Who are you?

Question: Who are you?

 

Sharon Gannon: Sharon Gannon.

Well of course I’m not sure where I was born, but my parents told me that I was born in Georgetown University Hospital – Washington, D.C. That’s our Nation’s Capital, and I was born at dawn on July 4th.

In my early childhood we lived in D.C. And my dad was a racecar driver. So at one point when I was about three we moved to Florida to be near Daytona Beach. And that really didn’t last long. His ambitions kind of fizzled out and we went back to D.C. But then they separated and I moved with my mother to various places. We lived on a farm in West Virginia. Then we moved to Tucson, Arizona. And I grew up during my high school years in Seattle, Washington which I loved before I moved to New York.

I thought I’d be a poet. I don’t know if that’s a profession, but it’s always been kind of the filter from which I’ve seen and acted through.

I was suffering a very traumatic experience in my very early twenties. And previous to that, I was a bookworm. And I was very not connected to my body, my physical body. And so this trauma happened; it was a very severe shakeup.

And to make a long story short, I tried to kill myself, and my sister actually saved me. And I was trying to do it in a very bizarre way – falling in front of cars during rush hour traffic. She saw me from a bedroom window and ran down to where I was and slapped me and said, “What do you think you’re doing?” I was like, “Oooooh, I want to kill myself. I’m just no good,” and blah, blah, blah, blah. And she was only 19, and she said something so mature for a 19 year-old woman – my younger sister even. She said, “If someone had hit you and had killed you, how do you think the rest of their life would be? How do you think that would impact on them for the rest of their life?” And at that moment that pushed me out of my self-involved, woe-is-me, I’m no good bubble. And I realized something about myself, about all of us, and that was that everything that we do impacts everyone around us. And so because of that incident I made a conscious decision – “Wow I’d better pull myself together and try to find someway to live in a way that perhaps I could contribute something of benefit to others.” And because I was physically a wreck, a friend of my sister’s who was a dance student at the University of Washington – I lived in Seattle – suggested why don’t you take a summer dance, ballet workshop? They give these things for non-matriculated students, adult students. It might do you some good. So I actually did and studied with an incredible teacher, Ruthanna Boris, who was a Balanchine dancer. And I was really the worst person in the class. And I was 21 years old. I really could not tell my left from my right. But I knew that if I was going to have a positive effect upon others, that I couldn’t be this shattered, shy, anorexic, afraid-of-my-own-shadow type of a person. I had to claim my body. I had to claim my life in a way that then I could perhaps contribute in some way to the happiness of others.

 

Recorded on: October 31, 2007

 

From attempted suicide to dance.

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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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