Technology is changing our experience of being human

As you might recall, Hidden Gems is where I normally look at some of the less widely-reported stories in the science and technology press. Today, I’ll be taking a slightly different tack – concentrating on a range of recent news items, all with a common theme. I’ll be examining how technology is interacting with our bodies and minds. It’s a broad subject – and today’s Exponential Investor will include everything from brain-machine interfaces, through to neurodegenerative diseases.

Do you have “mad human disease”?

If you’re of a certain age you’ll probably remember John Gummer, then agriculture minister. He famously fed his daughter a burger on TV, to “prove” it was safe to do so. In fact, this may well have been far from safe. The prion disease known as “mad cow disease” devastated the UK livestock industry, and led to far-reaching changes to animal feed regulations. While nearly 200 people died from vCJD (the human equivalent) there has been no mass outbreak. However, there’s a sting in the tail. It’s possible that the disease may have a very long incubation period in humans, and that it could contribute to dementia in old age. That’s why a new urine test is a refreshing piece of news. At last, we can start to assess whether there’s a reservoir of infected individuals in the population. In the near term, this may mean some changes to tissue donation laws. For example, it may surprise you to learn that UK men are still banned from becoming sperm donors in the US. This kind of measure could now potentially be reviewed. (Medical Research Council/JAMA Neurology)

The elixir of youth

It’s no secret that the menopause is a big change in women’s lives – and many aren’t too happy with it. The beauty industry, and cosmetic surgeons, can play their part in helping women to fight off the visible changes for as long as possible. But ultimately, it’s all fake: the menopause can’t be stopped. Treatments such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT) might adjust some of the physiological impact, but the bare facts remain unchanged. But what if we could actually make menopause go away? Recent research on mice has shown that transplants of ovarian tissue may well delay the ageing process – and there’s hope for this happening in humans, too. It’s not just about fertility or apparent femininity, the changes run much deeper. That’s possibly because a changing immune system could be having wide-ranging impacts on the body. In the experiment, the mice lived longer and had better blood sugar control as they aged. One possible approach to applying these techniques in humans is to remove ovarian tissue early in adult life – then to re-implant it, decades later. (New Scientist)

New eggs for old

Cancer treatment can often lead to a loss of female fertility. One drug, ABVD, seemingly protected against this process – but the mechanism was always a mystery. Now, a jaw-dropping study has suggested it perhaps works by making new eggs grow. This is a process that was previously thought to be irreversibly stopped before birth. At present this is more of an unexplained result than a proto-treatment, but hope exists that this will allow women to extend their fertility. Not only that, but they’ll be able to have biologically-related children when they do so. This would make a nice contrast to all those 50-year-old celebs, who gloss over the fact that their kids are carrying someone else’s genes – sending a very dangerous message to younger women as they do so. (Grauniad)

We can rebuild him

Nathan Copeland has been paralysed from the chest down, since a road accident in his teens. However, he’s had feeling restored in “his” hand – albeit one that’s robotic. Of course, robotic arms aren’t new, and some are even brain-driven. But in this case, the control process is two-way. You may think that this has been done before – and you’d be partially right. Feeling can be referred – such as by using a vibrator above the elbow, to give feedback from an artificial hand. But this is the first time that feeling has been achieved by surgically wiring the hand into a patient’s brain. Results are promising, with different types of touch giving different sensations. (Grauniad/Science Translational Medicine)

Samsung buys Viv

There’s more to Samsung than exploding phones. The Korean giant is trying to become a bit more chatty, with its purchase of Viv. This firm was created by engineers behind Apple’s Siri – so it’s a move that will help Samsung catch up, and not before time. Competition in this field is certainly hotting up. In particular, I can’t seem to get away from news about Amazon’s Alexa. For the uninitiated, it’s a kind of music-player-cum-Big-Brother thingy, which ostensibly allows you to order socks and play music at the same time. What’s next? A shower that’s also a skateboard? Jesting aside, it’s clear that many firms are viewing chat as the next frontier in user interfaces. That doesn’t have to be spoken – and Facebook’s take on the technology is through its chatbots. History is being written as we speak, and it’s not yet clear whether writing or speech will be the breakthough technology. What is clear, is that we’re entering a new era of more natural conversations with machines. Technology itself is becoming more social – and that will profoundly change the way we interact, as humans. (TechCrunch)

Watch your glucose levels

Glucose monitoring is a pain for diabetics – quite literally. Not only is monitoring by drawing blood a prickly hassle, it’s also a dangerous process. This is because infrequent sampling leads to inadequate control of glucose levels. The result is often severe, irreversible damage to health – including blindness. Accordingly, research at the University of Texas is a boon for diabetics. The UT team has developed a wearable sensor, which infers blood glucose levels from sweat. As we perspire naturally all the time, the sensor gets enough to sample – without requiring invasive monitoring. This technology can potentially be embedded into wearable items, such as watches. Regular glucose monitoring might seem a small price to pay for retaining your sight. However, many people find the stigma and hassle of taking blood makes their diabetes hard to control – so this passive monitoring technology could make the difference between health and disability for them. There’s more good news, too. We may soon be monitoring all kinds of biomarkers and drugs with these sensors. It’s likely to be a major new direction in medicine. One of my previous projects involved working on healthcare wearables – so I can really see the benefits, and opportunities, of these new sensors. (New Atlas/Sensors and Actuators B: Chemical)

Category: Genetics and Biotechnology

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