Should there be limits on innovation?

Question: Should there be limits on innovation?

Vest: Well I attended about a month ago a meeting in Japan . . . in Kyoto organized by a remarkable individual named Koji Omi who was, among other things, a finance minister of Japan for a while. And ________ has been holding this annual conference on science, technology and society. And he calls it Light and Shadow . . . Light and Shadow. A very Japanese way of saying science can shed light to extraordinarily positive things, but it also has a dark side. It creates shadows. This is true of anything – economic power, military power, and scientific power. They have a bright side. They have a dark side. We must be very aware of that. I’m a great believer that we should have as full freedom as conceivable for the human mind to explore nature and understanding. However we have to be aware of the consequences of some of the kinds of knowledge that we are beginning to develop. And I suspect that over this coming decade or so, that we’re going to face a lot of very deeply ethical questions as life science becomes more and more the basis of technology in action. We should never be afraid of learning, of discovery. But we need to be very cautious as we move into new technological areas because they move so fast. You know in the old days you could generally develop technology . . . It took a lifetime for the automobile to reach 25 percent of the public, whereas the World Wide Web did it in seven and a half years. So this pace doesn’t always give us the time to think through before we move. And we saw that in genetically modified foods which created a cultural furor in Europe that the people who were doing the original marketing really hadn’t stepped back and thought through. So the two areas that I think we’re going to have to think deeply about are certainly the whole world that’s beginning to evolve of synthetic biology, and of the increasing genetic knowledge we’re going to have of ourselves and others. What really is going to constitute wisdom? How are we going to decide what one wants to know? How do we start thinking about things when we begin creating life forms, which we’re doing? You know you walk up and down the halls of a place like MIT, you hear the kids talking about bio hacking. That means we are taking organisms, we are taking the stuff of life and we’re mixing it up and we’re playing around. I don’t think we’re creating monsters, but we’re doing things at a molecular level that we have to think through. What’s going to happen to the whole field of genetic counseling? What do you wanna know? Should you know? Should you know that you’ve got a very high probability of having Alzheimer’s later on? So I think most of the areas we have to think most deeply about are going to be driven by the infusion of life science into things that directly affect us – into medicine, into the production of materials and so forth. At the same time I don’t want to slow that because I believe within it lies a lot of the resolution of environmental problems and so forth, because we learn from nature to design and grow as opposed to physically manufacture materials. We can do it generally with a lot less energy, with more uses of natural materials and so forth, but we do have to think that through. A more understandable example – because we’re in some ways further down the path – is people have some legitimate concerns about nanotechnology. It’s a complicated area because “nano” just really refers to building things out of extremely small molecules and particles, and we’ve been doing this forever on one hand. But on the other hand we’re starting to take metals and various materials and put them in this very small form that can enter directly into cells, can be breathed in in different ways. Chances are 99 percent of it is not going to be dangerous, but we have to be willing to kind of make the investments as we go along between ___________ people who, by the way, cannot all be professional scientists and engineers. We need lay people and thinkers engaged and just think our way through some of these issues. But at the same time I believe in boldness and I believe in taking risks. It’s just that we don’t wanna take risks on scales and with people who don’t know they’re taking risks and so forth. We just need deeper thought in these newer areas because they’re moving so rapidly. And I think we’re gonna face some really tough ethical decisions in these areas, and they’re not gonna all be easily resolved. And going back to something you asked about earlier, it can’t just be science and engineering. You know we live in a democracy. We have political processes for making decisions. We just want those decisions to be truly well-informed and question-shaped in ways that really make sense and are appropriate. Recorded on: 12/5/07

We should have full freedom to explore, but we should always keep in mind the dark side of science, Vest says.

To boost your self-esteem, write about chapters of your life

If you're lacking confidence and feel like you could benefit from an ego boost, try writing your life story.

Personal Growth

In truth, so much of what happens to us in life is random – we are pawns at the mercy of Lady Luck. To take ownership of our experiences and exert a feeling of control over our future, we tell stories about ourselves that weave meaning and continuity into our personal identity.

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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.

Ashes of cat named Pikachu to be launched into space

A space memorial company plans to launch the ashes of "Pikachu," a well-loved Tabby, into space.

GoFundMe/Steve Munt
Culture & Religion
  • Steve Munt, Pikachu's owner, created a GoFundMe page to raise money for the mission.
  • If all goes according to plan, Pikachu will be the second cat to enter space, the first being a French feline named Felicette.
  • It might seem frivolous, but the cat-lovers commenting on Munt's GoFundMe page would likely disagree.
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