Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Working out in my chair, reading minds.

So there's been a fair amount of talk lately in the news about how the US defense department special forces researchers are trying to read minds. It shouldn't be a surprise that DARPA is funding research like this, people have been trying it for years (to take a Canadian example, read up on the MKULTRA experiments performed for the CIA at McGill). This is pretty science-fiction so far, but there has been some limited success recently in the literature, where a computer can choose which of a small set of nouns the subject is thinking of.

Now, if you look into it closely, mind-reading is still fundamentally impractical and therfore nothing to worry about. In addition to large, unwieldy and highly sensitive machines, you also need a coherent and compliant subject, and a ton of scan data from that subject - just to achieve the aforementioned limited success. So far, anyways. Expect this research to continue, because it doesn't seem to be a question of "if," but of "when." Legislators should be thinking on seemingly SF topics like mind reading and control already, but probably won't until it's in the courts. "What do you mean, you read her mind?!"

  • Interesting news showing that smoking is probably responsible for less "smoking-related illness" than I thought. My favourite part: "Dellinger noted, however, that one would have to smoke about 300 cigarettes a day to be exposed to the same level of environmental free radicals found in moderately polluted air."
  • Canadian researchers figure out how to program stem cells to develop one step (and only one step) into a certain route towards specialization. This is interesting because it will help lead to the transformation of stem cells into useful, transplantable tools and maybe even allow the production of things like skin grafts or whole livers in culture dishes.
  • Finally, a real use for chemistry and materials science - what may become a seminal work on hair care is released by German researchers. If they get public money for that, I'll consider doing some research there on something appropriately scientific involving beer after my doctorate.

We are now seeing the first drugs in what will no doubt one day be a multibillion dollar industry: exercise mimetics. These compounds, which got huge exposure in a Cell paper released last month, work in muscles to improve endurance. The data are really interesting, and some is pretty stunning. First, they use a drug that activated gene expression in a way similar to exercise. However, they didn't see any difference in endurance with just drug treatment. However, by training the mice to run for increasing time at increasing speed over several weeks, they found that the combination of exercise and the drug allowed dramatically increased running times (3.5 hours vs. 2) and distance covered (about 3 km vs. 1.8) compared to mice that only got exercise. Interestingly, the combination of the treatments activated some gene expression that neither exercise or drug alone did, suggesting at the very least some new performance-enhancing drug targets.

They go downstream on the biochemical cascade one step and manage to induce increases in endurance - without exercise this time. However, the running tests were much different - they took completely untrained mice, who could run only about 30 minutes (40 after drug treatment) and cover only about 400 m (around 550 m after the drug). While this is a much more modest effect (and probably wasn't additive with exercise, or they'd have shown data on it), it is very interesting to see the induction of some effects of exercise through only pharmacological means. However, it remains highly unlikely that we will be able to reproduce all the benefits of real exercise with chemistry. I mean, we're still working on bad hair days...

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

now this was an interesting read..