Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Scientists successfully reanimate the brains of decapitated pigs
The reanimation of decapitated pigs raises complex ethical questions about the future of life-extension research.
A team of scientists has successfully reanimated the brains of dead pigs, a move that’s raising tough ethical questions about the future of neuroscience research.
At a meeting at the National Institutes of Health on March 28, neuroscientist Nenad Sestan announced how he and his team at Yale University used a system of heaters, pumps, and artificial blood to restore partial function to the brains of more than 100 recently decapitated pigs, according to a report from MIT Technology Review.
The system, dubbed BrainEx, doesn’t quite restore consciousness but it could mark the beginning of a new stage in life-extension technology.
An electroencephalogram (EEG) on the pig brains showed flat waves, suggesting the pigs were reanimated into a comatose-like state rather than something like consciousness—though, at first, the EEG showed complex activity that indicated thoughts and sensations. The team was excited, alarmed, but the signals turned out to be noise caused by nearby equipment.
Still, billions of individual brain cells appeared normal and healthy, in what Sestan called a “mind boggling” and “unexpected” result.
A creative depiction of wandering brain waves. (Image: GollyGforce/Flickr)
Sestan told the National Institute of Health, which his team is seeking funding from, that steps could be taken to keep brains alive indefinitely and make attempts at restoring consciousness.
“That animal brain is not aware of anything, I am very confident of that,” Sestan said, going on to speculate how the technology might be used 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.”
These possibilities could lead to questionable research practices down the road.
“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.”
Scientists are already setting up guardrails in anticipation of those “weird questions”.
On April 25, Sestan and 16 colleagues published a paper in Nature titled 'The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue' in which they lay out some ethical concerns and questions: What protections should be granted to brain organoids (brain tissue grown from stem cells in a lab)? How should scientists dispose of brain organoids at the end of experiments? In research where human organs are transplanted into animals, should the test subject be considered human or animal—where is the line?
The scientists acknowledge that many of the hypothetical situations listed in the paper, such as relatively simple brain organoids gaining consciousness, are “highly remote”.
“But to ensure the success and social acceptance of this research long term, an ethical framework must be forged now, while brain surrogates remain in the early stages of development.”
Sestan expressed a similar cautiousness.
“People are fascinated. We have to be careful how fascinated.”
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"</p><p>Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2010.483632" target="_blank">8.2 feet long</a>.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a <em>Triceratops prorsus, </em>one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.</p>
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p>The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the T<em>yrannosaurus rex</em>. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">headlines</a> after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.</p><p>Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">New York Times</a>.</p>
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
The world's 10 most affected countries are spending up to 59% of their GDP on the effects of violence.
- Conflict and violence cost the world more than $14 trillion a year.
- That's the equivalent of $5 a day for every person on the planet.
- Research shows that peace brings prosperity, lower inflation and more jobs.
- Just a 2% reduction in conflict would free up as much money as the global aid budget.
- Report urges governments to improve peacefulness, especially amid COVID-19.
The lush biodiversity of South America's rainforests is rooted in one of the most cataclysmic events that ever struck Earth.
- One especially mysterious thing about the asteroid impact, which killed the dinosaurs, is how it transformed Earth's tropical rainforests.
- A recent study analyzed ancient fossils collected in modern-day Colombia to determine how tropical rainforests changed after the bolide impact.
- The results highlight how nature is able to recover from cataclysmic events, though it may take millions of years.