Sunday, February 26, 2012

National Post Article on Positive Biology

The Saturday edition of the National Post included a lengthy article by the health editor Tom Blackwell on positive biology and longevity. It is now available online here. A sample from the article:

Mrs. Levy’s long and generally healthy life is the focus of a fascinating scientific study, itself at the forefront of a little-noticed but radical approach to medical research. Turning upside down the traditional quest to understand and cure specific diseases, some researchers are examining instead healthy and long-lived humans and animals for their biological secrets.

By reverse engineering the source of that vigour, scientists hope to develop drugs or supplements that could give less genetically fortunate people more protection against the ravages of aging and chronic illness.

Those researchers struggle now for recognition in a medical establishment hived off into separate wars against individual diseases. A Canadian academic, however, is calling for a tectonic shift toward what he calls “positive biology.” Solving the molecular mysteries of the healthy to stave off disease and aging would make the system “much more efficient,” argues Professor Colin Farrelly of Queen’s University in a recent paper in the journal of the European Molecular Biology Organization.

“We think it will be more important for public health than the introduction of antibiotics,” echoed Jay Olshansky, a public-health professor at the University of Illinois who has promoted a similar concept for several years. “This will be the medical breakthrough of the 21st century when it happens.… It’s going to be huge.”


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Institute of Positive Biology: Outline of a Bold Vision

Imagine you work in fundraising for the Research Office of a university. After calling dozens of eminent alumni, in the hopes of convincing them to make a sizable donation to your university, you finally get some encouraging news. An affluent alumnus wants to meet in person to discuss the possibility of making a sizable donation. But she has some specifics she wants to discuss first.

The next day you sit down for lunch with the potential donor and she informs you that she is prepared to make sizable (i.e. multi-million dollar) donation to the university. However, some conditions apply. Firstly, this donation will only be made if the funds go towards the creation of a new research institute. Secondly, this research institute must be unique; it must stand out from the hundreds of other institutes that already exist in universities around the country and globe. And thirdly, and most importantly, the mission of the institute must be truly ambitious-- it must aspire to promote research that could really be a "game changer" in terms of promoting human health and happiness. These are the three stipulations the donor attaches to the money. You have one week to come up with a coherent, unique and bold vision for this new research institute. What do you come up with?

Below is a brief outline of what my vision would be....

The Institute of Positive Biology (IPB): Dedicated to the Promotion of Health and Happiness

The distinctive focus of IPB is that its diverse group of researchers and scholars study exemplar examples of health and happiness, the goal of which is to translate such findings into novel interventions that can promote the opportunities for humans to flourish. Rather than focusing on pathology, which is the central concern of most research in the biomedical sciences, the IPB focuses instead on the environmental and genetic determinants of health and happiness.

The Institute is interdisciplinary, bringing scientists and scholars together from a variety of disciplines, in both the natural and social sciences. Researchers at IPB exam the determinants of happiness, the positive emotions, optimism, resilience, the genetics of longevity, talent, high level cognitive functioning, etc.

A sample of the societal impact the research of IPB could lead to is captured in the following (at least for now) hypoethical "media releases":

Media Release #1: IPB sequences the genomes of supercentenarians. These rare individuals (approximately 1 in 7 million) ages 110+ may hold the key to developing an aging intervention which could help aging populations delay and compress the chronic diseases of late life.

Media Release #2: IPB finds association between "high level" conversations and self-reported high levels of happiness.

Media Release #3: IPB helps design "happy workplace"-- designed to amplify flow, gratitude, interest, social interactions, etc.-- which actually boosted worker productivity.

Media Release #4: IPB advises local municipality on designing and implementing plans for a new "playful" template to help transform the city into a "play-friendly habitat".

Media Release: #5: IPB publishs study on the effects of cognitive enhancements. Researchers will advise the FDA on the ethical regulation of safe and effective cognitive enhancers that could help boost memory, spatial planning, etc. This research is part of Institute's larger "Realizing Enhancements Initiative: From the Lab to the Market".

Media Release #:6 IPB releases findings on the "Prison and Positive Emotions" project. Interventions designed to elicit the positive emotions were found to help with inmate rehabilitation, reduced inmate violence and significanly lowered the rate of re-offence when compared to the normal prison population.

The Institute of Positive Biology could, I believe, truly be a "game changer". It could help foster the kind of interdisciplinary knowledge needed to significantly improve human health and happiness. Such an institute would be both unique and bold. I hope that, one day, the Institute of Positive Biology can become a reality. [further reading]


Thursday, February 09, 2012

Journal Volume on Biology of Cultural Conflict

The March 5th issue of the Royal Society's journal is here and is a special themed issue on 'The biology of cultural conflict'. The volume looks very interesting and worth a read. Here are the abstract of two papers in the volume:

The political left rolls with the good and the political right confronts the bad: connecting physiology and cognition to preferences

We report evidence that individual-level variation in people's physiological and attentional responses to aversive and appetitive stimuli are correlated with broad political orientations. Specifically, we find that greater orientation to aversive stimuli tends to be associated with right-of-centre and greater orientation to appetitive (pleasing) stimuli with left-of-centre political inclinations. These findings are consistent with recent evidence that political views are connected to physiological predispositions but are unique in incorporating findings on variation in directed attention that make it possible to understand additional aspects of the link between the physiological and the political.


Evolution and the psychology of intergroup conflict: the male warrior hypothesis

The social science literature contains numerous examples of human tribalism and parochialism—the tendency to categorize individuals on the basis of their group membership, and treat ingroup members benevolently and outgroup members malevolently. We hypothesize that this tribal inclination is an adaptive response to the threat of coalitional aggression and intergroup conflict perpetrated by ‘warrior males’ in both ancestral and modern human environments. Here, we describe how male coalitional aggression could have affected the social psychologies of men and women differently and present preliminary evidence from experimental social psychological studies testing various predictions from the ‘male warrior’ hypothesis. Finally, we discuss the theoretical implications of our research for studying intergroup relations both in humans and non-humans and discuss some practical implications.


Friday, February 03, 2012

Time Waits For No One...

Originally posted April 2011

Biological aging is the greatest health threat to humanity today. It causes more disease and suffering in the world than all infectious diseases (HIV, malaria, etc.) or any other cause (e.g. poverty, war, natural disaster, etc.). The inborn aging process causes cancer, heart disease, stroke, AD, joint pain, vision and hearing impairment, etc.

The harms of senescence (even if we exercise and eat a healthy diet) are certain, severe and universal. The diseases of aging afflict both rich and poor, and developed and developing countries. And, unless the biological clocks we have inherited from our Darwinian past are modified, it is highly likely that all future generations of human beings that shall ever live on this planet will suffer one or more of the diseases of aging.

In light of the unique health challenges facing the world's aging populations, the most important knowledge humans can acquire today is knowledge about the biology of aging: why do we, as a species, age at the rate we do? why does aging leave our bodies and minds susceptible to disease? And, most importantly, how can we retard or ameliorate the harmful effects of biological aging?