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Rapamycin: Potential Cognitive Enhancer July 1, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity, Transhumanism.
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Rapamycin has been seeing a lot of attention as a possible inhibitor of aging.  First isolated as a bacterial product from Easter Island (yes, that one) it has consistently proven to be one of the most exciting drugs in the anti-aging field.  How big is it?  The protein it affects is officialy known as mTOR or mammalian Target Of Rapamycin.  TOR incidentaly has also been implcated in the positive effects of fasting on human health and the breakdown and reapsorbtion of old organelles during cellular “housekeeping”.

Now, researchers have discovered another potential benefit of rapamycins use.

“We made the young ones learn, and remember what they learned, better than what is normal,” said Veronica Galvan, Ph.D., assistant professor of physiology at the Barshop Institute for Longevity and Aging Studies, part of the UT Health Science Center. “Among the older mice, the ones fed with a diet including rapamycin actually showed an improvement, negating the normal decline that you see in these functions with age.”  The drug also lowered anxiety and depressive-like behavior in the mice, Dr. Galvan said.

Mice are burrowers that prefer tunnels with walls. To observe behavior, Halloran used an elevated maze of tunnels that led to a catwalk. “All of a sudden the mice are in open space,” Halloran said. “It’s pretty far from the floor for their size, sort of like if a person is hiking and suddenly the trail gets steep. It’s pretty far down and not so comfortable.”

Mice with less anxiety were more curious to explore the catwalk. “We observed that the mice fed with a diet containing rapamycin spent significantly more time out in the open arms of the catwalk than the animals fed with a regular diet,” Halloran said.

The second test measured depressive-like behavior in the rodents. Mice do not like to be held by their tails, which is the way they are moved from cage to cage. Inevitably they struggle to find a way out. “So we can measure how much and how often they struggle as a measure of the motivation they have to get out of an uncomfortable situation,” Dr. Galvan said.

The fact that this improved cognition in young as well as old mice as well as the mood related effects suggests this isn’t a reversal of age related decline one might expect from an anti-aging drug but rather something different going on.  Either way keep an eye on rapamycin.  It’s shaping up to be something special.

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First Gene Therapy To Extend Life In Adult Organisms May 15, 2012

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity.
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Pretty cool news out of Spain today where researchers have announced that for the first time they have successfully extended the life span of adult mice using gene therapy.

Mice treated at the age of one lived longer by 24% on average, and those treated at the age of two, by 13%. The therapy, furthermore, produced an appreciable improvement in the animals’ health, delaying the onset of age-­‐related diseases — like osteoporosis and insulin resistance — and achieving improved readings on aging indicators like neuromuscular coordination.

The gene therapy consisted of treating the animals with a DNA-­modified virus, the viral genes having been replaced by those of the telomerase enzyme, with a key role in aging. Telomerase repairs the extreme ends or tips of chromosomes, known as telomeres, and in doing so slows the cell’s and therefore the body’s biological clock. When the animal is infected, the virus acts as a vehicle depositing the telomerase gene in the cells.

There are a few interesting elements of this study.  First is the obvious excitement (to those of us already alive) of an anti-aging therapy being successfully implemented on adult organisms.  As mentioned elsewhere in the article gene therapy in the past has only been successfully applied to embyonic stages, something which is great news for all our future children but not so encouraging for those who already live with the specter of aging, decrepitude and death.  Second is the interesting fact that the benefits of the treatment seem to be age dependent since older mice did not derive as high a benefit as mice which were treated at a younger age.  This is could possibly mean that the age-related damage accumulated by older mice was to great to be overcome by the treatment or, more likely, that there are other metabolic pathways that play a role in the aging process and which may even become more important as an organisms ages.

What’s most interesting to me though, and the big worry I had about this study until the article allayed my fears, is what the researchers didn’t find: cancer.  The dirty little secret of longer or longer lasting telomeres is that they can be both a curse and a blessing.  While they are indeed correlated with increased longevity and lower rates of age related decline they are also known to be associated with cancerous growths and tumors (considering that cancer is literally out of control cell growth this isn’t that surprising).   People with naturally longer telomeres seem to retain more youthful cells (and therefore a more youthful appearance)  but are also at an increased risk of melanoma.  A telomere treatment that can extend human life span and reduce age-related morbidity without increasing cancer risk would be a holy grail for anti-aging research.

Longevity Link Dump April 27, 2012

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Occasionally I remember that my original blog, long since lost to the unforgiving maelstrom that is the internet, was focused on healthy living and that what originally got me into transhumanism was an interest in longevity, anti-aging and overall healthy living research.  It’s still sort of a side interest for me but nowadays relegated to little more than trying to keep up with what’s actually going on in the field via science websites.  In that spirit here are a few interesting tidbits that have popped up in the last few weeks.  Give them a read if you missed them the first time around.
Dark chocolate helps prevent cardiovascular disease – Science has given you an excuse to eat chocolate.  What more do you want?

Berries may prevent cognitive decline among elderly – Berries too!

Oregano kills prostate cancer cells – If I could put oregano in everything I would.

Secret to staving off age related declines? Stay stimulated – You don’t use it, you lose it.

Island evolution may select for longer lived animals – Lack of predators seems to be the main driver but I was more interested in the role resource limitation plays.  Why?  Because it sounds familiar.

Salad may prevent oxidative damage after workouts – I hate salad.  I may desire immortality but I have my limits.

You may have noticed that a lot of these have to do with “natural” solution like eating a healthier diet.  Why have I neglected supplementation?  Well, mainly because I’m not a fan.  Part of that may be the fact that I had to sell them at one point in my life and am thus intimately familiar with the sheer amount of crap peddled by the industry.  More importantly though I just don’t think the concept is a sound one.  Given our current understanding of the human body and the relative primitive nature of our tools to fix it I’m not convinced that supplementation is a viable path to longevity, especially given the massive dosages that supplements are usually given in when compared to the concentrations of those same compounds found in food.  Call me a luddite if you want but occasionally I put my trust in evolution and life rather than human ingenuity.

Exercise Provides Benefits By Cleaning Up Metabolic Junk January 22, 2012

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Longevity research is a personal interest of mine (I use the word interest in the intellectual sense, rather than to imply I work on longevity).  As such I am always happy to see advances make their way into the news.  While the philosophical debates over whether extending human lifespan is desirable will continue regardless of what advances are made on the engineering front the best thing advocates can do to sway public opinion in our favor is to show first and foremost that it is feasible.

Exercise has long been known to promote health and longevity but up until fairly recently we haven’t had a very good idea why it does.  Oh sure, we’ve known that it reduces rates of chronic diseases like heart disease, stroke and diabetes and that people who exercise are more likely to live longer, healthier lives but the actual mechanisms still to a large degree elude us.  That seems to be changing though and a group of scientists at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute have taken another step forward.

What they’ve found is that exercise triggers a recycling system within our cells, a process known as autophagy:

Autophagy is like a “cellular garbage disposal,” says Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator Beth Levine, a physician at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas who has been studying the process for more than a decade. The process works like this: First, a double membrane forms around the unwanted cargo inside the cell, enveloping it. This membrane then fuses with an organelle called a lysosome, which contains enzymes that rush in and break down the contents. The bits and pieces created by this process get recycled, providing raw materials for new structures or a burst of energy.

Autophagy keeps cells healthy by “getting rid of all of the obsolete and abnormal structures,” Levine explains. It also helps cells survive lean times. By cannibalizing unwanted proteins and other junk, the cells can get nutrients.

In the study mice which had been engineered to not increase autophagy rates due to exercise or starvation.  When compared to normal mice they exhibited lower physical performance and none of the accrued benefits of exercise.

The buildup of cellular junk is one of the mechanisms for aging outlined by Aubrey de Grey in his SENS approach so if nothing else it’s nice to see some vindication for him.  Similar research on fasting and drugs like rapamycin have also shown the importance autophagy plays in keeping our cells, and by extension the rest of us, healthy.  One study even showed that increased autophagy actually increases total life span compared to normal, though the effect is currently fairly small.  The holy grail of course would be a drug or treatment that mimics and improves upon the the effects exercise has on this process, something like the above mentioned rapamycin may be the starting point for.

Lifestyle Habits Of Long Lived Just As Bad As Everyone Else August 7, 2011

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Choose your ancestors well.  That seems to be the message of a new study coming out of the Einstein’s Longevity Genes Project and published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

Overall, people with exceptional longevity did not have healthier habits than the comparison group in terms of BMI, smoking, physical activity, or diet. For example, 27 percent of the elderly women and an equal percentage of women in the general population attempted to eat a low-calorie diet. Among long-living men, 24 percent consumed alcohol daily, compared with 22 percent of the general population. And only 43 percent of male centenarians reported engaging in regular exercise of moderate intensity, compared with 57 percent of men in the comparison group.

“In previous studies of our centenarians, we’ve identified gene variants that exert particular physiology effects, such as causing significantly elevated levels of HDL or ‘good’ cholesterol,” said Dr. Barzilai, who is also professor of medicine and of genetics at Einstein. “This study suggests that centenarians may possess additional longevity genes that help to buffer them against the harmful effects of an unhealthy lifestyle.”

Of course currently there is no way to know whether or not you are one of the lucky ones so for the vast majority of us lifestyle choices still matter quite a bit.

Aubrey De Grey In The News Again July 6, 2011

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Despite the fact that the actual word isn’t something you’ll see all that much transhumanism is steadily marching into the mainstream.  Case in point; Aubrey de Grey has an article up about him, detailing both his current anti-aging research and his belief that very soon we will create a world without death.

A biomedical gerontologist and chief scientist of a foundation dedicated to longevity research, de Grey reckons that within his own lifetime doctors could have all the tools they need to “cure” aging — banishing diseases that come with it and extending life indefinitely.

“I’d say we have a 50/50 chance of bringing aging under what I’d call a decisive level of medical control within the next 25 years or so,” de Grey said in an interview before delivering a lecture at Britain’s Royal Institution academy of science.

Okay first things first.  I like Aubrey de Grey.  There was a time in my life when I wanted to make my way into anti-aging science largely because of his ideas and while I now focus my efforts on a very different field I still regard him as both a vanguard of transhumanism and a great opponent of the inevitability of death.  On top of that his SENS approach is one of the few approaches I’ve seen that seems like it has a fair chance in hell of working in the near future.

That being said I think he is wildly over-optimistic in his time frame.  Partly this is the result of futurists just having a bad track record overall of successfully predicting the future.  Partly this is wish fulfilment in action, with all these wonderful developments happening just in time to save de Grey and his generation (Ray Kurzweil has been accused of the same thing).   Finally,  it’s almost certainly partly the result of a good marketing strategy.  People tend to become a lot more motivated when you tell them that truly wonderful things are just around the corner, if only they’d donate a little more money or give a little more support to the cause.

My problem lies with the concept of the longevity escape velocity.  De Grey is quite fond of saying things like, “we will be able to cure the things 150 year olds die of before there are any 150 year olds.”  On the one hand I can see the reasoning behind the idea that rapidly advancing medical technologies will allow us to stay one step ahead of the Grim Reaper.  On the other hand that whole idea is assuming that Kurzweil’s “Law of Accelerating Returns” (which isn’t actually law) applies not only to information technologies but to any form of technological progress.

In addition I take issue with the idea that we will be able to find cures for ailments before said ailments have presented themselves.  The improved predictive ability that will come with developments in synthetic intelligence coupled with our ever growing knowledge of the causes of aging and decrepitude may give us some ability to head-off certain problems before they begin to appear.  But even the mightiest SI’s will not be oracles and it seems to me that many of the potential problems that will confront the super-old will only become apparent when people start dropping dead.

I suppose we’ll find out in a few decades or so who is right and who is wrong.  And pride be damned, I hope I’m wrong.

Heart Repairs Itself After Heart Attack June 9, 2011

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Anyone who has or knows someone who has gone through a heart attack knows what a painful and traumatic event it is.  As the number one killer in the US and high up there among other developed countries finding a cure for heart disease would go a long ways towards combating premature death.  Well, some researchers at University College may be on the way to doing just that.

Heart muscle cells, or cardiomyocytes, are irreparably damaged by heart attack. For the heart to continue functioning properly, the damaged cells must be replaced. Heart progenitor cells — cells that can form the various tissues that make up the heart, such as blood vessels and muscle — do exist, but in adults are not active enough to repair damage. So Paul Riley at University College London Institute of Child Health and his colleagues have found a way to wake them up.

The researchers examined the hearts of mice at various time points after the operation. They found heart cells expressing Wt1 just two days after the injury. The cells were initially in the heart’s outer layer, but by two weeks after surgery they had moved inside and clustered around the site of the injury. The cells had also changed in size and shape, and looked just like cardiomyocytes.

Awesome.  Now if they can just figure out how to make the human body turn the switch on and off so to speak.

Oldest Living Couple Has 190 Years Between Them May 8, 2011

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Who says love is wasted on the young?  Okay I’m not sure anyone has said that but who cares.  This is such a lovely story.

The couple, Rose Pollard and Forrest Lunsway, are 90 years and 100 years old respectfully and have been dating for thirty years.  Why did they wait until now to tie the knot?

The wedding date holds double significance for Forrest, as it was also his 100th birthday. In fact, that was part of the deal: both were widows and didn’t wish to remarry when they met on a blind date in 1983. But one day, the question came up – and Forrest proposed on the spot. Rose’s response: “I told him, ‘I’ll marry you on your 100th birthday.’ And I did.”

It must be fate that on the same day I write about the amortal phenomena I get perhaps the perfect example of it.  These people are not content to sit around and wait for death to come.  They’re not interested in the fact that people their age aren’t “supposed” to do this sort of thing.  They’ve found someone they love and dammit they’re going to enjoy their lives together.  Best wishes to both of them!

Are You An Amortal? May 8, 2011

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity, Transhumanism.
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An interesting article up in the Observer takes a  look at a rapidly growing subset of the elderly: the amortals.   Divorced from traditional notions of age-appropriate behavior these are the type of people who go hiking Mount Everest for their 70th birthday or who decide to marry partners 40 years their junior (looking at you Hugh Hefner).

So much of the talk regarding longevity revolves around the technical solutions to the problem that it actually quite refreshing to see people discussing both the type of person who can successfully live long into their golden years.  First and foremost is the fact that these people, whatever their age, do not see themselves as old.  No age for them is too old to start a business or enter a new relationship and retirement might as well be a dirty word.  In fact many of these people see the current effort to raise to retirement ages in a very different way than most of us:

Retirement isn’t a proposition that appeals to amortals unless life after work promises to be busier and better than the life before. And the impulse to keep working isn’t such a bad thing, given the changing profile of the world’s population. In Europe, the 60-pluses are projected to make up 37% of the population by the middle of this century. In some countries, two-fifths of citizens will be in their seventh decade or beyond…

Amortals are more inclined to celebrate the lifting of compulsory retirement ages and to deplore the ageism that seriously disadvantages older job seekers.

That brings us to a disturbing fact.  Society is not prepared to deal with large numbers of amortals.  Everything about us from our economies to our social benefits is based on the idea that people stop working once they reach 60-65.  This worked very well 50 year ago when the general trend after retirement was to take up golf for a few years and then die but it is completely outdated in an age where the average person has at least a decade, and most likely quite a bit more, to look forward to after the pension checks start coming in.  One only needs to look at the debt crises afflicting most of the developed to see the first waves battering our shores.

It’s not all doom and gloom though.  The fact that people are living longer means at least one very good thing; people have more time to enjoy their lives.  This is one thing I greatly appreciated about the article.  Too often in the transhumanist community I feel like our desire for longevity is little more than an adolescent urge to thumb our nose at death, to spit at the Grim Reaper (see Ray Kurzweil).  It is wonderful to see people for whom the desire to live is borne out of nothing more than “joie de vivre.”  People like this are living counter-arguments to the tired objections one sees whenever the debate over immortality is brought up;  “but won’t we get bored?”, “who wants to be old forever?”

Attitudes like that are not only poorly reasoned (no transhumanist advocates growing decrepit) but are also obsolete.  They were born in a time when the lines separating the young, the mature and the elderly were clearly demarcated.  That is no longer the case.  As our lifespans lengthen we are coming to understand that no age is too old to better ourselves, to set plans for our future, to set out on a new adventure in life.  So I ask again, are you an amortal?

Tell The FDA: Support Personal Genomics April 30, 2011

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For those that don’t know the FDA is currently considering regulating the nascent personal genomics industry.  Composed of star-ups like 23andme the industry is at the forefront of the personalized medicine revolution.  The idea currently is to take a look at a person’s genetic code for any predispositions to known ailments but the potential is obviously far greater.  Unfortunately the FDA is currently in the midst of determining the extent of regulations over this still burgeoning field.

Now I’m not the type of person who reflexively hates any attempt to impose regulation on the free market (quite the opposite actually) but in this case I stand against the government.  It still unclear what form the regulations would take but it seems that they would involve restricting how a person could access the information they receive, likely requiring them to go through a clinician.  On the surface this doesn’t sound so bad until you realize that the medical industry is completely unprepared to deal with this, that it would raise prices at a crucial point to the industry and, most importantly, there is no real point to it.  There is no evidence that giving people access to this sort of information possess any risk (and if someone can show otherwise I’ll eat my hat).

If you want to tell the FDA what you think then you only have a little time left.  Go to their website and let them know that this sort of action is exactly the wrong thing to do at this point in time.