Random fact roundup: Luck, death, and Texas

What do luck, death, and Texas have in common? They're all part of our weekly random fact roundup.

Luck

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— If you were to pick the same six numbers (out of 1 to 49) every day you'd probably win once every 292,000 years. That's about a one in 13.9 million chance. You have a much better chance of dying in a plane crash. Your chances of dying in a plane crash are, at best, one in 5.6 million. If you were to take the same flight every day, it would statistically crash once every 14,500 flights. 

— .00086% of the world is famous. A mathematician found that out by dividing the 'living people' section of Wikipedia by the world's population! 

— You have a 6.7% higher chance of dying on your birthday, and a 14% chance of dying on your birthday if you're 60 or older. More people die in January than any other month. 

Death

Pixabay

— Per national average, a hearse car in a funeral procession costs about as much as a New York City cab ride, at $2.00 per mile. Another fun fact about New York and death... almost twice as many people kill themselves (565 suicides for 2016) within New York City limits per year than are murdered (290 for 2017). 

— In England, you can pay a company called Rent A Mourner to have actors to show up at your funeral. For about $70 USD, an actor will show up at your funeral or wake and cry for 2 hours. In Amsterdam, if you die and friends or family aren't available to show up at your funeral, a poet will write a poem about you and read it at the service. 

— The American funeral industry brings in about $20 billion a year, about as much as the toy industry. The average funeral is about $8,000. Cremation averages $1,100. One of the most expensive single burial plots in the world is a $600,000 burial plot near Marilyn Monroe's mausoleum in Westwood Village Memorial Cemetary in Los Angeles. 

— When you die, your body drops in temperature from 98.6ºF (living temperature) by 1.5ºF per hour. 

Texas 

Pixabay

— The Katy Independent School District has a $70 million stadium... for high school football. The Katy team has won 4 state championships since 2006. If you combined the total number of seats in every high school football stadium (1,305 stadiums with a total combined capacity of 4,130,440), you could comfortably seat every man, woman, and child in Dallas and Austin with room to spare.   

— Texas is an enormous place. Driving from the north of Texas to the southernmost point of Texas is about as many miles as driving from Glasgow, Scotland to Rome, Italy. You could fit two Germanys into Texas (2 x 137,847 miles for Germany, and 268,820 square miles in Texas). 7.4% of America's total landmass is in Texas. 

— The King Ranch, in south Texas, is bigger than the entire state of Rhode Island. From end to end, all the fencing in King Ranch would stretch from New York City to Bisbee, Arizona. The King Ranch is relatively close to Laredo, which holds the odd distinction of being the world's largest inland port, 131 miles away from the nearest ocean. 

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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.
Surprising Science
  • 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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