Feature

Health & Science

A newborn cured of HIV; Communicating by thought; Why pessimists live longer; Two tickets to Mars

A newborn cured of HIV
Doctors in Mississippi appear to have cured a baby girl of an HIV infection—a breakthrough that researchers hope to replicate for the sake of other infected children. Within 30 hours of being born in a rural hospital, the infant tested positive for the virus, and doctors immediately began treating her with an aggressive regimen of conventional anti-retroviral drugs. Infected babies typically have to take such drugs indefinitely to keep the virus in check, but after 18 months, the mother disappeared with her daughter and stopped giving her the medicine. The doctors located the girl again several months later and, fearing the worst, ordered up ultrasensitive blood tests. “When all those came back negative, I knew something odd was afoot,” Hannah Gay, the child’s pediatrician, told NPR.org. Katherine Luzuriaga, a pediatric AIDS expert at the University of Massachusetts, thinks Gay’s early and aggressive treatment “curtailed the formation of viral reservoirs” in the girl’s body. The girl, now 2 and a half years old, is only the second person known to have been cured of the disease; the other was an adult male who received a bone-marrow transplant from an HIV-resistant donor. Worldwide, some 300,000 HIV-positive babies are born every year.

Communicating by thought
In science fiction, it’s called a mind meld. Scientists have now taken a big step toward making it a reality by electronically connecting the brains of two rats, allowing them to communicate by thought alone. A team at Duke University taught a rat to push whichever one of two levers that had a light go on above it. Then they implanted electrodes in its primary motor cortex and wired them to the same spots in the brain of a second rat. When one of the lights went on and the first rat pressed a lever, the second rat pushed the corresponding lever seven out of 10 times—having received no cues except impulses from the first rat’s brain. The experiment showed similar results when the electrodes were implanted in another region of the rats’ brains, and researchers were even able to link the brain of a rat in North Carolina with that of one in Brazil. The experiment should be “a wake-up call” on how far brain research has advanced, researcher Christopher James, of the University of Warwick in the U.K., tells New Scientist. “I think it will be possible one day to transfer an abstract thought.” 

Why pessimists live longer
Developing a negative outlook may be the secret to living a longer, if not happier, life. A German study found that the more people underestimated their future life satisfaction, the less likely they were to die early or become disabled, AARP.org reports. Researchers asked 40,000 people between the ages of 18 and 96 to rate how happy they thought they’d be in five years on a scale of zero to 10; then, five years later, they checked in to see how they felt. They found that for every point by which a person had overestimated his or her future well-being, there was a 10 percent higher likelihood of death or disability in the following decade. “Pessimism about the future may encourage people to live more carefully, taking health and safety precautions,” the study authors write. Surprisingly enough, people who were healthy and wealthy were more likely to expect the worst—and thus survive in better shape—than were people who had low incomes and poor health. People over 65 were the most likely to underestimate their future happiness, while people under 40 were the most unrealistically optimistic. 

Two tickets to Mars
Wanted: A happily married couple who can endure each other’s constant presence for months while on a spaceflight to Mars. American multimillionaire Dennis Tito might be placing that ad soon, says USA Today, now that he’s launched a nonprofit to raise the roughly $1 billion needed for a manned spaceflight to the Red Planet. “We have not sent people beyond the orbit of the moon in 40 years,’’ says Tito, who paid the Russians $20 million to visit the International Space Station in 2001. “I don’t want to wait any longer.” In 2018, the orbits of Earth and Mars will bring them within roughly 400 million miles of each other, a once-in-15-years event that will cut round-trip travel time to a mere year and a half. Before then, Tito hopes to find a middle-aged married couple to make the voyage, figuring such a pair would be best able to cohabit in close quarters without getting on one another’s nerves. Braving radiation and potentially deadly solar flares, the couple would slingshot around Mars and re-enter Earth’s atmosphere faster than any manned spacecraft yet. NASA concedes the goal is possible, calling the mission “a testament to the audacity of America’s commercial aerospace industry.” Tito hopes to help fund the mission by selling media rights: “I can imagine Dr. Phil talking to this couple and solving their marital problems.”

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