How do you contribute?

Peter Rojas: You know that’s a . . . that’s a good question. I’m not sure how much of an impact my work really has on the world. I mean I create blogs . . . I’ve created blogs that are read by a lot of people. You know Engadget alone, like I said, gets about nine million readers a month. You know if you count Joystick, Gizmodo, a handful of others, I mean it’s . . . You know it’s definitely above 10 million and probably, you know, getting closer to 20 million which is great. It’s not something that like feels real to me in any way because I still work from home. And I still just sit in my apartment and . . . and you know answer e-mail and stuff like that. It’s not like a . . . It doesn’t feel real at all in the way that like, you know, if I was doing it in a stadium or something like that, you know? Like giving a concert in front of people. It’s the thought like when you’re a musician and you go from, like, playing in a bar to like, you know, Madison Square Garden. You can sort of really feel the transition. It feels the same. I meaning doing Engadget for nine million people feels the same as, you know, doing it for 90,000 was. So you know in that respect, like I don’t necessarily . . . I don’t necessarily feel or have a good sense necessarily of the impact. I mean I think that I was someone that was able to . . . to figure out a lot of stuff in blogging first. And I think, you know, I definitely hope I’ve made a positive contribution to the world of blogging. And you know I hope maybe on some level inspired people on Gizmodo and Engadget to start their own blogs. I think it’s great. I mean I think it’s a good thing for people to be starting blogs, and a good thing for people to be expressing themselves. Even if you’re just expressing yourself to like, you know, 10 of your friends, I think that’s a . . . that alone is like a great thing. But I don’t know beyond that. I mean you know occasionally we’ll see . . . You know people in the industry will talk to me and tell me about, you know, that . . . that the people that work at the company, the manufacturer, that they’re reading Engadget and paying attention. And you sort of want to be able to feel like well, maybe they do listen and . . . You know, ‘cause we consider ourselves at Engadget to be kind of advocates for, you know, the consumer . . . people who are . . . to be the kind of . . . like there’s no difference . . . Like the reason why Engadget works, I think, is because we’re writing it for ourselves ‘cause we’re the audience. And . . . and we don’t have any reason to . . . to kind of like to bullshit ourselves, you know? So you kind of hope on some level that people do listen; but I don’t wanna . . . I don’t wanna overstate, like, the impact by any means. I’m not . . . You know I’m not someone that built a, you know, a Microsoft. Or I’m not like Steve Jobs or anything like that. I mean I think there’s a tendency for people who work in the media to sort of confuse themselves with the people that they’re covering. And I definitely do not do that. I mean I definitely recognize that at the end of the day it’s a gadget blog. I’m not saving lives, and I’m not curing cancer. And you know it’s . . . it’s . . . The most I can hope for is that people who read the site find some value in going to it. And that maybe I’ve made a few people laugh with, you know, some of the irreverent wit that I like to pretend that I have.

 

Recorded on: 10/2/07

Rojas talks about his contribution.

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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.

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  • 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. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. 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.