Scientists Revive Metabolic Function In Brain Cells Taken From Dead Pigs

Standard tissue culture and immunofluorescenceGerryShaw / CC-BY-3.0 / Flickr

“How do we now think about this middle category of ‘partly alive’? We didn’t think it could exist.” -Nita A. Farahany

According to The New York Times, a new study at Yale University has restored some cellular activity into removed brains of dead pigs. There were no signs of higher functioning in the brain and no consciousness was restored, yet blood vessels in the brains began to function and some brain cells regained metabolic activity. There was even electrical activity in neurons.

Although the work as no immediate implications for human treatment, the new study undermines conventional scientific opinion that the brain cannot be recoverable after death.

“We had clear lines between ‘this is alive’ and ‘this is dead,’” said Nita A. Farahany, a bioethicist and law professor at Duke University. “How do we now think about this middle category of ‘partly alive’? We didn’t think it could exist.”

Doctors have often wondered if it is possible for a person with extensive brain damage to be restored. This study may mean that some of these brains can be salvaged. The study also confirms how little we know about brain death.

“This is wild,” said Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania. “If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one.”

Before the study, it was assumed that once the blood supply is cut off, the brain quickly declines and cells deteriorate. These changes were seen to be irreversible unless blood is rapidly restored.

Researchers at Yale removed the brains from 32 pigs, leaving the brains without blood and at room temperature for four hours. The team used a system called BrainEx to supply the brain with an experimental solution. The researchers hope that the technology will pave the way for treatment for strokes, brain injuries, and diseases like Alzheimers.

The solution was pumped into the brains for six hours, bringing oxygen to the tissue and contained chemicals that allowed scientists to use an ultrasound to track their progress.

“It is not a living brain, but it is a cellularly active brain,” Dr. Nenad Sestan, a Yale neuroscientist who led the research said of the revived tissue. “We wanted to test whether cells in the intact dead brain can have some functions restored.”

“This is a real advance,” said Andrea Beckel-Mitchener, the leader of brain research efforts at the N.I.H. “This has never been done before in a large intact mammalian brain.”

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