A team of scientists has managed to restore cell function in the brains of pigs after hours of their death. This amazing breakthrough came on Wednesday, and according to the authors of the US-based study, this could lead them to one day treat the victims of heart attacks and strokes while uncovering the mysteries linked with brain trauma.
In large mammal and human brains, cells that are pivotal for neural function start to degrade as soon as the blood supply ceases – this process has almost always been considered to be irreversible. However, with this trial, whose findings have already been published in the journal Nature, there is now evidence that the brains of the pigs can have their blood flow and cell function restored even hours after they have died.
The team from the NIH BRAIN initiative – federally funded US research program – used a total of 32 brains from pigs that had been slaughtered for food purposes and discarded. These brains were without blood or glucose flow for about four hours. Afterwards, the team made use of a tissue support system for pumping a liquid that had been designed to mimic as blood for hydrating the brain for a total of six hours. Some brains were given the patented life-support solution while others were provided with a control substance.
The results were incredible; the brains that had received the artificial blood were able to regain the basic cell function. Their blood vessel structure was restored, and the team even observed some local processes such as immune responses and synapses restarting. On the other hand, the brains that had been given the control solution turned to ‘something a bit like yoghurt’ within hours.
Nenad Sestan, a researcher at Yale University and the lead study author, said, ‘I was tremendously surprised. We were surprised at how well the structure was preserved. We found that cell death is reduced, which is very exciting and promising. The main conceptual finding is this: cell death in the brain occurs across a longer time period than we previously thought.’
There was no, as per the team, ‘higher level functional activity observed’ in the revived brains. What do we mean by functional activity and why is it so important? It is a fancy way of saying that there was no activity that would suggest that the brains had their consciousness restored. Sestan said, ‘That is a clinical sign that the brain is alive, and we never found it. This is not a living brain; it is a cellularly active brain.’
Dominic Wilkinson, professor of medical ethics at the University of Oxford, stated, ‘This research reminds us that ‘death’ is less an event and more of a process that occurs over time. Cells within the human organism may be alive for some period of time after the human person has died.’
An ethical debate has already ensued wondering about the implications of this study. What do you think of this?