, in her spiritedly

assertive comment

to my

recent post on Kelly Christopherson

, said, "Hey! I want some feedback on my

recent blog post

!" So here goes...

Susan, I think this notion of the economy of


is getting more and more (dare I say it?) ... attention.

See, for example, this excellent

set of resources on the topic

as well as Davenport & Beck's book, The

Attention Economy

. I agree with your 'I want some commercial-free spaces

in my life'

  perspective but your post also caused my mind to wander in a

completely different direction.

In the attention economy, everyone is competing for ears, eyeballs, and

brainwaves. Because there is way too much information for us to pay attention

to, advertisers and marketers are doing everything they can to

get us to pay attention to their messages

. But as Malcolm Gladwell notes, "word

of mouth" from those we trust

still carries the most weight when it comes to

our decision-making.

So who do we listen to? To whom do we give permission to


products and ideas to ourselves? Well, technology both expands and

limits our attention. On the expansive side, our 'trust


' now may be comprised not only of family, friends, and close

colleagues (those with whom we have 'strong ties') but also bloggers; trusted

web sites and media channels; political, charitable, and/or ideological

organizations with whom we affiliate; etc. (those with whom we have 'weak


'). E-mail listservs, RSS feeds, and other subscription mechanisms allow

us to hear from and monitor more information channels than ever before.

Of course technology also allows us to be much more selective about who we

listen to. We no longer are dependent on a few print, radio, and/or television

broadcast channels for information. We now can choose from an

often-overwhelming choice

of print and online newspapers; AM, FM, and

satellite radio stations; network, cable, and satellite television stations;

text-based and streaming media web sites; blogs; podcasts; text and instant

messaging; interactive videogames; and other information streams. Of necessity

we use Internet bookmarks, iPods, Tivo, RSS aggregators, and the like to filter

out what we want to see, hear, and read. Cocooned with our personal media

players (and sound-isolating headphones), e-book readers, PDAs, cell phones,

computers, and home theaters, we rarely have to come in contact with any persons

or ideas we wish to avoid.

Some call this personalization; others call it isolation. The challenge of

all of this wonderful individualization is trying to still forge a sense of

common culture, to create common bonds that tie us together as a society, as a

local community, as national citizens. When we voluntarily narrowcast ourselves by

only hearing or watching media that we like, by only reading certain ideological

or political perspectives, by only visiting web sites or blogs that resonate

with us, where do we hear the common messages that bring us together as a


I think the answer is public schools. It's definitely not broadcast

television or radio: even the most-watched TV shows now garner only a fraction

of the viewers they used to. Workplaces and houses of worship are too disparate

and divergent. The Internet is too scattered and newspaper readership is way

down. What's left besides our public elementary and secondary institutions?

Yet we are now seeing the same surfeit of choice in public schools as we see

in other societal arenas. Complementing the traditional choice of private

schools, we now have magnet schools, charter schools, alternative schools,

privatized schools, schools-within-a-school, virtual schools, and homeschooling.

In Utah, lawmakers just passed a law providing tuition

vouchers for every student in the state

who wants to attend private


I'm not an advocate of hegemonic groupthink (particularly from the

government), nor do I tend to be an alarmist, but I do think there's an

important place for public schools regarding socialization of our youth,

instillation of community and national norms, and creation of a people with

common bonds. But I'm afraid we're losing this quickly, and we need to start

talking about what it means for us as a society.

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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.

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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