Monday Musings: Merapi/Bulusan updates and finding Tarawera's lost treasures

Wow, today sort of came out of the blue and walloped me with business, so I'm only now getting a chance to post a few updates. Good way to start off the week before Thanksgiving Break.

I know you've all been seeing news about the earthquake swarm off the coast of Djibouti and more about the supposed eruptions on the border region of Nigeria and Cameroon - I'll have more to say about this once I've had a chance to digest that strange news.

Merapi, Indonesia: Activity at the volcano has quieted significantly, and the government has now reduced the "danger zone" around Merapi to 10 km (from 20 km). Sulfur dioxide emissions have also dropped over the last few days. All of this unfortunately means that many people think it is safe to return to their homes. This is definitely not the case because as we've seen with volcanoes like Redoubt in Alaska, the volcano can go through numerous cycles of vigorous activity and quiet over the span of weeks to months. Returning, at this point, to homes in the danger zone where pyroclastic flows, ash fall (see below) and lahars might reach is not advisable, but sometimes if the alternative is living in evacuation centers for long periods, the perception is that the risk of another eruption is less than the reward of returning home. NPR had a nice article (with a great picture gallery and audio) on how this disaster is unlike "point disasters" like an earthquake where usually a single seismic event causes most of the destruction - rather here, continued eruptions can cause problems for long periods. The deathtoll for the eruption has now reached at least 250 people.

Indonesians trying to clear ash from the 2010 eruption of Merapi.

Tarawera, New Zealand: At a place near and dear to me, research is ongoing to find the fabled pink and white terraces that once graced the landscape near Mt. Tarawera in the North Island of New Zealand. These terraces were formed from silica precipitating from mineral-rich waters fed by the hydrothermal systems of the Okataina Caldera Complex, but these terraces were destroyed during the 1886 basaltic eruption of Tarawera. A small remote-controlled submersible will be exploring Lake Rotomahana for traces of the terraces that were blasted by explosions along a chain of crater leading up to Tarawera and then buried by basaltic tephra from the eruption. These terraces were an important tourist destination near Tarawera before the 1886 eruption, but now its the remnants of that eruption in the form of the Waimangu Geothermal Valley that brings in the tourists.

Bulusan, Philippines: Finally, a quick update on Bulusan, where activity has also quieted since rumbling started a few weeks ago. PHIVOLCS officials had to remind people that activity at Bulusan is not likely to trigger more eruptions at other volcanoes as the fear-mongering was running at full steam. This, of course, doesn't mean that Bulusan and Mayon might not erupt at the same time, but their respective activity is not linked. Explosions continue to occur on the volcano, but there are still no signs that the activity is more than phreatic (steam-driven) explosions and lahars continue to be a threat to the area near the volcano.

Top left: Mt. Tarawera in New Zealand, as seen in January 2010. Image by Erik Klemetti.

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

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  • 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.

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