Tyranny comes home: How the 'boomerang effect' impacts civilian life in the U.S.

When it comes to foreign intervention, we often overlook the practices that creep into life back home.

ABIGAIL BLANCO: So what a lot of people don't think about with respect to foreign intervention is the idea that the tools and processes that are developed as a part of foreign intervention can come to be used domestically. So people might not associate, for example, things like the use of drones domestically within the United States or unmanned aerial vehicles, torture in U.S. prisons, or things like the militarization of domestic police as consequences of foreign intervention. But these are the exact types of tools developed as a part of intervention abroad that then wind up being used back home. My coauthor, Chris Coyne, and I term this phenomenon the boomerang effect.

So the big question or what it is that we seek to do is to identify how it is that those tools, which were once exclusively used abroad come to be used back home. So we do this by looking at or identifying what we call the three channels of the boomerang effect. The first of these channels is what we call the human capital channel. You can think about human capital simply as the skill sets that an individual possesses or develops as part of their job. So students, for instance, are hopefully developing human capital as they go through their course of study. People, when they go and they take different jobs, are adding to their human capital. This is no different than when individuals are involved in the preparation for or execution of a foreign intervention. The critical piece is that once that intervention or that person's part of the intervention is concluded those skills that they've developed don't magically disappear. They stay with them.

And so those skills are then brought back with that person and integrated into their future endeavors whether those are in the public sector or in the private sector. The second channel that we identify is what we refer to as the administrative dynamics channel. So perhaps the easiest way to think about this is to think about the different organizational structures in which people have operated throughout their life. So people might be familiar with the administrative dynamics of education for instance. They know that overarching structure and how it works. Or if you go to work at a variety of different companies those have different administrative dynamics. The administrative dynamics that are often associated with foreign intervention so those that are highly bureaucratic, those that are very militaristic again become a part or people get used to operating within those dynamics and then are able to import those types of administrative structures into again a number of domestic institutions.

The last channel that we talk about as part of the boomerang effect is what's referred to as the physical capital channel. So if human capital are the skills that a person develops, physical capital are just those actual physical like tools that people develop as a part of foreign intervention. So these might be things like surveillance techniques. They might also be things like unmanned aerial vehicles or particular types of weapons. So again when individuals are completed or they're finished with their part of the foreign intervention they like to use or continue to use those tools that they've developed. And so we see an integration of the tools of foreign intervention into domestic operations.

  • Methods used in foreign intervention often resurface domestically, whether that's in the form of skills or technology.
  • University of Tampa professor Abigail Blanco calls this the boomerang effect. It's a consequence not often thought about when we discuss foreign intervention.
  • The three channels to consider when examining the boomerang effect include human capital in the form of skills, administrative dynamics, and physical capital in the form of tools and technology.
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Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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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."

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