Tag Archives: brain function

Revival of dead pig brains raises moral questions about life and death

The line between life and death may not be what we thought it was according to some research that was reported in April 2019. Ed Wong’s April 17, 2019 article (behind a paywall) for The Atlantic was my first inkling about the life-death questions raised by some research performed at Yale University, (Note: Links have been removed)

The brain, supposedly, cannot long survive without blood. Within seconds, oxygen supplies deplete, electrical activity fades, and unconsciousness sets in. If blood flow is not restored, within minutes, neurons start to die in a rapid, irreversible, and ultimately fatal wave.

But maybe not? According to a team of scientists led by Nenad Sestan at Yale School of Medicine, this process might play out over a much longer time frame, and perhaps isn’t as inevitable or irreparable as commonly believed. Sestan and his colleagues showed this in dramatic fashion—by preserving and restoring signs of activity in the isolated brains of pigs that had been decapitated four hours earlier.

The team sourced 32 pig brains from a slaughterhouse, placed them in spherical chambers, and infused them with nutrients and protective chemicals, using pumps that mimicked the beats of a heart. This system, dubbed BrainEx, preserved the overall architecture of the brains, preventing them from degrading. It restored flow in their blood vessels, which once again became sensitive to dilating drugs. It stopped many neurons and other cells from dying, and reinstated their ability to consume sugar and oxygen. Some of these rescued neurons even started to fire. “Everything was surprising,” says Zvonimir Vrselja, who performed most of the experiments along with Stefano Daniele.

… “I don’t see anything in this report that should undermine confidence in brain death as a criterion of death,” says Winston Chiong, a neurologist at the University of California at San Francisco. The matter of when to declare someone dead has become more controversial since doctors began relying more heavily on neurological signs, starting around 1968, when the criteria for “brain death” were defined. But that diagnosis typically hinges on the loss of brainwide activity—a line that, at least for now, is still final and irreversible. After MIT Technology Review broke the news of Sestan’s work a year ago, he started receiving emails from people asking whether he could restore brain function to their loved ones. He very much cannot. BrainEx isn’t a resurrection chamber.

“It’s not going to result in human brain transplants,” adds Karen Rommelfanger, who directs Emory University’s neuroethics program. “And I don’t think this means that the singularity is coming, or that radical life extension is more possible than before.”

So why do the study? “There’s potential for using this method to develop innovative treatments for patients with strokes or other types of brain injuries, and there’s a real need for those kinds of treatments,” says L. Syd M Johnson, a neuroethicist at Michigan Technological University. The BrainEx method might not be able to fully revive hours-dead brains, but Yama Akbari, a critical-care neurologist at the University of California at Irvine, wonders whether it would be more successful if applied minutes after death. Alternatively, it could help to keep oxygen-starved brains alive and intact while patients wait to be treated. “It’s an important landmark study,” Akbari says.

Yong notes that the study still needs to be replicated in his article which also probes some of the ethical issues associated with the latest neuroscience research.

Nature published the Yale study,

Restoration of brain circulation and cellular functions hours post-mortem by Zvonimir Vrselja, Stefano G. Daniele, John Silbereis, Francesca Talpo, Yury M. Morozov, André M. M. Sousa, Brian S. Tanaka, Mario Skarica, Mihovil Pletikos, Navjot Kaur, Zhen W. Zhuang, Zhao Liu, Rafeed Alkawadri, Albert J. Sinusas, Stephen R. Latham, Stephen G. Waxman & Nenad Sestan. Nature 568, 336–343 (2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1099-1 Published 17 April 2019 Issue Date 18 April 2019

This paper is behind a paywall.

Two neuroethicists had this to say (link to their commentary in Nature follows) as per an April 71, 2019 news release from Case Western Reserve University (also on EurekAlert), Note: Links have been removed,

The brain is more resilient than previously thought. In a groundbreaking experiment published in this week’s issue of Nature, neuroscientists created an artificial circulation system that successfully restored some functions and structures in donated pig brains–up to four hours after the pigs were butchered at a USDA food processing facility. Though there was no evidence of restored consciousness, brains from the pigs were without oxygen for hours, yet could still support key functions provided by the artificial system. The result challenges the notion that mammalian brains are fully and irreversibly damaged by a lack of oxygen.

“The assumptions have always been that after a couple minutes of anoxia, or no oxygen, the brain is ‘dead,'” says Stuart Youngner, MD, who co-authored a commentary accompanying the study with Insoo Hyun, PhD, both professors in the Department of Bioethics at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine. “The system used by the researchers begs the question: How long should we try to save people?”

In the pig experiment, researchers used an artificial perfusate (a type of cell-free “artificial blood”), which helped brain cells maintain their structure and some functions. Resuscitative efforts in humans, like CPR, are also designed to get oxygen to the brain and stave off brain damage. After a period of time, if a person doesn’t respond to resuscitative efforts, emergency medical teams declare them dead.

The acceptable duration of resuscitative efforts is somewhat uncertain. “It varies by country, emergency medical team, and hospital,” Youngner said. Promising results from the pig experiment further muddy the waters about the when to stop life-saving efforts.

At some point, emergency teams must make a critical switch from trying to save a patient, to trying to save organs, said Youngner. “In Europe, when emergency teams stop resuscitation efforts, they declare a patient dead, and then restart the resuscitation effort to circulate blood to the organs so they can preserve them for transplantation.”

The switch can involve extreme means. In the commentary, Youngner and Hyun describe how some organ recovery teams use a balloon to physically cut off blood circulation to the brain after declaring a person dead, to prepare the organs for transplantation.

The pig experiment implies that sophisticated efforts to perfuse the brain might maintain brain cells. If technologies like those used in the pig experiment could be adapted for humans (a long way off, caution Youngner and Hyun), some people who, today, are typically declared legally dead after a catastrophic loss of oxygen could, tomorrow, become candidates for brain resuscitation, instead of organ donation.

Said Youngner, “As we get better at resuscitating the brain, we need to decide when are we going to save a patient, and when are we going to declare them dead–and save five or more who might benefit from an organ.”

Because brain resuscitation strategies are in their infancy and will surely trigger additional efforts, the scientific and ethics community needs to begin discussions now, says Hyun. “This study is likely to raise a lot of public concerns. We hoped to get ahead of the hype and offer an early, reasoned response to this scientific advance.”

Both Youngner and Hyun praise the experiment as a “major scientific advancement” that is overwhelmingly positive. It raises the tantalizing possibility that the grave risks of brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen could, in some cases, be reversible.
“Pig brains are similar in many ways to human brains, which makes this study so compelling,” Hyun said. “We urge policymakers to think proactively about what this line of research might mean for ongoing debates around organ donation and end of life care.”

Here’s a link to and a citation to the Nature commentary,

Pig experiment challenges assumptions around brain damage in people by Stuart Youngner and Insoo Hyun. Nature 568, 302-304 (2019) DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-01169-8 April 17, 2019

This paper is open access.

I was hoping to find out more about BrainEx, but this April 17, 2019 US National Institute of Mental Health news release is all I’ve been able to find in my admittedly brief online search. The news release offers more celebration than technical detail.

Quick comment

Interestingly, there hasn’t been much of a furor over this work. Not yet.

Emergence in Toronto and Ottawa and brains in Vancouver (Canada): three April 2018 events

April 2018 is shaping up to be quite the month where art/sci events are concerned. I just published a March 27, 2018 posting titled ‘Curiosity collides with the quantum and with the Science Writers and Communicators of Canada in Vancouver (Canada)‘ and I’ve now received news about more happenings in Toronto and Ottawa.  Plus, there’s a science-themed meeting organized by ARPICO (Society of Italian Researchers &; Professionals in Western Canada) featuring brains and brain imaging in Vancouver.

Toronto’s and Ottawa’s Emergence

There’s an art/sci exhibit opening, from a March 27, 2018 Art/Sci Salon announcement (received via email),

You are invited!

FaceBook event:

The Oakwood Village Library and Arts Centre event:

341 Oakwood Avenue, Toronto, ON  M6E 2W1

I check the library webpage listed in the above and found this artist’s statement,

Artist / Scientist Statement [Stephen Morris]

I am interested in self-organized, emergent patterns and textures. I make images of patterns both from the natural world and of experiments in my laboratory in the Department of Physics at the University of Toronto. Patterns naturally attract casual attention but are also the subject of serious scientific research. Some things just evolve all by themselves into strikingly regular shapes and textures. Why? These shapes emerge spontaneously from a dynamic process of growing, folding, cracking, wrinkling, branching, flowing and other kinds of morphological development. My photos are informed by the scientific aesthetic of nonlinear physics, and celebrate the subtle interplay of order and complexity in emergent patterns. They are a kind of “Scientific Folk Art” of the science of Emergence.

While the official opening is April 5, 2018, the event itself runs from April 1 – 30, 2018.

Next, there’s another March 27, 2018 announcement (received via email) from the Art/Sci Salon but this one concerns a series of talks about ’emergence’, Note: Some of the event information was a little difficult to decipher so I’ve added a note to the relevant section).

What is Emergent Form?

Nature teems with self-organized forms that seem to spring spontaneously from the smooth background of things, by mechanisms that are not always apparent. Think of rippled sand on a beach or regular stripes in the clouds.  Plants, insects and animals exhibit spirals and spots and stripes in an exuberant riot of colours.  Fluid flows in amazingly regular swirls and eddies.  The emergence of form is ubiquitous, and presents a challenge and an inspiration to both artists and scientists. In mathematics, patterns appear as solutions of the nonlinear partial differential equations in the continuum limit of classical physics, chemistry and biology. In the arts and humanities, “emergent form” addresses the entangled ways in which humans, plants animals, microorganisms inevitably co-exist in the universe; the way that human intervention and natural transformation can generate new landscapes and new forms of life.

With Emergent Form, we want to question the idea of a fixed world.

For us, Emergent Form is not just a series of natural and human phenomena too complicated to understand, measure or predict, but also a concept to help us identify ways in which we can come to term with, and embrace their complexity as a source of inspiration.

Join us in Toronto and Ottawa for a series of interdisciplinary discussions, performances and exhibitions on Emergent Form on Apr 10, 11, 12 (Toronto) and Apr. 14 [2018] (Ottawa).

This series is the result of a collaboration among several parties. Each event of the series is different and has its dedicated RSVP 

Tue. Apr 10 The Fields Institute, 222 College Street

Emergent form: an interdisciplinary concept 6:00-8:00 pm Pier Luigi Capucci, Accademia di Belle Arti Urbino. Founder and director, Noemalab*, Charles Sowers, Independent artist and exhibit designer, the Exploratorium, Stephen Morris, Professor of of Physics University of Toronto, Ron Wild, smART Maps


Wed. Apr 11 The Fields Institute6:00-8:00 pm

Anatomy of an Interconnected SystemA Performative Lecture with Margherita Pevere, Aalto University, Helsinki


Thu. Apr 12 (Note: I believe that from 5 – 6 pm, you’re invited to see Pevere’s exhibit and then proceed to Luella Massey Studio Theatre for performances)

5:00 pm  Cabinets in the Koffler Student Centre [I believe this is at the University of Toronto] Anatomy of an Interconnected System An exhibition by Margherita Pevere

6:00 pm Luella Massey Studio Theatre, 4 Glen Morris Ave., Toronto biopoetriX – conFiGURing AI

6:00-8:00 pm Performance: 

6:00pm Performance “Corpus Nil. A Ritual of Birth for a Modified Body” conceived and performed by Marco Donnarumma

6.30pm LAB dance: Blitz media posters on labs in the arts, sciences and engineering

7.10pm Panel: Performing AI, hybrid media and humans in/as technologyMarco Donnarumma, Doug van Nort (Dispersion Lab, York U.), Jane Tingley (Stratford User Research & Gameful Experiences Lab –SURGE-, U of Waterloo), Angela Schoellig (Dynamic Systems Lab, U of T)

Panel animators: Antje Budde (Digital Dramaturgy Lab) and Roberta Buiani (ArtSci Salon)

8.15pm Reception at the Italian Cultural Institute, 496 Huron St, Toronto


Ottawa. Sat. Apr. 14 National Arts Centre, 1 Elgin Street11:00 am-1:00 pm

Emergent Form and complex phenomenaA creative panel discussion and surprise demonstrationsWith Pier Luigi Capucci, Margherita Pevere, Marco Donnarumma, Stephen Morris


This event would not be possible without the support of The Fields Institute for Research in Mathematical Science, The Italian Embassy, the Centre for Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Toronto, the Digital Dramaturgy Lab, and the Istituto Italiano di Cultura. Many thanks to our community partner BYOR (Bring your own Robot)

I wonder if some of the funding from Italy is in support of Italian Research in World Day. This is the inaugural year for the event, which will be held annually on April 15.

Vancouver’s brains

The Society of Italian Researchers and Professionals in Western Canada (ARPICO) is hosting an event in Vancouver (from a March 22, 2018 ARICO announcement received via email),

Our second speaking event of the year, in collaboration with the Consulate General of Italy in Vancouver, has been scheduled for Wednesday, April 11th, 2018 at the Roundhouse Community Centre. Professor Vesna Sossi’s talk will be examining how positron emission tomography (PET) imaging has contributed to better understanding of the brain function and disease with particular focus on Parkinson’s disease. You can read a summary of Prof. Sossi’s lecture as well as her short professional biography at the bottom of this message.

This event is organized in collaboration with the Consulate General of Italy in Vancouver to celebrate the newly instituted Italian Research in the World Day, as part of the Piano Straordinario “Vivere all’Italiana” – Giornata della ricerca Italiana nel mondo. You can read more on our website event page.

We look forward to seeing everyone there.

Please register for the event by visiting the EventBrite link or RSVPing to info@arpico.ca.

The evening agenda is as follows:

  • 6:45 pm – Doors Open
  • 7:00 pm – Lecture by Prof. Vesna Sossi
  • ~8:00 pm – Q & A Period
  • Mingling & Refreshments until about 9:30 pm

If you have not yet RSVP’d, please do so on our EventBrite page.

Further details are also available at arpico.ca, our facebook page, and Eventbrite.

Imaging: A Window into the Brain

Brain illness, comprising neurological disorders, mental illness and addiction, is considered the major health challenge in the 21st century with a socio-economic cost greater than cancer and cardiovascular disease combined. There are at least three unique challenges hampering brain disease management: relative inaccessibility, disease onset often preceding the onset of clinical symptoms by many years and overlap between clinical and pathological symptoms that makes accurate disease identification often difficult. This talk will give examples of how positron emission tomography (PET) imaging has contributed to better understanding of the brain function and disease with particular focus on Parkinson’s disease. Emphasis will be placed on the interplay between scientific discoveries and instrumentation and data analysis development as exemplified by the current understanding of the brain function as comprised by interactions between connectivity networks and neurochemistry and advancement in multi-modal imaging such as simultaneous PET and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Vesna Sossi is a Professor in the University of British Columbia (UBC) Physics and Astronomy Department and at the UBC Djavad Mowafaghian Center for Brain Health. She directs the UBC Positron Emission Tomography (PET) imaging centre, which is known for its use of imaging as applied to neurodegeneration with emphasis on Parkinson’s disease. Her main areas of interest comprise development of imaging methods to enhance the investigation of neurochemical mechanisms that lead to an increased risk of Parkinson’s disease (PD) and mechanisms that contribute to treatment-related complications. She uses PET imaging to explore how alterations of the different neurotransmitter systems contribute to different trajectories of disease progression. Her other areas of interest are PET image analysis, instrumentation and multi-modal, multi-parameter data analysis. She published more than 180 peer review papers, is funded by several granting agencies, including the Michael J Fox Foundation, and sits on several national and international review panels.

WHEN: Wednesday, April 11th, 2018 at 7:00pm (doors open at 6:45pm)
WHERE: Roundhouse Community Centre, Room B – 181 Roundhouse Mews, Vancouver, BC, V6Z 2W3
RSVP: Please RSVP at EventBrite (https://imaging-a-window-into-the-brain.eventbrite.ca) or email info@arpico.ca

Tickets are Needed

  • Tickets are FREE, but all individuals are requested to obtain “free-admission” tickets on EventBrite site due to limited seating at the venue. Organizers need accurate registration numbers to manage wait lists and prepare name tags.
  • All ARPICO events are 100% staffed by volunteer organizers and helpers, however, room rental, stationery, and guest refreshments are costs incurred and underwritten by members of ARPICO. Therefore to be fair, all audience participants are asked to donate to the best of their ability at the door or via EventBrite to “help” defray costs of the event.

You can find directions for the Roundhouse Community Centre here

I have one idle question. What’s going to happen these groups if Canadians change their use of  Facebook or abandon the platform as they are threatening to do in the face of Cambridge Analytica’s use of their data? A March 25, 2018 article on huffingtonpost.ca outlines the latest about Canadians’ reaction to the Cambridge Analytical news according to an Angus Reid poll,

A survey by Angus Reid Institute suggests 73 per cent of Canadian Facebook users say they will make changes, while 27 per cent say it will be “business as usual.”

Nearly a quarter (23 per cent) said they would use Facebook less in the future, and 41 per cent of users said they would check and/or change their privacy settings.

The survey also found that one in 10 say they plan to abandon the platform, at least temporarily.

Facebook has been under fire for its ability to protect user privacy after Cambridge Analytica was accused of lifting the Facebook profiles of more than 50 million users without their permission.

There you have it.

*Well, a bit more information about one of the “Emergent’ speakers was received in an April 4, 2018 ArtSci Salon email announcement,

Do make sure to check out Pier Luigi Capucci’s EU-based (but with international breadth) Noemalab platform. https://noemalab.eu/ since the mid-nineties, this platform has been an important node of information for New Media Art and the relation between the arts and science.

noemalab’s blog regularly hosts reviews of events and conferences occurring around the world, including  the Subtle Technologies Festival between 2007 and 2014. you can search its archives here http://blogs.noemalab.eu/

Capucci has been writing several reflections on emergent forms of Life and theorized what he called the “third life”. See a recent essay https://noemalab.eu/memo/events/evolutionary-creativity-the-inner-life-and-meaning-of-art/ here is a picture which I would love him to explain during Emergent Form. Intrigued? come listen to him!