Neuroscientists Kept Pig Brains Alive With No Body Parts

  • Neuroscientists have developed a technique to keep pig’s brain alive without body for up to 36 hours. 
  • The technique, named BrainEx, involves attaching a brain to tubes that circulate artificial blood throughout the vessels of the brain.
  • It provides a new way to investigate intact brains in detail.

A team of neuroscientists at Yale University has developed a method to preserve pig brain’s tissue for a significant amount of time after decapitation. They claimed that these brains weren’t conscious, but it has raised several ethical issues.

They experimented with almost 200 big brains and restored their circulation using artificial blood, pumps and heaters. This technique, named BrainEx, was able to keep the reanimated organs alive for 36 hours.

The study was elaborated at the National Institute of Health on 28th March, which arose the limits of exploring brain science. The technique provides a new way to investigate intact brains in detail. Also, it initiates fascinating new possibilities of extending human life – will we ever able to keep human brains alive on artificial system outside the body?

Project BrainEx

The technique involves attaching a brain to tubes (of closed loop) that circulate artificial blood (heated to normal body temperature) throughout the vessels of the brain. This enables oxygen to flow deep in the brain cells.

It’s quite analogous to the other techniques of preserving organs like lungs and hearts for transplants. However, when it comes to operating brain, things aren’t that easy.

Lateral view of a pig’s brain | Image credit: anatomie-amsterdam.nl

Scientists are confident that during experiment, animal brains weren’t aware of anything (confirmed via EEG – electrodes attached on the surface of the brain). They also believe this technique is not limited to pigs, it would likely work on other species too, including primates.

Reference: Nature | TechnologyReview

The ultimate goal is to construct a detailed map of interconnections among human brain cells, which can provide much more efficient models to study brain cancer and Alzheimer’s.

The scientists didn’t provide any further details; they’re waiting for their paper to be published in a peer review journal. Apparently, since early 2017, a growing community of bioethicists and neuroscientists have been speculating on this research.

This Could Redefine The Definition Of Death

Although, pig brains may be impaired, it is a living organ if the cells are alive. In the experiment, scientists observed that billions of individual cells (pig brain cells) were healthy and operating normally.

But don’t get your hopes high; the technology cannot be seen as a path to avoid death. Brain transplant is still not possible, at least for now.

It’s possible to keep the brain alive indefinitely, and one could even attempt to restore conciseness, but the team didn’t attempt either because this is uncharted field.

Read: Measuring Brain’s Electrical Activity Using Fluorescent Sensor

One question that remains unanswered is, what if human brains treated the same way? Would it be considered ‘dead’ or ‘alive’? If a human brain was reanimated outside the body, would that person awake? How long someone can survive in an artificial chamber without eyes, ears and mouth? Would that person retain an identity or memories? There are going to be plenty of bizarre questions.

Written by
Varun Kumar

Varun Kumar is an experienced science and technology journalist interested in machines, AI, and space exploration. He received a Master's degree in computer science from Indraprastha University. To find out what his latest project is, feel free to directly email him at [email protected] 

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