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OUR ANNUAL SCIENCE READS FOR THE HOLIDAYS P.12
Brain Health P.32
Outsmarting the CONTENT
Next Outbreak P.56 CODE p.3
Trial By Fire P.26
A Magnetic Quest
for Particles P.42
Contents Website access code: DSD1812
DECEMBER 2018 Enter this code at: www.DiscoverMagazine.com/code
to gain access to exclusive subscriber content.
VOL. 39, NO. 10
Treating the degenerative
brain disease might be more
achievable than we thought.
BY LINDA MARSA
A certain particle could help
physicists inally esh out
their theory of everything.
Now they just have to ind
the particle. BY ADAM HADHAZY
and the Fly
How rethinking our battle
with pesky insects could
make home life a bit
sweeter. BY ROB DUNN
Predicting the spread of
deadly diseases could save
countless lives. Health
organizations are getting
better at it, thanks to digital
tools. BY MALLORY LOCKLEAR
DAWN COOPER Our modern approach to pest
control has hurt our ability to keep
insects out of our homes. Learn
more on page 50.
3December 2018 DISCOVER
COLUMNS & DEPARTMENTS
6 EDITOR’S NOTE
A Dose of Patience
Hold a pose for a holistic approach
to a dreaded disease.
Readers weigh in on the herpes virus
and robot peer pressure.
9 THE CRUX The 1988 Yellowstone ﬁres offer clues to how a forest’s ecosystem recovers. More on page 26.
A scientist experiences the 68 HISTORY LESSONS OUR ANNUAL SCIENCE READS FOR THE HOLIDAYS P.12 TOP: JEFF HENRY/NATIONAL PARK SERVICE. BOTTOM: BRYAN AND CHERRY ALEXANDER/NATUREPL.COM
grunts and groans of geology
in action; pondering the Fostering Fear DiscoverSCIENCEFORTHECURIOUS
impenetrable fog of the early ®
universe; Hollywood movie Opposition to vaccines has ALZHEIMER’S DECEMBER2018
roles for women may have a long history in America. UNDER
turned a corner; cool books ATTACK
are coming for the holidays; BY SARA NOVAK Lifestyle Plans
and more. That Improve
74 20 THINGS YOU DIDN’T Brain Health P.32
.22 VITAL SIGNS
KNOW ABOUT … PLUS
he Big Sleep
Penguins Outsmarting the
When a dying woman fails to respond Next Outbreak P.56
to treatment, doctors try a risky Huge in pop culture, the birds were Yellowstone’s
Hail Mary to save her life. once even bigger — some Trial By Fire P.26
over 200 pounds. A Magnetic Quest
BY ELIEZER J. STERNBERG Today, their for Particles P.42
26 NOTES FROM EARTH descendants ON THE COVER
Burn Notice from ice shelves Our Annual Science Reads for the Holidays p.12
to subtropical Alzheimer’s Under Attack p.32
Decades after ires scorched beaches.
Yellowstone, scientists are learning Outsmarting the Next Outbreak p.56
how forests rise from the ashes. BY GEMMA TARLACH Yellowstone’s Trial By Fire p.26
BY KRISTEN POPE An emperor penguin A Magnetic Quest for Particles p.42
and its chick.
64 PROGNOSIS COVER: Bryan Christie Design
examining how bacteria
might help prevent
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Editor's Note DiscoverSCIENCEFORTHECURIOUS
A Dose of Patience
BECKY LANG Editor In Chief
A core tenet of yoga is the DAN BISHOP Design Director
inherent connection between the
mind and body. What happens in EDITORIAL
the brain can manifest in the gut, GEMMA TARLACH Senior Editor
shoulders or lower back. BILL ANDREWS Senior Associate Editor
ELISA R. NECKAR Production Editor
This was only too apparent one MARK BARNA Associate Editor
recent Sunday morning in yoga LACY SCHLEY Associate Editor
class. My hips were talking, not ANNA GROVES Assistant Editor
happy about merely sitting cross- DAVE LEE Copy Editor
legged on the oor. The hips often AMBER JORGENSON Editorial Assistant
re ect — and hold onto — our
stress. And when that happens, Contributing Editors
yoga poses become exercises in TIM FOLGER, JONATHON KEATS, LINDA MARSA,
patience, working through and KENNETH MILLER, STEVE NADIS, ADAM PIORE,
accepting the tightness in both COREY S. POWELL, JULIE REHMEYER, STEVE VOLK,
body and brain. PAMELA WEINTRAUB, JEFF WHEELWRIGHT,
DARLENE CAVALIER (SPECIAL PROJECTS)
For researchers and clinicians
who study Alzheimer’s and other ART
neurodegenerative diseases, it’s ERNIE MASTROIANNI Photo Editor
been one long exercise in patience. ALISON MACKEY Associate Art Director
After watching pharmaceutical
companies chase supposed one-drug solutions, a growing DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM
number of physicians are focusing on a whole-body, systemic ERIC BETZ Digital Editor
approach to Alzheimer’s. How do we sleep? How do we fuel up NATHANIEL SCHARPING Assistant Editor
with food? How do our genetics igure into the equation?
Contributing Editor Linda Marsa takes us to those scientists, ERIK KLEMETTI, NEUROSKEPTIC, SCISTARTER,
as they use big data to focus their various programs on the AMY SHIRA TEITEL, TOM YULSMAN
individuals who land in their clinics. Depending on a kaleido- Contributors
scope of factors, changes to lifestyle can affect not only treat- BRIDGET ALEX, RONI DENGLER, CHELSEA GOHD,
ment options, but also disease progression. Physicians work KOREY HAYNES
to determine what mix of exercise, stress reduction, sleep and
medication is the best preventive plan for each patient. ADVERTISING
STEVE MENI Advertising Sales Manager
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PRINT FEEDBACK can be transmitted sexually, Keel-billed Toucan
that is not the usual route
Common of acquisition for this very Explore Fun, Vibrant Panama & Cruise
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not commonly a sexually transmitted Aryeh Baer Panama Canal, and more!
disease, but rather transmitted by oral Hackensack, N.J.
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Kissing and sharing eating and drinking ADDRESS LETTERS TO: DISCOVER
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7December 2018 DISCOVER
THE LATEST SCIENCE NEWS AND NOTES
THAT ROBOT FEELING
No eyes are no problem for the dog-sized robot Cheetah 3, which adeptly climbed stairs during a test run at MIT earlier this year.
The 90-pound machine, a creation of mechanical engineer Sangbae Kim and his team, doesn’t need to rely on cameras or other
external sensors. Instead, the robot understands its environment using internal gyroscopes and accelerometers, plus a precise
sense of leg position. Cheetah 3 can leap to a 30-inch platform, navigate irregular terrain and stay balanced if shoved.
ERNIE MASTROIANNI; PHOTO BY MIT BIOMIMETIC ROBOTICS LAB
9December 2018 DISCOVER
PERSONAL AT YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK IN CALIFORNIA, FROM LEFT: DANIEL D’AGOSTINI; COURTESY OF CONDOR EARTH; MADHU SHESHARAM/UNSPLASH
granitelike towers loom over the park’s main
Eyewitness valley. But one monolith stands out: Half
to Geology Dome, which, with its curved, peeling
layers, looks a bit like an onion.
A geologist’s experience reveals how Yosemite Until recently, experts weren’t
National Park’s Half Dome gets its shape. sure what caused these layers
to peel and fracture, but new
Scott Lewis and his team research in the journal Nature
were there as a stone Communications suggests hot
fractured (inset) near days are to blame. High temps
Yosemite. cause the stone to expand and
sometimes fracture into layers.
The event that helped inspire the
Nature Communications paper came after a
hot summer’s day at a different, much smaller
dome near Yosemite. There, Scott Lewis, an
engineering geologist and one of the paper’s
authors, went to assess a dam damaged by
such a fracturing event. On site, he witnessed
something few ever have.
IN HIS OWN WORDS . . .
Myself and two of my colleagues went up
to see what was going on. There were a
number of cracks on this granite dome, and
there was a crack in the dam; we were all
discussing what the repairs might be and
that sort of thing. One of the guys said,
“Hey, besides these cracks up on top of the
dome, we noticed there are some cracks
down there on the side.”
The dome is lat on top, and it steepens
on the sides that go down to a creek, about
50 feet from the dome’s top. There was a
little ledge, 5 feet above the creek level or so.
So the three of us went down on this ledge.
I leaned down to put my eyeball in front
of the crack, and, just as I did, a second
cracking event occurred.
I’ve been around a lot of blasting, and this
was a big blast. It was really loud, and very,
very guttural. It was a very strong, almost-
explosive type of event; it blew air and dust
into my eye, but I was OK.
And then we looked up, and we could
see dust and pieces of rock lying in the air
up above us. My rst thought was, “Get
the heck out of here.” We didn’t wanna get
squished by rocks. We skedaddled out of
there as fast as we could.
We got up on top, and the rock was
under signi cant strain, and it was actually
popping and cracking and making noise, and
little pieces were popping off above us. It
was exciting — it was pretty much geology
in action. AS TOLD TO LUCAS JOEL
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course you do, everyone
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EINSTEIN’S MONSTERS HOW TO LOVE
The Life and Times of Black Holes
A Scientist’s Odes
By Chris Impey to the Hidden Beauty
Behind the Visible World
Astronomer Impey’s accessible approach
breaks down complex scientiﬁc By Stefan Klein
concepts with ease and ﬂair, name-
checking everyone from Edgar Allen Physicist Klein weaves together
Poe to Pink Floyd as he lays out what scientiﬁc discovery and whimsy
we think we know about black holes — on topics ranging from
and what remains mysterious. entanglement to forecasting
the weather in this delightful
collection of ruminations on life,
the universe and everything else.
NINE PINTS TURNED ON WIT’S END BACKGROUND: NATALI ZAKHAROVA/SHUTTERSTOCK. RIBBONS: FOTOHUNTER/SHUTTERSTOCK
A Journey Through the Money, Science, Sex and Robots What Wit Is, How It Works,
Medicine, and Mysteries of Blood and Why We Need It
By Kate Devlin
By Rose George By James Geary
A chance conversation in
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George’s sanguine writing is ﬂush with But the AI researcher’s quest occasionally chaotic road trip
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WHILE LIGHTNING CAN, in fact, strike the same
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a match head for scale, he captured the view at 40x magniﬁcation. Kvarnström couldn’t determine the exact species of this tiny spiral, but he
suspects it’s one of the 50,000 in the mollusk phylum. ERNIE MASTROIANNI; PHOTO BY HÅKAN KVARNSTRÖM
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TRENDING Degrees of Separation
BY LACY SCHLEY From threatened lands to ants’ workloads.
Screen Time of the Sexes 6 MILLION The area of protected forests,
parks and conservation
Hollywood isn’t really known for equal SQUARE KILOMETERS areas that we humans have
representation of men and women put under intense pressure,
on the silver screen. But it’s making according to a paper in
strides, according to a recent paper
published in the journal Sex Roles. Science. That pressure —
Researchers from Saint Joseph’s
University in Philadelphia looked at Women from intensive farming
50 of the top-grossing U.S. movies
of 2016 and compared their ﬁndings 32.8% practices, light pollution, roads, railways and other
with a separate 2002 review of 88 U.S.
movies. They found that, though Men Total intrusions — can hamper biodiversity in these areas.
67.2% Reviewed: 60% The percentage of trees
worldwide that are new
986 growth, generated by
humans over the past 35
women (especially those age 60 and years. Even though losing
mature forests can have
over) still aren’t represented as Main Women negative impacts, at least this bump, reported in
often as men, today’s Hollywood Characters Nature, more than makes up for the global loss in
is more likely to portray women in Reviewed: 31.8% our planet’s tree cover.
leadership roles than in the past.
DIFFERENCE IN DISTRIBUTION OF CHARACTERS’ 68.2% 143 How many studies a recent
AGES IN MOVIES V. ACTUAL U.S. POPULATION metareview examined
to learn how exposure
20 to greenspace affects
our health. The review
PERCENT (%) 15 Female found that spending time
10 2002 outside and living near nature is linked to an array of
beneﬁts, including lowering risk of Type 2 diabetes
2016 and premature death, reducing cases of heart disease
5 Male and decreasing stress levels.
-10 1,085 The number of U.S. employees
researchers included in an
-15 Teens 20-29 30-39 40-49 50-59 60+ investigation of workplace CHART: ALISON MACKEY/DISCOVER. FILM COMPONENTS: THENATCHDL/SHUTTERSTOCK. SILHOUETTES: A ALEKSII/SHUTTERSTOCK
AGE burnout. The paper, published in
PERCENTAGE OF CHARACTERS PLAYING LEADERS, BY AGE (2016) the journal Career Development
100 International, found that 1 in 5 highly engaged
Male workers were also likely to be so exhausted from
PERCENT (%) work that they were ready to quit their jobs.
40 38% How much faster people’s
verbal memory abilities —
20 recalling information we’ve
heard — deteriorated once
0 60+ they retired, compared with
10-19 20-29 30-39 40-49 50-59
AGE those still working. But it’s
86.1% MAIN CHARACTERS WHO 69.4% not just verbal memory. The study, published in the
REACHED THEIR GOALS?
European Journal of Epidemiology, reported that all
cognitive abilities slid once people quit working.
20s: AGES Teens: 30% The chunk of an ant
MOST colony’s workforce that
91.3% LIKELY TO 87.5% should perform the bulk
SUCCEED of the work, for maximum
40s: 40s: efﬁciency. Researchers
reported in Science that when 30 percent of ﬁre ants
90.6% 83.3% took on 70 percent of the load of building tunnels,
they were less likely to clog up those tunnels and got
Women Men work done faster.
Source: “Fewer, Younger, but Increasingly Powerful: How Portrayals of Women, Age, and Power Have Changed from 2002 to 2016 in the
50 Top-Grossing U.S. Films,” Sex Roles, 2018
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THE CRUX THE TNG COLLABORATION
Staring Into the Abyss
Experts have known for a while that gas and dark matter — the theoretical counterpart to regular matter — sprawl through
the cosmos. These so-called cosmic webs account for the bulk of the matter in the great unknown. Generally, where there’s
plenty of gas, there are also plenty of galaxies, which give off ultraviolet (UV) light). Today, that UV light keeps most of that
gas transparent, and galaxies shine through. But in our universe’s youth — around 12.5 billion years ago — it was pretty
opaque. And that opacity varied wildly throughout the universe.
A recent paper in Astrophysical Journal found out why: These once-opaque patches didn’t have many galaxies within
them, and thus not enough UV light to make gas transparent; it’s the opposite of what we see today, depicted below. In this
simulation of today’s universe, a dense gaseous void in the upper left appears empty, in contrast to bright galaxies in orange
and white. But back in the day, that void would have looked as impenetrable as a dense fog bank.
“We can do a couple things geochemically with amber.
It’s pretty easy to detect fakes. It’s resin, a sap that
catches and traps gas bubbles, and we can use them
to chart it geographically and temporally.”
— University of Alberta paleontologist Michael Caldwell, on how researchers know
a series of spectacular fossil ﬁnds in Burmese amber are the real thing
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A healthy 29-year-old collapses
and remains in a coma despite
months of treatment.
BY ELIEZER J. STERNBERG
→ Antonia was missing. She had When she arrived in I went back to Antonia’s bedside in
failed to pick up her 14-month- the emergency room, the ER and gently retracted her eyelids.
old daughter, Tia, at day care, and Her pupils were midline — looking
her sister, Jaclyn, couldn’t reach her still unconscious, straight ahead.
by phone. Antonia underwent
more tests, including We admitted Antonia to the hospital’s
Jaclyn headed to Antonia’s house to for drugs in her system. neurology intensive care unit.
ind out what the problem was. When No red lags appeared.
she arrived, she noticed the front SEIZURE SITUATION
door was unlocked — a bad sign. She I suspected Antonia had had a seizure,
searched the rooms, calling out her caused by abnormal electrical iring
sister’s name, until she heard running in the brain. People often think of
water coming from the kitchen. seizures as full-body convulsions,
known as generalized seizures, which
Jaclyn found the 29-year-old lying can affect the entire brain. But
on her back unconscious, brown people can also have focal seizures
foam on her lips. Her eyes were open, that impact only part of the brain.
staring in the direction of her car keys These can involve subtle symptoms:
on the tile oor. The faucet was on. slight twitching of the face, a tingling
sensation, a temporary speech problem
A CLUE EMERGES found no abnormalities. — or involuntary eye movement. SOMKKU/SHUTTERSTOCK
During the ambulance ride, responders Why would a generally healthy
intubated Antonia to keep oxygen A seizure in the frontal lobe can
person suddenly collapse and become cause the eyes to deviate to one
owing into her lungs. They also comatose? I talked to Jaclyn, in search side, then return to midline when
performed a series of tests: an of clues. the seizure ends. I suspected that’s
electrocardiogram, which records what had happened to Antonia.
the heart’s electrical activity, and “She’s a really responsible person,” But usually within hours after a
measurements of her pulse and blood Jaclyn said. “And she’s a really good seizure, patients wake up; the fact
pressure. Everything was normal. mom, I’m telling you. Even after she that Antonia’s eyes had returned to
passed out, she was reaching for her midline suggested her seizure was
The responders then checked her car keys to, you know, pick up her over. She should be awake.
blood sugar to see if she was in a daughter.”
diabetic coma, a common cause of That presented two possibilities:
sudden unconsciousness. They also “What do you mean?” I asked. “She Either her seizure had ended very
gave her naloxone, which reverses an was moving?” recently and she hadn’t yet recovered,
opioid overdose, typical protocol when or she was having a so-called
someone is found unconscious. “No, not moving. Her eyes were
locked on the keys, staring directly
When she arrived in the emergency at them.”
room, still unconscious, Antonia
underwent more tests, including for Noticing my expression change, she
drugs in her system. No red ags paused. “Does that mean something?”
appeared. A CT scan of her brain
“Which way did you think her eyes
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of even subtle seizure symptoms like looked physically life-threatening infections. Because
body twitches and jerks. Yet beneath unchanged, we Antonia’s health was so grave, we
the surface, the brain is erupting, like knew that with each took a chance and injected the drug.
an underwater volcano. passing day, the odds
of brain recovery During the weeks she was on it, her
I ordered an electroencephalogram, white blood cell count — a measure
or EEG, which measures brain got worse. he of her immunity — dropped to
activity and can detect abnormal enemy was winning. nearly zero. She had fevers, developed
neuronal irings. pneumonia and suffered several
a process known as plasmapheresis. bloodstream infections. Her heart rate
Doctors often anthropomorphize It did not help. rose and her blood pressure dropped,
diseases, talking about them as pulling her into septic shock.
though they are the enemy. There’s the With only a handful of NORSE cases
irritable bowel or aggressive tumor, for reported in the medical literature, we Eventually I handed over Antonia’s
example. When I saw Antonia’s EEG had little precedent and no protocol to care to another doctor. I received
results, I thought, “Angry seizure.” guide us. We were shooting in the dark. almost no updates for seven weeks,
It showed a series of jagged spikes. until one morning a resident said to
HAIL MARY DRUG me, “Did you hear about Antonia?” I
Now I understood why Antonia Antonia had been in a coma for six braced for bad news. “She’s awake.”
wasn’t waking up: She was having months. Her brain continued to seize,
continuous epileptic seizures. and her body had become brittle and I ran to Antonia’s hospital room.
emaciated. She was dying. She was sitting up in bed as Jaclyn
We concluded that Antonia had the spoon-fed her oatmeal. Her daughter,
rare syndrome NORSE, or new-onset In the ICU conference room, our Tia, was marching around the room
refractory status epilepticus. NORSE’s team passionately debated whether holding a doll. Now age 2, Tia was
cardinal symptom is continuous to administer a medication called taller and more gregarious than she had
seizures. The syndrome can attack cyclophosphamide. It’s perhaps the been nine months ago when Antonia
people like Antonia, who had never most potent immunosuppressant, had collapsed.
had an epileptic seizure before. often used as chemotherapy for
aggressive cancers. Because of extensive muscle atrophy,
Though its cause is unknown, Antonia was mostly immobile. She
doctors think NORSE is related If Antonia’s immune system was couldn’t walk or feed herself. She could
to autoimmunity, the set of causing her seizures, my argument only lift her left arm 3 inches above the
conditions in which a person’s went, why not shut it down with bed and wiggle her toes. Her language
immune system attacks the body. the biggest gun we have? But and cognition had also profoundly
In this case, antibodies attacked colleagues worried the drug would regressed. But despite these challenges,
neurons in Antonia’s brain, causing she could potentially reclaim her
abnormal irings and relentless independence through cognitive and
electrical storms. physical rehabilitation.
Antonia remained comatose for When Antonia saw me, she
months, despite receiving every anti- studied me for a moment, then said,
epileptic medication in our arsenal. “Walking?”
Seven medications were in doses
higher than I had ever seen. Though I assumed she was asking when she
she looked physically unchanged, we would be able to walk. “Soon, I hope,”
knew that with each passing day, the I said. “We want you to be walking
odds of brain recovery got worse. when you’re strong enough.”
The enemy was winning.
Jaclyn laughed. “No, no. She’s not
Twice we tried high-dose steroids talking about herself.” Jaclyn motioned
to suppress the immune system, but toward Tia prancing about.
to no avail. We also administered
donated antibodies, called pooled “Walking,” Antonia said, beaming. D
immunoglobulin, hoping to jump-start
a healthier immune response. When Eliezer J. Sternberg is a neurologist at
that failed, we exchanged her blood
plasma with that of a healthy donor, Massachusetts General Hospital. The cases
described in Vital Signs are real, but names
and certain details have been changed.
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Thirty years after ﬂames
ripped through Yellowstone,
scientists study the sites
to understand future ﬁres.
BY KRISTEN POPE
→ In 1988, ecologist Monica Wildﬁres that torched trees
Turner found herself on the across Yellowstone National Park
shores of Yellowstone Lake as the in 1988 left a mosaic of burned
forest burned. She happened to be and unburned forests in their
in the national park to collaborate wake. The ﬁres altered the park
with fellow ecologist Bill Romme to landscape for years to come.
study historical ires with computer
modeling. When the enormous new
con agration took off — coughing
smoke into the air, into their eyes and
lungs, and creating its own weather
patterns — the researchers knew it
would be signiicant. That fall, they
returned to the park, and Turner got
her irst aerial view of the aftermath.
She could see that the ire’s damage
had not been contiguous, but rather a
mosaic of burned and unburned areas.
Turner has never looked away.
he Yellowstone ires of 1988 can serve as root suckering, began to regrow as
a benchmark for how forests might respond seedlings — something researchers had
never seen in that area before.
to repeated burning, and the hot and
furious future that may await them. Romme, who is now retired from
Colorado State University, and
A total of just over 1,240 square What she and her colleagues have colleagues have reconstructed over ABOVE: JEFF HENRY/NATIONAL PARK SERVICE
miles would burn that year — more found was surprising at irst. Many 10,000 years of Yellowstone’s ire
than a third of the park — and of the burned areas renewed from history and found that this monstrous
although news reports at the time within through serotinous cones, which ire was actually the kind that happens
marked Yellowstone as destroyed, that require heat to melt their resin coatings every 100 to 300 years as part of a
hasn’t been the case. In the 30 years and release their seeds. Perennial natural cycle.
since, Turner, now at the University grasses and wild owers sprouted the
of Wisconsin-Madison, has amassed irst year after the ires and owered “The 1988 ires were not an
a considerable amount of data and profusely the second year. Aspen trees, ecological catastrophe, and I think
scores of papers. which typically regenerate from asexual the main thing that we learned
from all of that research is just how
resilient Yellowstone’s forests were,”
Yet, as the planet warms, drought,
Young lodgepole pines grow in a stand of
trees killed by Yellowstone ﬁres 10 years
earlier (above). These pines require the
heat of a ﬁre to open their cones (below).
Ecologist Monica Turner has been studying
the recovery of burned forests at sites like
that of the Arnica Fire (right), which in
2009 burned around 9,300 acres.
CLOCKWISE FROM TOP: JIM PEACO/NATIONAL PARK SERVICE; COURTESY OF MONICA TURNER; PEACO high temperatures, prolonged heat that rising temperatures have led to short-interval ires, on the other hand,
and other conditions are lengthening an additional 16,216 square miles of are destroying younger trees, some
the burning season and making severe forest burning in the United States less than 20 years old. Different trees
ires more common, not only in the between 1984 and 2015 — forests that produce cones and seeds at different
park but also around the world. How wouldn’t have burned otherwise. The ages, so very young trees may burn
forests will cope is not clear. Turner same researchers found climate change before they can produce viable seeds.
thinks the research produced after the led to nine more days of “high ire Some pine trees produce serotinous
Yellowstone ires of 1988 can serve as potential” each year from 2000 to 2015. cones annually, but not until they start
a benchmark for how forests might These ires can burn forests that have producing seeds. The lodgepole pine,
respond to repeated burning, and been standing for some time or reburn for instance, begins producing viable
the hot and furious future that may forests recently incinerated. seeds at 5 to 10 years old. These cones
await them. stay on the tree from year to year,
Turner is concerned about the more increasing the tree’s seed supply, until
MORE FREQUENT FIRES frequent ires that consume areas a ire erupts. Areas reburned before
Climate change has been expanding previously charred, called repeated the trees have had a chance to build
the ire season. A 2016 paper by short-interval ires. While the 1988 ires up their seed supply may have a more
researchers from the University of burned old-growth trees, many between dificult time recovering.
Idaho and Columbia University found 100 and 250 years old, the ecosystem
was adapted to such ires. Repeated Turner and her team are studying
27December 2018 DISCOVER
Nathan Gill trims Yellowstone a handful of these reburned areas
weeds in a seed National Park Fires to understand how the increased
tray his team is frequency of ires may affect
using to study ecosystems.
and survival of On a hot, sunny day in late July, a
lodgepole pine group of Turner’s researchers gave me
and Douglas a tour of three of these sites — one
ﬁr seeds. His burned in an unnamed ire that
labmate Tyler occurred around 1872, another site
Hoecker is burned in the 1988 Huck Fire and a
studying how third burned in the 2000 Glade Fire.
the seeds fare All three were reburned in the 2016
in recently Berry Fire. Soon after we rendezvoused
burned areas, south of Yellowstone National Park,
and predicts that we were walking through a sea of
hotter, drier spots blackened lodgepole pines. The
will be worse for standing charred trees, called snags,
the seeds. tower over a forest oor carpeted with
lupine, ireweed, wild strawberries,
Old Faithful 1988 pinegrass, sedges and other plants.
1989–2016 Charred fallen trees litter the ground.
Yellowstone 1988 and TOP: KRISTEN POPE. BOTTOM: ALISON MACKEY/DISCOVER
National Park again since Postdoctoral researcher Nathan
Gill points out a seed trap, one of
Wyoming Source: NPS/Yellowstone Spatial Analysis Center nearly 600 he’s set up this summer
to study how effectively wind-blown
28 DISCOVERMAGAZINE.COM lodgepole pine cone seeds travel
into burned areas. He’s placed the
traps — greenhouse ats with a
hammock of landscape fabric and
mesh to keep rodents out — in areas
with varying densities of snags and
vegetation. Some he placed among
tightly spaced dead trees and others
in areas with only a few scattered
branches. He’ll check the traps in the
fall, counting seeds to see if the snags
interfere with seed dispersal. The
team members hypothesize they will
ind fewer seeds in the reburned areas
than older burned forests, and fewer
of them the farther away they sample
from the unburned edge. If they’re
correct, it could show reburned areas
have a harder time at regenerating
and recovering from the frequent ires
wrought by climate change.
Tyler Hoecker, a Ph.D. student
on the team, is studying how, once
dispersed, lodgepole pine and Douglas
ir seeds grow in these recently burned
areas, which are typically sunnier and
hotter than unburned areas. Hoecker
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Tyler Hoecker retrieves data from an instrument that tracks soil and air conditions like
temperature, moisture and wind in a twice-burned site (above). The team deployed trays of
seeds in burned sites to test effects of post-burn conditions on Yellowstone’s tree species (right).
has seed trays, about 20 inches by 10 Every two weeks, fare and regenerate under different KRISTEN POPE (2)
inches, that contain either 50 planted Hoecker hikes to each scenarios, including ranges of climate,
seeds of Douglas ir or 50 seeds of site, recording which ire frequency and distance from
lodgepole pine, as well as control seed sources.
trays with zero seeds. In late spring, seeds germinate,
he set up 12 study plots with the trays how many survive “An important aspect about his
equally dispersed among locations and how they grow. model is that it’s basically building
on south-facing slopes (presumably from the ground up,” Turner explains,
warmer and drier), north-facing slopes 100 degrees Fahrenheit. noting that the model is based on tree
(expected to be cooler and wetter), and The results of this study could help physiology and relies on daily data
about solar radiation, precipitation
at sites predicted to be in between. scientists understand the mechanisms and temperature.
The team hypothesizes fewer seeds will and then anticipate how different trees
survive on south-facing slopes and at will respond to different conditions. “When we’re looking out into this
lower elevations since those locations century where the conditions are really
are generally hotter and drier. Every FORESTS FROM THE GROUND UP different than anything we’ve seen in
two weeks, Hoecker hikes to each site, Eventually the seed dispersal and our historical record, we can’t assume
recording which seeds germinate, how growth data, along with other data that relationships that were represented
many survive and how well they grow. points, will be plugged into an maybe 40 years ago are going to hold
“individual-based forest process in the future,” Turner says.
At these sites, Hoecker has model” developed by one of Turner’s
embedded sensors in the ground colleagues, Austrian ecologist Rupert While Turner and her collaborators
to collect data on soil temperature Seidl. The model, called iLand, is are working to develop new tools
and moisture, while meteorological designed to address the changing to examine ire, she re ects on the
stations at each site collect data on dynamic of forests, and can be fundamental changes at hand. “I think
air temperature, humidity and solar modiied for use in different forest that the rules of the game are changing
radiation. Camera traps keep an types. The Yellowstone data is used now in the sense [that] the recovery
eye out for curious critters that may to examine how species such as that we see in the future may not be
interfere with the results. lodgepole pine and Douglas ir will the same as we have seen in the past,”
Turner says. “Our systems are often
“[It’s been surprising] just how more resilient than we think, but I also
warm it can get right below the soil think we might be pushing them to
surface,” Hoecker says, noting soil breaking points.” D
temperature is often much hotter than
the air temperature and can reach over Kristen Pope is a freelance science writer.
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Armed with big data,
researchers turn to
changes to fight the
disease. BY LINDA MARSA
Sally Weinrich knew something healthy lifestyle couldn’t protect her ILLUSTRATION: BRYAN CHRISTIE DESIGN
was terribly wrong. On two from the darkness she feared most:
separate occasions, she forgot Alzheimer’s disease.
to pick up her grandkids from
school, and she kept mixing In 2015, imaging tests revealed the
up their names. The 70-year- presence of amyloid plaques, the sticky
old retired nursing professor had to proteins associated with Alzheimer’s
face reality. Her worsening symptoms disease that collect around brain cells and
— the forgetfulness and confusion, interfere with relaying messages. Weinrich
the dificulties communicating and also eventually learned she carried the
organizing activities — weren’t just stress ApoE4 gene, which increases the odds of
or the normal wear and tear of aging. developing Alzheimer’s. The disease was
She lived in a matchless setting, on a lake diagnosed after a neuropsychological
in South Carolina, nestled in a bucolic evaluation. “I felt a total sense of
wood. She swam daily and kayaked three hopelessness,” recalls Weinrich, who sank
days a week. But even her purposefully into a deep depression. “I wanted to die.”
Shortly after, her husband heard a
radio program about a new treatment regimen devised exercise and restorative sleep, toxins from molds, and LEFT: LEIGHA HODNET. OPPOSITE: ERNIE MASTROIANNI/DISCOVER
by physician Dale Bredesen that seemed to reverse early fat-laden fast foods. Even too much sugar, or being
stage Alzheimer’s. The couple contacted the UCLA pre-diabetic, heightens risk. “If you look at studies,
professor of neurology. Bredesen told them that, based you see the signature of insulin resistance in virtually
on nearly 30 years of research, he believes Alzheimer’s everyone with Alzheimer’s,” he says. “If you look at all
is triggered by a broad range of factors that upset the the risk factors, so many of them are associated with
“If you look at all the the way we live.”
risk factors, so many In spring 2016, Weinrich
of them are associated
with the way we live.” underwent an extensive evaluation
that included blood and genetic
—Dale Bredesen, UCLA professor of neurology tests, online cognitive assessments
and, a year later, an MRI to
body’s natural process of cell turnover and renewal; he spot the underlying mechanisms
didn’t think it emerged from just a handful of rogue contributing to her cognitive
genes or plaques spreading across the brain. troubles. The imaging scan showed
that her hippocampus, the brain
Bredesen has identiied more than three dozen region that regulates memory,
mechanisms that amplify the biological processes that had severely atrophied and was
drive the disease. While these contributors by themselves in the 14th percentile for her
aren’t enough to tip the brain into a downward spiral, age — 86 percent of peers were
taken together they have a cumulative effect, resulting better off. Bredesen says other
in the destruction of neurons and crucial signaling tests he administered revealed high
connections between brain cells. “Normally, synapse- concentrations of fungus and mold
forming and synapse-destroying activities are in toxins in her system, which he
dynamic equilibrium,” explains Bredesen, but these interpreted as residual damage from
factors can disturb this delicate balance. exposure to mold that had festered
in the basement of one of her
These bad actors include chronic stress, a lack of previous residences. Also discovered
were deiciencies in other areas that
might contribute to dementia, such
as high levels of fasting insulin.
Bredesen crunched all these results with a computer
algorithm that calculated a complex 36-point
personalized therapeutic program to counteract
Weinrich’s speciic constellation of deicits. Initially
she was overwhelmed, but she gradually incorporated
the changes into her lifestyle. She now sleeps about
eight hours a night, fasts 14 hours a day starting in
the evening and begins her morning with a 30-minute
meditation. She takes a host of supplements, has
cut down on carbs and increased her vegetable
consumption, and gets plenty of exercise that includes
yoga, Pilates, swimming, kayaking and hiking trips.
“I felt better almost immediately,” says Weinrich,
who once again engages in meaningful conversations
and plays with her grandkids without embarrassing
cognitive lapses. “I have my life back.”
Weinrich’s apparent improvement begs the question:
Could one of our most dreaded diseases really be eased
by strict adherence to almost monastically healthy
habits? This new approach is based on the premise
that our modern lifestyles — along with environmental
assaults from infectious pathogens and toxins —
are as much to blame for Alzheimer’s as renegade
genes or plaques.
Growing evidence suggests we may inally be on
the right track.
ERNIE MASTROIANNI Sally Weinrich kayaks on
South Carolina’s Lake Murray near
Columbia, something she does
regularly as part of her strategy
to slow the onset of Alzheimer’s.
A NEW APPROACH one of the key hallmarks of Alzheimer’s: amyloid FLORIDA ATLANTIC UNIVERSITY
Until now, the quest for effective Alzheimer’s plaques, the barnacle-like proteins long considered the
treatments has been marked by costly and high-proile main culprits behind the disease. When scientists made
failures. A stunning 99 percent of drugs tested have the link between amyloid and Alzheimer’s in the 1980s,
drugmakers jumped on the bandwagon in the hope of
opped. Nearly all the drug candidates have targeted inventing a trillion-dollar drug for a progressive and
fatal disease that affects more than 5 million Americans.
“This is where big
data can come in. But a growing cadre of physician scientists at major
You can look at research institutions, like the University of Alabama
patterns, and when and Weill Cornell Medical Center, believe we’ve placed
you have a cluster too much emphasis on these sticky proteins and have
of patterns, you can ignored other equally important miscreants. “We were
tailor therapies based barking up the wrong tree,” says David Geldmacher,
on an individual’s founder and program director of the Alzheimer’s Risk
profile.” Assessment and Intervention Clinic at the University
of Alabama at Birmingham.
—James Galvin, neurologist and founding
A number of observational studies, which track
director of the Comprehensive Center for Brain Health people over time, have yielded insights into many of the
at Florida Atlantic University culprits linked to Alzheimer’s. The laundry list includes
chronic stress, lack of exercise and restorative sleep,
insulin resistance and diabetes, low kidney function,
high blood pressure, in ammation from exposure to
infections and environmental toxins, poor nutrition,
small strokes, heart disease, concussions, genetics, and
a lack of social connection and mental stimulation.
Taken together, these factors account for up to half
of the risks for the disease, according to a 2011 review
in Lancet Neurology. When people have a speciic
combination of these drivers, which interact differently
from one person to the next, the signs and symptoms of
the disease emerge. Because there seem to be multiple
pathways to developing Alzheimer’s, there may also be
multiple ways to slow or even thwart the progress of the
illness, says James Galvin, a neurologist and founding
director of the Comprehensive Center for Brain Health
at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
“This is where big data can come in,” Galvin says.
“You can look at patterns, and when you have a
cluster of patterns, you can tailor therapies based
on an individual’s proile. Outside of age and family
history, these are risk factors that we could actually
do something about and design interventions on a
personalized basis. Address brain health using lifestyle
modiication and medication, and treat any underlying
diseases, like diabetes or heart disease. And that’s
what we’re doing — using a precision medicine-like
approach that looks at each individual’s risk factors
and creating a treatment plan to slow or prevent the
onset of disease.”
This relatively fresh perspective on Alzheimer’s —
both in terms of its causes and in the use of computer
algorithms to devise individualized therapeutic plans —
represents a dramatic shift in the way we approach the
disease. Scientists like Leroy Hood, a biotech pioneer
who was at the forefront of technologies behind the
Human Genome Project and big data analytics, thinks
this is at the leading edge of 21st-century medicine. It
STEVE RINGMAN/SEATTLE TIMES Taking a systems On the Wrong Track All Along?
my own conviction There have been hints that amyloids weren’t the toxic bad
that these complex boys solely responsible for the destruction of vital brain
diseases almost circuits. Those clues were largely ignored. Autopsies have
never respond to revealed that many people’s brains are peppered with
a single drug.” these plaques, yet their mental faculties were undiminished
before they died.
— Leroy Hood, biotech pioneer
For more than a decade, research suggested other
hinges on using large data sets to personalize treatments factors were at play. As far back as 2005, Suzanne de la
and ferret out therapies that target a patient’s unique Monte, a pathologist at Brown University, had concluded
genetic makeup. that Alzheimer’s was actually a form of diabetes — what
she calls Type 3 diabetes. It affects the brain and has many
Alzheimer’s “is a really complex disease that has molecular and biochemical features in common with
been utterly intractable,” says Hood, co-founder of Type 2 diabetes, which we know is a major risk factor for
the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle and chief Alzheimer’s. In one experiment, she and her colleagues
science oficer for Providence St. Joseph Health, one blocked insulin to rats’ brains. Their neurons deteriorated,
of the nation’s largest nonproit health care systems. they became disoriented, and their brains showed the
Taking a systems approach, he says, “re ects my own telltale signature of Alzheimer’s.
conviction that these complex diseases almost never
respond to a single drug.” While there’s a vast difference between lab animals and
humans, other studies have shown that people with Type 2
In the meantime, though, thorny questions remain. diabetes are nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with
While increasing numbers of physicians think lifestyle Alzheimer’s, and even elevated levels of insulin signiﬁcantly
changes can slow or even stop the descent into increased the odds that someone will develop the disorder.
A pair of even more recent studies, in 2017 and 2018,
have associated high blood sugar and failure to properly
metabolize glucose — the fuel that revs our cells’ engines
— with intensifying mental fogginess.
A raft of other research demonstrates that breaking
a sweat works better than any medication in preserving
thinking skills. That means spending an average of
45 minutes four times a week at a moderate level of
intensity — the equivalent of a very brisk walk. One pilot
study of 65 volunteers with mild cognitive impairment and
pre-diabetes looked at the effects of six months of regular
high-intensity aerobic exercise. Results showed exercise
enhanced executive function — the ability to plan and
organize — and increased blood ﬂow to regions vulnerable
to Alzheimer’s. “They even had a reduction in tau tangles,”
which are another hallmark of Alzheimer’s, says Laura
Baker, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Wake Forest School
of Medicine in Winston-Salem, North Carolina ,who led the
study. “No drug can do that.”
This research has been expanded into a larger trial, called
EXERT, which will eventually include 300 people between
the ages of 65 and 89 who have mild cognitive impairment.
“We’re really hoping to push the envelope on whether
we can improve memory with exercise,” says Baker, who
also is associate director of the Wake Forest Alzheimer’s
Disease Core Center.
What’s more, a series of other studies, including a
major 2017 review by The Lancet, have identiﬁed a clutch
of modiﬁable risk factors for Alzheimer’s: depression,
obesity, physical inactivity, smoking, hearing loss, high
blood pressure, diabetes and a lack of education. The
review concluded that improving on these risk factors
could prevent more than a third of dementia cases
across the globe.
The Alzheimer’s Association has launched the POINTER
study, a more than $20 million two-year test that will
examine whether lifestyle interventions can prevent
dementia in 2,000 older adults. This research is modeled
on a 2015 Finnish study of more than 1,200 elderly at risk
for cognitive decline. That study found that mental acuity
could be preserved with a regimen of physical activity,
proper diet, mental exercises, social engagement and
intensive monitoring of vascular and metabolic risk factors.
“In the best-case scenario, if we could keep the disease
from worsening so their progression is slowed,” says Baker,
a co-principal investigator on this study, “I’d count that as a
success.” — L.M.
37December 2018 DISCOVER
Alzheimer’s, in the absence of deinitive clinical trials ago that can temporarily enhance thinking and
involving hundreds of people — the gold standard to functioning. Studies that linked Alzheimer’s to a
prove eficacy — some scientists are deeply skeptical. range of modifiable lifestyle factors prompted him
to make subtle changes in his practice, and he began
“A variety of factors are linked to Alzheimer’s, to more aggressively treat the health conditions that
but association doesn’t prove causation,” says Victor contribute to the disease. He’d prescribe medication
Henderson, the director of Stanford University’s to lower his patients’ blood pressure, statins to control
Alzheimer’s Disease Research Center. “Alzheimer’s is cholesterol, or suggest exercise regimens or dietary
very complex, and one simplistic approach isn’t likely changes to lessen insulin resistance and improve brain
to be the magic bullet. If there were simple answers, health. “I started to see that my patients seemed
people would have come up with them already.” to progress much slower than my colleagues’, and
the families would tell me the same things,” Galvin
SENDING A SIGNAL recalls. He discovered some of his fellow neurologists
Treating Alzheimer’s has been a challenge because, were taking a similar tack: “The same lightbulb is
until now, little meaningful progress has been made. going off.”
Neurologists on the front lines have felt powerless,
watching their patients disappear into the sinkhole of At the University of Alabama at Birmingham,
forgetfulness. Geldmacher gives each patient a detailed and
personalized risk assessment that encompasses family
Big Pharma’s focus on a one-size-its-all anti- history, performance on tests of mental acuity and
amyloid drug, and the billions in funding that went results of MRI scans. “By controlling their risks,
with it, largely eclipsed a dramatically different story people can maintain their well-being through physical
that was quietly emerging from independent academic exercise, mental stimulation and a healthy diet,” says
studies over the past decade: Other health conditions, Geldmacher. “Those three things may help lower their
such as our sedentary lifestyles, poor eating habits, risk for the disease or slow it down. That’s where the
Type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance and skyrocketing ield is going.”
obesity, play a huge role. “But you can’t package or
patent a lifestyle,” Galvin dryly observes. Richard Isaacson, the founder and director of
the Alzheimer’s Prevention Clinic at New York
In his darkest moments, Galvin wondered if he Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center, spends
was doing anything for anybody. He had so few hours with each patient doing a thorough health
weapons in his treatment arsenal — only a handful analysis. He uses cognitive tests, body measurements
of marginally beneficial drugs approved decades
The Bredesen Protocol environmental toxins, such as certain metals and mold,
but the research is currently inconclusive.
Dale Bredesen’s protocol is designed as a comprehensive
personalized program that aims to reverse the biological The ﬁrst step is to undergo what Bredesen calls a
causes of cognitive decline and early Alzheimer’s disease. “cognoscopy,” which is a combination of blood tests,
Bredesen believes that Alzheimer’s isn’t just one disease genetic evaluations, cognitive assessments and an MRI,
but that there are three distinct subtypes driven by which measures brain volumes to identify areas of
different biological processes, and each distinct condition shrinkage. The evaluation is designed to pinpoint the
requires a customized treatment regimen. underlying mechanisms that Bredesen believes are the
root causes behind cognitive decline.
Type 1 of the disease is associated with systemic
inﬂammation. Inﬂammation is not present in Type 2, The results are then crunched using a computer
but abnormal metabolic markers are, including insulin algorithm to customize a plan based on each person’s
resistance and extremely low levels of certain vitamins particular deﬁciencies and genetic makeup.
and hormones. Type 3 is characterized by a speciﬁc type
of brain atrophy, seen on an MRI, and generally strikes Typically, each plan encompasses several key elements
younger individuals with no family history of Alzheimer’s. to reverse inﬂammation, insulin resistance and destruction
This subtype may be associated with chronic exposure to of vital brain structures. They include:
« Optimizing sleep and getting « Aerobic exercise for 30 to « Cutting out high-mercury ﬁsh:
at least eight hours of shut-eye 60 minutes, at least ﬁve times tuna, shark and swordﬁsh.
every night. a week.
« Drinking plenty of water.
« Fasting at least 12 hours a « Brain training exercises for
« Eliminating gluten and sugars.
day; patients usually don’t eat 30 minutes, three times a week.
anything after 7 p.m. until the Cutting out simple carbs (bread,
next morning. « Eating a mostly plant-based pasta, rice, cookies, cakes, candy,
sodas). — L.M.
« Frequent yoga and meditation diet: broccoli, cauliﬂower, Brussels
sprouts, leafy green vegetables
sessions to relieve stress. (kale, spinach, lettuce).
HEALTH MATTERS/NEW YORK-PRESBYTERIAN “We’re trying to lay Diagnosing Alzheimer’s
the groundwork for Can Be Difﬁcult
and figure out what It is tricky to diagnose Alzheimer’s disease because
tools we should it shares symptoms with many other complications
be using and what of aging, such as stroke, tumors, sleep disturbances,
works best.” Parkinson’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Even side effects from certain medications can mimic
—Richard Isaacson, founder and director of the Alzheimer’s the signs of the disease.
Prevention Clinic at Weill Cornell Medical Center Until now, diagnosis was based on observation
of the constellation of symptoms associated with
and brain health computer assessments, as well as the mind-robbing disorder, such as forgetfulness,
lab tests and imaging exams (MRI or PET scans) fuzzy thinking, confusion, difﬁculty concentrating,
to pinpoint areas that can increase the odds of or changes in behavior, personality, and the
developing Alzheimer’s. “We look at genetics, we look ability to function normally. In addition, extensive
at cholesterol, we look at glucose metabolism, we look neuropsychological evaluations look at such factors
at body fat,” says Isaacson, who was inspired to do this as how quickly people can process information,
work after watching four family members succumb solve problems or remember words. Other standard
to the disease. “Then we triangulate this information, medical tests, such as blood and urine tests, can
using each data point with the context of one another.” spot other potential causes of the problem. Thanks
to advances in a type of brain imaging technique
Based on their risk factors, patients are prescribed called a PET scan, scientists are able, in a research
a regimen of exercise, methods to reduce stress and setting, to identify what researchers believe is one
get more restorative sleep, prescription and over-the- of Alzheimer’s biological markers: amyloid plaques.
counter medications, and even nutritional supplements Another PET scan innovation, currently under
to compensate for their deicits. In people who dutifully development, may be able to detect the abnormal
follow the program, Isaacson says early research indicates protein tau, thought to be another telltale sign of
But even with better testing, a conclusive diagnosis
can remain elusive. Researchers are ﬁnding that
Alzheimer’s symptoms and the presence of amyloid
and tau do not necessarily go hand in hand.
In 2011, a researcher did a postmortem analysis of
426 Japanese-American residents of Hawaii, about
half of whom had been diagnosed with some form
of dementia, typically Alzheimer’s. According to
the autopsies, roughly half of that group had been
misdiagnosed as having Alzheimer’s — their brains
didn’t show evidence of the brain lesions typical
of the disease. At a 2016 conference, Canadian
scientists presented preliminary ﬁndings, based on
more than 1,000 individuals, that patients were
correctly diagnosed only 78 percent of the time. In
nearly 11 percent of cases, patients thought to have
Alzheimer’s actually didn’t, while another 11 percent
did have the disease but weren’t diagnosed.
Scientists are now investigating a number of
disease markers, such as genes or disease-related
debris or abnormal proteins in the spinal ﬂuid or
blood, that may more reliably and accurately diagnose
Alzheimer’s. — L.M.
that cognitive function does improve in critical areas
such as executive functioning and processing speed, or
how fast information can be absorbed. “Intuitively, we
thought this would work,” says Isaacson. “But now we
actually have proof.”
While the evidence remains largely preliminary, these
individual cases have reached a critical mass, which
indicates something is happening that needs to be
explored in a more rigorous way. In September, nearly
a dozen physicians — from Puerto Rico, Kansas City,
Alabama and New York — met in Chicago to share
what they’ve learned, what seems to work and what
doesn’t, and begin the arduous process of iguring
39December 2018 DISCOVER
how best to test a treatment platform that can be used The story of one successful entrepreneur is especially
everywhere. “We’re trying to lay the groundwork for significant because his decline was well documented.
Alzheimer’s prevention and igure out what tools we He had gotten PET scans and neuropsychological
should be using and what works best,” says Isaacson. tests every few years, starting in 2003. The imaging
“But the ield is still in its infancy, so we literally learn tests revealed patterns of early stage Alzheimer’s, and
every day.” subsequently, he learned he carried the gene variant.
As the years went by, friends and colleagues noticed
BARNSTORMING FOR A FIX his deterioration. By 2013, tests indicated his decline
In the meantime, Bredesen, the UCLA neurology had accelerated, and his neuropsychologist suggested
professor, has been touring around the country, he shutter his businesses. “It was very sobering,” he
promoting his program through his best-selling book, says. “I thought about selling my business while there
The End of Alzheimer’s, and giving lectures at scientiic was still something to sell.”
conferences and talks to community groups. Still,
his controversial approach has more than its share The businessman met with Bredesen, who used the
of detractors. “You don’t want vulnerable people data culled from his evaluations and crunched the
spending money on something that isn’t yet proven information in a software algorithm to devise a personal
to work or be safe,” says Keith Fargo, director of plan that the entrepreneur dutifully followed. Two
scientiic programs for the Alzheimer’s Association. years later, another battery of neuropsychological tests
revealed his scores had improved. His verbal learning
But many people who followed his program seem to and memory and auditory memory had jumped from
beneit. While their stories are anecdotal and the details substandard to superior. His neuropsychologist had
differ, there are some common threads, with several never seen anyone make this kind of recovery in his
talking about reclaiming pieces of themselves they 30-year career. “You can’t fake these,” the entrepreneur
thought had vanished forever. (They have requested says now. “It’s not like you can drink a cup of coffee
anonymity because of the stigma of Alzheimer’s and do really well.”
While the evidence remains largely
preliminary, these individual cases have
reached a critical mass, which indicates
something is happening that needs to be
explored in a more rigorous way.
disease.) One middle-aged nonproit director living These approaches offer hope to the millions at risk for DAN BISHOP/DISCOVER
near Chicago noticed she was becoming forgetful and Alzheimer’s and their families. In the near future, these
was horriied to learn that she carried two copies of physicians believe Alzheimer’s could become a chronic
the ApoE4 gene variant, meaning she has an especially but manageable disease, much like diabetes or heart
high chance of developing Alzheimer’s. Now 56, her disease. Like these life-threatening ills, if Alzheimer’s is
symptoms have subsided after a stringent program of left unchecked, it can be severely debilitating and deadly.
diet, exercise and an array of supplements. But proper treatment and lifestyle changes may be able
to stave off symptoms for years, enabling people to live
A lawyer on the East Coast was only 40 when she more satisfying, productive lives.
could sense she was being pulled into the quicksand
of Alzheimer’s. Her father was already gripped by “Alzheimer’s is a life course disease, meaning that
the disease, and it had claimed her grandmother, too. cognitive health starts in the womb and is in uenced
Within a decade, her thinking became muddled, and by what we do throughout our lives,” says Isaacson.
she was at a loss for words and language — she’d “By treating the underlying conditions, we can have a
forgotten Chinese and Russian. After six months positive effect on brain health, reduce risk and even
following Bredesen’s protocol, the fog lifted, and prevent the disease.” D
within two years, she could speak foreign languages
proiciently again. Linda Marsa is a Discover contributing editor.
A Steady Uptick
5.7 MILLION ALZHEIMER’S
Americans are living DISEASE is the
with Alzheimer’s 6th
By 2050, this number leading cause of
is projected to rise death in the
to nearly United States
Every Between Deaths from
2000 and Alzheimer’s
65 2015, deaths
SECONDS from heart disease
someone in the U.S.
develops Alzheimer’s have increased
Age of people
$In 2018, Alzheimer’s with Alzheimer’s
and other dementias in the U.S., 2018
will cost the nation
$277 BILLION O 85+ years, 37%
By 2050, these costs O 75-84 years, 44%
could rise as high as O 65-74 years, 16%
$1.1 TRILLION O <65 years, 4%
Cost of care by Total greater than 100 percent
payment source due to rounding
O Medicare $140 billion, 50%
O Medicaid $47B, 17% 41December 2018 DISCOVER
O Out of pocket $60B, 22%
O Other $30B, 11%
SOURCE: Alzheimer’s Association
LEFT: TEK IMAGE/SCIENCE SOURCE. RIGHT: DIMITRI OTIS/GETTY IMAGES
For centuries, physicists have hunted for
particles with a single north or south pole.
They may be closer than ever.
BY ADAM HADHAZY
43December 2018 DISCOVER
s a child, James Pinfold adored magnets. falling from space. There’s even a chance we’ve already
He recalls marveling at the invisible force spotted the darn things. (See “Maybe Monopoles?”
that clacked the metallic objects together page 31.)
or hurled them apart. Out of curiosity, he
once sawed a bar magnet in half, trying to Why all the fuss? Magnetic monopoles may just
help break the current logjam in particle physics. A
Aseparate its north and south poles. Like framework known as the Standard Model, built up
anyone else who’s ever made the attempt, over decades, describes three of the four fundamental
Pinfold instead just ended up with a pair of smaller forces of nature and their attendant particles in the
two-poled magnets. “I thought, ‘That’s amazing,’” says precise language of quantum mechanics. It’s among the
Pinfold, now a physicist at the University of Alberta. most successful theories in all of science, but remains
“Why could there not be separate poles?” hopelessly incomplete. It fails to accommodate the force
of gravity, for instance. Nor can it explain the bugbear
It’s a question he’s never stopped asking. Pinfold is of dark matter, a mysterious substance outnumbering
now the leader of an experiment looking for theoretical regular matter 5 to 1.
particles with single magnetic charges — a north without
a south, and vice versa. Called magnetic monopoles, Magnetic monopoles, a brand-new type of particle,
they seem perfectly possible, even inevitable, in a host of could show the way forward. “A monopole would take
theories physicists have proposed for unifying nature’s us well beyond the current Standard Model,” says
fundamental forces. Pinfold. Monopoles could reveal how to combine the
three standard forces, allowing scientists to move a step
Yet the pesky particles have eluded science’s grasp closer toward a so-called theory of everything, putting
for decades. Researchers have looked to the skies, in all of physics under one roof. Humankind could at last
seawater and in ice for them. They’ve picked through understand the entirety of the universe’s behavior.
rock samples from the Arctic and Antarctica, searched
in meteorites and moon dust, and sought traces of them But irst: the hunt.
in ores dating back nearly a billion years. In the history
of science, arguably nothing has been searched for A PERSISTENT PROBLEM
more, through both space and time, than the magnetic The quandary of the elusive magnetic monopole
monopole. And still, nothing. goes back more than 150 years. In the 1860s, Scottish
mathematical physicist James Clerk Maxwell devised
But physicists have no intention of throwing in the equations joining at the hip the phenomena of
towel. Pinfold’s experiment, at the $4 billion Large magnetism and electricity. They were both expressions
Hadron Collider (LHC), is sifting through subatomic of the same fundamental force, ittingly named
shrapnel for monopolar signatures, and scientists are electromagnetism.
also keeping their eyes peeled for cosmic monopoles
Physicist James Pinfold has long sought the magnetic monopole, whose detection “would take us well beyond the current Standard Model,” he says. RICHARD SOLUK
i i h h
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ii ii hh hh
ii N hh S
i ii h hh
i i h h
DAN BISHOP/DISCOVER In his equations, Maxwell included Monopoles monopoles yet another thumbs-up.
the already-known positive and negative could reveal With all the circumstantial theoretical
charges for electricity. These opposite
charges readily split apart: Rub a balloon how to evidence for monopoles, one of the
on your hair so it stands up from gaining combine foremost string theorists in the world,
extra static charge, and you’ve done it. the three Joseph Polchinski of the University of
But because magnetism always seemed standard California, Santa Barbara, commented
to manifest as twofers — those conjoined forces, in 2002 that their existence is “one of
north and south poles known as dipoles allowing the safest bets that one can make about
— he did not include individual magnetic scientists to physics not yet seen.” Sixteen years later,
charges in the theory. move a step before he died in February 2018, he still
closer toward stood by that statement. “Whenever you
Maxwell’s paradigm has worked just a so-called go to a fully uniied theory of physics,”
ine without magnetic charges; his insights theory of he said, “you always ind that magnetic
made possible most modern technology, everything, monopoles come along.”
from electrical power generation to wireless putting all of
communications to computers. physics under The basic proile of monopoles depicts
one roof. them as elementary particles carrying
Theoretical developments in the 20th magnetic charge. They would be analogous
century, though, squarely made the case to the particles that carry electric charge,
for monopoles. In 1931, English theoretical electrons and quarks, which constitute the
physicist Paul Dirac showed that quantum matter around us.
mechanics permitted such a particle, and
by the 1970s, monopoles emerged as a Monopoles would act familiarly, too:
consequence of Grand Uniied Theory. The same charges would repel each other,
while opposite charges would attract. The
This framework weds three of nature’s particles would likely possess considerable
fundamental forces — the strong, the weak mass. Scientists are conident they would
and the electromagnetic — into a single interact with everyday matter in predictable
entity. But that uniication is only possible — and ultimately detectable — ways.
in the intensely hot, energetic unfolding
of the universe’s birth, the Big Bang. “At a very basic level, that’s a reason why
Separately, string theory, which proposes we think monopoles are worth looking
that forces and particles all arise from the for,” says theoretical physicist Arttu
vibrations of tiny stringlike units, gave Rajantie. “We really know what they would
45December 2018 DISCOVER
The MoEDAL experiment in CERN’s Large Hadron Collider combs through the detritus of particle collisions, seeking out monopoles.
MoEDAL DETECTOR collision point, awaiting any magnetic monopoles that MAXIMILIEN BRICE/CERN
Rajantie’s irst name, Arttu, is pronounced like the Star might leave the fray. The particle would plow through
Wars character R2-D2; a toy of the lovably squat droid thin sheets of plastic in MoEDAL’s compartments,
sits atop his ofice computer at the Imperial College leaving permanent, ultrathin trails of destruction.
London. From there, Rajantie makes the occasional trip “MoEDAL is like a giant camera,” says Pinfold, and
to the LHC in Geneva, Switzerland, where he’s part of the plastic sheets “are like its ilm.” If his team spots
Pinfold’s project, hot on the trail of magnetic monopoles. an aligned set of tiny holes in the ilm, pointing back
Dubbed MoEDAL (pronounced like “medal,” for to the LHC’s proton collision, Pinfold and crew will be
the Monopole and Exotics Detector at the LHC), the reaching for the champagne.
collaboration has brought together about 70 people
hailing from four continents. The MoEDAL instrument “MoEDAL detects only new physics,” he says. “No
began gathering data in 2015 and will carry on through known Standard Model particle can do that in our
the LHC’s current run, ending this December, and likely plastic.” The detector should therefore spot more than
through the next from 2020 to 2022. just monopoles, a proper jungle of particle beasties. (See
“Funky New Physics,” page 33.) “Just one detection
A visitor to the LHC might not look twice at event is enough to establish that something wonderful
MoEDAL; it resembles a set of silver-metallic storage has happened,” says Pinfold.
lockers. MoEDAL shares an underground cavern with
part of the big-budget, house-sized experiment dubbed A second type of detector within MoEDAL, made of
the LHCb. This project detects “beauty” quarks, short- aluminum, would do one better in the monopole hunt by
lived particles that spew out of head-on collisions actually ensnaring the renegade particle. “If a magnetic
between twin beams of protons traveling just within a monopole ies through the aluminum, it will slow down
whisker of the speed of light. The beams shoot through and become trapped,” says Rajantie. Researchers would
two pipes running the roughly 17-mile length of the learn of its presence by passing the aluminum through
ring-shaped LHC, and the proton pyrotechnics take a superconducting loop — a device that picks up weak
place right inside MoEDAL’s cavern. magnetic ields. An ordinary dipole magnet creates two
electrical currents in the loop that effectively cancel
MoEDAL’s lockerlike detectors wrap around that each other out; a solo pole, however, would trigger a
sustained electric current. “There’s no way to fake that Monopoles Maybe
signal of a trapped monopole,” says Pinfold. can range Monopoles?
in size, from
Their monopole trap thus set, now all the researchers superheavies While physicists are hard at work
have to do is watch and wait, ingers crossed. to lighter hunting magnetic monopoles,
varieties, and decades-old ﬁndings suggest
ALL-NATURAL MONOPOLES also move we may already have stumbled
On the other side of the world, scientists are taking at radically upon them.
a different approach. Instead of hunting man-made different
monopoles wrought by artiicial particle collisions, speeds, On Feb. 14, 1982, Stanford
these physicists are seeking natural, cosmic monopoles, the fastest University researchers detected
originally forged in the furnace of the Big Bang and falling whipped a characteristic electric current
to Earth from space. These monopoles can range in size, around by on a superconducting loop, only
from superheavies to lighter varieties, and they also move magnetic thought possible from a magnetic
at radically different speeds, with the fastest whipped fields to monopole. And three years later at
around by magnetic ields to travel at near light speed. travel at near Imperial College London, another
light speed. unexplained current popped
The eet-footed monopoles are the targets of the Pierre up that also perfectly matched
Auger Observatory. Sprawling across a plain below the theoretical predictions. Since no
Andes Mountains in western Argentina, Auger chie y other detectors have reported such
spots cosmic rays, incredibly energetic particles zipping events, many scientists dismiss the
through the cosmos. Upon entering our airspace, cosmic signals as unexplained instrument
rays irst obliterate some hapless molecule in Earth’s errors or background noise. But
atmosphere. The debris from the crash then initiates a if that were the case, argues
cascading chain reaction of billions of particles, known physicist James Pinfold, surely other
as an air shower, that blazes toward the ground and emits spurious, and likely explainable,
characteristic ultraviolet light. detections would have occurred
over the years. “It is indeed very
With any luck, Auger’s ultraviolet-tuned telescopes difﬁcult to have a problem that
could also detect a falling cosmic monopole. The exactly mimics the signal from a
difference is easy to spot: A cosmic ray peaks early on in monopole,” he says.
ultraviolet energy, then diminishes as its air shower dies
out. A hardier monopole would instead keep cranking Even further back, in 1973, a
out energy as it fell. University of California, Berkeley-led
team launched a balloon outﬁtted
“Everything is based on the fact that monopoles have with a stack of detectors, including
interactions with a material in a detector,” says Paolo plastic sheets like the LHC’s MoEDAL
Privitera, an astrophysicist at the University of Chicago detector uses. Near Sioux City, Iowa,
and a principal investigator for Auger. In MoEDAL’s something heavy and tantalizingly
case, the detector is plastics and aluminum. “In our monopole-esque zipped through
case,” he says, “it’s the air, the atmosphere.” the airborne detector — though
it was more likely the nucleus of
So far, no monopoles have been detected in the skies a heavy element that had come
over Auger. But the odds of catching them should go screaming in from deep space as
a cosmic ray. Again, a lack of an
encore has left scientists frustrated,
but intrigued. — A.H.
PIERRE AUGER OBSERVATORY (2) Some 1,660 water tanks (left) dot nearly 1,200 square miles as part of the Pierre Auger Observatory in Argentina. The tanks can detect monopoles and
the showers of particles produced by cosmic rays (illustrated at right).
47December 2018 DISCOVER
At the South Pole, the IceCube Neutrino Observatory uses Antarctica’s ice to search for particles, including natural magnetic monopoles.
way up by using the observatory’s primary "The magnetic thousands of sensors into a cubic quarter- ICE CUBE/NSF
cosmic ray detectors: a horde of nearly 1,700 monopole mile of pristine Antarctic ice. The sensors’
water-illed tanks scattered across 1,200 runs primary duty is to expose ghostly particles
square miles, just a shade smaller than the through the called neutrinos, which interact with ice
state of Rhode Island. The highly energetic molecules to create fast-moving charged
particles in a cosmic ray’s air shower plow development particles that also produce Cherenkov light.
through the water faster than light can. of modern
(Light only moves at its indomitable top theories of Fast-moving monopoles likewise pump
speed in the vacuum of space.) As they do the universe out this light, and so do the comparatively
so, the particles give off detectable ashes like a golden massive, slowpoke monopoles — but for a
of light called Cherenkov radiation, akin thread." different reason. These monopoles, borne
to an optical sonic boom. Monopole of the early Grand Uniied era of the
particle showers should also produce the Big Bang when three of the fundamental
effect, making the water tanks an equally forces were joined as one, would possess a
useful tool to spot them. Auger researchers vestige of the extreme energy density where
are currently working out exactly how to the differences between Standard Model
differentiate them from cosmic rays. particles and forces disappear. “The Grand
Uniied monopole contains in its tiny heart
Another observatory, the IceCube a little bit of the Big Bang, when all the
Neutrino Observatory at the South Pole, forces were equal,” says Pinfold. When
uses neither air nor liquid water, but ice as its a proton in ice is exposed to this core of
monopole dragnet. The project’s scientists a monopole, where elementary particles’
have sunk scores of cables studded with differences disappear, the proton decays,
with its constituent quarks transforming into other
particle types including positrons, which can generate
detectable Cherenkov light.
As of 2015, when they issued their most recent
major report on the topic, researchers hadn’t found any
monopoles with IceCube, based on two years’ worth of
data. But again, patiently waiting could yet pay off.
A MAGNETIC FUTURE
If magnetic monopoles ever do show up in Earth’s
vicinity, or the detritus of particle collisions, we will
know it. And should someone, somewhere, indeed
manage to unambiguously nab one of the little rascals,
then the real fun begins. Wrangling monopoles could be
easy, bending the particles to our will just by applying
common electromagnetic ields. Monopoles might
ow as magnetic, instead of electric currents, paving
the way for “magnetronic” technologies involving
“magnetricity,” perhaps in ultra-compact data storage
or totally reimagined computer architectures.
As for science experiments, working with a new
particle could inally deliver on those Grand Uniied
Theories and even theories of everything. Getting to
that new realm of physics would likely require the brute
thrill of smashing monopoles’ heads together. “If we can
ind them,” Rajantie says, “ultimately what we particle
physicists would like to do is have a collider where we
collide monopoles with other things and see what comes
out.” Who knows, maybe the LHC could give way to an
LMC — a Large Monopole Collider.
And inally, Pinfold and those like him who have
wondered why magnets cannot splice into solitary north
or south poles would have an answer.
“The magnetic monopole runs through the
development of modern theories of the universe like a
golden thread,” says Pinfold. “If we do see something, it
will be a very big deal.” D
Adam Hadhazy is a freelance science writer based in New Jersey. When particles travel through a medium faster than light — for example, via
His work has also appeared in New Scientist and Popular Science, nuclear emission in water — it can create a glow known as Cherenkov radiation.
among other publications.
ARGONNE NATIONAL LABORATORY Funky New Physics evaporate, but perhaps leftover particles stable. The dense remains of exploded,
would persist. These remnants would titanic stars — currently known as
Although the magnetic monopole is the help bridge incompatible theories of the neutron stars — could be made of
big ﬁsh MoEDAL seeks, the experiment cosmos at its largest and smallest scales, this stuff, begging an even cooler
could haul in plenty of interesting as well as possibly constitute a sizable nomenclature: strange stars.
bycatch. Here are some other exotic portion of the presently unaccounted-for
phenomena that could leave anomalous dark matter. Sparticles. Supersymmetry proposes
trails in MoEDAL’s detection system. that each known elementary particle
Strangelets. Protons and neutrons has a partner particle. For instance,
Black hole remnants. It’s possible in atoms of everyday matter are quarks would be complemented by
the particle smashups in the Large composed of “up” and “down” squarks; the electron, by the selectron.
Hadron Collider could create microscopic quarks. So-called strange matter, These sparticles could exist across extra
black holes. (Don’t worry, these motes though, throws heavier “strange” quarks dimensions of space we’re oblivious to.
can’t gobble up the planet.) The late into this mix, creating particles called If so, that would explain why the force
Stephen Hawking thought the itty-bitty strangelets. This hypothetical material of gravity is so wimpy compared with
objects would rapidly lose mass and might have a lower energy state than nature’s other forces — it mostly resides
regular matter, making it even more in a realm outside our own. — A.H.
49December 2018 DISCOVER