Deadly Realism

Expectations for the Copenhagen summit next month are dropping like a cartoon anvil. Where once there was talk of a comprehensive international accord on cutting greenhouse-gas emissions, now the great global meeting is just a "stepping stone." "We must in the coming weeks focus on what is possible and not let ourselves be distracted by what is not possible," says the Danish Prime Minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen.

He's being realistic, of course. And in politics, realism -- respect for what people can accept, and what they're willing to negotiate -- is the trait that distinguishes the insiders from the hoi polloi. If you want to be taken seriously when you talk about reducing carbon emissions, finding sustainable ways to support our standard of living, addressing the perpetual rise in the cost of health care, you had better be realistic. If you aren't, you've licensed anyone who doesn't agree with you to say "that will never happen!"

Statements of political realism aren't like descriptions of gravity or the electrochemical signals of a synapse. They aren't accounts of the natural world. Rather, they're a social-psychological phenomenon. Realism in politics is holding an opinion about what other people will or won't do in the future, and being able to persuade people that your picture is right. I wonder sometimes if this psychological activity is becoming a threat to humanity's future.

After all, it's increasingly obvious that for many serious global problems, there are no politically realistic solutions.

For example, today's level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is above 380 parts per million (about 100 ppm above pre-industrial levels). Negotiators preparing for the Copenhagen summit are struggling to create a plan to prevent that figure from rising above 450 ppm. According to this analysis by the Harvard economist Jeffrey Frankel, a politically feasible target is 500 ppm. But an increasing number of climate scientists have become convinced that 450-500 ppm is far too high to prevent catastrophe. They want to go back to 350 ppm.

When this idea was tried out on 120 green legislators from eight nations last month, they pronounced it politically impossible. To look at the issue another way, Frankel's politically realistic plan to attain 500 ppm in 2100 would leave humanity pouring about 4 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere by that year. A report issued today by a European research consortium estimates that emissions will have to be zero by 2100 to prevent disaster.

Is it physically possible to cut carbon emissions to zero? Maybe. In this month's Scientific American, Mark Z. Jacobson and Mark A. Delucchi argue that humanity could generate all its energy from renewable sources by 2030. (Details of their case are here.) But, as they write, businesses and politicians will find that drastic an infrastructural change to be unrealistic in the extreme.

Or, to take a different global problem, consider the mounting proportion of each nation's income that is spent on health care, all over the world. This piece, by Kenneth Rogoff, a Harvard economist and former World Bank official, points out that this trend is driven by rising expectations: The more health care people get, the more they expect. (In the last century, for instance, hip replacements have gone from being fabulously exotic surgeries to a routine part of life.) The only long-term way to curb rising medical costs is to give people less care than they want. Rationing should be just, but eventually it must be. Try running for any office, anywhere, on that platform.

Democratic institutions are good at protecting people's rights and allowing different interests to have representation. But what happens if those institutions prove inadequate to global problems?

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • 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.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
  • The half-life of a process is how long it takes for half of the radioactive nuclei present in a sample to decay.
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