Don't Take It From The FDA: New Environmental Health Podcast
For the most part, the FDA doesn’t require that the chemicals used in your shampoos, lipsticks, deodorants, and other personal care products be tested. Does that alarm you? It should. Monitoring the toxic load of what we put on our bodies is just as important as monitoring what we put in them, and don’t look first to the FDA for advice on what’s healthy for you in either regard. Instead, for environmental health news, look to the source, and check out Environmental Health Perspectives’ new Researcher’s Perspective series. Each month, the series (a podcast) interviews one of today’s environmental health big wigs and makes their newest, most groundbreaking research accessible.
The series covers a whole lot more than what’s in personal care products. It goes into depth on critical, under-reported such as: the link between autism and mercury, DDT, the EPA’s efforts to streamline chemical testing so that more of our are vetted before we smear them on our bodies (by the way, the skin is an organ, and a lot of what we put on it makes its way directly into tissue and bloodstreams), toxicity and breastfeeding, and the impacts of industrial farming on human health.
And as of a few months ago, the podcast’s got a fresh new host: Ashley Ahearn, a science and environment reporter, formerly of Public Radio International’s Living On Earth. She’s got a serious knack for helping the experts explain convoluted environmental health issues, and why we should all care.
Don’t think mercury matters much to you? In this month’s podcast, Ahearn interviews Dr. Irva Hertz-Picciotto, an environmental epidemiologist with the MIND (Medical Investigation of Neurodevelopmental Disorders) Institute at UC Davis in Sacramento – and picks her brain on the much-debated connection between the fastest growing developmental disability today, and mercury, a toxin our coal industry is dumping into water sources around the world (and which, controversially, has been used in vaccines). Dr. Hertz-Picciotto believes that her autism research - which she conducts under umbrella project The Childhood Autism Risk from Genetics and the Environment (CHARGE) - could someday help the scientific community identify the causes of the disorder, and eliminate cases.
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A new method promises to capture an elusive dark world particle.
- Scientists working on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) devised a method for trapping dark matter particles.
- Dark matter is estimated to take up 26.8% of all matter in the Universe.
- The researchers will be able to try their approach in 2021, when the LHC goes back online.
Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?
But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.
What's dead may never die, it seems
The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.
BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.
The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.
As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.
The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.
"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.
An ethical gray matter
Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.
The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.
Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.
Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?
"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."
One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.
The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.
"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.
It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.
Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?
The dilemma is unprecedented.
Setting new boundaries
Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."
She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.
- As a stand-up comedian, Pete Holmes knows how words can manipulate audiences — for good and bad.
- Words aren't just words. They stich together our social fabric, helping establish and maintain relationships.
- Holmes has a clever linguistic exercise meant to bring you closer to the people around you.
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