Futurity

Is it ethical to revive a dead pig’s brain?

Recently, researchers reported they revived function in a dead pig's brain. Is that ethical? An expert weighs in.
pig toy looks accusing

Did researchers really bring dead pigs back to life?

The headlines earlier this month didn’t say exactly that (the words “partly alive” were more common), but the story still had the scientific community buzzing: Yale University researchers had revived some cellular function in the brains of slaughtered swine.

The researchers did not revive enough function to restore consciousness, they stress, but enough that one ethics scholar pronounced herself shocked, as she and colleagues raised ethical questions: Do animal research subjects need new protections if their brains can be resurrected? Is any brain revival possible for human patients, and if so, will their families hold off on approving organ donations where once they might not have? Will we experiment on dead people’s brains, requiring any new research restrictions?

“…it must be some kind of cleansing ritual for people to be able to ignore the pig’s life and death, and only concentrate on treating…the pig’s brain in a ‘humane’ way.”

George Annas, for one, is less than alarmed. Annas, professor of health law, ethics, and human rights in Boston University’s School of Public Health, says that adjectives like “shocked” in media reports likely suggest that the speaker “is not talking about science, but about hype and science fiction.”

The Yale researchers placed the dead pig brains in a chamber they designed for the experiment and then fed a mix of chemicals into important blood vessels for six hours. The procedure reduced tissue and cell deterioration and restored some molecular function, producing, in one researcher’s words, “not a living brain, but… a cellularly active brain.”

“The issue of trying to bring the dead back to life has been formidable at least since the publication of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein” in 1818, says Annas, who is also a School of Law and a School of Medicine professor.

Here, he discusses the ethical issues involved in the experiment:

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