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Pig brains partially revived four hours after death

“Frankenstein” scientists in the US have managed to partially revive pig brains four hours after the animals were slaughtered.

“Frankenstein” scientists in the US have managed to partially revive pig brains four hours after the animals were slaughtered.

The re-vitalised organs were said to be “cellularly active” – although there was no evidence that suggested awareness or consciousness.

Experts say it raises some “fascinating questions” about the potential to discover new treatments for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s and could lead to debate about the definition of death.

Lead scientist Professor Nenad Sestan, from Yale University, said: “The intact brain of a large mammal retains a previously under-appreciated capacity for restoration of circulation and certain molecular and cellular activities multiple hours after circulatory arrest.”

It was previously thought that, once the blood supply to the brain was cut off, it would mean irreversible damage within minutes, but this new study now questions that theory.

The revived activity included some synaptic function, the transmission of signals between neurons. File:pic
Image: The revived activity included some synaptic function, the transmission of signals between neurons. File:pic

The ground-breaking experiment, using 32 pig brains obtained from a meat-packing plant, involved circulating a specially designed “chemical blood” preservative through them for six hours.

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During this period, the scientists noticed a reduction in cell death and the restored functionality of certain nerve, blood vessel and glial cells – which are important brain “support cells.”

The revived activity even included some synaptic function, the transmission of signals between neurons.

Details of the study are published in the latest issue of Nature journal.

Co-author Dr Zvonimir Vrselja, also from Yale, said: “At no point did we observe the kind of organised electrical activity associated with perception, awareness, or consciousness.

While there was no evidence of re-awakening awareness or consciousness, the re-vitalised organs were said to be "cellularly active" in the animals
Image: The re-vitalised organs were said to be ‘cellularly active’. File pic

“Clinically defined, this is not a living brain, but it is a cellularly active brain.”

Scientists say the study could help doctors discover ways to save brain function in stroke patients, or those involved in accidents.

Andrea Beckel-Mitchener, from the US National Institute of Mental Health, which co-funded the research, said it “could lead to a whole new way of studying the post-mortem human brain.”

But the team stressed any future studies involving human tissue or the possible revival of global electrical activity in “dead” animal brains would have to undergo strict ethical supervision.

And it was unclear if the technique would work in a recently deceased human brain.

The chemical solution lacked many components found naturally in human blood, such as immune system cells.

Dr Stephen Latham, director of Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics, said: “Restoration of consciousness was never a goal of this research.

“The researchers were prepared to intervene with the use of anaesthetics and temperature-reduction to stop organised global electrical activity if it were to emerge.

“Everyone agreed in advance that experiments involving revived global activity couldn’t go forward without clear ethical standards and institutional oversight mechanisms.”

In Mary Shelley’s famous novel, Dr Frankenstein creates a monster from dead body parts.

Professor Derek Hill, from University College London, questions whether the experiment was somehow “a chance finding, or can it be reliably replicated?

“And what are the ethical implications for the way we treat animals after slaughter, and humans after accidents?

“This ingenious experimental work provides challenges and opportunities both to brain scientists and for science policy makers.”

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