Humans Could Be Much Healthier
Recent news about the body’s remarkable powers raise questions about why we aren’t better off.
The occasional genius surprises us, but maybe the surprise should be that so many of us are not that smart. Is the genius an atavism (throwback) to a period when intelligence was the norm? Those who are super-healthy among us raise similar questions about why so many are sickly and subject to genetic disorders. Look at these news stories that suggest remarkable mechanisms for repair and maintenance of the body. Are they hints of lost abilities we could learn to restore or augment?
Superheroes with super DNA. Why do some people have genetic mutations for serious disease but remain healthy? New Scientist reports on a survey of genes from nearly 600,000 people that identified 13 with markers for cystic fibrosis and other debilitating conditions, but who don’t get the disease—not even any symptoms. What’s going on? Reporter Colin Barras suggests some hypotheses:
These people may show no symptoms because they have mutations elsewhere in their genomes that override the detrimental ones, or perhaps their environment has somehow protected them from developing disease. A better understanding of this could lead to new treatments, but to do this, [Stephen] Friend [Sage Bionetworks, Seattle] says we need a new approach: “study the healthy – don’t just study the sick.”
James Gallagher at the BBC News thinks these lucky ones were born with “superhero DNA” that somehow protects them. Either that, or geneticists overestimate the mutations. He quotes one doctor who waves Darwin’s magic wand: “Millions of years of evolution have produced far more protective mechanisms than we currently understand.” If that were true, though, disease should be the rare exception.
Savior cells. Oliver Semler was born with a bone disease that makes his bones fracture easily. He went through childhood wearing casts from his frequent bone fractures. As an adult, Science Magazine says, he has devoted his life to helping children similarly afflicted. Scientists like Semler are working on stem cell therapies, including ones that take the mother’s stem cells and transplant them to the growing fetus in the womb. Hopes are rising that stem cells from the mother can empower the growing baby’s own immune system to develop properly while it is still plastic, preventing a variety of disabling genetic conditions. Could those mechanisms have worked in the past without the extraordinary intervention of the scientist?
Love your fat. How would you like to turn your love handles into something useful? Live Science reports on new successes turning fat cells into insulin-producing pancreatic cells, offering hope to sufferers of diabetes. Does this hint that our body’s cells were designed to regrow damaged parts, given the right circumstances, without the scientist’s help?
Your internal network router. Inspired by biology, network engineers publishing in Nature Communications discuss “dynamic information routing in complex networks.” The body already knows what they’re trying to learn:
Attuned function of many biological or technological networks relies on the precise yet dynamic communication between their subsystems. For instance, the behaviour of cells depends on the coordinated information transfer within gene-regulatory networks and flexible integration of information is conveyed by the activity of several neural populations during brain function. Identifying general mechanisms for the routing of information across complex networks thus constitutes a key theoretical challenge with applications across fields, from systems biology to the engineering of smart distributed technology.
Bypass routing. A heartwarming story about Ian Burkhart, a 24-year-old Ohio man who became a quadriplegic six years ago, is told on Science Daily and New Scientist. A device that goes around the damaged area of his nervous system is giving him mobility again: the ability to move his arm and fingers with his thoughts.
Six years ago, he was paralyzed in a diving accident. Today, he participates in clinical sessions during which he can grasp and swipe a credit card or play a guitar video game with his own fingers and hand. These complex functional movements are driven by his own thoughts and a prototype medical system that are detailed in a study published online today in the journal Nature.
He wrote his own article for New Scientist. “I’m the first quadriplegic person in the world to use my own thoughts to control my own arm. It’s a pretty neat experience,” he says. Though the device is crude today, it promises refinements to come. What’s pertinent to our theme is the plasticity of the brain this experiment demonstrates. Nature News discusses what scientists are learning:
Previous studies have suggested that after spinal-cord injuries, the brain undergoes ‘reorganization’ — a rewiring of its connections. But this new work suggests that the degree of reorganization occurring after such injuries may be less than previously assumed. “It gives us a lot of hope that there are perhaps not as many neural changes in the brain as we might have imagined after an injury like this, and we can bypass damaged areas of the spinal cord to regain movement,” says Bouton.
There are limitations to the experiment; Burkhardt can’t feel the objects he manipulates (yet), but he is getting better and faster with practice.
New sight. Another heartwarming story in Current Biology describes “Rapid Integration of Tactile and Visual Information by a Newly Sighted Child.” Does someone born blind have the capacity to learn about a world they’ve never seen? How quickly can they relate to the new visual sense? Here are the highlights of the paper:
- After cataract removal, a blind child accurately reached and grasped in 24 min
- The next day, she immediately recognized by sight an object previously held and seen
- On day 3, she held an object without seeing it and then recognized it by sight
- Visual-motor and intersensory integration and transfer developed very rapidly
What this demonstrated to the neuroscientists is that the two senses of sight and touch “are prearranged to immediately become calibrated to one another.” A related article about perception on Science Daily reports that people have more “top down control” of what they don’t notice than many scientists had previously believed. In regard to the sense of touch, both PNAS and Current Biology report new findings that show we get a lot more information from our fingertips than thought. We pick up information about vibrations in the object, and the surface area of the contact becomes an important part of our proprioceptive (positional) sense.
Wannabee Superman? The human immune system makes the news often these days, especially regarding cancer treatment. Science Daily reports on a previously unknown class of immune cells that transform from ‘Clark Kent’ to ‘Superman’ quickly. They look like ordinary T cells, “yet are biased toward becoming T regulatory cells (Tregs), which protect the body from autoimmune disease.” Named pre-nTreg cells, they put on their capes and take off for action. “The researchers think pre-nTregs may be activated in response to many kinds of immune challenges, such as autoimmune diseases, cancer and infections.” Cancer researchers like to point out that we get cancer millions of times a day, but the immune system, like Superman, swoops in to stop it. The few times cancer gets a foothold get all the attention.
Genius in tow. The innate capacity of the human brain continues to astonish. “Are humans the new supercomputer?” Science Daily asks. In our ongoing race against technology, our brains still show exceptional powers. Experiments with quantum games, reported in Nature, show that “our skill in approaching problems heuristically and solving them intuitively” still beats the enormous processing power of supercomputers. A summary report in Nature describes the success 300 volunteers had in overcoming the counter-intuitive notions of quantum mechanics by using a crowd-sourced computer game.
But the work also suggests that the human mind might be more capable of grasping the rules of the bizarre quantum world than previously thought — a revelation that could have implications for how scientists approach quantum physics, says Jacob Sherson, a quantum physicist at Aarhus University, Denmark, who led the study. “Maybe we should allow some of that normal intuition to enter our problem solving,” he says. Scientists studying quantum foundations have also long said that finding a more intuitive approach to quantum physics could help to crack outstanding puzzles, although many doubted that this would ever be possible without new theories.
It’s not clear why natural selection would ever endow hunter-gatherers with the ability to comprehend quantum mechanics. “The map we created gives us insight into the strategies formed by the human brain,” Science Daily says. “We behave intuitively when we need to solve an unknown problem, whereas for a computer this is incomprehensible.”
Bible-believers say that man was created perfect but, because of the Fall into sin, is degenerating. Secular science says man is climbing upward by blind evolutionary processes that don’t care where he is going, and thereby cannot prepare for unseen circumstances. Which worldview explains these observations? We see hints of capabilities that could be far better. They should be the norm, if evolution somehow came up with them. Instead, we see indications of superfluous design and restorative genius. Once in awhile they turn up in exceptional individuals. Wouldn’t everyone in a Darwinian world rise to their own level of incompetence? Why the extraordinary plasticity, robustness and “prearrangements” for automatic calibration or for dynamic rewiring and restoration?
Darwin looked for atavisms from an animal past. What we see are atavisms from superior intellect and health. These point to decay and death over thousands of years from previous heights of fitness, not evolutionary progress. De-evolution explains these observations; Darwin had it backwards because of his anti-supernatural bias. As so often is the case, the Bible has it right. It explains why the antediluvians lived hundreds of years, and why in the coming Millennium people will be considered unfortunate to die at age 100. Medical science struggles to restore some measure of the powers our Creator gave us originally.