[ futurism.com ] You Have the Power to Physically Reshape Your Brain

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You Have the Power to Physically Reshape Your Brain

Neuroplasticity is the idea that you can alter your brain in a physical and mental way by changing its stimuli — which can include environment, behavior, thought patterns or other parts of the body that have an impact on it. While this is a fairly old idea — the term and concept that the brain was not fixed post-puberty was first used in 1890 by William James in The Principles of Psychology — it is only due to the introduction of functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) that we can accurately quantify the effects of different stimuli. So, what are some of the ways we can mould our minds?

The Effects of Meditation

There have been many studies into the effect of meditation on mental well-being.

Combating mental illnesses as much as anti-depressants: a study by the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health tested the effect of meditation on a variety of mental health issues and found that after eight weeks, it improved anxiety by 0.38, depression by 0.3, and pain by 0.33. While this is not a huge margin, it is as effective as anti-depressant drugs or exercise, which means that doctors have another tool in their arsenal, and can recommend an alternative treatment for those who cannot exercise and/or do not want to take drugs.

Increasing grey matter and combating aging: a study in Frontiers of Psychology shows that meditation can increase the volume of grey matter in the brain significantly. Florian Kurth, a University of California Postdoctoral Scholar in Neurology, one of the authors of the study, said, “We expected rather small and distinct effects […] what we actually observed was a widespread effect of meditation that encompassed regions throughout the entire brain.” This was enforced by Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who found that “in this one region of the prefrontal cortex, 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of grey matter as 25-year-olds.” In a world that researchers estimate will see 115 million people suffering from dementia by 2050, meditation could be a non-drug dependent treatment for those experiencing the disease.

Decreasing selfishness: a study carried out at Yale showed that activity in the Default Mode Network was decreased by meditation. The Default Mode Network is the part of the brain associated with mind-wandering and often leads to self-referential thoughts. It was “relatively deactivated” in experienced meditators, increasing their level of concentration, loving-kindness, and choiceless awareness through specific meditation methods. In a world that sometimes seems to be driven by selfishness, meditation may provide a way to remind ourselves of others.

Overcoming smoking addiction: a study by the Psychology Department at the University of Texas has found that “among smokers, 2 wk of meditation training (5 h in total) produced a significant reduction in smoking of 60%” and that it also had a positive impact on self-control. Millions of deaths a year are caused by smoking, and hundreds of dollars are spent on various treatments; meditation provides a free method that could save both lives and money.

What Does Exercise Do for You?

Regular aerobic exercise (the exercise that gets you sweaty with an elevated heart rate) has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus — the area of the brain associated with verbal memory and learning. While it has been known that exercise has positive mental effects, a study at the University of British Columbia (UBC) is one of the first that has shown that “regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a practicing neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and neurology instructor at Harvard Medical School. Not all exercise will work though — the study specifies that “resistance training, balance and muscle toning exercises did not have the same results.”

Exercise benefits the brain in many ways. It stimulates growth factors, which are chemicals in the brain that are connected to brain cells’ health, growing new blood vessels, and creating new brain cells It improves mood and sleep patterns along with helping with anxiety and stress reduction (all these areas affect your cognitive power). The best part of the UBC study is that it focused on one of the easiest methods of exercise: walking. Those who participated in the study saw results from going for a brisk, hour-long walk twice a week. It’s recommended that you get 150 minutes of moderate exercise a week, which is less daunting if you consider that’s only 21 minutes a day.

Exercising your body will exercise your brain too — it’s a win-win.

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[ futurism.com ] NASA Is Fast-Tracking Plans to Explore a Metal Asteroid Worth $10,000 Quadrillion

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NASA Is Fast-Tracking Plans to Explore a Metal Asteroid Worth $10,000 Quadrillion

Asteroid Could Crash Into Economy

NASA is fast-tracking a planned trip to 16 Psyche — an asteroid that almost completely consists of nickel-iron metal. The iron in 16 Psyche alone is estimated to be worth $10,000 quadrillion, if humans were able to somehow extract it and bring it to Earth, which sounds great, until you realize that the entire global economy is only worth $78 trillion. Injecting that much worth into the world economy would crash it, in a totally different kind of asteroid impact than most people think about.

Fortunately, extracting minerals from 16 Psyche is not in NASA’s plans. NASA’s lead scientist for the mission, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, posed some fascinating questions to Global News Canada in January 2017: “Even if we could grab a big metal piece and drag it back here…what would you do? Could you kind of sit on it and hide it and control the global resource — kind of like diamonds are controlled corporately — and protect your market? What if you decided you were going to bring it back and you were just going to solve the metal resource problems of humankind for all time? This is wild speculation, obviously.”

16 Psyche will allow humans their first shot at exploring a world made of iron rather than ice or rock if NASA succeeds. The mission was originally set to begin in 2023, but now the agency is planning on starting in 2022 and making contact in 2026, thanks to a more efficient, lower-cost trajectory discovered by the team.

Image Credit: Arizona State University
Image Credit: Arizona State University

Space Mining

The potential importance of the 16 Psyche mission will also affect the future of space mining — something we are likely to see in the future, especially if we have a colony on Mars. Last year, a former NASA researcher presented a report declaring that space mining is possible with technologies we have right now, and that we will see it within a few decades. Luxembourg has already established a space mining fund. Given the extreme distances in space, it seems likely that we will depend on our ability to mine resources in space as we travel further from Earth — and an exciting experience on 16 Psyche may be what the majority of humanity needs to be convinced that space mining is possible.

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[ futurism.com ] The Solar Industry Is Creating Jobs 17 Times Faster Than the Rest of the U.S. Economy

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The Solar Industry Is Creating Jobs 17 Times Faster Than the Rest of the U.S. Economy

Jobs in Solar Power

A new report released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) reveals that solar jobs in the U.S. (and other nations) are expanding quickly. As of November 2016, the American solar industry employed 260,077 workers. This is an increase of 24.5% from 2015, with a growth rate that is 17 times faster than the United States economy as a whole.

The lion’s share of these jobs (241,900) were in solar photovoltaics, with an additional 13,000 in solar heating and cooling, and the remaining 5,200 in concentrated solar power (CSP). More than half of all solar jobs in the U.S. were in installation. Another 15% were in manufacturing, with 13% in project development, 12% in sales and distribution, and a final 6% in other areas, including research and development.

Top 10 Countries Using Solar Power
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The sunlight that is harvested by solar systems is, obviously, free. This makes labor costs and materials the main areas of spending in the solar industry. As costs for materials continue to drop, solar jobs remain a well-compensated area for blue-collar workers. The solar labor force is also becoming more diverse, with the number of women workers at 28% in 2016, up from 19% in 2013, with up to 33.8% in the sales and distribution area. This means more women have jobs in solar than in the conventional energy industry, although women in solar still lag behind their representative 47% of the U.S. economy.

A Renewable Future

Solar jobs aren’t the only thriving area in the U.S. economy right now. Wind industry employment produced around 102,500 jobs in 2016, which IRENA projects will grow to 147,000 jobs by 2020. Jobs in ethanol declined despite increased production due to rising labor productivity; most ethanol-related jobs (about 161,700) were in agriculture, with about 35,000 jobs in actual ethanol production. 23% more biodiesel production in 2016 meant a corresponding 23% in jobs, about 61,100 total, with almost 80,000 total in direct and indirect employment in solid biomass. Finally, there were about 7,000 biogas jobs in the U.S. in 2016.

Jobs in fossil fuels are going away as the sources of the fuels become scarcer and less expensive options become available. As R&D overcomes more of the stumbling blocks to bringing power from renewable sources into the grid and prices continue to drop, we can expect to see more jobs in renewables. They are safer, healthier, and more sustainable than jobs in the fossil fuel industry, so this is great for our labor force as well as the planet.

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[ futurism.com ] Wagers, Contests, and Competitions That Inspired Scientific Breakthroughs

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Wagers, Contests, and Competitions That Inspired Scientific Breakthroughs

A Cut-Throat Industry

The inventor Thomas Edison is quoted as saying, “If you want to succeed, get some enemies.”

His observation cuts to the heart of an ongoing debate within the scientific community — whether the field would be better served by fostering collaboration or by fueling competition. While all fields of science are shifting towards increased international cooperation, organizations like NASA and IBM are also looking to initiate breakthroughs by sponsoring contests.

And these competitions have some historical support for their usefulness to humanity. Scientists have long harbored rivalries — some friendly, some not — but many of which spurred scientific and technological advances that have brought us to where we are today. Here are five examples of when scientists competed and we all won.

1. The Shape of the Earth — Wallace vs. Hampden

Image Credit: NASA

The year was 1870, and society’s understanding of the universe — and even Earth itself — was quite limited. So limited that many people, including John Hampden, held fast to the notion that the Earth was flat. He was so convinced of this idea that he was willing to offer a wager on it, and Alfred Russel Wallace stepped up to the challenge. However, after they completed the agreed-upon measurements (which supported the fact that Earth is spherical), Hampden refused to pay up. At least NASA pays Wallace homage.

2. Alternating and Direct Current — Tesla vs. Edison

Edison was certainly one to practice what he preached, and one of his enemies was a former employee, Nikola Tesla. Not long after the flat Earth wager, Edison promised Tesla a reward of $50,000 if he was able to improve Edison’s direct current (DC) power plants. Tesla completed the improvements in just a few months, but when he asked to be paid, Edison said he’d just been joking. Thus was born rivalry for the history books, with Edison backing DC electricity and Tesla pioneering alternating current (AC) power generation and transmission. We use both today.

3. The Structure of DNA — Watson and Crick vs. Pauling

Image Credit: Caroline Davis2010/Visual Hunt

While we don’t usually think of Nobel Prize winners as beating out the competition, biologist James Watson certainly bragged about his victory in his book The Double Helix. He and Francis Crick teamed up to discern the structure of our genetic code before the famous chemist, Linus Pauling, did. When Pauling’s research led him down a wrong path, Watson wrote in his book that he and Crick celebrated with a toast, “to the Pauling failure … Though the odds still appeared against us, Linus had not yet won his Nobel.” Watson and Crick won the prize for their discovery of the double helix in 1962.

4. Black Holes — Hawking vs. Thorne

Image Credit: M. Weiss/NASA

Black holes have been puzzling scientists ever since they were predicted by Albert Einstein in his general theory of relativity. They have long been a particular interest of Stephen Hawking, but perhaps he decided to play devil’s advocate with himself when he agreed on a wager with astrophysicist Kip Thorne that Cygnus X-1 was not a black hole. It was, and not only did we find the first hard evidence of these collapsed stars, but Thorne earned his prize — a soft porn magazine subscription (according to some sources, anyway).

5. The Cause of Climate Change — Mashnich and Bashkirtsev vs. Annan

In 2005, James Annan, a climate modeler, staked $10,000 that global temperatures would continue to rise until 2017, demonstrating that the temperature was dependent on greenhouse gases, not solar activity. Two Russian solar physicists, Galina Mashnich and Vladimir Bashkirtsev, took him up on that bet. This wager is an example of the controversy that has fueled numerous studies that focus on climate change and how we can stop it. The bet hasn’t been settled yet, but last year Annan told Reuters that, unless 2017 is the coldest year we’ve seen in almost a century, he expects to win. And, if this spring is any indication, Annan has nothing to worry about — at least as far as the bet goes.

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[ futurism.com ] In Just a Few Short Years, CRISPR Has Sparked a Research Revolution

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In Just a Few Short Years, CRISPR Has Sparked a Research Revolution

There’s a revolution happening in biology, and its name is CRISPR.

CRISPR (pronounced “crisper”) is a powerful technique for editing DNA. It has received an enormous amount of attention in the scientific and popular press, largely based on the promise of what this powerful gene editing technology will someday do.

CRISPR was Science magazine’s 2015 Breakthrough of the Year; it’s been featured prominently in the New Yorker more than once; and The Hollywood Reporter revealed that Jennifer Lopez will be the executive producer on an upcoming CRISPR-themed NBC bio-crime drama. Not bad for a molecular biology laboratory technique.

Two of the CRISPR co-inventors, Emmanuelle Charpentier (middle-left) and Jennifer Doudna (middle-right), rubbing elbows with celebs after receiving the 2015 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences. Image Credit: Breakthrough Prize Foundation, CC BY-ND

CRISPR is not the first molecular tool designed to edit DNA, but it gained its fame because it solves some longstanding problems in the field. First, it is highly specific. When properly set up, the molecular scissors that make up the CRISPR system will snip target DNA only where you want them to. It is also incredibly cheap. Unlike previous gene editing systems which could cost thousands of dollars, a relative novice can purchase a CRISPR toolkit for less than US$50.

Research labs around the world are in the process of turning the hype surrounding the CRISPR technique into real results. Addgene, a nonprofit supplier of scientific reagents, has shipped tens of thousands of CRISPR toolkits to researchers in more than 80 countries, and the scientific literature is now packed with thousands of CRISPR-related publications.

When you give scientists access to powerful tools, they can produce some pretty amazing results.

The CRISPR revolution in medicine

The most promising (and obvious) applications of gene editing are in medicine. As we learn more about the molecular underpinnings of various diseases, stunning progress has been made in correcting genetic diseases in the laboratory just over the past few years.

Take, for example, muscular dystrophy — a complex and devastating family of diseases characterized by the breakdown of a molecular component of muscle called dystrophin. For some types of muscular dystrophy, the cause of the breakdown is understood at the DNA level.

In 2014, researchers at the University of Texas showed that CRISPR could correct mutations associated with muscular dystrophy in isolated fertilized mouse eggs which, after being reimplanted, then grew into healthy mice. By February of this year, a team here at the University of Washington published results of a CRISPR-based gene replacement therapy which largely repaired the effects of Duchenne muscular dystrophy in adult mice. These mice showed significantly improved muscle strength — approaching normal levels — four months after receiving treatment.

Using CRISPR to correct disease-causing genetic mutations is certainly not a panacea. For starters, many diseases have causes outside the letters of our DNA. And even for diseases that are genetically encoded, making sense of the six billion DNA letters that comprise the human genome is no small task. But here CRISPR is again advancing science; by adding or removing new mutations — or even turning whole genes on or off — scientists are beginning to probe the basic code of life like never before.

CRISPR is already showing health applications beyond editing the DNA in our cells. A large team out of Harvard and MIT just debuted a CRISPR-based technology that enables precise detection of pathogens like Zika and dengue virus at extremely low cost — an estimated $0.61 per sample.

Using their system, the molecular components of CRISPR are dried up and smeared onto a strip of paper. Samples of bodily fluid (blood serum, urine, or saliva) can be applied to these strips in the field and, because they linked CRISPR components to fluorescent particles, the amount of a specific virus in the sample can be quantified based on a visual readout. A sample that glows bright green could indicate a life-threatening dengue virus infection, for instance. The technology can also distinguish between bacterial species (useful for diagnosing infection) and could even determine mutations specific to an individual patient’s cancer (useful for personalized medicine).

In Just a Few Short Years, CRISPR Has Sparked a Research Revolution
Feng Zhang, another co-inventor of CRISPR technology, discussing its safety and ethical ramifications. Image Credit: AP Photo/Susan Walsh

Almost all of CRISPR’s advances in improving human health remain in an early, experimental phase. We may not have to wait long to see this technology make its way into actual, living people though; the CEO of the biotech company Editas has announced plans to file paperwork with the Food and Drug Administration for an investigational new drug (a necessary legal step before beginning clinical trials) later this year. The company intends to use CRISPR to correct mutations in a gene associated with the most common cause of inherited childhood blindness.

CRISPR will soon affect what we eat

Physicians and medical researchers are not the only ones interested in making precise changes to DNA. In 2013, agricultural biotechnologists demonstrated that genes in rice and other crops could be modified using CRISPR — for instance, to silence a gene associated with susceptibility to bacterial blight. Less than a year later, a different group showed that CRISPR also worked in pigs. In this case, researchers sought to modify a gene related to blood coagulation, as leftover blood can promote bacterial growth in meat.

You won’t find CRISPR-modified food in your local grocery store just yet. As with medical applications, agricultural gene editing breakthroughs achieved in the laboratory take time to mature into commercially viable products, which must then be determined to be safe. Here again, though, CRISPR is changing things.

A common perception of what it means to genetically modify a crop involves swapping genes from one organism to another — putting a fish gene into a tomato, for example. While this type of genetic modification — known as transfection — has actually been used, there are other ways to change DNA. CRISPR has the advantage of being much more programmable than previous gene editing technologies, meaning very specific changes can be made in just a few DNA letters.

White Agaricus bisporus mushrooms with no browning are more visually appealing. Image Credit: Olha Afanasieva/Shutterstock.com

This precision led Yinong Yang — a plant biologist at Penn State — to write a letter to the USDA in 2015 seeking clarification on a current research project. He was in the process of modifying an edible white mushroom so it would brown less on the shelf. This could be accomplished, he discovered, by turning down the volume of just one gene.

Yang was doing this work using CRISPR, and because his process did not introduce any foreign DNA into the mushrooms, he wanted to know if the product would be considered a “regulated article” by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture tasked with regulating GMOs.

“APHIS does not consider CRISPR/Cas9-edited white button mushrooms as described in your October 30, 2015 letter to be regulated,” they replied.

Yang’s mushrooms were not the first genetically modified crop deemed exempt from current USDA regulation, but they were the first made using CRISPR. The heightened attention that CRISPR has brought to the gene editing field is forcing policymakers in the U.S. and abroad to update some of their thinking around what it means to genetically modify food.

New frontiers for CRISPR

One particularly controversial application of this powerful gene editing technology is the possibility of driving certain species to extinction — such as the most lethal animal on Earth, the malaria-causing Anopheles gambiae mosquito. This is, as far as scientists can tell, actually possible, and some serious players like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are already investing in the project. (The BMGF funds The Conversation Africa.)

Most CRISPR applications are not nearly as ethically fraught. Here at the University of Washington, CRISPR is helping researchers understand how embryonic stem cells mature, how DNA can be spatially reorganized inside living cells, and why some frogs can regrow their spinal cords (an ability we humans do not share).

It is safe to say CRISPR is more than just hype. Centuries ago we were writing on clay tablets — in this century we will write the stuff of life.

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[ futurism.com ] Watch: Would a Twin on Earth Really Age Faster Than One Traveling Through Space?

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Watch: Would a Twin on Earth Really Age Faster Than One Traveling Through Space?

In this MinutePhysics video, the channel takes on the famous “twins paradox,” which provides a hypothetical situation to explain special relativity. In the twins scenario, one twin stays in the same place as the other flies out into space in a rocket ship, only to turn around and come back. We already know that moving things experience time more slowly, so the twin staying on Earth may assume that they are older than the astronaut twin. However, the twin on the rocket ship “sees” the Earth and the other twin moving.

As the twins watch each other, time seems to be faster to each observer relative to the other, yet we already know that the moving twin experiences less time because of the motion. This is the same reason that atomic clocks on satellites and on Earth register slightly different times. So how is it possible that time can appear to be faster for both of two different twins at the same time? And of the two twins, one Earthbound and the other exploring the galaxy, who is actually older?

MinutePhysics explains that the mystery is solved by Lorentz transformations, and provides a great way to think about the problem visually. Spoiler alert: riding on rocket ships can keep you younger.

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[ futurism.com ] Watch: Do We Really Share 99% of Our DNA With Chimps?

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Watch: Do We Really Share 99% of Our DNA With Chimps?

We sit on the same branch of the phylogenetic (evolutionary) tree as them, and yet chimps remained in the jungle while we built language, cities, and zoos to put them in. So, in reality, how similar are we to chimps? The video below by MinuteEarth looks at the science behind that often-quoted statistic — we are 99% similar to chimps (and 50% banana, 80% doglike, etc.).

The short video explains that the issue with the statistic is an issue with measurement — a procedural mistake. Genetic changes can stretch from being single letter changes in our genome to entire passages of different genetic information; because of this, those undertaking the study faced an issue with quantification — whether to count every difference as one change or not. To complicate it more, small changes in genes can lead to hugely different characteristics and vice versa.

In response to these difficulties, those undertaking the study excluded the enormous changes and chose to run a straight comparison on the genetic material left. In short, we are 99% chimp, but only if you exclude 25% of our genetic material from the study and 18% of theirs.

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