Sunday, December 23, 2007

Maybe the legs don't go first...

The more we discover about our brains, the more we can trace other problems back to them as the initial causes. For example, I have always thought the drink-lots-of-water to be a health fad perhaps instigated by bottled water purveyors. Besides, if we need water, we'll get thirsty and drink some , won't we? Maybe not - especially as we age.
As Australia faces another hot, dry summer, scientists from Melbourne’s Howard Florey Institute have warned that elderly people are at risk of becoming dehydrated because their brains underestimate how much water they need to drink to rehydrate.

Dehydration occurs when the body does not have enough water and this can happen rapidly in extreme heat or through exercise. Symptoms of dehydration can include headaches, lethargy and hallucinations. In extreme cases, dehydration may result in death.

Florey researchers Dr Michael Farrell, A/Prof Gary Egan and Prof Derek Denton discovered that a region in the brain called the mid cingulate cortex predicts how much water a person needs, but this region malfunctions in older people.

Dr Farrell said they infused old (age 65 to 74) and young (age 21 to 30) research participants with salty water to make them thirsty and then allowed them to drink as much water as they wanted.

“Although all participants had the same level of thirst, the older people only drank half as much water as the younger subjects,” Dr Farrell said.

“Using PET imaging we found in the older people, the mid cingulate cortex was ‘turned off’ much earlier by drinking small volumes.”

“This discovery helps explain why the elderly can become easily dehydrated,” he said. [More]

Such insights will doubtless lead to corrective strategies and even pharmaceuticals. In fact, it seems we're not waiting for aging as an excuse to pump up our brains with helpful chemistry. Brain doping could be the follow-up to sports doping, only more ethically confounding.
These drugs haven't been tested extensively in healthy people, but their physiological effects in the brain are well-understood.

They are all just precursors to the blockbuster drug that labs are racing to develop.

"Whatever company comes out with the first memory pill is going to put Viagra to shame," said University of Pennsylvania bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe.

Unlike anabolic steroids, human growth hormone and blood-oxygen boosters that plague athletic competitions, the brain drugs haven't provoked similar outrage. PeoplLinke who take them say the drugs aren't giving them an unfair advantage, just enabling them to make the most of their skills.

In the real world, there are no rules to prevent overachievers from using legally prescribed drugs to operate at peak mental performance. What patient wouldn't want their surgeon to be completely focused during a life-or-death procedure?

"If there were drugs for investment bankers, journalists, teachers and scientists that made them more successful, they would use them too," said Charles Yesalis, a doping researcher and professor emeritus at Penn State University. "Why does anyone think this would be limited to an athlete?" [More of a great - and unsettling - article]
As we push back the threats of heart disease and cancer, many of us now dance with thoughts of outliving our brains. Along with research into improving brain function, other scientists are working on mitigating the aging process itself. [You think Social Security is in trouble now!] Their discoveries have produced one unexpected result.
Everything comes with a price. Research in lab animals suggests that drugs designed to rejuvenate mitochondria (the “power generator” component of living cells) could fend off many of the diseases we associate with ageing and senescence, like Alzheimer’s, cancer, heart disease and so forth. The pay-off? It appears that when death finally does arrive, it does so with little or no warning, and seemingly no reason. [More]
This sounds like a win-win treatment to me. I think I read somewhere there is a theory our hearts have so many beats in them. When they are used up, they quit. The argument proceeded to wonder if runners with slow heartbeats break even because their heart rates are so much higher when exercising. Still, I found the idea of my heart just stopping to be the lesser of many other endings.

Regardless, the promise of living longer, smarter, and umm, thristier could bring about radical changes in our values and cultures. I suspect many will find this line of enhancement deeply troubling and compelling at the same time. Like all major scientific leaps, it could take a couple of generations before acceptance is widespread - unless the critics are using live-prolonging technology surreptitiously, keeping them on the scene even longer.

Come to think of it, baseball may be a good analogy after all.

No comments: