A team of American neuroscientists has discovered a technique to keep pig brains alive without a body for up to 36 hours, according to a report published in MIT Technology Review.
The breakthrough Yale University research, presented at U.S. National Institutes of Health meeting, last month, involves restoring micro-circulation to the tissues by circulation an oxygen-rich fluid through vessels of the organ.
Yale neuroscientist Nenad Sestan, who led the research, said he's sure the pigs' brains are unconscious and believes the technique could help aid research for disease treatment from cancer to Alzheimer's.
“That animal brain is not aware of anything, I am very confident of that,” Sestan said at the NIH meeting, the report said.
The neuroscientists began working on this technique four years ago and are seeking funding for more research.
How does it work?
The researchers experimented on 100 to 200 pig brains collected from a slaughterhouse right after death.
Using a system of pumps, heaters, and bags of artificial blood warmed to body temperature, the researchers restored circulation in the brains.
Sestan's "unexpected" results showed that billions of individual cells remained healthy and capable of normal activity.
He called it "mind-boggling."
“These brains may be damaged, but if the cells are alive, it’s a living organ,” said Steve Hyman, director of psychiatric research at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Hyman was among those briefed on the research.
“It’s at the extreme of technical know-how, but not that different from preserving a kidney,” Hyman said.
Any ethical, legal questions?
But the technique doesn't come without posing ethical and legal questions.
“It could be useful for studying connections between cells and at some level working out the network interactions in a large brain,” Frances Edwards, professor of neurodegeneration at University College London, told The Guardian. “There would be some advantages for imaging and certainly for developing imaging techniques.”
But she dismissed the idea of using this research for transplants in the future.
“Hypothetically, somebody takes this technology, makes it better, and restores someone’s [brain] activity. That is restoring a human being. If that person has memory, I would be freaking out completely,” Edwards said.
Hyman said the idea of avoiding death by transplanting a brain into a new body "is not remotely possible."
It's not the first time animal brains have been kept alive outside the body.
It's been done in guinea pigs, but this is the first time it's been accomplished in large brains.