Future Pandemic – Is an Outbreak Inevitable?

Scientists, and other researchers, spend much of their time developing ways to prevent possible disasters, both natural and unnatural, from taking place. History is famous for repeating itself, and there have been several recorded pandemics that were responsible for the deaths of a large percentage of the population. The Spanish Flu outbreak, in 1918, is one of the most deadly examples. An incredibly contagious form of influenza, this virus affected everybody and spread to some of the most remote parts of the planet. It is estimated that, over the course of two years, the Spanish Flu killed between 50-100 million people worldwide.

Although our medical techniques, and pharmaceuticals, have advanced significantly since the early 20th century; The General Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), Tedros Adhanom, has addressed the fact that we are still as unprepared for a pandemic as we were at the beginning of the 20th century. The dreaded event could begin in any country and spread quickly, before most nations were aware of its presence. Although this is a scenario we have witnessed many times in horror books, and films, the possibility of it happening in real life is much higher than most of us would like to admit.

Tedros pointed out that, ‘Universal health coverage is the greatest threat to global health.’ He went on to explain that as many as 3.5 billion people still do not have access to essential health services. Others that can attain the services are often forced into poverty, because of the high costs of this care. To avoid this problem many people neglect seeking medical treatment, even when it is necessary. This results in many illnesses progressing further than can be treated, and an unnecessary spreading of infectious diseases. This negligence could result in the earliest signs of an outbreak being overlooked.

Each country’s health organization relies on funding from their government to monitor the spread of diseases, as well as ensure the proper treatment. The (CDC) Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States, has recently announced that its budget for the epidemic prevention programs is being cut by 80%. In light of a possibly outbreak occurring at any moment, other countries are also experiencing the same difficulties. This demonstrates that governments are viewing healthcare as an unnecessary cost, instead of a necessary investment.

Tedros pointed out that healthy citizens are an advantage to the economy of any country. It has been proven that proper healthcare from children are in the womb, which is continued throughout their childhood, helps to make them stronger members of society. He also noted that at the moment a possible pandemic couldn’t be predicted, but dreads the terrible toll it would take on humanity. Despite there being no guarantee that a pandemic free world will ever be created, he is urging that we take back the control of our own lives. The best way to ensure our survival is by governments investing in proper healthcare, in every way possible, for each and every one of its citizens.

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Winning the Fight Against HIV and AIDS

It is estimated that over 35 million people worldwide are currently living with HIV. The virus attacks and destroys our immune system resulting in AIDS, in its final stages. HIV weakens the immune system by destroying T-helper cells, which are a type of white blood cell. It then duplicates itself, and break down the cells completely over time. This limits the ability of those infected to fight off diseases and infections. The speed at which the virus progresses is determined by the individual’s age and health. For most people, if HIV is left untreated for 10 to 15 years it collapses the immune system. This results in an inability to fight off any infection, and inevitably death.

A significant amount of research has gone into ways in which HIV can be stopped before it begins to multiply, thus preventing it from breaking down the immune system. A study was recently conducted at Loyola University in Chicago, which suggests that this might be possible. Results were published in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and showed a method which would incorporate the microtubule tracks through which the virus travels and a protein called bicaudal D2.

HIV moves through the body so quickly that the immune system doesn’t have enough time to react to its presence. The virus uses microtubules, and attaches to bicaudal D2, to transport itself to the nucleuses of the T-helpers. If the protein is missing the virus cannot find its way to the nucleus. The researchers suggested stranding the virus by creating a drug which prevents it from attaching to the bicaudal D2. It would remain in the cytoplasm, which is filled with other proteins and mitochondria. Due to its small size, in comparison to these surrounding elements, the virus could not navigate to the nucleus.

The scientists believe that this method will be essential in the creation of future treatments for HIV, and possibly coming up with a cure. Each patient reacts differently to current treatment options, which researchers are hoping to use alongside the bicaudal D2 detachment method to inhibit the progress of the virus. More experiments need to be conducted to ensure that any drug made using this process would be safe, as well as compatible with other HIV treatments. Some of the methods currently being used include: antibodies which can kill up to 99% of HIV strains, and a vaccine by Johnson and Johnson which is being tested in Africa. The vaccine would prevent those exposed from getting the virus, to begin with.

Mission V – Completing the First Stages of a Mission to Mars

On January 19, 2017 six participants, which had been selected for a special NASA mission, entered a ‘dome’ located on Big Island in Hawaii. The project was hosted by The University of Hawaii, on behalf of NASA, and its aim is to determine the psychological effects of long term isolation. The living conditions were designed to reflect those that would be necessary for future missions to Mars. The ‘space’ accommodation, which housed the four men and two women, was approximately the size of a two bedroom apartment. During their stay they were allowed no physical contact with the outside world and their communication with NASA was delayed by 20 minutes, which is the same amount of time it would take during a mission to Mars.

Sian Proctor/University of Hawaii via AP

In excess of 700 applicants were put through a detailed screening process, requiring background and personality checks and several full length interviews. The team which was selected included: engineers, a biomedical expert, a computer scientist and a doctoral candidate. Crew members for expeditions to Mars will need to be in the best of health, both physically and mentally, sufficiently qualified and with an ability to solve problems as they arise. NASA plans to send a crew to an asteroid in the 2020s and Mars by the 2030s, which will take a minimum of 2-3 years to complete. The dome experiment has proved successful in showing NASA ways in which the crew will need to be supported during their journeys.

The dome where the crew stayed is operated by the University of Hawaii, and called Hawaii Space Exploration Analog and Simulation (HI-SEAS). Two previous NASA missions have taken place here, lasting a year and eight months respectively, to determine food requirements and how to build a healthy rapport with crew members. There are sleeping quarters for each crew member, kitchen, bathroom and a laboratory in the dome, and meals consist mainly of freeze dried and tin foods and snacks. The landscape on Big Island is similar to the one on Mars, with its rugged terrain. To maintain the crew’s sense of isolation, food packages were dropped off a short distance from the dome and robots sent to retrieve them.

Sian Proctor/University of Hawaii via AP

Although not confined to the dome, the team were required to wear spacesuits when going out. The outings were mainly for mapping the landscape, geological exploration or other tasks related to what the experience would be like on Mars. Each participant was also equipped with a monitor, worn around the neck, which measured their mood as well as their proximity to other crew members. Virtual reality devices were also provided to simulate comforting experiences and surroundings. As the end of the mission was approaching, even though they had enjoyed the experience, the crew members were all eager to get back to their everyday lives.

The Creation of Artificial Intelligence Modelled on the Human Brain

The human brain is one of the most important, complicated parts of the body. It is capable of extraordinary intelligence and guides the performance of actions that are necessary for our survival. Along with our spinal cords, our brains makes up our central nervous system which is the means of communication between our mind and our body. In addition, it is responsible for retaining our memories, reasoning ability, logical thoughts and subsequent actions. IBM, and other companies, have started to model their artificial intelligence systems on the human brain, to usher in a new era of technology.

This has become necessary for artificial intelligence to continue to evolve. Previously, these systems were built with all the knowledge they require, while a human brain can accumulate additional knowledge over time. They also require access to a large amount of data to be programmed. New skills require the old information to be wiped out and completely reprogrammed. The human brain, on the other hand, learns things incrementally and adds more to its storage constantly. Our intelligence is based on our reasoning capabilities and the ability to apply new information logically, based on past experiences. Artificial intelligence cannot apply logic to any situation it may be faced with, thus limiting its uses.

IBM has done extensive research into our neurological and psychological systems, and applied the knowledge they have gained from this to their development. The company’s ultimate goal is to create artificial intelligence that can learn for a lifetime, and adapt to new circumstances while retaining all knowledge it had previously acquired. The process to achieve this has been split into two sections: short-term adaptation, where a limited amount of time is spent on training a system, and long-term adaptation, which is inspired by the way that the brain forms memories.

The company’s DeepMind team has already created a synthetic neural network, which is designed to use reasoning skills to complete tasks. The systems fitted with the new network have been tested with a series of questions that have forced them to use this ability. 96% of the time these new systems could answer the questions correctly, compared to 42 – 77% in previous artificial intelligence models. The researchers are also adapting the network to store memories, by paying more attention to details and events.

IBM believes that these methods will be the way to change the future of artificial intelligence. These newly acquired reasoning skills mean that after a while the systems would be able to improve and build themselves, which many people think could be a scary possibility. If monitored correctly, however, this development would be monumental for the future of industries that rely on artificial intelligence for expansion. The technology could also be used to save countless lives, fast forward our space and deep sea exploration, and many life changing events.

Meditation – Can you control your brain?

Meditation has been practised for thousands of years to calm the mind and increase one’s awareness of self. It is widely used by spiritual leaders, and is highly recommended to combat the stresses of modern day life. A meditative state can be achieved by disconnecting from external distractions and focusing on the source of life…the breath. The benefits of meditation are endless and include: less anxiety and an increased ability to deal with stressful situations. Scientists have proven where regular meditation stimulates the sections of the brain that help overcome anxiety and depression, as well as increase pain tolerance. Other ways in which meditation can change the brain are:

  1. Changes in Brain Waves

People that meditate regularly have higher levels of alpha waves which reduce negative feelings, and thoughts.

  1. A Change in the Density of Grey Matter

In studies conducted, after eight weeks of meditation the grey matter in the brain associated with learning, memory and emotion was more dense. In addition, those areas of the brain associated with fear and other negative emotions had decreased grey matter. There was also increased grey matter in areas of the prefrontal cortex, responsible for planning, problem solving and regulating emotions.

  1. Stimulation of the Hippocampus

In meditators, there is an increased cortical thickness in the hippocampus, which is the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Resting the mind through meditation also improves self-awareness, as well as increases goal setting and motivation.

  1. Slows Down our Thought Patterns

Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to change the brain in ways that help to boost relationships with others. It causes the decreased activation of our ‘monkey mind’ (Default Mode Network), which is responsible for the constant stream of thought in our heads. These thoughts lead to rumination and a decrease in overall happiness. Mindfulness stimulates our brain to slow down and create deliberate thought patterns. The result is a more aware, less receptive mind and lifestyle, a decrease in our judgement of others and an increased ability to accept them. This in turn boosts our positive interactions with others.

  1. Other Benefits

Meditation also increases the heart rate to more effectively transport oxygen and carbon dioxide through the body. Mediators are more likely to resist diseases as their system produces more antibodies, and those that are sick can use it as a tool to help with their recovery. Scientists think that shortened telomeres in our bodies help to make us ill. These special protein complexes protect our DNA. Studies have shown where meditation promotes the lengthening of telomeres in cancer survivors, effectively helping them combat the disease.