Scientists at Yale University have challenged the idea that the brain goes into “irreversible decline” after death by partially reviving pig brains after the animals have died. The BBC reports that the study may provide new ways of studying Alzheimer’s disease, as well as spark a whole new debate about what it means to be dead.
The brains of 32 pigs were gathered from an abattoir, and were connected to a system four hours after they had died. A special liquid containing a synthetic blood was pumped around each brain, and the brains were also offered restorative substances for six hours.
The findings showed a little brain activity after the experiment, with some reduction in brain cell decline — and even the restoration of some blood vessels. The researchers also found evidence of synapses — an internal junction which connects two nerve cells — being fired.
While there was no “brain-wide electrical activity” shown in an electroencephalogram (EEG), the brains did show some response to medication, and used the same amount of oxygen as a brain housed by a living organism.
Nenad Sestan, a professor of neuroscience at Yale, says that this may show that “cell death in the brain occurs across a longer time window that [sic] we previously thought.” Sestan would go on to elaborate upon this statement, saying that the process of cell death may even be “postponed, preserved or even reversed.”
One of the biggest benefits of the experiment could be a change in how the brains of Alzheimer’s sufferers are studied. This research on pig brains may lead to finding better ways to protect the human brain after traumatic events, such as a stroke.
Dr. Andrea Beckel-Mitchener — from the BRAIN Initiative of the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health — says that these findings could “stimulate research to develop interventions that promote brain recovery after loss of brain blood flow.” Beckel-Mitchener went on to suggest that this research could also lead to a new way of studying the “post-mortem brain.”
However, there may be further concerns regarding whether or not the pig’s brains might have been conscious during the experiment. To prevent any chance of the pigs becoming conscious during the experiment, scientists administered drugs to the brains to reduce brain activity.
At this stage, it’s too early for the research to have any effect on patients who have suffered brain injuries. Professor Sestan said that there was no way to know whether scientists would be able to “restore normal brain function” in the future..