Elizabeth Alexander on a Cultural Renaissance in the United States

Question: Does Obama’s presidency indicate a closer attention to the arts?

Alexander:    I don’t think that is being overly optimistic or if it is, I’m right there and I think a lot of other people who care about creativity; creativity, not just for the sake of art itself but creativity as a way of looking at problems, looking at human beings, looking at the world from a number of different angles at the same time.  I think that what we’ve seen from a lot of Obama’s political utterances that I think is very resonant with people who have, sort of, chosen the creative life and who find inspiration for the creative life is that there’s not one answer, many things are sometimes true at once.  You can be in the midst of contradiction and not have that be a stopping point but rather be a way station on the road forward.  We’ve heard a lot of that kind of language from him and I think that that’s something certainly that great literature tries to show us as well, that, you know, for example, to be a American is not one thing, to be American is multi-experiential, multilingual.  It is… it is many, many, many different aspects of the human experience and that’s really part of what makes this, in my opinion, incredibly interesting country with a very, very vibrant art scene.  It is that essence that is not one thing and… so I think that that comfort with contradiction as something that we’ve seen from the president as well so I see that as fertile ground for the arts.

Question: What’s the condition of poetry in the United States?

Alexander:    What’s quite powerful about poetry is because it doesn’t really have much of a money marketplace, it has always survived.  It is not dependent on patronage, it is not dependent on, you know, people going out and buying books so that the poet can stay in shoe leather.  You know, poets always know that we have to support ourselves in other ways and so I think that paradoxically, perhaps, that’s a very good set of conditions with which to know that if you must make your art, you will continue to make your art.  It also is an inexpensive art form when you think about it, I mean, there are no real supplies.  Yes, it takes time and time is money but I think poetry has always found its way, you know, it’s grass in the cement cracks.

Question: How would you convince a skeptic to read more poetry?

Alexander:    I would say, first of all, that it never hurt anybody which is to say go ahead and try it, right?  I mean, there’s sort of no risk involved.  I think that when people get all carried away and, you know, unhappy about feeling that poetry is being forced upon them, my response is often, “What it’s going to hurt you or anybody else if you read this poem?  What’s going to happen if you take 5 minutes and read this poem?”  So that’s to begin with and I think that, you know, poetry arrests us in wonderful ways, it makes us look at the material world in ways that we might not have thought otherwise.  So in the tremendous reward of a common object situation, feeling, emotion, described in language that makes us understand it more deeply, more richly, a little bit differently, is one of poetry’s great gifts and rewards.  The moment of pause that in essence, embodies the value of meditation, the value of not hastening through every utterance and every moment, the necessity of stopping and rethinking sometimes, all of that is what poetry kind of models for us.  And I think what we ask poets in particular should do, artists as well, but poets in particular is to dig deeply in emotional well springs in the sort of feels of experience, to dig deeply also in the language, and in a sense, do the feeling for those who at that moment can’t.

Elizabeth Alexander on reawakening the arts 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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