Though Relatively Few Remain, D-Day Vets Remember The Great Crusade

June 6, 1944. Operation Overlord. D-Day. Seventy years later, relatively few survive who actually lived it. People around the world take advantage of their last opportunities to commemorate the anniversary with veterans in attendance.

What's the Latest?


Today is the 70th anniversary of the Allied invasion at Normandy. While the number of veterans and survivors of the momentous occasion continues to shrink year after year, concerted efforts are being made by both the young and old the commemorate the anniversary.

Jim "Pee Wee" Martin, a veteran of the U.S. 101st Airborne Division, parachuted into Normandy today much in the same way he did seventy years prior. The 93-year-old Martin explained that, despite his age, this jump was a lot easier than his last. "There wasn't anybody shooting at me today," he said.

The Chicago Tribune has a feature today on a pair of 89-year-old D-Day vets, medic Hank Rossetti and Army Air Force gunner John Kraeger.

Matthew Czajka, a 98-year-old veteran from Newton, Connecticut, remembers his experiences landing with the rest of the 110th AAA Gun Battalion.

The Winnipeg Free Press features an article on 93-year-old Canadian vet John Ross.

The Daily Mail profiles seven Australian vets who journeyed to Normandy for the commemorative ceremonies.

Finally, The Guardian explains why this D-Day ceremony will be the last for Britain's Normandy vets

There is one notable constant throughout these articles: this may be our last opportunity to celebrate a round-number D-Day anniversary in the presence of the men and women who served.

What's the Big Idea?

The Guardian piece describes how the British Normandy Vets' Association plans to disband in November, "as age defeats its ranks." As World War II vets reach their late 80s and early 90s, our living connection to the massive conflict approaches its inevitable end.

According to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, only about 15 million of the 16 million Americans to serve in World War II remain alive today, with an estimated 413 additional vets dying each day. Factor in living veterans from the rest of the combatant nations, one can estimate that perhaps fewer than 10 million remain. It is doubtful that half that many will live to see D-Day's 80th anniversary.

Florence Green, an English woman who died in 2012 at the age of 110, was the last remaining World War I veteran. Her passing was symbolic -- a break in the chain, the plunging of the First World War out of living memory and into the realms of modern antiquity. We can assume the last of the World War II vets will remain with us for about 20 years, but what happens when they're gone? How will we remember World War II in the future? For now, all we can do is cherish the memories and stories of our living vets.

Read more about Jim Martin recreating his jump at CNN

Read about Rossetti & Kraeger at The Chicago Tribune, Czajka at The News Times, Ross at The Winnipeg Free Press, and the Aussies at The Daily Mail.

Read about the Normandy Veterans' Association at The Guardian.

Photo credit: PHB.cz (Richard Semik)/Shutterstock

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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.
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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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