Brain breakthrough: Decapitated pigs could hold the key to saving lives

Three-week-old pigs in Walcott Iowa

Three-week-old pigs in Walcott Iowa

We found no evidence that these brains have any activity which is associated with perception or consciousness. The findings challenge long-known understandings about timing and the irreversible nature of brains' cessation of function after death. In spite of the fact that the present examination was done in pigs and not people, the brain of a pig is bigger and increasingly human-like in comparison to the brains of rodents.

"This would be unique: inducing consciousness in an organ that's not connected to any living being". The paper reports observations of spontaneous synaptic activity, metabolism, and reduced cell death in the pig brains, but global brain activity was absent.

By the time the experiment started, the brains had been without blood and at room temperature for four hours. "This is not a living brain, it is a cellularly active brain".

Researchers found working synapses - connections between brain cells - and a normal response to drugs.

Grady noted that the experiment did not show resurgence of normal brain function.

To prove that their system worked, the team carried out the experiment on around 300 freshly severed heads of pigs from a food processing plant around New Haven, Connecticut over a period of months. Cut off from oxygen and a blood supply, the brain's electrical activity and signs of awareness disappear within seconds, while energy stores are depleted within minutes.

"By doing this, we can possibly come up with better therapies for stroke and other disorders that cause cells in the brain to die", Sestan said.

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"This line of research could lead to a whole new way of studying the postmortem brain", explained Andrea Beckel-Mitchener, Ph.D., BRAIN Initiative Team Lead at the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health, which co-funded the research.

Dominic Wilkinson, professor of medical ethics at the University of Oxford, said that the study could have vital implications for future brain research. "We did not know that brain cells were this resilient, and under the right conditions - such as what's been shown here with BrainEx - that the cells could maintain some healthy function hours after loss of blood flow". When the researchers tested slices of treated brain tissue, they discovered electrical activity in some neurons.

The scientists stress that the brains do not show any signs of consciousness - for example, there was no sign that different parts of the brain were sending signals to each other - and that it does not change the definition of death.

The brain is a highly sensitive organ.

Ethicists, writing in Nature, said new guidelines were needed for this field because animals used for research could end up in a "grey area - not alive, but not completely dead".

The system can help researchers perform specific techniques to study the structure and function of a large and intact mammalian brain.

However, the researchers say it is still far too early for the field to make a difference to patients after injury.

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The researchers said it was not clear if the circulating BrainEx fluid was helping to patch up molecular and cellular damage that had already begun, or whether it was simply slowing down such processes, postponing cell death.

But it's now unclear if the technique would work on a recently dead person, the U.S. researchers said. "The human person that they were, has gone forever". Restoring consciousness was not a goal of the study, which was aimed instead at exploring whether particular functions might be restored long after death.

But that is not now the case.

Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, who didn't participate in the study, said he was surprised by the results, especially since they were achieved in a large animal.

"It is instead a temporary preservation of some of the more basic cell functions in the pig brain, not the preservation of thought and personality".

The study does not imply a complete awareness in the brain, or any form of awakening at all.

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