‘Partly Alive’: Scientists Revive Cells in Brains From Dead Pigs

In a study that upends assumptions about brain death, researchers brought some cells back to life — or something like it.

Comments: 66

  1. "... the brains did not regain anything resembling consciousness." Isn't that something only the brains would know?

  2. @polymath, actually, no. Brain activity is electrical activity. Without electrical activity there can be no consciousness. Since electrical activity was suppressed, no consciousness could be regained. That of course begs the question as to what happens if electrical activity is not suppressed.

  3. @polymath Extremely improbable but not impossible, largely because you can't disprove a negative. As best we understand, no measurable neuro-electrical activity means no consciousness. Consciousness is an emergent property of an exquisitely coordinated sequence of an incalculable number of properly synchronized neural electro-chemical activities. We know this, perhaps best, because of the minimal physical or chemical stimuli required to merely interrupt consciousness. A blow to the head, or a pill or two and a few ounces of alcohol, will do the trick. Just ask Bill Cosby.

  4. Steven Silz-Carson, what we do not know about consciousness is vastly greater than what we do know (since brains can't talk and if they could they might lie). So, if you ran a suitable electrical current through a brain whose cells had not died but were not showing their own electrical activity ... can you assert that no consciousness can result? I don't think so.

  5. BrainEx sounds like it’s straight out of an Atwood novel.

  6. Guilt free bacon has become extinct.

  7. Time to pack the zombie apocalypse go bag!

  8. Do you want zombies? Because this is how you get zombies

  9. Shades of That Hideous Strength!

  10. I know the perfect specimen for a human trial. 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., D.C.. It could NOT make things worse. Seriously.

  11. @Phyliss Dalmatian Brilliant!!!

  12. Which leads me to ask do plants scream when you cut them?

  13. @Mark Shyres, if they do, we can't hear them.

  14. @Mark Shyres Some researchers have claimed that.

  15. I thought the zombie fad was done. Then there were the White Walkers on Game of Thrones. And now this, Zombie pig heads.

  16. The exploitation and suffering that animals are put through must stop. This is not arguably scientific advancement. It is more like sadistic experimentation.

  17. @walt: I agree but the suffering occured in the pens where the pigs were raised and fattened and in the slaughter house where they were whacked on the head and "hog tied." That is, long before the amputed brains were dissected.

  18. Obviously half of this countries voters don't "resemble consciousness" either...lol.

  19. I just hope that, when an advanced alien race invades Earth, I too can be kept shackled my entire life, then terrorized by a brutal slaughter to appear in their food aisles. Please, by all means use my brain for research. Nothing else about my life ever mattered to anyone.

  20. Look, I like The Walking Dead as much as the next guy--but only if it remains a work of FICTION.

  21. I’m reminded of Miracle Max in The Princess Bride: “Mostly dead is different from completely dead.” In this case it’s partly alive..,

  22. Well, this finding is the demise of the head cheese industry.

  23. @Apple Jack You made my day. I laughed for a full minute and I'm still checkling.

  24. “Cellularly active” does not mean being sentient or conscious of the world around us. And pigs are not humans, in whom the brain activity of a fully conscious life involves recognition, meaningful language and remembering. This is a science-based magic trick which will further encourage those who are long on religious fervor and short on common sense to keep their dead loved ones plugged in long past any hope of recovery. Another unintended consequence will be a reduction in the supply of donated organs to actually living recipients.

  25. @Margaret Jay:This will actually annoy the religious who won’t like the fact that the dead won’t stay dead on this planet rather than hustle off to some phantom realm.

  26. Maybe there is hope for Fox News fans after all.

  27. Sometimes I think medical science is a contridiction in terms.

  28. It reminds me of the serum in Re-Animator.

  29. This work is extremely preliminary as researchers have noted. In the clinical world, getting a heart beat back after a prolonged cardiac arrest is much more often grim than celebratory. Such ‘survivors ‘ are too often brain dead and end up organ donors even if it takes several days to establish clinical brain death. (There are exceptions in cold water drownings and randomly among others.) Brain death is somewhat a matter of degree with borderline cases able to breathe and maintain vital signs, but they don’t show meaningful responses beyond brain stem reflexes. Milder cases on the spectrum of anoxic brain injury might be responsive but unable to walk or talk, and cases go on up to mild but permanent impairment. Clearly cells are alive throughout the body when a person is otherwise essentially dead. That’s why prompt organ transplants are possible. The question is why the brain is a much less resilient organ, what mechanisms are in play, and what treatments might mitigate anoxic brain injury. The ‘dead’ pig brain model might further research efforts. We do know that head/brain cooling seems of some benefit. Other therapies mentioned in the past include steroids (always considered), calcium ion interventions, and blockade of excitatory neurotransmitters. I’m not in the field but we’re likely a long way from keeping people’s bodies alive despite clinical brain death in hopes some scientific miracle will restore brain function.

  30. This work is extremely preliminary as researchers have noted. In the clinical world, getting a heart beat back after a prolonged cardiac arrest is much more often grim than celebratory. Such ‘survivors ‘ are too often brain dead and end up organ donors even if it takes several days to establish clinical brain death. (There are exceptions in cold water drownings and randomly among others.) Brain death is somewhat a matter of degree with borderline cases able to breathe and maintain vital signs, but they don’t show meaningful responses beyond brain stem reflexes. Milder cases on the spectrum of anoxic brain injury might be responsive but unable to walk or talk, and cases go on up to mild but permanent impairment. Clearly cells are alive throughout the body when a person is otherwise essentially dead. That’s why prompt organ transplants are possible. The question is why the brain is a much less resilient organ, what mechanisms are in play, and what treatments might mitigate anoxic brain injury. The ‘dead’ pig brain model might further research efforts. We do know that head/brain cooling seems of some benefit. Other therapies mentioned in the past include steroids (always considered), calcium ion interventions, and blockade of excitatory neurotransmitters. I’m not in the field but we’re likely a long way from keeping people’s bodies alive despite clinical brain death in hopes some scientific miracle will restore brain function.

  31. The article is way over-hyped, starting with its first sentence: the research "raises profound questions about the line between life and death." It does no such thing. That line remains clear. What the research shows is that you can revive this and that brain cell(s) a few hours after death but that you cannot get anywhere near reviving the interactive neurological system as a whole....namely, you cannot revive true consciousness, which in pigs, and far more so in humans, under most modern definitions is what we call "life."

  32. '... you cannot revive true consciousness, which in pigs, and far more so in humans, under most modern definitions is what we call "life."' Surgical patients who have been anesthetized are unconscious, but they are still alive. Further, microbes, such as bacteria and fungi, are not conscious, yet they are considered to be alive. So consciousness is not a necessary condition for life.

  33. @Marc Nicholson: it sounds like you don’t WANT scientists to revive true consciousness. Is this a religious conviction or evidence-based reasoning?

  34. What a timely announcement, what with the recent debut of the new "Pet Sematary" movie. Is it possible this procedure was done on Donald Trump a few years ago? Because when you listen to him, it's like "the lights are on, but nobody's home." At least not a sentient, self-aware being.

  35. This reminds me of the Star Trek TOS episode "The Changeling," in which Nomad, an incredibly advanced robot, brings Scotty back to life at least several minutes after killing him. This also reminds me of the standstill procedure, in which the brain of the patient is dead for literally minutes. The body is cooled, the blood drained, and then an otherwise inoperable aneurysm is cut off, and the patient revived and hopefully cured. See https://www.michigansthumb.com/news/article/Rare-brain-surgery-saves-the-life-of-Pigeon-woman-7322585.php https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deep_hypothermic_circulatory_arrest Fascinating.

  36. After years of convincing myself a zombie apocalypse was not scientifically possible and I had nothing to be afraid of, I come across this and my first thought was: so this is how it begins. Thanks for clarifying that of course it wouldn't be a virus, and for giving me nightmares about zombie pigs.

  37. @Julie: There are no zombies.

  38. @Julie, Julie, I think Hollywood should take notice. There is a great "tongue in cheek" horror movie to be made about the "attack of the zombie pigs!"

  39. Reviving a few neurons hours after death of a pig is a far cry from restoring brain function. Possibly some neurons eke out the last bits of available oxygen in the brain, and stay alive a bit longer than most. The practical applications of this seem remote, but the observations will no doubt encourage debates about when to pull the plug on brain dead patients. I am all for this type of research, but I am also concerned that families may get their hopes up for loved ones who have no chance of brain recovery, and keep them on life support indefinitely. There is already a history of such cases, and it is not a pleasant history. We should all have a living will/medical directive in place so that these decisions are those of the patient, and nobody else.

  40. @Barry, The current path to NIH funding, which pays for everything including infrastructure and investigator salaries, encourages hyped claims on potential cures. For decades agency directors have been touting the cures that their billion-dollar investment into genomics will deliver. Not much has happened to date. The last president launched a billion-dollar brain initiate without being able to explain what it was supposed to achieve other than "curing" Alzheimer's. To date, drug companies have lost billions on failed clinical trials. In that light, any progress seems to count.

  41. "Cells deteriorate, and the connections between neurons crumble." That's disappointingly vague. Various biochemical reactions occur in cells and when there is no oxygen, some of those reactions stop. Assuming microbes haven't invaded the cells and there are no other sources of energy, such as light, the only "crumbling" that would occur is due to thermal activity -- but that is very dependent on the temperature and on the specific molecules involved. More technically, some reactions occur spontaneously at a particular temperature. In introductory chemistry courses, students learn to use the Gibbs free energy to predict whether a reaction will occur spontaneously. That analysis should be applicable to the reactions in cells.

  42. @HLV, I too thought that was a quite prosaic description of the happenings. The degradation does not unfold that quickly, particularly when the brain tissue remains undamaged and the brain is cooled. The dominant excitatory nerve cell transmitter in the brain is glutamate. Too much glutamate released triggers programmed cell death. Blocking glutamate receptors may rescue cells. Sounds like that is what the researchers did.

  43. Peter: "The dominant excitatory nerve cell transmitter in the brain is glutamate." That's a good example. Glutamic acid is soluble in water and stable at room temperature, so, in isolation, nothing would happen to it. Peter: "Too much glutamate released triggers programmed cell death." "Releasing" requires energy, so there would need to be an energy source. The linked abstract doesn't go into enough detail, but it does say: "[The artificial blood] ... metabolically supports the energy requirements of the brain. With this system [of artificial blood], we observed ... spontaneous synaptic activity ..."

  44. Mary Shelley has to be smiling somewhere. But I doubt “Frankenpig” was what she had in mind. Maybe it’s not too late for Mel Brooks to update his masterpiece and add “porcine brain” to Igor’s (it’s pronounced “Eye-gore,” isn’t it?) choices.

  45. Onward into the Unknown lead the brave scientists. Bravo!

  46. "Researchers at Yale University acquired the heads of 32 pigs killed for their meat." This research requires an intact brain, so how were the pigs slaughtered? The linked abstract doesn't say how the pigs were slaughtered, but the "humane" method for swine uses an electric shock or CO2 gas to render the animal unconscious, after which the neck is severed to bleed the animal. See "Humane Slaughter Act" at Wikipedia.

  47. Well, the question is if there if the not so dead brain registers pain during the organ removal process. Also, I do not quite grasp what is the ethical issue with the pig if nerve blockers had not been used.

  48. "Partly alive", isn't that what we call zombies?

  49. The (poor) pigs brains contained no electrical activity. They were legally brain dead. Is it surprising that the brain can survive in a vegetative state several hours after cessation of breathing? Perhaps we should remember this when we sit beside the body of a recently departed loved one??

  50. '“We had clear lines between ‘this is alive’ and ‘this is dead,’” said Nita A. Farahany, ... “How do we now think about this middle category of ‘partly alive’? We didn’t think it could exist.”' That quote must be incomplete, because "brain dead" people would seem to be in that "middle category". Or is Farahany analyzing that question in terms of consciousness and unconsciousness? What about sleep walkers? What about frogs' legs that twitch when electrically stimulated, as was done by Galvani 1780?

  51. What about electrocuted prisoners - and pets that people have put down? They still have their bodies, so alive or dead?

  52. Love the science. Fear the outcome.

  53. "In research that upends assumptions about brain death, researchers brought some cells back to life — or something like it." Great. But would it work on the president?

  54. Just imagine the day when human brains can be effectively replaced with pig brains. Civilization may survive Homo sapiens after all!

  55. Given the behavior of some people, we might not notice the difference.

  56. I’m totally fascinated! I’m especially blown away by the existential creative naming by scientists of “BrainEx”. Feel tired, overworked, stressed, you need BrainEx!

  57. What an incredibly misleading headline, almost bordering on journalistic malpractice. Shame on the NYT. Cells operate through biochemical mechanisms, yes, but seeing some remaining biochemical activity is nowhere near a 'partly alive' state. It in no way blurs the line between life and death. Students in junior high science lab can place electrodes in tissue from a frog's leg bathed in saline and make it jump. Cardiac muscle cells can also contract, or beat, under the right conditions in a tissue culture dish. None of that is 'life', it's simply cellular function. I question this line of research as a useful model.

  58. If you want the pants scared off you, read Poe's "The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar," about a man who is hypnotized at the moment of death. He dies but, his consciousness trapped by hypnotism, retains just enough awareness to know that he is dead. At the end, when the trance is lifted, he. . . he . . . Shudder.

  59. The worst part of this is the premature deaths of the pigs, "for their meat," and of all the others like them.

  60. It is well established that one can get an EEG reading from a bowl of gelatin. I think the breathless anxiety about life and death, brain science and ethics, and the fact that induced chemical reactions in animal tissue can be observed opens up "metaphysical" questions sound like playing with a ouija board. It is disappointing to me that leading ethicists would rush to create a debate about this " partly alive" cells and implications for some medical breakthrough and ethical dimension .

  61. As someone who has suffered a traumatic brain injury, I can attest to the reality that we as a society are failing to support, diagnose and medically treat those who suffer from the symptoms of brain injury, specifically those who appear highly functioning but who are suffering often tragic losses of neurological functioning with resultant imbalance between brain, mind, self and spirit. Lives are strewn to the wayside due to our lack of knowledge as to how the brain heals. The year is 2019, and yet we are light years behind in our understanding of the brain. We need more research. The study is a step forward, with revealing evidence as to how the brain functions. For all who have never suffered the challenges of recovery, perhaps letting go of the human propensity to get squeamish when faced with uncharted territory that delves into the hard questions of life and death, consciousness vs living tissue, we should welcome new information, and put our fears of the paradox of defining life and death aside. Millions of people are in need of more knowledge that can aid in recovery, and perhaps save lives.

  62. So maybe someday brain resuscitation is possible and the docs can get someone to live again. Will their insurance pay for it? Talk about a pre-existing condition!

  63. Someone in China will do this without the electric signal blockers.

  64. @NH, ...and the poor brain will succumb to humongous seizures.

  65. It seems a bit besides the point to ask ethical questions about the welfare of laboratory animals that were killed so we can eat them! Perhaps the "ethicists" should just take a break on this one.

  66. Great. Zombies. Just great.