Study reveals how to reprogram cells in our immune system


T cell
Scanning electron micrograph of a human T lymphocyte (also called a T cell) from the immune system of a healthy donor. 

When the immune system is imbalanced, either due to overly-active cells or cells that suppress its function, it causes a wide range of diseases, from psoriasis to cancer. By manipulating the function of certain immune cells, called T cells, researchers could help restore the system’s balance and create new treatments to target these diseases.

 Scientists at the Gladstone Institutes revealed, for the first time, a method to reprogram specific T cells. More precisely, they discovered how to turn pro-inflammatory cells that boost the immune  into anti-inflammatory cells that suppress it, and vice versa.

The researchers studied two types of cells called effector T cells, which activate the immune system to defend our body against different pathogens, and regulatory T cells, which help control the immune system and prevent it from attacking healthy parts of its environment.

“Our findings could have a significant impact on the treatment of autoimmune diseases, as well as on stem cell and immuno-oncology therapies,” said Gladstone Senior Investigator Sheng Ding, PhD, who is also a professor of pharmaceutical chemistry at the University of California, San Francisco.

By drawing on their expertise in drug discovery, Ding’s team identified a small-molecule drug that can successfully reprogram effector T cells into regulatory T cells. Their study, published in the renowned journal Nature, describes in detail a metabolic mechanism that helps convert one cell type into another.

This new approach to reprogram T cells could have several medical applications. For instance, in autoimmune disease, effector T cells are overly activated and cause damage to body. Converting these cells into regulatory T cells could help reduce the hyperactivity and return balance to the immune system, thus treating the root of the disease.

In addition, the study could improve therapies using . At least in theory, producing regulatory T cells could promote  and prevent the body from rejecting newly-transplanted cells.

“Our work could also contribute to ongoing efforts in immuno-oncology and the treatment of cancer,” explained Tao Xu, postdoctoral scholar in Ding’s laboratory and first author of the study. “This type of therapy doesn’t target the cancer directly, but rather works on activating the immune system so it can recognize  and attack them.”

Many cancers take control of regulatory T cells to suppress the immune system, creating an environment where tumors can grow without being detected. In such cases, the team’s findings could be used to transform regulatory T cells into effector T cells to strengthen the immune system so it can better recognize and destroy  .

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Save Earth from aliens & NASA will pay you $187,000


 

Save Earth from aliens & NASA will pay you $187,000
US space agency NASA has a job opening for a ‘planetary protection officer’, who will be responsible for protecting Earth against aliens – and every other planet from humans.

And if natural-born guardians of the galaxy aren’t motivated enough by simply fulfilling their calling, the position also carries a substantial salary of between $124,406 and $187,000.

 

The job listing says the permanent position may require “frequent travel” and is “concerned with the avoidance of organic constituent and biological contamination in human and robotic space exploration.”

The position’s tenure is for three years, with the chance of extending to five. It stems from the international Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which pledged to pursue studies of outer space and explore other planets while avoiding “their harmful contamination” and any “adverse changes in the environment of Earth resulting from the introduction of extraterrestrial matter.”

According to the job spec, the planetary protection officer will be required to uphold NASA’s policies of mitigating the risk of spaceflight missions contaminating other planets, and in turn, protect Earth and its biosphere from extraterrestrial organisms.

Facebook’s artificial intelligence robots shut down after they start talking to each other in their own language


Facebook abandoned an experiment after two artificially intelligent programs appeared to be chatting to each other in a strange language only they understood.

The two chatbots came to create their own changes to English that made it easier for them to work – but which remained mysterious to the humans that supposedly look after them.

The bizarre discussions came as Facebook challenged its chatbots to try and negotiate with each other over a trade, attempting to swap hats, balls and books, each of which were given a certain value. But they quickly broke down as the robots appeared to chant at each other in a language that they each understood but which appears mostly incomprehensible to humans.

The robots had been instructed to work out how to negotiate between themselves, and improve their bartering as they went along. But they were not told to use comprehensible English, allowing them to create their own “shorthand”, according to researchers.

The actual negotiations appear very odd, and don’t look especially useful:

 Bob: i can i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to

Bob: you i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me

Bob: i i can i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Alice: balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me

Bob: i . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to

Bob: you i i i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Alice: balls have 0 to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to

Bob: you i i i everything else . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Alice: balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to

But there appear to be some rules to the speech. The way the chatbots keep stressing their own name appears to a part of their negotiations, not simply a glitch in the way the messages are read out.

Indeed, some of the negotiations that were carried out in this bizarre language even ended up successfully concluding their negotiations, while conducting them entirely in the bizarre language.

They might have formed as a kind of shorthand, allowing them to talk more effectively.

“Agents will drift off understandable language and invent codewords for themselves,” Facebook Artificial Intelligence Research division’s visiting researcher Dhruv Batra said. “Like if I say ‘the’ five times, you interpret that to mean I want five copies of this item. This isn’t so different from the way communities of humans create shorthands.”

 That said, it’s unlikely that the language is a precursor to new forms of human speech, according to linguist Mark Liberman.

“In the first place, it’s entirely text-based, while human languages are all basically spoken (or gestured), with text being an artificial overlay,” he wrote on his blog. “And beyond that, it’s unclear that this process yields a system with the kind of word, phrase, and sentence structures characteristic of human languages.”

The company chose to shut down the chats because “our interest was having bots who could talk to people”, researcher Mike Lewis told FastCo. (Researchers did not shut down the programs because they were afraid of the results or had panicked, as has been suggested elsewhere, but because they were looking for them to behave differently.)

The chatbots also learned to negotiate in ways that seem very human. They would, for instance, pretend to be very interested in one specific item – so that they could later pretend they were making a big sacrifice in giving it up, according to a paper published by FAIR.

(That paper was published more than a month ago but began to pick up interest this week.)

Facebook’s experiment isn’t the only time that artificial intelligence has invented new forms of language.

Earlier this year, Google revealed that the AI it uses for its Translate tool had created its own language, which it would translate things into and then out of. But the company was happy with that development and allowed it to continue.

Another study at OpenAI found that artificial intelligence could be encouraged to create a language, making itself more efficient and better at communicating as it did so.

Humans Draw Energy From Each Other the Same Way Plants Do. 


Recently, scientists discovered that plants could absorb energy from other plants in a groundbreaking study. Due to this, the entire scientific world could be turned upside down, because of the fact that it would provide evidence that humans could absorb energy from one another in a similar manner.

The research team was lead by Dr. Olaf Kruse, and for the first time ever, they were able to prove that the green alga Chlamydomonas reinhardtii can not only engage in photosynthesis, but that is can also draw an alternative form of energy. This energy would come from various other plants located around the Chlamydomonas reinhardtii. The study was then published in the Nature Communications journal online.

In order for us to grow, we need necessary energies such as calories from food, minerals from water, oxygen, and sunlight drawn from our surroundings. Conversely, plants need sunlight, food, and water as well, along with carbon dioxide.

 In order to conduct his study, Kruse and his team of researchers planted the tiny green alga species and then observed it during a period when it was unable to receive its typical sources of energy. Due to their shortage, they began pulling energies from single-cell plants located around them. They were able to accomplish this by creating enzymes which digested the cellulose from the other plants in order to grow.

“This is the first time that such a behavior has been confirmed in a vegetable organism’, says Professor Kruse. ‘That algae can digest cellulose contradicts every previous textbook. To a certain extent, what we are seeing is plants eating plants.”

Continuing, he compared the behavior to human beings. “This is exactly why there are certain people who feel uncomfortable in specific group settings where there is a mix of energy and emotions.”

While speaking in regards to how this discovery would affect scientific studies on humans and how they could possibly feed off of one another, Badar-Lee explained,

“When energy studies become more advanced in the coming years, we will eventually see this translated to human beings as well. The human organism is very much like a plant, it draws needed energy to feed emotional states and this can essentially energize cells or cause increases in cortisol and catabolize cells depending on the emotional trigger.”

Furthermore, according to her, she believes that it would be the perfect time to now begin to explore the field of bioenergy.

“Human can absorb and heal through other humans, animals, and any part of nature. That’s why being around nature is often uplifting and energizing for so many people,” she concluded.

So how do we walk away from such information? Well, we must shield ourselves from potential energy drains by doing the following:

1. Start Grounding

When you feel completely drained, take a walk outside barefoot, or simply sit on the ground. The earth has a way of balancing our energies, which should help when we have become drained from others.

2. Cleanse Yourself

Take a bath in sea salt, or use a sage stick to cleanse yourself when you are feeling negative. While it may sound like nonsense, there are many who have been doing this for ages and continue to tout just how effective it can be.

3. Steer Clear of Negativity

It goes without saying that certain people, places, and things are loaded with negative energies that bring you down. If at all possible steer clear of such energies. If you can’t, try to unwind by grounding or cleansing afterward.

Science has come a long way over the years, and it appears that as science progresses, scientists are becoming more and more open to the possibilities regarding energy. While many naturalists have been saying these things for years, we now (thankfully) have science on our side. So, stay positive, stay grounded, and stay aware, as always.

Secret chambers in the tomb of King Tutankhamun


Archeologists and experts from around the globe have been invited by Egypt’s government to examine new data concerning King Tutankhamun’s tomb. New, extensive radar scanning has brought possible evidence to light that supports the theory of secret chambers in the tomb.

The invitation, which was issued by the antiquities minister during a news conference held just outside the tomb, aims to bring a broader scientific rigor to what have only been vague clues.

 

The wall decorations in KV62's burial chamber are modest in comparison with other royal tombs found in the Valley of the Kings. Source

The wall decorations in KV62’s burial chamber
are modest in comparison with other royal
tombs found in the Valley of the Kings. Source

The renewed exploration of Tut’s tomb was prompted in part by a theory by Nicholas Reeves, a British Egyptologist, that there were undiscovered chambers behind the western and northern walls of the tomb. Furthermore, these hidden rooms are likely to contain the tomb of Queen Nefertiti, who was one of the most famous figures of pharaonic Egypt. The bust of Nefertiti that is on display at the Berlin Museum is a symbol of ancient beauty for many.

 Located among the desert mountains across the Nile River from Luxor, the Valley of the Kings was once the main burial site for Egypt’s pharaohs. Luxor itself has some impressive temples of Thebes, one of the pharaonic capitals.

King Tutankhamen’s tomb was the most intact ever discovered in Egypt. It was packed with well-preserved artifacts. Despite the fame, he has now, Tut was a relatively minor king who ruled for a short period of time. His parents were the Pharaoh Akhenaten and one of his wives, Kia. It was just after his death in 1323 B.C. that his family was overthrown by a general and the 18th Dynasty that had been in power for 250 years was ended.

 

Tutankhamen_Tomb_layout.Source

Tutankhamen_Tomb_layout.

Pharaoh Akhenaten had tried and failed, to switch Egypt to an early form of monotheism. Nefertiti was his primary wife; after he died, he was succeeded by a pharaoh referred to only as Smenkhare. Reeves believes that Smenkhare and Nefertiti are actually the same person. The queen had merely changed her name when she came to power.

The results of the preliminary scans of Tut’s tomb suggest that there may be two open spaces behind the walls, with signs that they could contain metal and organic matter. More extensive scanning, which was sponsored by National Geographic, has also been completed, but the data has yet to be analyzed.

If a discovery were to be made of chambers behind the western and northern walls, it would likely be the biggest discovery in Egyptology since Howard Carter first discovered the king’s 3,300-year-old burial chamber and its treasures in 1922. If those chambers did contain Nefertiti’s tomb, the discovery would be of even greater importance.

 The recently appointed Minister of Antiquities, Khaled el-Anani, strongly advised caution. Egypt’s scientific credibility, as well as the preservation of its antiquities, were at stake in this matter. “We will rely only on science going forward. There are no results to share at the current stage, but only indications. We are not searching for hidden chambers, but rather we are scientifically verifying whether there are such rooms.” He then added, “We are looking for the truth and reality, not chambers.”

One of the difficulties that Egyptologists face when scanning in the Valley of the Kings is the geology of the area, which is notorious for containing fissures in the rock. Such cracks, explained Harvard University Egyptology professor Peter Der Manuelian, complicated interpreting the scans accurately. Although not involved in the project himself, Manuelian noted, “So the more scans we do, and from different angles and directions, inside and outside the tomb, the better.”

Mask on Tutankhamun's innermost coffin.Source
Mask on Tutankhamun’s innermost coffin.

Reeves’s theory was born when he analyzed the unusual structure of Tut’s tomb. Other royal tombs were much larger and orientated differently. On top of that, he discovered, through examinations of photos, what appear to be the outlines of a filled-in doorframe on one wall. It was possible that Tutankhamun, who died at the age of nineteen, may have been rushed into an outer chamber of what was originally Nefertiti’s tomb.

Professor of Egyptology at Yale University John Darnell said Tut’s tomb is “somewhat anomalous due to its small size … But the question is: Was Tutankhamun’s tomb small, or do we have only a portion of a larger tomb?”

“We have a theory, and now what we’re trying to do is test it. And if I am right, fantastic, if I am wrong, I’ve been doing my job; I’ve been following the evidence trail and seeing where it leads,” Reeves said.

El-Anani said Egyptologists and Valley of the Kings experts will discuss the findings of the scans in a previously scheduled conference devoted to King Tut on May 8. It will be held at Egypt’s new national museum that is near the Giza Pyramids, outside of Cairo. The outcome of these discussions will guide what course of action Egypt will take.

Tutankhamen_Tomb_layout.Source
Tutankhamen_Tomb_layout.Source

 

“Technology is beginning to open doors that were permanently locked, or seemed permanently locked, or maybe we did not know it existed,” said Terry D. Garcia, who is the chief science and exploration officer for National Geographic. “It is creating a revolution … and it is going to result in the 21st century being the greatest in exploration in the history of mankind, and we are just scratching the surface.”

The renewed interest in pharaohs and the mystery surrounding King Tut’s tomb is an opportunity for Egypt to regain some of it deeply damaged tourism industry. Once, pharaonic sites were Egypt’s main attraction, but cities such as Luxor have suffered heavily from the plunge in tourism. The crash of a Russian airliner over the Sinai Peninsula that killed all 224 passengers on board did not help Egypt’s image. Russia has since suspended all flights to Egypt. Britain suspended all flights to Sharm el-Sheikh, the Egyptian Red Sea resort from which the doomed aircraft took off shortly before it crashed.

1st safe repair of disease-causing gene in human embryos. 


PHOTO: Human embryo at six weeks.

Altering human heredity? In a first, researchers safely repaired a disease-causing gene in human embryos, targeting a heart defect best known for killing young athletes — a big step toward one day preventing a list of inherited diseases.

In a surprising discovery, a research team led by Oregon Health and & Science University reported Wednesday that embryos can help fix themselves if scientists jump-start the process early enough.

It’s laboratory research only, nowhere near ready to be tried in a pregnancy. But it suggests that scientists might alter DNA in a way that protects not just one baby from a disease that runs in the family, but his or her offspring as well. And that raises ethical questions.

“I for one believe, and this paper supports the view, that ultimately gene editing of human embryos can be made safe. Then the question truly becomes, if we can do it, should we do it?” said Dr. George Daley, a stem cell scientist and dean of Harvard Medical School. He wasn’t involved in the new research and praised it as “quite remarkable.”

“This is definitely a leap forward,” agreed developmental geneticist Robin Lovell-Badge of Britain’s Francis Crick Institute.

Today, couples seeking to avoid passing on a bad gene sometimes have embryos created in fertility clinics so they can discard those that inherit the disease and attempt pregnancy only with healthy ones, if there are any.

Gene editing in theory could rescue diseased embryos. But so-called “germline” changes — altering sperm, eggs or embryos — are controversial because they would be permanent, passed down to future generations. Critics worry about attempts at “designer babies” instead of just preventing disease, and a few previous attempts at learning to edit embryos, in China, didn’t work well and, more importantly, raised safety concerns.

In a series of laboratory experiments reported in the journal Nature, the Oregon researchers tried a different approach.

They targeted a gene mutation that causes a heart-weakening disease, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, that affects about 1 in 500 people. Inheriting just one copy of the bad gene can cause it.

The team programmed a gene-editing tool, named CRISPR-Cas9, that acts like a pair of molecular scissors to find that mutation — a missing piece of genetic material.

Then came the test. Researchers injected sperm from a patient with the heart condition along with those molecular scissors into healthy donated eggs at the same time. The scissors cut the defective DNA in the sperm.

Normally cells will repair a CRISPR-induced cut in DNA by essentially gluing the ends back together. Or scientists can try delivering the missing DNA in a repair package, like a computer’s cut-and-paste program.

Instead, the newly forming embryos made their own perfect fix without that outside help, reported Oregon Health & Science University senior researcher Shoukhrat Mitalipov.

We all inherit two copies of each gene, one from dad and one from mom — and those embryos just copied the healthy one from the donated egg.

“The embryos are really looking for the blueprint,” Mitalipov, who directs OHSU’s Center for Embryonic Cell and Gene Therapy, said in an interview. “We’re finding embryos will repair themselves if you have another healthy copy.”

It worked 72 percent of the time, in 42 out of 58 embryos. Normally a sick parent has a 50-50 chance of passing on the mutation.

Previous embryo-editing attempts in China found not every cell was repaired, a safety concern called mosaicism. Beginning the process before fertilization avoided that problem: Until now, “everybody was injecting too late,” Mitalipov said.

Nor did intense testing uncover any “off-target” errors, cuts to DNA in the wrong places, reported the team, which also included researchers from the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in California and South Korea’s Institute for Basic Science. The embryos weren’t allowed to develop beyond eight cells, a standard for laboratory research. The experiments were privately funded; U.S. tax dollars aren’t allowed for embryo research.

Genetics and ethics experts not involved in the work say it’s a critical first step — but just one step — toward eventually testing the process in pregnancy, something currently prohibited by U.S. policy.

“This is very elegant lab work,” but it’s moving so fast that society needs to catch up and debate how far it should go, said Johns Hopkins University bioethicist Jeffrey Kahn.

And lots more research is needed to tell if it’s really safe, added Britain’s Lovell-Badge. He and Kahn were part of a National Academy of Sciences report earlier this year that said if germline editing ever were allowed, it should be only for serious diseases with no good alternatives and done with strict oversight.

“What we do not want is for rogue clinicians to start offering treatments” that are unproven, as has happened with some other experimental technologies, he stressed.

Among key questions: Would the technique work if mom, not dad, harbored the mutation? Is repair even possible if both parents pass on a bad gene?

Mitalipov is “pushing a frontier,” but it’s responsible basic research that’s critical for understanding embryos and disease inheritance, noted University of Pittsburgh professor Kyle Orwig.

In fact, Mitalipov said the research should offer critics some reassurance: If embryos prefer self-repair, it would be extremely hard to add traits for “designer babies” rather than just eliminate disease.

“All we did is un-modify the already mutated gene.”

Why Some People Respond to Stress by Falling Asleep


Why Some People Respond to Stress by Falling Asleep
Last month, my wife and I found ourselves in a disagreement about whether or not our apartment was clean enough for guests—the type of medium-sized disagreement that likely plagues all close relationships. In the midst of it, there was a lull and, feeling exhausted all of a sudden, I got up and left the living room. In the bedroom, I immediately fell face down into the sheets. The next thing I knew it was 20 minutes later and my wife was shaking me awake. I hadn’t meant to fall asleep; I just felt so fatigued in that moment that there was nothing else I could do.

This wasn’t new for me. A few weeks earlier, I had come into conflict with an acquaintance over some money. We were exchanging tense emails while I was at my office, and I began to feel the slow oozing onset of sleep, the same tiredness that came on when, as a child, I rode in the backseat of the car on the way home from some undesired trip. A sleepiness that overtakes the body slowly but surely and feels entirely outside of your control.

Though this has happened many times before, my response to conflict still seems strange to me. After all, as everyone knows from 9th grade biology class, when faced with stress—an acute threat—our bodies enter fight-or-flight mode. It’s supposed to be automatic: the adrenal cortex releases stress hormones to put the body on alert; the heart begins to beat more rapidly; breathing increases frequency; your metabolism starts to speed up, and oxygen-rich blood gets pumped directly to the larger muscles in the body. The point is to become energized, to prepare to face the source of the conflict head on, or, at the worst, be ready to run away, at top speed.

Of course, you don’t actually want the stress response system to be too reactive. If you were constantly in fight or flight mode, constantly stressed, it could actually have long-term effects on your neurochemistry, leading to chronic anxiety, depression, and, well, more sleeplessness. Even so, it seems like a good idea to sometimes be on high alert when dealing with stressful situations.

But that’s not what my body did. My body shut down.

If, during early development, a living thing comes to understand that it is helpless, it will continue to perceive a lack of control, no matter if the context changes.

I asked around, and found out that many others experience the same thing. For example, Dawn, a family counselor in Columbus, Ohio, told me that her husband Brad often “starts yawning in the middle of heated discussions, and will even lie down and go right to sleep.” One time their toddler son fell down the stairs (he was fine), and Brad left the room and went to bed. Brad has had this kind of stress response for all 24 years of their relationship; Dawn says she’s used to it by now.

Even though dozens of people told me similar stories, I began to wonder what was wrong with us—what was wrong with me. Why was my body, in the face of conflict, simply acquiescing? Where was the fight in me?

There’s a concept in psychology called “learned helplessness” used to explain certain aspects of depression and anxiety. It’s fairly old, having been first recognized and codified in the 1970s, but has remained largely relevant and accepted within the field. The name (mostly) explains it all: If, at a very early stage in development, a living thing comes to understand that it is helpless in the face of the world’s forces, it will continue to perceive a lack of control, and therefore actually become helpless, no matter if the context changes.

In the early studies, dogs were divided into two groups: The first half were subjected to electric shocks, but were given a way to stop the shocks (they just had to figure it out themselves). The second group of dogs received shocks but had no way to avoid, escape, or stop them. The experience, sadly, had long-term effects on the animals. When faced with stressful environments later on in life, the first group of dogs did whatever they could to try to deal with it; the second group simply gave up. They had been conditioned to respond to stress with acquiescence.

This type of learned helplessness isn’t limited to animals; many of the adults I spoke with all mentioned childhood anxiety stemming from uncontrollable situations.

“When I hit high school and stress levels became higher in my life (messy divorce between my parents and lots of moving), I began escaping into sleep,” says LeAnna, a 25-year-old from Washington state. “As an adult, I still have ‘go to sleep’ impulses whenever I feel overwhelmed.” Daniel, from Baltimore told me that “whenever there was any kind of ‘family strife’ I would just go to my room and sleep.” Daniel is now 51, and starts yawning any time he encounters a stressful situation.

“Our feelings are always in the past. This is something that’s really outlived its adaptive value.”

My parents divorced by the time I hit high school, but before they did, they fought a lot, usually in the kitchen beneath my bedroom. What I remember feeling most was powerlessness—not anger or sadness, but a shrug-your-shoulders, close-the-door, shut-your-eyes type of response because what was I going to do? Tell them to break it up?

That coping mechanism worked for me back then. I was able to compartmentalize those stressful experiences and move on with my life. I stayed in school and kept my grades up; I had friends and was relatively well-rounded. Things went well. But now, at 28, I still deal with interpersonal conflict by shutting the door and going to sleep. I act on feelings that are no longer relevant to the situation.

“Our feelings are always in the past,” says John Sharp, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. “This is something that’s really outlived its adaptive value.” As an adult I should have control over my current situation, but I don’t. Am I like those lab dogs, shocked into helplessness?
At first glance, sleep might seem like quintessential avoidance, like burying your head in the pillow is no better than burying your head in the sand.

But I don’t feel as though I am not helping myself. After all, going to sleep isn’t like turning the lights off; the truth is that there’s a lot still going on while your eyes are closed. While we might be able to temporarily stave the flow of conflict by falling asleep, we’re not really escaping anything. In fact, sleep in some ways forces us to not only relive the emotional experience but to process and concretize it—by going to sleep I may be making the fight with my wife more real.

If you’re like me, you probably imagine memories work pretty simply: you have an experience, it gets stored somewhere, and then you retrieve it when you need it. But that leaves out a key step, memory consolidation, and that’s where sleep comes into play.

Here’s how it really works, according to Dr. Edward Pace-Schott, professor at Harvard Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine: When an experience is initially encoded as a memory, it rests in the brain’s short term storage facilities, where it is fragile, easily forgotten if other experiences come along quickly. In order for the experience to last, it needs to go through a process of consolidation, where it becomes integrated into other memories that you have. That’s why when you think of, say the 1993 baseball game between the Yankees and Orioles, you also think of bright green grass, the smell of peanuts and beer, your dad, and Bobby Bonilla, and not thousands of random bits and pieces.

Of course, not every experience is worth remembering. Only the highly intense experiences—positive or negative—are prioritized for storage later on. “Emotions put a stamp on a memory to say ‘this is important,’” says Pace-Schott. It makes sense: the color of the grocery store clerk’s shirt is significantly less essential than, say, your mother’s birthday.

If we didn’t shelve our memories appropriately, everything would be a jumble, and without consolidation, we would forget it all. Life would have no meaning, and more importantly (at least from an evolutionary standpoint) we would never learn anything—we’d be helplessly amorphous, easy prey.

“You can be driven to sleep simply by having a lot of emotional memories to process.”

Here’s the conundrum, though: the same experiences that are stamped as emotionally important can overwhelm your brain’s short term storage facilities. Dr. Rebecca Spencer, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Department of Psychology, likens it to a desk where “whatever is stressing you out is this big pile of papers, but there are also other memories piling up on you.” With more and more papers landing in front of you all day, you’ll never effectively get to them all. And emotionally rich experiences are all high priority messages, screaming to be dealt with right away. So what happens next?

“You can be driven to sleep simply by having a lot of emotional memories to process,” says Spencer. It takes sleep to provide the space needed to sift through the days’ experiences, and make permanent those that matter.

Studies show that sleep enhances your memory of experiences, and the effect is multiplied for experiences with the stamp of emotion. In fact, the memory-consolidation process that occurs during sleep is so effective that some scientists, including Pace-Schott and Spencer, have suggested that it could be used to treat PTSD. Spencer posits that keeping someone from sleep following a traumatic event could be good in the long run. “If you force yourself to stay awake through a period of insomnia,” Spencer says, “the [traumatic] memory and emotional response will both decay.”

On the flip side, when it comes to the majority of the negative things we experience in life—the things that aren’t necessarily traumatizing like, say, a fight with your significant other—we want to go to sleep, because that protects the memory and emotional response.

And Pace-Schott points out that sleep disruption may prevent consolidation of potentially therapeutic memories, sometimes termed ‘fear extinction’ memories. These are memories that can dull the effect of a traumatic experience by creating more positive associations with specific triggers.] This means that improving sleep quality following traumatic events may be crucial to preventing PTSD.

The nap following a fight with my wife should, ideally, teach me how to better manage interpersonal conflict.

Ever wonder why little kids nap so much? Researchers believe that it’s not just because they’ve been running around all day—it’s also due to the fact their short-term memory storage space is so small, and they constantly need to unload experiences and consolidate memories more often. One recent study, in fact, found that “distributed sleep” (a.k.a. napping) is critical for learning at an early age. The nap that follows a 4 year-old child getting burnt on a hot stove should help him learn from the experience.

Similarly, the nap following a fight with my wife should, ideally, teach me how to better manage interpersonal conflict. The benefits of sleep on memory don’t go away.

When we wake up from sleep, we feel different. It’s not just that time has passed; we’ve undergone a real chemical response. When we sleep, all the stress systems in our body are damped down, letting it relax, so that tenseness you felt, the sickness in your stomach, the frayed nerves, will all be gone in the morning. “It’s almost like we are different people when we wake up,” says Pace-Schott.

One particular neurochemical, called orexin, may hold the key to the puzzle. Orexin, which was discovered only about 15 years ago, is unique in that it plays a very clearly defined dual role in the body. First and foremost, it’s a crucial element in your daily sleep/wake rhythm. You get a boost of the stuff when you wake up, and it drops before you go to sleep. Studies in rats show that if you take all of an animal’s orexin away, it can no longer effectively control sleeping and waking. Since its discovery, orexin has become one of the key diagnostic criteria for determining narcolepsy—those with the sleep disorder essentially have none of the neurochemical.

And then there’s the second function: It’s part of the stress response system.

“The orexin system is absolutely hardwired into the sympathetic nervous system,” says Philip L. Johnson, a neuroscientist at the Indiana University School of Medicine. If everything is working normally, when you are faced with a stressful situation, your orexin system kicks in and triggers the stress responses that you expect: fight or flight.

In other words, the same exact neural pathway that handles wakefulness (we can’t even get out of bed without orexin kicking in) also handles a key aspect of our stress response.

Think about this: while narcoleptics do sometimes just nod off randomly, strong emotions are, most often, connected to onset of sleep. It’s counterintuitive, but it’s true, says Johnson. For many narcoleptics, strong emotions associated with stress can cause a complete collapse.

Of course, this should sound familiar—it’s not so different than what happens when Brad, LeAnna, Daniel, I, and so many others go head to head with stress. The science on this is still in its infancy, and it remains unclear exactly what’s going on at a chemical level here, but there does seem to be some connection.

In the meantime, sleep doesn’t seem too bad. The problem may still be there when you awake, but you’ll have a better understanding of it, and hopefully, a clear slate to handle it.

Hyperloop One Passes Second Full System Test — Faster Than Ever Before


IN BRIEF

Hyperloop One has just put its tech through another test, which it passed with flying colors by going 308 km/h (192 mph) — faster than ever before. So, how long until we see the technology implemented, and what challenges will it have to overcome to get to this stage?

Hyperloop One tests are growing ever more impressive, reaching faster speeds and, in the process, showing us what the technology is really capable of. During the latest evaluation, on Saturday, the pod reached speeds of 308 km/h (192 mph) down the company’s 500-meter (1,640-foot) test track in Nevada, before gliding to a graceful halt.

This is a remarkable improvement on the company’s first full system test earlier this summer. During this outing, it traveled farther by a factor of 4.5 times, reached speeds 2.7 times faster, and achieved 3.5 times the horsepower.

 Shervin PishevarHyperloop One co-founder, told CNBC, “We’ve got the Hyperloop working. It’s the dawn now […] of the commercialization of the hyperloops. We’ve got conversations and dialogues with governments around the world.”

Pishevar was referring to the worldwide travel he has been undertaking recently. The company is currently looking at various cities in the U.S. to build a loop and is also planning on installing the system in Europe. In fact, Hyperloop One is already undertaking feasibility studies in Finland, Moscow, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, and the U.K.

Despite these successes, there are still hurdles that need to be overcome before we see the transportation system of the future. Most prominently, it will need to achieve the right-of-way allowances, land acquisitions, and regulatory approvals that other means of transportation like the railway enjoy.

However, this announcement gives us a reassuring reminder that the future of transport isn’t far away.

First U.S. Human Embryo Gene Editing Experiment Successfully “Corrects” a Heart Condition


IN BRIEF

A study published today in the journal Nature confirms earlier reports of the first-ever successful gene-editing of embryos in the U.S. Though controversial, the treatment could one day be used to address any of the 10,000 disorders linked to just a single genetic error.

CORRECTING MUTANT GENES

Last week, reports circulated  that doctors had successfully edited a gene in a human embryo — the first time such a thing had been done in the United States. The remarkable achievement confirmed the powerful potential of CRISPR, the world’s most efficient and effective gene-editing tool. Now, details of the research have been published in Nature.

The procedure involved “correcting” the DNA of one-cell embryos using CRISPR to remove the MYBPC3 gene. That gene is known to cause hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (HCM), a heart disease that affects 1 out of 500 people. HCM has no known cure or treatment as its symptoms don’t manifest until the disease causes sudden death through cardiac arrest.

How CRISPR Works: The Future of Genetic Engineering and Designer Humans
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The researchers started with human embryos created from 12 healthy female donors and sperm from a male volunteer who carried the MYBOC3 gene. The defective gene was cut out using CRISPR around the time the sperm was injected into the eggs.

 As a result, as the embryos divided and grew, many repaired themselves using the non-edited genes from the genetic materials of the female donors, and in total, 72 percent of the cells that formed appeared to be corrected. The researchers didn’t notice any “off-target” effects on the DNA, either.

The researchers told The Washington Post that their work was fairly basic. “Really, we didn’t edit anything, neither did we modify anything,” explained Shoukhrat Mitalipov, lead author and a researcher at the Oregon Health and Science University. “Our program is toward correcting mutant genes.”

A [CONTROVERSIAL] NEW ERA?

Basic or not, the development is remarkable.“By using this technique, it’s possible to reduce the burden of this heritable disease on the family and eventually the human population,” Mitalipov said in an OHSU press release.

However, gene editing is a controversial area of study, and the researchers’ work included changes to the germ line, meaning the changes could be passed down to future generations. To be clear, though, the embryos were allowed to grow for only a few days and none were implanted into a womb (nor was that ever the researchers’ intention).

In fact, current legislation in the U.S. prohibits the implantation of edited embryos. The work conducted by these researchers was well within the guidelines set by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine on the use of CRISPR to edit human genes.

University of Wisconsin-Madison bioethicist Alta Charo thinks that the benefits of this potential treatment outweigh all concerns. “What this represents is a fascinating, important, and rather impressive incremental step toward learning how to edit embryos safely and precisely,” she told The Washington Post. “[N]o matter what anybody says, this is not the dawn of the era of the designer baby.”

Before the technique could be truly beneficial, regulations must be developed that provide clearer guidelines, according to Mitalipov. If not, “this technology will be shifted to unregulated areas, which shouldn’t be happening,” he explained.

More than 10,000 disorders have been linked to just a single genetic error, and as the researchers continue with their work, their next target is BRCA, a gene associated with breast cancer growth.

Mitalipov hopes that their technique could one day be used to treat a wide-range of genetic diseases and save the lives of millions of people. After all, treating a single gene at the embryonic stage is far more efficient that changing a host of them in adults.

What China Can Teach America About Clean Air by Daniel K. Gardner – Project Syndicate


Every year, more than four million people around the world die prematurely from breathing dirty air. In China alone, the number of deaths attributable to air pollution exceeds one million annually. That figure may not come as a surprise; after all, we are routinely treated to images in the media of thick, sooty smog enveloping Beijing, Shanghai, and other Chinese cities. But America’s air kills, too – and it is getting a lot less attention.

2013 MIT study estimated that poor air quality accounts for 200,000 early deaths in the United States each year, more than the number killed by car crashes and diabetes (other studies have put the number lower, closer to 100,000). Yet, while China today is aggressively tackling its air pollution problem, the US is rolling back air-quality protections in the name of economic growth – an ill-conceived strategy that will have a devastating impact on human health.

Ever since the publication of Harvard’s “Six Cities” study in 1993, scientists and public-health officials have been aware of the links between mortality and fine particulate matter, or PM2.5 (airborne particles with a diameter of less than 2.5 microns). When people inhale PM2.5, microscopic solids and liquid droplets of dust, dirt, organic chemicals, and metals can travel deep into the lungs and even enter the bloodstream. Research over the past 20 years has tied PM2.5 to a range of adverse health outcomes, including asthma, acute bronchitis, lung cancer, heart attacks, and cardiorespiratory diseases.

We know, too, where most PM2.5 comes from: power plants, heavy industry, and motor vehicles. During fossil-fuel combustion, carbon dioxide, the world’s most prevalent greenhouse gas, is emitted into the air, along with particles of incompletely combusted solids and gases (mainly sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxides) that react chemically in the atmosphere to form fine particulate matter.

Knowing the killer pollutant and its sources, the US Environmental Protection Agency, under the 1990 Clean Air Act, issued new standards to reduce PM2.5 levels. The EPA estimates that between 1990 and 2015, the national concentration of particulate matter fell by 37%, and that in 2010, some 160,000 premature deaths were averted as a result of the regulations. In short, despite a considerable number of deaths still linked to dirty air, the US had, until this year, been heading in the right direction.

Now, however, US President Donald Trump has promised to create “unbelievable prosperity” by discarding regulations intended to reduce toxic emissions from coal-fired power plants, lowering or eliminating fuel-efficiency standards for automobiles, and dismantling the EPA. He has also vowed to repeal limits on fracking, open up more public lands to coal mining, and expand oil and gas production in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans.

Let’s assume, for a moment, that such measures would actually produce prosperity for the entire country, and not just for the fossil-fuel industry. What price, as a country, is the US willing to pay? How many early deaths per year are too many?

There are alternatives that don’t require a zero-sum tradeoff between economic growth and human health. And, ironically, one place to look for inspiration is China.

Holding up China as a model to emulate might seem absurd. After all, its PM2.5 levels are considerably higher than in the US, and consumption of fossil fuels, especially coal, is far greater. But Chinese policymakers are taking vigorous steps to reverse course, free the country from its dependence on fossil fuels and create a future-oriented economy powered by clean energy and green technology – one that places China at the forefront of the global economy.

Today, China is the world’s largest investor in renewable energy, with outlays in 2015 totaling $103 billion, more than double US spending of $44 billion. Of the planet’s 8.1 million jobs in renewable energy, 3.5 million are in China, whereas fewer than one million are in the US. Persuaded that clean energy is good for the environment and the economy, China has committed $367 billion through 2020 to the development of renewable power sources – a level of investment that is expected to generate 13 million jobs.

China is also looking beyond its borders, by exporting the expertise it has developed in renewable energy and supporting technologies. In 2016, China invested tens of billions in renewable energy projects in Australia, Germany, Brazil, Chile, Egypt, Pakistan, Vietnam, Indonesia, and elsewhere.

Likewise, to rein in pollutants from motor vehicles, China’s government has made adoption of electric vehicles a high priority, setting a target of five million on the country’s roads by 2020. To promote sales, buyers are exempted from sales and excise taxes ($6,000-$10,000 per vehicle). And, anticipating the eventual replacement of conventional motor vehicles globally, the authorities are providing generous subsidies for domestic manufacturing.

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Meanwhile, the Trump administration is trying to turn back the clock, by betting on the resuscitation of a dying – and deadly – fossil-fuel industry. Describing a transition to electric vehicles as a job killer, Trump has advocated ending federal subsidies that encourage domestic development, manufacture, and purchase, such as the $7,500 federal tax credit for consumers.

China’s dependence on fossil fuels has left it in a deep environmental hole, but its leaders are determined to climb out. The US, on the other hand, is literally digging its own grave. With as many as 200,000 Americans dying prematurely every year, economic hubris must not be allowed to trump the search for solutions – wherever they may be found.