What NASA learned by sending a 77-year-old astronaut into space

When you have the opportunity to take gravity away from the human body, the results are pretty fasninating.

Scott Parazynski: If you look at the earlier registered passengers onboard Virgin Galactic, for example, they have astronauts in their 80s that are raring to go. I see great opportunities for older astronauts to get onboard Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin and SpaceX in the near future.

Certainly one of the greatest honors of my life was getting a chance to fly in space with my boyhood hero Senator John Glenn. He was up on the pinnacle of heroes as a kid.

He was the very first to orbit the Earth as an American back in 1962, back when rockets didn’t necessarily always behave; there were a lot of failures.

In fact the two launches right before John’s flight, as I recall, blew up, and he was on number three—so there were definitely brave men back in those early days. So it was an incredible thrill to welcome him back to the astronaut ranks and to fly with him on STS-95.

He came back at age 77, the oldest astronaut ever, and we were basically studying his adaptation to space and re-adaptation to earth’s one gravity.

Going up into space is sort of like an accelerated aging process. When even a younger astronaut goes into space we have weakening of our muscles and bones and our heart, because it doesn't have to pump against gravity, we aren’t resisting the force of gravity to move ourselves around. It’s like your body is going on holiday, and so it’s actually a great laboratory for developing countermeasures to the aging process. That was the real reason we wanted to bring John onboard, is to compare and contrast an older astronaut’s experiences with a younger astronaut population.

And he did an amazing job. He was in phenomenal shape, and just a wonderful human being to be around. We learned a lot by having him onboard with us.

One of the things that was really striking is just how well an older person does adapt to space. He was able to perform right lockstep with every other crew-member onboard, contributed in every facet of the mission. He was actually a subject in ten different life sciences experiments—I had to draw gallons and gallons of his blood, which he didn’t care for very much, but he helped us understand those differences. And one of the things that he did struggle with a little bit, coming back to earth’s one gravity. He had issues with getting his balance back, the nervous tubular system was a little slow to recover, not dissimilar to some of our longer duration astronauts when they come back from their missions to the ISS, but certainly nothing that was a showstopper.

It was like a dream come true to have someone that I had revered as a kid become not just a crew-mate but a close friend, as I talk about it all the time. So one of the high points of my career for sure.

Space may be the final frontier, but it's really interesting what it does to our bodies. Scientists are studying the effects of space on the body, says former astronaut and current physician Scott Parazynski. The results are pretty fascinating, especially when you have the opportunity to take gravity out of the equation. Scott Parazynski is the author of The Sky Below: A True Story of Summits, Space, and Speed.

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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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