Igor, Bring Me a Brain


An interesting report released this spring will likely send shock waves through the biological and medical research communities. Researchers reported that they successfully kept pig brains alive completely outside the animal. Yes, a brain taken out of the skull of a dead animal was kept functional in a laboratory! Viktor Frankenstein would be impressed, and his poor assistant Igor would be ecstatic to give up grave robbing and reach for a brain off the shelf. This is fitting, as it has been 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein.' Does this mean that we can survive the eventual failings of our bodies to live as a disembodied brain though? Not so fast!

This type of work has been performed previously with disembodied brain stems from animals. The brain stem of mammals is in the back the brain at the top of the spinal cord. The brain stem is responsible for many essential body functions including heart rate, breathing and sleeping.

However, this current research takes it several steps further to keep the whole brain alive after removal. For this work, a team of US researchers used 'freshly' obtained brains from pigs at a commercial slaughterhouse. Once the brains were extracted, the scientists kept them oxygenated and heated using a series of pumps to circulate blood through the organ. The scientists maintained the brain in a comatose state, which means there is detectable but minimal brain activity, and the brain is not conscious of anything happening to it. The scientists were able to sustain the brain in this comatose state for up to 36 hours.

This study was able to demonstrate some normal parameters of brain function for several hours with the disembodied brains. Brains are especially sensitive to even small changes in normal or physiological conditions. While some aspects of normal brain activity were observed during the experiment, there may have been tissue damage or the death of brains cells over this period. In the future, a critical part of this research will be better understanding brain injuries.

This research is still in its beginning stages, and the brain is the most complex of all our organs. The sophisticated techniques and protocols needed to extract and preserve a functioning human brain are years away and are likely not yet invented. While we will not see disembodied human brains kept alive for extended periods anytime soon, the success of this work is important and can contribute to neural network mapping and other brain studies using animal models.

This and other recent brain studies are stretching the ethical boundaries that govern our research. The researchers involved in this study and other leading investigators have recognized the sensitive nature of this work, and they are trying to answer the ethical questions that come up. These are serious issues which will require extensive and vigorous public discussion and debate. While we are not at the point where we must worry about someone keeping Uncle Charlie's brain alive, we need to start defining the ethical boundaries for these studies now.

More Information

Yale neuroscientist keeps pigs' brains alive outside of bodies
A Yale School of Medicine neuroscientist has succeeded in keeping brains from the severed heads of pigs alive for up to 36 hours...

Researchers are keeping pig brains alive outside the body
If it were tried on a person, it might mean awakening in the ultimate sensory deprivation chamber...