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Jan 26

We discuss interventions to increase the life span on the blog quite a bit – which makes you ponder what would you do if something actually worked in humans and you were given an extra 5 years of healthy life?

I found this blog piece over at PickTheBrain which covers this question from the reverse perspective of if you only had 5 years left to live – go check it out here.

What would you do if you were told you had five years left to live? I prefer to use this rather than Steve Job’s single day, because most of us, with a day or week left, would spend them seeing family and saying goodbyes.

But five years is different. Five years is long enough to accomplish almost any goal you might have, however ambitious. And you wouldn’t want to spend five years partying hedonistically, or eating your favourite meal every night.

Rather that thinking about only have 5 years left to live maybe you can ask yourself if given an extra 5 years due to some longevity intervention/treatment what would you do? A question – be it only 5 years left, or an extra 5 years, that at least makes you take a step back and think a bit.

Jan 26

Last night the 60 minutes TV show had a segment on the latest longevity research. One leading scientist in the field Richard Weindruch reported on the latest results from the National Institute of Health on primate research examining dietary restriction and said that 50% of the normally fed animals are now dead, and only around 25% of the calorie restricted animals have deceased. Far as I know these results have not been published yet. If you watch the video you can see the difference between the normally fed animals and the calorie restricted ones (here).

But the main thrust of the piece was on the sirtris company (recently bought by GlaxoSmithKline for $ 700+ million) and their various resverartol-like drugs.  Resveratrol, or similar drugs, were discovered to mimic calorie restriction (by increasing sirt). Resveratrol is found naturally in things like red wine but you would have to drink over 1,000 bottles a day to reach a therapeutic level. At least in high fat fed mice resveratrol improves health and extends life span. However, the real question is will it also do the same for normally fed animals and humans (in reality according to one study resveratrol does not improve life span in normally fed mice). Another argument is since more than 50% of North Americans overeat that resveratrol-like compounds already has a HUGE market. Resveratrol-like compounds are already in clinical trials for diabetes and soon will be test on cancer patients.

For the complete TV segment click here.

Jan 23
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Yesterday, I mentioned how a paper reported that 3 weeks of dietary restriction increases social activity in rats. And we know, from many papers over the last 90 years, that dietary restriction increases the life span of organisms. Could there be a link between the two?

In this weeks Science magazine there is a mini review of the health effects of social isolation. Lisa Berkman from Harvard University, is a leading scholar on this subject and discusses a study of 7,000 individuals and notes that those who had a low social score (low integration into society) were 2-3 times more likely to die within the subsequent 7 years compared to those that had a higher social score (not sure if there was a difference between the people with an average social score and the low scorers). She points out that they controlled for risk factors such as alcohol use and other factors. She goes on to say,

“What social isolation was doing was making you more susceptible or less resilient to any disease you might get.”

A dozen similar papers have replicated this general finding. But there is still an open argument about the cause-effect relationship.

When researchers tried a very large study ($ 40 million) to increase the social network of individuals who have suffered a heart attack in an attempt to prevent a second heart attack they found reduced depression but the increased social network intervention not change any measurement of heart disease. A second study in stroke patients confirmed the first study and the researchers concluded that social isolation does not cause cardiovascular disease (though there might still be lonely hearts). However, Berkman offers the argument that the damage of the social isolation had already done its harm to the cardiovascular system, and any social intervention after a heart attack or stroke is too late. This is a reasonable argument since most pharmaceutical interventions do not work after the damage has occurred. Like almost everything else in health science the best policy is prevention, prevention, prevention.

While we found out from about that social support does not improve the cardiovascular system but what about cognitive recovery after a cardiovascular incident? People with higher social support and integration have better cognitive scores 6 months after stroke (Glymour et. al., 2008). The social support did not improve the rate of recovery – but it appear the subjects with social support were more resilent and suffered less cognitive loss from the stroke. An additional study found that socially isolated women were more negatively affected by breast cancer, as measured by a larger drop in quality of life measurements compared to non-isolated cancer survivors (Michael et. al., 2002).

You could argue this only makes common sense that good social support is better for your health than being socially isolated. I guess at a societal level the question becomes can we intervene by increasing the social support and network for socially isolated people to improve their health, and is this a cost effective health policy.

Does an intervention that increases your health and longevity increase your socialness (according to yesterday’s post at least one intervention does); and does increasing socialness improve your health and possibly longevity – potentially (see above), most likely if done prior to disease onset. Interesting parallels I think.

Potential interactive and feed forward cascades: go out there and get your daily dose of social interaction and support, but also do the right fundamental health things that have been linked with longevity.

Update: Check out this piece on do longevity treatments make you more social?

Jan 22
When photography turns social experience
Image by = xAv = via Flickr

Would you be interested in a brain hack that makes you more social?

We all want to live a long and healthy life, and there is ongoing research trying to find treatments to extend your healthy life span. If you were going to live longer would that give you a different perspective on life? Would you take a different approach to the future, would it change how you socially interact?

The most robust increase of life span treatment are various forms of dietary restriction. The two main forms of dietary restriction are: calorie restriction (usually 25-40% reduction) or every-other-day fasting.

A new paper by Govic et. al., 2008 found that 3 weeks of calorie restriction (they tested 25% and 50%) increased social behavior. The dietary restricted rats were more social compared to the fully fed group. Overall the 25% calorie restricted animals were the most social among the three groups. Earlier research indicated that one week of calorie restriction did not change the degree of socialness, but this new paper finds that as little as three weeks results in an increase of social interactions.

The authors argue that the increased socialness was not due to a simple increase of activity level. Previous research has found in aged animals that have been on calorie restriction most of the lives that these animals are more active – but this is surmised to be due to the fact that they are healthier than their age matched full eating counter parts. From research I have been involved in with every-other-day fasting we did not observe increased activity in the acute period after induction of the dietary restriction in relatively young animals (and they cite several paper to further back up their argument).

The authors additionally add that this increased social activity observed in the dietary restricted groups is consistent with reduced anxiety that have been reported in several dietary restriction papers.

An interesting question then would be do other more pharmaceutically based interventions (e.g. resveratrol) that at least show some hints of increased life span also increase social activity? At a biochemical level does making you ‘younger’ than your age matched control group make you more social? Remember in most cases as organisms age they become less social.

I hope you all have a happy and socially active day.

Jan 20

I am fortunate to be hosting the first Hourglass carnival of 2009, on this historical day of Obama’s inauguration. There is a sense of great hope for both America in general, but also more specifically for improvements in health care under his administration. We will have to wait and see if his health policies include the biology of aging, so people can possibly have more healthier years as they age.


Speaking of health policies, Reason from Fight Aging provides two posts that cover funding of longevity research: LifeStar Project, and the Glenn Foundation). Reason’s third contribution is about the biology of ‘poorly liganded iron’ and how it contributes to oxidative damage and might shed light on the conflicting results seen with many antioxidant studies.


Walther Flemming's 1882 diagram of eukaryotic ...

Alex Palazzo over at The Daily Transcript gives us a very interesting introduction into the cell polarity theory of aging. With all the current interest in stem cells this theory could get plenty of attention and research, which will help provide additional information regarding this theory.


Chris Patil from Ouroboros informs us about the interesting bridge between calorie restriction, DNA damage, and transcriptional deregulation in aging. It is an intriguing story about how Sirt1 (which increases with calorie restriction), among its many other jobs, both depresses transcription and also when required goes off to repair broken DNA.


Transmission electron micrograph of a myelinat...
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Mo at Neurophilosophy (great blog name) posts about a subject matter which I think will garner a great deal of attention in the coming years – aging and myelin. The traditional theory of brain aging usually concentrates on the loss of neurons as we age. However, Mo post concentrates of the loss of myelin and how it correlates with the behavioural decline in a number of cognitive measurements. By reading his post you will find out what correlates best with the cognitive decline observed with age – loss of neurons or loss of myelin.


My contribution to this carnival centers around the possible effects of antidepressants on life span, and how two different labs can get completely opposite results – read to found out why.

The next Hourglass blog carnival will occur on the regular cycle (2nd Tuesday of each month): February 10th at SharpBrains. Please send your submission to hourglass.host(@)gmail(.)com. So see you on February 10th for more research on the biology of aging.

Jan 19

Asking your self these two related questions (what is the story, or what is your story) can be useful at many levels. You can think of it as a brain hack if you are trying to figure out your life. Or you can think of it as a simple self check if you are building a scientific presentation, a business proposal, a class talk, etc.

Your life story:

Many people in various stages of their lives are trying to figure out what they are really going to do with this thing called life. Ask yourself what is your story, or what story do you want to tell with your life. I know this might sound strange – but give it a try. Think of it as an creative exercise. What do you want to be the take home message of your life – what is the meaning of your life?

Your talk’s story:

As for the more practical everyday tip – think of the various talks you have to give – a simple talk in class, a business presentation, a job talk, or for us in science – a science talk – be it your latest research, or your entire Phd. Ask your self what story are you trying to tell.

Too many times the presenters get lost in the minutiae of their particular topic (especially true for scientist) – but usually the vast majority of your audience is not a specialist in your particular niche, is which you are a world class expert in. So try to provide a story for them so they become engaged and most importantly leave with your take home message.

Think of all the talks you have listentened to – in 90% of the cases you are just trying to get the take home message (unless it is in your very specific speciality). So for most of your audience it will be the same thing. Give them a coherent story – and sure you can fill up the middle section with a bunch of details (sceintific or otherwise) which they won’t remember but is part of your evidence (which they have to buy into) – but give them a story so they leave with your take home message.

So next time you think about your life, or building a talk – remember to ask yourself; what is the story, what is your story?

For more about the importance of story see Eric Nehrlich piece here.

Jan 16
Image representing Tim O'Reilly as depicted in...
Image byTim O’Reilly / Flickr

via CrunchBase

Tim O’Reilly, over at O’Reilly Radar has an very nice post on the value of deciding to work on something that matters (rather than focusing purely on money – though he is not arguing that what you decide to work on has to be non-profit).

This leads to the obvious question: what matters to you? Does anything matter to you?

Nothing profound here – just gives you a slight pause in your life to see what you value, what matters to you.

Jan 15

Yesterday, I gave you the author Cory Doctorow’s tip about finding 20 uninterrupted minutes each and every day, which is enough for him to write a novel (typically 100,000 words) a year. I asked you what do you think you could accomplish if you dedicated 20 minutes each day to a goal or dream.

Now Cory was talking about pursuing intellectual tasks, but for some people those 20 minutes might be used to get back in shape. Speaking of athletic pursuits: Cory offered another tip that is very similar to the advice given by the elite Ironman athlete Gordo Byrn. Both of their tips centers around each day ‘leaving a bit in the tank for the next day’.

(Gordo has a great personal story. He was in the high pressure job of financial trading in Hong Kong and overweight and out of shape. After building up a bit of fitness he enjoyed it so much he gave up his former high profile life to dedicate the next 10 or so year to becoming a high level ironman athlete, which he accomplished. If you want a triathlon coach check out his website endurance corner).


Leave yourself a rough edge

When you hit your daily word-goal, stop. Stop even if you’re in the middle of a sentence. Especially if you’re in the middle of a sentence. That way, when you sit down at the keyboard the next day, your first five or ten words are already ordained, so that you get a little push before you begin your work. Knitters leave a bit of yarn sticking out of the day’s knitting so they know where to pick up the next day — they call it the “hint.” Potters leave a rough edge on the wet clay before they wrap it in plastic for the night — it’s hard to build on a smooth edge.


Three things to remember:

1 – Make sure you can hit tomorrow’s training. If you need to back off today, to train tomorrow then do it.

2 – Always leave yourself room to lift your effort in the second half (intervals, sets, workouts, weeks, months, seasons, races). Your best results will come from building a habit of always being strong at the end.

3 – Endurance training is about building our capacity to absorb WORK, not endure pain.

Now you can see how these two outstanding people in their chosen field (though they actually are both quite diverse in their individual pursuits), one concentraing on the intellecual pursuit of writing and the other on the high level endurance event of ironman, are both offering the same advice – leave enough in the tank so you can repeat the task the next day, and the next day, and so on. It speaks to consistency.

Try these two simple but effective tips – find 20 minutes each and every day for your pursuit and make sure you leave enough in the tank to accomplish again the next day.

Jan 14
Cory Doctorow, a Canadian blogger/author, at a...
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Most of us live pretty busy lives and it is hard to find time for various tasks and jobs that you need to get done. Our modern world is full of distraction; emails, rss feeds, skype, ichat, etc. Some of the best brain hacks are the ones that make us more productive and allow us to pursue something that is important to us.

Cory Doctorow, a writer which I admire, and one of the founders boing boing, offers some tips in this article.

Short, regular work schedule

When I’m working on a story or novel, I set a modest daily goal — usually a page or two — and then I meet it every day, doing nothing else while I’m working on it. It’s not plausible or desirable to try to get the world to go away for hours at a time, but it’s entirely possible to make it all shut up for 20 minutes. Writing a page every day gets me more than a novel per year — do the math — and there’s always 20 minutes to be found in a day, no matter what else is going on. Twenty minutes is a short enough interval that it can be claimed from a sleep or meal-break (though this shouldn’t become a habit). The secret is to do it every day, weekends included, to keep the momentum going, and to allow your thoughts to wander to your next day’s page between sessions.

Now Cory is talking about his technique to sit down and write a novel – but you could use his tip for whatever long term project that you want to get done.

Another of his related suggestions I thought was very useful:

Don’t be ceremonious

Forget advice about finding the right atmosphere to coax your muse into the room. Forget candles, music, silence, a good chair, a cigarette, or putting the kids to sleep. It’s nice to have all your physical needs met before you write, but if you convince yourself that you can only write in a perfect world, you compound the problem of finding 20 free minutes with the problem of finding the right environment at the same time. When the time is available, just put fingers to keyboard and write. You can put up with noise/silence/kids/discomfort/hunger for 20 minutes.

Writing a novel is no easy task. Cory is a very busy person writing many articles through out the year, giving numerous talks, not to mention his heavy contribution to the very popular boing boing. Despite all these other ‘distractions’, including plenty of net surfing not only to keep up with the modern world that contributes to his story writing, and essays, and his work at boing boing, but he still manages to pump out a novel a year by carving out those 20 minutes each and every day.

If he can write a novel a year by finding 20 minutes a day what could you accomplish?

Find those 20 minutes each day and who knows what you might end up with.

Jan 13

Previously, I have written about a few of the 2008 science breakthroughs (here and here).

The ability to build cheap microscopes and adapting them into cell phones may lead to many lives saved in the future. Granot et. al., 2008 (freely available) point out the need for cell phone based medical imaging, as 3/4 of the world does not have access to medical imaging.

The Blum center for developing economies is working on cell phone telemicroscopes, which will allow doctors to remotely diagnose a number of disease. See video below.


Very similar, another group from UCLA is working on a cell phone prototype that is capable of detecting HIV and malaria, as well as the ability to test water quality (see Clean water 2008 health breakthrough).

Finally, as covered in wired, a group from Caltech have produced a lens-less microscope that will only cost $ 10 (the group published their finding in a 2008 PNAS paper). This technology would allow very low-cost high-throughput testing of numerous diseases. Changhuei Yang, the inventor of this new type of microscope, foresees his technology could be engineered into a cell phone and help identify numerous diseases in third world countries.

(via Wired)


Here are at least three different groups that are advancing quickly on cell phones with an embedded microscope to detect various diseases. The ability to provide low cost medical imaging to the third world has the potential to save many lives, and hence I think it deserves acknowledgment as one of the 2008 breakthroughs in science. Now I hope this technology can get implemented in 2009.

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