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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.”
Emotional intelligence is a skill sought by many employers. Here's how to raise yours.
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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.
- Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
- They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
- The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.
What's dead may never die, it seems<p>The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called Brain<em>Ex</em>. Brain<em>Ex </em>is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.</p><p>Brain<em>Ex</em> pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.</p><p>The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if Brain<em>Ex</em> can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.</p><p>As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.</p><p>The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.</p><p>"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told <em><a href="https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2019/04/pig-brains-partially-revived-what-it-means-for-medicine-death-ethics/" target="_blank">National Geographic</a>.</em></p>
An ethical gray matter<p>Before anyone gets an <em>Island of Dr. Moreau</em> vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.</p><p>The Brain<em>Ex</em> solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness. </p><p>Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death. </p><p>Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?</p><p>"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/17/science/brain-dead-pigs.html" target="_blank">the <em>New York Times</em></a>. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."</p><p>One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.</p><p>The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-01216-4#ref-CR2" target="_blank">told <em>Nature</em></a> that if Brain<em>Ex</em> were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.</p><p>"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.</p><p>It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.</p><p>Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? <a href="https://bigthink.com/philip-perry/after-death-youre-aware-that-youve-died-scientists-claim" target="_blank">The distress of a partially alive brain</a>? </p><p>The dilemma is unprecedented.</p>
Setting new boundaries<p>Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, <em>Frankenstein</em>. As Farahany told <em>National Geographic</em>: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have <em>Frankenstein</em>, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."</p><p>She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.</p>
Starting and running a business takes more than a good idea and the desire to not have a boss.
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- In this video, entrepreneurs in various industries including 3D printing, fashion, hygiene, capital investments, aerospace, and biotechnology share what they've learned over the years about relationships, setting and attaining goals, growth, and what happens when things don't go according to plan.
- "People who start businesses for the exit, most of them will fail because there's just no true passion behind it," says Miki Agrawal, co-founder of THINX and TUSHY. A key point of Agrawal's advice is that if you can't see yourself in something for 10 years, you shouldn't do it.
Ever wonder how soft hair can dull a steel razor? So did scientists at MIT.
- Steel is fifty times harder than hair, yet shaving razors dull in a hurry.
- A new study finds much of this is caused by hair cracking razors at points of imperfection.
- The findings may lead to new ways of making razors that last longer.
An extremely magnified image of a razor blade cutting hair.
G. Roscioli<p>Lead author Gianluca Roscioli grew his facial hair out for three days before <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-razors-are-dull-within-weeks-according-science-180975534/" target="_blank">shaving</a>. He then brought his razors into the lab to examine them under an electron microscope. While the team expected to see even dulling on the blade edge, they instead noticed strange C-shaped chips missing. Intrigued, they attached a camera to the microscope so they could record the blade cutting the <a href="https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/08/your-hair-can-crack-steel-when-it-hits-right-spot" target="_blank">hair</a>. At the same time, they investigated the properties of the razors at the microscopic level.</p><p>This apparatus revealed that, when the razor blade hit the hairs at non-perpendicular angles, small cracks formed. These tended to develop in boundary areas between where the steel was harder and where it was softer due to differences in the properties at each location caused by the manufacturing <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/2251202-we-just-figured-out-why-shaving-soft-hair-blunts-steel-razor-blades/" target="_blank">process</a>. Over time, these cracks grew into chips. While these chips are too small to see with the naked eye, they were large enough to reduce the blade's effectiveness.</p><p>Roscioli told <a href="https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/why-razors-are-dull-within-weeks-according-science-180975534/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">NPR</a>, "The size of the chips are about 1/10 of the diameter of a human hair."</p><p>The chips can be caused by hair of any thickness and appear to be unavoidable in blades with standard imperfections. </p><p>The finding surprised other scientists, who also quickly accepted the explanation. Professor Suveen Mathaudhu of UC Riverside explained to <a href="https://www.npr.org/2020/08/06/898577234/cutting-edge-research-shows-how-hair-dulls-razor-blades" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer dofollow">NPR</a> that he had expected a larger role in the dulling process to be played by corrosion but that the findings made a great deal of sense. Other scientists expressed how impressed they were by the quality of the images and the difficulty of the study. </p>