Thursday, September 30, 2010

Transhumanism and the Challenges of Aging

By Steve Rensberry   

The phenomenon of aging and the ultimate disintegration of the human biological organism has been an intractable part of human existence since the dawn of civilization. Has anyone come close to stopping it, or better yet reversing it? Did the alchemists of old or the throngs of ecclesiastical authorities, supernaturalists, occultists and mystics throughout history ever truly succeed in bringing the giant to its knees? No. Many have claimed they did. But in terms of concrete, measurable progress, one camp and one camp alone stands categorically apart from the rest. That camp is the relatively modern transhumanist movement. They haven't succeeded either, but they're edging a whole lot closer than the rest.
   Transhumanists to be sure aren't alone in their desire to overcome aging, but the approach they take is clearly one of the most comprehensive. Read the Transhumanist Declaration. Joining them on the anti-aging front is a growing army of medical specialists and scientists fast at work in the battle to keep people alive.
   Change. Adaptation. Transformation. Need I say it? We live in an age of hope, but also one which is laced with an inordinate amount of hate, fear and paranoia.
  As the ideas of transhumanism have spread, there has, unfortunately, been a corresponding rise in criticism and mischaracterization. Before you follow suit, I would strongly urge you to read what they have to say first hand. Dreamers and hopelessly optimistic they may be, but the transhumanists I read and know are profoundly pragmatic, rational and as ethically-minded as anyone else. Familiar names in the movement include those of Nick Bostram, Ray Kurzweil, David Pearce,  Max More, Eric Drexler, Anders Sandberg and others whom I reference in this post.
   Not that there aren't differences of opinion, but on the subject of aging their consensus is refreshing. For those who count themselves among the critics, who lay hope not so much in the living but in some thing or being from beyond the earthly realm, I plead with you to open your mind, open your heart, and take an honest look at the realities of the human situation.
   How long must we wait? How many people must suffer as the mechanisms of aging strip them of their last dying breath, against their will and against the will of those around them? We pay homage to nature as a source of nourishment and strength, but it is as much a slave master as it is liberator. Into nature we are born and in its hands we parish. We are both dependent on it and distracted by it, diverted from a cohesive challenge by emotion, impulse and the simple need to feed the biological machine.
   The unconscious mass of forces that it is, master nature cares not about the longevity of the creatures it spawns. It just is. The entities and creatures within this earthly realm we share in live—most often—only to replicate, for those which do not simply disappear. See Life History Theory.
   Michael Anissimov, writing for Humanity+  in an articled published on March 18, 2009, entitled Engineering an End to Aging, breaks down some of the latest research and challenges of the anti-aging movement.
   "The first thing to realize is that nature doesn’t specifically want us to die. There is no 'death gene.' For any species in any environmental context, there is an ideal life span from an adaptive point of view—an evolutionary optima. One evolutionary strategy includes species that reproduce quickly and die off fast.
   Another includes species that reproduce slowly and live for a long time. Call it quality versus quantity. Thankfully for humans, we’re squarely in the quality column, but many would agree that 80 to 90 years is not enough," he writes.
   Among those whom nature seems to have bestowed with extraordinary life spans are tortoises, turtles, terrapins, whales and the microscopic hydra, which live in freshwater and are able to regenerate tissue so efficiently that some scientists believe they may, in fact, be immortal, at least in regard to the mechanism of aging. So might the worm-like planarians.
   As simple as they are, planaria are very unusual creatures—possessing both male and female sex glands, although needing another planaria for fertilization of its eggs. But when all else fails they can reproduce using a process called fragmentation, literally splitting themselves into two parts and then using their ability to regenerate body parts until there are two complete planarians.
   "Scientists have examined the internal organs of young and old turtles and found that they look exactly the same. Something in a turtle’s physiology prevents these organs from breaking down," Anissimov writes.
Crabs, lobsters, jellyfish, earthworms, and many insects exhibit varying degrees of regenerative abilities. In humans and most other higher animals regenerative powers are limited to things such as the formation of new skin tissue, the reconnection of broken bones and limited regeneration of some organ tissues.
   Anissimov's article cites the work of UK biogerontologist Dr.Aubrey de Grey and his focus on early damage repair rather than on trying to decode all of the exceedingly complex underlying causes, a plan which de Grey calls Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS).
   Cited also are the primary and most commonly understood causes of aging as noted by de Grey, namely: cell loss, cell resistance to death, mutations in nuclear DNA and mitochondrial DNA, excess or unusable intracellular and extracellular material, and junk molecular substances lying outside the cells themselves that form crosslink molecules at odds with healthy function.
  Here's a longer list of aging theories that I compiled some time ago:
  • Autoimmune Theory or Immunologic Theory of Aging: The production of antibodies in the immune system, necessary for fighting disease, declines with age, causing the immune system to turn on itself. Examples: lupus and adult-onset diabetes. Proposed by Dr. Ron Walford.
  • Calorie Restriction Theory: The theory that a high-nutrient, low-calorie diet (undernutrition without malnutrition) would dramatically slow aging. Proposed by Gerontologist Dr. Roy Walford, UCLA Medical School.
  • Codon-Restriction Theory: This theory puts forward the idea that aging cells become unable to accurately translate genetic information from ribonucleic acids (mRNAs). Errors thus occur in protein synthesis. Proposed by B.L. Strehler in 1971.
  • Cross-Linkage Theory: As  the number of callogen protein cross-links increases with age, it results in a reduction of skin elasticity and joint flexibility, and, and may also stop important nutrients from moving between cells.
  • Death Hormone Theory (Aging Hormone): A hormone, called the decreasing oxygen consumption hormone (DECO) and released by the pituitary gland as we begin to age, produces changes in the human metabolic rate and thus accelerates aging. Introduced by endocrinologist Dr. W. Donner Denckla of Harvard University.
  • Disposable Soma Theory (entire body): A theory which proposed that aging is a generalized accumulation of unrepaired faults in the cells and tissues of the body.
  • Epiphenomenalist Theory of Aging (Extrinsic Theory): Suggests that aging is the result of unavoidable environmental influences. Proposed by British author Alex Comfort and Canadian scientist Hans Selye.
  • Errors and Repairs Theory (Error Catastrophe Theory): A theory which observes that DNA and protein production sometimes is less than perfect, requiring repairs. When repairs are sometimes made imperfectly, the result is disease and other age-related problems. Proposed by American biologist Lislie K. Orgel.
  • Exhaustion Theory of Aging: A theory which attributes aging to an essential nutrient which finally become depleted.
  • Free Radical Theory: Proposed that unbalanced electrical charges within molecules produce excess free radicals within the body that attack cell membranes and disrupt DNA and RNA synthesis, along with other damage to vital biological and chemical processes. Introduced in 1954 by R. Gerschman and developed by Dr. Denham Harman of the University of Nebraska College of Medicine.
  • Gene Mutation Theory (Somatic Mutation Theory, Random Hits Theory): Experiments with radiation have indicated that genetic mutations and seemingly accelerated aging can occur with certain levels of exposure. This theory attributes aging to accumulated mutations in the genomes of somatic cells). Proposed by American nuclear physicist Leo Szilard.
  • Hayflick Limit Theory: The theory that aging is the result of a biological clock within each cell, limiting the number of times which human cells divide. Proposed by cell biologists Leonard Hayflick and P.S. Moorehead.
  • Hormone System Decline: A theory which focuses on the fact that key hormones in the human body decline in production during aging.
  • Limited Number of Cell Divisions Theory: A theory which attributes aging to the slowing rate of cell division as the accumulation of waste increases with age, thus causing increased cell degeneration. Studied by Dr. Alexis Carrel.
  • Mitochondrial Theory: The theory that energy produced by the mitochondria within cells leads to an increase in free radicals, thereby accelerating aging.
  • Neuroendoctrine Theory: This theory is related to the wear and tear theory on the level of the Neuroendoctrine system. This system plays a role in controlling important bodily functions and the release of hormones. Proposed by Vladimir Dilman, Ph.d.
  • Order to Disorder Theory: The theory that aging is due to a general deterioration of things on the molecular level, from order to disorder.
  • Oxidative Stress: Damage occurs during the collision of oxygen free radicals with cellular material. Oxygen free radicals are highly toxic.
  • Programmed Aging (Genetic Control Theory): Also called the biological death clock, aging clock, clock theory and pacemaker theory of aging. Attributes aging to inherited factors of individual organisms and to a type of biological clock ticking away within the human DNA code.
  • Rate of Living Theory: A theory that says we are born with only a certain, limited amount of energy. When it is used up, we die. First proposed by German physiologist Max Rubner.
  • Redundant DNA theory: The theory that genetic errors which accumulate results in aging. Also blamed are "reserve genetic sequences" of the DNA which "take over." Dr. Zhores Medvedv, National Institute of Medical Research.
  • Shangri-La Phenomenon: A theory which suggests that somewhere in the world resides a small group of people who are able to live to be incredibly old, as old as 140 years or more. The term was created by American biologist Gairdner B. Moment in "The Biology of Aging."
  • Telomerase Theory: A sequence of nucleic acids at the end of chromosomes called telomeres have been shown to shorten each time our cells divide. Introduction of an enzyme called "telomerase," found only in such things as germ and cancer cells, may repair the telomeres. Discovered by scientists at the Geron Corporation in Menlo Park, California.
  • Testicular Extract Theory: A controversial theory which says that sexual prowess in aged men can be rejuvenated by injecting them with liquefied testicles from pigs or dogs.
  • Thymic Stimulating Theory: Hymic hormones produced by the thymic gland shrink in size as people age. This theory suggests that this may influence the aging process through the control of neurotransmitter production and hormones produced by the endocrine system. Researched by Washington University Biology Department Chairman Dr. Alan Goldstein.
  • Waste Accumulation Theory: Attributes aging to the accumulation and inadequate disposal of waste produced by cells, called lipofuscin.
  • Wear and Tear Theory: A theory which suggests that the body and organs become worn down by substances in the environment and in the human diet, as well as by such things as stress and ultraviolet rays. Proposed by German biologist Dr. August Weismann in 1882.
   The book, Reversing Human Aging, by Dr. Michael Fossel, broke new ground in 1996 in expounding on the science of telomeres and on Fossel's belief that some type of telomerase therapy might the answer. He also discussed Hayflick's startling discovery, that our cells—most of them anyway—divide only so many times before dying. Two types of cells which do not follow the pattern: germ cells and cancer cells, which manage to cheat death by using a cell's very own protein-synthesis capability to create enzymes that rebuild the telomeres.  Add sperm cells and ova among those which is some sense never die.
   What it tells us, and what Fossel believed, was that the existence of such mechanisms of immortality in germ and cancer cells, and of accelerated aging disorders such as progeria, is powerful evidence that aging is an alterable process and not at all something that is inevitable. At minimum, aging appears to be something that can be regulated and most certainly extended once we are able to control the cellular mechanisms that govern its progression.
   Nevertheless, the pace of change in the biological sciences over the past 20-30 years has raised the level euphoric predictions to new heights. Two decades after Fossel's book, I ask, will we see telomerase therapy do what it was hoped it will do, what Fossel suggested would happen in 20 years, by 2016 .
   "We will be able to prevent, even reverse, aging within two decades," Fossel writes in the second paragraph of Chapter I. "At the same time, and as part of the same process, we will also cure most of the diseases that now frighten and destroy us. Cancer, a disease in which malignant cells refuse to age, will be among the first to do."
   I encourage you to read the book, as it contains a mountain of insight and worthwhile research, but I think even Fossel may now realize the overly-optimistic projections it contains.  Maybe. On December 14, 2009, he made a blog post that said essentially the same thing that was asserted in Reversing Human Aging 13 years earlier.
   What happened to the missing years?
    "Science may soon be able to slow, stop, or even reverse the aging process in humans," he writes in his blog. "What will happen when people can live on and on for centuries? Within the next two decades we will extend the healthy human life-span indefinitely and, in doing so, alter human culture forever."
   I do hope he's right, but I just don't see it happening in "the next 20 years." Perhaps with a dramatic turnabout in collective will power, coupled with massive amounts of public funding, we might—just might—make some headway. But what are the chances?
   A major obstacle (which the transhumanists and the anti-aging researchers I know are cognizant of) is that it is not just the human body which is weak and afflicted but the human mind. Could we even handle immortality if we possessed it? Humans have had thousands of years to become maladjusted, to fight their wars, and to brainwash and hypnotize themselves into believing that death is normal. But what really do we mean by normal? The irreversibility of death has affected nearly every aspect of our being. Why not be cruel to our neighbor? — the subconscious mind reasons. Why not hog the earth's resources and turn our backs on the sick and dying when we're all due to grow old and die in a few short decades anyway? The certainty of death has given us an excuse to escape obligation, to drop out and close our minds, oblivious to our own inner suppression and delusions of grandeur.
   How many social structures and cultural mores are fabricated around the assumption that aging is unavoidable? Nearly all! Entire religions and a host of financial systems would wither away without it. There are a thousand ceremonies, habits, rituals and career decisions predicated on death's faithful execution. Children are born and families are created without the slightest worry of overpopulating the world because, of course, "no one lives forever."
   My opinion: Blunting the blow through psychological acceptance and supernaturalism may help to distract us from reality, but how long can we allow ourselves to be lulled into inaction, into the creation of meaning for comfort's sake, or into rationalizing what’s always been as somehow innately good? Perhaps the transhumanists have it right.
   For those who prefer living over death, I’d say it's time to move on.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Out of body, out of mind

By Steve Rensberry

Three years ago Dr. Henrik Ehrsson, a researcher at University College London (UCL) in the UK, crafted an experiment designed to make a healthy person feel as though they were having an "out-of-body experience."
   I'd like to recap the experiment and the implications, as reported by Science Daily in an article dated Aug. 24, 2007, as I think we have a ways to go before we really understand this phenomenon.
   The video, Laboratory-Induced Out-of-Body Experiences, is informative. You can watch it at the end of this article,
   When I first read about Ehrsson's experiment in 2007, it seemed so simple that it struck me as funny. Sitting in a chair, the participant is fitted with a live, head-mounted video display with separate displays for each eye in order to give the full 3D stereoscopic effect. The displays are then hooked up to a camera about 6 feet behind the person and the camera focused on the back of their head. Standing beside the participant within eyesight, the researcher then touches the participant's actual chest with a plastic rod while at the same time (pretending) to touch the chest of the illusory one by the camera.
   Visually, the person sees their illusory body getting gently poked in one location, but feels it getting poked in another, disrupting the mind's normal sensation of where it senses the "self" to be located.
  But Ehrsson took the experiment even further by measuring the perspiration of the participant's skin while pretending to threaten the phantom persona of sorts behind the participant's actual body. True to the illusion, their bodies showed a strong reaction to the simulated threat as thought it were real.
   You can see a picture of the experiment and read the ScienceDaily story here. The full text of Ehrrson's conclusions are available online by subscription at Science Mag.  You can also read about Ehrsson's experiment in an extensive out-of-body page on Wikipedia. See: Out of Body
   "The invention of this illusion is important because it reveals the basic mechanism that produces the feeling of being inside the physical body," Ehrsson says in the article. "This represents a significant advance because the experience of one's own body as the centre of awareness is a fundamental aspect of self-consciousness."
   According to Ehrsson, the experiment was one of the first to induce such experiences in healthy individuals.
   "OBEs have been reported in clinical conditions where brain function is compromised, such as stroke, epilepsy and drug abuse. They have also been reported in association with traumatic experiences such as car accidents. Around one in ten people claim to have had an OBE at some time in their lives," he said.
   Further experiments using the technique were reported in a Dec. 1, 2008 story by the New York Times entitled, "Standing in Someone Else’s Shoes, Almost for Real."  For more about Ehrsson's current research, visit: Ehrsson's Lab.