What's the Elephant in the Room this Election?

Has the oldest problem in the book become taboo again? C. Nicole Mason expresses concern over a nation-wide moral failure that is leaving the U.S.'s most vulnerable to struggle in silence.

C. Nicole Mason: The issue I see in the election right now is that we’re not having the conversations that matter to people and families across the country. We have moved so far away from the bread and butter issues that families want to talk about. So we haven’t heard a lot about poverty. We haven’t heard a lot in this election about bringing and making sure that we have a strong social safety net not only for low income families but for middle class families who are still fragile or straddling between being financially secure and close to the edge in terms of falling into poverty. And we’re just not having those conversations. We’re talking about things that matter but when we talk about building a society where all people have a fair shot we’re not talking about the issues that will make the difference for them.

We don’t talk a lot about white poverty and I think we should because I think if we talked a lot more about the way poverty impacts different groups I think we would not see it as an issue that’s out there and doesn’t impact me or it’s a black issue or a Latino issue. We would see it as an issue of lack and people not having the resources that they need to be able to live a quality and a productive life. What we know though is that black and Latino people are more likely to live in poverty and white people are also poor. But we’re not, again we’re not talking about those conversations. And we’re not even writing about those conversations so when we’re not talking about rural communities and rural whites. Those people are invisible in media and culture when we talk about poverty. And so until we can really wrap our minds around the magnitude of who’s living in poverty and what poverty – the face of poverty and what it really looks like we’re not really going to be able to make policies that will reach the people who are really impacted or affected by it.

One of the things I think is unique about American poverty is the gap between the wealthiest and the poorest in our society and that gap continues to widen. And there are no efforts to close the gap, to make sure that the people at the bottom of the economic ladder have the resources and they need to just have a basic standard of living. There are no efforts. So, for example, you can work 40 hours a week, get up every day, go to work and still need other resources and supports to be able to make ends meet. Whether that’s housing, whether that’s food stamps, whether that’s medical insurance. And that shouldn’t be the case here. I think that we really need to pay attention to what’s happening to the most vulnerable and the fragile middle class who are sometimes a paycheck away from living in poverty or being in poverty themselves.

What frightens me is that there’s not enough moral responsibility for others in our society. And so we can just turn our back. We can say hey, that’s not me. That doesn’t impact me or that’s happening to them and not to me and not seeing the connection between us all. If I support programs that makes sure that the most vulnerable in our society have what they need to have a basic standard of living that somehow takes away from me. If we can get away from that idea and that sort of thinking then I think we’ll be able to get to a place where we can say this is not an us/them problem. It’s a problem that we all need to be working together to solve.

In terms of entertainment, the first Presidential debate was robust. In terms of bread and butter issues that matter to lower income families, it was less so. This year and last, we’ve heard a lot about protecting the middle class from tax increases, saving young learners from outrageous student debt, and giving big corporations a tax break, but there has been little to no discussion, from either side, about families and individuals who are trying to climb their way up to the middle class. There hasn’t been a silence this awkward since the self-awareness vacuum that was Mary J Blige singing to Hillary Clinton

Politicians’ blind eye to poverty is hitting a raw nerve with Dr. C. Nicole Mason, author of Born Bright and someone who herself managed to climb out of poverty – a feat that only 4% of the U.S.’s poor manage to do; the sizable remainder lack the infrastructure and social mobility to better their situation.

Mason believes the U.S.’s most vulnerable suffer in silence because, in the public consciousness, poverty is seen as a black or Latino problem. What she’d like to do is get everyone talking about white poverty, for one simple reason – if people see the real faces of poverty, it will break down the current barrier between ‘us’ and ‘them’, and show the public the magnitude of the situation.

According to Mason, there hasn’t been enough effort to close the gap nor has there even been theoretical discussion of how the U.S. would do so. Despite being an epidemic, poverty is not a national priority. The hard reality is that people in the U.S. can work 40-hour weeks in low-income jobs and still need assistance for themselves and their families, in terms of food stamps, housing, and medical assistance.

Mason sees this as a moral failure. For people whose lives are not affected, the issue is largely moot. She urges individuals and institutions to realize that supporting programs that help society’s most vulnerable meet a basic standard of living does not detract from anyone else. If a poor person rises to the middle class, it doesn’t mean someone else will be demoted. Nothing is lost by improving the national standard of living. We need to demand this of our politicians, and of ourselves.

Dr. C. Nicole Mason's book is Born Bright: A Young Girl's Journey from Nothing to Something in America.

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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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