​Our big bank failed us during COVID. This small bank was there to help.

Frank Terraferma of International Finance Bank and Victoria Montgomery-Brown, CEO of Big Think, meeting in a carpark in Florida to finalize the PPP loan.

Photo: Victoria Montgomery-Brown / Big Think
  • Victoria Montgomery-Brown, CEO of Big Think, explains what it took for Big Think to get approved for the COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program (PPP).
  • Where big banks failed to assist or even acknowledge applications, a small bank and an incredible banker, Frank Terraferma, came through.
  • People like Frank, and his colleagues, are the ones helping ordinary people and ordinary businesses to weather this crisis, writes Victoria.

I'm a small business owner in New York City. Until the CARES Act was passed, which offered loans to small businesses affected by the COVID-19 crisis, I'd forgotten my bank existed, except for the occasional phone call when it asked me to up my business credit limit.

Our company is not made of VC stardust, and as much as I'd like to help an international banking conglomerate by pushing my company deeper into debt, I passed on the opportunity. Passing gets easy when the bank requires you to be personally liable for business credit.

So yes, I'm in business. I have a business partner. We have employees. We rent office space in the nation's most expensive real estate market. And we have been clients at JP Morgan Chase for 13 years.

When New York City became the epicenter of a global health pandemic, everything stopped. Our clients' budgets froze, our budgets froze, and on down the line. Safety and saving lives were everyone's immediate concern. There could be no disagreement on that. Eventually, we also had to make sure our company was going to meet its obligations.

In the Wild West of financial crises, you meet heroes and you meet villains.

The Paycheck Protection Program was a welcome sign, and a way we could afford our employees some stability. The reality is that this is going to be a punishing time for business. Putting employees first is the right thing to do, and payroll support is the right place to start.

We knew applying immediately was a must. On April 3, my business partner, myself, and our accountant were ready to submit our PPP application online. Our bank, which is the nation's largest bank, did not accept loan applications until April 7. It wasn't taking applications from us, anyway, and my emails to the bank went unanswered. Just no reply at all.

During those four days, I kept remembering news from the financial crash, when Too Big to Fail meant you were an essential business in a pejorative way. We'd really like to be rid of you, but you've got us by the balls. Now as a client of Too Big to Fail, we were Too Small to Matter to them.

We submitted our documents to Chase, but its website crashed, leaving us wondering if we'd even applied. An entrepreneur friend, Melissa, asked her lawyer for help, who sent us to a banker named Frank Terraferma, which is his actual name, at International Finance Bank. Based in Florida, where Frank lives, it also has a Manhattan banking center.

In the Wild West of financial crises, you meet heroes and you meet villains. Frank Terraferma didn't want to be a hero, but that's the hero's lot. Between April 9 and 13, Frank called or emailed every day with updates about our application, which his bank had filed. The PPP is a loan with 1% interest, so banks aren't getting rich by servicing them. When Frank said he cared about saving people's jobs, I believed him.

Thanks to Frank's help, our business got approved in the first round of PPP. On April 13, I emailed my other bank to withdraw our application, uncertain if we'd even filed one. And wouldn't you know it, this got their attention. I finally got an email reply. Whatever.

During two weeks of back and forth with the Small Business Administration, Frank became a tireless advocate for a business he didn't know and employees he'd never met. He delivered high-touch, personal service. He showed the good in people, and how helping in times of need is a renewing force. By the time our loan was ready to be processed, and because we're all living out scenes from a Russian war novel right now, I was staying in a friend's garage in St. Petersburg, Florida.

So on a late Friday morning, I met Frank, and a traveling notary, in a St. Petersburg parking lot where I signed the final loan documents on the hood of his car. Standing six feet apart from each other at all times, he helped give our business a life line, and I'm grateful for his gesture, his energy, and his caring.

People like Frank, and his colleagues, are the ones helping ordinary people and ordinary businesses to weather this crisis. We always need more of them.

Yug, age 7, and Alia, age 10, both entered Let Grow's "Independence Challenge" essay contest.

Photos: Courtesy of Let Grow
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • The coronavirus pandemic may have a silver lining: It shows how insanely resourceful kids really are.
  • Let Grow, a non-profit promoting independence as a critical part of childhood, ran an "Independence Challenge" essay contest for kids. Here are a few of the amazing essays that came in.
  • Download Let Grow's free Independence Kit with ideas for kids.
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Divers discover world's largest underwater cave system filled with Mayan mysteries

Researchers in Mexico discover the longest underwater cave system in the world that's full of invaluable artifacts. 

Divers of the GAM project. Credit: Herbert Meyrl.
Technology & Innovation

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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Bottles of antidepressant pills named (L-R) Wellbutrin, Paxil, Fluoxetine and Lexapro are shown March 23, 2004 photographed in Miami, Florida.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • A new review found that withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants and antipsychotics can last for over a year.
  • Side effects from SSRIs, SNRIs, and antipsychotics last longer than benzodiazepines like Valium or Prozac.
  • The global antidepressant market is expected to reach $28.6 billion this year.
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