Off to AGU 2010 in San Francisco

It is that time a year again - final exams, Christmas music and the annual American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. All this does make the end of the year always seem like a whirling storm of activity, but it definitely can be fun if you don't try to see and do everything. 

There is, as always, tons of interesting talks, press conferences and workshops at the AGU 2010 meeting and I'll be trying to post about some of the most exciting stuff I see or hear - some of that will end up here with daily (?) summaries, and some will come in on my @eruptionsblog twitter feed (remember, you don't have to be signed up for twitter to see the feed!)

You can check out the full schedule here, but a few presentations I'm especially excited to attend include:


  • V13C-2366 (Poster) Afternoon: Inner structure of the La Pacana Caldera (Central Andes, Chile) using gravimetric data by F. Delgado and A. Pavez Alvarado
  • V13G-06 (Talk) 2:55: Differentiation and source processes at Mt. Pelee and the Quill; active volcanoes in the Lesser Antilles Arc by Jon Davidson and M.W. Schmidt
  • V14A-01 (Talk) 4:00: Crustal overprinting on mantle-derived U-series disequilibria in arc magmas: A warning signal from Volcan Llaima, Chile by O. Reubi and others.
  • V14A-03 (Talk) 4:30: Crustal reworking during a long-lived magma pulse: 11 m.y. isotopic record from the Aucanquilcha Volcanic Cluster, central Andes by B. Walker and A. Grunder
  • Tuesday

  • V12B-2329 (Poster) Morning: Explosive eruptions at Bezymianny Volcano (Kamchatka, Russa) from 2000-2009: warning system, prediction and risk assessment by S. Senyukov
  • V21D-2350 (Poster) Morning: Volumes and eruption rates for the 2008-2009 Chaiten rhyolite lava domes by J. Pallister and others
  • V23F-04 (Talk) 8:45: Trace-element variations reveal dynamic magma mixing during the 2010 eruption of Eyjafjallajökull, Iceland by O. Sigmarsson and others.
  • V24A-05 (Talk) 5:17: Coupled evolution of magma chambers and flow in conduits during large volcanic eruptions by L. Karlstrom and others.
  •  Wednesday

  • V31A-2311 (Poster) Morning: Evolution of an upper crustal plutonic-volcanic plumbing system: Insights from high-precision U-Pb zircon geochronology of the intracaldera tuff and intrusions in Silver Creek caldera, Arizona, USA by T. Zhang and others.
  • V32B-06 (Talk) 11:35: Processes of volcanic unrest inferred from 10 years of micro-seismicity at Piton de la Fournaise volcano by E. Rivemale and others.
  • V34A-08 (Talk) 5:45: Evolution of the youngest Toba Tuff magma reservoir as recorded by zircon geochemistry and crystallization temperatures by T. Gaither and M. Reid
  • V34B-06 (Talk) 5:15: Volcano ecology at Chaiten, Chile: Geophysical processes interact with forest ecosystems by F. J. Swanson and others
  • Thursday

  • V41B-2272 (poster) Morning: Contrasting protracted and punctuated zircon growth in two syn-erupted rhyolite magmas from Tarawera volcano: Insights to heterogeneity of crystal mush by S. Storm and others.
  • V43A-2334 (Poster) Morning: Crystal transfer at Chaos Crags during magma mingling by S. Collins and others
  • V43E-01 (talk) 1:40: Looking backward and forward: A decadal view of volcanology by J.M. Fink
  • V43B-2362 (poster) Afternoon: SHRIMP Ti-in-zircon thermometry of the Empire quartz diorite, southern Sierra Nevada: Implications for skarn formation in the Mineral King pendant by M. D'errico and others.
  • There are a bunch of cool talks/posters on Friday, but sadly I jet back to Columbus on Thursday night to begin finals here at Denison.

    There are also three interesting volcano-related press conferences in Moscone West 3000 that I am going to try to hit (not sure I've even been to a press conference):

  • Monday at 3 PM: Voyage to the Sulawesi Sea: Exotic life, volcanic discoveries
  • Tuesday at 9 AM: Ice volcanoes and hot plasma explosions
  • Wednesday at 11 AM: Ash and aviation: Developing better forecasts, monitoring and standards
  • As for me, I'll be giving a talk on the role that citizens might play in the future of volcano monitoring called "Using the 2010 Eyjafjallajökull eruption as a model of citizen involvement in scientific research" during a session on Monday afternoon - ED14A-07 at 5:30 in Moscone South 102. I'll also be on the panel for a Workshop called "Science Blogging" on Thursday from 2-4 in Moscone West 3000 - which will be webcast live (check out the main AGU 2010 website for the webcasts).

    If you happen to be attending the meeting and see me, come on over and say "Hi!" or you can live vicariously through the updates I'll be posting ... and if anything big happens outside the convention center in the world of volcanoes, look for it here as well!

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    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.

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    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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