A recent report in the MIT Technology Review details how a team at Yale University, led by neuroscientist Nenad Sestan, successfully restored partial functionality to the brains of over a hundred dead pigs. The animals, which had been recently decapitated, had their brains removed. Technology called ‘BrainEx’ involving artificial blood, heaters and pumps was then used to ‘reanimate’ sections of the brains. The experiment has been both hailed as a significant neuroscience breakthrough in life-extension technology and an ethical maze.
The Yale team was not able to restore ‘consciousness’ to the dead brains but the presence of ‘flat waves’ detected by electroencephalogram scans of the brains suggests they were reanimated into a state with similarities to what would be expected of a coma. Billions of brain cells appeared to be individually healthy and ‘normal’.
Sestan is now seeking funding from the US National Institute of Health to continue his research. The ultimate aim is to explore the possibility of improving the technology to the point that a ‘dead’ brain’s activity is restored to the point of consciousness. Sestan speculated:
“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.”
Sestan supports the necessity for an ethical framework to now be put together to answer the many theoretical questions his team’s research throws up. Together with 16 colleagues in the neuroscience field, they recently published a paper ‘The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue‘ in the scientific journal ‘Nature’.
One of the biggest questions the latest technology in the world of neuroscience and bio-engineering throws up is the possibility, still very remote, of brain tissue cultivated in a lab being animated into ‘consciousness’. Brain organoids formed of lab-cultured tissue are referred to as ‘surrogates’.
Sestan believes his research’s breakthrough means:
“…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.”
If the most recent developments in AI and machine learning technology are not Frankenstein enough, just imagine the combination of synthetic, algorithmic intelligence with biological, conscious brain tissue…