Who are you?

Jim Lehrer: I’m the anchor and Executive Editor of the News Hour with Jim Lehrer on PBS. And I’m a novelist.

Question: Where are you from and how has that shaped you?

Jim Lehrer: Well the 30s. I was born in 1934. And you’re right. The Depression was on. I can legitimately consider myself a child of the Depression. Nobody had anything. And so when you’re not used to having something, when you do have something, you appreciate it a lot more.  And because everybody was in the same boat, there was also a kind of an affinity of misery. And as a consequence, there was no misery. In other words, if everybody is suffering the same way, the same thing, it was a kind of, “We’re all in this together.” And I felt that was me as a kid.  Then World War II came. We lived in Wichita, Kansas; where they built the B-17s and the B-29s. My mother, in fact, worked on the assembly line of the B-29s as a bar coder at a Boeing plant in Wichita.  And World War II, we thought that the Japanese were going to bomb us any moment – because we had the Boeing plant there – after Pearl Harbor. But what it did for me is, the war was very present. Even though it was physically very far away, it was very much a part of our lives. And my dad had been a Marine in the 1920s. I decided right then and there that someday I would grow up to be a Marine, and so did my older brother. And as a matter of fact that’s what happened. But all that stuff kind of began there.  World War II was similar to the Depression in that there was a togetherness about it. And it wasn’t “him” and “her” and “me” and “them” and “they”. It was all of us at war, all of us doing the best we could to beat the bad guys and to protect ourselves from the bad guys.

Topic: The lessons of suffering.

Jim Lehrer: So I think frankly I am fortunate. I know that sounds strange; but I am fortunate that I did have the Depression and World War II in those early years. Because of those two day-to-day experiences, I have never ever been somebody who took anything for granted because it was part of my growing up and part of my formation into who I am today I think, that it all began with wondering if we were going to have enough money to have dinner tonight; whether or not somebody next to me, or some member of my family, was going to die in the war.  It heightened everything. It heightened awareness; heightened interest; heightened the intensity of life. And I still feel that.

Question: Who was your greatest influence when you were young?

Jim Lehrer: Well I am one of those people who can honestly say; I’ll bet everybody can say this; I was influenced in my early years by individual teachers who said things to me, who did things for me, who explained things to me, who taught me things that, at the time, I had to be receptive for whatever reason.  I happened to like what I heard from a teacher. In grade school in Wichita, Kansas, I wrote a little description of a character. And the woman – her name was Ms. Litton – had me read it out loud. I was in the fifth grade. And she laughed and everybody laughed. And I thought it was just marvelous to think that I could make people laugh with something I’d written. And it had an impression.  Later on when I was a sophomore in high school, the biggest thing that ever happened to me happened then. A similar experience.

Question: When did writing first spark your interest?

Jim Lehrer: I’d written a paper for a sophomore English class, and it was about Charles Dickens’ “Tale of Two Cities”. They called them “themes” then, but it was a paper. And the teacher gave me an “A”, which I richly deserved. It was superb. But more important she wrote up in the left-hand corner, “Jimmy, you’re a very good writer!” And it meant everything to me.  There were those early days with the other teacher and all that. My mother was a big reader, and my brother and I were both big readers because my mother was a big reader.  And that sophomore year also, I wanted to be a professional baseball player. I was going to play shortstop for what was then called the Brooklyn Dodgers, now the Los Angeles Dodgers. But I wasn’t a good enough player and coach told me that. And I knew it. I didn’t have to be told.  But at any rate, I met some sports writers who came to our baseball games. And this was in Beaumont, Texas. And the thing with the theme – the “Tale of Two Cities” theme – about the same time I realized that I wasn’t going to be a good ball player and I couldn’t play ball, I just thought, “Wait a minute! Maybe I could be a sports writer.”  And so I told my mother. I remember I just went home and told my mother, “I’m going to be a writer.” I went back to the school the next day, found the faculty advisor and said essentially, “Here I am.” And now I was a sophomore in high school. And I’ve just been doing it ever since. And I had another experience; I went to a tiny junior college the first two years of college in Texas. And I wanted to go to Missouri to a famous journalism school. I’d never set foot in the place before, but I got the catalogs and all that and decided I wanted to go to Missouri to journalism school the last two years. The first two years junior college; second two years get a degree in journalism. And I applied and I got a letter back from University of Missouri that said, “We can’t accept your credits. It’s a school we’ve never heard of. Forget it.” And the dean of the school; there was only 300 students in the school; the dean of the school said to me, “Jimmy, do you really wanna go to the University of Missouri?” And I said, “Yes sir, I really do.” And he said, “Well, are you willing to roll the dice for it?” And I said, “Well what do you mean?” And he said, “Well I’m gonna write these boom booms a letter and tell them that this kid can do this. And you send any test you want down here. We will give it to him under any circumstance you want. Under the condition, if he passes them, you will admit him as a junior.” So some guy in Missouri said, “Okay” and called his bet, called his bluff and said, “Okay. We’ll do it.” So I took five examinations – English grammar and history, mathematics, all the others, the whole thing – and I aced them. And I was admitted into the University of Missouri as a high junior, even. And here again, my three stories are linked because these are three people who helped me at crucial times in my life. And I’m not saying, “Oh well, if Ms. Litton back in the fifth grade hadn’t said that; if people hadn’t laughed, I wouldn’t have been a writer. I would have been a journalist. And the same thing at Beaumont high school in Texas or at Victoria Junior College in Texas.”  All I know is that because of what those three people did, good things happened.

 

 

Recorded: July 4, 2007.

 

Jim Lehrer talks about being a child of the Depression.

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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. 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.