Q. What advancements are being made in brain research?
A. In the case of stroke victims who are totally paralyzed and outwardly are vegetables, we can hook them up to a computer and they can surf the Web, play video games, solve crossword puzzles, answer email. They can write prose and communicate with people just by using their brain signals. This has already been done at Brown University.
Q. What about progress for degenerative brain diseases like Alzheimer's?
A. In the future we may able to get brain stem cells and inject them directly into your brain. These healthy cells would incorporate into your brain. You'll have to learn how to ride a bicycle again because your wiring will have been shuffled. Once you learn how, you'll be able to remember. You will have to relearn certain tasks but with a younger brain.
Q. So your memory function would be restored, but not your old memories.
A. That's right. You would have to relearn basic life skills, like being a kid again, really.
Q. What about slowing the aging process itself?
A. Even more astonishing, we're beginning to understand the molecular mechanisms of aging and isolate the genes behind it. For example, we live twice as long as the chimpanzee, but genetically we are 98.5 percent identical to the chimpanzee. This means that just a handful of genes have doubled our lifespan. So scientists are now zeroing in on those, trying to find out which ones are responsible.
Q. What will we know about our own genes?
A. All of us will be able to have a CD-ROM with all our genes on it. Today, if you wanted to sequence every single gene in your body, it would cost $50,000. In the future, the cost will go down to a few thousand dollars, and maybe after that, a hundred dollars.
Q. How will that be helpful?
A. If we can then sequence the genes of old people by the millions and young people by the millions, and subtract, that will tell us exactly where aging is concentrated in the body.
Q. So what to do with that, then?
A. Aging is basically the build-up of error: error at the genetic level, error at the cellular level. Cells normally repair themselves, that's why you heal when you get a cut. But even the mechanism of repair eventually falls apart. Error builds up. So if we know which genes are involved, we can make sure that those genes don't wear down. There's another effective way to stay youthful, and that's caloric restriction.
Q. That doesn't sound fun at all.
A. Exactly. We want the gene that will mimic caloric restriction without having to starve.