more like people. Forget humanoid robots doing chores… at least for the moment. The race is currently on for computers that understand exactly what you want, perhaps even before you’ve asked them. It’s to make the human-computer interface more even, more compatible and more intuitive.  But it could also mean that the AI will know what you’re thinking… and that’s a bit freaky!

Of course, we already have AI programs can already recognise images and translate human speech. But tech researchers and scientists want to build systems that can match the human brain’s ability to handle more complex challenges. These can include to intuitively predict traffic conditions while steering automated cars or drones, for example, or to grasp the intent behind written texts and spoken messages rather than interpret them literally and slavishly.

Google paid a reported $US400 million in January to buy DeepMind, a British start-up said to be working on artificial intelligence for image recognition, e-commerce recommendations and video games. DeepMind had also drawn interest from Facebook.

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The ultimate goal is something closer to “Samantha,” the personable operating system voiced by actress Scarlett Johansson in the film “Her”.

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Already, Google has used artificial intelligence to improve its voice-enabled search and Google Now, as well as its mapping and self-driving car projects. Google CEO Larry Page said this at a TED technology conference last month.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of exciting work going on, that crosses computer science and neuroscience, in terms of really understanding what it takes to make something smart.”

He then showed videos from Google and DeepMind projects in which computer systems learned to recognise cats from other animals and play games – without detailed programming instructions.

Google and Facebook both hope to do more with “deep learning,” in which computer networks teach themselves to recognise patterns by analysing vast amounts of data, rather than rely on programmers to tell them what each pattern represents. The networks tackle problems by breaking them into a series of steps, the way layers of neurons work in a human brain.

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For some, a powerful artificial brain that knows your preferences and habits and anticipates your wants and needs is a bit frightening and companies will need to consider ethics and privacy as they develop new services. The idea is to help us humans, not to cause us anxiety. If it all gets to much, you can always reach for the power switch and turn of the juice… but will the AI have anticipated that already? Click!

 

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Will l Live to be 200?

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A lot of people think there is no chance of celebrating their 100th birthday. But what about their 200th birthday? Inconceivable? Not at all!

Look at some facts: Life expectancy on average was a mere two decades-20 years- a thousand years ago. It leapt to 37  by 1800. Life expectancy is now about  80. Could you add another 120 years to that to make it 200? It is possible.

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Increasing life expectancy is big business right now. The very rich don’t want to doe just yet; so people like Larry Ellison (pictured above), Larry Page and Sergey Brin are investing large amounts of their considerable accumulated fortunes into helping them, and us, all live longer.

For those of us who are less than half-way through our lives, assuming we live to 85, we may be planning to retire at 65-70, and then have 15-20 years of retirement before we pop our clogs. But maybe that’s just too pessimistic. And a longer life is now not about being a frail 95 year old in a nursing home. A long, technology-enhanced life could now mean you being fitter and healthier at 150 than you were at 20. Really!

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You can seriously increase your chances of living a long life by considering how you can take advantage of upcoming health technologies:

The first thing you have to do is to stay as healthy as possible, with exercise, nutrition and current medicine. Do it now, not tomorrow. Neither the food industry nor the pharmaceutical industry are designed or optimised to benefit life expectancy. They are optimised and designed to deliver the best rewards to shareholders. Choose you food and medicines carefully. Consult your doctor too. He or she should be able to give you advice, or refer you to a nutrition health professional.

The next step is to be ready for DNA reprogramming. Yes, DNA is reprogrammable, just like computers. We can start to programme our bodies away from disease. In the next 10-20 years it is expected that we will be able to re-engineer new body parts. There are literally hundreds of drugs and processes in the pipeline that will modify the course of many of the diseases we face today. Clinical applications now at the cutting edge will be routine in the early 2020s. And cheaper.

Finally be prepared for the Nanotech revolution which will be our ticket to living to 200 years… and beyond. Perhaps immortality. The use of miniscule robots in our bodies to augment our immune system will be technically possible. At the current rate of technological change we are only decades away from achieving these breakthroughs. In essence, this would mean that no disease could kill us.

But accidents and war will still take their toll, unless the human race suddenly changes the way it thinks about its fellow man (and woman). Technology can’t perform miracles!

 

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Stephen Hawking and his fear of Artificial Intelligence

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In the blue corner we have Stephen Hawking, representing mankind; world renowned physicist, presenter, philosopher and cosmologist, author of the blockbusting book “A Brief History of Time”, and a brain the size of a small planet.

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In the red corner, a computer. Or a computer programme, perhaps, representing AI. Artificial Intelligence.

Seconds, away, Round One. Well, not just yet, this is to be a future bout of boxing, in the not too distant future. Humankind versus AI. Some would say it should never be a contest at all. We humans invented AI, and can control it. It is our baby, our spawn of the future, and it can never bite the hand that feeds…. or can it? Stephen Hawking thinks AI is a threat to all our futures…

Stephen Hawking, in an interview with a UK Sunday paper is quoted thus:

“Success in creating AI would be the biggest event in human history. Unfortunately, it might also be the last.”

Hawking thinks we are moving too quickly, too far, without considering the possiblerepercussions. From digital personal assistants to self-driving  cars- he believes we’re on the cusp of the kinds of artificial intelligence that were previously exclusive to science fiction films. Shades of 2001: A Space Odyssey and Hal 9000 and I, Robot? The possibility of smart robots roaming the streets is not so far-fetched.  he basically asks who will control AI when AI becomes programmed to control itself?

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It’s not just that there may be massive unemployment due to robotisation, if a robot is sufficiently intelligently programmed to consider itself “aware” or even “alive” then why would it allow anyone to control it, or worse still, switch it off? If the answer is no, then we could be on the way to a global conflict between humans and robots. Pure fantasy? Stephen Hawking doesn’t think so. Perhaps we should start dumbing down drones already….

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Immortality. Where to Put all those Accumulating Memories?

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Let’s imagine (or scroll forward if you think it definitely will happen) we manage to cure ageing, both in the body and in the mind. We have immortality. Nice. But how would we be able to cope with the infinitely accumulating number of memories and things to remember?

Memory is a funny old thing. We do get more forgetful as we get older. Yet we still have retained and lodged forever in our memory certain events, numbers, faces, facts and triggers.  Even though brain cells die at a quicker rate as we get older, we must assume that immortality will include the ability for the brain to regenerate itself. So our capacity to think is unimpaired because our brains will remain functioning.

But what of memory? Research indicates that there is a certain part of the brain where memories reside. But it is of a finite size. As more and more experiences and memories are accumulated throughout the centuries and aeons of our immortality, that part of the brain will just become clogged and full and unable to absorb any more information. It would also be difficult if not impossible  to recall information because there are so many full rooms,corridors and halls all full of filing cabinets, full of folders, full of papers.

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Your brain can keep all that stuff organized for a while (say, the span of most of a normal human lifetime) but it’s not like you can go into your brain and just delete files like cleaning up a hard drive of a computer.

Your immortal life and experiences may be infinite, but your brain’s ability to store and recall them is not. After a relatively short time into your immortality, as early as 300 years old,  your brain will be chock-a-block piled up with information/junk like one of the habitual hoarders who can never clean up or throw anything out.

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The only possible solution would appear to be to connect to technology that could store, sort and recall all that information- and perhaps delete it to. “Total Recall” anyone?  So perhaps at 30o years old plus you’ll be permanently wired in to a data/memory dump/recall system.  But your biological brain’s ability to process the information and retain it, would not be expanded once it has received the input from the memory card or whatever.  And of course you might forget that you have stored the information remotely and so the whole system falls down again!

Immortality? Not as easy as it sounds!

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Girl Who Never Grows Old may hold Key to Immortality

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Gabrielle (Gabby) Williams from Billings, Montana, United States, is 9 years old, but weighs a mere 11 pounds. She has the appearance of an infant and needs constant attention as if she were newborn- having her nappies changed and being fed a number of times each day. Her skin is baby-like and her hair is fine-textured. There has been some slight growth over four decades- she now needs clothes to fit a baby of 3-6 months instead of up to three months.

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People with this condition are very rare- scientists haven’t even got a name for it. Only two other people with a similar condition have been found: a 29-year-old Florida man with the appearance of a 10-year-old, and a 31-year-old Brazilian woman who still looks like a three year old.

So far the search for clues as to why these individuals don’t age and what they have in common have not uncovered their secrets.

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Dr Richard F Walker (pictured above) has been studying Gabby’s case in the hopes of finding a reason for the arrested growth and perhaps unlock a path to eternal youth and immortality. He is retired from the University of Florida Medical School and now does his research at All Children’s Hospital in St. Petersburg.

Dr Walker has called the condition “developmental inertia”. He said that without the process of growth and ageing, a human would never develop and remain stunted and unfulfilled. But if there is a gene responsible for this condition, and it could be identified, isolated and modified, then there is a possibility that the most obvious effects of ageing could be arrested or slowed considerably.

Walker said he believes he has found one of the genes responsible- a mutation on the second female X chromosome. The trick would be to allow growth to a certain level, for example maturity, and then halt further growth and ageing. This “biologically immortality” would not prevent people dying from disease and in accidents. They would not become superheroes.

Gabby’s parents admitted that they were concerned at first that Dr Walker was using their child to find the fountain of youth for vanity purposes, but he explained to them that the research was focused on helping people who struggle with the hardships that come with old age.

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Gabby’s mother, Mary, said:

“Alzheimer’s is one of the scariest diseases out there. If what Gabrielle holds inside of her would find a cure — for sure we would be a part of the research project. We have faith that Dr. Walker and the scientific community do find something focused more on the disease of aging, rather than making you 35 for the rest of your life.”

Dr Walker  is currently Editor-in-Chief of Clinical Interventions in Ageing, a source of evidence-based information for practitioners of age-management medicine. He also heads a private consulting company providing regulatory and scientific services for physicians and other health-care professionals. Gabrielle Williams’ condition has since been confirmed to have been the result of a genetic mutation. Emulating or stimulating that mutation has, so far, evaded scientists and researchers, including Dr Walker.

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Paraplegic’s Robotic Exoskeleton to take First Kick of World Cup

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There are some World Cup Football Teams who you may think need a miracle in order to win the coveted World Cup. But a miracle, of sorts, will take place on the football pitch of the Arena Corinthians in  São Paulo at the opening ceremony of the World Cup at 5pm 12 June (local time). A young Brazilian will take a kick of a football on the centre spot.

But this is no ordinary young man, nor is the kick trivial. The boy, yet to be chosen from a shortlist of nine aged between 20 and 40,will be  a paraplegic. He will rise from his wheelchair and walk to the midfield and then kick the ball. How?

It’s down to Miguel Nicolelis and his team of neuro-engineers and scientists at Duke University in North Carolina. And if the event works as intended, it should spell the end for wheelchairs, and the evolution of mind-controlled exoskeleton robots. Here’s a picture of the robot:

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The mind-controlled robotic exoskeleton is a complex robotic suit built from lightweight alloys and powered by hydraulics. When a paraplegic person straps themselves in, the machine does the job that their leg muscles no longer can. But there are no buttons levers or controls to tell the robot what to do. Only the human brain.

The exoskeleton is the culmination of years of work by an international team of scientists and engineers on the Walk Again project. The robotics work was coordinated by Gordon Cheng at the Technical University in Munich and the French researchers built the exoskeleton. Nicolelis’ team focused on what many say is the most difficult bit; ways to read people’s brain waves, and use those signals to control robotic limbs.

To operate the exoskeleton, the person is helped into the suit and given a cap to wear that is fitted with electrodes to pick up their brain waves. These signals are passed to a computer worn in a backpack, where they are decoded and used to move hydraulic drivers on the suit. There’s a battery that powers everything, with a two hour life before it needs re-charging.

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The operator’s feet rest on plates which have sensors to detect when contact is made with the ground. With each footstep, a signal is transmitted to a vibrating device sewn into the forearm of the wearer’s shirt. The device fools the brain into thinking that the sensation came from their foot. In virtual reality simulations, patients felt that their legs were moving and touching something. Here’s a diagram showing the details.

Last month, Nicolelis and his colleagues went to some football matches in São Paulo to check whether mobile phone radiation from the crowds might interfere with the suit. Electromagnetic waves could make the exoskeleton misbehave, but they were reassured.

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This is ground-breaking robotic/artificial intelligence/mind-control technology all rolled into one: Let’s keep our fingers crossed that  we will all witness the miracle first kick of the World Cup on 12 June.

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Woman who Died Aged 115 may Hold Secrets to Longevity

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In a new study into advancing the longevity of humans it was found that in the healthy white blood cells of a 115-year-old woman, there were over 400 mutations.

Of course genetic mutations have been linked to diseases such as cancer, but these new findings by researchers suggest that mutations in white blood cells are largely harmless over a lifetime. And may have beneficial effects on ageing. Blood is continually replenished by hematopoietic (meaning “to make blood”) stem cells that are inside our bone marrow and divide to produce different types of blood cells. Cell division can lead to genetic mutations and hundreds of mutations have been found in patients with blood cancers. However, until recently little was known about white blood cells and mutations. Because they weren’t harmful, they weren’t studied.

The woman in the study was the oldest person in the world when she died in 2005 at 115 years old. She is also thought to be the oldest person ever to donate her body to science. The hundreds of mutations identified in her white blood cells appeared to be tolerated by the body and did not cause any disease.

The researchers also found possible new insight into the limits of human longevity, according to the authors of the study published on-line April 23 in the journal Genome Research.

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Lead author Dr. Henne Holstege (pictured below) said in a journal news release:

“To our great surprise we found that, at the time of her death, the peripheral blood was derived from only two active hematopoietic stem cells (in contrast to an estimated 1,300 simultaneously active stem cells), which were related to each other. Because these blood cells had extremely short telomeres, we speculate that most hematopoietic stem cells may have died from ‘stem cell exhaustion,’ reaching the upper limit of stem cell divisions.” 

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The researchers also found that the woman’s white blood cells’ telomeres were extremely short. Telomeres, which are at the ends of chromosomes and protect them from damage, get a bit shorter each time a cell divides. Further research is needed to learn whether such stem cell exhaustion is a cause of death in extremely old people.

The next step will be to see if the white blood cell mutations can be artificially produced, and their effect on longevity, and whether avoiding stem cell exhaustion is feasible, thus prolonging life.

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From Fruit Bats to Flying Robots?

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Flying robots always seem to be more difficult to create than other types of land-based or underwater robots. While we have seen a variety of robots that are vaguely humanoid in shape and can emulate human movements, we haven’t seen anything significant flying that isn’t a drone or toy helicopter .  Where are our Transformers and Frank Herbert’s Dune Ornithopters? It might be because we’ve never managed to fly like birds ourselves, and have had to use engine-powered flight or fixed-wing gliders.  But that may be about to change. Think bat.

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Last month in the Journal Physics of Fluids, researchers at Virginia Tech’s Computational Fluid Thermal Science and Engineering Lab published looked at how bats rapidly flap their wings in flight and considered that this could promote new designs of flying robots. The Researchers studied how fruit bats use their wings to manipulate the air around them. Understanding how these processes work in this branch of nature could help engineers design mini flying robots, known as “micro air vehicles”  equipped with rapidly flapping wings.

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Over to Danesh Tafti, a Professor in the department of mechanical engineering and also director of the Engineering Lab. He said-

“Bats have different wing shapes and sizes, depending on their evolutionary function. “Typically, bats are very agile and can change their flight path very quickly — showing high manoeuvrability for  prey capture, so it’s of interest to know how they do this.”  The bats have feathers on their wings like birds, but have wings made of flexible webbed membranes that connect to their fingers and can stretch to almost 7 inches.

The scientists collected measurements of live flying bats and used specially designed computer software to analyse the relationship between the animals’ movements and the motion of airflow around their wings. Much to their surprise they found that bats can instinctively change their wing movement to generate increased forces from their flapping. The bats can expand the area of its wings by almost a third to create a powerful down-thrust and maximise lift. When flapping their wings upward, the wing size is minimised to prevent adverse effects of gravity slowing their flight.

By copying these flapping motions and wing-size changes, engineers could design more efficient small-scale flying robots.  It may not mean that we are ready now to design a robotic bat-man any, or swarms of tiny robotic vampire bats to descend on and harry an enemy, but these findings are likely to be taken forward somewhere….

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The Secret to Longer, Healthier and Happier lives? 20% Less Food!

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In a recent study by Harvard Medical School, which used data going back to the 1970s, Professor of medicine Francine Grodstein concluded that “diet makes a difference”. Plain and simple.

Francine Grodstein

Francine Grodstein

“The higher our body weight and body mass index, the less likely we are to live older, happier, healthier lives,” she said.

Well you may have preferred to hear about a breakthrough in a longevity magic bullet, or transferring DNA from animals that live for over 150 years to humans, but there’s no getting away from it. If you reduce your food intake by just a fifth, you will live a longer life.  This has been shown in animals too- reducing bodyweight by 20% in mice increased their lifespans.

William Mair

William Mair

William Mair, HSPH assistant professor of genetics and complex diseases, said a study that has gained a lot of attention found that reducing body weight by 20 percent in mice increased their longevity. It is even true for insects such as the fruit fly.

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By cutting down our food intake and body mass, we won’t live forever, but the quality of life should be better for longer. In other words all the morbidities that can afflict us will be pushed back to the last years of our lives.

Turning to avoiding mental disease, a promising area in warding off dementia involves taking up a personal challenge such as learning to play an instrument or to speak another language, said Thomas Perls, a Boston University professor of medicine and director of the New England Centenarian Study. However building up these mental functional reserves that seem to stave off or delay dementia don’t seem to apply to everyone. The brainiest most mentally advanced people can still succumb to dementia.

Alter Mann liest

 

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Robots: Now a Force for Good- Anyone for Anybot?

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In the 1950’s comics and sci-fi films were renown for portraying Robots as being evil, running amok and like Prometheus Unbound (Frankenstein’s monster) biting the hand that created and fed them. While there were some benign robots, the theme of treacherous robots continued unabated, think  HAL 9000 in 2001:A Space Odyssey, I robot (the book and film) , and even Transformers where robots battled it out on our behalves with us looking on like dim-witted spectators.

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But here in 2014, the reality is quite different. Robots are getting more and more sophisticated and all are helping, not hindering mankind. Examples you want?  Here’s one. He (or she?) is called QB and is being sold by the company Anybots-

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In a nutshell it  is a remotely controlled, self-balancing, “virtual presence robot/avatar”.  If you want more catch-phrases for this form of communication, how about “mobile telepresence”.

The Anybot is controlled through a browser-based interface and allows you to be in virtual attendance at any event or meeting that you can’t make in person.  Anybots are equipped with a speaker, camera, and video screen.  They connect to the Internet over Wi-Fi and you activate them as well as control them remotely from your computer.  Hook up a camera to your computer, you can show live video of yourself while interacting through the robot in a remote location anywhere in the world.

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How to steer your robot? You use your keyboards four arrow keys to make it turn or go forward & back.  A built-in guidance system augments the driver’s commands, making it easy to safely avoid people or objects and move through narrow doorways. It has a ground-breaking balancing system and unlike your home computer or server at work, won’t fall over!

Practical examples? A doctor could visit their patient from a remote location and those who are home-bound could use this robot to attend social gatherings, be they in or out-of-doors.  The Anybot could be used in education to allow sick students to still participate with their classmates in and out of the classroom, as well as allowing educators the ability to check in or give lectures when they are away from the classroom.

There’s a lot of additional features and software you can add to make your Anybot individual and tailor-made for your needs.

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So far, none of them have gone beserk and attacked humans!

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A Two Centuries Old Fish: Could it Unlock the Secret of Longevity for Man?

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There has been a buzz in the “can we extend human lives to 200 years” department following the catching of a 200 year old Shortracker Rockfish off Alaska’s coast. That fish was born there two centuries ago- before Alaska was a US State. It is the oldest Shortracker ever caught. It must also have been very lucky because many are hunted and eaten by predatory fish and so never see out their full life-span.

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With advances in stem cell research and DNA, this is yet another animal, like the naked mole rat, that may harbour secrets as to how we could manipulate our bodies to reduce ageing and promote longevity. Like the mole rat, this fish is no beauty to look at. It looks like a bloated shimmering orange goldfish.

Rockfish are some of the world’s oldest living fish, matched only by equally long-lived fish like the sturgeon, an ancient fish found in North America that can live to be more than a century old. There must be something special in the fish’s make up, because even discounting accidental death and being eaten by other fish or caught for food, most species of fish only live 2-8 years.

The previous record age for a caught rockfish was about 175-years-old, and that fish, at about 32.5-inches-long, was smaller than this latest catch.

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Let’s hope the fish is donated now to scientific longevity research, and not end up in a fish pie!

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The History of the Quest for Immortality

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There’s a lot in the news at the moment about the search for immortality. People are living longer, and they say that someone has already been born that will live to be 150-200 years old. In fact the main funders for the search for immortality are billionaires.  When you stop and think and think about it, the reasons is obvious. They have more to lose when they die. You can’t take it with you! The most you can do is bequeath it to your heirs.. and you won’t be able to see them enjoy it. So billionaires want to live longer so they can enjoy their wealth for longer. That’s why they spend so much on research, looking for the elixir of eternal life.

Was it always the way that the rich sought paths to immortality to longer enjoy their richness? Yes. But they got ripped off a lot more!

In ancient China many all-powerful emperors died from consuming mercury-based potions given to them under the promise that it would make them live forever. Mercury is indeed a strange-looking substance- a shiny silver liquid metal. Looks like it could be the elixir of life… but no. It gives a slow and agonising departure from this world.

Fast-forward to 1492. There on his deathbed was Pope Innocent VIII. Three 10 year old boys were paid a ducat each to donate their blood to try to keep the old god-botherer alive. The boys died. And of course so did the Pontiff- probably from blood poisoning. I wonder which of them went to heaven?

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During the next two centuries centuries, it was the turn of thousands of European alchemists to hoodwink and swindle rich aristocrats with bogus potions for eternal life.  These elixirs (which often included mercury and arsenic) often gave off noxious and poisonous vapours that would eventually kill the alchemist (as well as failing to prolong the life of the Aristo).

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After World War I, thousands of rich old men (probably the donkeys who led the lions) opted for a more biological and glandular fountain of youth. They arranged for chimpanzee testicles to be grafted into their scrotums at Sergei Voronoff’s exclusive medical clinic on the French Riviera. Ouch. Must have been an issue for the undertaker- whether to remove the clearly failed extra-testicular activity, or leave it for all to see as they lay naked in the coffin! In the picture below Sergei and his brother George perform their quad-gonads operation.

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In 1971,  researchers declared that science would unravel all the mysteries of ageing within five years.  All you needed was the appropriate injection of finance…  Alas, that didn’t come to be. In fact five years later all we got was the San Francisco Chronicle reporting that “human life could be extended to 800 years.”  That same year, an outfit called Microwave Instrument Co. in Del Mar, California, said they’d have immortality drugs on the market within three years. They saw a connection between agitating the molecules of blood through microwaves and immortality. Oops. Next!

Just imagine if a rich person funded the creation of an immortality drug, and it succeeded. Would he or she share it with the rest of us for free? Come on! The only people who would benefit would be fellow billionaires.
I guess the moral of this article is that if you want to live forever, you’d better start getting very rich very soon!
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Accidental Death: The Bane of Immortality

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It would seem that, if scientists, researchers, biologists and clinicians are to be believed, we should have found cures for many, if not all, of the things that kills us, in about a century. That’s Alzheimer’s, cancers, degenerative diseases, and even ageing.  So in a 100 years time, there we all are, not growing old, not falling ill, and virtually immortal.  What will we do? Go out and enjoy the rest of our lives, secure in the knowledge that we will not die. Unless of course we suffer an accident.

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As good as surgery and medicine will be in 100 years time, it will not be able to bring you back from the dead if you suffer a fatal accident. Drowning at sea, a nasty pile-up on the motorway, a plane crash, a fire, a fall off of a ladder that cause brain trauma- the list is almost endless.  What would we do to avoid accidentally terminating our immortality? Here’s a (admittedly pessimistic) take on this:

We would try to avoid all situations where a fatal accident could occur.  Why risk shortening your never-ending life-span? We would become a world of  risk-avoiders. Why risk travelling to a foreign land? Just watch it on TV in your secure air-tight protected shell of a world. Why risk physical inter-action with other humans? Many of them are mad, or dangerous, so why risk it? Contact them solely through the internet video. Much safer.  Physical activity? No thanks! Cycling, driving, running, all could lead to an accident or some sort that threatens your one trillion tomorrows.

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We would all settle into comfy armchairs alone in a room secure from the perils outside the door. The future a lonely sedentary existence that is really half-life. A life without the potential for danger is a life without the potential for quality. A living death?

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Pill to prolong your Life to 150 Years?

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 It’s long been recognised that red wine, when taken in moderation, has a good effect on the human body.  Indeed, there are a number of people in their 80’s who take a glass of red a day. The wine contains resveratrol, an organic chemical, which is believed to have an anti-ageing effect through  boosting the activity of a protein SIRT1.

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A pharmaceutical firm, GSK, are preparing to launch a concentrated and synthesised version of resveratrol.  It is being tested on people with certain medical conditions such as Type 2 Diabetes and the serious skin condition; psoriasis. But it could have a life-prolonging effect on all of us.

David Sinclair

David Sinclair

David Sinclair, professor of genetics at Harvard University, has said that ageing might not actually be an “irreversible affliction”.

He said: “Some of us could live to 150, but we won’t get there without more research.”

It seems that increasing SIRT1 activity improves how well our cells operate, making them less sluggish. Mice, bees and flies have been given the SIRT1-boosting compounds and have lived up to 50% longer.

Writing in the journal Science, Prof Sinclair claimed to have performed experiments which showed these resveratrol-based compounds were having a direct effect on health.  There have already been promising results in some trials with diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and heart failure, Type II diabetes, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, fatty liver disease, cataracts, osteoporosis, muscle wasting, sleep disorders and inflammatory diseases such as psoriasis, arthritis and colitis.

Current trials not only are looking at how the compounds might help treat these age-related diseases, but if they can prevent their occurrence in healthy people. This is where it is possible, by reducing the likelihood of them occurring, that people on the drug will stay healthy for longer, and double their life span.

 

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‘Shrooms Prove Previous Lives

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Don’t try this at home!  Researchers have been conducting controlled experiments using volunteers and the fairy-tail red and white mushroom, the Fly Agaric.

Given in small quantities, many of those interviewed experienced memories they had forgotten about, usually associated with their early childhood. Playground incidents, seeing a steam train for the first time, a Christmas unwrapping… Many of those interviewed swore that these were genuine memories unlocked by the ‘shroom.

The next stage of the experiment was to increase the amount of the mushroom given to the volunteers. This had to be undertaken under strict medical supervision because too much Fly Agaric and the mouth and throat could become numb, and close due to anaphalactic shock. A proportion of those who had the higher dose of mushroom reported memories that were not of their childhood, and were not of their existing lives at all. They wrote down what they had “remembered” and were then interviewed by psycho-analysts to test the veracity of their memories. They all appeared to be genuine and not manufactured.

Researchers are preparing a report to publish but have already claimed that the mushroom has unlocked memories of previous existences that were locked and retained in some immortal part of the soul- it could not be the brain because the brain and body dies and rots. However the theory is that like a cloud-based IT application, upon being re-born, your characteristics from previous lives are re-loaded into your body as you develop in the womb. However the memories from previous lives are not normally accessible and are screened out. But the Fly Agaric mushroom stimulates a small part of the brain where these past-life memories are normally concealed.

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Could this be evidence that we are immortal and have lived previous lives? The research is being peer-reviewed before publishing, and a number of volunteers are repeating the experiment to confirm the results.

But don’t try this yourselves. The Fly Agaric is a poisonous mushroom, and this experiment could only be conducted under strictly controlled medical conditions.

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“Pre-Life” is where Faith in Immortality is Conceived

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Most people, of most faiths, and even some atheists, believe that all or part of the body, mind and/or soul survives, transcending death.  Is this because of man’s evolutionary brain, conditioning from our parents, priests or peers? Taking an impassionate look at the hard facts, the evidence, there is virtually no solid evidence that humans experience life after death and immortality for their core being. So why is it so persistent?

Boston University think they have the answer.  It’s developed in “Pre-life”, not just before birth, but before conception.

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A study published a couple of weeks ago in the online edition of “Child Development”by a team led by postdoctoral fellow Natalie Emmons (pictured above) illuminates this area following interviews with 283 children from two distinct cultures in Ecuador. The research suggests that the human bias toward thinking we are  immortal is a part of human intuition that  emerges, naturally, in our early in life- before we are conceived.  And that’s not all, the theory goes on to suggest that the part of us that is eternal, we believe, is not our skills or ability to reason, but instead our hopes, desires and emotions. In a nutshell we are what we feel. And we feel immortal.

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The co-author of the paper, Deborah Keleman, pictured above, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Boston University, said:

“This work shows that it’s possible for science to study religious belief. At the same time, it helps us understand some universal aspects of human cognition and the structure of the mind. By focusing on prelife, we could see if culture causes these beliefs to appear, or if they appear spontaneously”.

It may come as no surprise to learn that most studies on immortality have focused on people’s views of the afterlife, often coloured by religious indoctrination. Both children and adults seem to agree that physical bodily needs, such as hunger and thirst, end when people die, but our mental capacities, such as thinking or feeling emotion, continue in some form or another. But all previous studies have not tried to address the question where do these beliefs come from? Emmons suggests that they are not developed through exposure to religious teaching, reading, learning or even the television, but from our intuition. Just as children learn to talk without formal instruction, the research suggests that intuitively they develop the belief that part of their mind could exist apart from their body.

Emmons interviewed children from an indigenous Shuar village in the Amazon Basin of Ecuador. She chose this group because they have no cultural pre-life beliefs, and she suspected that indigenous children, who have regular exposure to birth and death through simple hunting and farming, would have a more rational, biologically-based view of the time before they were conceived. Another “control” group was needed for comparison, so she also interviewed children from an urban area near Quito, where the children were Roman Catholics. That  religion teaches that life begins only at conception. Emmons was looking to see if cultural influences ruled all, so that both urban and indigenous children should reject the idea of life before birth.

Emmons showed the children drawings of a baby, a young woman, and the same woman while pregnant, then asked a series of questions about the child’s abilities, thoughts and emotions during each period: as babies, in the womb, and then, before conception.

The results were not those expected. Both groups gave very similar answers, despite their very different cultures. The children in both groups reasoned that their bodies didn’t exist before birth. However, both groups also said that their emotions and desires existed before they were born. For example, while children generally told researchers that they didn’t have eyes and couldn’t see things before birth, they often reported being happy that they would soon meet their mother, or sad that they were apart from their family.

So why would humans have evolved this universal belief ?

The answer Emmons suggests is not science-based, it’s due to the  by-product of our highly developed social reasoning.  She said:

“We’re really good at figuring out what people are thinking, what their emotions are, what their desires are. We tend to see people as the sum of their mental states, and desires and emotions may be particularly helpful when predicting their behaviour. Because this ability is so useful and so powerful, it flows over into other parts of our thinking. We sometimes see connections where potentially none exist, we hope there’s a master plan for the universe, we see purpose when there is none, and we imagine that a soul survives without a body.”

So standing back from all this, it does not seem to me to take us any closer to attaining or confirming our immortality. The study merely confirms, in my view, the ability to convince ourselves that we shall live forever in one form or another.  Personally, I’m still looking for the elixir of life, the tome of immortality, or the DNA equivalent of the God-particle that will stop our bodies from ageing.

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