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Scientists spur some activity in brains of slaughtered pigs

Close-up of fresh brain in science lab on a metal plate.

NEW YORK (AP) — Scientists restored some activity within the brains of pigs that had been slaughtered hours before, raising hopes for some medical advances and questions about the definition of death.

The brains could not think or sense anything, researchers stressed. By medical standards “this is not a living brain,” said Nenad Sestan of the Yale School of Medicine, one of the researchers reporting the results Wednesday in the journal Nature.

But the work revealed a surprising degree of resilience among cells within a brain that has lost its supply of blood and oxygen, he said.

“Cell death in the brain occurs across a longer time window than we previously thought,” Sestan said.

Such research might lead to new therapies for stroke and other conditions, as well as provide a new way to study the brain and how drugs work in it, researchers said. They said they had no current plans to try their technique on human brains.

The study was financed mostly by the National Institutes of Health.

The 32 brains came from pigs killed for food at a local slaughterhouse. Scientists put the brains into an apparatus in their lab. Four hours after the animals died, scientists began pumping a specially designed blood substitute through the organs.

The brains showed no large-scale electrical activity that would indicate awareness. Restoring consciousness was not a goal of the study, which was aimed instead at exploring whether particular functions might be restored long after death.

After six hours of pumping, scientists found that individual brain cells in one area of the brain had maintained key details of their structure, while cells from untreated brains had severely degraded. When scientists removed these neurons from treated brains and stimulated them electrically, the cells responded in a way that indicated viability. And by studying the artificial blood before it entered the treated brains and after it emerged, researchers found evidence that brain cells were absorbing blood sugar and oxygen and producing carbon dioxide, a signal that they were functioning.

They also found that blood vessels in treated brains responded to a drug that makes vessels widen.

Sestan said researchers don’t know whether they could restore normal whole brain function if they chose that goal. If such consciousness had appeared in the reported experiments, scientists would have used anesthesia and low temperatures to quash it and stop the experiment, said study co-author Stephen Latham of Yale. There’s no good ethical consensus about doing such research if the brain is conscious, he said.

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