A team of researchers led by Yale University neuroscientist Nenad Sestan have restored circulation to the brains of decapitated pigs and kept the reanimated organs alive for as long as 36 hours.
The feat offers scientists a new way to study intact brains in the lab in stunning detail. But it also inaugurates a bizarre new possibility in life extension, should human brains ever be kept on life support outside the body. There was no evidence that the disembodied pig brains regained consciousness. However, in what Sestan termed a “mind-boggling” and “unexpected” result, billions of individual cells in the brains were found to be healthy and capable of normal activity.
“These brains may be damaged, but if the cells are alive, it’s a living organ,” says Steve Hyman, director of psychiatric research at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who was among those briefed on the work. “It’s at the extreme of technical know-how, but not that different from preserving a kidney,” Hyman says the similarity to techniques for preserving organs like hearts or lungs for transplant could cause some to mistakenly view the technology as a way to avoid death. “It may come to the point that instead of people saying ‘Freeze my brain,’ they say ‘Hook me up and find me a body,’” says Hyman. Such hopes are misplaced, at least for now. Transplanting a brain into a new body “is not remotely possible,” according to Hyman.
Dubbed the “brain in a bucket,”, the process would quickly raise serious ethical and legal questions if it were tried on a human.
For instance, if a person’s brain were reanimated outside the body, would that person awake in what would amount to the ultimate sensory deprivation chamber, without ears, eyes, or a way to communicate? Would someone retain memories, an identity, or legal rights? Could researchers ethically dissect or dispose of such a brain?
In the journal Nature, 17 neuroscientists and bioethicists, including Sestan, published an editorial arguing that experiments on human brain tissue may require special protections and rules.