New tech helps people of all ages stay social
Matt Fuchs is the editor-in-chief of Leaps.org and Making Sense of Science. He is also a contributing reporter to the Washington Post and has written for the New York Times, Time Magazine, WIRED and the Washington Post Magazine, among other outlets. Follow him @fuchswriter.
In March, Sonja Bauman, 39, used an online platform called Papa, which offers “family on demand,” to meet Mariela Florez, an 83-year-old retiree. Despite living with her adult children, Florez was bored and lonely when they left for work, and her recoveries from a stroke and broken hip were going slowly. That's when Bauman began visiting twice per week. They take walks, strengthening Florez’s hip, and play games like Connect Four for mental stimulation. “It’s very important for me so I don’t feel lonely all day long,” said Florez. Her memories, blurred by the stroke, are gradually returning.
Papa is one of a growing number of tech approaches that are bringing together people of all ages. In addition to platforms like Papa that connect people in real life, other startups use virtual reality and video, with some of them focusing especially on deepening social connections between the generations — relationships that support the health of older and younger people alike. “I enjoy seeing Mariela as much as she enjoys seeing me,” Bauman said.
Connecting in real life
Telehealth expert Andrew Parker founded Papa in 2017 to improve the health outcomes of older adults and families. Seniors can meet people — some their grandkids’ age — for healthy activities, while working parents find retirees to watch their children. These “Papa Pals” are provided as a benefit through Medicare, Medicaid and some employer health plans.
In 2020, Papa connected Bauman, the 39-year-old Floridian, with another woman in her mid-70s who lives alone and has very limited mobility. Bauman began driving her to doctor’s appointments and helping her with chores around the house. “When I’m not there, she doesn’t leave her apartment,” said Bauman. The two have gone to the gym together, and they walk slowly through the neighborhood, chatting so it feels less like exercise.
Parker was driven to start Papa by the problem of social isolation among seniors, exacerbated by the pandemic, but he believes users of all ages can benefit. “Many of our Pals feel more comfortable opening up with older members than their same-aged friends,” he said.
Other platforms aim for similar, in-person connections. Generation Tech unites teens with seniors for technology training. And Mon Ami, which provides case management software for aging and disability service providers, has an app that connects isolated older people with college-age volunteers.
Making new connections through video
Several new sites match you with strangers for real-time video chatting on various topics, such as finding common ground on political issues. Other video platforms focus on intergenerational connections.
S. Jay Olshansky, a gerontology professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago, recalls the first time he saw Hyunseung Lee, an 11-year-old from Seoul, through his computer screen. The kid was shy, but Olshansky, 67, encouraged him to ask questions. “Turns out, he was thirsting for this kind of interaction.”
They’d connected through Eldera, a platform that pairs mentors age 60 and up with mentees, using an algorithm, for video conversations. “The time and wisdom of older adults is the most important natural resource we can give future generations,” said Dana Griffin, Eldera's CEO. “Connecting through a screen is the opposite of social media.”
In weekly meetings, Olshansky noticed Lee’s unique interest in math. “There’s something special in you,” Olshansky told him. “How do we bring it to the surface?” He suggested Lee write a book on his favorite subject, and the preteen ran with it, cranking out 70 pages in two weeks. Lee has published his love letter to theorems on Amazon.
Hyunseung Lee, age 11, of Korea, and U.S. college professor Jay Olshanksy, 67, discuss math, strategy and Hyunsung's budding career as a book author during their video chats through a platform called Eldera. (Photo by Dana Palmer/Eldera)
Lee’s parents told Olshansky that their son has become more assertive — a recurring theme, Griffin said. “Confidence is the number one thing parents tell us about.” Since Eldera’s inception last year, the number of mentors has grown exponentially. Even so, Griffin said the waitlist for mentors typically numbers 200 kids.
Another site, Big and Mini, hosts video interactions between seniors and young adults; about 10,000 active users have joined since 2019, said co-founder Aditi Merchant.
Users often bring the benefits of their video interactions to their real-world relationships. Olshansky views Lee as an older version of his grandkids. “Eldera teaches me how to interact with them.” Lee, high on confidence, began instructing his classmates in math. Griffin noted that a group of Eldera mentors in Memphis, who met initially on Eldera, now take walks together in-person to trade ideas for helping each other’s Eldera kids solve problems in their schools and communities.
“We’ve evolved into a community for older adults who want to give back to the world,” said Griffin. Other new tools for connection take the form of virtual reality apps.
Connecting in virtual reality
During pandemic isolation, record numbers of people bought devices for virtual and augmented reality. Such gadgets can convince you that you’re hanging out with friends, even if they’re in another hemisphere. Lifelike simulations from miles away could be especially useful for meaningful interactions between people of different generations, since they’re often geographically segregated.
VR’s benefits require further study, but users report less social isolation and depression, according to MIT research. The immersive, 3-D experience is more compelling than FaceTime or Zoom. “It’s like the difference between a phone call and video call,” said Rick Robinson, Vice President of AARP’s Innovation Labs.
“When VR is designed right, the medium disappears,” said Jeremy Bailenson of Stanford.
Dana Pierce, a 56-year-old government employee in Indiana, got Meta's VR headset in May, 2021, thinking she’d enjoy it more than a new laptop. After many virtual group tours of exotic destinations, she has no regrets. Her adventures occur on Alcove, an app made by Robinson’s Innovation Labs. He co-created it with VR-company Rendever and sought input from people over age 50 to tailor it to their interests. “I’m an introvert,” said Pierce. “I’ve been more socially active since getting my headset than I am in real life.”
Tagging along with her to places like Paris are avatars representing real people around the world. She’s gotten to know VR users in their 70s, 80s and 90s, as well as younger people and some her own age. One is a new friend she plays chess with in relaxing nature settings. Another is her oldest son. He lives 90 minutes away but, earlier this year, Pierce welcomed him and his girlfriend to her virtual house on Alcove. They chatted in the living room decorated with family photos uploaded by Pierce. Then they took out a boat to go VR fishing — because why not — until 2 a.m.
“When VR is designed right, the medium disappears,” said Jeremy Bailenson, a communications professor who directs Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab. He’s teaching a class of 175 students entirely in VR. After months of covid isolation, the first time the class met, “there was a big catharsis. It really feels like you’re in a big crowd.” Like-minded people meet in VR for events such as comedy shows and creative writing meetups, while the Swedish pop group ABBA has performed this year as digital versions of themselves (“ABBA-tars”) during a virtual concert tour.
Karen Fingerman, a psychologist and director of the Texas Aging and Longevity Center at the University of Texas-Austin, supports the idea of VR for social connection, though she added that some people need it more than others. Hospitals and assisted-living facilities are using products such as Penumbra’s REAL I-Series and MyndVR to bring VR excursions to isolated patients and seniors. “If you’re in a bed or facility, this gives you something to talk about,” said Gita Barry, Penumbra’s executive vice president.
Pierce uses it on most days. She may see another adult son, who lives with her, less often as a result. But VR helps her manage real-world stressors, more than escaping them. After a long workday, she visits her back porch on Alcove, which overlooks a pond. “It’s my little retreat,” she said. “VR improves my mood. It’s added a lot to my life.”
Some seniors are using more than one technology. Olshansky and Lee discuss strategy while playing Internet chess. And Olshansky recently began using VR. He sees his sister, who lives far away, in a virtual beach house. “It’d be a great way to interact with Hyunseung,” he said. “I should get him a headset.”
A version of this article first appeared in The Washington Post on December 3, 2021.
Swiss researchers have discovered a third type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other primary types — and it could lead to new treatments for many brain disorders.
The challenge: Most of the cells in the brain are either neurons or glial cells. While neurons use electrical and chemical signals to send messages to one another across small gaps called synapses, glial cells exist to support and protect neurons.
Astrocytes are a type of glial cell found near synapses. This close proximity to the place where brain signals are sent and received has led researchers to suspect that astrocytes might play an active role in the transmission of information inside the brain — a.k.a. “neurotransmission” — but no one has been able to prove the theory.
A new brain cell: Researchers at the Wyss Center for Bio and Neuroengineering and the University of Lausanne believe they’ve definitively proven that some astrocytes do actively participate in neurotransmission, making them a sort of hybrid of neurons and glial cells.
According to the researchers, this third type of brain cell, which they call a “glutamatergic astrocyte,” could offer a way to treat Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other disorders of the nervous system.
“Its discovery opens up immense research prospects,” said study co-director Andrea Volterra.
The study: Neurotransmission starts with a neuron releasing a chemical called a neurotransmitter, so the first thing the researchers did in their study was look at whether astrocytes can release the main neurotransmitter used by neurons: glutamate.
By analyzing astrocytes taken from the brains of mice, they discovered that certain astrocytes in the brain’s hippocampus did include the “molecular machinery” needed to excrete glutamate. They found evidence of the same machinery when they looked at datasets of human glial cells.
Finally, to demonstrate that these hybrid cells are actually playing a role in brain signaling, the researchers suppressed their ability to secrete glutamate in the brains of mice. This caused the rodents to experience memory problems.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Andrea Volterra, University of Lausanne.
But why? The researchers aren’t sure why the brain needs glutamatergic astrocytes when it already has neurons, but Volterra suspects the hybrid brain cells may help with the distribution of signals — a single astrocyte can be in contact with thousands of synapses.
“Often, we have neuronal information that needs to spread to larger ensembles, and neurons are not very good for the coordination of this,” researcher Ludovic Telley told New Scientist.
Looking ahead: More research is needed to see how the new brain cell functions in people, but the discovery that it plays a role in memory in mice suggests it might be a worthwhile target for Alzheimer’s disease treatments.
The researchers also found evidence during their study that the cell might play a role in brain circuits linked to seizures and voluntary movements, meaning it’s also a new lead in the hunt for better epilepsy and Parkinson’s treatments.
“Our next studies will explore the potential protective role of this type of cell against memory impairment in Alzheimer’s disease, as well as its role in other regions and pathologies than those explored here,” said Volterra.
Martin Taylor was only 32 when he was diagnosed with Parkinson's, a disease that causes tremors, stiff muscles and slow physical movement - symptoms that steadily get worse as time goes on.
“It's horrible having Parkinson's,” says Taylor, a data analyst, now 41. “It limits my ability to be the dad and husband that I want to be in many cruel and debilitating ways.”
Today, more than 10 million people worldwide live with Parkinson's. Most are diagnosed when they're considerably older than Taylor, after age 60. Although recent research has called into question certain aspects of the disease’s origins, Parkinson’s eventually kills the nerve cells in the brain that produce dopamine, a signaling chemical that carries messages around the body to control movement. Many patients have lost 60 to 80 percent of these cells by the time they are diagnosed.
For years, there's been little improvement in the standard treatment. Patients are typically given the drug levodopa, a chemical that's absorbed by the brain’s nerve cells, or neurons, and converted into dopamine. This drug addresses the symptoms but has no impact on the course of the disease as patients continue to lose dopamine producing neurons. Eventually, the treatment stops working effectively.
BlueRock Therapeutics, a cell therapy company based in Massachusetts, is taking a different approach by focusing on the use of stem cells, which can divide into and generate new specialized cells. The company makes the dopamine-producing cells that patients have lost and inserts these cells into patients' brains. “We have a disease with a high unmet need,” says Ahmed Enayetallah, the senior vice president and head of development at BlueRock. “We know [which] cells…are lost to the disease, and we can make them. So it really came together to use stem cells in Parkinson's.”
In a phase 1 research trial announced late last month, patients reported that their symptoms had improved after a year of treatment. Brain scans also showed an increased number of neurons generating dopamine in patients’ brains.
Increases in dopamine signals
The recent phase 1 trial focused on deploying BlueRock’s cell therapy, called bemdaneprocel, to treat 12 patients suffering from Parkinson’s. The team developed the new nerve cells and implanted them into specific locations on each side of the patient's brain through two small holes in the skull made by a neurosurgeon. “We implant cells into the places in the brain where we think they have the potential to reform the neural networks that are lost to Parkinson's disease,” Enayetallah says. The goal is to restore motor function to patients over the long-term.
Five patients were given a relatively low dose of cells while seven got higher doses. Specialized brain scans showed evidence that the transplanted cells had survived, increasing the overall number of dopamine producing cells. The team compared the baseline number of these cells before surgery to the levels one year later. “The scans tell us there is evidence of increased dopamine signals in the part of the brain affected by Parkinson's,” Enayetallah says. “Normally you’d expect the signal to go down in untreated Parkinson’s patients.”
"I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part," says Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh.
The team also asked patients to use a specific type of home diary to log the times when symptoms were well controlled and when they prevented normal activity. After a year of treatment, patients taking the higher dose reported symptoms were under control for an average of 2.16 hours per day above their baselines. At the smaller dose, these improvements were significantly lower, 0.72 hours per day. The higher-dose patients reported a corresponding decrease in the amount of time when symptoms were uncontrolled, by an average of 1.91 hours, compared to 0.75 hours for the lower dose. The trial was safe, and patients tolerated the year of immunosuppression needed to make sure their bodies could handle the foreign cells.
Claire Bale, the associate director of research at Parkinson's U.K., sees the promise of BlueRock's approach, while noting the need for more research on a possible placebo effect. The trial participants knew they were getting the active treatment, and placebo effects are known to be a potential factor in Parkinson’s research. Even so, “The results indicate that this therapy produces improvements in symptoms for Parkinson's, which is very encouraging,” Bale says.
Tilo Kunath, a professor of regenerative neurobiology at the University of Edinburgh, also finds the results intriguing. “I think it's excellent,” he says. “I think it has a real chance to reverse motor symptoms, essentially replacing a missing part.” However, it could take time for this therapy to become widely available, Kunath says, and patients in the late stages of the disease may not benefit as much. “Data from cell transplantation with fetal tissue in the 1980s and 90s show that cells did not survive well and release dopamine in these [late-stage] patients.”
Searching for the right approach
There's a long history of using cell therapy as a treatment for Parkinson's. About four decades ago, scientists at the University of Lund in Sweden developed a method in which they transferred parts of fetal brain tissue to patients with Parkinson's so that their nerve cells would produce dopamine. Many benefited, and some were able to stop their medication. However, the use of fetal tissue was highly controversial at that time, and the tissues were difficult to obtain. Later trials in the U.S. showed that people benefited only if a significant amount of the tissue was used, and several patients experienced side effects. Eventually, the work lost momentum.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” says Taylor, the patient living with Parkinson's. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.”
In 2000, Lorenz Studer led a team at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Centre, in New York, to find the chemical signals needed to get stem cells to differentiate into cells that release dopamine. Back then, the team managed to make cells that produced some dopamine, but they led to only limited improvements in animals. About a decade later, in 2011, Studer and his team found the specific signals needed to guide embryonic cells to become the right kind of dopamine producing cells. Their experiments in mice, rats and monkeys showed that their implanted cells had a significant impact, restoring lost movement.
Studer then co-founded BlueRock Therapeutics in 2016. Forming the most effective stem cells has been one of the biggest challenges, says Enayetallah, the BlueRock VP. “It's taken a lot of effort and investment to manufacture and make the cells at the right scale under the right conditions.” The team is now using cells that were first isolated in 1998 at the University of Wisconsin, a major advantage because they’re available in a virtually unlimited supply.
Other efforts underway
In the past several years, University of Lund researchers have begun to collaborate with the University of Cambridge on a project to use embryonic stem cells, similar to BlueRock’s approach. They began clinical trials this year.
A company in Japan called Sumitomo is using a different strategy; instead of stem cells from embryos, they’re reprogramming adults' blood or skin cells into induced pluripotent stem cells - meaning they can turn into any cell type - and then directing them into dopamine producing neurons. Although Sumitomo started clinical trials earlier than BlueRock, they haven’t yet revealed any results.
“It's a rapidly evolving field,” says Emma Lane, a pharmacologist at the University of Cardiff who researches clinical interventions for Parkinson’s. “But BlueRock’s trial is the first full phase 1 trial to report such positive findings with stem cell based therapies.” The company’s upcoming phase 2 research will be critical to show how effectively the therapy can improve disease symptoms, she added.
The cure over the horizon
BlueRock will continue to look at data from patients in the phase 1 trial to monitor the treatment’s effects over a two-year period. Meanwhile, the team is planning the phase 2 trial with more participants, including a placebo group.
For patients with Parkinson’s like Martin Taylor, the therapy offers some hope, though Taylor recognizes that more research is needed.
“Like many in the community, I'm aware of the long history of cell therapy,” he says. “They've long had that cure over the horizon.” His expectations are somewhat guarded, he says, but, “it's certainly positive to see…movement in the field again.”
"If we can demonstrate what we’re seeing today in a more robust study, that would be great,” Enayetallah says. “At the end of the day, we want to address that unmet need in a field that's been waiting for a long time.”