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Thinking outside the skull: can we bring brains back to life?

Remember the good old days when big ethics dilemmas like in vitro fertilisation and cloning came along once every few years? They’re long past. The latest wonderful/awful news that would have made the headlines a few years ago has been barely noticed. But its implications are vast. As the MIT Technology Review notes, it could lead to a re-definition of death.

Researchers have “restored circulation to the brains of decapitated pigs and kept the reanimated organs alive for as long as 36 hours”. Pig heads are of course easily obtained from slaughterhouses, and the researchers took more than 100 to see if they could keep them going. “There was no evidence that the disembodied pig brains regained consciousness.”

However, in what researchers termed a “mind-boggling” and “unexpected” result, “billions of individual cells in the brains were found to be healthy and capable of normal activity”. As Antonio Regalado drily notes in his report, “If it were tried on a person, it might mean awakening in the ultimate sensory deprivation chamber.”

The technical trick has been to restore circulation in tiny blood vessels. And as neuroscientist Nenad Sestan stated to the U.S. National Institutes of Health, “it is conceivable that the brains could be kept alive indefinitely and that steps could be attempted to restore awareness”.

And if it were done on humans? “Hypothetically, somebody takes this technology, makes it better, and restores someone’s [brain] activity. That is restoring a human being. If that person has memory, I would be freaking out completely.”

Which takes me back to 1988, when “Chet Fleming” (a pseudonym) published If We Can Keep a Severed Head Alive and sent me a copy. The animal research (including primates) goes back many years, together with the fear that it will lead to human “discorps” (Fleming’s term). As well as enabling brain transplants, bodyless heads (or, I guess, bodyless, skull-less, brains) would be really handy for long-distance space travel. Sales of H.G. Wells’ grim fantasy The Island of Dr Moreau are set to spike.

Meanwhile, scientists at the Salk Institute in southern California have been working on transplanting little blobs of human brain tissue grown in the lab into mice. Atlantic magazine reports that these “brain organoids”, as they are called, then keep growing and connect with the surrounding (mouse) tissue.

And the magazine quotes a deeply unsettling question from bioethicist Nita Farahany:  “How do you detect consciousness in those when they have never been conscious before? You assume that it will be the same but who knows if it will be?”