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The Reasons This Year’s Flu Season Has Been Devastating Are, Yes, Mostly Your Fault

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 10:00 AM PST

Whether you got a flu shot or not (or whether you have a strong opinion on flu shots, or not), the flu doesn’t really care. Because thousands, every year, get sick with the flu. Sometimes, it just costs them a few days at work. Others get so sick that their lives are literally endangered. And so it goes, year after year: New flu vaccine, same flu debate, people sick regardless.

Normally, this affects a few thousand Americans per year. This year’s flu season, though, is a real doozy. The flu’s spread to 48 states and Puerto Rico, causing a record 14,676 hospitalizations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

It’s logical to ask: What the heck happened? Why wasn’t this country more prepared? And don’t we make a flu vaccine to prevent this kind of thing?

U.S. Air Force member receives a flu shot.
Image credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Senior Airman Areca T. Wilson.

Like all complex problems, the answer is just as multi-faceted as the questions you have to ask to find it.

Just a few reasons why this year’s flu has been exceptionally virulent?

The Flu Strain Guessing Game: It’s true that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration releases a flu vaccine to the public every year to try to head off the virus. Ideally, the vaccine contains a harmless form of the flu strain that’s sickening people in the country already that year. But to be ready for flu season, manufacturers have to come up with these vaccines well before the season itself is underway. So anticipating the virus’ mutation du jour becomes a glorified guessing game. Plus, the efficacy of the vaccine can depend on how easy it is to grow the thing in the lab. Even on a good year, when the vaccine matches the season’s strains, the shot can only reduce people’s risk of getting the flu by 40 to 60 percent. And we know that this year isn’t a good one; this year’s vaccine is only about 30 percent effective.

People Don’t Get The Vaccine: Here’s the thing about vaccines? For them to work, you actually have to get one. And to fight the flu, you have to get one every year. No matter how often advertisements remind people, or how inexpensive the shots are, or how easy it’s made for patients to come in and get their jabs, flu shots are always a hard sell. In order for people to willingly go out and get poked in the arm for a disease they might not even contract, they generally have to be convinced the vaccine is safe and necessary. So far, the public health officials and doctors trying to convince patients to do so have mixed results at best.

People Convince Themselves They Shouldn’t Get The Vaccine: People, you might’ve heard, are sometime irrational. For example, they’re convinced that the flu shot will get them sick with the flu or worse. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t. According to the New York Times, one flu patient told her doctor, "I heard you can get Alzheimer's from it — that there's mercury in it, and it goes to your brain,” Just to be clear, here, there’s no mercury in the vaccine, nor is there any recorded instance of someone getting Alzheimer’s from a flu shot. We checked. A lot of people have checked.

Others believe that the dangers the flu presents simply don’t apply to them. Gloria Copeland, a Texas evangelist and member of President Trump’s faith advisory council, reportedly told her followers they didn’t need to get the flu vaccine because “Jesus himself gave us the flu shot,” she said. “We’ve already had our shot. He bore our sicknesses and carried our diseases. That’s what we stand on.” Most public health officials would disagree that the Jesus Flu Shot is sufficient protection during flu season, let alone a particularly bad one.

And When They Don’t, They Compromise Herd Immunity. Epidemiology 101: The more people vaccinated against a disease, the harder it is for the germs to spread. This protects the people who haven’t been vaccinated, especially those with compromised immune systems, such as the young, old, and infirm. More people have been vaccinated this year, but it’s apparently not enough to achieve herd immunity, which means more people could get sick.

You know how you can help stop this flu season from getting worse? Get the shot. Just do it. Yes, it’s not perfect, but even a semi-functional vaccine is better than none. Here, we’ll even help get you started. All of us in the herd thank you.

The post The Reasons This Year’s Flu Season Has Been Devastating Are, Yes, Mostly Your Fault appeared first on Futurism.

Hydroelectric Projects Are Displacing Indigenous Groups in the Amazon

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 09:53 AM PST

The High Cost of Power

In 2011, Norte Energia began constructing the Belo Monte Dam on Brazil’s Xingu River, and when the group finishes in 2019, it will own the fourth largest hydroelectric dam complex in the world. It will also have contributed to a problem currently wreaking havoc on local human and animal populations in the Amazon region.

“When they close the river, it will be like they are destroying our lives.”

For 30 years, the local community has fought off the construction of the Belo Monte Dam. While their methods have been controversial — bus burnings and hostage crises sometimes took the place of marches and lobbying efforts — for them, it was a life and death situation.

“When they close the river, it will be like they are destroying our lives,” Giliarde Juruna, chief of a village in the Paquiçamba territory, told The Guardian in 2014. “We have always lived off the river. This region here is where we've lived – from our ancestors until today. The impact will be huge.”

In 2011, Norte Energia responded to the backlash with a two-year-long attempt to buy off those who would be affected with widescreen TVs and four-wheel drive vehicles, according to The Guardian report.

“We cannot save the forest and live in the dark without TV. There is a conflict of interest here. We need balance. I think Belo Monte is a compromise,” Jaimie Juraszek, construction superintendent of Norte Energia, told The Guardian at the time.

Fish Food

The Belo Monte Dam has already flooded large portions of the Amazon rainforest, irreversibly changing the lives of the people that once inhabited the area. Its construction forced many to move to some of the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods in Brazil, and it’s far from unique in the region.

Hydropower development is booming in the Amazon right now, and Brazil currently generates more than 70 percent of its electricity via hydropower. That’s a good thing, in terms of clean energy, but as those displaced by the Belo Monte Dam and others can attest, this development isn’t without its downsides.

According to a new study of more than 300 dams and proposed dams for rivers in the area, the impact of these projects has been greatly underestimated, not only in terms of human populations, but biodiversity as well.

Renewable Energy Sources Of The Future [Infographic]
Click to View Full Infographic

Freshwater fish are more diverse in this region than anywhere else on the planet, with estimates indicating the area is home to between 3,500 and 5,000 different species. Many are migratory, traveling thousands of miles down routes that are steadily being destroyed by construction.

As for the humans living in the region, many once supported themselves by catching and selling these fish. Decreased populations took away their livelihood. "I used to take 50kg [of fish] each night. Now I'm lucky to get 2kg," Glio Alvas da Silva told The Guardian in 2014. He ended up having to take a job breaking rocks for the dam.

Seeing a country the size of Brazil generate so much clean energy is great. However, even renewables can have a negative effect on their surroundings if they aren’t implemented in a conscientious manner. While it’s true that we need to address humanity’s impact on the environment, we can’t forget our humanity while doing so.

The post Hydroelectric Projects Are Displacing Indigenous Groups in the Amazon appeared first on Futurism.

Can a Brain Zap Really Boost Your Memory?

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 07:38 AM PST

If this is the first you’re hearing about electrical stimulation of the brain, you’re probably imaging it as a plot device central to a Netflix Original Black Mirror / House of Cards crossover; some kind of torture method to get spies of the future to spill it.

Not only are these techniques not torturous, they’re not even particularly futuristic. Deep Brain Stimulation (DBS) has been used to treat neurological conditions like Parkinson’s and epilepsy for decades, and it’s now been explored as a way of keeping symptoms of dementia at bay. Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), has existed since the 1980s as a treatment for major depression.

TMS uses magnetic pulses and has long been the less invasive of the two, but both techniques rely on the ability to target only certain areas of the brain. This is especially important in DBS, which uses electrodes implanted into the patient’s brain to target specific regions. As you might expect, implanting an electrode into someone’s brain so you can send an electrical current to it is not something neuroscientists do willy-nilly just to run experiments. Generally speaking, the research we have about these methods draws on the experiences of patients who already have the implants for treatment.

Image Credit: Creative Commons
Image Credit: Creative Commons

Two recent studies, one from the Mayo Clinic and the other from the University of Pennsylvania, looked at whether these therapies could have unrealized potential. Patients with degenerative neurological conditions can certainly have trouble with their memory, but could these therapies also be used in patients who don’t have a neurological disorder in need of treatment?

In order to study the effect of well-placed electrical zaps to the brain had on memory, researchers in the Mayo study asked groups of patients to try to remember a list of words as they zapped a few different regions of their brains. Of the 22 patients in the study, the four who had the lateral temporal cortex region of their brain electrically stimulated recalled more words than the others. This probably wasn’t a coincidence, because that’s the part of our brain that helps us process language.

Meanwhile, the researchers at the University of Pennsylvania were less concerned about which region got the electrical jolt, and more concerned about the timing of it. Their previous research had shown that zapping the brain at the wrong moment could actually have a negative effect on the patient’s ability to remember (oops). The Penn researchers also had a little help the second time around: a computer model that would help them get the timing just right by assessing how well a patient’s learning was going.

Based on the patient’s brain activity, the computer model could tell when they’d learned the words given to them in a memory test – and when they hadn’t. The electrical impulse was triggered whenever the model determined the patient hadn’t learned the word effectively.

The researchers may have been on to something when it came to not just well-placed, but well-timed, zaps: the study showed that they enhanced a patient’s learning and memory by up to 15 percent.

Both of these studies were limited in scope, though. Researchers elsewhere in neuroscience who have responded to the results are generally wary and point out that they don’t address one of the biggest qualms in the field: would a treatment like this work if the memory area of the brain was damaged?

For the time being, better learning through electrical brain implant is something relegated to the future. If you were hoping to use technology to enhance your memory, you’ll have to stick to those brain-training apps for now.

The post Can a Brain Zap Really Boost Your Memory? appeared first on Futurism.

Fun-Hating California Politician Tries To Ban Musk’s Flamethrower

Posted: 08 Feb 2018 05:00 AM PST

20,000 people recently spent $500 a piece on a whimsical indulgence: flamethrowers from Elon Musk. In December 2017, Musk Tweeted about selling flamethrowers from the Boring Company, his business venture (ostensibly) created to dig tunnels for future modes of transportation.

And then, to the incredulity of many, the flamethrowers actually went on sale. And sold out in four days. And if you didn’t think 20,000 people could find uses for a $500 flamethrower, you either wildly underestimated the distribution of wealth, fiscal responsibility, or the amount of people who have ever tried to emulate anything anyone’s ever done on an episode of Jackass.

But there are at least preliminary indications that the flamethrower won’t be allowed everywhere its purchasers may live. In a statement Tweeted by L.A. Times reporter Liam Dillon on January 29, California Assemblyman Miguel Santiago (D-Los Angeles) plans to introduce legislation that would ban Musk’s flamethrower from being sold in California.

Image result for elon musk flamethrower gif
Source: Elon Musk Instagram

The statement is light on specifics about how exactly the state will ban the flamethrowers. But Santiago has pretty decent reasons for opposing widespread ownership of the devices. For one thing, they would be a huge threat to public safety. Do you want to imagine even a single person running around wherever you live with a device that’s literally no longer used in war due to its sheer destructiveness? Santiago’s wording is a bit more diplomatic.

The statement reads:

There are many times in which technology and inventions benefit society, but are not made available to the public. We don’t allow people to walk in off the street and purchase military-grade tanks or armor-piercing ammunition… I cannot even begin to imagine the problems a flamethrower would cause firefighters and police officers alike.

The point about the effect on firefighters is especially poignant, since Santiago’s home district was recently ravaged by wildfires, causing $1 billion in damage. And that’s far from the first time California, in the midst of a deep drought, has been ravaged by wildfires over the past few years. Throwing even just a few more flamethrowers into the mix hardly seems like a salve to those burns.

All in all, Santiago says the product “feels like a complete slap in the face.”

For his part, Musk has made it clear that he intends to do what it takes to dodge prohibitions on the flamethrowers. Take, for example, the fact that various countries ban the shipment or import of anything even called a flamethrower.

For this hurdle, Musk has a ready retort:

Take that, fun-hating federal bureaucrats! Customs agencies are no match for Musk’s clever use of the English language. And editing.

Admittedly, the flamethrowers still might not exist. We’ve only gotten glimpses of the “working” flamethrowers in seconds-long videos. And though Musk has a few reasons why he might dedicate his time and resources to making an insane flame gun, well, then again, he might just choose not to.

But since Musk has already sold $10 million worth of flamethrowers, he’s gonna have to figure something out. Shipment of the (possibly-nonexistent) flamethrowers is slated for the spring. No word yet on when the proposed legislation might kick in, but we can most assuredly promise you this: Rep. Santiago has lost the pyromaniac vote. We’re not in the politics business here, but we also think he’ll live without it.

The post Fun-Hating California Politician Tries To Ban Musk’s Flamethrower appeared first on Futurism.

Why, Exactly, Is Elon Musk Selling Flamethrowers? (or: An Investigation In Hot Theories)

Posted: 07 Feb 2018 02:50 PM PST

It started out as a joke, or at least something in the neighborhood of a joke, but quickly turned into yet another scheme to make a very rich person even richer. The Boring Company, Elon Musk’s business venture (ostensibly) created to dig tunnels for future modes of transportation, now sells flamethrowers.

Yes: Flamethrowers. Just weapons so destructive that the only military to ever drop a nuclear bomb on another nation voluntarily banned itself from using them in 1978.

A lot of people are asking, quite reasonably: Why’s Elon Musk hawking flamethrowers anyway? Doesn’t he have anything better to do?

A few theories:

  • To make a lot of money quickly, or at least show that he can. In the span of four days, pre-orders of the $500 flamethrower were completely sold out. That’s $10 million right off the bat. Most of that will go right into the company’s pocket — the gadgets probably don’t cost much to make (they are “quite literally roof torches strapped to Airsoft rifles,” according to The Verge) and the only marketing to speak of was a few Tweets and Instagram posts. And if you suspect that you might not be the safest flamethrower user out there, The Boring Company sells fire extinguishers separately, of course. Much of the skepticism around Musk is that Tesla is a company with a lot of ideas and not nearly enough product to show for it. With the flamethrower, Musk is demonstrating to the world that he can sell something barely seen, that nobody in the public has ever actually used, and do it in style. Loudly.
  • Because he can. Musk has spent years building up his reputation as a madman-cum-genius, taking on audacious projects others have attempted and failed, from self-driving electric vehicles to sending humans to Mars. And he knows how to get some good press, like the time he used Tesla batteries to restore power to hospitals in hurricane-struck Puerto Rico. While the flamethrower project isn’t quite so altruistic, Musk again shows he knows how to get people going.
  • To prepare for the zombie apocalypse. Or some kind of doomsday. “When the zombie apocalypse happens, you'll be glad you bought a flamethrower,” Musk tweeted shortly before The Boring Company opened up pre-orders. That’s one of several comments he’s made about the item’s capacity to destroy zombies. Even if your bunker isn’t exactly ready for the uprising of the flesh-eating undead, you can admit that Musk is tapping into a sense of wish fulfillment (or paranoia) for those of us raised on films like Aliens and The Thing. Some of us have whiled away our free moments fantasizing about how cool it would be to own a flamethrower of our own. In his replies to the earlier tweet, Musk responded to suggestions that The Boring Company might also offer a jetpack or a portal gun. No word yet on whether those kind-of jokes will also turn into real products (or real sales pitches for products-to-maybe-be).
  • Musk isn’t like your usual billionaire — he’s FUN. You know how you know Elon Musk is fun? He told you so. On Twitter, Musk warned potential customers not to buy the product unless they “like fun” (turns out, not everyone does). By emphasizing FUN, Musk is attempting to distance himself from other risk-taking entrepreneur-geniuses — it’s difficult to imagine Jeff Bezos posting an Instagram video of himself wielding a flamethrower, for example. It’s worth noting, however, that when Musk does something “fun,” he ends up tens of millions of dollars richer as a result.

Which, let’s be real, probably makes it pretty fun to be Elon Musk.

The post Why, Exactly, Is Elon Musk Selling Flamethrowers? (or: An Investigation In Hot Theories) appeared first on Futurism.

Edible QR Codes Could Deliver Exactly What Your Body Needs to Heal

Posted: 07 Feb 2018 01:42 PM PST

When we think of drugs that we can take at home, we may conjure up images of pills, gel capsules, or liquids. Even when doctors write down a prescription, it’ll usually be for a drug coming in one of the aforementioned forms. And it’s likely it’ll be the same amount for multiple people suffering from the same condition, even if some will benefit from the medicine more than others.

This is due to the way medicines are mass produced; nothing is really tailored for a specific person. The mass production of drugs isn’t inherently bad, but it does mean everyone is getting the same exact treatment, even if some may need more or less of it.

A team of researchers from the University of Copenhagen, in collaboration with colleagues from Åbo Akademi University in Finland, believe they’ve come up with a new solution to producing medicine with more accurate dosage: edible QR codes. Okay, maybe it’s not a radically different idea, since you still have to consume something, but there’s more to it than how it gets into the body. And it’s probably easier to swallow than a tiny, unfolding robot.

You see, the QR code is the medicine itself, as well as the label and description. As Natalja Genina, Assistant Professor at Department of Pharmacy and one of the researchers of the study, explains, the code enables the medicine to be tailored to a specific patient and the dose can be the exact amount they need.

Of course, QR codes are meant to be scanned, otherwise they’re just pictures. When they’re scanned, they reveal all the information about the medicine. That includes what it is, and how much of it the code contains. Identifying the medicine should be just as easy as taking a picture, since everyone has a smartphone with a decent camera, and there are hundreds of QR code scanning apps for people to use — heck, the iPhone has one built into its camera.

Making it a scannable QR code could also reduce the chances of people taking the wrong medication, or tricked into taking fake or expired drugs. These situations will be even easier to avoid once the team determines how to get an everyday inkjet printer to apply the medicine as a QR code.

That said, the special edible material will have to be produced in advance to enable on-demand production. Sorry to say, but you probably won’t be able to print the medicine on, say, a piece of lettuce, and consume it that way. However, if this proves to be the future of medicine, you may not have to leave home to get your prescription refilled. Imagine the time (and money) you’ll save.

Professor Jukka Rantanen, fellow researcher on the study, believes edible QR codes will change much more than that, saying: “If we are successful with applying this production method to relatively simple printers, then it can enable the innovative production of personalized medicine and rethinking of the whole supply chain.”

It’ll be some time before QR code medicine shakes up the pharmaceutical industry. For now, the researchers are still working on refining their production methods. Organizations like the US Food and Drug Administration have approved alternative forms of medication in the past, like the smart pill that knows when its ingested, so they might be open to approving edible QR codes too.

The post Edible QR Codes Could Deliver Exactly What Your Body Needs to Heal appeared first on Futurism.

The Falcon Heavy Launched. Here’s What’s Next for SpaceX.

Posted: 07 Feb 2018 12:39 PM PST

At 3:45 p.m. ET yesterday, February 6, SpaceX successfully launched Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in the world. Minutes later, its two 16-story-tall side boosters executed a synchronized landing back at Cape Canaveral, though the fate of the rocket’s center core remained up in the air.

A few hours later, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk cleared up the center core mystery during a press conference about the Falcon Heavy launch, in which he also detailed SpaceX’s next steps.

According to Musk, the center core did make its way back to Earth — just not onto SpaceX’s autonomous drone ship like it was supposed to. Two of the engines used to slow and guide the core didn’t fire as expected, causing it to just miss the ship. This took out two thrusters and showered the deck with shrapnel when the core hit the Atlantic Ocean at approximately 482 kph (300 mph), Musk told reporters.

The loss of the center core was the only blemish on the day. Everything else about the Falcon Heavy launch went as hoped, and SpaceX is already looking forward to how that success could shape the future of space exploration.

"I think it's going to encourage other countries and companies to raise their sights and say, 'We can do bigger and better,' which is great," Musk told reporters, according to Business Insider. "We want a new space race. Space races are exciting.”

As for “bigger and better,” Musk told reporters SpaceX is now turning their own attention to the BFR, the “big f**king rocket” system they hope to use to send humans to the Moon, Mars, and even on quick hops across the Earth.

"There are a lot of uncertainties around this program, but it is going to be our focus," Musk said during the press conference. He noted that he hopes to conduct a "full-scale test" within three to four years. It looks like the rest of the world will be racing against Musk himself to take the title of most powerful rocket away from Falcon Heavy.

The post The Falcon Heavy Launched. Here’s What’s Next for SpaceX. appeared first on Futurism.

FDA Says Kratom Is An Opioid, Damaging Hopes for Addiction Treatment

Posted: 07 Feb 2018 11:30 AM PST

Split Opinion

Depending on who you ask, kratom is either a wonder drug that can safely treat opioid addiction and pain relief, or a significant threat to public health. Now, the Food and Drug Administration has issued a statement arguing that this alternative medicine is an opioid, which could have a major impact on future research.

The FDA used its proprietary Public Health Assessment via Structural Evaluation computer modeling platform to analyze 25 of kratom’s ingredients, and found similarities between these molecules and those found in controlled opioids. The simulation suggested that 22 of the 25 compounds in the substance would bind to the body’s opioid receptors, which is said to indicate that kratom could affect humans in the same way as opioids.

Deaths linked to kratom were also taken into account. The FDA has now received reports of 44 deaths that have been associated with the drug, and released documentation on 36 of those cases today.

Many point to instances where kratom was mixed with other substances. Advocates would likely argue that this points to the dangers of drug interaction, rather than kratom itself. Still, the FDA reports one case where the individual had no known historical or toxicological evidence of opioid use outside of kratom.

The statement released today by the administration declares that:

The FDA stands ready to evaluate evidence that could demonstrate a medicinal purpose for kratom. However, to date, we have received no such submissions and are not aware of any evidence that would meet the agency's standard for approval.

It remains to be seen how easy it will be for researchers to gather such evidence. The FDA’s drug development process requires proof that substances won’t cause serious harm before clinical trials can get underway.

There’s still a lot we don’t know about kratom. But if we jump the gun and classify it as an opioid prematurely, we might harm people who can benefit from its effects.

The post FDA Says Kratom Is An Opioid, Damaging Hopes for Addiction Treatment appeared first on Futurism.

The Ozone Layer is Not Recovering and We Don’t Know Why

Posted: 07 Feb 2018 11:10 AM PST

Unexpected Decrease

A little over three decades now, world communities banded together for a historic deal to keep a hole from the ozone layer from growing. This international treaty, known as the Montreal Protocol, banned the harmful chemicals that were thinning the Earth’s natural ozone barrier that protects us from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation.

Now, a study recently published in the European Geosciences Union journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics suggests that ozone layer recovery in lower latitudes isn’t going as expected. Specifically, the ozone layer in middle to lower latitude areas — where most people live — show unexpected decreases for reasons still unclear.

“[It] is lower today than what was 20 years ago,” says study lead William Bell, an atmospheric physicist from ETH Zurich and PMOD/WRC Davos in Switzerland, speaking to Futurism. “That’s important because it’s a departure from what our [atmospheric] modeling studies suggest should be going on in the lower stratosphere.”

Keeping a Watchful Eye

The results could be the sign of a problem with how atmospheric circulation models have been designed so far. But the ozone layer could also be getting thinner because damaging substances such as chlorine and bromine slipped through the cracks, and were not regulated under the Montreal Protocol.

“These [substances] are increasing but are not included in the models,” Bell said. “It's not that the models are wrong. It's that the scenarios we've set up aren't correct. We would have to update these.” The so called “very short live substances”, of which chlorine and bromine are examples, have previously been ignored because they’re not supposed to be able to survive long enough to reach the ozone layer. “This is something we need to investigate as well, and modeling should be done on this,” Bell added.

One thing is clear, however. The still unexplained decrease in low altitude ozone shouldn’t be taken as a failure of the Montreal Protocol, which, by 2030, will be responsible for a million fewer cases of skin cancer per year. The protocol is also helping fight climate change: from 1989 to 2013, the measures it prescribed helped avoid 135 billion tonnes of climate warming emissions. That’s equivalent to about 5.6 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions yearly.

Moving forward, further actions against climate change — like the Paris Climate Agreement — should require nations to be a bit more alert. At least, “continued monitoring of the system is required,” Bell explained, to make sure that targets are on track and that unexpected environmental factors are checked.

“This is important,” Bell stressed. “We really have to continue monitoring both the ozone layer and the climate system in general to update our models,” because new threats could be emerging, he said.

The post The Ozone Layer is Not Recovering and We Don’t Know Why appeared first on Futurism.

The Future of Male Birth Control: A 2,000 Year Old Poison?

Posted: 07 Feb 2018 10:34 AM PST

While contraceptives available today certainly have limitations, there are far more options available to women than there are to men. Now, a possible solution to this shortage of male birth control options has emerged from a rather unexpected source: a heart-stopping poison daubed on arrows as far back as the 3rd century BC by hunters and warriors in Eastern Africa.

Let that sink in a minute while we take a tour of what’s currently on the market.

Birth control methods can be separated into two broad categories: hormonal and non-hormonal. Methods like the pill tinker with hormones to prevent pregnancy. While these methods usually work pretty well, they can cause a host of side effects: everything from weight gain to an increased risk of developing blood clots. Yes, your birth control can kill you.

On the other hand, non-hormonal options, such as condoms or the diaphragm, don’t come with those scary side effects. They are, however, not always convenient, or available, and how well they work largely depends on whether or not they’re being used consistently — and correctly.

The options for women may not be overwhelmingly great, but they have more of them. There are currently just two contraceptive options for men: condoms or a vasectomy. That could be soon to change, though, because there are a few hormonal options in development — one of which has reached clinical trials.

It’s not the one with the poison arrows, however.

That potential option is the brainchild of a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota. The team has been researching a non-hormonal alternative that would work by making it more difficult for sperm to move or swim. After all, sperm can’t fertilize an egg unless they can get to it.

How are they obstructing the sperm’s mission, you ask? A toxic substance found in African plants known as ouabain. Believe it or not, many mammals actually produce the substance naturally (albeit in very low qualities) and scientists think it plays a role in regulating blood pressure. In fact, doctors sometimes give the substance in very small doses to patients who have heart arrhythmias.

Ouabain works well as a poison because it interferes with protein subunits in the heart that transport ions. Your heart beats because of electrical impulses — and if you recall your high school chemistry class, it’s those electrically-charged ions that tell your heart when to contract. Messing with those ions, then, is a cardiac disaster in the making.

What does this heart-stopping poison have to do with sperm, then? The researchers also found that ouabain can interrupt the work of another subunit — transporter subunit α4 — which is only found in one place: mature sperm cells.

The challenge for the team over the last ten years of their research was to find a way to use a derivative of ouabain that would only hone in on those sperm cells, sparing the heart in the process. The other consideration was permanency: what the team figured out was that since ouabain only effects mature sperm cells when its used to inhibit their movement, the effect shouldn’t last forever. In fact, it should be completely reversible because any new sperm cells that are produced once treatment has been stopped should develop normally.

So far, they’ve tested their idea in the lab using rats and found that the derivative they created did make it harder for sperm to move and didn’t have a toxic effect on the heart. The hope now is that this research will lay the necessary groundwork for developing the ouabain derivative into a safe and effective form of male birth control. And, since it doesn’t affect hormones, it may be an option free from the unpleasant side effects often experienced with many current options.

The team will now be moving into the next phase of research: proving that using a 2,000-year-old poison to make it harder for sperm to swim upstream is actually effective at preventing pregnancy. While using an ancient poison to slow-mo the little swimmers is cool, if it turns out they can still lumber their way to an egg and fertilize it, then touting it as a birth control method might be a tad premature.

The post The Future of Male Birth Control: A 2,000 Year Old Poison? appeared first on Futurism.

Irony Alert? Tech Insiders Form Organization to Combat the Dangers of Technology

Posted: 07 Feb 2018 10:25 AM PST

Reforming an Industry

Today, children have access to technology at quite young an age, something that was largely impossible for generations past. Given that research shows that digital technology affects our brains and that our brains are most malleable when we are children, the potential dangers of tech when used by young people is a hot topic.

Now, a number of tech experts are joining forces in an attempt to protect today’s youth from these dangers. The group is called the Center for Humane Technology, and amongst its ranks are tech experts who worked for Google and Facebook when the companies were just starting out.

“We were on the inside. We know what the companies measure. We know how they talk, and we know how the engineering works,” former Google in-house ethicist Tristan Harris, who heads the new group, told CNBC.

The Center for Humane Technology is working in close collaboration with a number of other groups, including nonprofit media watchdog Common Sense Media, to launch an educational ad campaign called The Truth About Tech.

The campaign will take a similar approach to antismoking programs aimed at children. The goal is to raise awareness amongst children, parents, and educators about the dangers of tech, particularly the depression and depressive behavior that could result from excessive exposure to social media.

“The largest supercomputers in the world are inside of two companies — Google and Facebook — and where are we pointing them?” Harris told CNBC. “We’re pointing them at people’s brains, at children.”

Common Sense Media and the Center for Humane Technology will invest $7 million to fund the campaign to spread awareness about the dangers of tech, while media partners including Comcast and DirecTV will donate $50 million in the form of airtime.

A Degree of Hypocrisy

While the intentions of the Center for Humane Technology’s members are quite noble, there’s something ironic about the whole movement — without the efforts of these early innovators, the state of technology and social media would likely be far different.

Roger McNamee, a Center for Humane Technology member and early investor at Facebook, acknowledges the role guilt plays in the formation of the group, noting that he’s horrified at what he helped create.

“Facebook appeals to your lizard brain — primarily fear and anger. And with smartphones, they’ve got you for every waking moment,” he told CNBC. “This is an opportunity for me to correct a wrong.”

For many, perhaps the biggest surprise is that tech bigwigs, including Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, have long been wary of — or at least aware of — the potential dangers of tech for children.

The iconic “genius” behind Apple was reportedly a low-tech parent who didn’t allow his children to use the iPad when it first launched. The company’s current CEO, Tim Cook, seems to have followed in his predecessor’s footsteps. "I don't have a kid, but I have a nephew that I put some boundaries on,” he told The Guardian. “There are some things that I won't allow; I don't want them on a social network."

Even Sean Parker, the founder of Napster and a known investor at Facebook, has criticized the social network for its “unintended consequences,” telling Axios, “God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.”

Yet despite these words of warning from insiders, it’s business as usual in Silicon Valley. The irony of that is not lost on Common Sense CEO and founder Jim Steyer. “You see a degree of hypocrisy with all these guys in Silicon Valley,” he told CNBC.

“Reversing the digital attention crisis,” as the Center for Humane Technology puts it, will take more than a targeted ad campaign. As such, the group is also planning to lobby Congress to pass legislation that will help by limiting the powers of tech companies and funding research into the impact of tech on children’s health.

While social media and technology can be harmful for adults, children are even more vulnerable. Hopefully, the Center for Humane Technology will be able to help us usher in a future in which we can reap the benefits of technology without the negative consequences.

The post Irony Alert? Tech Insiders Form Organization to Combat the Dangers of Technology appeared first on Futurism.

A Possible Culprit in the Infertility Crisis: Plastic

Posted: 07 Feb 2018 10:19 AM PST

There’s a crisis going on. A crisis of sperm.

Specifically, there isn’t enough of it — at least, not enough of the high-quality stuff. Scientists haven’t quite been sure why this is the case, but a new study indicates a possible culprit: a chemical found in plastic.

The chemical is one you’ve probably heard of before: Bisphenol A (BPA). It’s been used for decades as a component of plastic takeout containers, water bottles, and the inside of cans. But more recently, researchers have discovered that BPA disrupts the endocrine system. Its presence in the body can do things like cause miscarriages, affect the age at which puberty begins — and, yes, lower sperm counts.

That’s a problem because it seems very difficult to avoid BPA. 93 percent of Americans carry BPA in their bodies. And as BPA-laden plastic makes its way from our landfills to waterways, from oceans to the fish we eat, the chemical will surely be found in more places worldwide.

A new study, published in the British Medical Journal, shows that BPA might be affecting fertility in people as young as teenagers. In the study, led by researchers at University of Exeter in the U.K., looked at the sperm count of 94 British teens between ages 17 and 19. The participants were told to limit their contact with the substance for a week by using glass or stainless steel food containers, and refraining from eating canned food. Even so, 86 percent of them still had trace amounts of BPA in their systems after the week was up.

Participants noted that it was hard to steer clear of BPA because of inconsistent labeling that warned that products might contain the chemical. While this may have had some effect on the results of the study, it reflects the real-world challenge of avoiding the substance in normal circumstances.

While research like this raises concerns, the plastics industry maintains that there is no immediate risk posed by BPA. The World Health Organization, the Food and Drug Administration, and the European Food Safety Authority have all previously approved its usage. However, most countries no longer recommend its use in baby bottles, and it was recently added to the European Chemical Agency’s candidate list of substances of very high concern.

The post A Possible Culprit in the Infertility Crisis: Plastic appeared first on Futurism.