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Scientists have successfully revived function in the brains of dead pigs

A team of Yale scientists successfully restored partial function in the brains of pigs that had been dead for about four hours.

I think that this marks the first time that reality has bested the great Rick Sanchez.

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Science: 1
Death: Well… a lot.

But seriously, this research is extremely impressive, though the team was quick to point out that this does not mean the brains could be considered “alive,” as NPR explains:

The Yale University research team is careful to say that none of the brains regained the kind of organized electrical activity associated with consciousness or awareness. Still, the experiment described Wednesday in the journal Nature showed that a surprising amount of cellular function was either preserved or restored.

The team used the brains of 32 pigs that they obtained from a slaughterhouse. After removing the brains from their respective heads, they attached the brains to a system they called “BrainEx.” This pumped a solution through the brains that delivered oxygen and “metabolically supports the energy requirements of the brain.” 

This image shows the difference between a brain that were left to decay on their own for 10 hours (left) versus a brain that was was treated with BrainEx. The green areas are neurons, the red areas are astrocytes, and cell nuclei are blue. via NPR/Stefano G. Daniele and Zvonimir Vrselja, Sestan Laboratory, Yale School of Medicine

As NPR pointed out, the goal for the researchers was never to restore full functionality to the pigs’ brains. A bioethicist was present, and the team was ready to intervene with the use of anesthetics if they saw electrical activity in the brains consistent with consciousness.

The researchers emphasize that the goal was definitely not to restore consciousness in these pig brains. “It was something that the researchers were actively worried about,” says Stephen Latham, a Yale bioethicist who worked with the team.

The scientists constantly monitored the pig brains’ electrical activity, Latham says. If they had seen any evidence that signals associated with consciousness had emerged, they would have used anesthesia and cooling to shut that down immediately.

“And the reason is that they didn’t want to do an experiment that raises the ethical questions that would be raised if consciousness were being evoked in this brain,” Latham says, “without first getting some kind of serious ethical guidance.”

BrainEx. via Nature

This indeed raises a lot of ethical and philosophical questions, not just in the field of medical research, but also more generally as to the definition of life, and when we can declare someone legally dead.

Research like this is needed, though. As well as we understand our bodies and how the brain works, there’s still a lot of unknowns. After all, many people struggle with a wide range of mental health issues, and many treatments currently available have not so great side effects or vary in their effectiveness.

And besides, didn’t they just remake a movie about stuff like this?

Jokes aside, the implications of this type of research are huge though. Not only will it help us better understand how brains work, but it shows promise in the ability to restore brain function in those affected by a stroke, or other brain injuries.

Written by Dan Broadbent

Science Enthusiast. Atheist. Lover of cats.

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