New tech helps people of all ages stay social

New tech helps people of all ages stay social

Sonja Bauman, 39, and Mariela Florez, 83, taking one of their regular walks in Plantation, Fla. The pair met through an online platform called Papa that provides "family on demand." (Photo by Sonja Bauman)

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.

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Matt Fuchs

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.

A newly discovered brain cell may lead to new treatments for cognitive disorders

Swiss researchers have found a type of brain cell that appears to be a hybrid of the two other main types — and it could lead to new treatments for brain disorders.

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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.

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Kristin Houser
Kristin Houser is a staff writer at Freethink, where she covers science and tech. Her written work has appeared in Business Insider, NBC News, and the World Economic Forum’s Agenda, among other publications, and Stephen Colbert once talked about a piece on The Late Show, to her delight. Formerly, Kristin was a staff writer for Futurism and wrote several animated and live action web series.
Scientists implant brain cells to counter Parkinson's disease

In a recent research trial, patients with Parkinson's disease reported that their symptoms had improved after stem cells were implanted into their brains. Martin Taylor, far right, was diagnosed at age 32.

Martin Taylor

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.

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Sarah Philip
Sarah Philip is a London-based freelance journalist who writes about science, film and TV. You can follow her on Twitter @sarahph1lip.