Turns out the most prophetic sci-fi entry of the last 50 years isn’t “Star Trek” or “The Matrix,” it’s “The Man With Two Brains.” As we all expected.
In fairness, they should name this procedure the Hfuhruhurr Protocol. If only to mess with the doctors, researchers, and journalists who’d be forced to master the spelling.
And once they master full brain resuscitation and preservation? That’ll be known as Uumellmahaye-zation.
Anyway. Brain death in animals is supposed to happen quickly, right? Cut the brain off from oxygen for some period of minutes and its cells will begin to die, never to return. If enough cells die, you die; at a minimum, you’ll face irreversible brain damage. That’s an iron law of biology — until today. Researchers at Yale took 32 slaughtered pigs, cracked open their noggins, lifted out their brains, and let the brains sit at room temperature without blood for four hours. Then they gave them six hours of treatment from a system called “BrainEx” that pumps in an experimental solution.
Things started to happen, at least at the cellular level.
[B]lood vessels in the pigs’ brains began functioning, flowing with a blood substitute, and certain brain cells regained metabolic activity, even responding to drugs. When the researchers tested slices of treated brain tissue, they discovered electrical activity in some neurons…
“We had clear lines between ‘this is alive’ and ‘this is dead,’” said Nita A. Farahany, a bioethicist and law professor at Duke University. “How do we now think about this middle category of ‘partly alive’? We didn’t think it could exist.”…
“This is a real advance,” said Andrea Beckel-Mitchener, who leads brain research efforts at the N.I.H. “This has never been done before in a large intact mammalian brain.”…
Even though there was no electrical activity in the brains, it may be possible to restore it, Dr. Farahany and other experts said. It’s not known what would have happened if their solution did not contain nerve blockers.
The researchers took precautions chemically to block nerve signals, fearing that the extra activity might degrade the cells they were examining. If they hadn’t done that, God only knows how far back “online” the brains might have come. The moment in this story when my childish wonder turned to icy terror is when it described how the scientists worried that they might reanimate enough cells so as to accidentally restore consciousness to the pig’s severed brains, even going so far as to have a plan in place to anesthetize the brains in case that happened. Top that, Jordan Peele.
The study abstract is published at Nature. The obvious goal of this treatment is to revive “dead” brain cells and restore full functionality to human beings who’ve survived brain trauma and been left disabled by the damage. The “Black Mirror” utopian/dystopian long-term endgame would be to revive and preserve the brains of newly “dead” people, replete with consciousness, and place them, er, somewhere. New bodies? A jar in Dr. Hfuhruhurr’s castle laboratory?
They’ll figure out the details later. In the meantime, scientists working on this are on shaky ethical footing. The virtue of using dead animals for research is that you don’t need to worry about the animal feeling terror or pain or anything else. But what happens when you take a dead animal and bring it (partly) back to life?
“If consciousness were somehow induced in the brain,” there was no ethics protocol in place, says Steven Lathan, a Yale researcher who served as the team’s bioethicist. “If consciousness was induced by the research, the research would have to stop until we could pull together some kind of ethics and neuro expertise to give guidance to the future conduct of the research.”
But, at the same time, it’s hard to know if EEG is the only indicator of consciousness or perception of any kind. There are billions of neurons in a pig’s brain. How many need to be activated for a pig to “feel” anything — as much as a disembodied pig brain could feel or interpret anything — is not known.
What if researchers can’t be sure if a disembodied brain is conscious or not? What if researchers here or abroad *can* be sure but some just don’t care and decide to press ahead with trying to restore consciousness because the temptation of becoming the real Dr. Frankenstein is too great? Every major scientific or technological breakthrough eventually becomes a force for nightmarish evil. I’m excited to see which direction this one goes!