In what sounds like the start of a post-apocalyptic rendition of Animal Farm, scientists have successfully revived cells from the brains of dead pigs. Concerned about bone-eating zombie pigs? Don’t worry. Intrigued to know why scientists did this? That, we can tell you.
Below, here’s everything we know about this scientific breakthrough.
Wait … what’s going on?
Yeah, it’s a little hard to comprehend. According to the New York Times, a Yale University research team restored a shocking amount of cellular function in the brains of recently deceased pigs (though the brains did not regain consciousness).
“We found that tissue and cellular structure is preserved and cell death is reduced,” Nenad Sestan, the Yale neuroscientist who led the research, said at a National Institutes of Health briefing. “In addition, some molecular and cellular functions were restored. This is not a living brain, but it is a cellularly active brain.”
Or, as Duke University bioethicist Nita A. Farahany put it to the Times: “We had clear lines between ‘this is alive’ and ‘this is dead.’ How do we now think about this middle category of ‘party alive’? We didn’t think it could exist.” So, fine, they’re not zombie pigs. Undead pigs?
How did scientists do this?
For years, the Yale research team has been trying to develop a technique that would allow them to study brain cells while they were still in the brain; to do this, they had to find a way to supply the cells oxygen and other nutrients. Eventually, they landed on a method: They cleaned the brains of 32 recently deceased pigs, which they then connected to a device that pumped in all the nutrients.
“This really was a shot-in-the-dark project,” team member Stefano Daniele told NPR, stressing that they had “no preconceived notion of whether or not this could work.”
Okay, okay. So what are the implications of this?
The findings are preliminary, so nothing at this exact moment. However, the study gives scientists new insight into the basic working of brains, as well as potential ways they could study brain-related maladies.
The study does raise some interesting ethical questions, notably about animal research. Stephen R. Latham, a bioethicist at Yale, told the Times that because the brain comes from a dead animal, he doesn’t see this as animal research; but others who spoke to the Times didn’t think it was so clear-cut. Furthermore, it could one day have implications for organ donation, as doctors would likely try to resuscitate prospective organ donors for longer if this technology was available. (But, again, it’s a little early to worry about all of this.)
Still, even at this point, the study is major.
“This is wild,” said Jonathan Moreno, a University of Pennsylvania bioethicist, told the Times. “If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one.”