SSA 2012 Conference Wrap-Up, Day 1

We've survived fire and flood! The Reason Rally in March was a day of gusty cold and battering rain. This July 4 weekend we went to the opposite extreme, as secular students and atheist movers and shakers from all over the country converged on Columbus, Ohio for the 2012 Secular Student Alliance Leadership Conference. And the summer was merciless, as Columbus broiled under 100-degree temperatures all weekend. (There had been a violent storm across the Midwest the previous week, and some areas still didn't have electricity restored. Fortunately, the Ohio State University, where the conference was held, wasn't one of them.) But it takes more than a little heat to slow down the juggernaut of secular awesome that is the atheist movement.


If I sound more ebullient than usual, there's a very good reason for that. The SSA conference brought together a small army of freethinking students from colleges and even high schools across the country, giving me a chance to see the future of the movement in person, and I was thrilled by what I saw. When it comes to passion, dedication, and enthusiasm, these students are unbeatable, and their numbers are booming. If the people who were at this conference are any indication, the rising generation of atheist activists is going to be a formidable political and social force.

On Friday afternoon, prior to the official start of the conference, the SSA set up the basement of the student union as a game room where SSA staff and early arrivals could hang out and play tabletop games. This was a great way to meet people in a friendly, low-pressure environment. (I ended up playing a round of Munchkin Cthulhu. As usual, the Cthulhu cultists won.)

SSA staffers Gordon Maples and Sam Jackson compete in a hat-off.

My friend Sarah Moglia of the SSA. Despite being their event specialist, she was just recovering from a nasty flareup of Crohn's disease and was under doctor's orders not to work during the convention. On the plus side, this meant we got to monopolize her time without guilt. (I love that tattoo. Bonus points if you know what it is.)

The opening night's talk by Evan Clark of the SSA board had this slide showing the meteoric growth of secular student groups.

The SSA staff take the stage for some well-deserved recognition.

As an opening-night icebreaker, the audience divided into teams for two rousing rounds of SSA Jeopardy, capably hosted by JT Eberhard. Since my team had Jen McCreight (an SSA board member, which probably wasn't fair!), we won our round handily. My name was the answer to one of the questions, and I'd like to thank JT for putting it in there, but I'd especially like to thank the person who got it right. Thanks, whoever you are!

But JT had a nasty trick to play: he took all the speakers in the room and made us play individually in one more round. I love the SSA, but I have to admit to not knowing much about the minutiae of their history or the nuts-and-bolts of what they offer to campus student groups. I adopted a devious "pick the easy questions" strategy, which stood me in fairly good stead until the Final Jeopardy round, when I whiffed on the name of the law that allows secular student groups to form at schools. (I knew what the law said, just not what it was called! For the record, it's the Federal Equal Access Act.) In the end it turned out not to matter, since Amanda Knief of American Atheists beat the rest of us with embarrassing ease.

Next, the SSA Best awards recognized achievements by students and faculty. Here was one award presented to the Secular Student Alliance at UNLV, which sent an impressively large delegation to the conference.

She's small on the outside, but don't let that fool you: Jessica Ahlquist has the heart of a lion. To finish off the first night, she gave the keynote speech, in which she talked about the aftermath of her now-famous court case in Cranston, Rhode Island and her future plans. She said she has no plans to enter law or politics, but very much intends to continue her career in secular activism. During the Q&A, one person asked her, "How does it feel to be an atheist celebrity?", to which she immediately responded, "Don't call me the C-word!"

Next: Day 2 of the SSA convention - many more talks, including (gulp) mine!

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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.

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