Stefano G. Daniele, Zvonimir Vrselja, Yale School of Medicine
This combination of images provided by the Yale School of Medicine in April 2019 shows stained microscope photos of neurons, green; astrocytes, red and cell nuclei, blue, from a pig brain left untreated for 10 hours after death, left, and another with a specially designed blood substitute pumped through it. By medical standards “this is not a living brain,” said Nenad Sestan of the Yale School of Medicine, one of the researchers reporting the results Wednesday, April 17, 2019, in the journal Nature. But the work revealed a surprising degree of resilience within a brain that has lost its supply of blood and oxygen, he said.

SALT LAKE CITY — Scientists somewhat revived brains from dead pigs after those pigs were slaughtered, according to a new study, even though that wasn't the intention of their work.

This might sound like the case for zombies. But, according to NPR, the Yale University research team explained that “none of the brains regained the kind of organized electrical activity associated with consciousness or awareness.”

Or, as Reuters puts it, “The scientists emphasized that their work did not even come close to reawakening consciousness in the disembodied pig brains. In fact the experiment was specifically designed to avoid such an outcome, however improbable.”

Researchers are using the results to study brain diseases and injuries and what happens to the brain when it doesn't receive oxygen. Researchers believe this could be good for stroke therapies and other disorders that see brain cells die, Fox News reports.

The study’s researchers used pigs that had been dead for four hours. They used a special device that sent a “blood-like chemical solution” through the pig’s brains, which allowed cells to live and be active six hours later.

This doesn’t mean the pigs were “living” or brought back to life, according to Fox News. Rather, the scientists found that the pigs were “cellularly active.”

The experiment, which was published in Wednesday’s edition of the journal Nature, proved that “a surprising amount of cellular function was either preserved or restored,” according to NPR.

According to NPR, the brain will shutdown quickly when there's a lack of oxygen. But researchers know that working cells can still be taken from the brains hours after death.

Researchers said the cells can be studied in a lab dish, but it helps to understand them while they're still inside the brain.

Researchers "wondered whether it might be possible to study brain cells while leaving them in an intact organ. Doing so meant somehow supplying them with oxygen, nutrients and various other cell-protective chemicals," according to NPR.

Scientists have spent the last six years creating a technique that would test the method on 300 pig heads. They experimented with a number of methods.

Andrea Beckel-Mitchener of the National Institute of Mental Health who works with the BRAIN Initiative, told NPR that the study is big for brain research. And they didn't want to ignite the pig brains' electrical activity because it would have impact research.

" It was mind-blowing. "
Nita Farahany, Duke Law School

"And the reason is that they didn't want to do an experiment that raises the ethical questions that would be raised if consciousness were being evoked in this brain without first getting some kind of serious ethical guidance," said Stephen Latham, a Yale bioethicist.

Latham said that "the researchers thought that brain cells might be better preserved and their function might be better restored if they were not active."

Ethicists have wondered what the experiment will mean moving forward and “how it fits into the current understanding of what separates the living from the dead,” according to NPR.

Comment on this story

"It was mind-blowing," said Nita Farahany, who studies the ethics of emerging technologies at Duke Law School, according to NPR. "My initial reaction was pretty shocked. It's a groundbreaking discovery, but it also really fundamentally changes a lot of what the existing beliefs are in neuroscience about the irreversible loss of brain function once there is deprivation of oxygen to the brain."

As Reuters reported, the new research could raise questions about death itself.

“The blurring of that line has implications in turn for deciding when doctors are ethically bound to go from preserving a patient’s life to preserving their organs,” according to Reuters.