NEW HAVEN, Conn. (CBS Local) – Has science gone too far? That’s the question some experts are asking after Yale University researchers announced that they have successfully reanimated a pig’s brain, which had been severed from its body.
Yale neuroscientist Nenad Sestan revealed the breakthrough during a meeting at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on March 28. Sestan’s team reportedly experimented on over 100 pig brains obtained from a slaughterhouse and restored their circulation using a system of pumps, heaters, and artificial blood. The researchers said they managed to reactivate the brains for up to 36 hours.
“It’s at the extreme of technical know-how, but not that different from preserving a kidney,” Steve Hyman of the Broad Institute said, via MIT Technology Review. “It may come to the point that instead of people saying ‘Freeze my brain,’ they say ‘Hook me up and find me a body,'” the director of psychiatric research added.
The ability to preserve a pig’s brain without its body is leaving many fellow scholars terrified at the thought of this procedure being used on humans. “With absolutely no contact to external reality it might just be a living hell,” Nottingham Trent ethics and philosophy lecturer Benjamin Curtis argued, via The Telegraph. “To end up a disembodied human brain may well be to suffer a fate worse than death.”
“The techniques, even to a researcher, sound pretty ghoulish – so it is very, very important that there should be a public discussion about this,” Prof. Colin Blakemore told BBC News.
Sestan told NIH members that the process would likely work on any species, not just pigs. He added that brain-preserving technology could help doctors test experimental cancer and Alzheimer’s medications too dangerous to be used on a living person.
The mystery about what “death” really means and what level of consciousness would remain inside a severed brain has Sestan’s colleagues questioning if such a test on a human would ever be attempted. “The whole question of death is a gray zone,” neuroscientist Anna Devor said. “We need to remember the isolated brain is not the same as other organs, and we need to treat it with the same level of respect that we give to an animal.”