A team of Yale University scientists were able to restore some function to a dead pig’s brain four hours after it’d been decapitated, a new study published in “Nature” on Wednesday said.
While consciousness or awareness was not restored to the brains, many other parts of the organ and a lot of cellular function either came back or were preserved in the study, creating an ethical conundrum for bioethicists and scientists who are struggling to understand how this will change what separates the living and the dead, the research team told NPR News.
“It was mind-blowing,” said Nita Farahany, who examines the ethics of emerging technology at Duke Law School.
“My initial reaction was pretty shocked. It’s a groundbreaking discovery, but it also really fundamentally changes a lot of what the existing beliefs are in neuroscience about the irreversible loss of brain function once there is deprivation of oxygen to the brain.”
The scientists gathered around 300 pig heads from a local slaughterhouse, removed the brains, placed them in an experimental chamber and, using their developed technology “BrainEx“, pumped them with a special formula of chemicals for six hours, starting around four hours after the pigs died, NPR reported.
“We found that tissue and cellular structure is preserved and cell death is reduced. In addition, some molecular and cellular functions were restored,” said Nenad Sestan, a neuroscientist at the Yale School of Medicine.
“This is not a living brain, but it is a cellularly active brain.”
However, the team was “actively worried about” it getting close to the activity of a living brain, Stephen Latham, a Yale bioethicist, told NPR.
They even had a plan in place in case signs of consciousness did emerge– which would have been to use anesthesia and cooling to shut it down immediately.
One of the chemicals pumped into the brain included lamotrigine, an anti-seizure drug that’s known to block or dampen neuronal activity.
“The researchers thought that brain cells might be better preserved and their function might be better restored if they were not active,” Latham explained.
But it’s not clear if the researchers would’ve seen activity linked to consciousness had that chemical not been present. When tests were done on single cells taken from the brains after the chemicals had been washed off, the individual cells were capable of electrochemical responses, which makes a brain conscious.
“That’s a very important question, and one that we have discussed at length,” one of the scientists, Stefano Daniele, said.
“We cannot speak with any scientific certainty to that point since we did not run those experiments.”
The team admitted the research project was a real “shot-in-the-dark” and had no idea if it could work and it will need to be replicated in other labs to see if it can hold up.
If they do, aside from the legal and ethical questions that will come, “people are going to recognize the potential of this research,” Farahany said.
“If, in fact, it is possible to restore cellular activity to brain tissue that we thought was irreversibly lost in the past, of course, people are going to want to apply this eventually in humans.”
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