THE MEMORY OF ALL THAT

Memory is the greatest problem of old age. If this could be sorted out, then the so-called oldies will have less stress and a more peaceful life. With the progress of science, nothing seems to be beyond the realm of possibility.

In a radical experiment, one character’s memories are moved to another’s brain. It sounds like the plot of a science-fiction film. But fantasy is closer to becoming a reality after neuroscientists were able to transfer a memory from one animal to another.

The memories were the recollections of being given a mild electric shock, in sea slugs zapped repeatedly for two days. When material from their brains was injected into sea slugs that had never been shocked, they reacted exactly the same way to the weak touch of a wire.

The results suggest memories can be physically transferred and follow claims from experiments in the 1960s that this could lead to ‘memory pills’ or jabs. The authors of the latest study, from the University of California in Los Angeles, say it could lead to a treatment to block unwanted memories – just like in the film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The study says its results offer ‘dramatic support’ for the idea that memory can be stored in ribonucleic acid, or RNA – the biochemical cousin of DNA – which is used to copy and transport our genetic code.

‘Our results suggest that RNA could eventually be used to modify, either enhance or depress memories.’ The UCLA scientists, led by Professor David Glanzman, observed that the frightened sea slugs learned to pull their gills into their bodies in response to an electric shock. Untrained slugs, which should have been unafraid of an electrical wire, also retracted their gills after being injected in the necks with RMA from the frightened slugs. Other slugs, not given the injections, did not react according to the study published in the journal eNeuro.

Professor George Kemenes of the University of Sussex said: ‘It might give rise to novel treatment to eliminate memories related to post-dramatic stress syndrome or to alleviate memory loss caused by dementia, but that could be a long time away.’

As I said at the outset, any progress in the memory region could be a blessing whenever it happens.

WHERE DOES IT BEGIN?

Being a do-gooder may earn you widespread admiration but helping the poor or doing good works for charity can be a turn-off when it comes to romance. Asked to choose between ‘do-gooders’ and those who put family and friends first, we would rather spend time with the latter, a study found.

This seems to contradict previous research which showed women and men are attracted to people who say they help others. But it seems that while people find altruism attractive in theory, they are not so keen if it comes at the expense of close family or friends. By way of a fictional example, the study authors from Oxford and Yale Universities cite Mrs Jellby in Dickens’ Bleak House, who readers will judge harshly because she: ’spends most of her time setting up a charity for a far-off tribal community while ignoring the needs of her own family.’ Molly Crockett, Assistant Psychology Professor at Yale, said: ‘When helping strangers’ conflicts with helping family and kids, people prefer those who show favouritism, even if that results in doing less good overall.’

The researchers, whose findings are published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, created two scenarios to test the moral dilemma of family versus doing good. They asked whether a grandmother who wins $500 in the lottery should give it to her grandson to fix his car or to a charity dedicated to combating malaria. In the other case, a young woman has to decide whether to spend the day with her lonely mother or building homes for the poor.

Although participants perceived both choices as equally moral, when it came to looking for a spouse or a friend they preferred those who helped their relatives. Oxford University researcher Jim Everett said: ‘Friendship requires favouritism. Who would want a friend who wouldn’t help you when you need it? ‘but added: ‘While we like favouritism in friends we are less keen to see it in bosses and political leaders.’

I find that this study requires a great deal of thought. The dilemma is certainly one which evokes a most profound human feeling where choice is hard and sometimes painful.

THE PERILS OF BOOZE

Britain these days seems to top the list in Europe for obesity and now it’s for the large number of very high risk drinkers, a shocking study reveals. Nearly 1.2 million, or just below 3% of those aged 15 – 64, are drinking at levels that are threatening to knock up to three decades off their lives.

A very high level of drinking was defined as consuming the equivalent of 1.2 -1.5 bottles of wine every day. Researchers describe this group – around a fifth of problem drinkers – as the most severely affected population of alcohol users, chronically intoxicated to the extent that their organs are being poisoned and their perception is impaired on a daily basis.

A Canadian team looked at the highest risk drinkers in Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom. The 2.78% of the UK population classed as being very high risk was the highest of all the 13 EU countries studied.

The Irish Republic had the second highest proportion of problem drinkers at 2.72%, while Sweden (0.02%) and Hungary (0.03%) had the lowest. The threshold of very high risk drinking for men is 100g. (12.5 units) of pure alcohol each day, which is equivalent to six 175ml. glasses of wine at 12% strength. For women it is 60g. (7.5 units) or three and a half 175ml. glasses of wine at 12% strength. On average, the very high-risk drinkers drank 122g. of pure alcohol -the daily equivalent of more than one and a half bottles of wine.

The Researchers said that drinking at such levels could shorten their lives by between two and three decades. They also noted that it imposed an enormous burden on the Health Service with alcohol abuse estimated to cost it 3.5 billion pounds every year. In the UK, three-quarters of all cases of cirrhosis of the liver are caused by very high risk drinkers the study said. It also estimated that they represent 61% of oral and throat cancer cases; 31% of colon cancer cases; 40% of esophageal cancer cases; and 19.6% of hemorrhagic strokes.

Dr Jürgen Rehm, of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto, who led the study, said: ‘Not enough was being done to deal with the heaviest drinkers. Public health seems to have overwhelmed people with very high drinking levels and seen them primarily as a small minority who should be helped clinically in the health care system. However, a more systematic analysis shows that a marked burden of disease is associated with this drinking pattern in Europe and more comprehensive policies should be considered.’

Dr Rehm added: ‘The reason that the UK had the highest proportion of problem drinkers may be the fact that alcohol is sold relatively cheaply in supermarkets’.
Professor Ian Gilmore, an alcohol expert at Liverpool University, said: ‘The figures underline the huge burden of alcohol abuse on the NHS,’ adding, ‘the majority of cases of cirrhosis occur in these very heavy drinkers and the authors are quite right that we should be targeting these people early and offering proper treatment services. But many diseases including cancer, accidents and harm to others are linked to drinking at more modest levels and it is important to tackle our unhealthy relationship with alcohol by encouraging us all to drink less.’

The research is published in Addiction Biology. In my view the authorities should take more notice of alcohol abuse so as to curb its consequences. Drink is deadly if its uses are not properly monitored.

In my view the authorities should take more notice of alcohol abuse in order to curb it spreading.

DOWN (AND OUT) IN MEMORY LANE

I always thought that the memory of the over 70s are likely to be on the decline. However, we are now told that for people of a certain age the cryptic crossword maybe about to get easier. The over 70s can expect to be at the top of their game for remembering things when the autumn equinox comes at the end of the month. The effect is like being almost five years younger, a study has found, and appears to last from late September till early October. Scientists made the discovery after finding that memory and problem-solving skills change throughout the year.

The study, led by researchers at the University of Toronto, involved more than 3,300 older people taking extensive memory tests. It found performance peaked in late summer and early autumn, then slowly declining and hitting rock bottom in late winter and early spring. Levels of genes and proteins linked to Alzheimer’s disease followed the same pattern. The bad news for the over 70s is that their memory may be at its worst in late March and early April, when they are almost a third more likely to be diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment or dementia, according to the study.

In some cases this could cause older people to be misdiagnosed with memory problems only to see the issue reversed by autumn. Researchers suggest the cold and the dark may make people live more unhealthily during winter, affecting the brain and causing thinking skills to decline.

Dr Andrew Lim, the study lead author, said: ‘Our suspicion is that changes in seasons in light, temperature and social schedules may see people getting less physical activity, eating more poorly or changing sleeping patterns. This may affect the way genes and proteins are expressed in the brain, causing the difference in how someone’s memory works. Vitamin D may also be important.’
Participants, who had an average age of 77, were given a series of memory tests and their performance was compared across the seasons of the year. Results changed most for working memory involving recall of strings of numbers and executive function, which entailed decoding symbols linked to numbers.
Adults both with and without dementia showed the same memory patterns throughout the year. Dr Lim said: ‘This study has implications for clinicians as we could advise people to get more exercise, eat better or take vitamin D at certain times of the year to boost memory.’

The study was published in the journal PLOS Medicine. To my mind, it goes to indicate how old age has its problems. Memory is perhaps the most intricate, for the discomfort and embarrassment it creates, especially where the names of people are concerned. But you simply have to live with it,

RIP VAN WINKLE HAD IT EASY

I have been worrying lately from lack of sleep. I seem to average less than four hours a night and I feel I need at least six to muster enough energy to cope with my daily responsibilities. Now I am surprised to read that men who sleep for a long time may be in far greater danger of having a stroke, according to a research study.

It found white men who habitually spend more than 9 hours a night asleep have a 70% higher risk. However, the effect was not found in black men, or women, who had a long night’s sleep. The US researchers said further studies were needed to explain the difference.

They followed more than 16,000 people with an average age of 64 for around six years, during which 460 of them suffered a stroke. They also found black men who slept less than 6 hours a night were 80% less likely to later have a stroke, compared with black men who were average sleepers.

This ‘protection’ for short sleepers was not present for white men and women of either race. Dr Virginia Howard, co-author of the study from the University of Alabama, said: ‘More research is needed to determine the mechanisms behind these relationships. In the meantime, this emphasizes how important it is to better monitor and control cardiovascular risk factors in middle-aged to older people who have long sleep periods.’

The authors, writing in the journal Neurology said: ‘Long sleep duration may be contributing to an overall sedentary lifestyle through greater time spent in bed and less energy expenditure. It may also be a sign of often health problems or cause inflammation that could contribute to a stroke.’

Dr Howard said, ‘The result suggests short and long sleep durations may have different consequences depending on race and sex.’ Dr Megan Petrov, who led the study, said: ‘There is evidence suggesting men and women get different average amounts of sleep for various behavioural, cultural and environmental reasons. Those differences in sleep amounts combined to psychological differences between men and women such as in hormone levels, may increase risks for a stroke.’

Reading all this does not give me the comfort I’m seeking for sleeping insufficient hours during the night. I am more confused than ever. Perhaps the less one knows the better one fares under these circumstances. Hallelujah!

WHEN THE BUZZING STOPS

As the number of bees plummets, it seems like a perfect opportunity for technology to step in and solve problems in the natural world –using tiny helicopter drones to pollinate crops. But amid all the buzz, could this plan for robot bees have a sting in its tail?

One scientist has suggested the robobees could be taken over by hackers and turned into killing machines. The robots are under development in the US and Japan and it is hoped they could be ready for use in a decade. Under the plans, the drones would wear fuzzy ‘jackets’ that pollen would then stick to, allowing them to pollinate flowers.

In some parts of the US, up to 44% of bees have died, meaning the robots could be needed sooner rather than later. But at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual conference in Austin, Texas, Professor Shashi Shekhar of the University of Minnesota warned that security was a key concern for the technology. He said: ‘Hacking is a security issue so if the bees’ own controls are hacked they could be put to damaging purposes.’ He told the audience about ‘a chilling episode of the Netflix series Black Mirror in which robot bees are put to nefarious purposes.’ The storyline involves a rogue hacker who is able to control countless numbers of the drones to attack and kill hundreds of thousands of people. Professor Shekhar said: ‘They send the bees to attack. They use killer bees. With bees all you need is a sting and that sting can deliver a chemical.’

On a more serious note, the academic said that the project still had issues to iron out before the robobees could be used –including how they will manage their own way around. He said the US developers at Harvard were still not using fully autonomous drones. And, on the Japanese project, he said: ‘Bees were remotely operated so there was a person actually driving it. So the person was visually seeing where the flower is and how to land it.’

According to the professor, the biggest advance in the technology is a camera that can be fitted to other drones. These can then be used to fly over a field and map all the flowers to within a few centimetres. He said: ‘If you made a very detailed map, then off-line using these images, you could create the location of the plants and the flowers. Today these technologies are mature enough that this could be done daily. Then all this computing and sensing is off-loaded from the bee. You can say to Bee no 1, “Go to these 10 flowers.”’

Professor Shekkhar thought some robotic bees would be in use in five to ten years. He added: ‘Sometimes in a crisis you get to test a new technology; if we did have a bee-related crisis, it might prompt more early adoption. It’s possible this is perceived as a food security issue. There is a food security problem being looked at the US because of climate change.’

It was also possible that the Pentagon was working on the bees because ‘food security is considered a major threat to US interests. It’s possible they are preparing this kind of technology if they think bee-colony collapse is the first-order food security risk.’

As I read all this I believe this latest technology, although it has its perils, is bound in the end to overcome the multitude of difficulties ahead. All I can say is that the capabilities of science are truly endless.

CLEVER IS WHAT CLEVER DOES

What do the majority of women want in a man? Is it primarily good looks followed closely by the extent of his wealth, or is it showing off his knowledge that might seem like a good idea when trying to impress a woman. But men deemed too clever are actually more likely to be turned down by the opposite sex research shows.

While women want some intelligence in a man, it seems that you can have too much of a good thing when it comes to brains, and chaps who are too physically attractive will not win plaudits with potential partners either.

A study by researchers at the University of Western Australia found that women did not want exceptionally clever or handsome men but the same did not hold true for men – who are not put off by extreme levels of intelligence or good looks, they found.

Researchers asked hundreds of people what they found attractive in a potential romantic partner. Participants rated four qualities – good looks, cleverness, kindness and being easy-going. They were asked to say how attractive they would be to potential partners who were for example kinder than one percent of the population. They were then asked the same for 10 per cent, 25 percent, 50 percent, 75 percent, 90 and 99 percent of the population. For each percentage, participants noted the partner on a 6-point scale from extremely unattractive to extremely attractive.

The results showed that the more the qualities were present, the more attractive the person was as a partner – most of the time. But for females, partners lost their appeal at the top of the scale for some traits. Women said a partner would be more attractive if they were more intelligent than 90 percent of the population. However, attractiveness decreased if the person was more intelligent than 99 per cent of the population.

The same drop-off was seen for physical attractiveness and being easy going, according to the findings in the British Journal of Psychology. Co-author Dr Gilles Gignac said: ‘It’s well established that several male characteristics are valued highly in a prospective partner. But the sort of continuance measurement used in our research is making it clear that several of these characteristics are associated with a threshold effect – in other words you can have too much of a good thing.’

The outcome as I see it is clear. Women want a clever man… but not too clever.