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"The Expanse" is the best vision I've ever seen of a space-faring future that may be just a few generations away.
- Want three reasons why that headline is justified? Characters and acting, universe building, and science.
- For those who don't know, "The Expanse" is a series that's run on SyFy and Amazon Prime set about 200 years in the future in a mostly settled solar system with three waring factions: Earth, Mars, and Belters.
- No other show I know of manages to use real science so adeptly in the service of its story and its grand universe building.
Credit: "The Expanse" / Syfy<p>Now, I get it if you don't agree with me. I love "Star Trek" and I thought "Battlestar Galactica" (the new one) was amazing and I do adore "The Mandalorian". They are all fun and important and worth watching and thinking about. And maybe you love them more than anything else. But when you sum up the acting, the universe building, and the use of real science where it matters, I think nothing can beat "The Expanse". And with a <a href="https://www.rottentomatoes.com/tv/the_expanse" target="_blank">Rotten Tomato</a> average rating of 93%, I'm clearly not the only one who feels this way.</p><p>Best.</p><p>Show.</p><p>Ever. </p>
Scientists are using bioelectronic medicine to treat inflammatory diseases, an approach that capitalizes on the ancient "hardwiring" of the nervous system.
- Bioelectronic medicine is an emerging field that focuses on manipulating the nervous system to treat diseases.
- Clinical studies show that using electronic devices to stimulate the vagus nerve is effective at treating inflammatory diseases like rheumatoid arthritis.
- Although it's not yet approved by the US Food and Drug Administration, vagus nerve stimulation may also prove effective at treating other diseases like cancer, diabetes and depression.
The nervous system’s ancient reflexes<p>You accidentally place your hand on a hot stove. Almost instantaneously, your hand withdraws.</p><p>What triggered your hand to move? The answer is <em>not</em> that you consciously decided the stove was hot and you should move your hand. Rather, it was a reflex: Skin receptors on your hand sent nerve impulses to the spinal cord, which ultimately sent back motor neurons that caused your hand to move away. This all occurred before your "conscious brain" realized what happened.</p><p>Similarly, the nervous system has reflexes that protect individual cells in the body.</p><p>"The nervous system evolved because we need to respond to stimuli in the environment," said Dr. Tracey. "Neural signals don't come from the brain down first. Instead, when something happens in the environment, our peripheral nervous system senses it and sends a signal to the central nervous system, which comprises the brain and spinal cord. And then the nervous system responds to correct the problem."</p><p>So, what if scientists could "hack" into the nervous system, manipulating the electrical activity in the nervous system to control molecular processes and produce desirable outcomes? That's the chief goal of bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There are billions of neurons in the body that interact with almost every cell in the body, and at each of those nerve endings, molecular signals control molecular mechanisms that can be defined and mapped, and potentially put under control," Dr. Tracey said in a <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AJH9KsMKi5M" target="_blank">TED Talk</a>.</p><p>"Many of these mechanisms are also involved in important diseases, like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension and shock. It's very plausible that finding neural signals to control those mechanisms will hold promises for devices replacing some of today's medication for those diseases."</p><p>How can scientists hack the nervous system? For years, researchers in the field of bioelectronic medicine have zeroed in on the longest cranial nerve in the body: the vagus nerve.</p>
The vagus nerve<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYyOTM5OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NTIwNzk0NX0.UCy-3UNpomb3DQZMhyOw_SQG4ThwACXW_rMnc9mLAe8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="09add" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="f38dbfbbfe470ad85a3b023dd5083557" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
Electrical signals, seen here in a synapse, travel along the vagus nerve to trigger an inflammatory response.
Credit: Adobe Stock via solvod<p>The vagus nerve ("vagus" meaning "wandering" in Latin) comprises two nerve branches that stretch from the brainstem down to the chest and abdomen, where nerve fibers connect to organs. Electrical signals constantly travel up and down the vagus nerve, facilitating communication between the brain and other parts of the body.</p><p>One aspect of this back-and-forth communication is inflammation. When the immune system detects injury or attack, it automatically triggers an inflammatory response, which helps heal injuries and fend off invaders. But when not deployed properly, inflammation can become excessive, exacerbating the original problem and potentially contributing to diseases.</p><p>In 2002, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues discovered that the nervous system plays a key role in monitoring and modifying inflammation. This occurs through a process called the <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/nature01321" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">inflammatory reflex</a>. In simple terms, it works like this: When the nervous system detects inflammatory stimuli, it reflexively (and subconsciously) deploys electrical signals through the vagus nerve that trigger anti-inflammatory molecular processes.</p><p>In rodent experiments, Dr. Tracey and his colleagues observed that electrical signals traveling through the vagus nerve control TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. These electrical signals travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, triggering a molecular process that ultimately makes TNF, which exacerbates conditions like rheumatoid arthritis.</p><p>The incredible chain reaction of the inflammatory reflex was observed by Dr. Tracey and his colleagues in greater detail through rodent experiments. When inflammatory stimuli are detected, the nervous system sends electrical signals that travel through the vagus nerve to the spleen. There, the electrical signals are converted to chemical signals, which trigger the spleen to create a white blood cell called a T cell, which then creates a neurotransmitter called acetylcholine. The acetylcholine interacts with macrophages, which are a specific type of white blood cell that creates TNF, a protein that, in excess, causes inflammation. At that point, the acetylcholine triggers the macrophages to stop overproducing TNF – or inflammation.</p><p>Experiments showed that when a specific part of the body is inflamed, specific fibers within the vagus nerve start firing. Dr. Tracey and his colleagues were able to map these relationships. More importantly, they were able to stimulate specific parts of the vagus nerve to "shut off" inflammation.</p><p>What's more, clinical trials show that vagus nerve stimulation not only "shuts off" inflammation, but also triggers the production of cells that promote healing.</p><p>"In animal experiments, we understand how this works," Dr. Tracey said. "And now we have clinical trials showing that the human response is what's predicted by the lab experiments. Many scientific thresholds have been crossed in the clinic and the lab. We're literally at the point of regulatory steps and stages, and then marketing and distribution before this idea takes off."<br></p>
The future of bioelectronic medicine<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTYxMDYxMy9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjQwOTExNH0.uBY1TnEs_kv9Dal7zmA_i9L7T0wnIuf9gGtdRXcNNxo/img.jpg?width=980" id="8b5b2" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c005e615e5f23c2817483862354d2cc4" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="2000" data-height="1125" />
Vagus nerve stimulation can already treat Crohn's disease and other inflammatory diseases. In the future, it may also be used to treat cancer, diabetes, and depression.
Credit: Adobe Stock via Maridav<p>Vagus nerve stimulation is currently awaiting approval by the US Food and Drug Administration, but so far, it's proven safe and effective in clinical trials on humans. Dr. Tracey said vagus nerve stimulation could become a common treatment for a wide range of diseases, including cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, hypertension, shock, depression and diabetes.</p><p>"To the extent that inflammation is the problem in the disease, then stopping inflammation or suppressing the inflammation with vagus nerve stimulation or bioelectronic approaches will be beneficial and therapeutic," he said.</p><p>Receiving vagus nerve stimulation would require having an electronic device, about the size of lima bean, surgically implanted in your neck during a 30-minute procedure. A couple of weeks later, you'd visit, say, your rheumatologist, who would activate the device and determine the right dosage. The stimulation would take a few minutes each day, and it'd likely be unnoticeable.</p><p>But the most revolutionary aspect of bioelectronic medicine, according to Dr. Tracey, is that approaches like vagus nerve stimulation wouldn't come with harmful and potentially deadly side effects, as many pharmaceutical drugs currently do.</p><p>"A device on a nerve is not going to have systemic side effects on the body like taking a steroid does," Dr. Tracey said. "It's a powerful concept that, frankly, scientists are quite accepting of—it's actually quite amazing. But the idea of adopting this into practice is going to take another 10 or 20 years, because it's hard for physicians, who've spent their lives writing prescriptions for pills or injections, that a computer chip can replace the drug."</p><p>But patients could also play a role in advancing bioelectronic medicine.</p><p>"There's a huge demand in this patient cohort for something better than they're taking now," Dr. Tracey said. "Patients don't want to take a drug with a black-box warning, costs $100,000 a year and works half the time."</p><p>Michael Dowling, president and CEO of Northwell Health, elaborated:</p><p>"Why would patients pursue a drug regimen when they could opt for a few electronic pulses? Is it possible that treatments like this, pulses through electronic devices, could replace some drugs in the coming years as preferred treatments? Tracey believes it is, and that is perhaps why the pharmaceutical industry closely follows his work."</p><p>Over the long term, bioelectronic approaches are unlikely to completely replace pharmaceutical drugs, but they could replace many, or at least be used as supplemental treatments.</p><p>Dr. Tracey is optimistic about the future of the field.</p><p>"It's going to spawn a huge new industry that will rival the pharmaceutical industry in the next 50 years," he said. "This is no longer just a startup industry. [...] It's going to be very interesting to see the explosive growth that's going to occur."</p>
By 2050, there may be more plastic than fish in the sea.
- 2050 is predicted to be a bleak milestone for the oceans - but it's not too late to avert disaster.
- Here are 10 actions the world can take to strengthen and preserve our oceans for generations to come.
Remedies must honor the complex social dynamics of adolescence.
- Bullies are likely to be friends according to new research published in the American Journal of Sociology.
- The researchers write that complex social dynamics among adolescents allow the conditions for intragroup dominance.
- The team uses the concept of "frenemies" to describe the relationship between many bullies and victims.
School Bullying: Are We Taking the Wrong Approach?<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dfd7e31a97e8a049081d3cf6b978714f"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/E3U38uZBW6w?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p>Femlee, a sociology professor at Penn State, says her study offers important insights into why bullying occurs—and, potentially, leaves clues for how to combat it. Her team found peer aggression to be much higher among students that are proximal to one another, either through friendship or social circles. Bullying does not end friendships, she says; they persist over the long-term, with the bullied maintaining ties to their tormentors. </p><p>Looking at a data set of over 3,000 students—at least half were either bullier or victim—the researchers asked students to choose five classmates that had been mean to them, then analyzed these networks while racking levels of anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation. As one student remarked, "Sometimes your own friends bully you. I don't understand why, why my friends do this to me."</p><p>Femlee <a href="https://news.psu.edu/story/648500/2021/02/22/research/et-tu-brute-teens-may-be-more-likely-be-bullied-social-climbing" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elaborates on the complex dynamics</a> of adolescence:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"These conflicts likely arise between young people who are eyeing the same spot on the team, club, or vying for the same best friend or romantic partner. Those who are closely linked in the school social network are apt to encounter situations in which they are rivals for identical positions and social ties."</p>
Photo: motortion / Adobe Stock<p>They note that strained friendships are more likely to produce dominance behavior and power differentials than close ties. Punching down is common, especially between students of the same gender, race, and grade. The race for recognition seems to necessitate close racial and gender ties. "Frenemies" usually result from one member of a group victimizing another in an attempt at clawing their way to the top of the network.</p><p>This competition can have lifelong effects, such as reducing the bullied's chances of developing intimate relationships. The authors note that most bullying prevention programs fail becuase, in part, "aggressive behavior accrues social rewards and does so to a degree that leads some to betray their closest friends."</p><p>Such programs tend to focus on a fraction of bullying dynamics, such as empathy deficits and emotional dysregulation. They fail to take into account the complex social dynamics of being a teenager. The authors believe coopting status contents and changing the behavior of high-status youths could have downline effects. Instead of dismantling hierarchies, they recommend recognizing status is intrinsic to group fitness instead of pretending the struggle to the top is an aberration. Only then can you create structural change. </p><p>Friends, they conclude, can be the problem but also offer the solution. Aiming for enduring friendships instead of backstabbing frenemies is a tall order but it could impact the tragedy of bullying—and the emotional carnage it leaves in its wake. </p><p>--</p><p><em>Stay in touch with Derek on <a href="http://www.twitter.com/derekberes" target="_blank">Twitter</a> and <a href="https://www.facebook.com/DerekBeresdotcom" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Facebook</a>. His most recent book is</em> "<em><a href="https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08KRVMP2M?pf_rd_r=MDJW43337675SZ0X00FH&pf_rd_p=edaba0ee-c2fe-4124-9f5d-b31d6b1bfbee" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy</a>."</em></p>
The results could help NASA's Perseverance rover find evidence of ancient life on Mars.
- In a recent study, researchers simulated the environment of ancient Mars and tested whether a type of extremophile found on Earth could grow on fragments of a meteorite from Mars.
- Extremophiles are organisms that have adapted to survive in conditions in which most life forms cannot, such as ice, volcanoes, and space.
- The results showed that the extremophiles were able to convert the rock into energy. What's more, the microbes left behind biosignatures that could help scientists identify evidence of past life on Mars.
Northwest Africa (NWA) 7034
Credit: NASA<p>Extremophiles are organisms that thrive in conditions where most life forms would die. Scientists have observed them in volcanoes, soda lakes, Antarctic ice and hydrothermal vents. Some have even <a href="https://bigthink.com/surprising-science/tardigrades-extremophiles" target="_self">survived the vacuum of space</a>. The team behind the recent study focused on a particular class of extremophiles called chemolithotrophs, which are microbes that use inorganic compounds as a source of energy.<br></p><p>To test whether chemolithotrophs might have been able to evolve on Mars, the team placed a chemolithtrophic microbe called <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metallosphaera_sedula" target="_blank"><em>Metallosphaera sedula</em></a> onto bits of Black Beauty. The researchers simulated the ancient Martian environment by keeping the microbe-covered rock bits in a bioreactor that controlled temperature and levels of carbon dioxide and air.</p>
The high-angle annular dark-field (HAADF) scanning transmission electron microscopy (STEM) image of the focused ion beam (FIB) section extracted for STEM analysis from the NWA 7034 fragment used in this study
Credit: Milojevic et al.<p>Using microscopy, the researchers saw that the microbe successfully converted rock pieces into biomass.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Grown on Martian crustal material, the microbe formed a robust mineral capsule comprised [sic] of complexed iron, manganese and aluminum phosphates," Milojevic told Science Alert.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Apart from the massive encrustation of the cell surface, we have observed intracellular formation of crystalline deposits of a very complex nature (Fe, Mn oxides, mixed Mn silicates). These are distinguishable unique features of growth on the Noachian Martian breccia, which we did not observe previously when cultivating this microbe on terrestrial mineral sources and a stony chondritic meteorite."</p>
Mars 2020 mission<p>The study didn't prove that chemolithotrophs or any other type of life ever existed on Mars. But the results did show that the chemolithotrophs left behind unique biosignatures as they converted the rock bits into energy. </p><p>With these fingerprints on the books, scientists working with the Mars 2020 mission might be able to find similar biosignatures in rock samples collected or observed by the Perseverance rover, which landed on Mars in February. Rock samples collected by the rover are expected to return to Earth in 2031.</p>
After 20 months, scientists find lab-dish brain cells matured at a similar rate to those of an actual infant.
- Scientists have found that cultures of embryonic brain cells mature at the same rate as a 20-month-old infant's.
- Researchers have looked to such cell structures, called "organoids," as potential models for understanding the human body's biological mechanisms.
- Their study validates the use of lab-dish organoids for research.
What organoids really are and aren't<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY4MzgzOC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1OTEzMjc5Mn0.R1KWf66xU7CYlT3CPthA2J-xJKjZP0h0W4vx2Quxiq8/img.jpg?width=980" id="60c18" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a496d5eb7684457c09d0139882876a8f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="1080" />
A brain organoid
Credit: NIH Image Gallery/Wikimedia<p>Organoids are tissue cultures comprised of human embryonic stem cells. They start off as induced pluripotent stem cells (IPS) drawn from skin cells or blood cells before being reprogrammed to revert to an embryonic stem-cell-like state. From there, they can be exposed to chemicals that cause them to behave like a specific type of human cell.</p><p>In the case of this study, the chemicals caused them to become cerebral organoids, self-organized 3D cell structures that behave similarly to natural human brain cells. They don't grow to become full mini-brains.</p>
The promise of organoids<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTY4Mzg0MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMDEzODg0Nn0.AmSwbhi7wxpv1vKOX4jqOhB-pEqJNyFQzu2mhzHWTvc/img.jpg?width=980" id="92a7b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3746da47064a9d07ca33ddf44c5c1880" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1440" data-height="960" />
Credit: David Matos/Unsplash<p>The hope for organoids has been that they would provide researchers a way of observing human biological process in a benign, non-invasive way. Insights regarding the manner in which human cells and organs develop a disease, progress through its stages, and respond, or not, to medication, without involving actual human subjects or animal analogues could revolutionize research.</p><p>In the case of brain organoids, researchers have been hoping they can somehow be used to reveal the secrets of neurological and neurodevelopmental disorders, including epilepsy, autism and schizophrenia.</p><p>That organoids <em>could</em> be useful—though that doesn't mean that they <em>would</em> be—as a result of their permanently remaining embryonic cells. This study is a first indicator that organoids' larger promise can actually be fulfilled. </p>
An answer scientists have been hoping for<p>"This is novel," says Geschwind. "Until now, nobody has grown and characterized these organoids for this amount of time, nor shown they will recapitulate human brain development in a laboratory environment for the most part."</p><p>Now, says first author <a href="https://geschwindlab.dgsom.ucla.edu/pages/aaron-gordon" target="_blank">Aaron Gordon</a>, "We show that these 3D brain organoids follow an internal clock, which progresses in a laboratory environment in parallel to what occurs inside a living organism. This is a remarkable finding — we show that they reach post-natal maturity around 280 days in culture, and after that begin to model aspects of the infant brain, including known physiological changes in neurotransmitter signaling."</p><p>With the study verifying a 20-month maturation process, it remains to be seen how long, or how far, maturation in organoids goes. Can their cells continue to mature for years? Decades?</p><p>Even without an answer to that question, the study, says Geschwind, "represents an important milestone by showing which aspects of human brain development are modeled with the highest fidelity and which specific genes are behaving well in vitro and when best to model them. Equally important, we provide a framework based on unbiased genomic analyses for assessing how well in vitro models model in vivo development and function."</p><p>With IPS cells able to take on the roles of so many types of cells in the human body, and the new knowledge that they do in fact mature beyond their embryonic stage, researchers can feel more confident of insights into biological mechanisms organoids seem to reveal. And researchers can now better equipped to solve some of the human body's vexing mysteries.</p>
Surprising as it may seem, we are all very good at denial. Negation, however, is a different phenomena.
- What makes a person espouse an ideology so intensely as to negate the reality of well-established facts? Perhaps the differences between negation and denial can help us understand.
- Negation looks to the past, while denial looks to the present and future. We negate a historical fact and we deny the reality in front of us. Negation involves a conscious choice to lie, even if it involves the suffering of millions. Denial is subtler and, surprisingly, we all do it.
- Climate change conflates both negation and denial. Hopefully, understanding why will spur more into action, as we choose to become heroes of a new anti-denialist narrative.
Trump supporters lined the street on President's Day to show support for him after his 2020 election loss to President Joe Biden.
Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images<p>We can thus begin to see why so many people in the US have chosen to deny the reality of the Biden-Harris election, or that masks and social distancing are essential tools to beat the pandemic. When ex-president Trump claimed that there was a plot to steal the election from him, he positioned himself as the hero-martyr, the victim of a destructive plot that was after him and, by proxy, also after everyone who supported him. He used the old trick of galvanizing a visceral group response by creating a fake reality that bundles people together in a single cause: he made his followers into heroes fighting for freedom. The no-mask using is a clear illustration of how far this identification of "fighting for freedom" can go, even to the denial of the obvious danger of dying from COVID. This shows that our symbolic allegiance is more powerful than the physical. No wonder so many people are ready to "die for a cause," often with tragic consequences.</p><p>Deniers find force in their cohort, energizing each other and relying on group dynamics to find companionship and strength. Tragically, by forcing our physical separation in lockdowns, the pandemic worked as a catalyst to the deniers, their perceived "loss of freedom" bringing them closer together to the point of making them all believe in the heroic dream of a power takeover. The attack on the Capitol on January 6th is the epitome of denialism in modern America, from both sides of the aisle: the perpetrators who marched and pillaged and those who failed to read the obvious signs of mounting danger, denying the reality in front of them.</p>
Science denial — or is it science negation? A protest banner set up in front of the Republican National Convention Headquarters on August 24, 2020, in Washington, DC.