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Apologies March 18, 2010

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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My apologies to all those who read this blog as I have not posted in quite a while.  I’ve been undergoing a bit of a mid life crisis (which is weird since I’m only 24) and haven’t really had the motivation to post.  Never fear though, I do intend to continue either on this blog or another one.  I feel I still have more to say on transhumanism and human enhancement.  Whatever happens I will keep you updated.


Abuse Of Anabolic Steroids May Cause Kindey Damage November 4, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Chemical.
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As a general rule I think there is far too much scare-mongering going on when it comes to anabolic steroids.  In the public’s imagination steroids occupy a space somewhere between pedophiles and Nazi’s on the list of things we love to hate.  This is especially true in regards to sports and is fueled in part by the sports media as in their opinion it taints the so-called purity of their sport (and you know what I think of that.)  When it comes to the actual science however, steroids are really nothing to get too worked up over.  Don’t get me wrong, they are drugs and like any drug they can have some serious side effects but in comparison to some of the harder substances their side effects are moderate and almost always temporary (i.e. they stop when you stop taking them.)  So when I saw this story about steroids contributing to kidney disease I was naturally a little skeptical.

The study followed ten bodybuilders, all steroid users, and looked for signs of renal damage.  All ten of them had elevated levels of creatinine and proteinuria as well as glomerular and tubulointerstitial scarring.  When a follow up was conducted, one had died of  kidney failure, another was well on his way and the rest had discontinued steroid use, lessened their amount of exercise and were in much better health.

Seems pretty straight forward, right?  Well, no.  The study actually admits a very important point right in the article; bodybuilders typically have signs of kidney damage.  A large amount of lean muscle naturally leads to larger amounts of creatinine in the urine and the high protein diet and exercise regimen of most bodybuilders can also strain the kidney’s.  As such, it’s not clear if the kidney damage results from the steroid use or from the lean muscle mass it produces.

What ever the case may be it does seem clear that steroid users, for whatever reason, are at a higher risk for kidney damage than the rest of us. You have been warned.

Magnets May Enhance Learning November 2, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Cognition, Human Enhancement.
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Yeah I know, I’ve heard all that magnet therapy crap before too and most of it is indeed crap.  But this story comes from a group at the University of British Columbia, not exactly a fringe group.  A study conducted by researchers there found that a magnetic pulse delivered to the premotor cortex improved the ability of the brain to learn a task and remember it.  Scientists are suggesting that this could be a step toward a “thinking cap.”



It’s Official: Naked Mole Rats Are Superior To Humans October 27, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Weird.
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In one of the weirder stories I’ve come across scientists have apparently discovered to mechanism behind the naked mole rat’s fascinating ability.  What is that ability, you ask?  Naked mole rats are incapable of getting cancer, or at least that seems to be the case as they have never been observed to have it.  Now scientists think they have found out why.

According to the story:

The findings, presented in today’s issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, show that the mole rat’s cells express a gene called p16 that makes the cells “claustrophobic,” stopping the cells’ proliferation when too many of them crowd together, cutting off runaway growth before it can start. The effect of p16 is so pronounced that when researchers mutated the cells to induce a tumor, the cells’ growth barely changed, whereas regular mouse cells became fully cancerous.

The next step of course is to isolate the gene and see if we can’t find a way to splice it into humans.  Just be careful though.  Mess around with the genes of a mole rat an you could end up looking like this.

Mechanism Found For Controlling Nerve Regeneration October 25, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Human Enhancement.
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A new study may have found the master regulator for controlling the regeneration of nerve fibers, both peripheral and central, in animals.  Published in Natural Neuroscience, the study found that an enzyme called Mst3b appears to be essential for the regeneration process, to the point that when Mst3b is absent regeneration will not occur even in the presence of other factors shown to facilitate growth.  The researchers noted that they hope to use this as the basis of a treatment for stroke, spinal cord injury and brain trauma.

The most important thing to realize here is that while the peripheral nervous system is able to regenerate neurons when damaged, the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) normally cannot.  A person who injures the nerves in the arm can, potentially, regain use of the arm; but a person with a brain or spinal injury currently has no way to repair the damage.  If this enzyme can be turned into a treatment those people will finally have a recourse.


Another Use For Resveratrol October 22, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Chemical.
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Apparently, resveratrol has potential uses other than increasing human longevity.  Davies Agyekum, a second-year Ph.D. student in the MCG School of Graduate Studies, has found a potential new use for the compound in the treatment of sickle-cell anemia, where resveratrol induces production of fetal hemoglobin and decreases the sickling of red blood cells.
The more observant among you may be thinking, “Hey, if resveratrol increases the amount of hemoglobin, the protein in RBC’s that carries oxygen, shouldn’t it act as a performance enhancer in endurance exercise?”  The answer to that seems to be yes but as far as I could find it doesn’t seem to be related to production of hemoglobin but rather production of new mitochondria, as shown in a 2006 study of mice.  Whatever the mechanism, resveratrol is looking more and more promising.

Alcohol’s Benefits Have Their Limits October 14, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Longevity.
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The benefits of consuming a low to moderate amount of alcohol are still controversial.  While there seems to be a great deal of correlation between moderate alcohol drinkers and lower levels of age related diseases there is very little in the way of causation.  About the only thing that alcohol has been shown to reduce is rates of heart disease and according to a new study that may indeed be the only thing.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, studied over 3000 adults aged 70-79 and found that when adjusted for things like education, body weight and physical activity moderate alcohol consumption produced a negligible effect on functional decline.  The study noted that moderate drinkers did have a lower incidence of mobility limitation and disability but this was more likely due to lifestyle factors rather than there alcohol consumption.


Alcor, Larry Johnson and Ted Williams: The Circus Continues October 13, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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Larry Johnson has a bone to pick with Alcor.  The author and former COO of Alcor Life Extension Foundation is coming out with a new book, “Frozen: My Journey Into the World of Cryonics, Deception and Death” that he says details the gruesome world of cryogenic freezing, where bodies or sometimes just heads are suspended at freezing temperatures in the hope that future technologies will one day be able to revive the dead.

Before we go too much farther lets take a step back and look at how this story got to this point.  For those that don’t know, Alcor Life Extension Foundation is an Arizona based non-profit that offers cryogenic freezing services to its patients.  Cryogenic freezing, as I said above, it the process by which humans or animals are frozen and preserved in the hope that one day technology will progress to the point where they will be able to be reanimated.  It’s a very slim chance that it will actually work but it certainly gives you a better chance of prolonging life then getting cremated or buried.   Alcor, which has been around since 1972 and has over 900 members, describes itself as “the world leader in cryonics, cryonics research, and cryonics technology.”  In 2003 Larry Johnson came to Alcor and worked as Chief Operating Officer for a total of eight months.  At the end of that time he left and that’s where our story really begins.

You see Johnson claims that during his time at Alcor he witnessed and heard of gruesome acts being committed by staff there.  He says he saw one employee hit the frozen head of Ted Williams (yes, that Ted Williams) with a monkey wrench while trying to dislodge a tuna can which had frozen to the head.  He presents a taped conversation that seems to show an Alcor employee hastened the death of a terminally ill patient.  He presents photos of a patient being decapitated so his head may be preserved in one of Alcor’s suspension systems.

Johnson clearly expects us to be disgusted by this and if his accusations are true then we surely should be.  Ah, but there in lies the rub.  First of all, lets look at the biggest accusation here, the one that Ted Williams head was abused and used for batting practice by an Alcor employee.  According to the AP, Johnson was not even employed at Alcor when the freezing took place.  He based his story on “conversations with the Alcorians who were in the room and performed the procedures, the files I have read, and the discussions I’ve had with other people involved, including members of Ted’s family.”  Secondly, Johnson’s photos and descriptions of the “gruesome” decapitations of patients would be more effective if Alcor didn’t advertise the procedure on their fucking homepage.  Neuropreservation, as it is called, is a commonly performed procedure that seeks to preserve the brain of the patient, something which makes sense considering the brain is the seat of consciousness and therefore the only part that really needs to be preserved.  Johnson’s tactic will certainly gross out the more squeamish among us (it’s hard to make a decapitated head not look gross) but there is no evidence that Alcor is misleading or lying to people about what they do.  Thirdly, as to the taped conversations Mr. Johnson does indeed possess tapes that he alleges show an Alcor employee admitting that another Alcor employee hastened the death of a terminally ill patient.  That tape was handed over to police who apparently launched an investigation but it does seem that anything came of it.

The most damning thing against Mr. Johnson however are his own actions.  After breaking his story to Sports Illustrated in 2003 Johnson set up a website where people could view photos of Ted Williams body being defiled, but only after buying a $20 membership.  Now he’s selling a book (violating a court order which forbids him from talking about Alcor) with the same allegations.  Whether or not Mr. Johnson is profiteering from this story, and from where I’m sitting it certainly looks like that, he is certainly profiting from it.

Now, despite all I’ve said it is completely possible that Mr. Johnson is correct in his accusations.  That seems to be the angle most of the media is reporting from and if Alcor is guilty of what there being accused of they should be prosecuted.   The problems are that Mr. Johnson’s past actions cast doubt on his motives and therefore his story and that his evidence seems to be composed mostly of hearsay.  I’ve read some reviews of the book that say it “reads as a captivating thriller” and is “a page turner.”  Perhaps I’m overstepping the bounds here but in my experience stuff that reads like great fiction usually is great fiction.

BIL-PIL Conference October 9, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Transhumanism.
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I will be attending the BIL-PIL Healthcare Innovation Conference on October 30-31 in San Diego and like a kid going to his first day of school I’m excited.  For those who don’t know the BIL-PIL conference is an offshoot of the BIL conference, a medical technology conference that has positioned itself as an alternative to the TED conference.  Like the BIL conference, BIL-PIL is held in what they are calling the unconference format.  Basically what that means is there are no fees to attend, no sponsored speakers and theoretically anyone can attend and participate.  Think of it as the open source model of conferences.

Anyways, as the name implies the BIL-PIL conference covers healthcare and medical technology and while it is not strictly a transhumanist event the issues that will be discussed are all transhumanist issues.  To quote from the website:

A few examples of topics to be addressed by those already scheduled to speak:

  • What are the consequences of the personal genomics revolution?
  • How can patients relate to each other as never before using Web 2.0 technologies?
  • How can science address life extension and aging?
  • How can diagnostics more accurately match a patient to the right therapy?
  • What does new legislation imply for the future of the biotechnology industry?
  • How can we revolutionize the way we think about paying for healthcare?
  • What if your iPhone could “look” at your pills and spot a possible drug interaction?

Genomics?  Life extension?  Biotechnology?  We might as well be reading Citizen Cyborg.  For those of you in San Diego or with the means to get there I really suggest checking this conference out.  Should be a fun time with lots of interesting info presented.  Oh, and I did mention it was free right?

New Longevity Enhancer Found October 1, 2009

Posted by Matt Brown in Longevity, Nutrition.
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It seems like a new longevity enhancement is popping up every week these days so here’s another one to add to the list.  Researchers at the Institute of Healthy Ageing at University College London have managed to extend the life of by up to 20% while reducing the number of age related diseases they experienced.  The method they used to achieve this is gene therapy, specifically altering the mice to block production of the S6 Kinase protein, which plays a role in protein synthesis, cell proliferation and how the body responds to food intake.  This therapy produces an effect similar to caloric restriction.

Now if you’ll allow me to digress slightly, those of you who have been paying attention may have noticed a pattern in regards to all the new longevity enhancers currently being tested.  Rapamycin inhibits the mTOR protein, which regulates cell growth, cell proliferation, transcription and protein synthesis and is stimulated by insulin (among other things.)  Metformin, a drug that may have some life extension capabilities, is more commonly used to treat type-II diabetes, which as you surely know is caused by the body having a resistance and often over-abundance of insulin. Caloric restriction probably has numerous factors which give it it’s effects but one notable thing it does is lower insulin levels in the body (less calories mean less blood sugar, which means less insulin.)  Now we have S6 Kinase which as I said above plays a part in how the body responds to food.  What does the body release to take sugar out of the bloodstream after you eat a meal?  You guessed it, insulin.

Now it would be irresponsible and stupid of me to suggest that insulin holds the key to eternal life.  Ageing is a complex process that involves many different factors.  That being said it does seem like most of the promising longevity treatments involve reducing insulin activity.  Perhaps we have a better understanding of insulin’s role in ageing than we do other factors.  Perhaps insulin is simply easier to study and work with.  Perhaps I’m completely wrong and talking out of my ass.  It’s possible, but I doubt it.  It’s well established that an excess of insulin in the body can lead to disastrous effects (see diabetes) and better thinker than I have seen a link between insulin and poor health (Ray Kurzweil in Fantastic Voyage.)  Fact of the matter is, I would put money on the next big longevity enhancers following the same tract as the others: reducing insulin activity.