Bringing the Brain Back to Life?

Sam Neff 21′

This fetal pig brain does not accurately resemble that of a living pig, as many of its cells have deteriorated. Treatment with nutrients may preserve brain architecture after death, at least for a short time. Source: Wikimedia Commons

A recent study at Yale University has produced a groundbreaking medical finding – that the deterioration of cells in the brain after death can be significantly delayed. Researchers at Yale exposed the brains of pigs that had been deceased for several hours to a solution of nutrients called the BEx perfusate (1). They found that the death of brain cells could be halted for at least 6 hours, and that the structure of the brain could be preserved (2).

The scientists performed a number of tests to determine that the deceased pig brains were still functional during treatment with BEx. This included an ultrasound that demonstrated that blood was flowing through the vessels of the brain and an MRI to demonstrate tissue integrity. Examining the MRI images, they found that pig brains exposed to BEx perfusate exhibited significantly less deterioration than brains exposed to a control solution. Furthermore, the organization of neurons was much better preserved when the brains were exposed to BEx. And even glial cells – the cells that serve to remove waste and provide immune protection to the brain – appeared to remain functional (2).

To be clear, the results of this study do not suggest that it is possible to revive neural function completely after death. The concept of transplanting the brain of a deceased individual into a new body still lies in the realm of science fiction. Another limitation of this study is the fact that it was done on pig brains. It is not certain that it would be possible to maintain cell function in the human brain after death via a similar perfusion technique. And even if it were,  there are serious ethical concerns with regard to restoring human brain function after death.

Nonetheless, the discovery that brain cells can be preserved after death is valuable in that it provides a way to better understand the architecture of the brain. Because the rapid decay of the brain after death distorts its structure, the post-mortem brain hardly resembles that of a living being. A technique like the one utilized in this study would provide a better picture of brain anatomy, as it preserves the structure of the brain long enough for it to be examined. With this knowledge in hand, scientists might arrive at a better understanding of how neurological diseases affect brain structure and develop new treatments to combat them.

References

  1. Yale University (17 April 2019). “Scientists restore some functions in a pig’s brain hours after death.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily. Retrieved 1 May 2019 from <https://www.google.com/url?client=internal-uds-cse&cx=010600859026308499623:bx2n_9y-3ni&q=https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2019/04/190417132805.htm&sa=U&ved=2ahUKEwjgx-KQ2PvhAhXmnuAKHWZMCUEQFjAAegQIABAC&usg=AOvVaw2H4RnluUxdM_DVabd1bMTu>
  2. Vrselja, Zvonimir et al. (2019). “Restoration of Brain Circulation and Cellular Functions Hours Post-Mortem.” Nature 568, 336-343. Retrieved 1 May 2019 from <https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-019-1099-1>

 

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