At a rally in Fresno, California today, newfound irrigation expert Donald Trump finally revealed the solution to the drought that’s been crippling California for the past five years: Turn the water back on, idiots.
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The 1927 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine went to an Austrian doctor with an unusual obsession. Julius Wagner-Jauregg had been treating bouts of dementia in people with advanced syphilis by injecting them with blood from a malaria patient. The induced malarial fevers, he reported in 1917, curbed their dementia.
For centuries medicine has flirted with the notion that heat – whether produced by fever, heat lamps, or a warm bath – can treat mental illness. Since Wagner-Jauregg’s ethically fraught work, the idea has fallen out of favor, and “fever therapies” have, understandably, failed to catch on.
But the idea has returned in a new clinical trial suggesting that the spa-like experience of lying back while your body is heated for an hour or two acts as a mood enhancer – one that’s powerful enough to rapidly curb symptoms of depression.
“Hyperthermia made people feel immediately happy – excited, happy, energetic,” lead researcher Charles Raison, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told BuzzFeed News. “I think it provides an explanation for why sweat lodges evolved so many times across history.”
Some 16 million adults in the U.S. have depression, but antidepressant drugs don’t work for many and come with a variety of side effects. So the hunt for alternatives or complements to drug-based treatments, particularly those that work quickly, is on in earnest.
Earlier this week, for example, a team from Imperial College London reported that psilocybin, the hallucinogenic compound in magic mushrooms, improved the symptoms of 12 people with depression when conventional medicines had failed to work.
The new hyperthermia study included 30 people with mild depression. About half the group went through a body-warming treatment that elevated their body temperature to about 101.3 degrees Fahrenheit for a little over an hour using infrared lights and heating coils placed a few feet away. The other group went through a procedure that was staged to look similar, but didn’t heat their bodies as much.
After that single session, the volunteers returned to the lab for weekly psychiatric evaluations for six weeks. Both groups saw a mild improvement in their depression symptoms. But only those who had the full hyperthermia saw their improved moods last through that period. This group scored at least five points lower than the control group each week on the Hamilton Rating Scale, a questionnaire-based evaluation that reflects the severity of depression symptoms.
“It’s a good proof-of-concept randomized control trial,” Noah Philip, assistant professor of psychiatry and human behavior at Brown University and the Providence VA Medical Center, told BuzzFeed News. The results, he said, “give the green light that we are looking at a relevant mechanism.”
But he cautioned that the trial only included people with mild depression, who may be more likely to respond to the heat treatment than those with a more severe form of the illness. “It’s easier to get there,” he said.
“I think it’s innovative. I think it’s not a crazy idea – it’s not the final word, obviously,” David Avery, professor emeritus at the University of Washington School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News. “If the data accumulates and it’s approved by the Food and Drug Administration as a medical device,” he added, “I think patients would be willing to try this treatment.”
The study researchers were inspired by reports from oncologists who used intense heat as one of the treatments for their patients’ cancers. Even if their cancer didn’t shrink, the heat treatment improved their moods, those reports found.
Others are investigating why some children with autism seem to show improved social and communication abilities when they have fevers brought on by colds. Research on this so-called “fever effect” is still in its infancy, and scientists don’t know why heat treatments may have such pronounced effects on the brain. But studies in mice and rats may provide some clues.
For example, a team at the University of Colorado at Boulder that is studying rats warmed with heat say they see responses in the serotonin pathways of the brain, similar to those brought on by antidepressant drugs.
“We know there are some thermosensitive pathways that go through the spinal cord and we’re asking in great detail which are those pathways,” Christopher Lowry, an associate professor of integrative physiology at the University of Colorado Boulder who also collaborated on the new study, told BuzzFeed News.
In future studies, Janssen and Raison plan to investigate whether successive heat sessions have a better effect. They also want to try it in people with post-traumatic stress disorder, many of whom also experience depression.
Given how much they can actually do, computers have a surprisingly simple basis. Indeed, the logic they use has worked so well that we have even started to think of them as analogous to the human brain. Current computers basically use two basic values – 0 (false) and 1 (true) – and apply simple operations like “and”, “or” and “not” to compute with them. These operations can be combined and scaled up to represent virtually any computation.
This “binary “or “Boolean” logic was introduced by George Boole in 1854 to describe what he called “the laws of thought.” But the brain is far from a binary logic device. And while programs such as the Human Brain Project seek to model the brain using computers, the notion of what computers are is also constantly changing.
So will we ever be able to model something as complex as the human brain using computers? After all, biological systems use symmetry and interaction to do things that even the most powerful computers cannot do – like surviving, adapting and reproducing. This is one reason why binary logic often falls short of describing how living things or human intelligence work. But our new research suggests there are alternatives: by using the mathematics that describe biological networks in the computers of the future, we may be able to make them more complex and similar to living systems like the brain.
Living organisms do not live in a world of zeroes and ones. And if binary logic doesn’t naturally describe their activity, what kind of mathematics does? I was involved in an international project which studied whether mathematical structures called “Simple Non-Abelian Groups“ (SNAGs) may describe complex processes in living cells. SNAGs are commonly in mathematics and physics, and are based on the principles of symmetry and interaction. SNAGs offer a potentially powerful alternative to binary logic for computation.
There are infinitely many kinds of SNAGs. They were conjured by the brilliant 19th-century French mathematician Évariste Galois, who tragically died aged 20 in a fatal duel over a romantic interest. Indeed, he wrote much of his ground-breaking theory during a feverish night before the duel.
The smallest SNAG – A5 – describes the symmetries of two beautiful 3D shapes known since the time of the ancient Greeks: the icosahedron (made of 20 triangles) and the dodecahedron (made of 12 pentagons). SNAGs can be thought of as the “multiplication tables” of how symmetries interact, rather than for how to multiply numbers.
Dodecahedron and Icosahedron (Platonic Solids): 3D shapes with SNAG symmetry
Unlike the ones and zeros used in binary logic with just two values, the SNAG for each of these shapes have 60 values – or “symmetries.” These symmetries operate like rotations that can be combined. Performing a rotation and following it with a second can have the same effect as another kind of rotation, giving a kind of “multiplication table” for these 60 symmetries. For example, if you rotate the icosahedron (the figure below) five times by 72 degrees clockwise around the axis through its centre and any vertex (corner) it will get back to the starting configuration.
The structure of SNAGs is a natural kind of basis for computation that is just as powerful as binary logic, but presents a very different view about which computations are easy. To compute with SNAGs, nature (or humans or future computers) can use sequences of SNAG symmetries combined according to the rules. Patterns of events and interactions determine which symmetries occur in the sequence’s variable positions.
We have for the first time shown that there are SNAGs hidden in common biological networks. To do this, we analyzed the internal workings of cells (their gene regulation and metabolism) using mathematics, computers and models from systems biology. We found that SNAG symmetries accurately describe potential activities in the genetic regulatory network that controls a cell’s response to certain kinds of stress – such as radiation and DNA damage. This may be hugely important as it means SNAGs can describe cellular processes intimately involved in self-repair, “cell suicide,” and cancer.
The specific SNAG involved in this gene network is A5. The 60 symmetries in this case are the result of particular sequences of manipulations by the cell’s genetic regulatory network to transform ensembles of proteins into other forms. For example, when a set of five concentration levels of proteins is manipulated, it can be transformed to another set. When this is done many times, it can break some of the proteins down, join some together or synthesize new types of proteins. But after a specific number of manipulations the original five concentration levels of proteins will eventually return.
It doesn’t stop at cellular damage control processes. We have also shown mathematically that nearly all biological reaction networks must have numerous embedded SNAG components. However, lab work is still needed to explain how and to what extent cells exploit SNAGs in their activity.
Computation with SNAGs has never yet been exploited in conventional computers, but we are hoping to use it. In the future, new kinds of computers and software systems may deploy resources the way some living organisms do, in robust adaptive responses. Driven by interaction with their environment, including human users, they could grow new structures, divide up tasks among different types of computational “cells” such as hardware units or software processes, allow old structures to wither and be reabsorbed if unused.
Understanding how living things and brains use interaction-based computations, which are all around us, may radically reshape not only our computers and the internet, but the existing models of the brain and living organisms. SNAG-based computations may finally help us build better and more predictive working models of cells and of the brain. But we have only sighted the first examples, and so have a long way to go. After all, as Shakespeare and this discovery of SNAG-computation in cells remind us: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
Banner image courtesy of Shutterstock.com.
Since March, 75 people were infected with chicken pox in a South Williamsburg Orthodox Jewish community. The NYC health department is investigating the outbreak which almost exclusively affected infants and children up to 10 years old who were not vaccinated against the varicella virus or hadn’t finished the vaccination course.
Don’t invite him to your birthday party.
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