A Company Is Trying to Resurrect the Brain Dead, a Really Bad Idea

A company has received approval to try and partially revive brain-dead patients in India.

U.S. company Bioquark, in partnership with India's Revita Life Science, has embarked on what it calls the “Reanima Project." They're going to attempt to resurrect brain-dead subjects. With all the necessary regulatory approvals somehow now in place, the companies will be leveraging stem cell therapy, nerve stimulation, and transcranial laser therapy to try to achieve the kind of brain regeneration that's been seen in salamanders and sea cucumbers. In humans. Living humans. 20 of them, at the Anupam Hospital in Rudrapur, Uttarakhand India.

In science fiction, the doctor flips a switch, machines beep, and the reanimated patient's eyes open, alive again. That's not what's gonna happen here at best.

There are different standards for what constitutes “brain death," depending on where you are, though some experts are working to reconcile the differences and establish an international standard. It's unclear which one Reanima is using, but in India, where the project is taking place, the standard is brain stem death, which is met when essential components of consciousness and respiratory control stop working, producing an “irreversible loss of the capacity for consciousness combined with the irreversible loss of the capacity to breathe." The U.K. and Canada also use this standard.

Bruce Blausen

In the U.S. and a lot of Europe, the standard is “whole brain death," the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem."

Really, though, the use of the word “death" in both cases is a little misleading, since neither standard requires the brain to be completely non-functional. With brain stem death, there can still be cortical electrical activity and blood flow. In whole brain death, there can still be functioning areas in the brain, and there can be electrical and hormonal activity still going on.

Which is just one thing that's wrong with Bioquark's plan. They plan to assess their success by looking for “reversal of brain death as noted in clinical examination or EEG." An EEG detects electrical activity, but, as we noted above, a person with brain stem death could already have this, making it an odd standard by which to judge progress. A patient starting to breathe independently would be a better sign, but it's not expected to happen.

Since no one has ever recovered from an accurate diagnosis of brain death, Bioquark's goal isn't really what we might think of as recovery anyway, truth be told. It's more like “improvement." Bioquark's CEO Ira Pastor told Inverse that “even the transition from irreversible to a deep coma state would be a major win." Maybe for his company, but not so much for the subjects. According to bioethicist L. Syd M Johnson, who recently wrote about the Reanima project, “There are not a lot of people who would consider being left in a permanent coma to be a 'win.'" There's quite a distance between a comatose state and normalcy.

One more thing: The Reanima Project's another in a long line of questionable medical experiments using people from a low-income locale. While Bioquark asserts that the lower cost of intensive care in India is the reason the country's been selected for the project, that reason's often been given in the past as the rationale for being free to conduct experimentation on poor people whose rights tend to be less well-protected. Informed consent is not required for the brain dead in India, according to Dr. C.M. Gulhati, editor of medical journal Monthly Index of Medical Specialities. Even if it was, as Johnson told Big Think, “Imagine you're a family grieving the unexpected death of a loved one, and some doctor comes along and offers to enroll your father, mother, daughter, or son in amazing new research that could reverse their death. If you're like most people, you don't really understand what brain death is, and you don't understand how biomedical research works. Are you going to say no to bringing that family member back to life?"

And what's going to happen with the Reanima Project's subjects after the study is complete? “Failure" means they'll still be dead, while “success" means they'll be comatose and in need of care for as long as they survive. We can only hope Bioquark intends to foot the bill.

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Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.