A team of scientists have recently revealed they are able to keep the brain of a pig alive outside of its body for 36 hours after it has been decapitated.
Researcher Nenad Sestan, who led the group of Yale University scientists, discussed the findings at a recent National Institutes of Health conference centered on brain research.
Though the heads were no longer attached to the bodies, Sestan and his team were able to keep the brains alive by connecting them to a closed-loop system known as "BrainEX," which pumps body-temperature artificial blood to the necessary parts of the brain to keep it alive.
Sestan declined to comment further on the findings when reached by MIT Technology Review, but the findings are significant, with Sestan calling them "mind-boggling" and unexpected, since individual brain cells were found to be capable of normal activity, even if the decapitated pigs never regained consciousness.
“These brains may be damaged, but if the cells are alive, it’s a living organ,” Steve Hyman, director of psychiatric research at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, told Technology Review in an interview. “It’s at the extreme of technical know-how, but not that different from preserving a kidney.”
The research has implications not only for how scientists understand the human brain, but could change the way we perceive death, consciousness and other things associated with thought.
In the NIH presentation, Sestan said the technique was likely to work in any species, including primates. “This is probably not unique to pigs,” he added.
Before it gets to that stage though, ethics need to be considered, which Sestan and his team expressed concerns over.
Some experts have speculated deceased humans who are disembodied could be used to test new and speculative cancer and Alzheimer drugs that have been deemed too dangerous to try on a living being.
“There are going to be a lot of weird questions even if it isn’t a brain in a box,” said an advisor to the NIH who didn’t wish to speak on the record. “I think a lot of people are going to start going to slaughterhouses to get heads and figure it out.”
Nonetheless, Sestan is anxious to see how the technology is received by both others in the community and the general public.
“People are fascinated," he told Technology Review. "We have to be careful how fascinated."