Wiley: Living Against the Clock; Does Loss of Daily Rhythms Cause Obesity?

7:00 PM EDT August 29, 2012

Living Against the Clock; Does Loss of Daily Rhythms Cause Obesity?

When Thomas Edison tested the first light bulb in 1879, he could never have imagined that his invention could one day contribute to a global obesity epidemic. Electric light allows us to work, rest and play at all hours of the day, and a paper published this week in Bioessays suggests that this might have serious consequences for our health and for our waistlines.

Daily or “circadian” rhythms including the sleep wake cycle, and rhythms in hormone release are controlled by a molecular clock that is present in every cell of the human body. This human clock has its own inbuilt, default rhythm of almost exactly 24 hours that allows it to stay finely tuned to the daily cycle generated by the rotation of the earth. This beautiful symmetry between the human clock and the daily cycle of the Earth’s rotation is disrupted by exposure to artificial light cycles, and by irregular meal, work and sleep times. This mismatch between the natural circadian rhythms of our bodies and the environment is called “circadian desynchrony”.

The paper, by Dr. Cathy Wyse, working in the chronobiology research group at the University of Aberdeen, focuses on how the human clock struggles to stay in tune with the irregular meal, sleep and work schedules of the developed world, and how this might influence health and even cause obesity.

“Electric light allowed humans to override an ancient synchronisation between the rhythm of the human clock and the environment, and over the last century, daily rhythms in meal, sleep and working times have gradually disappeared from our lives,” said Wyse. “The human clock struggles to remain tuned to our highly irregular lifestyles, and I believe that this causes metabolic and other health problems, and makes us more likely to become obese”.

“Studies in microbes, plants and animals have shown that synchronisation of the internal clock with environmental rhythms is important for health and survival, and it is highly likely that this is true in humans as well”.

The human clock is controlled by our genes, and the research also suggests that some people may be more at risk of the effects of circadian desynchrony than others. For example, humans originating from Equatorial regions may have clocks that are very regular, which might be more sensitive to the effects of circadian desynchrony.

Shiftwork, artificial light and the 24-hour lifestyle of the developed world mean that circadian desynchrony is now an inevitable part of 21st century life. Nevertheless, we can help to maintain healthy circadian rhythms by keeping regular meal times, uninterrupted night-time sleep in complete darkness, and by getting plenty of sunlight during daylight hours.

Dr. Wyse believes that circadian desynchrony affects human health by disrupting the systems in the brain that regulate metabolism, leading to an increased likelihood of developing obesity and diabetes.

“The reason for the relatively sudden increase in global obesity in the developed world seems to be more complicated than simply just diet and physical activity. There are other factors involved, and circadian desynchrony is one that deserves further attention”.

“Our 24-hour society has come at the high price of circadian desynchrony,” concluded Wyse. “There are many factors driving mankind towards obesity but disrupted circadian rhythms should be considered alongside the usual suspects of diet and exercise”.


Study Links Math Abilities to Left-Right Brain Communication – UT Dallas News

Study Links Math Abilities to Left-Right Brain Communication

Proficiency in Calculation Requires Efficient Neural Signals Between  Separate Cortex Areas

Aug. 30, 2012

A new study by researchers at UT Dallas’ Center for Vital Longevity, Duke University, and the University of Michigan has found that the strength of communication between the left and right hemispheres of the brain predicts performance on basic arithmetic problems.  The findings shed light on the neural basis of human math abilities and suggest a possible route to aiding those who suffer from dyscalculia— an inability to understand and manipulate numbers.

It has been known for some time that the parietal cortex, the top/middle region of the brain, plays a central role in so-called numerical cognition—our ability to process numerical information. Previous brain imaging studies have shown that the right parietal region is primarily involved in basic quantity processing (like gauging relative amounts of fruit in baskets), while the left parietal region is involved in more precise numerical operations like addition and subtraction. What has not been known is whether the two hemispheres can work together to improve math performance. The new study demonstrates that they can. The findings were recently published online in Cerebral Cortex.

In the study, conducted in Dallas and led by Dr. Joonkoo Park, now a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, researchers used functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, to measure the brain activity of 27 healthy young adults while they performed simple numerical and arithmetic tasks. In one task, participants were asked to judge whether two groups of shapes contained the same or different numbers of items. In two other tasks, participants were asked to solve simple addition and subtraction problems.

Consistent with previous studies, the researchers found that the basic number-matching task activated the right parietal cortex, while the addition and subtraction tasks produced additional activity in the left parietal cortex.

But they also found something new: During the arithmetic tasks, communication between the left and right hemispheres increased significantly compared with the number-matching task. Moreover, people who exhibited the strongest connection between hemispheres were the fastest at solving the subtraction problems. 

“Our results suggest that subtraction performance is optimal when there is high coherence in the neural activity in these two brain regions.  Two brain areas working together rather than either region alone appears to be key,” said co-author Dr. Denise C. Park, co-director of the UT Dallas Center for Vital Longevity and Distinguished University Chair in the School of Behavioral and Brain Sciences. Park (no relation to the lead author) helped direct the study along with Dr. Thad Polk, professor of psychology at the University of Michigan.

Lead author Dr. Joonkoo Park points out that the findings suggest that disrupted or inefficient neural communication between the hemispheres may contribute to the impaired math abilities seen in dyscalculia, the numerical equivalent of dyslexia. “If such a causal link exists,” he said, “one very interesting avenue of research would be to develop training tasks to enhance parietal connectivity and to test whether they improve numerical competence.”

Such a training program might help develop math ability in children and could also help older adults whose arithmetic skills begin to falter as a normal part of age-related cognitive decline.

This research was supported by a grant to Dr. Denise C. Park from the National Institute on Aging.

Media Contact: Tara Marathe, UT Dallas, (972) 883-3200, tara.marathe@utdallas.edu
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Study: Metabolism in the brain fluctuates with circadian rhythm | News Bureau | University of Illinois

8/28/2012 | Diana Yates, Life Sciences Editor | 217-333-5802; diya@illinois.edu

CHAMPAIGN, lll. — The rhythm of life is driven by the cycles of day and night, and most organisms carry in their cells a common, (roughly) 24-hour beat. In animals, this rhythm emerges from a tiny brain structure called the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN) in the hypothalamus. Take it out of the brain and keep it alive in a lab dish and this “brain clock” will keep on ticking, ramping up or gearing down production of certain proteins at specific times of the day, day after day.

A new study reveals that the brain clock itself is driven, in part, by metabolism, the production and flow of chemical energy in cells. The researchers focused primarily on a phenomenon known as “redox” in tissues of the SCN from the brains of rats and mice.

Redox represents the energy changes of cellular metabolism (usually through the transfer of electrons). When a molecule gains one or more electrons, scientists call it a reduction; when it loses electrons, they say it is oxidized. These redox reactions, the researchers found, oscillate on a 24-hour cycle in the brain clock, and literally open and close channels of communication in brain cells.

They report their findings in the journal Science, which also wrote a Perspective on the research.
“The language of the brain is electrical; it determines what kind of signals one part of the brain sends to the other cells in its tissue, as well as the other parts of the brain nearby,” said University of Illinois cell and developmental biology professor Martha Gillette, who led the study. “The fundamental discovery here is that there is an intrinsic oscillation in metabolism in the clock region of the brain that takes place without external intervention. And this change in metabolism determines the excitable state of that part of the brain.”

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The new findings alter basic assumptions about how the brain works, Gillette said.

“Basically, the idea has always been that metabolism is serving brain function. What we’re showing is metabolism is part of brain function,” she said. “Our study implies that changes in cellular metabolic state could be a cause, rather than a result, of neuronal activity.”

The study team also included graduate student Yanxun Yu, postdoctoral researcher Gubbi Govindaiah, graduate student Xiaoying Ye, graduate student Liana Artinian, electrical and computer engineering professor Todd Coleman, chemistry professor Jonathan Sweedler and pharmacology professor Charles Cox. Gillette, Govindaiah, Ye, Sweedler and Cox also are affiliates of the Beckman Institute at Illinois.

Editor’s note: To contact Martha Gillette, call 217-244-1355; email mgillett@illinois.edu.

The paper, “Circadian Rhythm of Redox State Regulates Excitability in Suprachiasmatic Nucleus Neurons,” is available online.

Space Sugar Discovered Around Sun-Like Star – Yahoo! News

What a sweet cosmic find! Sugar molecules have been found in the gas surrounding a young sun-like star, suggesting that some of the building blocks of life may actually be present even as alien planets are still forming in the system.

The young star, called IRAS 16293-2422, is part of a binary (or two-star) system. It has a similar mass to the sun and is located about 400 light-years away in the constellation of Ophiuchus. The sugar molecules, known as glycolaldehyde, have previously been detected in interstellar space, but according to the researchers, this is the first time they have been spotted so close to a sun-like star.

In fact, the molecules are about the same distance away from the star as the planet Uranus is from our sun.

“In the disk of gas and dust surrounding this newly formed star, we found glycolaldehyde, which is a simple form of sugar, not much different to the sugar we put in coffee,” study lead author Jes Jørgensen, of the Niels Bohr Institute in Denmark, said in a statement. “This molecule is one of the ingredients in the formation of RNA, which — like DNA, to which it is related — is one of the building blocks of life.”

Glycolaldehyde can react with a substance called propenal to form ribose, which is a major component of RNA, or ribonucleic acid. RNA is similar to DNA, which is considered one of the primary molecules in the origin of life

Astronomers found the sugar molecules using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) radio telescope in Chile. Using ALMA, the astronomers monitored the sugar molecules and found that they are falling toward one of the stars in the binary system, explained study researcher Cécile Favre, of Aarhus University in Denmark. [7 Theories on the Origin of Life]

“The sugar molecules are not only in the right place to find their way onto a planet, but they are also going in the right direction,” Favre said in a statement.

When new stars are formed, the clouds of dust and gas from which they are born are extremely cold. Much of the gas turns into ice on the dust particles, bonding together and becoming complex molecules, the researchers said.

As the newborn star develops, it heats up the inner parts of the rotating cloud of gas and dust, warming it to about room temperature, the scientists explained. This heating process evaporates the chemically complex molecules and forms gases that emit radiation that can be picked up by sensitive radio telescopes.

“A big question is: how complex can these molecules become before they are incorporated into new planets?” Jørgensen said. “This could tell us something about how life might arise elsewhere, and ALMA observations are going to be vital to unravel this mystery.”

Since IRAS 16293-2422 is located relatively close to Earth, scientists will be able to study the molecular and chemical makeup of the gas and dust around the young star. Powerful instruments, including ALMA, will also help researchers see the interactions of these molecules as new alien planets form.

The detailed results of the study will be published in an upcoming issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters.

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I Made the Robot Do It

I am a regular reader of Mr. Friedman’s column and agree with his emphasis on education, revising our immigration policy, embracing technology, etc. That said, Mr. Friedman writes as though humanity is a round peg that fits into a round hole instead of the variable spectrum that it truly is. When he writes of progress that, “It eliminates bad jobs, empowers good jobs, but always demands more skill and creativity and always enables fewer people to do more things,” I ask myself, ‘What about the rest of humanity?’ Human nature, the stuff of us, is peculiarly absent from Mr. Friedman’s analysis. Not everyone has “more skill and creativity”; and when I say, ‘not everyone,’ I mean hundreds of millions of people, if not more; indeed, unless it is an urban myth, one half of Americans read at an eighth grade level. No, as much as I believe in the basic thrust of Mr. Friedman’s arguments, not everyone can be a computer scientist, engineer, physicist, doctor, etc. I’m genuinely glad Rethink is thinking outside the box but I seriously doubt if its innovations will trickle down to the countless persons living in a cardboard box. Like a true futurist, Mr. Friedman writes as though mankind were made for technology instead of the other way around.

Finally, and not to be mean-spirited, if Mr. Friedman couldn’t be a columnist what, at his age (not stepping into a time machine and starting all over knowing what the future holds) would he be able to contribute in his hyper-creative world?

New Model Gives Hands-On Help for Learning the Secrets of Molecules


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Squishy models are anything but child’s play as they help researchers understand the building-block nature of proteins.


Review of Scientific Instruments

Masaru Kawakami/Review of Scientific Instruments

The soft and transparent protein models will enable researchers to quickly and collaboratively see, touch, and test ideas about molecular interactions and the behavior of proteins.


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Robot Professors Come With Singularity University’s Massive Upgrade | Wired Business

Singularity University CEO Rob Nail at the school’s NASA Ames campus.
Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired

For four years, Singularity University has deployed “exponentially advancing technologies” to address humanity’s biggest problems. Now the elite Silicon Valley school is planning to exponentially advance itself, transforming from a provider of short supplemental classes into a sort of innovation pipeline, with a rich website and conference series on one end, an expanding array of classes in the middle, and at the other end incubation labs for startups and corporate skunkworks teams, as well as a strong global alumni network.

The ongoing expansion is meant not only to make the university a bigger player in the world of business, as we’ve written previously, but also to influence elected leaders and other policymakers, to spread ideas and values from the university to dozens of foreign countries, and to change the way humans are educated at a time of rapid technological progress. Singularity University’s CEO Rob Nail, who began his work this past October, is just getting going on his plans, which he frames as a series of ambitious experiments to further the university’s founding goal of solving “humanity’s grand challenges.”

“It’s about doing something in the world,” Nail says. “It’s about actually making an impact.”

“Not a faculty member that teaches artificial intelligence — we want a faculty member that is artificial intelligence. We’re dead serious.”

Under Nail, its third top executive in four years, Singularity U is taking an expansive and distinctly Silicon Valley approach to education, going beyond its existing graduate-student and executive classes and into the sort of memetic networking you might see at a TED Conference, the sort of online learning you might experience on a website like Udacity, and the sort of business mentoring you might get at a startup hatchery like Y Combinator.

As it transforms itself right down to the articles of incorporation – the university would like to become a for-profit benefit corp – Singularity University will become one influential model for how higher education can evolve as formalized learning enters a period of rapid change. At a time when many startups are pushing a more distributed, internet-centric style of education, Nail and Singularity University seem to be moving toward a hybrid approach that actually expands the physical component of schooling, adding collaborative startup offices and live events, even as the university works to build a content-rich internet platform and a powerful online community of alumni.

Key to Nail’s plan is a warren of nearly two dozen offices recently added to Singularity University’s campus at NASA Ames, which, taken together with some classroom-style spaces and laboratories, Nail has dubbed Singularity Labs. After launching a pilot biotech incubator earlier this year known as the “SynBio Startup Launchpad,” Nail plans to expand the incubator program and bring to Singularity Labs startups focused on security, energy, and even outer space.

CEO Rob Nail addresses students at Singularity University. Photo: Ariel Zambelich/Wired

The incubator labs are a natural extension of Singularity U’s competitive summer Graduate Studies Program, which brings graduate students together for 10 weeks to take courses in fields like artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, and bioinformatics. In the later weeks of the program, students work on team projects, some of which have blossomed into startups, including e-waste processor Blue Oak, spacecraft component maker Made in Space, and car-sharing hub Getaround. Singularity Labs will help smooth the transition from project to startup by offering mentorship, workshops and some seed funding to ex-students. Nail also sees Singularity Labs addressing a neglected set of problems.

“The successful incubators are focused on very small scale software problems — very bounded, not huge impact,” he says. “When you are talking about solving grand challenges, like how do you solve the poverty problem, those are going to take a different type of mentorship, a different type of program, a different type of community to solve those problems.”

In keeping with the university’s big ambitions, the labs won’t necessarily be reserved for startups. Nail envisions them as places for cutting-edge teams from large corporations, teams interested in trading conservative corporate offices for a high-energy collegial environment where they might just end up buying or partnering with one of the resident startups.

Even more appealing to corporations and other outsiders will be the series of thematic conferences Nail is planning. Nail sees live events as a way to extend Singularity U’s reach beyond its 80-person classes, and says the school is in the process of developing partnerships before it launches the “educational forums,” as he sometimes refers to the conferences.

Nail is also looking to the internet to expand the university’s reach. After experimenting with putting some class videos online – “nobody’s going to watch an hour lecture,” Nail says – the university decided to get more ambitious. The goal now is to build an interactive site that that can take some elements of the Singularity U curriculum to a wider audience, possibly in partnership with Udacity or some other online education venture. Nail also plans another site that would publish
writings from faculty, pointers to items of interest to the Singularity University diaspora, relevant video and audio – “a forum for all the cool things that we see in the world,” as Nail puts it.

For all of Singularity U’s new ventures, Nail is still tending to the core curriculum. After adding a new program on the future of medicine last year, the university is now drawing up plans for courses on the future of security, and looking to add a potentially controversial new instructor. After a faculty meeting earlier this month, the university is planning to experiment with what could fairly be described as a robot professor.

“We really need to have as one of our track chairs an AI [artificial intelligence] faculty member,” Nail says. “Not a faculty member that’s teaching AI — a faculty member that is an AI. And we’re dead serious. … If anyone should be testing that, it should be us.”

It remains to be seen whether the robo-teacher will take a humanoid physical form most popularly associated with robots or will instead be a software “bot” confined to a traditionally-packaged computer. One thing is certain, however: Nail and his team won’t settle for version 1.0. They’ll want Professor AI to be “exponentially advancing” over time, right alongside the university and indeed all of humanity.