Biology

Brain function partially restored in pigs – four hours after death

Brain function partially resto...
Researchers have managed to restore some brain function in pigs as long as four hours after death
Researchers have managed to restore some brain function in pigs as long as four hours after death
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Neurons (green), astrocytes (red), and cell nuclei (blue), as seen in the hippocampal region of the pig brain. The image on the left is a control brain, which was left untreated for 10 hours after death. The image on the right is from a brain treated with the BrainEx system, reducing cell death and even restoring some brain functions for 10 hours after death
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Neurons (green), astrocytes (red), and cell nuclei (blue), as seen in the hippocampal region of the pig brain. The image on the left is a control brain, which was left untreated for 10 hours after death. The image on the right is from a brain treated with the BrainEx system, reducing cell death and even restoring some brain functions for 10 hours after death
Researchers have managed to restore some brain function in pigs as long as four hours after death
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Researchers have managed to restore some brain function in pigs as long as four hours after death

In a breakthrough study, researchers have managed to restore some brain function in pigs as long as four hours after death. Using a system that pumps preserving chemicals through the brain's circulatory system, the team not only staved off cell death but actually restored some functions like synaptic activity. The astounding discovery raises some ethical questions and may spark new debate about the very definition of death.

The general consensus holds that when the brain is deprived of oxygen, neurons die within minutes. But the researchers reported that they managed to reduce cell death even several hours postmortem, as well as restore certain cellular functions. The tissue responded to drugs given to provoke a response, some metabolic processes returned and synapses even began to spontaneously fire again.

It's important to note that the team didn't observe the kind of global brain activity that would constitute consciousness or awareness, but chillingly, the researchers did actually prepare for that possibility.

"In the event that this were to occur, we were ready to swiftly implement countermeasures, including, but not limited to, reducing the temperature of the brain in order to diminish metabolic activity, and/or administering general anaesthetic agents," the researchers write.

The technology behind this incredible feat is a system called BrainEx, which pumps a specially-designed fluid through the brain's circulatory system at body temperature. The team tested it out on the brains of 32 pigs, which were sourced from food-processing facilities that would normally discard them. These brains were removed from the skulls and hooked up to the BrainEx system four hours after death. They managed to keep the system running for six hours at a time, so 10 hours after death.

While it sounds like the kind of headline that might flash up during the opening montage of a zombie movie, the researchers aren't exactly trying to bring the dead back to life. Their focus is more about helping brains recover after traumatic injuries such as strokes, or preserving dead brains for longer so scientists can study them more accurately.

"This line of research could lead to a whole new way of studying the postmortem brain," says Andrea Beckel-Mitchener, Ph.D., BRAIN Initiative Team Lead at the National Institute of Mental Health. "The new technology opens up opportunities to examine complex cell and circuit connections and functions that are lost when specimens are preserved in other ways. It also could stimulate research to develop interventions that promote brain recovery after loss of brain blood flow, such as during a heart attack."

But of course, it does raise some new questions that aren't easy to answer. Declaring a person legally dead is already a complex problem, but this new finding could complicate it even further. If resuscitating a brain feels closer – even if it still isn't viable – then people might be more reluctant to let go of loved ones on life support. That in turn could reduce a major source of organ donations for transplants, straining a situation that's already under pressure.

The main takeaway from the study is that the brain may be more resilient to damage than previously thought. It's a fascinating area of research that will no doubt continue to push the boundaries of what separates life and death.

The study was published in the journal Nature.

Sources: Yale University, National Institute of Health

5 comments
guzmanchinky
My mother is a retired trauma surgeon. She always said "I can fix just about anything if you get them to me in time. Except the brain." And as far as organ transplants, we should be growing those with stem cells soon.
Pupp1
Regarding individuals declared "brain dead", there certainly have been many who "woke up" after being declared brain dead by several doctors, and after EEG test. One wonders how many have been killed by having their organs removed for transplant.
guywb
So, now they qualify as Career Politicians??
Jose Gros
I won't blame no one for making experiments with pig brains, or any part of animals, as long a cruelty, deliberate pain, is not involved. For sure, doing same with human brains sounds as terror, and not to be started, but the issue may be something that can be done at low cost and with little equipment in a room of your house is difficult to control, the situation may be similar to CRISPR.
Ralf Biernacki
So that's how it starts. . . The Night of the Oinking Dead is coming. Brrrains!