Live by the Tea Party, Die by the Tea Party

The Tea Party—with its flamboyant supporters and over-the-top rhetoric—makes good copy. It make such good copy that it sometimes gets more attention than its actual influence warrants. But give credit where credit is due: the Republican victory Tuesday would not have been possible without the Tea Party.


The major difference between the Republicans and the Democrats was turnout. As I wrote yesterday, because Republicans made sure to get to the polls, while many Democrats stayed home. The Republicans owe much of that enthusiasm to the angry energy of the Tea Party, which gave conservatives a movement to rally around.  Perhaps just as importantly, the Tea Party gave the Republican Party a chance to rebrand itself. As Marc Ambinder points out, more Americans blame Bush for our economic problems than blame Obama. But the outsider populism of the Tea Party allowed Republican candidates to  distance themselves from Bush's party, even though the party's leadership is largely the same.

But the Tea Party was a liability for the Republican Party in other ways. Tea Party candidates like Rand Paul and Marco Rubio managed to win Senate seats in Kentucky and Florida respectively. But other Tea Party nominees like Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware—now best known for feeling she had to run an ad denying she was witch—were such disastrously bad candidates that they not only lost Senate seats the Republicans could have won, but became the butt of national jokes. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) won reelection in spite of his being fairly unpopular in his home state by more mainstream Republican Sue Lowden in the primaries, so that he could face the erratic Angle instead.

“We didn’t field our strongest candidates,” former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott said. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) agreed, saying, “It was a good night for Republicans but it could have been a better one. We left some on the table.” Tea Party supporters grumble—with some justice—that the Republican Party could have done more to support Tea Party candidates, instead of pumping money into ultimately futile efforts to defeat Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA). But Angle and O’Donnell were both exceptionally weak candidates. And if the Republicans had fielded candidates with greater mainstream appeal in Nevada and Delaware they might have been able to retake the Senate as well as the House.

The Tea Party, of course, doesn’t just want to get help Republicans win, it wants to change the direction of the Republican Party. That will inevitably be a mixed blessing for the party as a whole, and could cost the party as many votes as it gains. The party establishment worries that nominating a presidential candidate popular with the Tea Party but unappealing to moderates and independents—like Sarah Palin—could mean a repeat of the Angle and O’Donnell candidacies on a national scale, and drive America back into the hands of Obama and the Democrats.

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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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