Researchers Restored Biological Function In Dead Pig Brains—and Raised Some Interesting Ethics Questions

That said, should we worry about disembodied pig consciousness?

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Philosopher Hilary Putnam famously proposed a thought experiment in which you are actually a brain nestled in a vat that has been hooked up by an evil scientist to a computer that perfectly simulates the experiences of the outside world. How can you tell that you are not, in fact, a brain in a vat?

Researchers at Yale University have taken a step toward making something like that thought experiment possible by successfully reviving some of the biological functions of brains from pigs slaughtered hours earlier. The researchers achieved this milestone by pumping into these dead pig brains their BrainEx formula, "a hemoglobin-based, acellular, non-coagulative, echogenic, and cytoprotective perfusate that promotes recovery from anoxia, reduces reperfusion injury, prevents edema, and metabolically supports the energy requirements of the brain."

It has long been medical dogma that brain cells cut off from oxygen die within minutes. In this case, revived brain cells began metabolizing again. This research raises two ethical issues: (1) how might this effect organ donation, and (2) should we worry about disembodied pig consciousness?

In 1968, a committee of ethicists and physicians convened at Harvard to define brain death as irreversible coma in which patients have no discernible central nervous system activity. The organs of such brain dead individuals could be harvested for transplantation into other patients. But what if something like BrainEx could, in the future, revive the brains of folks who heretofore have been declared brain dead? That might well reduce the number of potential organ donors from the 10,000 or so whose organs are harvested every year in the United States.

What about pig consciousness? Regulations that cover animal experimentation do not apply to dead animals. Nevertheless, the Yale researchers dosed their BrainEx with chemicals to block neural activity in the pigs' brains to try to ensure they never became conscious. They were also ready to administer anesthesia if the brains exhibited any electrical activity that would suggest communication between the revived neurons. No signs of porcine consciousness were detected.

What would a "conscious" pig brain in a vat experience? Likely not pain, since brains do not have pain receptors. If a brain is receiving no outside sensory information, would that induce terror or satori?

One other implication of this research is that improved versions of BrainEx could make possible whole body transplants of the sort being proposed by Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero.

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  1. Zombie pigs?
    Is the bacon still tasty?

    1. It was just the heads, so I think the bacon was unaffected.

    2. It is…aged, shall we say?

  2. Wake and bacon, bros. The deep state (brain) is dead, long live the deep state (brain).

  3. That might well reduce the number of potential organ donors from the 10,000 or so whose organs are harvested every year in the United States.

    We’ll be growing organs in a lab by then.

    1. And I’m sure they’ll be just as unappetizing as organs grown the traditional way.

      We are still talking about domesticated meat animals, right?

    2. Yes.

  4. In his sci-fi novel “That Hideous Strength,” C.S. Lewis (of Chronicles of Narnia fame) proposed a similar concept. The brain of a dead scientist was kept alive in a vat. The scientist who were able to save their colleague’s brain found a way to communicate with it. As I recall, it didn’t lead to anything good.

    1. I loved the first of the trilogy, liked the second, but couldn’t quite make it through That Hideous Strength. It stopped leaving me with the feeling to know more and see what happens for some reason.

      I did just watch The Frankenstein Chronicles on Netflix, though, and it’s a pretty good show. I normally hate “reimaginings” but it’s a solid series (and it’s only 12 episodes) with a fun twist on Frankenstein.

      1. I read it a long time ago. The whole trilogy was weird and I remember being bored by the one where the guy is stuck on Venus. (Perelandra?). As for Frankenstein Chronicles—that was excellent. But I love those Victorian period shows. The Alienist and Ripper Street are also great.

  5. I doubt enlightenment can come from being completely cut off from external stimuli. The only way you can learn important truths about the Universe is to study it directly. If you’re stuck inside your own head, any enlightenment you attain will just be a figment of your own imagination.

  6. Do you pronounce the head researcher’s name Franken-stine or Franken-steen?

    1. It’s ‘West’.

      Herbert West.

  7. “One” by Metallica, for pigs.

  8. “Philosopher Hilary Putnam famously proposed a thought experiment in which you are actually a brain nestled in a vat that has been hooked up by an evil scientist to a computer that perfectly simulates the experiences of the outside world.”

    A computer that never does random forced updates leaving the brain wondering what the hell is happening in the simulated world? I think that’s the least believable part of it.

  9. We have no idea where experience (consciousness + dreams + ?) comes from, where it is before you’re alive, where it goes after you die, whether life is required for it, how closely it’s associated w matter, etc. About the most we can say is that certain experiences are associated w neural activity, but we can’t say whether either is necessary or sufficient for the other.

  10. My takeaway on this article is that all killers should make sure they mash up the brains.

  11. disembodied pig consciousness

    I’m going to see this band if they ever go on tour.

  12. Would be interesting to see what they actually reported but not paying for the Nature article. News articles generally overstate what actually happened and go rushing into the more sensational aspects.

    From what I gather they were able to restore some metabolic functions which is not at all the same as cellular function let alone an entire organ.

  13. “That said, should we worry about disembodied pig consciousness?”

    No, not really. They usually morph into triggered Republican/Democrat statists bed wetting all over libertarian websites.

    Examples include; Tony, Rev, LC1789 and Last of the Shiteaters.

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