Scientists Partly Revive Brains from Slaughtered Pigs
“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.”
Scientists from Yale University revived brain cell activity in dead pigs just a few hours after they died. The scientists conducted their research on 32 pig heads they obtained from a local pork processing center.
The research team found that the brains did not regain electrical activity normally associated with awareness or consciousness. The team did find, however, that a significant amount of cellular activity was restored or preserved.
The findings of the research were published Wednesday in Nature, an international science publication. The National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) BRAIN Initiative, a program founded in 2013 to assist with neuroscience research, funded the work.
Research Reveals Measure of Resilience in Dead Brain Cells
The brain, both human and animal, quickly begins to shut down when its blood and oxygen supply is cut off. Dr. Nenad Sestan, leader of the research and a professor of neuroscience at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, Connecticut, said that scientists have known for a while that even hours after someone’s death, viable cells can be removed from the brain.
Although the cells can be studied in a lab dish, scientists wondered whether it were possible to study them while still intact with the brain.
According to Sestan, when studying the cells in a lab dish “the problem is, once you do that, you are losing the 3D organization of the brain.”
During the past six years, scientists have developed a method to study brain cells that are still intact. They tested their techniques on 300 pig heads from a local slaughterhouse. Once the researchers finalized their technology called BrainEx, they conducted their study on 32 pig heads.
One of the team members, Stefano Daniele, told multiple sources: “This really was a shot-in-the-dark project. We had no preconceived notion of whether or not this could work.”
After the pigs had been dead for four hours, the team pumped an experimental solution using their BrainEx technology into the brains, letting it circulate for six hours. This flushed out remaining blood, cooled down the tissue and brought oxygen back to the tissue. The solution contained chemicals that allowed the researchers to track the flow using ultrasound.
“It is not a living brain, but it is a cellularly active brain,” said Sestan. “We wanted to test whether cells in the intact dead brain can have some functions restored.”
The tests concluded that individual cells were capable of “electrochemical responses.”
Andrea Beckel-Mitchener, leader of brain research at the NIH, publicly stated, “This is a real advance. This has never been done before in a large intact mammalian brain.”
Reviving Dead Pigs’ Brain Cells Could Be Unethical and Complicate Organ Retrieval for Transplants
Some people argue that the research could be unethical, causing unnecessary suffering to the pigs’ brains. Stephen R. Latham, a bioethicist at Yale, asked how ethicists could determine whether the possible suffering the research could cause to a “partly alive” brain could be justified. Latham stated publicly, “This is brand-new. This is not animal research. The brain comes to researchers from a dead animal.”
“We had clear lines between ‘this is alive’ and ‘this is dead,’” Nita A. Farahany, a bioethicist and law professor at Duke University, told multiple sources. “How do we now think about this middle category of ‘partly alive’? We didn’t think it could exist.”
“If it’s a dead animal, it’s not subject to any research protections because you wouldn’t expect that it would suffer from any pain or distress or need to be thought about in terms of humane care,” Farahany said. She asked whether the brain could be revived, even partially, and if so, “what do we need to do immediately, today, in order to ensure that there’s adequate protections in place for animal research subjects?”
In addition, some people worry this type of research could make securing organs for transplant from people who are declared brain-dead more difficult.
Case Western Reserve University bioethicists Stuart Youngner and Insoo Hyun wrote in a commentary that if those who are brain-dead could receive attempts at brain resuscitation, “it could become harder for physicians or family members to be convinced that further medical intervention is futile.”
Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, said, “This is wild. If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one.”
Research on Dead Pigs’ Brain Cells Opens the Possibility of Future Brain Resuscitation
The scientists hope the research will lead the way to treating diseases such as Alzheimer’s, as well as traumatic brain injuries and strokes.
Chief of bioethics at the NIH’s clinical center, Christine Grady, said that the work “allows researchers to map cells and connections between them in ways that were never before possible” and “presents for the first time an opportunity to study the whole mammal brain outside the body after death.” Grady is hopeful this technique could expand the scope of study of cellular repair, brain injury and how drugs can affect the brain.
“Immediately, people are going to recognize the potential of this research. 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,” Farahany said.