A brain implant for artificial motivation

March 30 2009 / by iPlant / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Biotechnology   Year: General   Rating: 7 Hot

I recently blogged and vlogged about Medtronic starting a clinical trial where deep brain stimulation (DBS) would be applied to the ventral striatum (part of the human reward circuit) to treat depression in up to 200 patients. Then the article on CNNmoney that I was basing this on disappeared and I worried that the whole thing might have been a mistake or a hoax. But the article has resurfaced on the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, and I finally got around to digging up Medtronic's original press release from 19 Feb 2009, which confirms that they are conducting a clinical trial of DBS as a treatment for depression.

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But more than that. It turns out that the entire implant procedure that they're using isn't new at all - it's the same procedure they use to treat OCD (recently FDA approved for up to 4000 patients). The implant is called Reclaim and (quoting the press release) "the anatomical target in the brain is the.. ventral striatum.. which is a central node in the neural circuits believed to regulate mood and anxiety". So it seems DBS implants have been placed in the human reward circuit since the OCD trials started, many years ago. This is good news because it means we're even better at putting DBS implants in the human reward circuit than I thought we were. Basically, DBS applied to the ventral striatum (VS) didn't just alleviate the behavioural tics of OCD patients but also improved their mood. Studies like Schlaepfer et al 2008 (3 patients) and Malone et al 2009 (15 patients), which I thought were ground-breaking, merely confirmed that DBS applied to the VS improves the mood of severely depressed patients as well.

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Our Economic Problem is Deeply Systemic, So Too Must Be the Solutions

September 30 2008 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Economics   Year: 2008   Rating: 5 Hot

To effectively solve the present global economic crisis we must first put it in the proper context and learn from the past. This is not being done, and so we may well exacerbate this situation in the months and years ahead.

I’m increasingly worried about our economic crisis and future not not because it’s so unexpected, but because of how complex and deeply systemic it appears to be. The tandem forces of financial erosion and social sector rot have created a situation where it appears our valuation of the whole is seriously out of whack with actual value contained in the U.S. dominated global economy.

Financially, we’re facing up to $2.5 trillion home mortgage losses to US taxpayers, have been losing $2 trillion annually due to regular inflation, will spend up to $2 trillion in Iraq when all is said and done, and must deal with a $500+ trillion gorilla in the room also known as the worldwide derivatives market.

The latter is especially frightening in light of the fact that annual worldwide GDP last year was just $54 trillion, with the U.S. accounting for $14 trillion of that. In other words, the derivatives market (including futures, options and unregulated credit derivatives) is just under 5x the size of the annual global GDP. Back in 2002, this market was approximately $100 trillion, or 2x the annual global GDP. That’s 500% growth in just 6 years, largely attributed to credit, mortgages, hedge funds and other financial vehicles that I don’t fully understand.

Even conservative folks like investment mogul Warren Buffet have labelled derivatives a potential financial weapon of mass destruction because they do not seem to be tied tightly to any base value. Still, derivatives are factored into the valuations of major financial institutions (which are now toppling like dominoes) and, directly or indirectly, most publicly traded companies. So if the derivative market collapses, it’s going to take a huge number of companies with it – many, many more than have already bit the dust.

Now, this is the point in this editorial where I make clear that I am no economist (a line that I’ve now seen written many times by writers and bloggers similarly trying to assess this situation), but... I am still capable of putting 2 and 2 together, which in this case means taking a look at the social structures and markets that appear to be so overvalued by the global and U.S. economic systems.

Socially, we are facing a big infrastructural crumble here in the U.S. that will cost us billions or trillions, our education system is expensive and will costs us billions or trillions in productivity as the economy demands new skills, a similarly rotten private health care system has left millions uninsured and could seriously strain national reserves, an escalating unemployment rate is never a good sign, the federal health standard crisis in nursing homes coupled with a longevity-driven boom in senior citizens indicates additional expenses down the road, stagnation in our national web connectedness may not seem like a big deal but could be the most critical development failure of them all, and so forth – the list goes on and on, and I’m sure you can add multiple items to it.

Worst of all, we’re faced with a government fundamentally incapable of collectively processing and acting on this reality. Due to a combination of institutional inertia and a hugely complex and seemingly mystical problem many systems based solutions are simply not even on the table.

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Are We Heading Into an Economic Depression?

September 16 2008 / by Alvis Brigis / In association with Future Blogger.net
Category: Economics   Year: 2008   Rating: 3

Pundits and bloggers are once again throwing around words like “crisis” and “depression” in reaction to yesterday’s core stock market meltdown that included the largest bankruptcy in world history – Lehman Brothers, the unexpected bargain priced sale of stalwart Merill Lynch to Bank of America, and a near collapse of AIG , the nation’s largest insurer. To top it all off, a Fed report detailing falling U.S. industrial production levels has sent shivers spidering through all sectors and global markets.

The truly worrying part is that this hiccup is not related to high oil prices, which have fallen off considerably in the past month, but instead the ongoing home mortgage collapse which some predict will cost us in the $1,000,000,000,000 (IMF estimate) to $2,000,000,000,000 (Goldman Sachs) range. This confirms that we are deeply vulnerable in at least two separate yet critical areas, making any subsequent surprises all the more worrisome for fear of a chain reaction or even a fourth turning.

The Trillion Dollar Question: Just how bad is this going to get?

According to the big-wigs, the situation is ugly but not entirely hopeless:

Presidential candidate Barack Obama says, “I don’t think that we’re … necessarily going in the direction of the Depression. ... There are some similarities, though, to what happened back in the late 20s and early 30s and what’s been happening now, and the biggest similarity is how we’ve been dealing with Wall Street and what’s happening in the financial markets.” – Reuters

U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson acknowledges that we’re going through a difficult time and that housing is “at the root” of the troubles but that we’ll get past those “in months as opposed to years.” – Bloomberg

But he also admits that “We have an archaic financial regulatory structure [that] really needs to be rebuilt ”, which evokes the fourth turning specter.

Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, seems to concur with the notion of a period of deep shift:

“This is a once in a half century, probably once in a century type of event. We shouldn’t try to protect every single institution. The ordinary cost of financial change has winners and losers.” – Bloomberg

This, of course, has some business writers making comparisons to the Great Depression. and some Nobel laureates agreeing that it will be bad, but not quite as bad as 1929.

But enough of what they think. What do you think?

Just how bad will this economic downturn get?

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