Age and Brain

ScienceDaily (Aug. 16, 2012) — Researchers have long chronicled what goes wrong in the brains of older people with dementia. But Northwestern Medicine researcher Emily Rogalski wondered what goes right in the brains of the elderly who still have terrific memories. And, do those people — call them cognitive SuperAgers — even exist?

Rogalski’s new study has for the first time identified an elite group of elderly people age 80 and older whose memories are as sharp as people 20 to 30 years younger than them. And on 3-D MRI scans, the SuperAger participants’ brains appear as young — and one brain region was even bigger — than the brains of the middle-aged participants.
She was astounded by the vitality of the SuperAgers’ cortex — the outer layer of the brain important for memory, attention and other thinking abilities. Theirs was much thicker than the cortex of the normal group of elderly 80 and older (whose showed significant thinning) and closely resembled the cortex size of participants ages 50 to 65, considered the middle-aged group of the study.
“These findings are remarkable given the fact that grey matter or brain cell loss is a common part of normal aging,” said Rogalski, the principal investigator of the study and an assistant research professor at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer’s Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.
Rogalski is senior author of the paper, which is published in the Journal of the International Neuropsychological Society.
By identifying older people who seem to be uniquely protected from the deterioration of memory and atrophy of brain cells that accompanies aging, Rogalski hopes to unlock the secrets of their youthful brains. Those discoveries may be applied to protect others from memory loss or even Alzheimer’s disease.
“By looking at a really healthy older brain, we can start to deduce how SuperAgers are able to maintain their good memory,” Rogalski said. “Many scientists study what’s wrong with the brain, but maybe we can ultimately help Alzheimer’s patients by figuring out what goes right in the brain of SuperAgers. What we learn from these healthy brains may inform our strategies for improving quality of life for the elderly and for combatting Alzheimer’s disease.”
By measuring the thickness of the cortex — the outer layer of the brain where neurons (brain cells) reside — Rogalski has a sense of how many brain cells are left.
“We can’t actually count them, but the thickness of the outer cortex of the brain provides an indirect measure of the health of the brain,” she said. “A thicker cortex, suggests a greater number of neurons.”
In another region deep in the brain, the anterior cingulate of SuperAger participants’ was actually thicker than in the 50 to 65 year olds.
“This is pretty incredible,” Rogalski said. “This region is important for attention. Attention supports memory. Perhaps the SuperAgers have really keen attention and that supports their exceptional memories.”
Only 10 percent of the people who “thought they had outstanding memories” met the criteria for the study. To be defined as a SuperAger, the participants needed to score at or above the norm of the 50 to 65 year olds on memory screenings.
“These are a special group of people,” Rogalski said. They aren’t growing on trees.”
For the study, Rogalski viewed the MRI scans of 12 Chicago-area Superager participants’ brains and screened their memory and other cognitive abilities. The study included 10 normally aging elderly participants who were an average age of 83.1 and 14 middle-aged participants who were an average age of 57.9. There were not significant differences in education among the groups.
Most of the SuperAger participants plan to donate their brains to the study. “By studying their brains we can link the attributes of the living person to the underlying cellular features,” Rogalski said.

: from science daily

 

 

 

 

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Solar Power from Toilet

Toilet wins prize with solar power
Gretchen Vogel | ScienceNOW
A solar-powered toilet that turns urine and feces into hydrogen and electricity has won a $100,000 first prize in the Reinvent the Toilet Challenge sponsored by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The prize was announced Tuesday at the foundation’s Reinvent the Toilet Fair in Seattle. The event, which ended Wednesday, showcased dozens of projects that aim to create an inexpensive and eco-friendly alternative to the flush toilet. Researchers used more than 50 gallons of soy-based synthetic feces to demonstrate their prototypes during the two-day fair.

The flush toilet is convenient and hygienic, but the technology has its drawbacks: It uses clean water to flush away a potential source of nutrients and energy, and it’s prohibitively expensive for many of the estimated 2.6 billion people who lack access to sanitation.

The Gates Foundation launched its toilet challenge a year ago, funding eight projects that aimed to invent a toilet that could be operated for 5 cents per user per day while recovering salt, water, nutrients, and energy.

The winning design, developed by Michael Hoffmann of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and his colleagues, uses solar power to run an electrochemical reactor that breaks down human waste to produce hydrogen gas. The gas can be stored and used to run the reactor at night or on cloudy days.

Tove Larsen of the aquatic research institute Eawag in Dübendorf, Switzerland, Harald Gründl of the design firm EOOS in Vienna, Austria, and their colleagues won a special $40,000 prize “for their outstanding design of a toilet user interface.”

That prize was a last-minute addition, says Carl Hensman, program officer for water, sanitation, and hygiene at the foundation.

The design uses a foot pump that helps recycle water, and it features a clear tube that allows the user to see the clean water refill the tank – what the team calls the toilet’s entertainment factor.

: from Journal Gazette

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Ice melting

Arctic sea ice is vanishing much faster than generally expected, according to preliminary data from European Space Agency satellite Cryosat.

UK scientists combined results from Cryosat, which uses radar to measure ice thickness, with data from Nasa’s IceSat, which uses lasers.

Their preliminary analysis suggests an annual ice loss of up to 900 cubic km a year from 2004.

Projections of Arctic ice melt vary widely.

But the new results are some 50% higher than projected in most scenarios.

The ice loss is pronounced in areas to the north of Greenland where thickness has fallen from 5-6m a decade ago to around 3m last year.

The analysis was done by Dr Seymour Laxon, reader in climate physics at the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling.

He said the figures might change slightly when all the data had been analysed but that the broad thrust of the research showed a clear and dramatic thinning of the sea ice.

At the end of last summer 7,000 cubic km of ice remained.

The satellite figures were cross-checked against data from planes over-flying the Arctic and submerged buoys sending sonar signals to measure ice thickness. Dr Laxon said the results were thought to be accurate within 10cm (3.5in).

“We have to be cautious until our data has been properly analysed as part of a climate model, but this does suggest that the Arctic might be ice-free in summer for a day at least by the end of the decade,” he told BBC News.

“But the past is not always a guide to the future.”

The Arctic is warming much faster than the rest of the planet and the loss of sea ice affects populations.

The light-coloured sea ice bounces back warmth into space. If it disappears, the Arctic Ocean will absorb more heat.

from BBC

 

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Wired Differently

ARE geniuses just born with their brains wired differently? Or do their early experiences fashion a richer set of neuronal interconnections that let them view the world through a sharper lens? The literature is replete with accounts of people who went on to accomplish great things—in the arts, sciences, philosophy or even politics—after exhibiting little promise in their youth. It would be encouraging to think that, if nurturing does indeed play a crucial part, there could yet be hope for the rest of us.

An outfit in San Francisco called “tenXer” has begun testing a service that aims to help people boost their mental accomplishments by up to tenfold—hence its name. That has made your correspondent wonder what distinguishes the truly talented from the journeymen of any trade. And what, if anything, the rest can do to improve their more menial lot.

 

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Facebook and US Citizenship

Facebook co-founder Eduardo Saverin has renounced his U.S. citizenship, reportedly to save an estimated $67 million on his tax bill (Saverin deniesthat the decision was based on financial considerations). The move has drawn the ire of Senatorsacademics and (especially) newspaper columnists, who view it as a cynical attempt to avoid paying his fair share. Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island has called for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to ban Saverin from re-entering the country, and a new bill with bipartisan support would explicitly bar those like Saverin from returning.

Saverin, 30, now lives in Singapore. Even after Facebook’s post-IPO stumbles, his estimated net worth is around $2 to $3 billion. He has said that his greatest worry is to “make sure that despite everything, I’ll be happy and make the ones I love happy.”

Here’s my question: assuming that Saverin is not allowed back into the U.S., what is likely to make him happier: the ability to travel freely, or $67 million? Let us look to science for answers.

Researchers have long examined the links between money and happiness, which are best summed up by the title of the charming 2011 paper “If money doesn’t make you happy, then you probably aren’t spending it right” [PDF]. The authors [1 , 23] note that “the correlation between income and happiness is positive but modest, and this fact should puzzle us more than it does.” Of course, numbers on a bank statement don’t shouldn’t in an of themselves make us happy. It’s all the things that all those zeroes can buy. And yet “most people don’t know the basic scientific facts about happiness—about what brings it and what sustains it—and so they don’t know how to use their money to acquire it.”

The authors list a number of principles to maximize the happiness that money can buy. Number one: Buy experiences instead of things. In the days and weeks before a fun new experience we enjoy the anticipation. We are happier during the experience itself because it keeps us focused on the present—as the authors note, “a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.” And since our sense of identity is closely linked to our past experiences, we tend to fondly revisit them after they are done. By contrast, people don’t anticipate how quickly we adapt to new stuff. “Homebuyers find their once beloved Brazilian cherry floors quickly become nothing more than the unnoticed ground beneath their feet,” the authors write. “In contrast, their memory of seeing a baby cheetah at dawn on an African safari continues to provide delight.”

Here already we anticipate a challenge for Saverin’s happiness strategy. While it is true that $67 million can buy a lot of time on the savannah, think of all the weddings he will be forced to miss, the road trips left untaken. The only glimpse he’ll get over the edge of the Grand Canyon will be on his next flight from Vancouver to Mexico City.

You might suggest that an experience like a trip to the Grand Canyon might provide insufficient joy for a multi-billionaire. Perhaps, but this is part of the problem. Wealthy people are not very good at savoring the mundane joys of daily life—an ability closely linked to overall happiness. (One theory posits that because the rich have unfettered access to “peak” experiences, the little things bore them.) In one experiment, people given a piece of chocolate spent less time eating it and derived significantly less pleasure from it if they were first shown a photograph of money. Wealth makes people lose their appetite for everyday pleasure.

Perhaps most importantly, Saverin would be wise to spend his fortune on others. The authors review a number of studies that conclude that charitable actions significantly increase levels of happiness, well-being and personal satisfaction. When people spend money on others, they tend to spend it on those around them—friends, spouses, and charities and churches in the community. Supporting your own social network shows others that you care, and affirms your own sense of self-worth. It deepens social ties. ”Given how deeply and profoundly social we are,” the authors write, “it isn’t any wonder that the quality of our social relationships is a strong determinant of our happiness?”

Unfortunately, “simply thinking about money has been shown to undermine prosocial impulses, making people less likely to donate to charity or help acquaintances,” the authors report. Those with money are less likely to give it away. Their happiness suffers as a result.

Saverin is an active investor in the Singapore startup community, but having cleaved himself off from the U.S., he won’t be serving on the board of directors of many Silicon Valley startups. We can not discount the amount of joy that comes from these social relationships—relationships which a lifetime ban from the U.S. will inexorably damage.

I admit that if I were offered $67 million—the only catch being I could never return to the U.S.—I may very well take the money and run. But in my defense, my net worth is many, many orders of magnitude less than $2 billion. I’d try to spend that $67 million on a lot of experiences, and do my best to build a strong social network wherever I landed. For Saverin, $67 million represents about 3 percent of his fortune. Is that worth shutting yourself out of the country where you grew up?

In this tumultuous week after the IPO, Saverin isn’t the only one who might be wise to take a step back and consider the most important thing Facebook has created. Is it the money, or the social network?

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Code and its mystery

Modern science relies upon researchers sharing their work so that their peers can check and verify success or failure. But most scientists still don’t share one crucial piece of information — the source codes of the computer programs driving much of today’s scientific progress.

Such secrecy comes at a time when many researchers write their own source codes — human-readable instructions for how computer programs do their work — to run simulations and analyze experimental results. Now, a group of scientists is arguing for new standards that require newly published studies to make their source codes available. Otherwise, they say, thescientific method of peer review and reproducing experiments to verify results is basically broken.

“Far too many pieces of code critical to the reproduction, peer-review and extension of scientific results never see the light of day,” said Andrew Morin, a postdoctoral fellow in the structural biology research and computing lab at Harvard University. “As computing becomes an ever larger and more important part of research in every field of science, access to the source code used to generate scientific results is going to become more and more critical.”

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Missing source codes mean extra headache for scientists who want to closely follow up on new studies or check for errors. Such unavailability of source codes can also lead to more bad science slipping through the cracks — unreleased and irreproducible codes played a part in a Duke University case that led to study retractions, scientist resignations and canceled clinical drug trials for lung and breast cancer in 2010.

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But of the 20 most-cited science journals in 2010, only three require computer source codes to be made available upon publication. Morin and six colleagues from universities across  the U.S. proposed making such policies universal in a policy forum paper that appears in today’s (April 12) issue of the Journal Science (Science is one of the three top journals that require the availability of source codes).

Public funding or policy-setting agencies should throw their weight behind the idea of sharing source codes openly, researchers said. They also proposed that research institutions and universities should use open-source software licenses to allow for source-code sharing while protecting the commercial rights to possible innovation spinoffs from research.

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“The encouraging thing is that all of the proposals we have made have already been implemented by various journals, funding agencies and research institutions in one form or another — so there is not a lot of innovation required,” Morin told InnovationNewsDaily.

Many scientists have learned to write computer code without formal training, and so they may simply not know of the open-source software culture of sharing such codes, Morin and his colleagues said. Others may simply be embarrassed by the “ugly” code they write for their own research.

But even one-off computer code scripts written for a single study should undergo examination and peer review, Morin said. He has often ended up sharing, reusing or adapting code he had originally written with the intention of a single use.

“If I knew there was a publication requirement for my code, I probably would have done things like comment it better, kept better track of it, and generally put a bit more thought and effort into my code — which would have certainly helped me and others later on when I inevitably tried to reuse or share it, even if just with others in my own research group,” Morin said.

from Sciam.com

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Habit and Marketing

DON DRAPER, the womanising star of “Mad Men”, an ad-agency TV drama, is a mere piker compared with Claude Hopkins. Hopkins was the most flamboyant advertising genius of the early 20th century—the man who convinced millions of women to buy Palmolive soap on the basis that Cleopatra had washed with it, and got the world talking about puffed wheat with the claim that it was “shot from guns” until the grains puffed to eight times their normal size.

Hopkins’s greatest achievement was to persuade ordinary people to start cleaning their teeth. He landed the job of selling a new brand of toothpaste called Pepsodent. Hopkins realised that the biggest barrier to selling it was that only a few people bothered to clean their teeth. So he set about changing the habits of a nation—giving people a trigger to justify daily brushing (a “cloudy film” forms on your teeth if you don’t) and promising a reward if you stick to your new habit (a beautiful smile). Before Pepsodent’s launch, only 7% of Americans owned a tube of toothpaste; a decade later, 65% did.

Hopkins is one of dozens of flamboyant characters who parade through the pages of Charles Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit”. Mr Duhigg, a New York Times reporter and broadcaster, takes as his starting point William James’s observation, in 1892, that “all our life, so far as it has definite form, is but a mass of habits.” We like to think of our daily choices as the result of reason and will. But for the most part they are the products of unconscious habits: habits that at best make our lives more efficient (imagine if you really did have to agonise about everything) and at worse trap us in self-destructive behaviour.

But Mr Duhigg improves on James in two ways. The scientific study of habits has taken off in recent years after decades in the doldrums. Biologists have investigated the way that habits are wired into the cerebral cortex and marketers have looked at the way that they shape behaviour. Mr Duhigg has immersed himself in this literature. James was a fatalist. He once compared habits to water which “hollows out for itself a channel, which grows broader and deeper; and, after having ceased to flow, it resumes, when it flows again, the path traced by itself before”. Mr Duhigg insists that it is possible to divert the water—provided that we learn a few tricks.

“The Power of Habit” is divided into three parts. The first focuses on individuals. It shows how entrenched habits shape individual lives and analyses how those habits can be broken and rearranged. Mr Duhigg argues, for example, that people can be trapped by a predictable cycle: you flag in midafternoon, you eat a biscuit, you feel much better. Pavlovian marketers reinforce these routines by fiddling with the rewards: slot-machine companies have increased the number of near misses because they help to keep people hooked. But people can also escape from the trap by changing the routine. Alcoholics Anonymous has proved so successful in part because it replaces one routine (going to the bar and getting drunk) with another (going to meetings and talking about your addiction).

The second part of the book concentrates on organisations. Mr Duhigg shows how managers can change entire firms by changing a handful of “keystone habits”. Paul O’Neill transformed Alcoa, an aluminium giant, by aiming to establish a perfect safety record. Howard Schultz turned Starbucks into a coffee superpower by focusing his employees on customer service. Changing these “keystone habits” creates a chain reaction, with the new habits rippling through the organisation and changing other habits as they go.

The book’s final part looks at the habits of societies—what Walter Bagehot, an early editor of The Economist, called “the cake of custom”. Mr Duhigg argues that some of the greatest social reformations have been produced as much by rewiring social habits as by agitating for grand abstractions like justice. The civil-rights movement took a huge step forward in freeing what Martin Luther King called a “fear-ridden people” when Rosa Parks refused to do what Alabama’s blacks had routinely done before and sit in a blacks-only section of a bus. The gay-rights movement began to go mainstream when it persuaded the Library of Congress to reclassify books on gay rights from “abnormal sexual relations, including sexual crimes” to a more neutral classification. Rick Warren turned Saddleback Church, one of the biggest in America, into an Evangelical role model by marketing prayer meetings so that churchgoing became embedded in the fabric of people’s daily lives.

“The Power of Habit” leaves many questions unanswered. Is it reasonable, for example, to put a serious addiction like alcoholism in the same category as a predilection for cupcakes? The author also has a penchant for producing endless bits of academic research out of his magician’s hat as if trying to outdo Malcolm Gladwell. Minor gripes aside, this is a first-rate book—based on an impressive mass of research, written in a lively style and providing just the right balance of intellectual seriousness with practical advice on how to break our bad habits.

from economist

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