Researchers from Yale have succeeded in keeping pig brains alive, which were separated from their bodies for a period of 36 hours, in an experiment that could redefine death as we know it.
This incredible announcement raises both concerns and ethical questions – if the same thing could be done with humans, the technology could potentially open up new possibilities for prolonging life. The Yale researchers explain that they have in fact found a way of conserving brain functioning in pig brains that had been separated from their bodies. The experiment involved around 200 animals condemned to slaughter. The brains were kept “alive” for 36 hours.
Using an artificial blood system, heaters and pumps, the team claim to have be able to re-establish blood circulation in the brains of pigs that had been decapitated around four hours earlier. The researchers however were not able to determine whether the brains were still “conscious” after being separated from the bodies. EEG scans showed that the brains produced a flat cerebral wave, similar to that which is produced by an unresponsive comatose brain. On the other hand, the researchers noted that thousands of brain cells were still intact, and capable of normal activity. They also noted that the technique is likely to function in all species, including primates. “It is probably not specific to pigs”, can be read.
These works were presented on the 28th March 2018 during a meeting held by the National Institutes of Health, who aim to investigate the ethical questions raised by American neuroscience centres exploring the limits of neurological science. Their conclusions, which are still unclear, are currently under peer-review prior to potential scientific publication. The team leader, Nenad Sestan, has however already been in talks with the American authorities regarding the ethical implications of extending their research to include human brains. Researchers want to create a full “map” of all the brain connections between the human brain cells.
It is well known that a comatose brain can be kept alive for decades, if not longer. What has been less well explored, however, are artificial ways of keeping a brain alive when it has been completely separated from the body. There have been previous attempts, including a 1993 report on rats, but these were the first such experiments carried out on large mammals.