Hold That Thought

In the memory circuits of the aging brain and the signaling pathways of pain, science is trading mystery for mastery.

Mary Beth Aberlin
Aug 31, 2011


Futurist and inventor Ray Kurzweil is 63 years old. Every day he swallows 150 pills to keep himself tuned up and ready to take advantage of revolutionary advances in biotechnology and nanotechnology—advances that he predicts will “open the gates of immortality” in the next 25 years, he says in a Big Think video. “By mid-century, we may all be kept healthy and young by billions of nanorobots inside of our bodies” where they will act to back up information (memories) in our brains, among other crucial jobs.

Supplements, lifestyle changes, nanorobots, freezing oneself to be resurrected when cures for getting old are discovered: baby boomers seem desperate for knowledge about how to circumvent a normal occurrence—aging. In this issue of The Scientist, two of our features are devoted to a subject that causes boomers a lot of angst: the aging brain. Carol Barnes writes about...

Every month in this magazine, I’m struck by the overlap of ideas in articles that address seemingly disparate subjects.

But Alzheimer’s is a disease that continues to confound researchers. The risk of developing it is clearly associated with aging. Somewhere between 2.5 and 5 million Americans suffer from the disease, and it is a growing scourge: according to NIH’s National Institute on Aging, the number of people 65 and older “is expected to grow from 39 million in 2008 to 72 million in 2030.” This becomes scary when coupled with the fact that the number of people with Alzheimer’s disease doubles for every 5-year interval beyond age 65.

Sue Griffin, author of our second feature about the aging brain, has spent her career examining the role that inflammation plays in Alzheimer’s epidemiology. In "What Causes Alzheimer’s?" she describes accumulating evidence that immune cells native to the brain—the microglia—are closely associated with the early stages of the amyloid plaques that are a hallmark of the disease, and thatthese microglia release inflammatory cytokines, which damage neurons. Consequently, the protective benefits of anti-inflammatory drugs are now being evaluated.

Every month in this magazine, I’m struck by the overlap of ideas in articles that address seemingly disparate subjects, and this issue is no exception. Though their hypotheses are separated by centuries, both Luigi Galvani (1737-1798) and Geoffrey Burnstock try to explain the underpinnings of mysterious energies. Galvani’s quest to understand “animal energy” is outlined in our Foundations column; in his Thought Experiment, Burnstock hypothesizes that purinergic signaling—rather than the vital energy, qi, that forms the basis of Chinese medicine—underlies the effectiveness of acupuncture. Of course, whether the 2,000-year-old practice works at all is a perennial hot-button subject, as attested in an article about alternative medicine in the July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine.

Finally, two scientists whose mathematics shook up the field of evolutionary biology are profiled in this issue. Our Reading Frames essay, by Oren Harman, recounts the story of George Price, who developed an equation in the late 1960s to account for altruism. Another shake-up is described in Scientist to Watch: young mathematical biologist Corina Tarnita’s publication last year, together with eminent Harvard colleagues Martin Nowak and E.O. Wilson, posits that the long-accepted theory of inclusive fitness is mathematically flawed.

In October we will happily mark the magazine’s 25th year by publishing a special anniversary issue of The Scientist with a look back at research achievements in six areas—neuroscience, synthetic biology, omics, conservation biology, nanomedicine, and the funding of science. Eric Kandel, Walter Bodmer, Craig Venter, Stephen Friend, and Tom Lovejoy (among others) opine about their fields and what to expect in the next quarter decade.

Mary Beth AberlinEditor-in-Chiefeic@the-scientist.com