Thursday, May 4, 2017

Neuralink wants to wire your brain to the internet – what could possibly go wrong?

The next step in human evolution
Neuralink – which is “developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect humans and computers” – is probably a bad idea. If you understand the science behind it, and that’s what you wanted to hear, you can stop reading.
But this is an absurdly simple narrative to spin about Neuralink and an unhelpful attitude to have when it comes to understanding the role of technology in the world around us, and what we might do about it. It’s easy to be cynical about everything Silicon Valley does, but sometimes it comes up with something so compelling, fascinating and confounding it cannot be dismissed; or embraced uncritically.
Putting aside the hyperbole and hand-wringing that usually follows announcements like this, Neuralink is a massive idea. It may fundamentally alter how we conceive of what it means to be human and how we communicate and interact with our fellow humans (and non-humans). It might even represent the next step in human evolution.
But what exactly is Neuralink? If you have time to read a brilliant 36,400-word explainer by genius Tim Urban, then you can do so here. If you don’t, Davide Valeriani has done an excellent summary right here on The Conversation. However, to borrow a few of Urban’s words, NeuraLink is a “wizard hat for your brain”.
Elon Musk: visionary.

Essentially, Neuralink is a company purchased by Elon Musk, the visionary-in-chief behind Tesla, Space X and Hyperloop. But it’s the company’s product that really matters. Neuralink is developing a “whole brain interface”, essentially a network of tiny electrodes linked to your brain that the company envisions will allow us to communicate wirelessly with the world. It would enable us to share our thoughts, fears, hopes and anxieties without demeaning ourselves with written or spoken language.
One consequence of this is that it would allow us to be connected at the biological level to the internet. But it’s who would be connecting back with us, how, where, why and when that are the real questions.
Through his Tesla and Space X ventures, Musk has already ruffled the feathers of some formidable players; namely, the auto, oil and gas industries, not to mention the military-industrial complex. These are feathers that mere mortals dare not ruffle; but Musk has demonstrated a brilliance, stubborn persistence and a knack for revenue generation (if not always the profitability) that emboldens resolve.
However, unlike Tesla and Space X, Neuralink operates in a field where there aren’t any other major players – for now, at least. But Musk has now fired the starting gun for competitors and, as Urban observes, “an eventual neuro-revolution would disrupt almost every industry”.
Part of the human story
There are a number of technological hurdles between Neuralink and its ultimate goal. There is reason to think they can surmount these; and reason to think they won’t.
While Neuralink may ostensibly be lumped in with other AI/big data companies in its branding and general desire to bring humanity kicking and screaming into a brave new world of their making, what it’s really doing isn’t altogether new. Instead, it’s how it’s going about it that makes Neuralink special – and a potentially major player in the next chapter of the human story.
Depending on who you ask, the human story generally goes like this. First, we discovered fire and developed oral language. We turned oral language into writing, and eventually we found a way to turn it into mechanised printing. After a few centuries, we happened upon this thing called electricity, which gave rise to telephones, radios, TVs and eventually personal computers, smart phones – and ultimately the Juicero.
Fire: a great leap forward.

Over time, phones lost their cords, computers shrunk in size and we figured out ways to make them exponentially more powerful and portable enough to fit in pockets. Eventually, we created virtual realities, and melded our sensate reality with an augmented one.
But if Neuralink were to achieve its goal, it’s hard to predict how this story plays out. The result would be a “whole-brain interface” so complete, frictionless, bio-compatible and powerful that it would feel to users like just another part of their cerebral cortex, limbic and central nervous systems.
A whole-brain interface would give your brain the ability to communicate wirelessly with the cloud, with computers, and with the brains of anyone who has a similar interface in their head. This flow of information between your brain and the outside world would be so easy it would feel the same as your thoughts do right now.
But if that sounds extraordinary, so are the potential problems. First, Neuralink is not like putting an implant in your head designed to manage epileptic seizures, or a pacemaker in your heart. This would be elective surgery on (presumably) healthy people for non-medical purposes. Right there, we’re in a completely different ball park, both legally and ethically.
There seems to be only one person who has done such a thing, and that was a bonkers publicity stunt conducted by a Central American scientist using himself as a research subject. He’s since suffered life threatening complications. Not a ringing endorsement, but not exactly a condemnation of the premise either.
Second, because Neuralink is essentially a communications system there is the small matter of regulation and control. Regardless of where you stand on the whole privacy and surveillance issue (remember Edward Snowden) I cannot imagine a scenario in which there would not be an endless number of governments, advertisers, insurers and marketing folks looking to tap into the very biological core of our cognition to use it as a means of thwarting evildoers and selling you stuff. And what’s not to look forward to with that?
And what if the tech normalises to such a point that it becomes mandatory for future generations to have a whole-brain implant at birth to combat illegal or immoral behaviour (however defined)? This obviously opens up a massive set of questions that go far beyond the technical hurdles that might never be cleared. It nonetheless matters that we think about them now.
Brain security
There’s also the issue of security. If we’ve learned one thing from this era of “smart” everything, it’s that “smart” means exploitable. Whether it’s your fridge, your TVyour car, or your insulin pump, once you connect something to something else you’ve just opened up a means for it to be compromised.
If there’s a door into your mind, could others pass through it?

Doors are funny like that. They’re not picky about who walks through them, so a door into your head raises some critical security questions. We can only begin to imagine what forms hacking would take when you have a direct line into the minds of others. Would this be the dawn of Cognitive Law? A legal regime that pertains exclusively to that squishy stuff between your ears?
What it really all comes down to is this: across a number of fields at the intersection of law, philosophy, technology and society we are going to need answers to questions no one has yet thought of asking (at least not often enough; and for the right reasons). We have faced, are facing, and will face incredibly complex and overwhelming problems that we may well not like the answers to. But it matters that we ask good questions early and often. If we don’t, they’ll be answered for us.
And so Neuralink is probably a bad idea, but to the first person who fell into a firepit, so was fire. On a long enough time line even the worst ideas need to be reckoned with early on. Now who wants a Juicero?

The Incredible Shrinking Brains of New Mothers

Pregnancy is a time of dramatic change for all expectant mothers.

Hormones are surging, bellies are growing, ankles are swelling.

The biggest changes, many of which can be seen with the naked eye, are quite predictable.

And now the changes that can’t be seen might become a little clearer now, thanks to new research.

A study published this month in Nature Neuroscience sheds light on the substantial changes that occur in a woman’s brain during pregnancy.

Namely, the brain gets smaller and it also makes itself more efficient.

These changes, according to the study, prepare an expectant mother for the important work of parenthood.

Researchers at universities in Spain and the Netherlands are the first to use computer imaging (specifically MRI) to measure how the brain’s structure changes because of pregnancy.

While scientists have known for some time how pregnancy affects the brains in rodent mothers, they’ve never had a clear understanding of what happens in humans.

This study reveals some key ways pregnancy impacts a woman’s brain.

Changes in the brain

The study showed a reduction in the gray matter of the brain.

Think of gray matter as the part of the brain that performs tasks.

The biggest loss of gray matter was in the front and temporal lobe regions.

These areas of the brain are responsible for a variety of tasks, including social cognition. That’s the ability to interact with others. Gray matter loss occurs in specific areas of a new mother’s brain.

These areas are the ones that help to understand other people’s feelings, beliefs, and nonverbal signals. These areas also help form attachments to people.

Losing gray matter in these areas may sound worrisome, but there’s good news.

The researchers found that women who experienced greater gray matter loss in those areas also had greater feelings of attachment to their infants.

Additionally, these women also felt fewer negative emotions toward their babies.

So while areas of the brain “shrink,” they became more powerful.

For new moms, this means their brains could be preparing to better interpret newborns’ body language, including various cries and coos.

These changes can also help new moms detect threats so they can protect themselves and their babies more quickly.

Lastly, these changes open mothers up to deeper, stronger bonds with other people, specifically a new bundle of joy.

Dads aren’t affected

This study looked at the brains of 25 women before they were pregnant and again three weeks to two months after their first babies were born.

The researchers also studied the brains of 19 first-time fathers.

They concluded the changes to the brain’s structure only occurred in mothers, not fathers.

To understand the impact of pregnancy and parenthood on the brain, the researchers also studied 20 women who had never been pregnant and 17 men who didn’t have children.

The study found nearly identical changes in the brains of women who conceived naturally and those who used in vitro fertilization.

Your memory isn’t missing

New moms often report experiencing frequent forgetfulness or lack of recall before and after giving birth.

This pregnancy-induced memory loss or “baby brain,” as many moms call it, wasn’t reflected in the researchers’ findings.

In fact, the study found there was no change in a mom’s cognitive ability after pregnancy compared with her ability before she became pregnant.

Changes have staying power

The investigators were curious how long this reshaped brain might last, so they asked the mothers to return for final scans two years after their babies were born.

Of the original 25 mothers, 11 women had not given birth to a second child or were not pregnant again during this time.

These scans found that the changes detected in the new mothers right after a baby’s birth remained.

The brain-baby connection

If the thought of a shrinking brain is alarming it shouldn’t be, says Robert Froemke, PhD, neuroscientist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center.

Instead, think of it as the brain is making itself smarter and more efficient.

“There’s a difference between ‘an apparent reduction in gray matter’ and ‘the brain shrinking,’” he told Healthline. “The brain itself doesn’t shrink. It’s not at all clear what actually goes on when gray matter is reduced.”

Froemke offers an easier way to understand this change.

“Think about this as a form of ‘spring cleaning.’ It’s making things more organized, streamlined, coherent to prepare mothers for the complexity and urgency of childcare,” he said. “If neurons are closer together, or neural connections reorganized to disregard irrelevant synapses and preserve important synapses, or otherwise able to more effectively, reliably, and rapidly process critical information, it’s easier to imagine why this might make sense, and help the maternal brain respond to the needs of her baby.”

Thanks to the study, it’s now known the brain maintains this new architecture for at least two years after delivery.

This reorganized hierarchy may mean expectant mothers may feel like their brains aren’t functioning the way they were pre-baby. Now, we know that’s the truth.

That doesn’t mean, however, there will be memory loss. “Baby brain,” as this study pointed out, isn’t detectable.

“The study reports no change in memory — at least in the kinds of things tested by the authors. They probably can’t test everything, especially complex real-world things like buying milk and diapers,” Froemke said.

Now, other things have taken priority in the brain. Forgetting to buy milk or accidentally not recording that new show on cable?

That’s frustrating, but now remembering a 3 p.m. feeding and managing to mentally note every wet or dirty diaper for the past 48 hours is possible.

For a new parent, that is what’s important.

Forgetting diapers or accidentally driving past the dry cleaners’ may not be caused by the brain changes. Instead, they may be the result of stress-induced changes all new parents experience. In other words, that’s normal.

After all, the new mother is focusing on the new baby. They’re solving different problems and thinking about things in their environment and life differently. There are new priorities and tasks.

That doesn’t mean losing memory or mental capabilities. Life is, well, different now.

“Parenting — particularly motherhood — is among the most complex and stressful set of events and behaviors we experience in our lives. Thus it’s no surprise that a number of changes occur in our brains when we become parents. Taking care of another person, especially a helpless infant, is a lot of work and can demand much or all of our attention,” Froemke said. “Of course, it’s wonderful and rewarding, but that doesn’t make it any less difficult.

Focused ultrasound could transform brain treatment

Doctors attach headgear to early onset Alzheimers patient Karen Hellerman in preparation for MRI-guided focused ultrasound through her skull on Tuesday May 2, 2017 at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto.

TORONTO — Karen Hellerman sits patiently in her hospital gown as Dr. Nir Lipsman gently shaves her head. The neurosurgeon then injects freezing into her newly shorn scalp before fitting her head with a circular frame, snugging the helmet-like device with screws so it can’t shift during the upcoming procedure.

The former elementary school teacher and principal from Chatham, Ont., has early-onset Alzheimer’s and she has volunteered to take part in a bold new experimental procedure at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto — one which doctors there hope may some day revolutionize the treatment of dementia and other debilitating neurological disorders.

Hellerman is then taken into the MRI suite, where for the next few hours she lies sedated in the huge, noisy scanner as her brain is imaged and low-intensity ultrasound waves are passed through her skull, targeting the right frontal lobe of her brain.

The goal is to poke microscopic holes in the blood-brain barrier, a fine membrane that keeps “bad things out of the brain,” including disease-causing microbes, Lipsman explains.

“But it also keeps potentially good things out of the brain as well, including medical treatments for very common brain-based disorders, of which Alzheimer’s is a good example,” he says.

“So what we have, therefore, potentially, are medical treatments that may work ... but just cannot get into the brain in sufficient concentrations to have a good effect.”

Being able to breach the barrier should allow drugs to pass more easily into the brain, where they could deliver a much stronger therapeutic punch, he says.

The Sunnybrook team has been testing MRI-guided focused ultrasound, as it’s known, in a small number of patients with brain tumours and more recently in those with Alzheimer’s.

But Lipsman stresses these studies are strictly aimed at establishing that the procedure is safe for patients — no treatment is given after the blood-brain barrier is opened, and it closes on its own in about six to eight hours.

Hellerman is the third Alzheimer’s patient to undergo the procedure, which took place Tuesday, and she had no hesitation about being a human guinea pig even though she knows it may not be fully developed soon enough to help her condition. It could be years before patient trials prove the technique is a safe and effective means of enhancing drug treatment to diminish the amyloid plaque and protein tangles that progressively destroy brain cells.

“I’m not doing it for me. I’m doing it for other people,” says the 63-year-old mother of two grown children, although her husband Neil says he hopes “that maybe it will help you in the long run.”

Doctors at Sunnybrook have used MRI-guided focused ultrasound to treat a condition called essential tremor, in which a person’s extremities, particularly the arms and hands, develop uncontrollable shaking that can prevent them from performing the simplest of tasks, from eating and drinking to writing their name. In that case, high-intensity ultrasound waves destroy a tiny area of the brain where the tremor originates.

With this procedure, the ultrasound waves have an entirely different role — they act by exciting microbubbles that are injected into the bloodstream, causing them to vibrate and tease open minute gaps between the cells that make up the blood-brain barrier.

“The way we do that is we expose the brain to pulses of low-frequency ultrasound,” says Lipsman. “So with focused ultrasound, combined with these microbubbles, what we can do is open a temporary window in that blood-brain barrier, permitting potentially therapeutic compounds access to the brain.

“We view this as a significant advance towards overcoming a key obstacle for medical treatments.”

Dr. Kullervo Hynynen, director of physical sciences at the Sunnybrook Research Institute, developed the idea of pairing MRI with focused ultrasound while at the University of Arizona in the early 1990s. He has worked with industry partner InSightec of Israel for more than two decades to develop the technology.

“The long-term goal is to develop a technique where we can put any kind of molecules or cells in specific locations in the brain,” Hynynen says after watching images of Hellerman’s brain on computer screens outside the MRI suite, where a team of technicians had remotely triggered bursts of ultrasound waves through her skull.

Those molecules could include not only medications to slow down — or possibly even halt — the ravages of Alzheimer’s, but also chemotherapy agents for brain tumours and stem cells to repair the damage from a stroke, for instance.

In experiments performed on lab mice with the equivalent of human Alzheimer’s disease, Sunnybrook scientists were surprised to find that just opening the blood-brain barrier in the animals had an effect on plaque that had accumulated in their brains — even without the use of drugs.

“What we have seen in animals is that we can clear the plaques in the brain, so reduce the amyloid-plaque load and improve the memory of animals and also stimulate new neuron growth,” says Hynynen.

“I think this technique will revolutionize how we are going to treat brain disease and maybe even enhance brain performance,” he says.

“This is a very first step for us. But if all goes well — it’s a long road — eventually this will be able to help millions of patients if it’s successful and safe.”

A baby’s pain registers in the brain

A GAIN ON PAIN During painful procedures, newborns’ brains show a spike in activity that can be detected with electrodes on the scalp, a new study suggests. Monitoring such activity could one day provide an objective measurement of pain.

An electrode on top of a newborn’s scalp, near the soft spot, can measure when the baby feels pain. The method, described online May 3 in Science Translational Medicine, isn’t foolproof, but it brings scientists closer to being able to tell when infants are in distress.

Pain assessment in babies is both difficult and extremely important for the same reason: Babies don’t talk. That makes it hard to tell when they are in pain, and it also means that their pain can be more easily overlooked, says Carlo Bellieni, a pediatric pain researcher at the University Hospital Siena in Italy.

Doctors rely on a combination of clues such as crying, wiggling and facial grimacing to guess whether a baby is hurting. But these clues can mislead. “Similar behaviors occur when infants are not in pain, for example if they are hungry or want a cuddle,” says study coauthor Rebeccah Slater of the University of Oxford. By relying on brain activity, the new method promises to be a more objective measurement.

Slater and colleagues measured brain activity in 18 newborns between 2 and 5 days old. Electroencephalography (EEG) recordings from electrodes on the scalp picked up collective nerve cell activity as babies received a heel lance to draw blood or a low-intensity bop on the foot, a touch that’s a bit like being gently poked with a blunt pencil. One electrode in particular, called the Cz electrode and perched on the top of the head, detected a telltale neural spike between 400 and 700 milliseconds after the painful event. This brain response wasn’t observed when these same babies received a sham heel lance or an innocuous touch on the heel.

The Cz electrode detected similar brain responses to painful procedures in tests of 14 other newborns. Loud sounds, flashing lights and nonpainful touches didn’t elicit the same response in those newborns. What’s more, this brain signature changed when pain-relieving gel was used in another group of 12 babies who were on average 25 days old. After treatment with the topical anesthetic tetracaine, babies’ brain responses to foot thumps were smaller than when the taps were delivered to unmedicated feet.

On average, babies born prematurely between 34 and 36 weeks gestation showed similar neural responses to pain. It’s unclear whether this presumed pain signature would be present in babies born earlier or in older infants, says Slater.

In its current form, the method isn’t reliable enough be used as a definitive readout of pain in individual babies. That’s because not all babies’ brains responded to pain similarly. Ten of 28 babies who had heel lances didn’t show this neural signature, the researchers report.

And the brain signature didn’t always track with other pain indicators. Of the 17 babies who indicated pain by changing facial expressions during a presumably painful event, 13 also showed the brain activity signature and four did not. Of the 11 babies who did not change expressions, five showed the brain signature and six did not. Slater says that a combination approach that relies on multiple indicators of pain might be useful.

Even if this current EEG method is improved, it might not be clinically useful, Bellieni points out. A method that measures quick and severe pain can’t be used to change a painful situation in real time. “When you get the results, the procedure is already over,” he says. Still, he suspects that such a measurement will be a valuable research tool.

Our uniquely lopsided brain

The human brain is unique in many ways including the amount of asymmetry that exists between its left and right sides

We all know that the human brain is ridiculously large, but how many of us realise that it’s lopsided as well? It turns out that the cockeyed shape of our brains is as important to understanding human evolution as its size is. The brain’s lopsidedness is most evident through our hand preferences. Roughly nine out of every ten people are right handed. Lefties are indeed a rarity. And these figures hold across all human populations and cultures showing that it’s a universal pattern for Homo sapiens, being genetically hardwired.

Below the surface, these statistics about right versus left handedness reveal something rather peculiar about human brains: the left hemisphere generally dominates over the right when it comes to controlling the movements of the hands. And this hemispheric dominance - or asymmetry - is unique.

Similar patterns can be seen for the language areas of the brain as well. Regions on the left side such as Broca’s Area - which play a vital role in language production and comprehension - are disproportionately enlarged, lopsided even, compared with their right side equivalents.

In fact, Broca’s Area is six times larger than the same region on the right side of the brain when compared with a chimpanzee’s noggin. That’s twice as large as you’d expect based on our threefold larger brains.

Another way the human brain is lopsided is the misalignment or even skewness between the left and right hemispheres themselves, a feature called petalias. When seen from above, the front most part of the right hemisphere juts further forward than the left. And the opposite configuration is seen on the left side, where the rear of the left hemisphere projects further back then the right.

A similar pattern is seen in the brains of other apes and even some monkeys, but it’s nowhere near as striking as in the human brain. And petalias are also seen in the arrangements of the blood vessels that supply and drain the brain and can even be observed on a microscopic level.

What role do petalia’s play? Well again they seem to be a part of the overall asymmetry of the human brain, whereby functions are relegated to a particular side, much like we see with hand control or language.

If our cockeyed brains are so unique, then why did they evolve to be this way? Well, the extreme specialisation of regions like Broca’s Area probably evolved to allow faster and more efficient neural processing. It cuts out the need for input or perhaps even disruption from the opposite hemisphere, helping us to think and act much faster.

What’s the earliest evidence we have for hemispheric specialisation? How can we even detect it given that brains don’t fossilise? Believe it or not, anthropologists have devised several ways to detect brain asymmetry, either directly or indirectly. And all of them point to a very early shift in the structure and functioning of the brain in our evolution.

The first piece of evidence comes from the models we can make of the surface of the brain, which we call endocasts. These are a kind of fossil brain if you like, although they lack a lot of the detail we’d see in a real brain.

During life, the brain actually pulsates and leaves impressions of its surface on the inside of the bones of the skull. Anthropologists can use this phenomenon to make simple models of how the brain would have looked. Regions like Broca’s Area are often very distinct and the petalias are especially clear on endocasts.

Endocasts show us that the pre-human genus Australopithecus - our ancestor living in Africa between roughly 4.5 and 2 million years ago - provides the earliest evidence we have for brain asymmetry.

Then there’s the indirect evidence we can glean from teeth. It turns out that the damage done to the enamel of the front teeth of early humans can indicate whether an individual was right or left handed. How do we know this? Through an ingenuous set of experiments conducted by anthropologists, that’s how!

The results showed that when meat is held between the teeth (using them as a vice) and a stone tool is used to cut it, tell tale scratches are left on the enamel by the tools, and these are angled in such a way that right handers can be distinguished from lefties.

And of the dozens of fossil human teeth that have been studied for these scratches, it turns out that they are overwhelmingly from right handers, with the odd lefty, especially among the Neanderthals.

Fascinatingly, the tooth wear method shows us that the earliest right hander lived almost two million years ago and belonged to the species Homo habilis from Olduvai Gorge. And we can take this as our minimum age for brain asymmetry, and probably also the beginnings of speech, given the parallels between manual and language control and brain lopsidedness.

The final piece of evidence comes from archaeology and the stone tools made by Palaeolithic humans. Careful studies of the way that tools were made shows clear evidence for handedness at each and every step of production process.

Archaeologists think the evidence for handedness can be seen in stone tools from about 2 million years ago. And chances are the signs will be there in the earliest tools now dating to around 3.3 million years ago, when someone eventually takes a look.

Some of the most striking features of humanity, the ones that mark us out as unique, are not always so obvious. Sometimes they’re so obvious that we don’t even notice them! Like our left versus right hand preferences.

They’re certainly no less fascinating than the ones that get most of the attention, like big brains, complex thinking, language, culture, two-footed walking etc. And they’re no less deserving of scientific scrutiny, often having far more interesting tales to tell us about our evolutionary origins.

Exercise-in-a-pill increases endurance, fat burning

Researchers found that a chemical compound can provide some of the benefits of exercise without training

It's well known that the way to increase fitness and endurance is through training, but what if the same effects could be achieved with a drug, a kind of "workout pill?" Scientists at the Salk Institute found that when they fed sedentary mice a certain chemical compound, they could run seventy percent longer. If a similar treatment works in humans, it could open doors for fitness training for athletes, the elderly, obese or otherwise mobility-limited.

The researchers expanded upon earlier work around a specific genetic pathway that is triggered by running. They identified a chemical compound that activates the same gene, bestowing a resistance to weight gain and responsiveness to insulin that is seen in long-distance runners.

The team gave a group of sedentary mice a higher dose of the compound for a longer period of time than in previous experiments and found they could run 270 minutes before becoming exhausted, compared to just 160 minutes for a control group of sedentary mice that did not receive the drug.

"A hundred minutes is a huge increase in performance for sedentary mice that never actually trained; that's gigantic." says the Salk Institute's Ronald Evans. "It would take a lot of diligent training every single day to get that benefit and these mice are getting it just because we're feeding them a drug that is re-programming their metabolic properties."

We recently saw different research in which a pill was able to confer different benefits of exercise without the physical training, namely enhancing muscle mass.

The Salk team examined what was happening to cause the endurance boost in the mice given the drug and found genes that manage burning fat increased while those that help burn carbohydrates for energy were suppressed. The scientists believe that directing the body to burn fat as an energy source for the muscles may be the genes' way of preserving sugar for the brain.

"This study suggests that burning fat is less a driver of endurance than a compensatory mechanism to conserve glucose," says Salk senior scientist Michael Downes, a co–senior author of the paper. "(The gene activated by the drug) is suppressing all the points that are involved in sugar metabolism in the muscle so glucose can be redirected to the brain, thereby preserving brain function."

The Salt Institute research team (from left): Wanda Waizenegger, Weiwei Fan, Ryan Lin, Ronald Evans, Ruth Yu and Mingxiao He

A pill that delivers some of the benefits of exercise without the physical effort could be prescribed one day to help people with obesity or type-2 diabetes burn fat, among other potential applications.

"If you're in a wheelchair; if you're a soldier who was injured; if you're in the hospital getting surgery, you're immobilized in all these cases," says Evans. "If you can bring a small molecule into the picture that can confer the benefits of fitness without training, you can really help a lot of people."