The Trouble With Lieberman

In 2006 incumbent Connecticut Senator—and former Vice Presidential candidate—Joe Lieberman lost in the Democratic primaries to Ned Lamont, a relative unknown who had challenged Lieberman's support of the Patriot Act and the Iraq war. Unwilling to accept the results, Lieberman ran in the general election as an independent against his old party's own candidate, explaining that he was doing so not out of personal ambition but out of loyalty to his state, to his country, and—implausibly—to the Democratic Party. He managed to win re-election to the Senate in spite of the fact that almost twice as many Democrats voted for Lamont, mostly because—with the support of Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck—he was able to get 70% of the state's Republican vote.

Although Joe Lieberman continued to caucus with the Senate Democrats, he campaigned for Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in last year's presidential elections and even spoke at the Republican National Convention. And this week Lieberman told ABC news that he would support some Republican candidates for Congress in 2010. In spite of all this, the Senate Democratic Caucus agreed to allow him to continue on as chair of the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs.


Now Joe Lieberman has threatened not only to vote against the Democrats health care reform package, but also to support a Republican filibuster of it. As Nate Silver says, this is tantamount to electoral suicide. As it is, a Daily Kos poll found Ned Lamont would beat him soundly if the 2006 election were held again today. And another recent poll shows that fully 64% of Connecticut voters support a public option. Opposing the Democrats' health care plan would practically guarantee a serious challenger in the 2012 election, prompting Stephen Colbert to joke that Lieberman won't "let the voters push him around."

But as Maura Keaney points out, Lieberman's opposition to the health care package stands to benefit Connecticut's powerful health insurance industry. He has also received more than $1,000,000 in donations from the health insurance lobby—and, of course, his wife Hadassah is a senior counselor in a public relations company's health and pharmaceutical practice. Timothy Noah likewise accuses Lieberman of a being a pawn of the insurance industry.

Progressive groups like Credo Action have already renewed their call to have Lieberman stripped of his committee chairmanship. Although the Democratic leadership have been reluctant to punish him for allying himself with Republicans. But if they really do want to pass a real health care bill, they will have to show that there is a cost to working to block their legislation.

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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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