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Researchers Have Restored Basic Brain Function in Dead Pigs

The brains, which were from a slaughterhouse, produced a flat wave as though in a comatose state.
Image via Shutterstock and Ben Thomson

Think Frankenstein, but involving pigs. This is a rough approximation of what a team of researchers at Yale University have managed to achieve with the brains of decapitated pigs. By pumping warm synthetic blood through their arteries, the team was able to reanimate cellular activity for up to 36 hours.

The story was broken by MIT Technology Review, based on comments from neuroscientist Nenad Sestan at a National Institute of Health (NIH) meeting in March. He explained that his team had obtained the brains of around 150 pigs from a slaughterhouse, then, using a bunch of pumps and heaters, managed to circulate enough oxygen deep into their brains to restore some level of basic activity.


In the world of neuroscience this wasn’t an entirely original experiment, except this time it was achieved in a large mammal similar to a human. Whereas a 1993 study used guinea pigs, these were pig brains, and they showed more activity—similar to that of someone in a coma.

Now, all of this obviously raises questions around ethics: were these pigs aware on some level of being blind and body-less? Did Nenad Sestan and his team create the most nightmarish sensory deprivation tank ever assembled?

Sestan said there was no evidence of consciousness. “That animal brain is not aware of anything, I am very confident of that,” he told the NIH.

Throughout the experiment, the brains were all carefully monitored for electrical activity. At first the instruments detected a charge, but it was later determined to be interference from nearby lab equipment. Sestan said the brains were all incapable of receiving stimulus, although the tissue itself “looked surprisingly great.”

His next concern was that this technology could be adapted by teams with less rigorous ethical oversight than his own. “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,” he said.

As it stands, researchers quoted by the MIT Technology Review agree that using this process to resurrect a dead human is still centuries away. Just reconnecting a brain to all the circuitry of a body would be next to impossible.

Instead, researchers agree that a more practical (and immediate) application would be to use the same process to map the brain. As Frances Edwards, professor of neurodegeneration at University College in London, told the Guardian: “It could be useful for studying connections between cells and at some level working out the network interactions in a large brain.”

In the meantime, maybe don’t cancel your booking with the cryonics lab.