Monday, April 22, 2019


Here's the bad news: unless you're under 25, your brain is shrinking. The rate of brain loss is slow at first but speeds up gradually over the years. The brain volume of a typical 75 year old is about 15 percent less than it was at its peak. That gradual loss of brain volume goes hand in hand with the decline in memory and other cognitive functions commonly seen as people age.

 All you need is . . . to take a walk
Image source: Creative Commons

The good news is that even light physical activity--getting up, moving around, doing chores, taking a stroll, working standing rather than sitting--slows down brain shrinkage and ageing. A three-year study of more than 2300 men and women found that for every extra hour per day of light physical activity, people's brains measured more than a year younger, and the brains of people who clocked 10,000 or more steps a day were nearly two years younger than those of people who managed fewer than 5,000 steps a day.

The participants in this study were from the second and third generation of the famous Framingham Heart Study, a long term study centered in Framingham, Massachusetts, that has contributed greatly to our understanding of cardiovascular health and disease, diet and exercise. Activity was measured using accelerometers, and brain volume was tracked via MRIs.

These findings are encouraging to the millions of us--75 percent of Americans--who don't manage to meet the official physical activity guidelines of 150 to 300 minutes per week of moderate exercise or 75 minutes per week of vigorous, aerobic exercise. We can protect our brains with less intense activities.

"Every additional hour of light intensity physical activity was associated with higher brain volumes, even among individuals not meeting current Physical Activity-Guidelines," says Nicole Spartano, a researcher at Boston University School of Medicine and lead author of the study. "These data are consistent with the notion that potential benefits of physical activity on brain aging may accrue at a lower, more achievable level of intensity or volume."

The bottom line is that almost any kind or amount of daily exercise, even just an our or so of light physical activity, can give your brain the boost it needs to stay young and fit.


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Tuesday, April 16, 2019


A computer just wrote a book. It's not a particularly catchy title--Lithium-Ion Batteries--and the author, a system called Beta Writer, isn't going to win a Pulitzer. However, it is a full-fledged, meaningful and readable book entirely written by a machine--the first but certainly not the last.

Authors watch out--one more "human only" skill bites the dust

If your reaction to this news is along the lines of "what's the big deal," that's understandable. Hardly a day goes by without news that AI has equaled or surpassed us plodding humans at yet another activity once thought to require uniquely human intelligence.

Artificial intelligence systems--let's just call them AIs for short--are now as good as humans at a large and rapidly growing number of tasks, and far superior in some others, including games like chess and Go, mastery of which was once seen as one of the pinnacles of human intelligence, and highly esteemed (and highly paid) skills including sinking basketball three-pointers. This is happening so rapidly and so frequently that most of us don't even notice the next advance.

However, some heavy-duty thinkers including Elon Musk, Bill Gates and Stephen Hawking have been warning us for some time about the potentially existential risks of AI.

Gates, Musk and Hawking are not so much worried about AIs that are better than humans at one particular task or another, but about the emergence of an AI that is smarter and more capable than humans in every area. This kind of entity, they point out, could rapidly design and create an even smarter AI, which in turn could quickly improve on itself, leading to an intelligence explosion that could leave the human race, quite literally, in the dust.

Beta Writer, the system that created Lithium-Ion Batteries is pretty smart. It read thousands of scientific articles, extracted their most important findings, melded together related items, and them summarized them in readable, if technical prose. It produced the kind of comprehensive,  well organized, up-to-the-minute review of a scientific or technical field that until now would have been produced by an expert or a team of experts in a field. As such, it joins the ranks of expert systems that are matching or surpassing humans at increasingly high-level tasks. As an author myself, I can't help but be impressed. However, it's far more limited than the kind of AIs Hawking worried about.

Most researchers working on AI argue that these system, even if increasingly savvy and capable, are on the whole benign, for example helping doctors make accurate diagnoses, providing even amateur investors with high-quality guidance, and making all kinds of complex systems such as air traffic, shipping and product delivery run more smoothly. AIs are now integrated, mostly invisibly, into almost every aspect of our lives, and we rely on them whether we choose to or not. And although they occasionally do destructive things, for example the financial "Flash Crash" of 2010, or the deadly real crashes of  Boeing's 737 Max 8 aircraft, it wasn't because they were too smart or being malicious.

It's extremely difficult to predict when, if ever, an AI will emerge that surpasses humans in all of the areas that we consider important, including a deep understanding of itself and the world, emotional as well as analytic intelligence, creativity and imagination as well as problem solving. However, those who have thought most deeply about this, point out that such an entity may well have values and goals that are very different than ours.

These critics, or prophets, warn that we should be working as hard on "the control problem"--making sure that any emerging super-smart AI has the safety and security of us humans embedded so deeply into its design that it can't decide to act against us--as we are working to make AIs smarter, more capable and more ubiquitous.

All I know is that hundreds or thousands of times more money and talent is being poured into developing smarter, more capable AIs than are being devoted at that boring, but potentially vital control problem.


Earlier posts on AI and its risks:

Google's Alphazero is now scary smart

Advanced artificial intelligence--friend or foe?


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Wednesday, April 03, 2019


Every so often I come across a presentation that makes something I had a vague idea about crystal clear. I invite you to dive into this great piece by Brian Resnick and Javier Xarracina on Vox. It's partly about dark matter, but it uses a series of beautifully done graphics to give us a sense of where the Earth fits into the big picture of the sun, the Milky Way and the hundreds of billions of galaxies in the known universe, all of which are dwarfed in turn by dark matter and dark energy.

 Looking up at the Milky Way--our home galaxy
Credit: Free photos from Pixabay

Please give it a click! You won't be sorry.

And to get a totally different view of the history and immensity of the cosmos, check out this new video zoom out of the depths of the Hubble Legacy Field.


Thanks to British author Brian Aldiss for the striking phrase "galaxies like grains of sand." That was the title of the American edition of a collection of some of his short stories, published in the UK under the title The Canopy of Time


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Thursday, March 28, 2019


Imagine you hold a dial in your hand. Turn it to the left and you reduce the number of people killed in your state every year by 15 percent. Turn it to the right and it will increase the number of people killed by 9 percent. For example, if you live in California, you could save 279 lives with a flick of your wrist (or, if you're of a sociopathic bent, you could add 167 deaths per year). In Texas, you could save 197 people or see an extra 118 killed. In New York, you could prevent 92 homicides or provoke 55 more.

Now, new research by public health specialists at the Boston University School of Public Health and Boston Children's Hospital shows that the 50 state legislatures hold exactly that power.

Community health researcher Michael Siegel and his colleagues performed the first simultaneous controlled statistical study of the relationship between different gun laws and homicides in all 50 states, covering the years 1991 through 2016. Out of many different kinds of gun-related laws they studied, they found that three had powerful positive or negative impacts. Universal background checks preventing convicted violent felons from owning guns produced a 15 percent reduction in overall homicides. Laws blocking people convicted of violent misdemeanors cut the homicide rate by 18 percent. In contrast, "shall issue" laws that prevent authorities from using any discretion in granting concealed-carry permits resulted in a 9 percent higher homicide rate.

The researchers found that states with positive forms of all three laws--universal background checks preventing both felons and people with violent misdemeanors from buying or owning guns, and laws giving authorities the right to deny concealed-carry requests from people deemed risks to themselves or other--benefited from 33 percent lower homicide rates.

 Firearms confiscated from felons, California, 2011

For this study, the researchers excluded deaths from legal interventions (e.g. deaths at the hands of police), accidental firearm deaths and firearm deaths whose intent wasn't determined--in total 4.5 percent of firearm-related deaths. They also controlled statistically for many variables known to impact firearm fatalities, including the racial mix of each state, the percentage of young men between the ages of 15 to 29, and the rate of violent crimes other than homicide, divorce, unemployment and poverty.

They found that limiting dangerous people's access to guns is the most effective legal intervention, saving more lives than, for example, trying to limit the kinds of firearms that are available. Asked to summarize the implications of the study for policy makers, Siegel writes:

"Our research suggests that focusing on the “WHO” (i.e., who has access to firearms) is more impactful than focusing on the WHAT (i.e. what types of firearms are allowed). Based on these findings, the priorities for state policy makers should be: (1) universal background checks; (2) laws that prohibit gun purchase or possession by people with a history of violence (a conviction); and (3) extreme risk protection order laws that provide a mechanism for removing guns from people at high risk of violence to themselves or others."

In 2016, 17,250 people were the victims of homicide in the US. In the 26 years covered by this study, 859,871 people were killed. If I had a dial that could prevent even one death, I'd turn it. Wouldn't you? How about saving 2200 lives in a year? Or 130,000 lives over the next 26 years?


You can access the research paper, published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine, at this URL.

You can view earlier zerospinzone posts on gun-related issues at the following links:

stand-your-ground laws 

facts about guns in the US

guns and kids in the US

guns, young people and suicide in the US

New Zealand responds to gun violence


A slightly different version of this post appeared on OpEdNews at this URL.

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Monday, March 25, 2019


This is certainly not the most serious thing I could be writing about, what with the Mueller report finally coming to a fizzling end, Venezuela falling into chaos, the Middle East arguably growing even more explosive, decades of relative restraint on the development and potential use of nuclear weapons being tossed aside by the US and Russia, and, lest we forget, climate change.

Still, a little bit of actually useful information is probably worthy of at least a few moments of your attention.

Here's the snippet of news: If you're over 55 and you eat more than 10 grams (.35 oz or 2 teaspoons) of nuts every day, you're 40 percent more likely to enjoy good thinking and memory than your non-nut-consuming peers.

Can a few peanuts a day keep senility away?
Credit: Aney/Wikimedia

This was the main finding in a study of almost 5000 Chinese seniors. Eating more than 10 grams of nuts every day--mostly peanuts for this study group--boosted cognition by about two-thirds of a point as measured on a 40 point scale. That's equivalent to shaving off two to three years of age.

With a greying population putting millions of people at risk of dementia, any intervention that can slow brain ageing can be of great value to individuals and to society as a whole.

Some people will pay thousands of dollars for surgery to make them look a few years younger. How much is it worth to you to have your brain actually work like it did when you were a few years younger? If the "cost" is munching a few teaspoons of nuts every day, it would seem to be extremely well worth it.


You can reference the research report in the Journal of Nutrition, Health & Ageing here.


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Thursday, March 21, 2019


Here in the US, whenever there's a mass shooting we re-enter a futile, paralytic cycle. Gun-control advocates use the tragedy to argue once again for stricter laws. Second-Amendment advocates launch a counter attack, saying "now is not the time." Their supporters in Congress offer "thoughts and prayers." Their critics point out their hypocrisy. Gun-lovers rush to buy more guns. Nothing changes. And, within a few days we endure yet another massacre.

 "This is not New Zealand"
Credit: AP/Vincent Yu

As we know, a week ago New Zealand was shocked when a white racist gunman murdered 50 people at their prayers. The nation united in revulsion. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke movingly about the victims, vowed never to mention the shooter's name in order to deprive him of the notoriety he sought, and promised to enact stricter gun-control laws and ban semi-automatic weapons entirely as soon as April 11.

Most remarkably, at least some New Zealanders are voluntarily turning their weapons over to the police to be destroyed.

There's a problem. The government responds. People respond. It sounds so sensible. It must feel very good to be part of a functional society and government.

Why not here?


Click here for a more in-depth commentary on this subject.


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Thursday, March 14, 2019


New research in mice has shown for the first time that it's possible to stop the formation of amyloid plaques--one of the key pathological features of Alzheimer's disease--and for the brain to clear them away entirely. This line of research has the potential to lead to medications that can slow, stop, or perhaps even reverse the ravages of this dread, mind-destroying disease.

 Comparison of a healthy brain and a brain with severe Alzheimer's disease
Credit: Wikimedia

As many people know through personal experience with friends or family members, Alzheimer's is an implacably progressive neurodegenerative disease that  robs individuals of their memory, cognitive functions, ability to care for themselves, personalities and, eventually, their lives. It's currently the sixth leading cause of death in the U.S. and, strikingly, ". . . is the only disease in the 10 leading causes of deaths in the United States that cannot be cured, prevented or slowed."

A new study, however, opens up the possibility that Alzheimer's may in fact one day be slowed or prevented, if not cured. Working with mice genetically modified to develop Alzheimer's disease, neuroscientist Riqiang Yan* and his colleagues at the Cleveland Clinic-Lerner Research Institute in Cleveland, Ohio, found that gradually reducing an enzyme called BACE1 blocked the development of amyloid plaques, which are a central part of Alzheimer's pathology.

Although their study was complex and highly technical, the logic behind it is clear. BACE1 is one of two enzymes that snip amyloid precursor protein, or APP, into the shorter pieces that glom together into the plaques that are thought to disrupt and eventually kill neurons. Since BACE1 has important biological functions, removing it early in life or completely creates serious neuro-developmental problems. Still, the researchers reasoned, reducing it gradually in adult mice might slow or stop Alzheimer's without causing unacceptable side effects. That's exactly what they found.

"In our study," says Yan, " we showed that if we delete BACE1 in the adult mice, even after plaque formed, with sequential and increased deletion of BACE1 the plaque was removed. That indicates that if we can get to a patient early enough, it will be beneficial in removing amyloid plaque."

Yan was not surprised to see that lowered levels of BACE1 slowed or stopped the formation of new plaques. He was both surprised and excited to find already existing plaques cleared away--the first time that this has been seen. "To our knowledge," he says, "this is the first observation of such a dramatic reversal of amyloid deposition in any study of Alzheimer’s disease mouse models. We didn't expect the pre-existing plaque would be removed. That was the very interesting part, and warrants additional study to find out why."

While completely blocking BACE1 causes developmental and cognitive problems, a gradual lowering in adult mice appeared appeared safer. Those mice performed better on learning and memory tasks than untreated Alzheimer's prone mice.  However, they still showed some abnormalities in synaptic signalling. Despite this problem, Yan thinks that compounds can be developed that, when applied at the right time and at the right dose, will slow or stop the development of plaques, allow the brain to clear away existing ones, and so keep Alzheimer's at bay.

Prevention is more powerful than treatment

Yan compares this to the enormously successful use of statins to control cholesterol levels enough to block the development of atherosclerosis and heart disease, even though cholesterol has vital functions in the body. "The critical thing is will this lead to some safe drugs?" he asks. "We need to find something very safe like a vitamin that people can take every day without any concerns. Another similarity is to the statins, taking statins to prevent cholesterol from building up. The idea is that prevention is even more powerful that treatment." 

The next step for Yan and colleagues is to track the effects of reduced BACE1 on the mouse brain in more detail and on older mice. "Human patients are typically older than in the mouse model," he explains. "In the mouse model we started to delete [BACE1] at 4 months, which is like 20 years old for people. We now want to delete it in older mice. We need a new mouse model for this later stage."

Robert Vassar is a professor of neurology at Northwestern University, in Illinois, and a pioneer in the study of the role of BACE1 in Alzheimer's disease. He's very supportive of Yan's new findings, and, like Yan, thinks they hold significant promise for Alzheimer's prevention. Vassar too likes the analogy with statins and cardiovascular disease. "You can't turn off the tap of cholesterol, but you can turn it down enough to not accumulate the plaques in the heart that cause heart disease," he says. "It's saved the lives of many people. The BACE1 inhibitors can do the same, if we find the right dose and the right stage of the disease--how much to inhibit and when to treat." 

Vassar and Yan are both aware that years of further research with animals and humans are needed to turn these promising findings into a safe and effective preventative treatment for people. They foresee a long road, but one that urgently needs to be followed. "We have to bold about this disease," says Vassar.  "We're headed for an epidemic of this with the baby boomers, so we've got to do something."

As a baby boomer myself, I couldn't agree more!


You can access Yan and his colleagues' full research paper here.


*Professor Yan is currently Chair of the Department of Neuroscience and William Beecher Scoville Professor in Neuroscience at the University of Connecticut, in Farmington, Connecticut.


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