Archives For health

quantified self

With the explosion in fitness trackers and mobile apps that want to help manage everything from weight loss to pregnancy, there’s already a small panic brewing as technology critics worry that insurance companies will require you to wear devices that track your health, playing around with your premiums based on how well or how badly you take care of yourself. As the current leader of the reverse Singularitarians, Evgeny Morozov, argues, the new idea of the quantified self is a minefield being created with little thought about the consequences. Certainly there is a potential for abuse of very personal health metrics and Morozov is at his best when he explains how naive techno-utopians don’t understand how they come off, and how the reality of how their tools have been used in the wild differs drastically from their vision, so his fear is not completely unfounded or downright reflexive, like some of his latest pieces have been. But in the case of the quantified self idea being applied to our healthcare, the benefits are more likely to outweigh the risks.

One of the reasons why healthcare in the United States is so incredibly expensive is the lack of focus on preventitive medicine. Health problems are allowed to fester until they become simply too bothersome to ignore, a battery of expensive tests is ordered, and usually expensive acute treatments are administered. Had they been caught in time, the treatments would not have to be so intensive, and if there was ample, trustworthy biometric information available to the attending doctors, there wouldn’t need to be as much testing to arrive at an accurate diagnosis. As many doctors grumble about oceans of paperwork, logistics of testing, and the inability to really talk to patients in the standard 15 minute visit, why not use devices that would help with the paperwork and do a great deal of preliminary research for them before they ever see the patient? And yes, the devices would have to be able to gather data by themselves because we often tell little white lies about how active we are and how well we eat, even when both we and our doctors know that we’re lying. And this only hurts us in the end by making the doctors’ work more difficult.

That brings us full circle to health insurance premiums and requirements to wear these devices to keep our coverage. Certainly it’s kind of creepy that there would be so much data about us so readily available to insurance companies, but here’s the thing. They already have this data from your doctors and can access it whenever they want in the course of processing your claim. With biometric trackers and loggers, they could do the smart and profitable thing and instead of using a statistical model generated from a hodgepodge of claim notes, take advantage of the real time data coming in to send you to the doctor when a health problem is detected. They pay less for a less acute treatment plan, you feel healthier and have some piece of mind that you’re now less likely to be caught by surprise by some nasty disease or condition, and your premiums won’t be hiked as much since the insurers now have higher margins and stave off rebellions from big and small companies who’ll now have more coverage choices built around smart health data. And all this isn’t even mentioning the bonanza for researchers and policy experts who can now get a big picture view from what would be the most massive health study ever conducted.

How many times have you read a study purporting the health benefits of eating berries and jogs one week only to read another one that promotes eating nuts and saying that jogs are pointless with the different conclusions coming as a result of different sample sizes and subjects involved in the studies? Well, here, scientists could collect tens of millions of anonymized records and do very thorough modeling based on uniform data sets from real people, and find out what actually works and for whom when it comes to achieving their fitness and weight loss goals. Couple more data and more intelligent policy with the potential for economic gain and the gamification offered by fitness trackers, and you end up with saner healthcare costs, a new focus on preventing and maintaining rather than diagnosing and treating, fewer sick days, and longer average lifespans as the side effect of being sick less often and encouraged to stay active and fit, and you have a very compelling argument for letting insurance companies put medical trackers on you and build a new business model around them and the data they collect. It will pay off in the long run.

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magazine kiosk

When an expansive article on GMOs became the lead story in Elle Magazine, it wasn’t exactly a shocker that the story got its science wrong and horribly abused quotes to create a controversy where one didn’t exist. In fact, it’s par for the course when GMOs are mentioned in publications not known for their scientific reporting. Just like conservative political outlets go out of their way to deny global warming and denigrate the scientists involved in climate modeling, generally left-leaning lifestyle magazines do whatever they can to cast some doubt on the viability of GMOs in a noxious mix of conspiracy-mongering and double standards. No matter how many tests looking for potential allergens or toxins are done over decades, the anti-GMO pundits declare that there aren’t enough studies of the modified crops’ safety and surely this means that Monsanto turned millions of people into their unwitting guinea pigs for the sake of profit.

Meanwhile, even a single experiment which claims to find some sort of a problem with GMOs, no matter how horribly done and how much the researchers conduct it threaten reporters who want a second opinion or ask questions, has to be held up as the definitive proof that we’re all being slowly poisoned by greedy tycoons. The reality is quite different, of course. GMOs are actually strictly regulated, unlike organic food, since each new protein or genetic modification is treated as a food additive and has to be cleared by an independent panel of experts and by the FDA to ever hit the market. By contrast, anything described as "natural" and used in organic food does not have to be subject to any studies thanks to the codification of the naturalistic fallacy into law and despite the fact that nature can be very, very deadly. However, it’s not all regulations, good science, and securing the food supply. GMO makers use and abuse the patent system to milk a hefty profit from every stage of their products’ lifecycles and bilk farmers.

But don’t expect a discussion about the patent system and biology in Elle because the story isn’t so much about GMOs as about the author and her quest to rid herself of allergies, transitioning into a standard storyline of a woman in search of truth. Though by truth what I really mean is an exploratory trip into the land of conspiracy theories because that’s what the readers want. It’s a story written for the magazine’s target demographic, which is why it’s first person and focuses on vague, scary-sounding concerns to keep readers hooked. And this is why the admonition given to this article after a fact check sounds a bit silly to put it mildly, as it laments the science abuse and rampant misquotes to create a controversy for the sake of eyeballs…

It represents a major setback for science journalism, and for consumers who rely on hugely popular lifestyle publications to make their way through complicated issues. Is GMO corn causing allergies or other disorders? Are GMOs a threat? Elle perpetuates a “controversy” that just doesn’t exist in the mainstream science or medical communities. Worse, it fans the flames of doubt and distrust that fuel unilateral opposition to a sophisticated technology that could improve global food security.

Here’s the thing. If people are getting their science information from the same magazines which tell them what shoes are in this season, or what celebrity is working on what new movie, we have much bigger problems than are being highlighted here. Why would anyone think that relying on the latest edition of Vanity Fair, or Esquire, or, yes, Elle, for the latest and greatest in important, everyday science is a good idea? Certainly, one doesn’t expect fashion tips and celebrity gossip in their edition of National Geographic. Likewise, why would people rely on fashion magazines to navigate important policy debates? The really scary thing is that despite most people singing all manner of praises to science and a STEM education in popular surveys, they by in large do not care about the science that actually gets done or why, and even worse, don’t want to care. And considering that, is it any wonder that publications that cater to people who only say they care to be scientifically literate focus on creating controversy, peddling conspiracies, and moving copies to charge advertisers more? The Elle story is just one symptom of a much bigger issue…

[ photo illustration of news kiosk in Zurich via Wikimedia Commons ]

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While we’re talking about chemophobia, here’s another area where a selective focus on health isn’t helping in the big picture: food. The cover story for the current edition of The Atlantic is an expansive, New Yorker style, 10,500 word case against chemophobic foodism that’s currently in vogue in many metropolitan cities. David Freedman’s thesis basically boils down to calling out foodies on their caloric hypocrisy while noting that the companies they demonize are working to cut down on calories in their most popular offerings, which could have huge downstream effects for tens of millions of people. And with obesity arguably being America’s biggest health problem, combating it could shave trillions off our healthcare expenditures. That’s a big deal, so focusing on only "wholesome, natural, farm-to-table" fare while relegating food conglomerates to the role of the foodie movement’s sworn enemies is shortsighted and naive. As you can imagine, there’s no shortage of detractors to Freedman’s indictment and many of them base their opposition on the very chemophobia he sites, recycling the same arguments he tries to dispel.

Of course the article itself isn’t without flaws, but arguing with its focus on noting out how foodie idols aren’t helping to reduce caloric intake, but instead jack up the price in the name of style or ideology misses an important point. You see, the foodies aren’t actually helping people lose any heft by substituting fast, cheap, fattening food with wholesome, fresh, simple dishes that are so aesthetically pleasing they’re bordering on gastronomic pornography, yet every bit as bad as all those Big Macs and fries. Their excuse? It’s better for you because it’s all wholesome! Disregard the terrifying amount of flour, butter, bacon, and sugar going into these recipes. They’re labeled organic and they’re not — gasp! — processed with chemicals. Oh and if you want to lose weight, don’t eat this often and stay active; because all this stuff is natural and organic it will burn off all the faster. But the fact of the matter is that it won’t. Remember the craze about the high fructose corn syrup and the call to replace it with natural sugar? There’s a reason why it died down. The science says that sugar is sugar and both HFCS and cane sugar are equally dangerous.

Couple this almost religious faith in the power of "wholesome and natural food" with a big dollop of affluence and advice like "don’t eat something with more than five ingredients or containing chemicals you don’t immediately recognize," and you get a classic situation in which a little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing. Not only are foodies disregarding food that’s more immune to being left out unrefrigerated for a few hours and safer from germs and spoilage (that’s what the vast majority of those strange sounding chemicals in processed food do by the way), but they’re also paying premiums for what they do find acceptable. This is great for Whole Foods, or as it’s known in some places Whole Paycheck, but not so great for John and Jane Public who are now thinking that they’re priced out of eating healthy. Fresh, more local food that travels from farms to supermarkets and forks faster is actually a good thing. It’s less resource intensive and helps the food stay edible longer. But it’s also being sold at a premium instead of being the default for markets. Why? Because foodies are willing to pay extra and margins in the grocery business are slim to put it mildly. Like many "green, eco-friendly" products, food is being upmarketed.

Worst of all, a great deal of the foodie motivation behind spending more money and avoiding a gret swath of basic chemistry to keep food fresh and safe longer is useless when it comes to the big goal of fighting obesity. The chemicals are not making people fat. The tomato from a frozen warehouse and the tomato from a local farm won’t break down differently in someone’s stomach and fuel the body with different calories. Obesity is so much more complex than that. When you want to tackle the question of why people gain weight you have to also look past exercise and a sum total of calories. You also have to consider that Americans work too much, sit too much for their jobs, don’t get exercise breaks in their routine, try to cram some 20 hours of tasks into a 16 or an 18 hour day, have to drive everywhere, some have genetic predispositions for weight gain, and others have emotional problems that drive them to food, etc. If you want to tackle the country’s weight problem holistically, you don’t do it with bad science, throw money at it, or try to shame people who can’t afford to eat like a foodie to do so. You have to do a lot more.

People eat fast food because it’s convenient and yes, cooking it with higher quality ingredients while cutting out calories and improving flavor with judicious use of benign and helpful chemicals would go a long way. But we also need to encourage more mass transit, more urban lifestyles in growing cities to get more people walking, jobs that allow for more flexible schedules to get a bit of exercise into the day and break up the monotony of being chained to desks and office chairs, and teach coping strategies for an insane workload both at the office and at home. Fighting the scourge of obesity and its attendant health problems requires many years of work and we have good studies showing us how we can start doing it. Demonizing processed foods with naturalism and pseudoscience with an irrational fear of chemistry isn’t going to help. It’s just going to make some foodies feel like they’re doing good things for their health. A number of whom, I might add, flip out in terror if their food contains half a gram of aspartame, but think nothing of having botox injections. You know, injections of the deadliest toxin know to humans to paralyze their faces so they look younger by poisoning their muscles into submission until their crow’s feet are gone…

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sara jean underwood

The city where I live, the college town/aspiring big city of Columbus, OH, the weather isn’t really known for being nice. And we’ll tell you how much the weather sucks when you ask what it’s like to live here. It will be either our opening line or the caveat we sneak in at the end. Right now, it’s hot and incredibly humid, which makes walking outside feel like stepping into a blast furnace that cooks you in your own juices. This means that if you want to work out, it’s best to get indoors to the treadmill. Unfortunately, some of my wife’s and my mutual friends seem to disagree because lately, they’ve gone granola on us and ascribe to the trend that exercising in hot, humid weather is perfect to sweat out toxins. Ah, yes, the t-word, used as the magical justification for just about every New Age lifestyle trend, much like the word quantum is used as an automatic free pass for them to say whatever they want about science. Now, trust me, I know it sounds compelling to go out there and sweat out all your toxins, but what you’ll really be doing is getting heat stroke and putting your body in danger so for the love of all things cute and fluffy, don’t do it.

Here are the two big problems with this idea. First and foremost, there’s a reason why it feels so miserable to run around in 90+ degree weather and high humidity. Your body needs to transfer heat to the outside environment to cool down and if the temperature is close to, or exceeds your body heat, that transfer is very much inhibited. Sweat doesn’t evaporate cooling you off, it’s just stuck to you and your clothing, keeping you uncomfortably warm. According to research by the people who created the mantra "pain is weakness leaving your body," the U.S. Army, — probably the absolute last institution you could accuse of not knowing enough about fitness and physical training — the optimal ambient temperature during your workout should be about 65° F. It’s not so cold that your body tries to hold on to heat and interferes with your muscles, and not nearly hot enough to get in the way of sweat giving off excess heat efficiently so you could work much harder and train a lot longer than you would otherwise. This is why many gyms have thermostats set to the mid to low 60s, we know it’s good for your body as you’re exercising.

The second big problem is this. What toxins are you trying to sweat out? Chemophobes can get tests to determine what sort of residue can linger in their tissues and hyperventilate about every chemical under the sun on the basis of the results. Whatever chemical name they don’t readily recognize or the nature of which they don’t understand, they call a toxin and proceed to spend a good deal of time and effort "detoxing." For example, formaldehyde is a commonly cited toxin but it actually occurs naturally as a byproduct of your metabolism and is used to help chain together amino acids into proteins. The problem is that if you’re exposed to industrial quantities of it, the excess formaldehyde is converted into formic acid which could cause nerve and kidney damage in sufficient quantities. So where do our New Agey chemophobes go wrong? Well, they assume having a few parts per million of it in our bodies is dangerous and must be the result of pollution, despite the fact that it naturally occurs in our tissues and their concentrations of it are orders of magnitude lower than what it would take to even raise a yellow flag. Dose makes the poison, but the granola crowd assumes that if it can be a poison, it’s just a matter of time before it is.

And so they go out in the blazing heat to sweat out chemicals that aren’t going to harm them just to overheat their bodies to the point of exhaustion, and take how miserable they feel as a detox regimen working as designed. In reality, however, the headaches, weakness, and nausea aren’t toxins leaving the body. They’re your body’s way of telling you "don’t pull this shit on me again, I mean it!" Having less and less discomfort after working out in the heat for a while isn’t a coup for the detox protocol either, it’s your body begrudgingly accepting its fate and getting used to the stress at the expense of overworking the heart and the kidneys. While heat stroke and its milder precursors will generally go away after a brief rest without doing permanent damage, repeated exertions can take their toll in the form of cramps and muscle pain. Really, if the workout in the air-conditioned gym and the miserable routine in the sticky heat won’t actually rid your of all the chemicals that are actually not harmful to you in the amounts everyone carries, why run the risk of heat exhaustion? Why not just keep yourself in shape safely and using real science?

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smiley death grafitti

It started almost immediately after Sandy Hook. The reliably shrill alt med ignoramus who hasn’t read about a conspiracy theory he didn’t immediately love, Mike Adams, penned a fiery screed accusing psychoactive drugs of creating mass murderers and using a seemingly long list of very grizzly events to support his point. Since he’s Alex Jones’ best buddy and fills in on the Coast to Coast radio show, the meme has spread like wildfire among conspiracy theorists, and even the pundits of World Net Daily — known as World Nut Daily for some very good reasons — are now spouting the dogma of antidepressants turning people into a homicidal frenzy, all so Big Pharma can profit from untested drugs while the government covers up the dark truth. Although that last part there could’ve been from the Sandy Hook Truther conspiracy. It’s kind of hard to keep all of the overlapping conspiracies straight sometimes, though it’s usually a safe bet that there’s some mention of the government covering up something for someone nefarious so the bigwigs of the New World Order can keep their sex slaves and appease their alien overlords.

Here’s the immediate problem with the psychoactive drug-induced mass murders theory. It fails the statistical significance test. Tens of millions of people have taken what’s known as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, to treat mild to severe depression, and social disorders like anxiety and OCD. Virtually all the brand names given by Adams and his friends and fans are from the same family of SSRIs, and we can safely ask why just a few dozen examples of a violent crime out of a population of tens of millions of patients mean that SSRIs turn people into crazed gunmen. After all, if your study population is, say, 20 million and your sample time period goes back decades, having some mass murderers, serial killers, and short tempered violent criminals is pretty much statistically inevitable. Plus, what about the other tens of millions of patients who didn’t commit any crimes? How can you argue for a causative effect between SSRIs and murder when the murderers are so few and far between as to be a tiny blip on the radar? And that’s not to mention that SSRIs don’t have any known side effects that increase one’s aggression.

In fact, patients on SSRIs with the most extreme side effects and conditions are likely to commit suicide, not homicide. A quick reading of the list presented by Adams and company mentions a number of suicides quite prominently, as well as changing the definition of mass murder to "any violent crime in which more then one person died," further weakening their own case. Yes, a lot of gunmen commit suicide after their massacres, true. But the problem is that it’s very difficult to make any definitive causative link between SSRIs and suicide. Considering that patients with an extreme case of depression may commit suicide in spite of the drug rather than because of it, as well as the fact that for patients with a history of abuse and trauma SSRIs might not really do all that much more than a placebo, the connection is very murky. While we can say that gunmen in the headlines today were taking SSRIs and other similar medications, we can make a stronger case that the medications failed to do their job than Adams can that their medication pushed all, or nearly all of them, them towards violence, because the former explanation better fits with the fact that tens of millions of SSRI-using patients aren’t violent, and the relevant scientific work.

So let’s review. Mass murdering gunmen on psychoactive drugs are few and far between even when the criteria for mass murder are loosened to include any crime in which two or more have been killed. The link between SSRIs and violence has been studied and shown not to exist. And while patients on SSRIs with a severe diagnosis are more likely to commit suicide, we could very easily make a sound case that suicides are the result of the medication failing to do its job, not driving someone to a suicidal state, much less to killing themselves after leaving a trail of victims in his wake. But none of this bothers the conspiracy theorists. To them, everything has to be a secret plot by those behind the scenes because this the only way they can imagine the world. If they allowed for random chaos to interfere or simplt incompetence to bring down economies and lose wars, why, the world would be an unpredictable place they couldn’t pretend to navigate like sages in the know observing a chess match. They would have to be ordinary shmoes just trying to make sense of events that all too often simply don’t make sense in the big picture…

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beaver talc

A feature piece on the Dr. Oz Show and the man behind it is up at the New Yorker, and as most features on a controversial topic in the New Yorker go, it’s long and none too flattering. In it, he’s described as brilliant, charismatic, but profoundly influenced by his wife’s deeply held beliefs in alt med woo, and seeking ratings and publicity to a fault. He may talk about giving patients every bit of information out there and wash his hands of any claims that in retrospect were found to be with little to no medical merit, but the message is clear. He needs drama, ratings, and to give the audience what it really wants: quick, easy, convenient answers to the big three questions. How can I lose weight? How can I live longer? How can I battle cancer if it sneaks up on me? And as numerous quotes from experts in the article show, he goes overboard with his answers…

“Mehmet was always unique, but now he has morphed into a mega-brand. When he tells people the number of sexual encounters they need each year to improve their lives in a specific way, or how to lose weight in three days—this is simply lunacy. The problem is that he is eloquent and talented, and some of what he says clearly provides a service we need. But how are consumers to know what is real and what is magic? Because Mehmet offers both as if they were one… It all seems to be in the service of putting on a show. And, when you add it up, that seems like something other than medicine. It’s more like medutainment.”

No wonder Oz is so popular. Have trouble with weight loss and yo-yoing back and forth, and no doctor can tell you how to keep weight off? Try the raspberry ketones. Then the green coffee beans. Then the blueberries and almonds. What should I do to add a year to my life? Have sex on a regular basis and aim for 200 orgasms a year. These are not exaggerations. I’m not being snarky or sarcastic whatsoever. These are real, honest to goodness Dr. Oz recommendations, his televised answers to complex medical questions we are only now learning how to even try to research thanks to cloud computing and an explosion in bioinformatics. But instead of doing an expansive study using data from millions of real patients whose data was uploaded into secure data centers for medical research use, Dr. Oz is basically telling his viewers "oh, want an extra year added to your lifespan? Why don’t you go out and get laid? Doctor’s orders!"

It’s simple, it’s nice to hear, and it comes with the most minimal amount of evidence. Yes, we do know that sex adds years to your life but we don’t know how well enough to tell someone how many orgasms he or she should have to live longer. Same goes for all the compounds that Oz touts as the miracle fat buster that Big Pharma doesn’t want you to know about, despite being all too able to extract the active ingredient in pill form, patent it, and make billions selling it. It’s all those pesky FDA requirements that the supplement do a better job than a placebo that just get in the way, unlike for health store chains that sell vitamins formulated in Utah, where a senator with deep ties to the supplement lobby fights to keep vitamin sales totally unregulated. Point is, much of what Oz has to offer the public is either common sense or ridiculous hype and eyeball grabbing manufactroversies for the sake of ratings.

Considering that Oz is indeed a brilliant and accomplished surgeon and researcher, he should really know better than to opt for drama and ratings, telling his viewers what they want to hear instead of admitting that we don’t know a lot of things to which they demand instant answers. In the scientific world, nature doesn’t take the attention span and personal desires of patients into account and it makes you fight to find solutions to complex problems like aging and cancer. For someone to step into the role of "America’s doctor" without acknowledging it and sticking to the facts for which we can have solid evidence, is a gross abuse of trust and a position of immense power. He could’ve used his bully pulpit to dispel countless snake oils and get more people on treadmills and committing to a healthy lifestyle. Instead, he gave common sense a node while sending his fans on the hunt for the latest weight/cancer/age-busting fad. For shame…

[ illustration by Glen Southern ]

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lab mouse

While studying what effect cell division has on cancer risk, a team of scientists decided to make mice that that produced excess levels of a protein called BubR1 and got results that seem way too promising at first blush. Not only were the engineered mice a third less likely to develop lung and skin cancers after exposure to potent carcinogens than control animals, but they had twice the endurance, lived 15% longer, and were less than half as likely to develop a fatal cancer. So what’s the catch? Well, there is none. It’s as if an over-expression of BubR1 is a magical elixir of good health and longevity. This doesn’t mean that this protein couldn’t become our most potent weapon against cancer with enough study or that it must have some sort of side-effect, which is entirely possible since too little BubR1 in humans is associated with premature aging and some forms of cancer, but this is a signal to proceed with optimistic caution.

Mice may have a lot of similarities to humans from a genetic standpoint, but they are a different species so what works well in mice may not always work as well in humans. Likewise, if we really wanted to be sure of the results, we’d have to test them on thousands of humans over decades, which is a massive undertaking in logistics alone. And since testing the protein modifications in humans would be such a major effort, the researchers need to know exactly how BubR1 does all the wonderful things it does, breaking down its role by chemical reaction and testing each factor on its own. The work may take decades to complete but if it’s correct, we may have found a way to extend and improve our lives in a humble protein. Combined with other ongoing work, there’s some very real science behind extending human lifespans and modifying our genomes for the better. I just hope we don’t get a little too carried away and treat editorials treating BubR1, gene therapy on a massive scale, and cell reprogramming technology as just around the corner with the necessary healthy skepticism, since the research is by no means complete…

See: Baker, D., et. al. (2012). Increased expression of BubR1 protects against aneuploidy and cancer and extends healthy lifespan Nature Cell Biology DOI: 10.1038/ncb2643

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internal view

As we’re starting to test artificially grown organs, scientists are wondering how to make sure that their methods result in viable tissues. One of the first steps was to take organ growth into three dimensions, letting the cells grow on a scaffold and self-organize into the right muscles, valves, and other soft tissue. Usually these scaffolds are derived from existing organs purified of all their old cells and many are designed to break down into naturally occurring chemicals to be flushed out of the body on implantation. But how do you check what the organ can be implanted with the necessary level of precision? Why turn the scaffold into a monitoring device by letting cells grow on a sensor. This way, when the tissues grow, you can monitor the electrical buzz between the cells and track how well they’re developing and working together. But so far, this method had a pretty sever limitation. It could only be done in two dimensions, one less than we need for viable organic structures. So much potential but so problematic to implement.

Well, researchers at MIT decided to tackle this problem and came up with a new biocompatible material that could be arranged into a proper three dimensional scaffold and monitor both the structure and function of an organ. After successfully growing cardiac muscles around a mesh of this electro-sensitive substance, they were able to monitor the effects of a chemical that speeds up heart rate. Using their method, we could obtain a treasure trove of new data about how well a future artificial organ will grow and run it through a battery of tests to make sure it’s fit for clinical use to replace a damaged or failing organ. Even more interesting would be the opportunity for doctors to keep monitoring how the organ is doing and give patients advance warning should a health crisis be imminent. Imagine a future in which your aging and failing vital organs could be replaced with wired versions of themselves and report on how well your body is doing, giving all sorts of useful warnings should something new go wrong. Better yet, the mesh would simply read the behavior of the cells around it and report it back to a system which can make sense of the detected patterns so there’s not delicate, over-engineered instrument sitting inside you.

And all that brings us to another question. Could nanoparticles made from this material hitch a ride through a patient’s bloodstream to the liver, lungs, heart, kidneys, possibly into some key parts of the musculoskeletal system, maybe even the brain itself (though that would be a major challenge in and of itself), and monitor his or her health by listening to the patterns of electrical signals emitted by the organs’ cells. Could be a path to early detection and treatment of cancer strains that grow into tumors when we learn how to track the electrochemical signs of a malicious cell being formed? The possibilities posed by this technology are really quite amazing and come with great potential for new medical markets. Let’s hope there will be a lot of follow up to see if it really would be possible to make us all cyborgs with internal biocompatible sensors that will help us better diagnose what ails us as our bodies accumulate wear and tear. It sounds an awful lot like a science fiction movie, true. But in this case, the technology is very real and we have some very good ideas out there for how to turn it into science fact with the right funding and expertise behind this invention’s spin-off projects.

See: Tian, B., et al. (2012). Macroporous nanowire nanoelectronic scaffolds for synthetic tissues Nature Materials DOI: 10.1038/nmat3404

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oscar pistorius

Apparently, so I hear at least, the summer Olympics are currently going on in London. Obviously, I haven’t been watching any of the events when not working, or had them on in the background while writing posts and switching up the template, or stay glued to them at the gym. No, not at all. Why, a public admission of a binge on Olympic sports would surely wreak havoc on my nerd cred. But I digress. Aside from the profiles of the U.S. women’s gymnastics team and tributes to Michael Phelps, which I’m told have been airing incessantly, another huge story at London 2012 is Oscar Pistorius’ historic attempt to use his Cheetah Blades in competition alongside athletes using their biological legs. After years of IOC’s suspicious glances at his artificial legs, he was finally cleared to compete, and despite coming in last in his final race, he did qualify for a semi-final, something that a good deal of perfectly able-bodied athletes couldn’t manage to do.

So all in all, he did quite well and managed to show that our technology is making life without seemingly crucial limbs quite manageable, so much so that Pistorius can professionally peruse track and field, a sport that generally requires its competitors to have a pair of working legs. So what about the future? As Bob Costas asked, will we see an Olympics in which athletes use technology to gain an advantage rather than overcome a physical limitation? I would say that we will and we won’t. Follow me on this train of logic. Today’s athletes train with technology, medicine, and under the tutelage of experts armed with knowledge that was considered science fiction just a generation or two ago. They all benefit from new medicine, better training methods, better nutrition, and sage advice, so in many ways, technology is already providing an advantage to modern athletes. We just assume it as a given.

But there are some limits involved as well. Recall the controversy that ended the super swim suit era, a time when arming a professional swimmer with a high tech suit would guarantee that world records would be shattered right and left. The problem was that the competition came down to who had the better suit to help eke out a small but decisive advantage, not who was the better athlete, and the sport’s authorities decided that enough was enough. So were some sort of new suit of implant give Olympians of the future a slight edge, it would most likely be swiftly banned since it would violate the spirit of fair play. On the flip side, implants that would make someone superhuman are going to remain more fiction than fact due the complex medical and ethical issues involved. If anything, future athletes will simply reap the benefits of overall better science and technology that will guide their training rather than try to become super powered cyborgs.

Simply put, if you want to make the competition fair and reward those who trained the best, had the most focus, and executed better, not those who had a nifty truck up their sleeve, you’ll have to make sure that none of the athletes are relying on a gimmick or a gadget to win gold. This is why the IOC was so wary of letting Pistorius race. It didn’t want to be seen as giving a competitor an unfair advantage or tipping the playing field in an athlete’s favor by not doing its due diligence. After all, it’s part of their job. Lucky for everyone, they did their homework well, and came to an evidence-backed, fair result. Pistorius got to race, the Cheetah Blades were shown to be excellent substitutes for parts of biological legs rather than techno-wizardry that could enable someone to cheat, and the door to wider acceptance of advanced prosthetics was cracked open. Maybe Pistorius didn’t capture a medal, but he’s certainly going to leave London with a big win.

[ photo illustration by Oakley ]

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Once upon a time, I was talking to a friend about some of the more popular utopian sci-fi worlds, particularly, the world of the Jetsons in which we were predicted to have primitive robot maids, apartments in the sky, vacations on a lunar base or a city on Mars, and 30 hour work weeks for even the most workaholic nations. As we discussed the likelihood of all this happening in the near future, she brought up a point about George Jetson I didn’t even bother to consider. If he was a real person who lived the way all residents of his future do, he should weigh a ton, literally. His lifestyle isn’t even sedentary, it’s stationary! Everywhere he goes there are moving walkways, escalators, elevators, hover-pods, and so on and do forth. The man only needs to lift a finger to eat and that’s actually not always the case. And considering his near-constant immobility and certain morbid obesity, he, as well as every other typical resident of the future, would contribute to private and public healthcare budgets that would soar into the hundreds and hundreds of trillions, dying between two years and two decades early.

Don’t just take my word for it. A recent study shows that a sedentary lifestyle costs two years of your life and at least every twenty minutes, you’ll need to get up and walk around to mitigate the ill effects of sitting still. No matter if you put in an hour a day three to five days per week at the gym as doctors recommend, a job in which you sit at a desk, or wheel, or a machine, all day is going to be detrimental to your health. Trouble is, it’s not as if you can just excuse yourself from the typical hour long meeting or an intense assignment to go stretch. This is simply not how white collar jobs are designed. So what about blue collar workers who get to stand most of their day and move around on a regular basis? Why don’t we re-finagle our cubicles and offices to allow more mobility and require less time that our rear ends press down into our seat cushions? Well, there’s a problem with that too because standing too long and too much causes joint pain. So we’re back to the 20 minute break schedule that’s downright impossible for most workers, from mail room interns to CEOs if we want to live just a few years longer. Guess that’s another argument for why cubicles are pure evil and humans don’t belong in them and why we shouldn’t be standing in the same few spots on an assembly line year in, year out…

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