Scientists’ jobs depend upon answering thought-provoking questions, but as a consequence of working in niche research areas, the answers they discover often lack lasting impact on the wider scientific community. However, once in a while, a study will exceed the standard and provoke profound and universal ethical questions.
Vrselja et al.’s study, entitled “Restoration of brain circulation and cellular functions hours post-mortem,” pushes the boundaries between life and death, and presents ethical limitations that merit consideration when end-of-life decisions are faced in the clinic.
Before going further, I’ll note that while the article title invokes the mental image of a ‘franken-pig,’ there is none—the implication that post-mortem restoration of a brain’s cellular function means post-mortem restoration of brain function can’t be taken too seriously… at least not yet.
The authors aimed to revive a pig brain roughly four hours post-mortem, in spite of the dogma that irreversible damage occurs to an oxygen- and nutrient-deprived brain within minutes. Blood vessels in pig brains, straight from a slaughterhouse, were attached to a perfusion system (dubbed “BrainEx”) to supply each brain with a pulsatile circulation, reminiscent of a heart pumping. Using a formulation containing energy sources found in blood (glucose and pyruvate for example), the authors successfully restored several measures of cell survival and function in the brain, including oxygen consumption and the ability to transduce an action potential. However, the restoration of cellular function cannot equate to consciousness as the BrainEx-perfused brains lack a neural network in which neurons may signal to one another. Network activity is one of the few functional differences between the BrainEx-perfused brains and a normal pig brain, suggesting that the border between life and death is not so finely drawn.
That is exactly what makes this article compelling. Neither the system they used to perfuse brains nor the nutrients that were perfused are particularly innovative. Yet the idea that death can be dispelled with merely imitation blood so long after death is new to me! If scientists learn how to restore neural network activity (if that is actually possible), then we should really start to think about what it means to be alive. Would a BrainEx brain be alive? If it had neurons that talk to each other? Would it think or feel anything with minimal external input? Nobody knows, which is scary.
But science exists to push the boundary between what we do and don’t know about the physical world. Someday, scientists could find a way to determine what a living pig, or even a human brain feels. That it’s conceivable is not in question. As scientists continue to push boundaries, we should also think about which boundaries are right to push, or which questions science offers an appropriate means to answer. Science has a tendency to wait for imminent ethical dilemmas before asking and answering ethical questions. The ideas presented by Vrselja et al. warrant a discussion on whether the next steps these authors attempt to take are right or wrong, and why.
For those of you who have kept up with Lions Talk Science over the years, you’ve probably noticed a decline in the frequency of publications. With fewer post submissions from graduate students, we haven’t been able to publish like we’ve always wanted. That’s why the blog is revamping itself with a new leadership team! This is both my first and last post as editor-in-chief at Lions Talk Science, and I’d like to introduce you all to our new leader, Sadie Dierschke! I’ve added a self-introduction from her below:
Greetings! My name is Sadie Dierschke, and I am a 5th year PhD student in the BMS program. I work in the lab of Michael Dennis and am interested in understanding how early biochemical changes in the retina contribute to the pathogenesis of diabetic retinopathy. I am eager to help make the LTS blog a more relevant presence in the lives of graduate students here at PSUCOM, and to give young scientists a platform to communicate with their peers and the community at large.
By Daniel Haas, PhD and former Editor-in-Chief