Making Sense of Science features interviews with leading medical and scientific experts about the latest developments in health innovation and the big ethical and social questions they raise. The podcast is hosted by journalist Matt Fuchs, editor of the award-winning science outlet Leaps.org.
Bat Superpowers and Preventing Pandemics with Raina Plowright
For this podcast episode, my guest is Raina Plowright, one of the world’s leading researchers when it comes to how and why viruses sometimes jump from bats to humans. The intuition may be that bats are the bad guys in this situation, but the real culprits are more likely humans and their intrusive actions.
Plowright is a Cornell Atkinson Scholar and professor at Cornell in the Department of Public and Ecosystem Health in the College of Veterinary Medicine. Read her full bio here. For a shorter (and lightly edited) version of this conversation, you can check out my Q&A interview with Plowright in the single-issue magazine, One Health / One Planet, published earlier this month by Leaps.org in collaboration with the Aspen Institute and the Science Philanthropy Alliance.
In the episode, Plowright tells me about her global research team that is busy studying the complex chain of events in between viruses originating in bats and humans getting infected with those viruses. She’s collecting samples from bats in Asia, Africa and Australia – which sounds challenging enough but now consider that the diligence required to parse out 1400 different bat species.
We also discuss a high-profile paper that she co-authored last month arguing for greater investment in preventing pandemics in the first place instead of the current approach: putting all our eggs in the basket of trying to respond to them after the fact. Treating pandemic prevention as a a priority is a small price to pay compared with millions of people killed and trillions of dollars spent during the response to COVID-19.
How to Live With and Love Bugs with Jessica Ware
Jessica Ware is obsessed with bugs. My guest today is a leading researcher on insects, the president of the Entomological Society of America and a curator at the American Museum of Natural History. Learn more about her here.
You may not think that insects and human health go hand-in-hand, but as Jessica makes clear, they’re closely related. A lot of people care about their health, and the health of other creatures on the planet, and the health of the planet itself, but researchers like Jessica are studying another thing we should be focusing on even more: how these seemingly separate areas are deeply entwined. (This is the theme of an upcoming event hosted by Leaps.org and the Aspen Institute.)
Maybe it feels like a core human instinct to demonize bugs as gross. We seem to try to eradicate them in every way possible, whether that’s with poison, or getting out our blood thirst by stomping them whenever they creep and crawl into sight. But where did our fear of bugs really come from? Jessica makes a compelling case that a lot of it is cultural, rather than in-born, and we should be following the lead of other cultures that have learned to live with and appreciate bugs.
Jessica and I talk about whether learning to live with insects should include eating them and gene editing them so they don’t transmit viruses. She also tells me about her important research into using genomic tools to track bugs in the wild to figure out why and how we’ve lost 50 percent of the insect population since 1970 according to some estimates – bad news because the ecosystems that make up the planet heavily depend on insects. Jessica is leading the way to better understand what’s causing these declines in order to start reversing these trends to save the insects and to save ourselves.
Living to Age 150 with Steven Austad
Steven Austad is a pioneer in the field of aging, with over 200 scientific papers and book chapters on pretty much every aspect of biological aging that you could think of. He’s a strong believer in the potential for anti-aging therapies, and he puts his money where his mouth is. In 2001, Steve bet a billion dollars that the first person to reach 150-years-old had already been born.
I had a chance to talk with Steven for today’s podcast and asked if he still thinks the bet was a good idea. Steven is the Protective Life Endowed Chair in Health Aging Research, a Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Biology at the University of Alabama Birmingham. He's also Senior Scientific Director of the American Federation for Aging Research, which is managing a groundbreaking longevity research trial that started this year. Steven is also a great science communicator with five books, including one that comes out later this year, Methusalah’s Zoo, and he publishes prolifically in national media outlets.
See the rest of his bio, linked below in the show notes.
2:36 - Why a particular opossum convinced Steven to dedicate himself to studying longevity.
6:48 - His billion dollar bet that someone alive today will make it to 150-years-old.
10:38 - I ask Steven about Elon Musk’s comments this month that if people lived a really long time, “we’d be stuck with old ideas and society wouldn’t advance.” Steve isn’t so fond of that take.
13:34 - Why women are winning maybe the most important battle of sexes: living longer than men.
18:20 - Why women actually have more morbidity earlier on than men even though they live longer.
23:10 - How the pandemic could affect sex differences in longevity.
24:55 - How often we should work out to maximize our longevity and health span.
29:09 - The latest update on the TAME trial, plus how Steven and other longevity experts designed this groundbreaking research in a castle in the Spanish countryside.
32:10 - Which therapies are the most promising at this point.
39:32 - The drug cocktail approach to address multiple hallmarks of aging.
41:00 - How to read health news like a scientist.
45:38 - Should we try a Manhattan project for aging?
48:47 - Can Jeff Bezos and Larry Ellison help us live to 150?
Steven explains why we should want to live a long time, assuming that involves a longer health span, and why it would be good for society.
Steven Austad's bio - https://www.uab.edu/icar/about/icar-leadership/steven-austad#:~:text=Bio%20Information%3A&text=Austad%20is%20a%20Distinguished%20Professor,American%20Federation%20for%20Aging%20Research
Pre-order Steven's new book, Methuselah's Zoo - https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09M2QGRJR/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1
Steven's journal article on Sex Differences in Lifespan - https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27304504/
Elon Musk's comments on super longevity "asphyxiating" society - https://www.cnbc.com/2022/04/11/elon-musk-on-avoid...
Steven's article on how to read news articles about health like a pro - https://www.cnbc.com/2022/04/11/elon-musk-on-avoiding-longevity-research-i-am-not-afraid-of-dying.html
AFAR's research on Targeting Aging with Metformin (TAME) - https://www.afar.org/tame-trial
The Future of Brain Health with Percy Griffin of the Alzheimer's Association
Today's guest is Percy Griffin, director of scientific engagement for the Alzheimer’s Association, a nonprofit that’s focused on speeding up research, detecting Alzheimer’s earlier and other risk reduction measures. Percy has a doctorate in molecular cell biology from Washington University. He’s led important research on Alzheimer’s, and he's a gifted science communicator. His bio is linked in the show notes, below.
The topic of our conversation is the present and future of the fight against dementia. Billions of dollars have been spent by the National Institutes of Health and biotechs to research new treatments for Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, but so far there's little to show for it. Last year, Aduhelm became the first drug to be approved by the FDA for Alzheimer’s in 20 years, but there have been red flags about its effectiveness, side effects and cost.
Meanwhile, 6.5 million Americans have Alzheimer's.
4:40 - What led Percy to concentrate on working in this important area.
6:20 - Defining Alzheimer's, dementia, and the key elements of communicating science.
10:20 - Why the Alzheimer’s Association has supported Aduhelm.
17:58 - Reason to be excited about therapeutics under development and how they could be tailored to a person's unique biology.
24:25 - Tradeoffs between investing more money into Alzheimer’s research compared to other intractable diseases like cancer, and new opportunities to accelerate progress, such as President Biden's ARPA-H proposal.
27:24 - The social determinants of health. The pros/cons of continuing to spend billions to develop new drugs versus expanding policies for better education, nutritious food and safe drinking water that have enabled some groups more than others to enjoy improved cognition late in life.
34:18 - Percy's top lifestyle recommendations for protecting your mind.
37:33 - Is napping bad for the brain?
39:39 - Circadian rhythm and Alzheimer's.
42:34 - Tests to check brain health today, and which biomarkers we're making progress on.
47:25 - Important programs run by the Alzheimer’s Association to support advances.
Check out this conversation if you’re concerned about your brain health, that of family members getting older, or if you’re just concerned about the future of the country with experts predicting the number people over 65 will increase dramatically in the very near future.
**After this episode was recorded, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services affirmed its decision to limit coverage of Aduhelm.
- Percy Griffin's bio
- The Alzheimer's Association's Part the Cloud program
- The paradox of dementia rates decreasing
- The argument for focusing more resources on improving institutions and social processes for brain health
- Recent research on napping
- The Alzheimer's Association helpline
- ALZConnected, a free online community for people affected by dementia
- TrialMatch for people with dementia and healthy volunteers to find clinical trials for Alzheimer's and other de
Podcast: Tech for Mental Wellness with Nanea Reeves, CEO of TRIPP
My guest today is Nanea Reeves, the CEO of TRIPP, a wellness platform with some big differences from meditation apps you may have tried like Calm and Headspace. TRIPP's experiences happen in virtual reality, and its realms are designed based on scientific findings related to the goals of ‘hacking mindfulness' and inspiring feelings of awe and wonder.
Nanea brings over 15 years of leadership in digital distribution, apps and video game technologies. Before co-founding TRIPP, she had several leadership roles in tech with successful companies like textPlus and Machinima. Read her full bio below in the links section.
Nanea and I discuss her close family members' substance addictions and her own struggle with mental illness as a teen, which led to her first meditation experiences, and much more:
- The common perception that technology is an obstacle for achieving mental well-being, a narrative that overlooks how tech can also increase wellness when it’s designed right.
- Emerging ways of measuring meditation experiences by recording brain waves - and the shortcomings of the ‘measured self’ movement.
- Why TRIPP’s users multiplied during the stress and anxiety of the pandemic, and how TRIPP can can be used to improve emotional states.
- Ways in which TRIPP’s visuals and targeted sound frequencies have been informed by innovative research from psychologists like Johns Hopkins’ Matthew Johnson.
- Ways to design apps and other technologies to more directly fulfill the true purpose of mindfulness meditation. (Hint: it's not simply relaxation.)
- And of course, because the topic is mental wellness and tech, I had to get Nanea's thoughts on Elon Musk, Neuralink and brain machine interfaces.
This conversation coincided with National Brain Awareness Week. The topic is a little different from the Making Sense of Science podcast’s usual focus on breakthroughs in treating and preventing disease, but there’s a big overlap when it comes to breakthroughs in optimal health. Nanea’s work is at the leading edge of health, technology and the science of wellness.
With TRIPP, you might find yourself deep underwater, looking up at the sunlight shimmering on the ocean surface, or in the cosmos staring down at a planet glowing with an arresting diversity of colors. Using TRIPP in virtual reality for the past six months has been a window for me into the future of mental well-being and an overall fascinating experience, as was my conversation with Nanea.
Some links to check out and learn more about TRIPP:
- TRIPP website: https://www.tripp.com/about/
- Nanea Reeves bio: https://www.tripp.com/team/nanea-reeves/
- Study of data collected by UK's Office for National Statistics on behavior during the pandemic, which suggests that TRIPP enhanced users' psychological and emotional mindsets: https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-3-030-86993-9_18
- Research that's informed development of TRIPP: https://www.tripp.com/research/
- Washington Post Top Pick at CES: https://www.washingtonpost.com/technology/2019/01/08/self-rolling-suitcases-roll-up-tvs-ces-s-craziest-coolest-gadgets/
- TRIPP's new offering, PsyAssist, to provide support for ketamine-assisted therapy: https://www.mobihealthnews.com/news/tripp-acquires-psyassist-move-psychedelic-assisted-therapy
- Randomized pilot trial involving TRIPP: https://bmjopen.bmj.com/content/bmjopen/11/4/e044193.full.pdf
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| Matt Fuchs
Editor-in-Chief, Leaps.orgScience Editor, GOOD and Upworthy615.828.0595
Trusting Science with Dr. Sudip Parikh, CEO of AAAS
As Pew research showed last month, many Americans have less confidence in science these days - our collective trust has declined to levels below when the pandemic began. But leaders like Dr. Sudip Parikh are taking important steps to more fully engage people in scientific progress, including breakthroughs that could benefit health and prevent disease. In January 2020, Sudip became the 19th Chief Executive Officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an international nonprofit that seeks to advance science, engineering and innovation throughout the world, with 120,000 members in 91 countries. He is the executive publisher of Science, one of the top academic journals in the world, and the Science family of journals.
In this episode, Sudip and I talk about:
- Reasons to be excited about health innovations that could come to fruition in the next several years.
- Sudip's thoughts about areas of health innovation where we should be especially cautious.
- Strategies for scientists and journalists to instill greater trust in science.
- How to tap into and nurture kids' passion for STEM subjects.
- The best roles for experts to play in society and the challenges they face.
And we pack several other fascinating topics into our 35 minutes. Here are links to check out and learn more about Sudip Parikh and AAAS:
- Sudip Parikh's official bio - https://www.aaas.org/person/sudip-parikh
- Sudip Parikh, Why We Must Rebuild Trust in Science, Trend Magazine, Feb. 9, 2021 - https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/trend/archive/winter-...
- Follow Sudip on Twitter - https://twitter.com/sudipsparikh
- AAAS website - https://www.aaas.org/
- AAAS podcast - https://www.science.org/podcasts
- The latest issue of Science - https://www.science.org/
- Science Journals homepage - https://www.science.org/journals
- AAAS Mentor Resources - https://www.aaas.org/stemmentoring
- AAAS Science Journalism Awards - https://sjawards.aaas.org/enter
- Pew Research Center Report, Americans' Trust in Scientists, Other Groups Declines, Feb. 15, 2022 https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2022/02/15/ame...