Ethical concerns need to be addressed in reviving the ‘brain-dead’

This combination of images provided by the Yale School of Medicine in April 2019 shows stained microscope photos of neurons, green; astrocytes, red, and cell nuclei, blue, from a pig brain left untreated for 10 hours after death, left, and another with a specially designed blood substitute pumped through it. By medical standards “this is not a living brain,” said Nenad Sestan of the Yale School of Medicine, one of the researchers reporting the results Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in the journal Nature. But the work revealed a surprising degree of resilience within a brain that has lost its supply of blood and oxygen, he said. (Stefano G. Daniele, Zvonimir Vrselja/Sestan Laboratory/Yale School of Medicine)

Over the past few weeks, in a story that sounds like something out of a Mary Shelley novel, scientists were able to restore signs of life in postmortem brains. These, of course, were pig brains and not human brains, and there was no sign of consciousness within them, but nonetheless this is a pretty wild story. Even more crazy are the implications that this kind of scientific advancement could have for the future of medical research, and how it fundamentally changes what we thought we knew about neuroscience.

The results of this study were first published in the scientific magazine “Nature” a few weeks ago on April 17. Since then, the scientists at Yale who conducted the research have been making headlines across the world, as they were the first to ever have any sort of success in “restoring life” to something previously thought to be dead. To complete the study, researchers acquired approximately 300 pig heads that had been decapitated from pigs killed in a food processing plant. The researchers then removed the brains from these heads (only using around 30 in total) and hooked them up to a system that would artificially recreate oxygen and nutrient flow through the brains using a solution designed by the scientists. The brains were hooked up to these systems for a total of six hours, during which time they showed activity similar to that of living brains.

No, this does not mean that the brains showed all of the activity of conscious brains with huge areas of activation. Rather, the brains took in oxygen and sugar and expelled carbon dioxide. Additionally, some of the areas of the brains that were attached to the artificial solution showed cells that looked healthy and functional. Comparatively, brains that were not privy to the nutrient solution began breaking down, as is expected in a deceased animal’s brain.

So what does this mean? Should we be worried now about the possibility of bringing people back from the dead, or restoring their brains in healthy bodies? Well, the science is not quite there yet. To be clear, this Frankenstein-esque experiment did not fully bring the pig brains back to life. The brains showed no activity that resembled consciousness, and although individual neurons could still fire, the pigs were essentially brain-dead. According to Yale University ethicist Stephen Latham, “The pigs were brain-dead when their brains came in the door, and by the end of the experiment, they were still brain-dead”.

However, this experiment still opens up a huge ethical question: Is it possible to recreate consciousness? And if so, do we want to? As something that has only been seen in books and movies, it is hard to say what the consequences of restoring consciousness in a previously deceased human or animal would be. If this is accomplished, it would not only be the first study of its kind, but there would also be no oversight committee or governing body to make sure it is done ethically. After all, once these animals regain consciousness, will they have memories? Will they feel pain in a typical fashion? The answers to these questions currently remain unknown, but if we plan to explore what regaining consciousness would mean in postmortem brains, they are questions that will need to be addressed.

To any science-fiction or horror fan, the thought of bringing people or animals back from the dead always seemed like a cool plot gimmick. However, with the improvements of technology and increasingly brilliant minds like the ones on this research team at Yale, this fiction seems like it is increasingly becoming a reality. While it may seem exhilarating to restore life to a creature previously thought dead, the impending God-complex that may accompany this will need a means of control. Thus, while research into this field is shiny and new, more planning with regards to the ethical implications of this type of project needs to be done before further research can continue. So far, Yale has made all of the right moves on this part. Hopefully, others will follow suit in their exploration of animal consciousness.


Emma Hungaski is the associate opinion editor  for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at emma.hungaski@uconn.edu.