Month: June 2017

29 Jun 2017
Manahel Thabet

A New Gene-Editing Breakthrough Could Forever Change Life on Earth


The discovery of the gene-editing technology CRISPR came, in part, from Jennifer Doudna, a biochemist at the University of California, Berkeley. “It’s very profound,” she told NBC News. “It means that we can control human evolution now.”

With collaborator Emmanuelle Charpentier, Doudna was able to harness a curiosity in the DNA of certain bacteria and help turn CRISPR into the world’s most accessible gene-editing technology. The discovery is detailed in Doudna’s new book titled “A Crack in Creation.”

The Dangers of Gene-Editing

In the book, Doudna says that the days of costly, complicated processes to edit DNA are over. We’re now in an age of CRISPR, and it’s a profoundly simple technique. Doudna compares CRISPR to word-processing software that allows someone to correct a typo in a hefty document.

At the Innovative Genomics Institute in Berkeley where Doudna is executive director, teams of scientists are working to find new approaches to treating disorders like cancer, sickle cell anemia, and some forms of blindness. But CRISPR isn’t limited to Doudna’s lab. Its low cost and ease of use have helped the technology proliferate to labs all over the world.

hiv crispr-cas9 gene editing hiv cure
Image Source: National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health

At UT Southwestern in Dallas, Dr. Eric Olson is chasing a cure for Duchenne muscular dystrophy. At an insectary at UC Irvine, Dr. Anthony James has created mosquitoes that can pass on malaria resistance to some of their offspring. At the Salk Institute in La Jolla, Calif., CRISPR is being used to pursue a gene-engineered pig with transplantable human organs.

But with the thrill of discovering such a powerful tool came a somber realization. Doudna describes a nightmare: “Hitler was leaning forward and looking at me very intently. And he said, ‘So please tell me about the CRISPR technology.’ And I just felt this chill running down my back.”

Doudna knows better than anyone that with the power to alter evolution comes a daunting responsibility: Make sure it doesn’t get misused.

This Gene-Editing Breakthrough Could Change Life on Earth was originally published by NBC Universal Media, LLC on June 15, 2017 by Munir Atalla and Brenda Breslauer. Copyright 2017 NBC Universal Media, LLC. All rights reserved.

25 Jun 2017
Manahel Thabet

Mind Power: How To Overcome Your Fears, Get Unstuck, And Fuel Your Success

What scares you? Learning how to overcome fears of failure can be challenging for everyone.

Fortunately, all fears are learned. No one is born with fears. Fears can therefore, be unlearned by practicing self-discipline repeatedly with regard to fear until it goes away. The most common fears that we experience, which often sabotage all hope for success, are the fear of failure, poverty, and loss of money. These fears cause people to avoid risk of any kind and to reject opportunity when it is presented to them. They are so afraid of failure that they are almost paralyzed when it comes to taking any chances at all.

There are many other fears that interfere with our happiness.

  • People fear the loss of love or
  • People fear the loss of their jobs and their financial security.
  • People fear embarrassment or ridicule.
  • People fear rejection and criticism of any kind.
  • People fear the loss of respect or esteem of others.

These and many other fears hold us back throughout life…

Here are a few techniques to help you overcome your fears and fuel your success:

Fear Paralyzes Action

The most common reaction in a fear situation is the attitude of, “I can’t!”. This is the fear of failure that stops us from taking action. It is experienced physically, starting in the pit of your stomach.When people are really afraid, their mouth and throat go dry, their heart starts pounding. Sometimes they breathe shallowly and their stomach churns. These are all physical manifestations of the inhibitive negative habit pattern, which we all experience from time to time.

Fear Shuts Our Brain Down

Whenever a person is in the grip of fear, he feels like a deer caught in the headlights of a car. This fear paralyzes action. It often shuts down the brain and causes the individual to revert to the “fight-or-flight” reaction. Fear is a terrible emotion that undermines our happiness and can hold us back throughout our lives.

Visualize Yourself As Unafraid

By visualizing yourself performing with confidence and competence in an area where you are fearful, your visual image will eventually be accepted by your subconscious mind as instructions for your performance. Your self-image, the way you see yourself and think about yourself, is eventually altered by feeding your mind these positive mental pictures of yourself performing at your best.

Practice Acting “As If”

By using the “act as if” method, you walk, talk, and carry yourself exactly as you would if you were completely unafraid in a particular situation. You stand up straight, smile, move quickly and confidently, and in every respect act as if you already had the courage that you desire.

Use The Law Of Reversibility

The Law of Reversibility says that “If you feel a certain way, you will act in a manner consistent with that feeling.” But if you act in a manner consistent with that feeling, even if you don’t feel it, the Law of Reversibility will create the feeling that is consistent with your actions. This is one of the greatest breakthroughs in success psychology. You develop the courage you desire by disciplining yourself repeatedly to do the thing you fear until that fear eventually disappears—and it will.

Confront Your Fears Immediately

Your ability to confront, deal with, and act in spite of your fears is the key to happiness and success. One of the best exercises you can practice is to identify a person or situation in your life of which you are afraid and resolve to deal with that fear situation immediately. Do not allow it to make you unhappy for another minute. Resolve to confront the situation or person and put the fear behind you.

Move Toward The Fear

When you identify a fear and discipline yourself to move toward it, it grows smaller and more manageable. What’s more, as your fears grow smaller, your confidence grows.  Soon, your fears lose their control over you. In contrast, when you back away from a fear-inducing situation or person, your fear grows larger and larger. Soon it dominates your thinking and feeling, preoccupies you during the day, and often keeps you awake at night.

Deal With The Fear Directly

  • The only way to deal with a fear is to address it head-on.
  • Remind yourself that, “Denial” is not a river in Egypt.
  • The natural tendency of many people is to deny that they have a problem caused by fear of some kind. They’re afraid of confronting it. In turn, it becomes a major source of stress, unhappiness, and psychosomatic illness.
  • Be willing to deal with the situation or person directly.
  • As Shakespeare said, “Take arms against a sea of troubles, and in so doing, end them.”
  • When you force yourself to face any fear-inducing situation in your life, your self-esteem goes up, your self-respect increases, and your sense of personal pride grows.
  • You eventually reach the point in life where you are not afraid of anything.
21 Jun 2017

How Neurofeedback Encourages Mindful Parenting & Flexibility

How many parents truly get a break from the day-to-day tasks and stressors of life?  Not the majority i’m assuming!  With so much to do in so little time, the biggest task of parenthood is having to be flexible: some parents are CEOs, single parents, parents to kids with special needs or illness, students, moms to multiple children/twins/triplets!  To put it bluntly, moms have amazing superpowers. That being said, some parents also come with a traumatic history, or at the very least struggle with depression or anxiety, making it hard to be flexible between these roles and then completely zapped of energy by the end (or throughout) the day.


Mindful Parenting In A Complex World

When kids ask for more, act out, show signs of struggle or dis-ease, this can be incredibly triggering for a traumatized mama (or papa) and makes it essentially impossible to respond with loving care.  This is often when we find ourselves acting out of our old habits:  reacting with a fight, running away (into a wine glass perhaps) or freezing (knocked out on the couch and we can’t get up.)  Even if we didn’t have personal trauma, there is a such thing as intergenerational trauma: mamas/papas pass trauma down to other mamas/papas from line to line to line.   This has been discovered scientifically on a biological and emotional level.  For instance, it was found that mothers who survived the Holocaust with PTSD ended up having children with low cortisol levels passed on in utero.  Low cortisol levels have been found to be a biological precursor for being vulnerable to having PTSD in one’s life because it damages one’s ability to cope with and bounce back from trauma.  Emotionally, you can also imagine that a traumatized mother might have difficulty being attuned to her child by reflecting back affect appropriately, especially if she herself is continuously jumping between fight/flight and freeze. This gets passed on and on and on.

Healing Complex Trauma – How Neurofeedback Training Can Help.

The good news is there are many ways that someone can heal from trauma, re-regulating their nervous system and reviving themselves as a newly flexible mom.  One of the best medicines for re-regulating the nervous system is the use of neurofeedback.

What is Neurofeedback?

Neurofeedback isn’t going to cure the stressors of parenthood, but it does allow for more freedom within the nervous system to be flexible with changing circumstances.  

From one minute to the next, we aren’t certain that our child will be crying or tantruming, to easefully playing by themselves or wanting you to play with them or feed them for the umpteenth time today.  In a nutshell, we don’t have control over them or their changing needs!  At times, motherhood can feel like a comedy of errors; I remember walking through Central Park last year with my 6 month old to meet my friend and having to change my screaming daughter about 3 times before we reached the other side.  When our traumatized self meets those experiences, we can become rigid and frozen, react by yelling or perhaps burst into tears with overwhelm.

When we are in a more regulated state, which neurofeedback trains our nervous system to be in again and again, we can meet the situation head on and perhaps even laugh about it.  It allows us to have more choices about how we would like to respond rather than being at the mercy of how our nervous system would automatically have us react in the face of a perceived threat.  Our crying baby is not a tiger on the savannah, but the nervous system might react like it is, and as a results we might go into freeze (depression), flight (anxiety) or fight (aggression).  Neurofeedback opens up the options for responding and gives us more choices for taking action; such as “Now what can i do because my baby has been crying for an hour and is difficult to soothe?”  We can become more creative and spontaneous with our answers to that question.


Moreover, i often find that parents who train regularly with neurofeedback are able to stick much more easily to a self care regimen.

What Is Your Self-Care Regiment?

Everyone knows that parents don’t get a lot of rest in the beginning– with a newly regulated nervous system, however, it becomes much more possible to listen to when we need to rest, nap and even get in more restful sleep at night because we aren’t stuck in a state of hypervigilance (often a side effect of those early months!).

We are also able to listen to ourselves overall about when we might need a break, a walk around the park or to go exercise. When our nervous system is dysregulated (in fight/flight/or freeze), we are less able to access resources and options to help ourselves because we might be too overwhelmed and consumed to do so.

Neurofeedback helps to reallocate this energy wherever we would like to put it– hopefully towards reinvigorating and renewing ourselves when needed!   I often recommend that entire families rent a home system and engage in neurofeedback home training because when one person’s nervous system in a family unit becomes regulated, the others often want to follow.  For instance, when mom, dad and son all train together, their nervous systems can act like “tuning forks”– if mom’s system is regulated, this will encourage her son’s system to regulate and vice versa.


11 Jun 2017

Experts Weigh in on AI and the Singularity


Nine experts weighed in on the future of artificial intelligence and machine learning recently for IEEE Spectrum. Their answers provide a glimpse into what’s coming in the world of AI and what to expect from the Singularity.


Artificial intelligence (AI) is progressing so fast that there are new developments in the field almost every week. The tendrils of AI grow further into human life and continue to rapidly intertwine with our reality, and this process will only accelerate. Some worry about the consequences of a future in which AIs have more capabilities than humans, while some relish this prospect. IEEE Spectrum has just published a special issue for June 2017, which reports on the views of nine visionaries, technologists, and futurists on what’s coming in AI.

Each expert was asked, “When will we have computers as capable as the brain?” Ray Kurzweil thinks this will happen in 2029, while Jürgen Schmidhuber simply agrees that it will be “soon,” and Gary Marcus estimates that it will happen 20 to 50 years from now. Nick Bostrom predicts “within a small number of decades.” Rodney Brooks is a little more conservative, estimating 50 to 100 years, while both Robin Hanson and Martine Rothblatt think that it will happen within the 21st century.

Ruchir Puri’s answer to this question was perhaps the most interesting: “A human brain is fundamentally different than being a champion chess, ‘Jeopardy!,’ or Go player. It is something that entails essential traits like caring, empathy, sharing, ingenuity, and innovation. These human brain traits might prove to be elusive to machines for a long time. . .. Although AI’s impact on society will accelerate further. . .it will be a while before we will be able to holistically answer [that] question.”

Image Credit: Geralt/Pixabay
Image Credit: Geralt/Pixabay


So, “How will brainlike computers change the world?” Robin Hanson thinks that humans will get rich from robot labor, while Gary Marcus anticipates major advancements in science and medicine and Martine Rothblatt agrees with Kurzweil that we will essentially eventually become downloadable and therefore immortal. Ray Kurzweil sees AI as a massive brain extender, and therefore a problem solver, making every aspect of our lives better. Rodney Brooks thinks making realistic predictions about this isn’t possible since it’s too far off, and instead posits that in 20 years, baby boomers — including Kurzweil — will be assisted by in-home computers, but won’t be immortal. Jürgen Schmidhuber thinks that AIs will be fascinated by the possibilities of space as they become self-motivated and pursue their own goals.

Finally, “Do you have any qualms about a future in which computers have human-level (or greater) intelligence?” Carver Mead points out that people always fear new technologies, even though history shows that we have continually benefitted from them. Robin Hanson thinks anyone who doesn’t have qualms about a change this momentous isn’t paying attention, but Martine Rothblatt doesn’t have qualms, because she thinks human needs will shape a Darwinian market for robots. Ray Kurzweil thinks we will avoid peril and gain optimally by merging with AI. Nick Bostrom is concerned by the problem of scalable control of AI, while Rodney Brooks says he has “no qualms at all,” and that “qualming” is not useful, even for Nick Bostrom. Gary Marcus doesn’t see clear solutions to potential problems yet, but thinks that future technologies will provide them.

The experts had different ideas about many things, but there was no dispute about the most important point: the singularity is coming, and it’s closer than we think.

04 Jun 2017

Timing May Be Everything When Using Electrical Brain Stimulation to Boost Your Memory


Running electrical currents through your brain has the potential to boost learning, but the results are inconsistent. New research has found that your state of mind during the zap influences its effects.

The first time I heard that shooting electrical currents across your brain can boost learning, I thought it was a joke.

But evidence is mounting. According to a handful of studies, transcranial direct current stimulation (tDCS), the poster child of brain stimulation, is a bona fide cognitive booster: By directly tinkering with the brain’s electrical field, some research has found that tDCS enhances creativity, bolsters spatial and math learning and even language aquisition — sometimes weeks after the initial zap.

For those eager to give their own brains a boost, this is good news. Various communities have sprung up to share tips and tricks on how to test the technique on themselves, often using self-rigged stimulators powered by 9-volt batteries.

Scientists and brain enthusiasts aren’t the only people interested. The military has also been eager to support projects involving brain stimulation with the hope that the technology could one day be used to help soldiers suffering from combat-induced memory loss.

But here’s the catch: the end results are inconsistent at best. While some people swear by the positive effects anecdotally, others report nothing but a nasty scalp burn from the electrodes.

In a meta-analysis covering over 20 studies, a team from Australia found no significant effects of tDCS on memory. Similar disparities pop up for other brain stimulation techniques. It’s not that brain stimulation isn’t doing anything — it just doesn’t seem to be doing something consistently across a diverse population. So what gives?

It looks like timing is everything.


We all have good days when your brain feels sharp and bad days when the “brain fog” never lifts. This led scientists to wonder: because electrical stimulation directly regulates the activity of the brain’s neural networks, what if it gives them a boost when they’re faltering, but conversely disrupts their activity when already performing at peak?

In a new study published in “Current Biology,” researchers tested the idea using the most direct type of brain stimulation — electrodes implanted into the brain. Compared to tDCS, which delivers currents through electrodes on the scalp, implanted ones allow much higher precision in controlling which brain region to target and when.

Blue dots indicate overall electrode placement in the new study from the University of Pennsylvania; the yellow dot (top-right corner) is the electrode used to stimulate the subject’s brain to increase memory performance. Image Credit: Joel Stein and Youssef Ezzyat, CC BY-ND

The team collaborated with a precious resource: epilepsy patients who already have electrodes implanted into their hippocampi and surrounding areas. These brain regions are crucial for memories about sequences, spaces and life events. The electrodes serve a double purpose: they both record brain activity and deliver electrical pulses.

The researchers monitored the overall brain activity of 102 epilepsy patients as they memorized 25 lists of a dozen unrelated words and tried to recall them later on.

For each word, the researchers used the corresponding brain activity pattern to train a type of software called a classifier. In this way, for each patient the classifier eventually learned what types of brain activity preceded successfully remembering a word, and what predicted failed recall. Using this method, the scientist objectively classified a “foggy” brain state as the pattern of brain activity that preceded an inability to remember the word, while the pattern of activity common before successfully recalling is characteristic of being on the ball.

Next, in the quarter of patients for whom the classifier performed above chance, the researchers zapped their brains as they memorized and recalled a new list of words. As a control, they also measured memory performance without any stimulation, and the patients were asked whether they could tell when the electrodes were on (they couldn’t).

Here’s what they found: when the zap came before a low, foggy brain state, the patients scored roughly 12 to 13 percent higher than usual on the recall task. But if they were already in a high-performance state, quite the opposite occurred. Then the electrical pulse impaired performance by 15 to 20 percent and disrupted the brain’s encoding activity — that is, actually making memories.


This study is notably different from those before. Rather than indiscriminately zapping the brain, the researchers showed that the brain state at the time of memory encoding determines whether brain stimulation helps or hinders. It’s an invaluable insight for future studies that try to tease apart the effects of brain stimulation on memory.

The next big challenge is to incorporate these findings into brain stimulation trials, preferably using noninvasive technologies. The finding that brain activity can predict recall is promising and builds upon previous research linking brain states to successful learning. These studies may be leveraged to help design “smart” brain stimulators.

For example: picture a closed-loop system, where a cap embedded with electrodes measures brain activity using EEG or other methods. Then the data go to a control box to determine the brain state. When the controller detects a low functioning state, it signals the tDCS or other stimulator to give a well-timed zap, thus boosting learning without explicit input from the user.

Of course, many questions remain before such a stimulator becomes reality. What are the optimal number and strength of electrical pulses that best bolster learning? Where should we place the electrodes for best effect? And what about unintended consequences? A previous study found that boosting learning may actually impair a person’s ability to automate that skill — quickly and effortlessly perform it — later on. What other hidden costs of brain stimulation are we missing?

I’m not sure if I’ll ever be comfortable with the idea of zapping my brain. But this new study and the many others sure to follow give me more confidence: if I do take the leap into electrical memory enhancement, it’ll be based on data, not on anecdotes.

 Read more articles from The Conversation