It's Time to Upgrade Your Biological Software

We are witnessing a paradigm shift in medicine that is equal to that of Galileo saying the Earth was not the center of the Universe or Columbus saying that the world was round, not flat.

We are in the midst of the single biggest global epidemic of chronic disease in the history of human species. We will spend 47 trillion dollars over the next 20 years dealing with it. 90 percent of people who have it are not diagnosed, and in America alone it affects one half of the population. This chronic disease is "diabesity," and it is preventable. 


So argues Dr. Mark Hyman in a provocative new book called The Blood Sugar Solution: The UltraHealthy Program for Losing Weight, Preventing Disease, and Feeling Great Now! Solution is a key word in the title, as Hyman lays out 10 clear, actionable steps that will allow people to "occupy health care" and take control of their own health. Hyman calls this approach functional medicine, as in the opposite of dysfunctional medicine. He tells Big Think functional medicine is "a new way of thinking about solving the problem of chronic illness." Functional medicine looks at the body as "a system" rather than "a collection of different parts."

Hyman says this approach will fundamentally impact our understanding of health or disease. How significant is this shift in medicine? Hyman tells Big Think:

We’re witnessing a paradigm shift that's equal to that of Galileo saying that the Earth was not the center of the Universe or Columbus saying that the world was round not flat or Darwin saying that species evolved instead of being fixed entities.

In the coming weeks we will be featuring videos from Hyman's recent interview with Big Think. By way of introduction, this post will focus on one of the most basic things Hyman says you can do to be more healthy: eat real food. 

That seems like simple enough advice, but there is a huge sector of the U.S. economy -- a loose conspiracy, as Hyman calls it -- that is set up to thwart your efforts to be healthy because it is more profitable for this industry if you are fat and unhealthy. 

Hyman points out that while the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation spends $100 million fighting childhood obesity in this country, the food industry spends that in four days to promote junk food and processed food. In fact, the worse the food is for you, the more the food industry spends to promote it. 

Spend they can, and spend they do. Hyman tells Big Think:

There is a loosely organized conspiracy to promote disease and obesity. By default or by design, one-third of our economy profits from people being sick and fat, so Big Food, which is industrial food, Big Farming, which is agribusiness, and Big Pharma all profit from making people sicker and fatter. 

That is why Hyman says most of what is consumed in America today is not really food. "It’s factory-made science projects" that Hyman says may resemble food, "but are actually Frankenfood."

So why do we consume it? Marketing is one reason we've already cited. But consider another one. Emerging science has shown that our food addiction is worse than that of cocaine and heroin addicts. In fact, its not even up for debate. "When you take a rat and you put him in a cage," Hyman points out, "if the rats can have cocaine or sugar, they always go after the sugar." 

In other words, this addiction is a biological phenomenon. It's not about willpower, and you should not be going to therapy to solve the problem. So how can you be a healthier consumer? Eat real food. To put it another way: would your grandmother recognize what you eat as food? Would your grandmother eat a Lunchable or a Go-Gurt or pink slime? Of course not. Why should you?

In The Blood Sugar Solution, Hyman argues that food should be used as medicine. You can cut your food addiction "by changing the information going in your body and upgrading your biological software." In other words, "what you put on the end of your fork is more powerful than anything you’ll ever find at the bottom of a prescription bottle."

If you want to get started this weekend, Hyman recommends you should put real food in your kitchen and spend more time in your kitchen. "Most Americans spend more time watching cooking on television than cooking," he says. "Most children grow up today in America not knowing how to cook.  We’re disenfranchising them from the very skills they need to create health for themselves. How can we create a generation of thoughtful, healthy citizens by feeding our children things we know are poisonous and are going to kill them?" 

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter: @DanielHonan

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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