By Elizabeth Pennisi

Imagine having to wait a century to have sex. Such is the life of the Greenland shark—a 5-meter-long predator that may live more than 400 years, according to a new study, making it the longest lived vertebrate by at least a century. So it should come as no surprise that the females are not ready to reproduce until after they hit their 156th birthday.

The longevity of these sharks is “astonishing,” says Michael Oellermann, a cold-water physiologist at Loligo Systems in Viborg, Denmark, who was not involved with the work. That’s particularly true because oceans are quite dangerous places, he notes, where predators, food scarcity, and disease can strike at any time.

Greenland sharks (Somniosus microcephalus) had been rumored to be long-lived. In the 1930s, a fisheries biologist in Greenland tagged more than 400, only to discover that the sharks grow only about 1 centimeter a year—a sure sign that they’re in it for the long haul given how large they get. Yet scientists had been unable to figure out just how many years the sharks last.

Intrigued, marine biologist John Steffensen at the University of Copenhagen collected a piece of backbone from a Greenland shark captured in the North Atlantic, hoping it would have growth rings he could count to age the animal. He found none, so he consulted Jan Heinemeier, an expert in radiocarbon dating at Aarhus University in Denmark. Heinemeier suggested using the shark’s eye lenses instead. His aim was not to count growth rings, but instead to measure the various forms of carbon in the lenses, which can give clues to an animal’s age.

Then came the hard part. Steffensen and his graduate student Julius Nielsen spent several years collecting dead Greenland sharks, most of them accidently ensnared in trawling nets used to catch other types of fish. After that, they employed an unusual technique: They looked for high amounts of carbon-14, a heavy isotope left behind by nuclear bomb testing in the mid-1950s. Extra carbon from the resulting “bomb pulse” had infiltrated ocean ecosystems by the early 1960s, meaning that inert body parts formed during this time—in particular eye lenses—also have more of the heavy element. Using this technique, the researchers concluded that two of their sharks—both less than 2.2 meters long—were born after the 1960s. One other small shark was born right around 1963.

The team used these well-dated sharks as starting points for a growth curve that could estimate the ages of the other sharks based on their sizes. To do this, they started with the fact that newborn Greenland sharks are 42 centimeters long. They also relied on a technique researchers have long used to calculate the ages of sediments—say in an archaeological dig—based on both their radiocarbon dates and how far below the surface they happen to be. In this case, researchers correlated radiocarbon dates with shark length to calculate the age of their sharks. The oldest was 392 plus or minus 120 years, they reported in Science. That makes Greenland sharks the longest lived vertebrates on record by a huge margin; the next oldest is the bowhead whale, at 211 years old. And given the size of most pregnant females—close to 4 meters—they are at least 150 years old before they have young, the group estimates.

Oellermann is impressed not only with how old the sharks are, but also how Nielsen and his colleagues figured out their ages. “Who would have expected that nuclear bombs [one day] could help to determine the life span of marine sharks?” he asks.

He and others think cold water helps lengthen the animals’ lives by slowing down their growth and biochemical activity. “Lower metabolic rate plays a big role,” agrees Shawn Xu, a geneticist at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. “But that’s not the whole story.” Three years ago, his work in nematodes showed that cold can also activate antiaging genes that help an animal better fold proteins, get rid of DNA-damaging molecules, and even fight off infections more effectively, extending life span. The cold-activated molecules “are evolutionarily conserved” across the animal kingdom, and thus these pathways very likely exist in these sharks, too, he predicts.

Paul Butler isn’t surprised that frigid waters host such old creatures. In 2013, the sclerochronologist (a scientist who studies the growth of hard tissues in invertebrates) at Bangor University in the United Kingdom and his colleagues described a 500-year-old ocean quahog (Arctica islandica), a chowder clam found in the North Atlantic. Still, even though two multicentenarian species have turned up in the North Atlantic in just a few years, Butler is skeptical that there are many more out there awaiting discovery. “It won’t be that we won’t have more surprises,” he says, “but I regard these [two] as exceptions.”

http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/08/greenland-shark-may-live-400-years-smashing-longevity-record

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By Robert Preidt

In remote Italian villages nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and mountains lives a group of several hundred citizens over the age of 90. Researchers at the University of Rome La Sapienza and University of California San Diego School of Medicine have identified common psychological traits in members of this group.

The study, publishing in International Psychogeriatrics, found participants who were 90 to 101 years old had worse physical health, but better mental well-being than their younger family members ages 51 to 75.

“There have been a number of studies on very old adults, but they have mostly focused on genetics rather than their mental health or personalities,” said Dilip V. Jeste MD, senior author of the study, senior associate dean for the Center of Healthy Aging and Distinguished Professor of Psychiatry and Neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine. “The main themes that emerged from our study, and appear to be the unique features associated with better mental health of this rural population, were positivity, work ethic, stubbornness and a strong bond with family, religion and land.”

There were 29 study participants from nine villages in the Cilento region of southern Italy. The researchers used quantitative rating scales for assessing mental and physical health, as well as qualitative interviews to gather personal narratives of the participants, including topics such as migrations, traumatic events and beliefs. Their children or other younger family members were also given the same rating scales and additionally asked to describe their impressions about the personality traits of their older relatives.

“The group’s love of their land is a common theme and gives them a purpose in life. Most of them are still working in their homes and on the land. They think, ‘This is my life and I’m not going to give it up,'” said Anna Scelzo, first author of the study with the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse in Chiavarese, Italy

Interview responses also suggested that the participants had considerable self-confidence and decision-making skills.

“This paradox of aging supports the notion that well-being and wisdom increase with aging even though physical health is failing,” said Jeste, also the Estelle and Edgar Levi Chair in Aging and director of the Sam and Rose Stein Institute for Research on Aging at UC San Diego.

Some direct quotes from the study’s interviews include:
•”I lost my beloved wife only a month ago and I am very sad for this. We were married for 70 years. I was close to her during all of her illness and I have felt very empty after her loss. But thanks to my sons, I am now recovering and feeling much better. I have four children, ten grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren. I have fought all my life and I am always ready for changes. I think changes bring life and give chances to grow.”
•”I am always thinking for the best. There is always a solution in life. This is what my father has taught me: to always face difficulties and hope for the best.”
•”I am always active. I do not know what stress is. Life is what it is and must be faced … always.”
•”If I have to say, I feel younger now than when I was young.”

“We also found that this group tended to be domineering, stubborn and needed a sense of control, which can be a desirable trait as they are true to their convictions and care less about what others think,” said Scelzo. “This tendency to control the environment suggests notable grit that is balanced by a need to adapt to changing circumstances.”

The researchers plan to follow the participants with multiple longitudinal assessments and compare biological associations with physical and psychological health.

“Studying the strategies of exceptionally long-lived and lived-well individuals, who not just survive but also thrive and flourish, enhances our understanding of health and functional capacities in all age groups,” said Jeste.

Study co-authors include: Salvatore Di Somma, University of Rome La Sapienza; David Brenner, Nicholas Schork and Lori Montross, UC San Diego; and Paola Antonini, 3B Biotech Research.

Story Source:

Materials provided by University of California – San Diego. Original written by Michelle Brubaker.

https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/12/171212091045.htm

Journal Reference:
1.Anna Scelzo, Salvatore Di Somma, Paola Antonini, Lori P. Montross, Nicholas Schork, David Brenner, Dilip V. Jeste. Mixed-methods quantitative–qualitative study of 29 nonagenarians and centenarians in rural Southern Italy: focus on positive psychological traits. International Psychogeriatrics, 2017; 1 DOI: 10.1017/S1041610217002721


Prof Sarah Tabrizi , from the UCL Institute of Neurology, led the trials

By James Gallagher

The defect that causes the neurodegenerative disease Huntington’s has been corrected in patients for the first time, the BBC has learned. An experimental drug, injected into spinal fluid, safely lowered levels of toxic proteins in the brain. The research team, at University College London, say there is now hope the deadly disease can be stopped.

Experts say it could be the biggest breakthrough in neurodegenerative diseases for 50 years.

Huntington’s is one of the most devastating diseases. Some patients described it as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and motor neurone disease rolled into one.

Peter Allen, 51, is in the early stages of Huntington’s and took part in the trial: “You end up in almost a vegetative state, it’s a horrible end.”

Huntington’s blights families. Peter has seen his mum Stephanie, uncle Keith and grandmother Olive die from it. Tests show his sister Sandy and brother Frank will develop the disease. The three siblings have eight children – all young adults, each of whom has a 50-50 chance of developing the disease.

The unstoppable death of brain cells in Huntington’s leaves patients in permanent decline, affecting their movement, behaviour, memory and ability to think clearly.

Peter, from Essex, told me: “It’s so difficult to have that degenerative thing in you.

“You know the last day was better than the next one’s going to be.”
Huntington’s generally affects people in their prime – in their 30s and 40s
Patients die around 10 to 20 years after symptoms start
About 8,500 people in the UK have Huntington’s and a further 25,000 will develop it when they are older

Huntington’s is caused by an error in a section of DNA called the huntingtin gene. Normally this contains the instructions for making a protein, called huntingtin, which is vital for brain development. But a genetic error corrupts the protein and turns it into a killer of brain cells.

The treatment is designed to silence the gene.

On the trial, 46 patients had the drug injected into the fluid that bathes the brain and spinal cord. The procedure was carried out at the Leonard Wolfson Experimental Neurology Centre at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery in London. Doctors did not know what would happen. One fear was the injections could have caused fatal meningitis. But the first in-human trial showed the drug was safe, well tolerated by patients and crucially reduced the levels of huntingtin in the brain.

Prof Sarah Tabrizi, the lead researcher and director of the Huntington’s Disease Centre at UCL, told the BBC: “I’ve been seeing patients in clinic for nearly 20 years, I’ve seen many of my patients over that time die. For the first time we have the potential, we have the hope, of a therapy that one day may slow or prevent Huntington’s disease . This is of groundbreaking importance for patients and families.”

Doctors are not calling this a cure. They still need vital long-term data to show whether lowering levels of huntingtin will change the course of the disease. The animal research suggests it would. Some motor function even recovered in those experiments.

Peter, Sandy and Frank – as well as their partners Annie, Dermot and Hayley – have always promised their children they will not need to worry about Huntington’s as there will be a treatment in time for them. Peter told the BBC: “I’m the luckiest person in the world to be sitting here on the verge of having that. “Hopefully that will be made available to everybody, to my brothers and sisters and fundamentally my children.”

He, along with the other trial participants, can continue taking the drug as part of the next wave of trials. They will set out to show whether the disease can be slowed, and ultimately prevented, by treating Huntington’s disease carriers before they develop any symptoms.

Prof John Hardy, who was awarded the Breakthrough Prize for his work on Alzheimer’s, told the BBC: “I really think this is, potentially, the biggest breakthrough in neurodegenerative disease in the past 50 years. That sounds like hyperbole – in a year I might be embarrassed by saying that – but that’s how I feel at the moment.”

The UCL scientist, who was not involved in the research, says the same approach might be possible in other neurodegenerative diseases that feature the build-up of toxic proteins in the brain. The protein synuclein is implicated in Parkinson’s while amyloid and tau seem to have a role in dementias.

Off the back of this research, trials are planned using gene-silencing to lower the levels of tau.

Prof Giovanna Mallucci, who discovered the first chemical to prevent the death of brain tissue in any neurodegenerative disease, said the trial was a “tremendous step forward” for patients and there was now “real room for optimism”.

But Prof Mallucci, who is the associate director of UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, cautioned it was still a big leap to expect gene-silencing to work in other neurodegenerative diseases.

She told the BBC: “The case for these is not as clear-cut as for Huntington’s disease, they are more complex and less well understood. But the principle that a gene, any gene affecting disease progression and susceptibility, can be safely modified in this way in humans is very exciting and builds momentum and confidence in pursuing these avenues for potential treatments.”

The full details of the trial will be presented to scientists and published next year.

The therapy was developed by Ionis Pharmaceuticals, which said the drug had “substantially exceeded” expectations, and the licence has now been sold to Roche.

http://www.bbc.com/news/health-42308341

by Starre Vartan

The Wieliczka Salt Mine has existed — and been recognized as a marvel — for so long that its famous visitors include Copernicus, Goethe and Chopin. This incredibly unique space was officially recognized as a UNESCO heritage site in 1978 but had been used as a salt mine near Krakow, Poland, since the 13th century.

During the Renaissance, it was one of the biggest businesses in Europe, since salt was recognized as a key ingredient for safe food preservation. The mine continued to produce salt until the late 1990s, but now it’s one of Poland’s main tourist attractions with over a million visitors every year.

It’s pretty obvious why so many flock to see it. This large complex more than 1,000 feet underground is a marvel of centuries of human construction and decoration. The entire mine is over 178 miles long, but only part of that is open to visitors, who can take a two-mile-long tour of the various rooms and artworks.

The oldest art was created by the miners themselves, and in recent years artists and artisans have added to the craftsmanship, sculptures and reliefs throughout the public areas of the mines.

In addition to the chapel pictured at the top of this page, there are many other decorated spaces and tunnels. One chamber’s walls were carved to resemble wood, as churches were built of at the time, while others feature Disney-like recreations of history in the mines.

In the 19th century, huge chandeliers — made of salt crystal, of course — were brought in to fill the spaces with light. There’s even a lake (above) and a grotto (below).

Surprisingly, there’s also a health resort within the mine — the air is said to be beneficial to those who have respiratory issues. You can visit for the day or stay overnight to experience what the website calls “subterraneotherapy.”

Staying overnight in the salt caves could be a unique adventure — accommodations are in the Stable Chamber, which used to be where the horses were kept in the 12th century when horses were used to power salt excavations. According to the resort’s site: “…there is no pollution in which the environment on the surface abounds today; there are no allergens, bacteria and fungi, or harmful electromagnetic radiation, either.” Sounds peaceful, for sure.

https://www.mnn.com/lifestyle/eco-tourism/blogs/subterranean-polish-city-carved-out-salt

By Jeffrey Kluger

If you’re traveling to Mars, you’re going to have to bring a lot of essentials along — water, air, fuel, food. And, let’s be honest, you probably wouldn’t mind packing some beer too. A two-year journey — the minimum length of a Mars mission — is an awfully long time to go without one of our home planet’s signature pleasures.

Now, Anheuser-Busch InBev, the manufacturer of Budweiser, has announced that it wants to bring cosmic bar service a little closer to reality: On Dec. 4, the company plans to launch 20 barley seeds to space, aboard a SpaceX rocket making a cargo run to the International Space Station (ISS). Studying how barley — one of the basic ingredients in beer — germinates in microgravity will, the company hopes, teach scientists a lot about the practicality of building an extraterrestrial brewery.

“We want to be part of the collective dream to get to Mars,” said Budweiser vice president Ricardo Marques in an email to TIME. “While this may not be in the near future, we are starting that journey now so that when the dream of colonizing Mars becomes a reality, Budweiser will be there.”

Nice idea. But apart from inevitable issues concerning Mars rovers with designated drivers and who exactly is going to check your ID when you’re 100 million miles from home, Budweiser faces an even bigger question: Is beer brewing even possible in space? The answer: Maybe, but it wouldn’t be easy.

Start with that first step Budweiser is investigating: the business of growing the barley. In the U.S. alone, farmers harvest about 2.5 million acres of barley per year. The majority of that is used for animal feed, but about 45% of it is converted to malt, most of which is used in beer. Even the thirstiest American astronauts don’t need quite so much on tap, so start with something modest — say a 20-liter batch. That’s about 42 pints, which should get a crew of five through at least two or three Friday nights. But even that won’t be easy to make in space.

“If you want to make 20-liters of beer on Earth you’re going to need 100 to 200 square feet of land to grow the barley,” wrote Tristan Stephenson, author of The Curious Bartender series, in an email to TIME. “No doubt they would use hydroponics and probably be a bit more efficient in terms of rate of growth, but that’s a fair bit of valuable space on a space station…just for some beer.”

Still, let’s assume you’re on the station, you’ve grown the crops, and now it’s time to brew your first batch. To start with, the barley grains will have to go through the malting process, which means soaking them in water for two or three days, allowing them to germinate partway and then effectively killing them with heat. For that you need specialized equipment, which has to be carried to space and stored onboard. Every pound of orbital cargo can currently cost about $10,000, according to NASA, though competition from private industry is driving the price down. Still, shipping costs to space are never going to be cheap and it’s hard to justify any beer that winds up costing a couple hundred bucks a swallow.

The brewing process itself would present an entirely different set of problems — most involving gravity. On Earth, Stephenson says, “Brewers measure fermentation progress by assessing the ‘gravity’ (density) of the beer. The measurement is taken using a floating hydrometer. You’re not going to be doing that in space.”

The carbonation in the beer would be all wrong too, making the overall drink both unsightly and too frothy. “The bubbles won’t rise in zero-g,” says Stephenson. “Instead they’ll flocculate together into frogspawn style clumps.”

Dispersed or froggy, once the bubbles go down your gullet, they do your body no favors in space. The burp you emit after a beer on Earth seems like a bad thing, but only compared to the alternative — which happens a lot in zero-g, as gasses don’t rise, but instead find their way deeper into your digestive tract.

The type of beer you could make in space is limited and pretty much excludes Lagers — or cold-fermented beer. “Lager takes longer to make compared to most beers, because the yeast works at a lower temperature,” says Stephenson. “This is also the reason for the notable clarity of lager: longer fermentation means more yeast falls out of the solution, resulting in a clearer, cleaner looking beer. Emphasis on ‘falls’ — and stuff doesn’t fall in space.”

Finally, if Budweiser’s stated goal is to grow beer crops on Mars, they’re going about the experiment all wrong. Germinating your seeds in what is effectively the zero-g environment of the ISS is very different from germinating them on Mars, where the gravity is 40% that of Earth’s — weak by our standards, but still considerable for a growing plant. Budweiser and its partners acknowledge this possibility and argue that the very purpose of the experiment is to try to address the problem.

http://time.com/5039091/budweiser-beer-mars-space-station/

Thanks to Pete Cuomo for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

BY HANNAH OSBORNE

World-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking has warned that artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to destroy civilization and could be the worst thing that has ever happened to humanity.

Speaking at a technology conference in Lisbon, Portugal, Hawking told attendees that mankind had to find a way to control computers, CNBC reports.

“Computers can, in theory, emulate human intelligence, and exceed it,” he said. “Success in creating effective AI, could be the biggest event in the history of our civilization. Or the worst. We just don’t know. So we cannot know if we will be infinitely helped by AI, or ignored by it and side-lined, or conceivably destroyed by it.”

Hawking said that while AI has the potential to transform society—it could be used to eradicate poverty and disease, for example—it also comes with huge risks.

And society, he said, must be prepared for that eventuality. “AI could be the worst event in the history of our civilization. It brings dangers, like powerful autonomous weapons, or new ways for the few to oppress the many. It could bring great disruption to our economy,” he said.

This is not the first time Hawking has warned about the dangers of AI. In a recent interview with Wired, the University of Cambridge Professor said it could one day reach a level where it outperforms humans and becomes a “new form of life.”

“I fear that AI may replace humans altogether,” he told the magazine. “If people design computer viruses, someone will design AI that improves and replicates itself. This will be a new form of life that outperforms humans.”

Even if AI does not take over the world, either by destroying or enslaving mankind, Hawking still believes human beings are doomed. Over recent years, he has become increasingly vocal about the need to leave Earth in search of a new planet to live on.

In May, he said humans have around 100 years to leave Earth in order to survive as a species. “I strongly believe we should start seeking alternative planets for possible habitation,” he said during a speech at the Royal Society in London, U.K. “We are running out of space on Earth and we need to break through the technological limitations preventing us from living elsewhere in the universe.”

The following month at the Starmus Festival in Norway, which celebrates science and art, Hawking told his audience that the current threats to Earth are “too big and too numerous” for him to be positive about the future.

“Our physical resources are being drained at an alarming rate,” he said. “We have given our planet the disastrous gift of climate change. Rising temperatures, reduction of the polar ice caps, deforestation and decimation of animal species. We can be an ignorant, unthinking lot.

“We are running out of space and the only places to go to are other worlds. It is time to explore other solar systems. Spreading out may be the only thing that saves us from ourselves. I am convinced that humans need to leave Earth.”

http://www.newsweek.com/stephen-hawking-artificial-intelligence-warning-destroy-civilization-703630

Thanks to Pete Cuomo for bringing this to the It’s Interesting community.

by John H. Richardson

In an ordinary hospital room in Los Angeles, a young woman named Lauren Dickerson waits for her chance to make history.

She’s 25 years old, a teacher’s assistant in a middle school, with warm eyes and computer cables emerging like futuristic dreadlocks from the bandages wrapped around her head. Three days earlier, a neurosurgeon drilled 11 holes through her skull, slid 11 wires the size of spaghetti into her brain, and connected the wires to a bank of computers. Now she’s caged in by bed rails, with plastic tubes snaking up her arm and medical monitors tracking her vital signs. She tries not to move.

The room is packed. As a film crew prepares to document the day’s events, two separate teams of specialists get ready to work—medical experts from an elite neuroscience center at the University of Southern California and scientists from a technology company called Kernel. The medical team is looking for a way to treat Dickerson’s seizures, which an elaborate regimen of epilepsy drugs controlled well enough until last year, when their effects began to dull. They’re going to use the wires to search Dickerson’s brain for the source of her seizures. The scientists from Kernel are there for a different reason: They work for Bryan Johnson, a 40-year-old tech entrepreneur who sold his business for $800 million and decided to pursue an insanely ambitious dream—he wants to take control of evolution and create a better human. He intends to do this by building a “neuroprosthesis,” a device that will allow us to learn faster, remember more, “coevolve” with artificial intelligence, unlock the secrets of telepathy, and maybe even connect into group minds. He’d also like to find a way to download skills such as martial arts, Matrix-style. And he wants to sell this invention at mass-market prices so it’s not an elite product for the rich.

Right now all he has is an algorithm on a hard drive. When he describes the neuroprosthesis to reporters and conference audiences, he often uses the media-friendly expression “a chip in the brain,” but he knows he’ll never sell a mass-market product that depends on drilling holes in people’s skulls. Instead, the algorithm will eventually connect to the brain through some variation of noninvasive interfaces being developed by scientists around the world, from tiny sensors that could be injected into the brain to genetically engineered neurons that can exchange data wirelessly with a hatlike receiver. All of these proposed interfaces are either pipe dreams or years in the future, so in the meantime he’s using the wires attached to Dickerson’s hippo­campus to focus on an even bigger challenge: what you say to the brain once you’re connected to it.

That’s what the algorithm does. The wires embedded in Dickerson’s head will record the electrical signals that Dickerson’s neurons send to one another during a series of simple memory tests. The signals will then be uploaded onto a hard drive, where the algorithm will translate them into a digital code that can be analyzed and enhanced—or rewritten—with the goal of improving her memory. The algorithm will then translate the code back into electrical signals to be sent up into the brain. If it helps her spark a few images from the memories she was having when the data was gathered, the researchers will know the algorithm is working. Then they’ll try to do the same thing with memories that take place over a period of time, something nobody’s ever done before. If those two tests work, they’ll be on their way to deciphering the patterns and processes that create memories.

Although other scientists are using similar techniques on simpler problems, Johnson is the only person trying to make a commercial neurological product that would enhance memory. In a few minutes, he’s going to conduct his first human test. For a commercial memory prosthesis, it will be the first human test. “It’s a historic day,” Johnson says. “I’m insanely excited about it.”

For the record, just in case this improbable experiment actually works, the date is January 30, 2017.

At this point, you may be wondering if Johnson’s just another fool with too much money and an impossible dream. I wondered the same thing the first time I met him. He seemed like any other California dude, dressed in the usual jeans, sneakers, and T-shirt, full of the usual boyish enthusiasms. His wild pronouncements about “reprogramming the operating system of the world” seemed downright goofy.

But you soon realize this casual style is either camouflage or wishful thinking. Like many successful people, some brilliant and some barely in touch with reality, Johnson has endless energy and the distributed intelligence of an octopus—one tentacle reaches for the phone, another for his laptop, a third scouts for the best escape route. When he starts talking about his neuroprosthesis, they team up and squeeze till you turn blue.

And there is that $800 million that PayPal shelled out for Braintree, the online-­payment company Johnson started when he was 29 and sold when he was 36. And the $100 million he is investing into Kernel, the company he started to pursue this project. And the decades of animal tests to back up his sci-fi ambitions: Researchers have learned how to restore memories lost to brain damage, plant false memories, control the motions of animals through human thought, control appetite and aggression, induce sensations of pleasure and pain, even how to beam brain signals from one animal to another animal thousands of miles away.

And Johnson isn’t dreaming this dream alone—at this moment, Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg are weeks from announcing their own brain-hacking projects, the military research group known as Darpa already has 10 under way, and there’s no doubt that China and other countries are pursuing their own. But unlike Johnson, they’re not inviting reporters into any hospital rooms.

Here’s the gist of every public statement Musk has made about his project: (1) He wants to connect our brains to computers with a mysterious device called “neural lace.” (2) The name of the company he started to build it is Neuralink.

Thanks to a presentation at last spring’s F8 conference, we know a little more about what Zuckerberg is doing at Facebook: (1) The project was until recently overseen by Regina Dugan, a former director of Darpa and Google’s Advanced Technology group. (2) The team is working out of Building 8, Zuckerberg’s research lab for moon-shot projects. (3) They’re working on a noninvasive “brain–computer speech-to-text interface” that uses “optical imaging” to read the signals of neurons as they form words, find a way to translate those signals into code, and then send the code to a computer. (4) If it works, we’ll be able to “type” 100 words a minute just by thinking.

As for Darpa, we know that some of its projects are improvements on existing technology and some—such as an interface to make soldiers learn faster—sound just as futuristic as Johnson’s. But we don’t know much more than that. That leaves Johnson as our only guide, a job he says he’s taken on because he thinks the world needs to be prepared for what is coming.

All of these ambitious plans face the same obstacle, however: The brain has 86 billion neurons, and nobody understands how they all work. Scientists have made impressive progress uncovering, and even manipulating, the neural circuitry behind simple brain functions, but things such as imagination or creativity—and memory—are so complex that all the neuroscientists in the world may never solve them. That’s why a request for expert opinions on the viability of Johnson’s plans got this response from John Donoghue, the director of the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering in Geneva: “I’m cautious,” he said. “It’s as if I asked you to translate something from Swahili to Finnish. You’d be trying to go from one unknown language into another unknown language.” To make the challenge even more daunting, he added, all the tools used in brain research are as primitive as “a string between two paper cups.” So Johnson has no idea if 100 neurons or 100,000 or 10 billion control complex brain functions. On how most neurons work and what kind of codes they use to communicate, he’s closer to “Da-da” than “see Spot run.” And years or decades will pass before those mysteries are solved, if ever. To top it all off, he has no scientific background. Which puts his foot on the banana peel of a very old neuroscience joke: “If the brain was simple enough for us to understand, we’d be too stupid to understand it.”

I don’t need telepathy to know what you’re thinking now—there’s nothing more annoying than the big dreams of tech optimists. Their schemes for eternal life and floating libertarian nations are adolescent fantasies; their digital revolution seems to be destroying more jobs than it created, and the fruits of their scientific fathers aren’t exactly encouraging either. “Coming soon, from the people who brought you nuclear weapons!”

But Johnson’s motives go to a deep and surprisingly tender place. Born into a devout Mormon community in Utah, he learned an elaborate set of rules that are still so vivid in his mind that he brought them up in the first minutes of our first meeting: “If you get baptized at the age of 8, point. If you get into the priesthood at the age of 12, point. If you avoid pornography, point. Avoid masturbation? Point. Go to church every Sunday? Point.” The reward for a high point score was heaven, where a dutiful Mormon would be reunited with his loved ones and gifted with endless creativity.

When he was 4, Johnson’s father left the church and divorced his mother. Johnson skips over the painful details, but his father told me his loss of faith led to a long stretch of drug and alcohol abuse, and his mother said she was so broke that she had to send Johnson to school in handmade clothes. His father remembers the letters Johnson started sending him when he was 11, a new one every week: “Always saying 100 different ways, ‘I love you, I need you.’ How he knew as a kid the one thing you don’t do with an addict or an alcoholic is tell them what a dirtbag they are, I’ll never know.”

Johnson was still a dutiful believer when he graduated from high school and went to Ecuador on his mission, the traditional Mormon rite of passage. He prayed constantly and gave hundreds of speeches about Joseph Smith, but he became more and more ashamed about trying to convert sick and hungry children with promises of a better life in heaven. Wouldn’t it be better to ease their suffering here on earth?

“Bryan came back a changed boy,” his father says.

Soon he had a new mission, self-assigned. His sister remembers his exact words: “He said he wanted to be a millionaire by the time he was 30 so he could use those resources to change the world.”

His first move was picking up a degree at Brigham Young University, selling cell phones to help pay the tuition and inhaling every book that seemed to promise a way forward. One that left a lasting impression was Endurance, the story of Ernest Shackleton’s botched journey to the South Pole—if sheer grit could get a man past so many hardships, he would put his faith in sheer grit. He married “a nice Mormon girl,” fathered three Mormon children, and took a job as a door-to-door salesman to support them. He won a prize for Salesman of the Year and started a series of businesses that went broke—which convinced him to get a business degree at the University of Chicago.

When he graduated in 2008, he stayed in Chicago and started Braintree, perfecting his image as a world-beating Mormon entrepreneur. By that time, his father was sober and openly sharing his struggles, and Johnson was the one hiding his dying faith behind a very well-protected wall. He couldn’t sleep, ate like a wolf, and suffered intense headaches, fighting back with a long series of futile cures: antidepressants, biofeedback, an energy healer, even blind obedience to the rules of his church.

In 2012, at the age of 35, Johnson hit bottom. In his misery, he remembered Shackleton and seized a final hope—maybe he could find an answer by putting himself through a painful ordeal. He planned a trip to Mount Kilimanjaro, and on the second day of the climb he got a stomach virus. On the third day he got altitude sickness. When he finally made it to the peak, he collapsed in tears and then had to be carried down on a stretcher. It was time to reprogram his operating system.

The way Johnson tells it, he started by dropping the world-beater pose that hid his weakness and doubt. And although this may all sound a bit like a dramatic motivational talk at a TED conference, especially since Johnson still projects the image of a world-beating entrepreneur, this much is certain: During the following 18 months, he divorced his wife, sold Braintree, and severed his last ties to the church. To cushion the impact on his children, he bought a house nearby and visited them almost daily. He knew he was repeating his father’s mistakes but saw no other option—he was either going to die inside or start living the life he always wanted.

He started with the pledge he made when he came back from Ecuador, experimenting first with a good-government initiative in Washington and pivoting, after its inevitable doom, to a venture fund for “quantum leap” companies inventing futuristic products such as human-­organ-­mimicking silicon chips. But even if all his quantum leaps landed, they wouldn’t change the operating system of the world.

Finally, the Big Idea hit: If the root problems of humanity begin in the human mind, let’s change our minds.

Fantastic things were happening in neuroscience. Some of them sounded just like miracles from the Bible—with prosthetic legs controlled by thought and microchips connected to the visual cortex, scientists were learning to help the lame walk and the blind see. At the University of Toronto, a neurosurgeon named Andres Lozano slowed, and in some cases reversed, the cognitive declines of Alzheimer’s patients using deep brain stimulation. At a hospital in upstate New York, a neuro­technologist named Gerwin Schalk asked computer engineers to record the firing patterns of the auditory neurons of people listening to Pink Floyd. When the engineers turned those patterns back into sound waves, they produced a single that sounded almost exactly like “Another Brick in the Wall.” At the University of Washington, two professors in different buildings played a videogame together with the help of electroencephalography caps that fired off electrical pulses—when one professor thought about firing digital bullets, the other one felt an impulse to push the Fire button.

Johnson also heard about a biomedical engineer named Theodore Berger. During nearly 20 years of research, Berger and his collaborators at USC and Wake Forest University developed a neuroprosthesis to improve memory in rats. It didn’t look like much when he started testing it in 2002—just a slice of rat brain and a computer chip. But the chip held an algorithm that could translate the firing patterns of neurons into a kind of Morse code that corresponded with actual memories. Nobody had ever done that before, and some people found the very idea offensive—it’s so deflating to think of our most precious thoughts reduced to ones and zeros. Prominent medical ethicists accused Berger of tampering with the essence of identity. But the implications were huge: If Berger could turn the language of the brain into code, perhaps he could figure out how to fix the part of the code associated with neurological diseases.

In rats, as in humans, firing patterns in the hippocampus generate a signal or code that, somehow, the brain recognizes as a long-term memory. Berger trained a group of rats to perform a task and studied the codes that formed. He learned that rats remembered a task better when their neurons sent “strong code,” a term he explains by comparing it to a radio signal: At low volume you don’t hear all of the words, but at high volume everything comes through clear. He then studied the difference in the codes generated by the rats when they remembered to do something correctly and when they forgot. In 2011, through a breakthrough experiment conducted on rats trained to push a lever, he demonstrated he could record the initial memory codes, feed them into an algorithm, and then send stronger codes back into the rats’ brains. When he finished, the rats that had forgotten how to push the lever suddenly remembered.

Five years later, Berger was still looking for the support he needed for human trials. That’s when Johnson showed up. In August 2016, he announced he would pledge $100 million of his fortune to create Kernel and that Berger would join the company as chief science officer. After learning about USC’s plans to implant wires in Dickerson’s brain to battle her epilepsy, Johnson approached Charles Liu, the head of the prestigious neurorestoration division at the USC School of Medicine and the lead doctor on Dickerson’s trial. Johnson asked him for permission to test the algorithm on Dickerson while she had Liu’s wires in her hippocampus—in between Liu’s own work sessions, of course. As it happened, Liu had dreamed about expanding human powers with technology ever since he got obsessed with The Six Million Dollar Man as a kid. He helped Johnson get Dickerson’s consent and convinced USC’s institutional research board to approve the experiment. At the end of 2016, Johnson got the green light. He was ready to start his first human trial.

In the hospital room, Dickerson is waiting for the experiments to begin, and I ask her how she feels about being a human lab rat.

“If I’m going to be here,” she says, “I might as well do something useful.”

Useful? This starry-eyed dream of cyborg supermen? “You know he’s trying to make humans smarter, right?”

“Isn’t that cool?” she answers.

Over by the computers, I ask one of the scientists about the multi­colored grid on the screen. “Each one of these squares is an electrode that’s in her brain,” one says. Every time a neuron close to one of the wires in Dickerson’s brain fires, he explains, a pink line will jump in the relevant box.

Johnson’s team is going to start with simple memory tests. “You’re going to be shown words,” the scientist explains to her. “Then there will be some math problems to make sure you’re not rehearsing the words in your mind. Try to remember as many words as you can.”

One of the scientists hands Dickerson a computer tablet, and everyone goes quiet. Dickerson stares at the screen to take in the words. A few minutes later, after the math problem scrambles her mind, she tries to remember what she’d read. “Smoke … egg … mud … pearl.”

Next, they try something much harder, a group of memories in a sequence. As one of Kernel’s scientists explains to me, they can only gather so much data from wires connected to 30 or 40 neurons. A single face shouldn’t be too hard, but getting enough data to reproduce memories that stretch out like a scene in a movie is probably impossible.

Sitting by the side of Dickerson’s bed, a Kernel scientist takes on the challenge. “Could you tell me the last time you went to a restaurant?”

“It was probably five or six days ago,” Dickerson says. “I went to a Mexican restaurant in Mission Hills. We had a bunch of chips and salsa.”

He presses for more. As she dredges up other memories, another Kernel scientist hands me a pair of headphones connected to the computer bank. All I hear at first is a hissing sound. After 20 or 30 seconds go by I hear a pop.

“That’s a neuron firing,” he says.

As Dickerson continues, I listen to the mysterious language of the brain, the little pops that move our legs and trigger our dreams. She remembers a trip to Costco and the last time it rained, and I hear the sounds of Costco and rain.

When Dickerson’s eyelids start sinking, the medical team says she’s had enough and Johnson’s people start packing up. Over the next few days, their algorithm will turn Dickerson’s synaptic activity into code. If the codes they send back into Dickerson’s brain make her think of dipping a few chips in salsa, Johnson might be one step closer to reprogramming the operating system of the world.

But look, there’s another banana peel­—after two days of frantic coding, Johnson’s team returns to the hospital to send the new code into Dickerson’s brain. Just when he gets word that they can get an early start, a message arrives: It’s over. The experiment has been placed on “administrative hold.” The only reason USC would give in the aftermath was an issue between Johnson and Berger. Berger would later tell me he had no idea the experiment was under way and that Johnson rushed into it without his permission. Johnson said he is mystified by Berger’s accusations. “I don’t know how he could not have known about it. We were working with his whole lab, with his whole team.” The one thing they both agree on is that their relationship fell apart shortly afterward, with Berger leaving the company and taking his algorithm with him. He blames the break entirely on Johnson. “Like most investors, he wanted a high rate of return as soon as possible. He didn’t realize he’d have to wait seven or eight years to get FDA approval—I would have thought he would have looked that up.” But Johnson didn’t want to slow down. He had bigger plans, and he was in a hurry.

Eight months later, I go back to California to see where Johnson has ended up. He seems a little more relaxed. On the whiteboard behind his desk at Kernel’s new offices in Los Angeles, someone’s scrawled a playlist of songs in big letters. “That was my son,” he says. “He interned here this summer.” Johnson is a year into a romance with Taryn Southern, a charismatic 31-year-old performer and film producer. And since his break with Berger, Johnson has tripled Kernel’s staff—he’s up to 36 employees now—adding experts in fields like chip design and computational neuroscience. His new science adviser is Ed Boyden, the director of MIT’s Synthetic Neurobiology Group and a superstar in the neuroscience world. Down in the basement of the new office building, there’s a Dr. Frankenstein lab where scientists build prototypes and try them out on glass heads.

When the moment seems right, I bring up the purpose of my visit. “You said you had something to show me?”

Johnson hesitates. I’ve already promised not to reveal certain sensitive details, but now I have to promise again. Then he hands me two small plastic display cases. Inside, two pairs of delicate twisty wires rest on beds of foam rubber. They look scientific but also weirdly biological, like the antennae of some futuristic bug-bot.

I’m looking at the prototypes for Johnson’s brand-new neuromodulator. On one level, it’s just a much smaller version of the deep brain stimulators and other neuromodulators currently on the market. But unlike a typical stimulator, which just fires pulses of electricity, Johnson’s is designed to read the signals that neurons send to other neurons—and not just the 100 neurons the best of the current tools can harvest, but perhaps many more. That would be a huge advance in itself, but the implications are even bigger: With Johnson’s neuromodulator, scientists could collect brain data from thousands of patients, with the goal of writing precise codes to treat a variety of neurological diseases.

In the short term, Johnson hopes his neuromodulator will help him “optimize the gold rush” in neurotechnology—financial analysts are forecasting a $27 billion market for neural devices within six years, and countries around the world are committing billions to the escalating race to decode the brain. In the long term, Johnson believes his signal-reading neuromodulator will advance his bigger plans in two ways: (1) by giving neuroscientists a vast new trove of data they can use to decode the workings of the brain and (2) by generating the huge profits Kernel needs to launch a steady stream of innovative and profitable neural tools, keeping the company both solvent and plugged into every new neuroscience breakthrough. With those two achievements in place, Johnson can watch and wait until neuroscience reaches the level of sophistication he needs to jump-start human evolution with a mind-enhancing neuroprosthesis.

Liu, the neurologist with the Six Million Dollar Man dreams, compares Johnson’s ambition to flying. “Going back to Icarus, human beings have always wanted to fly. We don’t grow wings, so we build a plane. And very often these solutions will have even greater capabilities than the ones nature created—no bird ever flew to Mars.” But now that humanity is learning how to reengineer its own capabilities, we really can choose how we evolve. “We have to wrap our minds around that. It’s the most revolutionary thing in the world.”

The crucial ingredient is the profit motive, which always drives rapid innovation in science. That’s why Liu thinks Johnson could be the one to give us wings. “I’ve never met anyone with his urgency to take this to market,” he says.

When will this revolution arrive? “Sooner than you think,” Liu says.

Now we’re back where we began. Is Johnson a fool? Is he just wasting his time and fortune on a crazy dream? One thing is certain: Johnson will never stop trying to optimize the world. At the pristine modern house he rents in Venice Beach, he pours out idea after idea. He even took skepticism as helpful information—when I tell him his magic neuroprosthesis sounds like another version of the Mormon heaven, he’s delighted.

“Good point! I love it!”

He never has enough data. He even tries to suck up mine. What are my goals? My regrets? My pleasures? My doubts?

Every so often, he pauses to examine my “constraint program.”

“One, you have this biological disposition of curiosity. You want data. And when you consume that data, you apply boundaries of meaning-making.”

“Are you trying to hack me?” I ask.

Not at all, he says. He just wants us to share our algorithms. “That’s the fun in life,” he says, “this endless unraveling of the puzzle. And I think, ‘What if we could make the data transfer rate a thousand times faster? What if my consciousness is only seeing a fraction of reality? What kind of stories would we tell?’ ”

In his free time, Johnson is writing a book about taking control of human evolution and looking on the bright side of our mutant humanoid future. He brings this up every time I talk to him. For a long time I lumped this in with his dreamy ideas about reprogramming the operating system of the world: The future is coming faster than anyone thinks, our glorious digital future is calling, the singularity is so damn near that we should be cheering already—a spiel that always makes me want to hit him with a copy of the Unabomber Manifesto.

But his urgency today sounds different, so I press him on it: “How would you respond to Ted Kaczynski’s fears? The argument that technology is a cancerlike development that’s going to eat itself?”

“I would say he’s potentially on the wrong side of history.”

“Yeah? What about climate change?”

“That’s why I feel so driven,” he answered. “We’re in a race against time.”

He asks me for my opinion. I tell him I think he’ll still be working on cyborg brainiacs when the starving hordes of a ravaged planet destroy his lab looking for food—and for the first time, he reveals the distress behind his hope. The truth is, he has the same fear. The world has gotten way too complex, he says. The financial system is shaky, the population is aging, robots want our jobs, artificial intelligence is catching up, and climate change is coming fast. “It just feels out of control,” he says.

He’s invoked these dystopian ideas before, but only as a prelude to his sales pitch. This time he’s closer to pleading. “Why wouldn’t we embrace our own self-directed evolution? Why wouldn’t we just do everything we can to adapt faster?”

I turn to a more cheerful topic. If he ever does make a neuroprosthesis to revolutionize how we use our brain, which superpower would he give us first? Telepathy? Group minds? Instant kung fu?

He answers without hesitation. Because our thinking is so constrained by the familiar, he says, we can’t imagine a new world that isn’t just another version of the world we know. But we have to imagine something far better than that. So he’d try to make us more creative—that would put a new frame on everything.

Ambition like that can take you a long way. It can drive you to try to reach the South Pole when everyone says it’s impossible. It can take you up Mount Kilimanjaro when you’re close to dying and help you build an $800 million company by the time you’re 36. And Johnson’s ambitions drive straight for the heart of humanity’s most ancient dream: For operating system, substitute enlightenment.

By hacking our brains, he wants to make us one with everything.

https://www.wired.com/story/inside-the-race-to-build-a-brain-machine-interface/?mbid=nl_111717_editorsnote_list1_p1