Death has always been a matter of fancy for scientists and researchers, as it has been for philosophers. Bringing the dead back to life has been a recurring trope through literature and media alike. But Melissandre bringing Jon Snow back to life is not just another normal event. We all know it can only exist in the realm of discourse in science fiction, fantasy, or magic. However, a team from the neurological department of the prestigious Yale School of Medicine has reassured us that this line of research could lead to a whole new way of studying the postmortem brain. And Nature magazine highlighted this.
What is Death?
Death is final but the definition is not. Until the late 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, when one’s heart stopped beating, you were pronounced dead. But with the invention of artificial hearts and ventilators, individuals with failing critical organs can stay alive until they can get new organs now.
But the brain is a very complex organ. It needs a lot more research to get a complete view of it. Our brains require an uninterrupted flow of blood that is rich in oxygen to function efficiently. It is exactly due to this factor that when a human is strangled even for a short amount of time, we lose consciousness, enter a death spiral, and can very well just die. This might be because of the blood becoming more acidic and glutamate, a neurotoxin, becoming toxic and getting pumped into the body. In 1968, researchers referred to this state as ‘irreversible coma’ or ‘brain death’.
However, research has found that the brain might just be more resilient than previously thought of. The mitochondria, which a lot of us know, is the powerhouse of the cell, can still function 10 hours following death. In macaques and cats, brain recovery was a success after an hour of cutting off blood from it. In 2007, researchers reported a peculiar case in which a female that suffered acute hypothermia managed to make a complete neurological recovery. To put it into perspective, her body temperature dropped below 65 degrees Fahrenheit or 18 degrees Celsius.
Dead Pig (Walking)?
The research team calls this system BrainEx. The BrainEx procedure uses computer-operated filters and pumps which convey a sustaining elixir through a brain which has been exposed surgically but is clinically dead. The elixir is made of hemoglobin bases and shows up on ultrasound scans making it trackable by researchers. The procedure has been patented by Yale University to accredit the team of scientists, but the process and all its constituents are accessible to everyone. Basically, this machine provides the brain with resources for proper functioning.
To concretize this experiment further, the team used the brains of 32 pigs that were slaughtered and declared clinically dead. They removed the brains entirely from the skulls and attached them to the BrainEx system.
The brains showed nutrient consumption and conversion. Neuron signals could be carried, and the immunity system kicked in. Some cells showed a response even to a couple of drugs. Some of the brains could be sustained up to 36 hours. As a control, other brains were left untreated or were treated with a fake solution, and they perished normally.
This project, in success and failure alike, is a breakthrough for neurosciences. The brain can now be understood and studied better. Several diseases of the brain could be treated with the advancement of these studies.
Nita Farahany, a bioethicist at the Duke College of Law, is of the opinion that this technology could better humankind’s dealings with the brain, making it a little more adept.
DOA: Dead Or Alive
With this breakthrough in science, there is another question of ethics popping up. What, then, is going to be the metric for death under the purview of law now, especially laws relating to organ donation? The Yale team was aware of it and hence, the team spoke with expert ethicists and displayed their findings at a bioethics conference at the University of Duke in 2017 and also at an NIH Workshop in 2018.
BrainEx has merely stimulated the brain, but in no way can one even vaguely refer to that response as consciousness. Most countries define death as the clinical death of the brain. But now with this technology coming up, will the definition of life and death change under law as well?
The debate also extends to organ donation. If the brain of the donor can be artificially resuscitated, how will the potential recipients of those organs access the donated organs anymore? The number of donors will dwindle if the brain can be restored to life. The clinical distinction between life and death will be blurred.
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Also, any experiments under these circumstances will become illegal because the death of the brain is what confirms the death of the subject of a medical trial. Now with the brain having been revived, will the subject even be considered okay for post-death clinical experimentation? This was a valid point put forward by Stuart Younger, a bioethicist working at Case Western Reserve University, in Nature.
The New Horizon
Experiments like these give hope to humanity that life can be sustained in the future in manners we didn’t even deem were possible. The brain being resuscitated is nowhere near being a “conscious” brain, but definitely, this is one of the first steps towards undoing death, whenever, and if ever that happens. However, a lot of studies need to be put in and a lot of challenges have to be met in order for this to be a properly accepted practice.
Until then, here’s hoping that the team continues its streak of breakthroughs, bringing rewards for humankind to reap.