Scientists Keep Pig Brains Alive Without Their Bodies, Are Humans Next?

A piglet stands in a pen at the 2018 International Green Week (Internationale Gruene Woche) agricultural trade fair on January 19, 2018 in Berlin, Germany. At Yale, scientists used pig heads from a slaughterhouse to obtain brains. Sean Gallup/Getty Images

In an advancement that opens avenues for questions about philosophy and bioethics, scientists have achieved a strange feat: they can now keep pig brains alive outside a body for at least 36 hours.

The scientists obtained pig heads from slaughterhouses and took out their brains. Then, they used heaters, pumps and a complex artificial blood solution to revive the cells. Shockingly, they managed to revive the brain matter in a way that it was technically alive, MIT Tech Review reported.

The pigs had been dead for four hours, a significant amount of time between the chopping block and the lab, so the neurons were damaged. Memories and thoughts were, in all likelihood, long gone. Using a version of EEG, the scientists measured brain wave activity but found none, indicating that the brain was not actually conscious. However, one of the scientists noted that there were "channel blockers" in the artificial blood solution, which are chemicals that can prevent an EEG reading from picking up signs of consciousness.

The scientists, from Yale University, found billions of brain cells that were alive and capable of normal activity on an individual level, according to ScienceAlert. This experiment has scientists asking what will happen next, and what kind of ethical guidelines do we need to set?

If science ever uses this technology to keep human brains alive, that experiment is a long way away, and would have to pass many legal and ethical hurdles. However, scientists are already looking to the future and talking about what's ethical, even for pig brains. The Food and Drug Administration doesn't regulate use of "dead" tissue, like body parts from dead humans or animals, but what about "undead" tissue? If this research ever advances to keep undamaged brains alive in a jar, would that be humane to a pig or human? Does this affect our definition of death?

In response to this experiment, some researchers have published an editorial in the journal Nature regarding how to proceed ethically with such a strange advancement.