It’s one of the most out-there ideas of science fiction, be it the head museum of Futurama or the notorious Jan-In-The-Pan from The Brain That Wouldn’t Die: Keeping the human mind alive, outside the body. And it turns out that we’re actually making a lot of progress on this, which is opening up entirely new avenues of research and firing up enormous social and ethnical arguments so intense the scientists behind this technique are upset their remarks leaked out.
The MIT Technology Review has an overview of the research of Nenad Sestan, a neuroscientist at Yale, who has, much to his own surprise, pioneered a way to keep pig brains alive for up to thirty-six hours outside the body. The brains, acquired from a slaughterhouse, were put in a custom system involving careful heating, pumps, and artificial blood. And it worked well beyond expectations:
There was no evidence that the disembodied pig brains regained consciousness. However, in what Sestan termed a “mind-boggling” and “unexpected” result, billions of individual cells in the brains were found to be healthy and capable of normal activity.
In other words, they didn’t “wake up,” so to speak, which is likely a small mercy considering there would be absolutely no stimulus. But if you wanted a living brain to experiment on, well, just hit the butcher, hook it up, and go to town.
There’s a big upside to this, regardless of how you feel about brains in jars: This is a breakthrough in “microcirculation,” namely getting blood to the smallest parts of the circulatory system. So this research will likely be used to better preserve organ transplants and even to research diseased organs. We’re going to be a lot healthier thanks to this research. But yeah, also, there’s that “brains in jars” thing.
There’s no plans to hook up a human brain to this thing, but pig organs and human organs are similar enough that it has a pretty good chance of working. Sestan has already admitted surgeons have asked him what the possible medical viability of this system is, even though a “brain transplant” is still basically science fiction even with a way to keep the brain alive for a day and a half is in place. The real value is to keep an organ alive long enough to see why it’s broken, so if somebody died of Alzheimer’s, you could pull their brain, hook it up to this system, and mess with it to see how it works.
But what’ll happen if a brain does wake up? Does it have rights? Is it just “dead” tissue, legally speaking? And what about the effect on the person if so? Even the Yale team seemed more than a little alarmed at the prospect of that somebody might try this and restore consciousness to the mind without considering the impact on the owner of that brain. Thirty-six hours can be a long, long time if you’re in what amounts to the ultimate isolation tank.
Sestan’s team is likely to keep their technique under wraps until some strong ethical guidelines are in place. And the scare factor shouldn’t detract from the possibility of learning far more about how our minds work and how brain diseases affect us. But it’s clear that not even the scientists who pioneered this technique are fully comfortable with the roads it might take us down, and we should have directions before we head there.
(via the MIT Technology Review)