There is an old saying which goes, ‘nothing in this world is certain, except death and taxes’, but it turns out that death is not so certain anymore. According to an article that appeared in the highly reliable Nature journal, scientists from Yale University have managed to restore some function in the brains of pigs that had been dead for hours.
The Yale School of Medicine researchers restored some cellular function in pig brains from animals killed at an abattoir hours earlier. Over six-hours, synthetic fluids designed to stop cellular degeneration and restore cellular functioning was injected into pigs’ brains.
Yale neuroscientist Nenad Sestand and his team experimented on more than 100 pigs brains. The team used the fluids and also restored circulation using a system of pumps, heaters and bags of artificial blood warmed to body temperature.
The brains did not regain consciousness but billions of cells in the brain were found to be healthy and capable of ‘normal’ activity. The brains even consumed oxygen and glucose. Many brain cells, including neurons, which send messages within the brain and to the rest of the body, came back to life!
Research psychiatrist Steve Hyman says the brains may be damaged but if the cells are alive, then the brain is again a living organ.
What does this mean?
International philosophers and ethicists are now wondering if this experiment blurs the line between life and death.
You might be wondering why the scientists were even doing the experiment. Remember there are many dreadful diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and dementia, which cause the brains of even very young people to start decaying so it’s important we learn how to repair brains.
The Yale researchers have been working on this technique for four years because they want to create a comprehensive map of all connections between brain cells. They need to enhance their understanding of brain cells.
Who funded this research?
The American National Institute of Health helped fund the research on pig’s brains as part of the BRAIN Initiative. This is a major project started by President Obama. The brain is still the most mysterious organ. How do we explain thought?
Animal rights activists protested against the experiment. The Yale researchers explained that they did not use live animals. The brains came from an abattoir and the pigs were completely dead. The brains were drained of blood and removed from the skull.
The experiment also used a chemical that stopped overall brain activity. The scientists say they made sure the brain cells were never ‘stressed’. This blocker also meant the pig’s brain would have no risk of ‘awareness’. The researchers also monitored the brains for electrical activity indicating ‘mental operations’ and were prepared to chill the brains and apply an aesthetic if they saw this. They did not.
The brain produced a flat brain wave equivalent to a brain in a comatose state, but the scientists said the brain tissue looked great and once dissected the cells produced normal-seeming patterns.
The big question …
The big question now is can scientists restore electrical activity to ‘dead brains’ removed from bodies?
It is a horrible thought to think that scientists may one day have the power to remove your brain from your body and ‘re-awake’ it. If your brain was reanimated outside your body, you would be awake in space without any sensory feeling – no sense of touch, no sound or smells and no way to be able to communicate. That sound to me like being trapped in a nightmare.
Can we bring people back from the dead?
This experiment has raised many ethical questions. If the brain is deprived of oxygen (something like a heart attack or drowning) brain cells quickly degrade resulting in brain death. But does this experiment mean that brain death might one day be reversible? Will we one day be able to bring people back from death? Is it worth having your body frozen so you can be revived in the future when the technology has been mastered? The scientists can’t say for sure, but none of this will happen any time in the near future.
Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy, who wrote for Nature on the ethical implications of the research, says this experiment is a huge breakthrough.
“We’ve built our assumptions on something that’s proven to be false,” she told The Washington Post. “Our belief was there’s a point of no return. Certainly we would have believed that four hours after being dead, that was a point of no return. It turns out it’s not.”
Stuart Youngner, a professor of bioethics and psychiatry and co-author of the ethics commentaries in Nature said the experiment has challenged assumptions about the fragility of the brain. “It appears from this study that the brain is not as fragile as we thought it was,” he said.
Where does this lead us?
Will brain transplants one day be possible?
“This is certainly not about to happen,” said Prof Youngner. “But this study brings up possibilities that we didn’t think about before except in the wildest sci-fi imagination. This is a breakthrough in understanding preservation of the brain.”
Think about how our definition of death has been changing throughout time. 100 years ago we thought someone was dead if they weren’t breathing. There were some techniques to help people again breathe in the 18th century, both in Japan and in Europe, however it was not until the mid-20th century that doctors James Elam and Petr Safar discovered and published the method now known as Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation to bring people back if they are not breathing (provided their brains aren’t dead).
How do you feel about this?
How do you feel about being able to revive the brain dead? Are we playing God or are we obliged to save the people whose brain cells have been damaged by drowning or heart attacks?
I know one thing, I hate the idea of being frozen and then bought back to life in 100 years. I would not recognise the world. I think we should spend our energy living, enjoying the life we have now, not obsessing about living forever. We should live a good life and love our friends and family. Let’s focus on living today and not dream about a crazy sci-fi future when brains go on and on. I don’t know about you, but I’m looking forward to meeting my maker one day … and that won’t happen on this earth.
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ABOUT PAT MESITI
Pat Mesiti is a best-selling author, coach and educator in the area of personal development. Having built some of Australia’s largest people-driven organisations, Pat understands the power of harnessing human potential. He has shared the stage with some of the world’s great business minds and has sold over millions of copies of his books and materials.