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Updated: 1 min 32 sec ago

Specific area of the brain helps keep the body young

4 hours 1 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Daniele Meli)

Age may not be a state of mind, but the brain is definitely involved. That's the conclusion of a study published on Wednesday in the journal Nature, which provides compelling evidence that a specific structure in the brain, called the hypothalamus, plays a significant role in controlling the entire body's aging. The results suggest stem cells play a critical role, but only in part via their ability to generate new neurons.

The results come from researchers at the Bronx's Albert Einstein College of Medicine. They, along with several other labs, have generated evidence that suggested the hypothalamus played a key role in aging. That makes a certain amount of sense: aging is a systemic process, and the hypothalamus contains structures like the pituitary that release hormones that influence the entire body. And there's already been some indications that factors that control the dynamics of aging end up circulating through the blood.

Aging and stem cells

But what controls the timing of aging? One intriguing possibility is that neural stem cells are involved. These stem cells continue to divide and produce new neurons even after the brain is fully developed, but their numbers appear to go down over time (possibly because more of them produce new neurons than are replaced by cell divisions). If the key factors are produced by neural stem cells, then their levels should go down over time, allowing aging to proceed.

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As dominance of launch market looms, SpaceX now valued at $21 billion

5 hours 20 min ago

Enlarge / Maye Musk and Elon Musk attend the 2017 Vanity Fair Oscar Party in Beverly Hills. (credit: Taylor Hill/Getty Images)

After two serious accidents in 2015 and 2016, SpaceX has been on a tear in 2017 with 10 successful launches, including the historic re-flight of two used boosters and a used Dragon spacecraft. These achievements suggest the company is well on its way toward developing low-cost, reusable boosters, and therefore the rocket company founded by Elon Musk may be on the cusp of capturing much of the global launch market.

A new valuation appears to back up this optimism. According to the New York Times, SpaceX recently raised $350 million in additional funding, and during this process the company was valued at $21 billion. This represents a significant increase from 2015, when Google and Fidelity invested $1 billion in SpaceX, valuing the company at $12 billion.

The new report notes that the updated value of SpaceX places the company in rarefied air, as just six other venture-backed companies are valued at $20 billion or more around the world. These companies include US-based companies Uber, Airbnb, Palantir, and WeWork, as well as Chinese firms Didi Chuxing and Xiaomi.

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Tiny pillars put light and sound in a quantum superposition

6 hours 36 min ago

Enlarge / It's now possible to precisely fabricate very small pillars. (credit: Stanford University)

In recent years, there has been a lot of interest in coupling sound and light together. Admittedly, we've been doing this for a long time, but we've always been limited in terms of what we can do with how nature puts materials together. Now, with our ability to construct structures that are the right size, we can make devices that really dance to the tune that we give them.

This control has been demonstrated in a very cute way recently. Researchers have put together micro pillars that convert light into long-lasting, very high-frequency sound waves.

Nature leads the way

Nature, of course, allows sound and light to play together in different ways. For instance, if a gas absorbs light, it will heat up and expand, so flashing a light into a gas will generate a sound wave at the frequency of the flashing. One of the most sensitive techniques for measuring how materials absorb light makes use of this.

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Genetic evidence suggests the Canaanites weren’t destroyed after all

7 hours 10 min ago

Claude Doumet-Serhal

The Canaanites are famous as the bad guys of the Book of Joshua in the Tanakh, or the Hebrew Bible. First, God orders the Hebrews to destroy the Canaanites along with several other groups, and later we hear that the Canaanites have actually been wiped out. Among archaeologists, however, the Canaanites are a cultural group whose rise and fall has remained a mystery. Now, a group of archaeologists and geneticists have discovered strong evidence that the Canaanites were not wiped out. They are, in fact, the ancestors of modern Lebanese people.

The Canaanites were a people who lived three to four thousand years ago off the coast of the Mediterranean, and their cities were spread across an area known today as Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Syria. Though they were one of the first civilizations in the area to use writing, they wrote most of their documents on papyrus leaves that didn't survive. As a result, our only information about these people has come from their rivals and enemies, like the Hebrews, whose accounts were likely biased.

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Goop doctor says she’s not really Goop’s doctor, calls site a “caricature”

7 hours 21 min ago

Enlarge (credit: https://aviva.herb-pharm.com/)

A doctor who appeared to vouch for and defend Gwyneth Paltrow’s high-profile lifestyle and e-commerce site, Goop, now says that she does not see herself as a Goop doctor and would not endorse the site, according to an interview with Stat.

Two weeks ago, Dr. Aviva Romm provided a signed letter included in a Goop post titled “Uncensored: A Word from Our Doctors.” The post, written in part by the Goop team, including Romm and another doctor (Steven Gundry), collectively defended Goop’s questionable health products and penchant for unproven and often nonsensical medical theories. Those theories include Moon-powered vaginal eggs and energy-healing space-suit stickers.

The post was written in response to a wave of online criticism from journalists, medical professionals, and patient advocates, particularly blogger Dr. Jen Gunter, an Ob/Gyn who has written often about Goop.

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In wake of CTE study, Ravens’ smarty John Urschel retires from football at 26

9 hours 14 min ago

Enlarge / John Urschel, #64 of the Baltimore Ravens, retired from football. (credit: Getty | Matt Hazlett)

John Urschel, a Baltimore Ravens’ offensive lineman and PhD candidate in applied mathematics at MIT, has announced his retirement from football at the age of 26. The announcement comes just days after publication of a case study that found widespread signs of a degenerative brain disease among football players who donated their brains to research.

"This morning John Urschel informed me of his decision to retire from football," Ravens’ coach John Harbaugh said in a statement. "We respect John and respect his decision. We appreciate his efforts over the past three years and wish him all the best in his future endeavors."

Urschel played with the Ravens for three seasons and was competing for the starting center job. Thus far, he has not publicly discussed his reasoning for the early and abrupt retirement, which was announced just before the first full-team practice. However, a team source told ESPN that his decision was linked to the new brain study.

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Report: Human embryo edited for first time in US, pushes limits

9 hours 25 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Media for Medical )

A team of researchers in Oregon have become the first in the US to attempt genetically altering human embryos, according to reporting by MIT Technology Review. The attempt is said to represent an advance in the safety and efficacy of methods used to correct genetic defects that spur disease.

Until now, the only three published reports of human embryo gene editing were from researchers in China. But their experiments—using a gene-editing method called CRISPR—caused “off-target” genetic changes, basically slopping edits in the DNA that were not intended. Also, not all the cells in the embryos were successfully edited, causing an effect called “mosaicism.” Together, the problems suggested that the technique was not advanced enough to safely alter human embryos without unintended or incomplete genetic consequences.

Scientists familiar with the new US work told MIT Technology Review that the Oregon team has improved these issues. They’re said to have shown in experiments with “many tens” of human embryos that they can correct genetic mutations that cause disease while avoiding mosaicism and off-target effects. Their improved method allows for earlier delivery of CRISPR into cells at the same time sperm fertilize an egg.

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Meta-analysis finds sperm counts dropped 50%, media predicts human extinction

11 hours 40 min ago

Enlarge (credit: Getty | BSIP)

Men’s spunk may be getting noticeably less spunky in some high-income countries, according to a meta-analysis of international swimmers.

Skimming and re-examining sperm data from 185 past independent studies, researchers estimated that sperm counts of men from select high-income regions—North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe—dropped about 52 percent between 1973 to 2011, from 99 million sperm per milliliter to about 47 million per milliliter. Likewise, estimates of total sperm count per batch dropped 59 percent, from 337.5 million in 1973 to 137.5 million in 2011.

The researchers, led by Hagai Levine of Hebrew University, also looked at data from what they referred to as “other” countries, including some in South America, Asia and Africa. They saw no trends in these places, but they also had relatively little data from them.

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Thirty Meter Telescope gets a construction permit—with conditions

13 hours 8 min ago

Enlarge / On the road, near the summit. There are presently 10 optical telescopes on top of Mauna Kea. (credit: Eric Berger)

The Big Island of Hawaii has perhaps the best astronomical seeing conditions in the northern hemisphere, and the University of California system and Caltech have a $1.4 billion plan to build the world's largest telescope there. The Thirty Meter Telescope (TMT) would open up an unprecedented window into the early history of the universe—and other unknown wonders.

But some native Hawaiians do not want further telescopes built on the sacred summit of Mauna Kea, which at nearly 14,000 feet is the highest point in the chain of Pacific islands. They have put up fierce opposition to the telescope's construction alongside other instruments already on the summit and have scored some wins. For example, after the state's Board of Land and Natural Resources issued a building permit to the TMT institutions, the State Supreme Court invalidated it in 2015 because proper state procedures had not been followed.

Now, the telescope builders have won an important victory. On Wednesday retired judge Riki May Amano, who is overseeing contested-case hearing, issued a ruling that granted the TMT institutions a construction permit. It included 31 conditions, such as "ensuring that employees attend mandatory cultural and natural resources training," and a "substantial" but unspecified amount of sublease rent.

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Japanese company preparing for country’s first private rocket launch

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 13:35

Interstellar Technologies

The United States has by far the most rich and diverse commercial aerospace industry in the world, but that doesn't mean companies in other countries aren't giving it a go as well. One of those companies is Interstellar Technologies, which began as a group of hobbyists in 1997 and became a corporation in 2003.

After more than a decade of engine and booster development, Interstellar is poised to make its first launch attempt—and the first launch of a private rocket from Japan—this weekend. As early as Saturday, the company will attempt to launch a sounding rocket named Momo from the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The launch window opens from 10:20 to 12:30 local time.

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Brains of former football players donated to science are rife with disease

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 07:15

Enlarge / The Denver Broncos offensive line collides with the Kansas City Chiefs defense November 27, 2016. (credit: Getty | Steve Nehf )

Signs of a degenerative brain disease were widespread among a sample of donated brains of former football players, researchers reported Tuesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

The finding bolsters the connection between playing American football and developing Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), which is linked to repeated blows to the head and was first described in boxers. However, the large study provides little new information about the disease, its progression, or prevalence.

The bank of 202 former football players’ brains is a “convenience sample,” meaning it’s a biased sampling not representative of football players overall. Instead, players and their families donated the brains after players experienced symptoms connected with CTE during life or the players were suspected or considered at risk of developing CTE. The athletes represented in the sample reported much higher rates of CTE symptoms in life than those found in surveys of living, retired National Football League (NFL) players. Also, the study only had pathology data from one time point—after death—so progression of the disease couldn’t be examined. And, last, the study did not include a sampling of brains from people who were not exposed to football—a control group.

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Great Scott! This astronaut has probably endured more extremes than anyone

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 06:15

NASA

Scott Parazynski has chased extremes all of his life. Not in a reckless way, perhaps, but rather because his life's goal seems to have been to experience just about as much crazy stuff that one human possibly could. As a result, it seems plausible that Parazynski has experienced more extreme environments than any human ever has—and he has written a new book that brings the reader along for the ride: The Sky Below.

Consider the following places he has visited in his lifetime:

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Democrats slam EPA head, want to understand his climate inquiry

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 17:55

Enlarge / Texas' Eddie Bernice Johnson. (credit: Getty Images/Tom Williams)

Lamar Smith, head of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has a penchant for releasing letters in which he complains about issues related to climate change. He has targeted everyone from state attorneys general who are investigating fossil fuel companies to NOAA scientists (and their e-mails).

But Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), the ranking Democrat on the committee, has released a letter or two herself, including one in which she sharply questioned whether Smith was appropriately overseeing scientific research. Now, Johnson and two other Democrats on the committee have turned their attention to Scott Pruitt, head of the Environmental Protection Agency. The subject? Pruitt's plan to have the EPA engage in a show debate over our understanding of climate science.

For the letter, Johnson was joined by Don Beyer (D-Va.) and Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.), fellow members of the Science Committee. The letter cites a Reuters report about Pruitt's idea of creating a "red team" with the goal of poking holes in our current scientific understanding of climate change. The letter notes that Pruitt has claimed that "there are lots of questions that have not been asked and answered" about climate change, though he hasn't clearly specified what those are.

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Zuckerberg and Musk are both wrong about AI

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 17:40

Enlarge / Enjoy your little squabbles. You foolish men know nothing about AI. (credit: Universal Pictures)

Back in 2015, a group of business leaders and scientists published an "open letter" about how controlling artificial superintelligence might be the most urgent task of the twenty-first century. Signed by luminaries like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, the letter has defined debates over AI in the years since. Bill Gates said in a Reddit AMA that he agrees with the letter. But, at last, there is a high-profile skeptic: Facebook giant Mark Zuckerberg, who has just come out strongly against the idea that AI is a threat to humanity.

At a backyard barbecue over the weekend, Zuckerberg fielded questions from Facebook Live. One asked about AI, and the social media mogul launched into a passionate rant:

I have pretty strong opinions on this. I am optimistic. I think you can build things and the world gets better. But with AI especially, I am really optimistic. And I think people who are naysayers and try to drum up these doomsday scenarios—I just, I don't understand it. It's really negative and in some ways I actually think it is pretty irresponsible

In the next five to 10 years, AI is going to deliver so many improvements in the quality of our lives... Whenever I hear people saying AI is going to hurt people in the future, I think, "yeah, you know, technology can generally always be used for good and bad, and you need to be careful about how you build it, and you need to be careful about what you build and how it is going to be used."

But people who are arguing for slowing down the process of building AI, I just find that really questionable. I have a hard time wrapping my head around that.

Zuckerberg was clearly referring to Musk and Gates here, and he is trying to set himself up in the reasonable alternative position. He mentioned that AI is right on the cusp of improving healthcare with disease diagnosis and saving lives with self-driving cars that get into fewer accidents. Musk has already replied dismissively on Twitter, saying that Zuckerberg has little understanding of AI.

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Study: US is slipping toward measles being endemic once again

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 16:35

Enlarge / Child with a classic four-day rash from measles. (credit: CDC)

With firm vaccination campaigns, the US eliminated measles in 2000. The highly infectious virus was no longer constantly present in the country—no longer endemic. Since then, measles has only popped up when travelers carried it in, spurring mostly small outbreaks—ranging from a few dozen to a few hundred cases each year—that then fizzle out.

But all that may be about to change. With the rise of non-medical vaccine exemptions and delays, the country is backsliding toward endemic measles, Stanford and Baylor College of Medicine researchers warn this week. With extensive disease modeling, the researchers make clear just how close we are to seeing explosive, perhaps unshakeable, outbreaks.

According to results the researchers published in JAMA Pediatrics, a mere five-percent slip in measles-mumps-and-rubella (MMR) vaccination rates among kids aged two to 11 would triple measles cases in this age group and cost $2.1 million in public healthcare costs. And that’s just a small slice of the disease transmission outlook. Kids two to 11 years old only make up about 30 percent of the measles cases in current outbreaks. The number of cases would be much larger if the researchers had sufficient data to model the social mixing and immunization status of adults, teens, and infants under two.

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The science of why eyewitness testimony is often wrong

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 13:25

Enlarge (credit: Gramercy Pictures)

The advent of DNA testing has made it uncomfortably clear that our criminal justice system often gets things wrong. Things go wrong for a variety of reasons, but many of them touch on science, or rather the lack of a scientific foundation for a number of forensic techniques. But in 70 percent of the cases where DNA has overturned a conviction, it also contradicted the testimony of one or more eyewitnesses to the events at issue.

According to a new perspective published in PNAS, that shouldn't surprise us. The paper's author, Salk neuroscientist Thomas Albright, argues that we've learned a lot about how humans perceive the world, process information, and hold on to memories. And a lot of it indicates that we shouldn't value eyewitness testimony as much as we do. Still, Albright offers some suggestions about how we can tailor the investigative process to compensate a bit for human limitations.

Persistence of memory

Albright has some history in this area, as he co-chaired a study group at the National Academies of Science on the topic. His new perspective is largely a summary of the report that resulted from the group, and it's an important reminder that we have sound, evidence-based recommendations for improving the criminal justice system. Failure to implement them several years after the report is problematic.

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Vitamins, supplements effective at boosting call volume to poison centers

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 09:03

Enlarge (credit: Getty | John Greim)

Regardless the type of dietary supplements—from vitamins, energy drinks, herbal medicines, homeopathic products, to some hormonal treatments—they usually come with big claims about boosting health and wellbeing. While those claims are questionable (and often unfounded), the products collectively do enhance one thing: the volume of calls to poison control centers.

Between 2005 and 2012, the rate of supplement-related calls to poison centers increased 49.3 percent, researchers reported Monday in the Journal of Medical Toxicology. In the final year of data, the centers were getting calls at a rate of nearly 10 adverse exposures per 100,000 people.

There didn’t seem to be a big jump in use of dietary supplements during that time. Self-reported use among adults has held steady, around 49 to 54 percent, the authors note. But, these supplements are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration as are drugs—no FDA review or approval is required before supplements hit the market.

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A limiting factor on producing electricity in a warming world? Water.

Tue, 07/25/2017 - 08:15

Enlarge / Thermal power plant with sun in Genoa, Italy. (credit: Getty Images)

Unless you work at a coal, gas, or nuclear plant, you may not think about water when you think about electricity (certainly at a household level; they don’t mix). But water plays an important part in cooling many power plants, and many power plants also depend on a nearby water source to create steam that drives turbines. So the availability of water for power production is a serious consideration. Not enough water? That power plant could have to shut down. If the water isn’t chilly enough to cool the plant? Same problem.

In a paper published in Nature Energy this week, a group of researchers from the Netherlands estimated how water availability would affect coal, gas, and nuclear plants in the European Union out to 2030. The researchers took into account a changing climate that will likely make water reserves scarcer and warmer, but they also accounted for progressive renewable energy policies in EU member countries, which are already prompting some thermoelectric plants to retire in favor of wind and solar (which need negligible amounts of water to operate). The researchers also counted new coal, gas, and nuclear plants that are in the planning or construction stages and will likely come online before 2030.

The model tracked the “water footprints” of 1,326 thermoelectric power plants in Europe (that is, the amount of water they need to operate), as well as 818 water basins from which those plants draw water. The researchers found that by 2030, plants along 54 water basins could experience reduced power availability because of lack of water for cooling or steam production, up from 47 in 2014. If the EU were to experience summer droughts like those that occurred in 2003 or 2006, power shortages would follow, the paper noted.

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The curious case of ClinicalTrials.gov, where dubious stem cell therapies seem legit

Mon, 07/24/2017 - 13:25

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Xinhua News Agency)

Earlier this year, doctors reported the case of three women who went blind after having stem cells derived from their own fat injected directly into their eyeballs—a procedure for which they each paid $5,000. Piecing together how those women came to pay for such a treatment, the doctors noted that at least one of the patients was lured by a trial listing on ClinicalTrials.gov—a site run by the US National Institutes of Health to register clinical trials. Though none of the women was ever enrolled in the trial—which never took place and has since been withdrawn—it was enough to make the treatment seem like part of legitimate, regulated clinical research.

But it wasn’t. And, according to a new analysis in the journal Regenerative Medicine, it’s not the only case of dubious and potentially harmful stem cell therapies lurking on the respected NIH site.

At least 18 ostensible trials listed on the site offer similar stem cell treatments that participants must pay to receive—unlike most trials, which compensate rather than charge participants for experimental treatments. These trials, sponsored by seven companies total, claim to be developing therapies for a wide range of conditions, like erectile dysfunction, type II diabetes, vision problems, Parkinson’s disease, premature ovarian failure, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, these trials are largely not backed by preliminary research. None of them has Food and Drug Administration approval—even though the agency has published a draft guidance that suggests these treatments are subject to FDA regulation. And some of the studies are only granted ethical approval by review boards with apparent conflicts of interest and histories of reprimands from medical boards and the FDA.

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Controversial new CDC director may reconsider Big Soda’s health funding

Mon, 07/24/2017 - 11:50

Enlarge (credit: Getty | Bloomberg)

Brenda Fitzgerald, the newly appointed director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, will consider allowing Coca-Cola to once again help fund the agency’s anti-obesity campaigns, according to e-mailed comments reported by the New York Times over the weekend.

Though it would be a turnabout for the agency—which ditched Coke funding in 2013—Fitzgerald's position shouldn't be surprising, as she has a controversial history of accepting funding from Coca-Cola. As health commissioner of Georgia from 2011 to this year, she accepted $1 million from the soda giant to fund an exercise program aimed at cutting the state’s childhood obesity rate—one of the highest in the country.

The exercise-based campaign seemed to fit well with Coca-Cola’s interests. The company has long appeared interested in shifting anti-obesity efforts toward improving physical activity levels rather than focusing on the role of diet, particularly sugary beverages. That’s despite many studies, including those by the CDC, that have found that sugar-loaded drinks are a prominent factor in childhood obesity, as well as the development of associated health conditions such as Type II diabetes, heart disease, and kidney disease. Nevertheless, in 2015, a Times investigation revealed that Coke had been secretly funding and orchestrating a network of academic nutrition researchers, which had a suspiciously keen focus on combating obesity with exercise while downplaying the role of sweetened beverages and excess calories.

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