Life After the Celtic Tiger

Question: How has Ireland weathered the global recession and debt crisis?

Mary Robinson:  I’m very aware, because I’m actually moving back to Ireland, but these are really difficult times indeed.  We’ve had the property bubble, we’ve had the misjudgments, to say the least, and the pain, and the real sense, at the moment, of anger about the unfairness and the role of the banks and the role of the property dealers who were most caught up in that bubble. 

I’m very glad to be going back to Ireland, I’m really very happy about it, because I want to connect again with an Ireland that has to actually find the courage and the motivation moving forward to try and engage our very bright young people, I’m going to be linked with the two universities in Dublin and really anybody who’s working on climate issues and we’re going to be working to promote the idea of climate justice.  I’d like Ireland to be the go-to place on climate justice, a bridge between the developed world going into the renewable energies and necessarily having measures of mitigation, but also the need to transfer good, green technologies, low-carbon technologies, to the poorest so that they can develop, they have a right to development.  And Ireland has a very good history and tradition of development aid. It began with priests and nuns pioneering in the poorest parts of the world, and some of them are still there.  And then very good NGO’s and Irish Aid itself, the government program, is very well regarded, and I know, in developing countries, because it’s very focused on the poorest and most vulnerable, in a very sustainable way.  So I want to try and help to work with those on the ground to rekindle, I think, a sense of real pride and purpose in Ireland on this issue of climate justice.

Question:
Will Ireland be able to regain the competitive strength of the Celtic Tiger days?

Mary Robinson:  I’ve no doubt it will take a bit of time, but we have a great advantage of size, we have a very bright population, there’s a lot of research that has gone on, and there is a sense of community again.  Maybe during the Celtic Tiger, people got very selfish, and now we have more sense of community.  I’m hearing that Irish Gaelic word "meitheal," meaning linked to the other, the spirit of "meitheal," "meitheal" communities.  People in small towns and villages actually looking after those who are most hard hit and, you know, there’s a human element coming back in, in a community sense and I do hope that we will continue to put great emphasis on education and on our young people because that’s the way we will turn around fastest.  But I have every confidence.  We’ve been in hard times before, we just need to accept that there was a foolishness and a stupidity and a selfishness and that some people are feeling pain who didn’t have that responsibility, which is provoking a lot of anger, and we need to be as far as possible in how we move forward.

Recorded September 21, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown

The former President of Ireland cautions that it will take time to recover from Ireland’s dramatic boom and bust, but there are many signs of hope, including a greater sense of togetherness. "During the Celtic Tiger, people got very selfish, and now we have more sense of community," she says

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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.

Scientists see 'rarest event ever recorded' in search for dark matter

The team caught a glimpse of a process that takes 18,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 years.

Image source: Pixabay
Surprising Science
  • In Italy, a team of scientists is using a highly sophisticated detector to hunt for dark matter.
  • The team observed an ultra-rare particle interaction that reveals the half-life of a xenon-124 atom to be 18 sextillion years.
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