This Way Up for Saturday 15 October 2016

Going gluten free in a cafe that only serves toast, flaming phones and selling social media: the market for your data. Also have humans reached peak longevity? And restoring touch to paralysed patients.

A toast to gluten-freedom

Yeshe Dawa has perfected a gluten-free bread that's liberating her from a life of allergies, food intolerance and dietary restrictions. At her cafe Midnight Baker on Dominion Road, her 'Freedom loaf' takes centre stage. And toast is the only thing on the menu.

This recipe was Yeshe's starting point for Freedom loaf (she has given it a few tweaks here and there)

People avoid gluten in their diet for all sorts of reasons. Some are allergic to this protein found in wheat and other grains. But many of the estimated one in ten of those living a gluten-free life are not suffering from Coeliac disease or any recognised medical condition. 

They avoid gluten because it makes them feel more healthy, or because they think it will help them lose weight. For some, gluten-free has become a lifestyle choice.

Whatever people's motivations, the gluten-free market is going off. Whole supermarket sections are now devoted to gluten-free, trade expos and food shows celebrate the challenges and the benefits of a gluten-free life, and woe betide any cafe or restaurant that doesn't have a good range of gluten-free alternatives on the menu!

Yeshe Dawa 2

Yeshe Dawa 2 Photo: Emily Hlavac Green

It all makes up a global industry worth well over $5 billion with the NZ gluten-free market estimated to be growing at around 26 percent per year.That's despite the fact that for years gluten free food has had a bit of an image problem; dry, gritty, cardboard-like with strange tastes and textures...but that's changing.

"You want the freedom to just be able to eat without having to worry about having a horrible reaction to something, or a surprise reaction to something. You want it to be easy" - Yeshe Dawa.

More gluten stories here

Flaming phones and selling social media: the data market

Facebook, Twitter and other social networks are selling information about us to law enforcement agencies, according to a US report.

Also newly released advertising figures show just how much clout Facebook has in New Zealand's media landscape.

And a horrible week for Samsung, with the recall of 2.5 million Galaxy Note 7 handsets over a fault that makes them spontaneously combust.

Peak longevity? Live long, die old

Humans have never been living for longer. Back in the 1870s you could expect to only just reach 50 here in New Zealand, whereas today the average man can expect to live until he's 80 and the average woman until she's 83.

Average lifespans are one thing, but at the extreme end of the spectrum could we already have reached peak human longevity?

Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer Photo: (Ben Stechschulte)

Based on statistical data, human longevity has stalled, according to a recent (and controversial) paper published in the journal Nature.

"It's the latest volley in a long-running debate among scientists about whether there's a natural barrier to the human life span" according to New York Times science writer Carl Zimmer.

Jeanne Calment aged 22 in 1897

Jeanne Calment aged 22 in 1897 Photo: Public Domain

On 4 August 1997, Jeanne Calment died in France at the ripe old age of 122. Nearly 20 years later she remains the oldest human who has ever lived.

The case of Jeanne Calment was the starting point for Jan Vijg and his colleagues at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, who published the paper in Nature.


Their research suggests humans cannot live beyond 115 years, give or take a few outliers like Madame Calment.

"The shift toward growth in ever-older populations started slowing in the 1980s. About a decade ago, it stalled. This might have occurred, Dr Vijg and his colleagues said, because humans finally have hit an upper limit to their longevity" - Carl Zimmer.

Restoring touch to paralysed patients

An electronic brain implant has allowed a spinal injury patient to feel sensations in his hand for the first time in a decade.

Scientists have made important advances in this area in recent years, Dr Smith tells Simon Morton, but so far these have centred on translating neurological activity using implants in the brain's brain's movement centres into movements of prosthetic limbs or robotic devices. 

"In all these cases, although a patient can make something move, he or she still lacks a sense of touch [which makes] manipulating objects with a prosthesis very difficult because it is hard to judge how much force is being applied."

Now neuroscientist Robert Gaunt and his colleagues at the University of Pittsburgh, writing in the journal Science Translational Medicine have used a network of tiny implantable electrodes in the brain's somatosensory cortex (a sensory area in the front part of the brain) that use small electrical currents to stimulate underlying nerve cells to fire impulses that the brain interprets as a sensory experience.

"This patient has not felt anything from this part of his body for ten years. But the signals we supplied produced sensations that felt normal to the subject. That shows that the underlying wiring in the brain is still intact" - Robert Gaunt.

"The patient was able to 'feel' sensations that appeared to be coming from his hand. He described the sensations as feeling like 'pressure', or tapping, buzzing or 'electricity'. And by stimulating different parts of the electrode array, it was possible to elicit sensations in different parts of the patient's hand" says Dr Smith.

He said the challenges now facing the team are extending the electrode network to cover more of the body and discovering how to make the sensations more meaningful to the patient.

An MRI scan is used to target the right location to implant the device.

An MRI scan is used to target the right location to implant the device. Photo: Handout / CALTECH / AFP