Brain Enhancing Drugs Are on the Horizon

This discovery may also help us develop novel drugs for Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, and ADHD.

Someday we’ll be able to give children a genetic test for cognitive ability before they even enter school. How do I know this? A team of researchers have identified the genes for cognitive ability. This is not exactly the same as intelligence. We define cognitive ability as our capacity to learn, plan, reason, make decisions, and remember. Once you reach adulthood, your IQ is fixed. While your cognitive ability can still improve through training.

Sometimes known as fluid intelligence, cognitive ability is all of the skills needed to succeed in school and advance in one’s career. It’s really considered how well we react when we encounter new information or novel situations. Though we have a good grasp on what it is, finding where it emanates from on the biological side has proven challenging.

Researchers have known for a few years now what genes influence intelligence. In a 2012 study, 20 genetic variants for intelligence were identified by the ENIGMA network, a consortium of scientists combining brain scans with genetic information to gain a better understanding of the brain. Since then, more genetic links to IQ have been discovered, including the KL gene—thought responsible for 3% of IQ variation in the general population. Cognitive ability however, from a genetic standpoint, has been harder to hunt down.

Geneticists are just beginning to unravel what genes are associated with our cognitive faculties. Credit: Getty Images.

Traditionally, there’s been a strong argument that fluid intelligence comes mainly from the nurture side of the human experience. After all, two studies conducted across a number of different countries have shown that having books in the home and access to highbrow culture improves a child’s scholastic achievement significantly. Despite this, a 2013 University of Texas study discovered that 50-70% of variation in human cognition is attributable to our genes. But it gets more complicated.

In the UT study, the authors wrote that “genetic influences on cognition are maximized in more advantaged socioeconomic contexts.” These genes are either activated or suppressed depending on what environment a person grows up in. What’s become clear, in these and other studies, is that human cognition is complex,and isn’t likely the result of one particular location, but multiple ones throughout the genome.

One of the problems is, many studies use a volunteer pool that’s way too small to really tease out subtle genetic influences. Access to a vast number of genomes is likely to give us a better picture of what genes are involved in cognitive ability. It would also let us know whether they operate in some sort of network or individually.

Todd Lencz, Ph.D., recognized the small sample problem from previous work. So he led a team from the Feinstein Institute for Medical Research in Manhasset, NY, in a massive project. It included 107,207 participants. This is what researchers call a genome-wide association study (GWAS), which here examined cognitive ability.

Genes exert a heavy influence on a person’s potential cognitive ability, but environmental factors either activate or suppress those genes. Credit: Getty Images.

Volunteers underwent a battery of psychological tests before donating their DNA. Then their genomes were sequenced and the data compared to that of a database containing the genetic information of 300,000 other people. Each person’s highest level of academic achievement was also noted. Researchers say it’s a reliable metric for cognitive ability. As a result of their efforts, Dr. Lencz and colleagues were able to identify 27 loci and 350 candidate genes for cognitive ability. Their results were published in the journal Cell Reports.

Those with certain neuropsychiatric disorders have been known to exhibit mutations or deletions at some of the loci recognized in the study, lending greater credibility. “The field of genomics is growing by leaps and bounds,” Dr. Lencz said. “Because the number of genes we can discover is a direct function of the sample size available, further research with additional samples is likely to provide even more insight into how our genes play a role in cognitive ability."

GWAS have tremendous potential, and thanks to better research techniques and greater computer processing power, they’re becoming more common. Another interesting aspect, researchers looked for potential drug targets. They believe they’ve identified a certain receptor which could offer a pharmacological pathway to increasing our cognitive potential.

We may someday be able to create a drug that increases cognitive ability. Credit: Getty Images.

It wasn’t all good news. The more cognitively spry among us are also more privy to autoimmune disorders, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Crohn’s disease, celiac disease, and eczema. It’s also important to note that what we normally think of as intelligence is actually a collection of a number of different traits blended together. Each has a genetic origin that needs to be hunted down and analyzed. The more knowledge we gain on the genes and genetic networks involved, the more we’ll be able to tweak our own species for greater intellectual capacity. Such research may prime us for greater longevity as well.

Lencz and colleagues were able to tease out certain traits related to these genes. It seems those with a higher cognitive ability might be predisposed to living longer. The scientists found a lot of overlap between the loci for cognitive ability and those for longevity. Could we also find a way to boost our lifespan through this research as well? Though it's an interesting speculation, it’s too soon to tell.

To learn how to bring your cognitive ability up to the next level, click here:

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How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."

Why the worst part about climate change isn't rising temperatures

The world's getting hotter, and it's getting more volatile. We need to start thinking about how climate change encourages conflict.

Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Climate change is usually discussed in terms of how it impacts the weather, but this fails to emphasize how climate change is a "threat multiplier."
  • As a threat multiplier, climate change makes already dangerous social and political situations even worse.
  • Not only do we have to work to minimize the impact of climate change on our environment, but we also have to deal with how it affects human issues today.

Human beings are great at responding to imminent and visible threats. Climate change, while dire, is almost entirely the opposite: it's slow, it's pervasive, it's vague, and it's invisible. Researchers and policymakers have been trying to package climate change in a way that conveys its severity. Usually, they do so by talking about its immediate effects: rising temperature, rising sea levels, and increasingly dangerous weather.

These things are bad, make no mistake about it. But the thing that makes climate change truly dire isn't that Cape Cod will be underwater next century, that polar bears will go extinct, or that we'll have to invent new categories for future hurricanes. It's the thousands of ancillary effects — the indirect pressure that climate change puts on every person on the planet.

How a drought in the Middle East contributed to extremism in Europe


Nigel Farage in front of a billboard that leverages the immigration crisis to support Brexit.

Because climate change is too big for the mind to grasp, we'll have to use a case study to talk about this. The Syrian civil war is a horrific tangle of senseless violence, but there are some primary causes we can point to. There is the longstanding conflicts between different religious sects in that country. Additionally, the Arab Spring swept Syria up in a wave of resistance against authoritarian leaders in the Middle East — unfortunately, Syrian protests were brutally squashed by Bashar Al-Assad. These, and many other factors, contributed to the start of the Syrian civil war.

One of these other factors was drought. In fact, the drought in that region — it started in 2006 — has been described as the "worst long-term drought and most severe set of crop failures since agricultural civilization began in the Fertile Crescent many millennia ago." Because of this drought, many rural Syrians could no longer support themselves. Between 2006 and 2009, an estimated 1.5 million Syrians — many of them agricultural workers and farmers — moved into the country's major cities. With this sudden mixing of different social groups in a country where classes and religious sects were already at odds with one another, tensions rose, and the increased economic instability encouraged chaos. Again, the drought didn't cause the civil war — but it sure as hell helped it along.

The ensuing flood of refugees to Europe is already a well-known story. The immigration crisis was used as a talking point in the Brexit movement to encourage Britain to leave the EU. Authoritarian or extreme-right governments and political parties have sprung up in France, Italy, Greece, Hungary, Slovenia, and other European countries, all of which have capitalized on fears of the immigration crisis.

Why climate change is a "threat multiplier"

This is why both NATO and the Pentagon have labeled climate change as a "threat multiplier." On its own, climate change doesn't cause these issues — rather, it exacerbates underlying problems in societies around the world. Think of having a heated discussion inside a slowly heating-up car.

Climate change is often discussed in terms of its domino effect: for example, higher temperatures around the world melt the icecaps, releasing methane stored in the polar ice that contributes to the rise in temperature, which both reduces available land for agriculture due to drought and makes parts of the ocean uninhabitable for different animal species, wreaking havoc on the food chain, and ultimately making food more scarce.

Maybe we should start to consider climate change's domino effect in more human and political terms. That is, in terms of the dominoes of sociopolitical events spurred on by climate change and the missing resources it gobbles up.

What the future may hold

(NASA via Getty Images)

Increasingly severe weather events will make it more difficult for nations to avoid conflict.

Part of why this is difficult to see is because climate change does not affect all countries proportionally — at least, not in a direct sense. Germanwatch, a German NGO, releases a climate change index every year to analyze exactly how badly different countries have been affected by climate change. The top five most at-risk countries are Haiti, Zimbabwe, Fiji, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Notice that many of these places are islands, which are at the greatest risk for major storms and rising sea levels. Some island nations are even expected to literally disappear — the leaders of these nations are actively making plans to move their citizens to other countries.

But Germanwatch's climate change index is based on weather events. It does not account for the political and social instability that will likely result. The U.S. and many parts of Europe are relatively low on the index, but that is precisely why these countries will most likely need to deal with the human cost of climate change. Refugees won't go from the frying pan into the fire: they'll go to the closest, safest place available.

Many people's instinctive response to floods of immigrants is to simply make borders more restrictive. This makes sense — a nation's first duty is to its own citizens, after all. Unfortunately, people who support stronger immigration policies tend to have right-wing authoritarian tendencies. This isn't always the case, of course, but anecdotally, we can look at the governments in Europe that have stricter immigration policies. Hungary, for example, has extremely strict policies against Muslim immigrants. It's also rapidly turning into a dictatorship. The country has cracked down on media organizations and NGOs, eroded its judicial system's independence, illegalized homelessness, and banned gender studies courses.

Climate change and its sociopolitical effects, such as refugee migration, aren't some poorer country's problem. It's everyone's problem. Whether it's our food, our homes, or our rights, climate change will exact a toll on every nation on Earth. Stopping climate change, or at least reducing its impact, is vitally important. Equally important is contending with the multifaceted threats its going to throw our way.

10 best books on design

You can learn good design through these books. Most of which is avoiding bad design.
Personal Growth
  • Like chess, Formula 1, and making ravioli... design has rules.
  • The rules are flexible. But the main point of these rules is to avoid bad design.
  • The best part? It's achievable.
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