Under the Hood

Pigs' Brain Cells Kept Alive After Slaughter For Experiment, Stirring Ethical Debate

How would you react to the idea of your brain being preserved and reanimated after your death? No, this is not the summary of a Black Mirror episode but an actual experiment involving pigs conducted by scientists at Yale University.

The experiment was first described at a meeting held at the U.S. National Institutes of Health on March 28 to investigate the rise of new ethical issues alongside the advancement of neuroscience. It was reported by the MIT Technology Review on April 25.

The experiment

As a part of the discussion, neuroscientist Nenad Sestan from Yale University explained that he and his team of researchers had experimented on the brains of 100 to 200 slaughtered pigs, eventually succeeding in keeping the brains alive outside of the body for up to 36 hours. 

The brains of decapitated pigs were "resurrected" by circulating an oxygen-rich fluid which helped carry oxygen to the brain stem, the cerebellar artery and through small vessels deep inside the brain. The researchers soon found that billions of individual cells in the brains were "alive" i.e. healthy and capable of activity.

Ethical questions

No evidence was found to suggest that the brains were conscious. "The brain is not conscious. It's not a pig brain in a vat wondering where it is," explained Stephen Latham, director of the Yale Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. "It isn't the sort of sci-fi thing where you wake up and think 'I can’t see anything or feel anything.'"

Yet, ethicists have taken to criticizing and expressing doubts about what the experiment could mean if ever improved and performed on human beings. It may as well be "a fate worse than death," according to ethics and philosophy lecturer Benjamin Curtis from Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom. "In the best case scenario, you would be spending your life with only your own thoughts for company."

Other experts discussed how researchers can draw the line with regards to such advancement in "The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue" which was published in the journal Nature on April 25.

Though it raised ethical questions, the experiment was considered to be an "incredibly important work" by lead author Nita Farahany, an associate professor at the Duke University School of Law. She also criticized the MIT Technology Review for publishing details about the experiment which were not meant to go public yet. 

Future of medicine

The question arises: What could this mean for medical research?

The researchers hope this could help study how the brain works and experiment various treatments for diseases such as cancer or dementia. Frances Edwards, professor of neurodegeneration at University College London, believed that the technique could be useful for "studying connections between cells" and possibly "working out the network interactions in a large brain."

She added that this kind of experiment would be almost impossible to conduct on human brains as researchers cannot control when and how a person dies unlike they were able to do in this case with pigs from a slaughterhouse.

As proposed by Farahany, it is recommended that the medical community and the public wait for the published paper on the experiment in order to form informed opinions and understand the possibilities on a deeper level.