Researchers at Yale University restored circulation to a pig's brain that had been severed from its body.
The researchers were able to keep the reanimated brain alive for 36 hours. This will give scientists unprecedented ability to study intact brains in a lab situation, and could pave the way for new research into diseases such as Alzheimer's and cancer.
The work was described on March 28 at a meeting held at the National Institutes of Health to investigate ethical issues arising as US neuroscience centers explore the limits of brain science.
During the event, Yale University neuroscientist Nenad Sestan disclosed that a team he leads had experimented on between 100 and 200 pig brains obtained from a slaughterhouse, restoring their circulation using a system of pumps, heaters, and bags of artificial blood warmed to body temperature.
There was no evidence that the disembodied pig brains regained consciousness. However, in what Sestan termed a “mind-boggling” and “unexpected” result, billions of individual cells in the brains were found to be healthy and capable of normal activity.
There has been discussion around the Yale researchers because of their ability to restore micro-circulation through small blood vessels, including inside the brain.
I said the brain was kept "alive," but this introduces an interesting new question. What does it mean to be alive?
One of the most infamous examples of "what is alive" might be the Terri Schiavo case in the 90s. In February of 1990, Terri suffered cardiac arrest, but was revived with massive brain damage due to lack of oxygen. She was considered to be in a "persistent vegetative state" after a couple of months, and made no progress. What ensued was a court battle that dragged on for years, culminating with Terri's feeding tube being removed in 2005. Sure, by legal definition she was alive for those 15 years. But what value did her life have for her - and was she even "her" anymore?
What if reanimating a brain did cause regaining of consciousness? While there's no evidence that it occurred with the pigs, it's safe to assume that eventually technology will get us to the point that we're able to achieve this. Would it be the world's most intense sensory deprivation chamber? After all, you wouldn't have a sense of touch, nor a sense of smell, hearing, taste, or feel.
Certainly the reanimated brains wouldn't feel pain, right? After all, we need nociceptors to send a message to our spinal cord, then to our brain in order to tell us that something is hot, cold, sharp, etc. Or do we?
Pain is actually produced inside your brain. When you slice open your hand making avocado toast, your hand itself doesn't actually hurt. Nociceptors in your hand send a message to your brain (I assume the message is "Ya done screwed up"), then your brain creates the sensation of pain. So if you don't have a body, will your brain know to feel pain?
You'd have no way of communicating with the outside world. You'd have no way to tell the world that you were experiencing the most excruciating pain imaginable... Or would you?
Scientists have been able to use brain scans to look at what people are thinking about while they're dreaming... and otherwise unable to communicate with the outside world. The picture isn't completely clear, and there's a lot of room for improvement, but we can expect that the technology will improve incrementally as our understanding of the brain progresses.
If you had the opportunity, would you sign up to donate your brain for research like this after you die?