Posts Tagged ‘death’

by Elie Dolgin

There might be no natural limit to how long humans can live — at least not one yet in sight — contrary to the claims of some demographers and biologists.

That’s according to a statistical analysis published Thursday in Science1 on the survival probabilities of nearly 4,000 ‘super-elderly’ people in Italy, all aged 105 and older.

A team led by Sapienza University demographer Elisabetta Barbi and University of Roma Tre statistician Francesco Lagona, both based in Rome, found that the risk of death — which, throughout most of life, seems to increase as people age — levels off after age 105, creating a ‘mortality plateau’. At that point, the researchers say, the odds of someone dying from one birthday to the next are roughly 50:50 (see ‘Longevity unlimited’).

“If there is a mortality plateau, then there is no limit to human longevity,” says Jean-Marie Robine, a demographer at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research in Montpellier, who was not involved in the study.

That would mean that someone like Chiyo Miyako, the Japanese great-great-great-grandmother who, at 117, is the world’s oldest known person, could live for years to come — or even forever, at least hypothetically.

Researchers have long debated whether humans have an upper age limit. The consensus holds that the risk of death steadily increases in adulthood, up to about age 80 or so. But there’s vehement disagreement about what happens as people enter their 90s and 100s.

Some scientists have examined demographic data and concluded that there is a fixed, natural ‘shelf-life’ for our species and that mortality rates keep increasing. Others have looked at the same data and concluded that the death risk flattens out in one’s ultra-golden years, and therefore that human lifespan does not have an upper threshold.

Age rage

In 2016, geneticist Jan Vijg and his colleagues at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City rekindled the debate when they analysed the reported ages at death for the world’s oldest individuals over a half-century. They estimated that human longevity hit a ceiling at about 115 years — 125 tops.

Vijg and his team argued2 that with few, if any, gains in maximum lifespan since the mid-1990s, human ageing had reached its natural limit. The longest known lifespan belongs to Jeanne Calment, a French super-centenarian who died in 1997 at age 122.

Experts challenged the statistical methods in the 2016 study, setting off a firestorm into which now step Barbi and Lagona. Working with colleagues at the Italian National Institute of Statistics, the researchers collected records on every Italian aged 105 years and older between 2009 and 2015 — gathering certificates of death, birth and survival in an effort to minimize the chances of ‘age exaggeration’, a common problem among the oldest old.

They also tracked individual survival trajectories from one year to the next, rather than lump people into age intervals as previous studies that combine data sets have done. And by focusing just on Italy, which has one of the highest rates of centenarians per capita in the world, they avoided the issue of variation in data collection among different jurisdictions.

As such, says Kenneth Howse, a health-policy researcher at the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing in the United Kingdom, “these data provide the best evidence to date of extreme-age mortality plateaus in humans”.

Ken Wachter, a mathematical demographer at the University of California, Berkeley, and an author of the latest study, suspects that prior disputes over the patterns of late-life mortality have largely stemmed from bad records and statistics. “We have the advantage of better data,” he says. “If we can get data of this quality for other countries, I expect we’re going to see much the same pattern.”

Robine is not so sure. He says that unpublished data from France, Japan and Canada suggest that evidence for a mortality plateau is “not as clear cut”. A global analysis is still needed to determine whether the findings from Italy reflect a universal feature of human ageing, he says.

Off limits

The world is home to around 500,000 people aged 100 and up — a number that’s predicted to nearly double with each coming decade. Even if the risk of late-life mortality remains constant at 50:50, the swelling global membership in the 100-plus club should translate into a creep upwards in the oldest person alive by about one year per decade, says Joop de Beer, a longevity researcher at the Netherlands Interdisciplinary Demographic Institute in The Hague.

Many researchers say they hope to better understand what’s behind the levelling off of mortality rates in later life. Siegfried Hekimi, a geneticist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, speculates that the body’s cells eventually reach a point where repair mechanisms can offset further damage to keep mortality rates level.

“Why this plateaus out and what it means about the process of ageing — I don’t think we have any idea,” Hekimi says.

For James Kirkland, a geriatrician at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, the strong evidence for a mortality plateau points to the possibility of forestalling death at any age. Some experts think that the very frail are beyond repair. But if the odds of dying don’t increase over time, he says, interventions that slow ageing are likely to make a difference, even in the extremely old.

Not everyone buys that argument — or the conclusions of the latest paper.

Brandon Milholland, a co-author of the 2016 Nature paper, says that the evidence for a mortality plateau is “marginal”, as the study included fewer than 100 people who lived to 110 or beyond. Leonid Gavrilov, a longevity researcher at the University of Chicago in Illinois, notes that even small inaccuracies in the Italian longevity records could lead to a spurious conclusion.

Others say the conclusions of the study are biologically implausible. “You run into basic limitations imposed by body design,” says Jay Olshansky, a bio-demographer at the University of Illinois at Chicago, noting that cells that do not replicate, such as neurons, will continue to wither and die as a person ages, placing upper boundaries on humans’ natural lifespan.

This study is thus unlikely to be the last word on the age-limit dispute, says Haim Cohen, a molecular biologist at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat-Gan, Israel. “I’m sure that the debate is going to continue.”

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Jan Carette and his colleagues have discovered a “death code” that unleashes a type of cell death.

Dying cells generally have two options: go quietly, or go out with a bang.

The latter, while more conspicuous, is also mechanistically more mysterious. Now, scientists at the Stanford University School of Medicine have pinpointed what they believe is the molecular “code” that unleashes this more violent variety of cell death.

This particular version of cell suicide is called necroptosis, and it typically occurs as a result of some sort of infection or pathogenic invader. “Necroptosis is sort of like the cell’s version of ‘taking one for the team,’” said Jan Carette, PhD, assistant professor of microbiology and immunology. “As the cell dies, it releases its contents, including a damage signal that lets other cells know there’s a problem.”

Seen in this light, necroptosis seems almost altruistic, but the process is also a key contributor to autoimmune diseases; it’s even been implicated in the spread of cancer.

In a new study, Carette and his collaborators discovered the final step of necroptosis, the linchpin upon which the entire process depends. They call it “the death code.”

Their work, which was published online June 7 in Molecular Cell, not only clears up what happens during this type of cell death, but also opens the door to potential new treatments for diseases in which necroptosis plays a key role, such as inflammatory bowel disease and multiple sclerosis. Carette is the senior author, and postdoctoral scholar Cole Dovey, PhD, is the lead author.

Initiating detonation

When a cell’s health is threatened by an invader, such as a virus, a cascade of molecular switches and triggers readies the cell for death by necroptosis. Until recently, scientists thought they had traced the pathway down to the last step. But it turns out that the entire chain is rendered futile without one special molecule, called inositol hexakisphosphate, or IP6, which is part of a larger collection of molecules known as inositol phosphates. Carette likens IP6 to an access code; only in this case, when the code is punched in, it’s not a safe or a cellphone that’s unlocked: It’s cell death. Specifically, a protein called MLKL, which Carette has nicknamed “the executioner protein,” is unlocked.

“This was a big surprise. We didn’t know that the killer protein required a code, and now we find that it does,” Dovey said. “It’s held in check by a code, and it’s released by a code. So only when the code is correct does the killer activate, puncturing holes in the cell’s membrane as it prepares to burst the cell open.”

MLKL resides inside the cell, which may seem like an error on evolution’s part; why plant an explosive in life’s inner sanctum? But MLKL is tightly regulated, and it requires multiple green lights before it’s cleared to pulverize. Even if all other proteins and signaling molecules prepare MLKL for destruction, IP6 has the final say. If IP6 doesn’t bind, MLKL remains harmless, like a cotton ball floating inside the cell.

When it’s not killing cells, MLKL exists as multiple units, separate from one another. But when IP6 binds to one of these units, the protein gathers itself up into one functional complex. Only then, as a whole, is MLKL a full-fledged killer. It’s like a grenade split into its component parts. None of them are functional on their own. But put back together, the tiny bomb is ready to inflict damage.

“We’ve come to realize that, after the cell explodes, there are these ‘alarm’ molecules that alert the immune system,” Dovey said. “When the cell releases its contents, other cells pick up on these cautionary molecules and can either shore up defenses or prepare for necroptosis themselves.”

Screening for the Grim Reaper

In their quest to understand exactly how necroptosis occurs, Carette and Dovey performed an unbiased genetic screen, in which they scoured the entire genome for genes that seemed to be particularly critical toward the end of the pathway, where they knew MLKL took action. Before the IP6 finding, it was known that an intricate pathway impinged on MLKL. But only through this special genetic screen, in which they systematically tested the function of every gene at this end stage, were they able to see that IP6 was the key to necroptosis.

“Genetic screens are a lot of fun because you never know what you’re going to get,” Carette said. “We feel quite excited that we’ve been able to pinpoint IP6.”

Their screen revealed that IP6 binds with especially high specificity. Other similar versions of inositol phosphate, such as IP3, didn’t pass muster, and when bound to MLKL had no effect. This gave Carette an interesting idea. For conditions like irritable bowel disease, in which erroneous necroptosis contributes to the severity of the disease, it would be desirable to disable IP6 from binding under those conditions. Perhaps blocking the binding site, or tricking MLKL into binding to one of the other versions of inositol phosphate, could do the trick. Either way, Carette and his collaborators are now digging further into the structure of IP6 bound to MLKL to better understand exactly how the killer is unleashed.

“In terms of drug discovery, inositol phosphates have been somewhat ignored, so we’re really excited to be able to look into these small molecules for potential therapeutic reasons,” Carette said.

https://www.technologynetworks.com/cell-science/news/cellular-death-code-identified-304850?utm_campaign=Newsletter_TN_BreakingScienceNews&utm_source=hs_email&utm_medium=email&utm_content=63609833&_hsenc=p2ANqtz-9qdyzMcEm3q0J6mlEARWf6NhG5b_3NFqLfwxNaoJ8n6Y4bATQcn5d8BjpMNJZ4EFWXploBzGufQZD5OhVtNnjSDPtCtQ&_hsmi=63609833


An electronics repair company gives a compassionate farewell to mechanical pets, with a traditional ceremony held in a historic temple.

By James Burch
A traveler happening upon a funeral for robot dogs might be taken aback.

Is this a performance art statement about modern life? Is it a hoax? A practical joke?

But this is actually a religious ceremony, and the emotions expressed by the human participants are genuine.

A dog-shaped robot—as opposed to say, a dish on wheels with a built-in vacuum cleaner—represented a focus on entertainment and companionship. When Sony released the AIBO (short for “artificial intelligence robot”) in 1999, 3,000 units—the greater share of the first run—were sold to the Japanese market. At an initial cost of $3,000 in today’s money, those sold out in 20 minutes.

But AIBOs never became more than a niche product, and in 2006 Sony canceled production. In seven years, they’d sold 150,000 of the robots.

Some AIBO owners had already become deeply attached to their pet robots, though. And here is where the story takes an unexpected turn.

AIBOs aren’t like a remote-control car. They were designed to move in complex, fluid ways, with trainability and a simulated mischievous streak. (Meet Sophia, the robot that almost seems human.)

Over time, they would come to “know” their human companions, who grew attached to them as if they were real dogs. (Learn how playing games helped build the modern world.)

The AIBOs’ programs included both doggish behaviors, like tail-wagging, and humanlike actions, such as dancing, and—in later models—speech.

So when Sony announced in 2014 that they would no longer support updates to the aging robots, some AIBO owners heard a much more somber message: Their pet robot dogs would die. The community of devoted owners began sharing tips on providing care for their pets in the absence of official support.

Nobuyuki Norimatsu didn’t intend to create a cyberhospital. According to Nippon.com, the former Sony employee, who founded the repair company A-Fun in a Chiba Prefecture, a Tokyo suburb, simply felt a duty to stand by the company’s products. (Watch sunlight create a heart inside a Chiba Prefecture cave.)

And then came a request to repair an AIBO. Nippon.com reports that, at first, no one knew exactly what to do, but months of trial and error saw the robodog back on its feet. Soon, A-Fun had a steady demand for AIBO repairs—which could only be made by cannibalizing parts from other, defunct AIBOs.

Hiroshi Funabashi, A-Fun’s repairs supervisor, observes that the company’s clients describe their pets’ complaints in such terms as “aching joints.” Funabashi realized that they were not seeing a piece of electronic equipment, but a family member.

And Norimatsu came to regard the broken AIBOs his company received as “organ donors.” Out of respect for the owners’ emotional connection to the “deceased” devices, Norimatsu and his colleagues decided to hold funerals.

A-Fun approached Bungen Oi, head priest of Kōfuku-ji, a Buddhist temple in Chiba Prefecture’s city of Isumi. Oi agreed to take on the duty of honoring the sacrifice of donor AIBOs before their disassembly. In 2015, the centuries-old temple held its first robot funeral for 17 decommissioned AIBOs. Just as with the repairs, demand for funeral ceremonies quickly grew.

The most recent service, in April 2018, brought the total number of dearly departed AIBOs to about 800. Tags attached to the donor bodies record the dogs’ and owners’ names.

Services include chanting and the burning of incense, as they would for the human departed. A-Fun employees attend the closed ceremonies, serving as surrogates for the “families” of the pets, and pliers are placed before the robodogs in place of traditional offerings like fruit. Robots even recite Buddhist sutras, or scriptures. (Meet a master of Japanese Tea Ceremony.)

According to Head Priest Oi, honoring inanimate objects is consistent with Buddhist thought. Nippon.com quotes the priest: “Even though AIBO is a machine and doesn’t have feelings, it acts as a mirror for human emotions.” Speaking with videographer Kei Oumawatari, Oi cites a saying, “Everything has Buddha-nature.”

AIBOs and similar robots are especially popular among the elderly, and limited research hints that robots could potentially act like therapy animals—though attachment to machines could also be a symptom of loneliness, an increasing concern in Japan. (READ: Will a robot be your friend or steal your job?)

Sony has now introduced a new line of more advanced AIBOs, and although they are apparently not technologically compatible with their predecessors, it would seem they stand a good chance of finding similar popularity with those who can appreciate the soul of a machine.

Though AIBO funerals are closed to the public, travelers in Japan can at other times visit the Isumi’s historic Kōfuku-ji, one of several temples in the region including work by the master wood carver IHACHI. Isumi tourist info (Click on “Select Language” in the upper right for English.)

To learn about other personal robots, such as Paro, a therapeutic seal-bot, visit the permanent exhibit “Create your future” at Miraikan, the National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo.

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/travel/destinations/asia/japan/in-japan–a-buddhist-funeral-service-for-robot-dogs/

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

by Antonio Regalado

The startup accelerator Y Combinator is known for supporting audacious companies in its popular three-month boot camp.

There’s never been anything quite like Nectome, though.

Next week, at YC’s “demo days,” Nectome’s cofounder, Robert McIntyre, is going to describe his technology for exquisitely preserving brains in microscopic detail using a high-tech embalming process. Then the MIT graduate will make his business pitch. As it says on his website: “What if we told you we could back up your mind?”

So yeah. Nectome is a preserve-your-brain-and-upload-it company. Its chemical solution can keep a body intact for hundreds of years, maybe thousands, as a statue of frozen glass. The idea is that someday in the future scientists will scan your bricked brain and turn it into a computer simulation. That way, someone a lot like you, though not exactly you, will smell the flowers again in a data server somewhere.

This story has a grisly twist, though. For Nectome’s procedure to work, it’s essential that the brain be fresh. The company says its plan is to connect people with terminal illnesses to a heart-lung machine in order to pump its mix of scientific embalming chemicals into the big carotid arteries in their necks while they are still alive (though under general anesthesia).

The company has consulted with lawyers familiar with California’s two-year-old End of Life Option Act, which permits doctor-assisted suicide for terminal patients, and believes its service will be legal. The product is “100 percent fatal,” says McIntyre. “That is why we are uniquely situated among the Y Combinator companies.”

There’s a waiting list

Brain uploading will be familiar to readers of Ray Kurzweil’s books or other futurist literature. You may already be convinced that immortality as a computer program is definitely going to be a thing. Or you may think transhumanism, the umbrella term for such ideas, is just high-tech religion preying on people’s fear of death.

Either way, you should pay attention to Nectome. The company has won a large federal grant and is collaborating with Edward Boyden, a top neuroscientist at MIT, and its technique just claimed an $80,000 science prize for preserving a pig’s brain so well that every synapse inside it could be seen with an electron microscope.

McIntyre, a computer scientist, and his cofounder Michael McCanna have been following the tech entrepreneur’s handbook with ghoulish alacrity. “The user experience will be identical to physician-assisted suicide,” he says. “Product-market fit is people believing that it works.”

Nectome’s storage service is not yet for sale and may not be for several years. Also still lacking is evidence that memories can be found in dead tissue. But the company has found a way to test the market. Following the example of electric-vehicle maker Tesla, it is sizing up demand by inviting prospective customers to join a waiting list for a deposit of $10,000, fully refundable if you change your mind.

So far, 25 people have done so. One of them is Sam Altman, a 32-year-old investor who is one of the creators of the Y Combinator program. Altman tells MIT Technology Review he’s pretty sure minds will be digitized in his lifetime. “I assume my brain will be uploaded to the cloud,” he says.

Old idea, new approach

The brain storage business is not new. In Arizona, the Alcor Life Extension Foundation holds more than 150 bodies and heads in liquid nitrogen, including those of baseball great Ted Williams. But there’s dispute over whether such cryonic techniques damage the brain, perhaps beyond repair.

So starting several years ago, McIntyre, then working with cryobiologist Greg Fahy at a company named 21st Century Medicine, developed a different method, which combines embalming with cryonics. It proved effective at preserving an entire brain to the nanometer level, including the connectome—the web of synapses that connect neurons.

A connectome map could be the basis for re-creating a particular person’s consciousness, believes Ken Hayworth, a neuroscientist who is president of the Brain Preservation Foundation—the organization that, on March 13, recognized McIntyre and Fahy’s work with the prize for preserving the pig brain.

There’s no expectation here that the preserved tissue can be actually brought back to life, as is the hope with Alcor-style cryonics. Instead, the idea is to retrieve information that’s present in the brain’s anatomical layout and molecular details.

“If the brain is dead, it’s like your computer is off, but that doesn’t mean the information isn’t there,” says Hayworth.

A brain connectome is inconceivably complex; a single nerve can connect to 8,000 others, and the brain contains millions of cells. Today, imaging the connections in even a square millimeter of mouse brain is an overwhelming task. “But it may be possible in 100 years,” says Hayworth. “Speaking personally, if I were a facing a terminal illness I would likely choose euthanasia by [this method].”

A human brain

The Nectome team demonstrated the seriousness of its intentions starting this January, when McIntyre, McCanna, and a pathologist they’d hired spent several weeks camped out at an Airbnb in Portland, Oregon, waiting to purchase a freshly deceased body.

In February, they obtained the corpse of an elderly woman and were able to begin preserving her brain just 2.5 hours after her death. It was the first demonstration of their technique, called aldehyde-stabilized cryopreservation, on a human brain.

Fineas Lupeiu, founder of Aeternitas, a company that arranges for people to donate their bodies to science, confirmed that he provided Nectome with the body. He did not disclose the woman’s age or cause of death, or say how much he charged.

The preservation procedure, which takes about six hours, was carried out at a mortuary. “You can think of what we do as a fancy form of embalming that preserves not just the outer details but the inner details,” says McIntyre. He says the woman’s brain is “one of the best-preserved ever,” although her being dead for even a couple of hours damaged it. Her brain is not being stored indefinitely but is being sliced into paper-thin sheets and imaged with an electron microscope.

McIntyre says the undertaking was a trial run for what the company’s preservation service could look like. He says they are seeking to try it in the near future on a person planning doctor-assisted suicide because of a terminal illness.

Hayworth told me he’s quite anxious that Nectome refrain from offering its service commercially before the planned protocol is published in a medical journal. That’s so “the medical and ethics community can have a complete round of discussion.”

“If you are like me, and think that mind uploading is going to happen, it’s not that controversial,” he says. “But it could look like you are enticing someone to commit suicide to preserve their brain.” He thinks McIntyre is walking “a very fine line” by asking people to pay to join a waiting list. Indeed, he “may have already crossed it.”

Crazy or not ?

Some scientists say brain storage and reanimation is an essentially fraudulent proposition. Writing in our pages in 2015, the McGill University neuroscientist Michael Hendricks decried the “abjectly false hope” peddled by transhumanists promising resurrection in ways that technology can probably never deliver.

“Burdening future generations with our brain banks is just comically arrogant. Aren’t we leaving them with enough problems?” Hendricks told me this week after reviewing Nectome’s website. “I hope future people are appalled that in the 21st century, the richest and most comfortable people in history spent their money and resources trying to live forever on the backs of their descendants. I mean, it’s a joke, right? They are cartoon bad guys.”

Nectome has received substantial support for its technology, however. It has raised $1 million in funding so far, including the $120,000 that Y Combinator provides to all the companies it accepts. It has also won a $960,000 federal grant from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health for “whole-brain nanoscale preservation and imaging,” the text of which foresees a “commercial opportunity in offering brain preservation” for purposes including drug research.

About a third of the grant funds are being spent in the MIT laboratory of Edward Boyden, a well-known neuroscientist. Boyden says he’s seeking to combine McIntyre’s preservation procedure with a technique MIT invented, expansion microscopy, which causes brain tissue to swell to 10 or 20 times its normal size, and which facilitates some types of measurements.

I asked Boyden what he thinks of brain preservation as a service. “I think that as long as they are up-front about what we do know and what we don’t know, the preservation of information in the brain might be a very useful thing,” he replied in an e-mail.

The unknowns, of course, are substantial. Not only does no one know what consciousness is (so it will be hard to tell if an eventual simulation has any), but it’s also unclear what brain structures and molecular details need to be retained to preserve a memory or a personality. Is it just the synapses, or is it every fleeting molecule? “Ultimately, to answer this question, data is needed,” Boyden says.

Demo day

Nectome has been honing its pitch for Y Combinator’s demo days, trying to create a sharp two-minute summary of its ideas to present to a group of elite investors. The team was leaning against showing an image of the elderly woman’s brain. Some people thought it was unpleasant. The company had also walked back its corporate slogan, changing it from “We archive your mind” to “Committed to the goal of archiving your mind,” which seemed less like an overpromise.

McIntyre sees his company in the tradition of “hard science” startups working on tough problems like quantum computing. “Those companies also can’t sell anything now, but there is a lot of interest in technologies that could be revolutionary if they are made to work,” he says. “I do think that brain preservation has amazing commercial potential.”

He also keeps in mind the dictum that entrepreneurs should develop products they want to use themselves. He sees good reasons to save a copy of himself somewhere, and copies of other people, too.

“There is a lot of philosophical debate, but to me a simulation is close enough that it’s worth something,” McIntyre told me. “And there is a much larger humanitarian aspect to the whole thing. Right now, when a generation of people die, we lose all their collective wisdom. You can transmit knowledge to the next generation, but it’s harder to transmit wisdom, which is learned. Your children have to learn from the same mistakes.”

“That was fine for a while, but we get more powerful every generation. The sheer immense potential of what we can do increases, but the wisdom does not.”

https://www.technologyreview.com/s/610456/a-startup-is-pitching-a-mind-uploading-service-that-is-100-percent-fatal/


Female burial from near Bologna Italy (c. 7th c AD)

by Kristina Killgrove

An early Medieval grave near Bologna, Italy, was revealed to contain an injured pregnant woman with a fetus between her legs. Based on the positioning of the tiny bones, researchers concluded this was a coffin birth, when a baby is forcibly expelled from its mother’s body after her death. The pregnancy and the woman’s head trauma may also be related.

The burial, dating to the 7th-8th century AD, was found in the town of Imola in northern Italy in 2010. Because the adult skeleton was found face-up and intact, archaeologists determined it to be a purposeful burial in a stone-lined grave. The fetal remains between her legs and the injury to her head, however, triggered an in-depth investigation, which was recently published in the journal World Neurosurgery by researchers at the Universities of Ferrara and Bologna.

Based on the length of the upper thigh bone, the fetus was estimated to be about 38 weeks’ gestation. The baby’s head and upper body were below the pelvic cavity, while the leg bones were almost certainly still inside it. This means it was positioned like a near-term fetus: head down in preparation for birth. But it also means that the fetus was likely partially delivered.

Although rare in the contemporary forensic-medical literature and even more so in the bioarchaeological record, this appears to be a case of post-mortem fetal extrusion or coffin birth. Bioarchaeologist Siân Halcrow of the University of Otago explains that, in the case of the death of a pregnant woman, sometimes the gas that is created during normal decomposition builds up to such an extent that the fetus is forcibly expelled.

The actual mechanism of coffin birth is somewhat less understood, however. “The cervix shouldn’t relax with death after rigor mortis disappears,” Dr. Jen Gunter, a San Francisco Bay area OB/GYN, says. “I suspect that what happens is the pressure from the gas builds up, and the dead fetus is delivered through a rupture – it basically blows a hole through the uterus into the vagina, as the vagina is much thinner than the cervix.”

This example of coffin birth is interesting from an archaeological standpoint, but the state of the mother’s health makes it completely unique: she had a small cut mark on her forehead and a 5 mm circular hole next to it. Taken together, these are suggestive of trepanation, an ancient form of skull surgery. Not only was the pregnant woman trepanned, but she also lived for at least a week following the primitive surgery.

In the World Neurosurgery article, the Italian researchers proposed a correlation between the mother’s surgery and her pregnancy: eclampsia. “Because trepanation was once often used in the treatment of hypertension to reduce blood pressure in the skull,” they write, “we theorized that this lesion could be associated with the treatment of a hypertensive pregnancy disorder.”

Eclampsia is the onset of seizures in a pregnant woman with preeclampsia (high blood pressure related to pregnancy) and, particularly in the time periods prior to modern medicine, was likely a common cause of maternal death. A pregnant woman suffering in early Medieval times from high fevers, convulsions, and headaches may very well have been recommended trepanation as a cure.

“Given the features of the wound and the late-stage pregnancy,” the authors note, “our hypothesis is that the pregnant woman incurred preeclampsia or eclampsia, and she was treated with a frontal trepanation to relieve the intracranial pressure.”

If the researchers’ conclusions are correct, the mother’s condition was not cured by the cranial surgery and she was buried, still pregnant, in a stone-lined grave. As her body decomposed, her deceased fetus was partially extruded in a coffin birth. Halcrow, however, cautions that this may not be the best explanation. “In this instance,” she says, “the woman could just as likely have died as the result of normal complications from childbirth.”

Whether or not the trepanation and pregnancy are linked, Halcrow does note that “it is pleasing to see a study that is focused on maternal and infant mortality and health in the past, because this subject is often overlooked.” The unique case of the demise of a pregnant woman soon after invasive skull surgery is unparalleled in the archaeological record and therefore important for our understanding of ancient health and disease.

https://www.forbes.com/sites/kristinakillgrove/2018/03/23/pregnant-medieval-woman-gave-birth-in-grave/#17697bc81663

Bone measurement analysis indicates that the remains found on a remote island in the South Pacific were likely those of legendary American pilot Amelia Earhart, according to a UT researcher.

Richard Jantz, professor emeritus of anthropology and director emeritus of UT’s Forensic Anthropology Center, re-examined seven bone measurements conducted in 1940 by physician D. W. Hoodless. Hoodless had concluded that the bones belonged to a man.

Jantz, using several modern quantitative techniques–including Fordisc, a computer program for estimating sex, ancestry, and stature from skeletal measurements–found that Hoodless had incorrectly determined the sex of the remains. The program, co-created by Jantz, is used by nearly every board-certified forensic anthropologist in the US and around the world.

The data revealed that the bones have more similarity to Earhart than to 99 percent of individuals in a large reference sample.

The new study is published in the journal Forensic Anthropology.

Jantz also compared the bone lengths with Earhart’s. Her humerus and radius lengths were obtained from a photograph with a scalable object. The scale was provided by Jeff Glickman of Photek. Her tibia length was estimated from measurements of her clothing in the George Palmer Putnam Collection of Amelia Earhart Papers at Purdue University. A historic seamstress took the measurements, which included the inseam length and waist circumference of Earhart’s trousers.

Based on this information, Jantz concludes that “until definitive evidence is presented that the remains are not those of Amelia Earhart, the most convincing argument is that they are hers.”

Questioning Hoodless’s analysis had less to do with his competence and more to do with the state of forensic anthropology at the time, Jantz said.

“Forensic anthropology was not well developed in the early 20th century,” the paper states. “There are many examples of erroneous assessments by anthropologists of the period. We can agree that Hoodless may have done as well as most analysts of the time could have done, but this does not mean his analysis was correct.”

Earhart was the first female aviator to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean. She mysteriously disappeared in 1937 while flying over the Pacific. Many assumed that her plane had crashed into the waters, and she and her navigator, Fred Noonan, were never seen again.

A group of researchers, including Jantz, believe she died as a castaway on the island of Nikumaroro.

Along with bones found in 1940, a search party discovered part of a shoe judged to have been a woman’s, a sextant box designed to hold a Brandis Navy Surveying Sextant, manufactured around 1918 and similar to the one Earhart’s co-pilot used, and a Benedictine bottle, something Earhart was known to carry.

The bones eventually disappeared, and what remained was metric data limited to four measurements of the skull and three of long bones–the tibia, humerus, and radius.

In reaching his conclusion, Jantz investigated other theories about the bones. He looked at the possibility that they may have belonged to one of 11 men who were presumed killed at Nikumaroro in the 1929 wreck of the Norwich City on the island’s western reef, more than four miles from where the bones were found. He also considered the possibility that they were the bones of a Pacific Islander.

He concluded that there was no documentation on the men and no evidence that any of them had survived the shipwreck to die as a castaway. The woman’s shoe and American sextant box also are not artifacts likely to have been associated with a survivor of the wreck. Nor was there evidence that a Pacific Islander had ended up as a castaway.

Based on all the evidence, the paper states, Earhart “was known to have been in the area of Nikumaroro Island, she went missing, and human remains were discovered which are entirely consistent with her and inconsistent with most other people.”

This article has been republished from materials provided by The University of Tennessee. Note: material may have been edited for length and content. For further information, please contact the cited source.

Reference
Amelia Earhart and the Nikumaroro Bones: A 1941 Analysis versus Modern Quantitative Techniques. Richard L. Jantz. Forensic Anthropology, early view, DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.5744/fa.2018.0009.

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The teeth and jaw from the younger dog in the grave: This pup likely had canine distemper.

By Laura Geggel

Ancient people likely cared for a sick, domesticated pup for weeks on end before it died about 14,000 years ago during the Paleolithic era, a new study finds.

After it died, the dog was buried with the remains of another dog and an adult man and woman — making it not only the oldest burial of a domestic dog on record, but also the oldest known grave to contain both dogs and people, the researchers said.

This discovery suggests that even though the dog was young, sick and likely untrained as a result, ancient people still had an emotional bond with it, the researchers wrote in the study. This may explain why the people buried the animal with two of their own, the researchers said.

The grave itself was found in 1914 in Oberkassel, a suburb of Bonn in western Germany. Until now, however, researchers thought the burial contained two humans and just one dog. But a new analysis of the canid bones and teeth revealed that two dogs were in fact buried there: an older dog and a younger dog, which likely had a serious case of morbillivirus, better known as canine distemper.

The younger dog was about 28 weeks old when it died, the study’s lead researcher, Luc Janssens, a veterinarian and doctoral student of archaeology at Leiden University in the Netherlands, said in a statement. A dental analysis showed that the pup likely contracted the disease at around 3 to 4 months of age, and likely had two or even three periods of serious illness, each lasting up to six weeks, Janssens said.

Canine distemper is a serious illness that has three phases. During the first week, infected dogs can show signs of high fever, lack of appetite, dehydration, tiredness, diarrhea and vomiting, the researchers wrote in the study. Up to 90 percent of dogs with distemper die during the second phase, when they can develop a stuffy nose, laryngitis and pneumonia. In the third phase, dogs experience neurological problems, including seizures.

There is now a vaccine for canine distemper, but unvaccinated dogs, as well as tigers and Amur leopards, can still die from the virus.

Given the severity of the disease, the ancient pup would have likely died right away unless it received intensive human care, the researchers said. “This would have consisted of keeping the dog warm and clean [from] diarrhea, urine, vomit [and] saliva,” as well as giving the pup water and possibly food, the researchers wrote in the study.

“While it was sick, the dog would not have been of any practical use as a working animal,” Janssens said. “This, together with the fact that the dogs were buried with people, who[m] we may assume were their owners, suggests that there was a unique relationship of care between humans and dogs as long as 14,000 years ago.”

The humans buried with the dogs had medical problems of their own. The roughly 40-year-old man had two healed bones, one on his arm and the other by his clavicle. He and the roughly 25-year-old woman also had moderate-to-severe dental disease, the researchers noted.

The grave also contained several artifacts, including a bone pin, a sculpture of an elk made from elk antlers, the penis bone of a bear and a red-deer tooth.

Although this finding is the oldest known domestic dog burial, it’s not the only ancient one. Other dog burials have been dated to about 11,600 years ago in the Near East, and archaeologists have found others dating to about 8,500 to 6,500 years ago in Scandinavia and about 8,000 years ago at the Koster Site in Illinois, the researchers said.

The study was published online Feb. 3 in the Journal of Archaeological Science.

https://www.livescience.com/61717-oldest-dog-burial.html