what pig brains kept alive in a machine are teaching us about cheating death

A new experiment on recently slaughtered pigs shows us that brains may be intact for a while after death, and we might have the technology to bring them back to life. Now what?

ghost in the shell movie
Illustration from Ghost In The Shell

When people talk about weird science, they often mean experiments and research that can only be described as Frankensteinian and has to be interspersed with phrases like “no, seriously, this is a real thing that happened” while being summarized. With that in mind, we have to talk about the BrainEx experiment in which deceased brains of pigs slaughtered for meat were temporarily reanimated outside of their bodies, as if the researchers involved read about Gilbert Harman’s philosophical thought experiment regarding a brain in a vat and decided to try it in real life. Then things got really weird because it turns out that brain tissue remains viable for reanimation a lot longer than previously thought possible, and there was a very real danger of potentially restoring the experimental pigs’ consciousness.

Obviously this is somewhat terrifying, but if you breathe deep and quiet the urge to scream, this work actually gives us some extremely interesting insight into brain function, and hints at really exciting possibilities for just how accurate comic book science was when it comes to preserving characters’ brains for further use as plot devices and raw material for supervillains. But before we go down that route, it may be useful to understand the experiment itself and what BrainEx technology does, as well as the obvious question of why it was created in the first place, then work our way up to the things we can learn with this spooky but incredible breakthrough.

how do you reanimate a dead brain?

The pig brains in question were obtained from a slaughterhouse shortly after the animals’ death and waited for four hours before being plugged into a system dubbed BrainEx. Its goal is to let scientists work on brain tissue to better understand the structure and inner workings of the brain, as well as experiment with potential treatments for neurodegenerative diseases and treatments for trauma to gauge their potential efficacy. To keep the organ from breaking down into mush, it pumps artificial blood carrying nutrients and oxygen to the cells through a series of computer controlled pumps. Any chemical or electrical activity in the reanimated brain would be detected by an array of sensors and recorded for further analysis.

And this is where things got weird. According to our current understanding, after ten minutes of inactivity, the brain is irreversibly dead and can never be alive again, so after four hours, all the researchers should’ve seen was damaged tissue that responded to the basics of existence and nothing more. But that’s not what they saw. After six hours of being hooked up to the BrainEx, the brains appeared largely intact, and while they weren’t communicating thanks to a chemical purposefully blocking signaling between neurons, there didn’t seem to be any reason why they couldn’t. It was a real enough possibility that the experiment had to be done with a kill switch and anesthetics on hand in case the neurons suddenly started firing and restored any degree of consciousness in the disembodied brain.

what could’ve happened if the brains became conscious?

Since consciousness is by definition largely subjective, it’s hard to know how it would’ve affected the pig brain in question. As rather intelligent animals, they could probably understand that what happened was extremely unnatural and terrifying, so the researchers could’ve seen something very similar to fear and panic rocketing across the brain. With no connections to the rest of the body, the brains couldn’t have seen, heard, or felt anything, so it’s virtually impossible for them to have been in pain. Of course there’s the larger question of the existential horror the brain in question could experience if it was intact enough, and the messy and complicated ethics of the experiment at that point.

On the one hand, this could be a radical lifeline for patients whose bodies are dying while their minds are unaffected, and worth studying. On the other, would this be torture of an animal we know is capable of sapient thought, and how could we possibly justify that? Could we try to do a similar experiment on a human volunteer who signed numerous waivers and donated his or her body to science expressly for this purpose? Would we understand enough about what’s going on to accurately describe what will happen and get truly informed consent? What review board would approve such an undertaking? Would science just shut the door on this line of research despite the many bizarre and fascinating possibilities it could open?

where can the science of reanimating brains go from here?

All of these aren’t just abstract questions that have no answers. We have technology that could allow a disembodied human brain to tell us what it’s feeling, literally. So, how far do we go to find out whether we can keep ourselves alive as nothing more than a lump of electrically active fat and salt? How long could we keep it alive in something like the orbs from Project Kronos? Can we hook them up to cameras, speakers, and machine bodies through an electrosensitive mesh able to link their minds to artificial neurons and create the ultimate astronaut, like the cyborgs I detailed in one of the first Sci-Fi Saturday stories. All of these amazing possibilities are now no longer completely out of the question if a brain can survive for a long time in a BrainEx-type of mechanism, especially if it can be made portable.

Naturally, the next step might be trying to see just how long a brain could be kept alive outside of the body after developing a protocol for making sure it won’t wake up. It can answer a lot of questions and still be within the scope of the original experiment’s goal to find out how durable of a test bed a reanimated brain would be for study. Everything that comes after that, however, is problematic and will take time and spirited debate about the science and ethics until research probing further could happen. Only after that will we know the full potential of this discovery and where it can lead. So, if you’re busy modifying your will to dispose of your body and get your brain plugged into a machine, hold your legal fire. There’s a lot more science to do.

See:  Vrselja, Z., et. al., (2019) Restoration of brain circulation and cellular functions hours post-mortem, Nature, Vol. 568, 336–343, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-019-1099-1

# science // brain / brain-machine interfaces / death / scientific research


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