For the first time, scientists were able to keep the brains of pigs alive after the animals had been decapitated. The team managed to reanimate the organs by restoring circulation. In doing so, they showed that billions of individual cells were still healthy and capable of normal activity for up to 36 hours.
The work was described on March 28 at a meeting held at the National Institutes of Health. The scope of the meeting was to look into the ethical issues connected to the latest advancements in brain science, and it's likely this work alone raises enough questions to keep ethical committees busy for a while. The work has been submitted for publication and was reported on by the MIT Technological Review.
Neuroscientist Nenad Sestan of Yale University spearheaded the work. At the meeting, he explained that they obtained between 100 and 200 pig brains from a slaughterhouse and used pumps, heaters, and artificial blood to restore oxygen supply.
Sestan reports that there is no evidence of regained consciousness or electrical activity in the animals. That could be an irreversible condition of death or perhaps altered in a better experiment. His team didn’t attempt to reintroduce electrical activity. What the team witnessed is a significant fraction of cells behaving normally as if nothing had happened. The system is called BrainEx and the team believe the approach could be applied to many different species, not just pigs.
The straightforward application of this research is the ability to study the brain in a new way. It could lead to a significant improvement in our understanding of the connections between different regions of the brain. However, once the work is published, more will probably be revealed about what can be achieved with this technique.
The presentation has obviously caused a huge stir. There is an important ethical discussion to be had about this technique. Is a brain that's functioning post-mortem just another organ or not? And there are many questions about applications beyond pigs. Could it be used in medicine, for example? The discovery shines a light on the ethical considerations necessary for cutting-edge brain research.
Brain research ethics is also the subject of an editorial published in Nature today. Sestan is among the signatories of the letter that discusses the new technologies being employed to study the human brain and how there are difficult questions that will need to be answered as these approaches get closer to mimicking a functioning human brain.
[H/T: MIT Technological Review]