Death means an end, but one recent research challenges the idea and fuels the possibility of reviving the brain. And it has plunged the scientific community into an ethical debate.
Physical movements, thoughts, and actions are traits that define how we know the difference between what’s alive and what’s lifeless i.e. death. But beyond that, we hardly understand what death means. We’ve known that death is an eventuality and irreversible. But recent research done back in April 2019 changed all that. Consequently, science is making us rethink the definition of death and the sheer fact that it is permanent.
A neuroscientist Christof Koch recently pondered over death in an article in the Scientific American. Koch wrote, “Death, this looming presence just over the horizon, is quite ill-defined from both a scientific as well as a medical point of view.”
Recent research done back in April is making us rethink the definition of brain death and the sheer fact that it is permanent.
The current definition and study of death spans from an individual ceasing to breathe and the eventual stopping of any neuroactivity in the brain. But we’ve come far from that standpoint in recent times. Science has revived individuals who stopped breathing and that’s just the beginning of how we are beginning to challenge death.
How Science is changing the definition of Death?
At the turn of the 20th century, no one had thought that a person who had ceased to breathe could be revived. There were folklores of course, but science couldn’t acknowledge magic. But a century from then on, it became possible. So, it isn’t wild to wonder if one day, science can revive dead brains too. And what’s giving this thought fire is a recent experiment that failed but opened the door to widespread speculation and ethical conundrum.
The research published in April 2019 in the journal Nature spoke about a series of experiments wherein researchers at Yale School of Medicine managed to restore some cellular function in brains of dead pigs. These pigs were decapitated at a local slaughterhouse four hours before the experiment.
What the research did was argue death as a process, not an event. Thus, it raised the possibility of science one day completely reviving a dead human brain. Unsurprisingly, the research sparked intense ethical and scientific debate.
The Experiment that revived brain cells
In fact, science has always seen the brain as an increasingly complex and fragile organ. Depriving it of oxygen leads to quick degradation and irreversible brain death. However, during a ‘six-hour’ treatment using an apparatus dubbed BrainEx, the ‘pigs’ brains’ were infused with a ‘cocktail of synthetic fluids designed to halt cellular degeneration and restore cellular functions’. Many brain cells showed signs of revival making the experiment a significant scientific breakthrough.
The brains continued consuming oxygen and glucose, a number of cells (including neurons) ceased decaying and even responded to external electrical stimulation. The cells, when examined under a microscope, had ‘regained the shape of living cells’.
Stuart Youngner, a professor of bioethics and psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University had said about the experiment, “It appears from this study that it’s not as fragile as we thought it was.”
The Ethical Debate and Ensuing Controversy – Is Death Reversible?
The experiment flirted in the edgiest domains of biological research. ‘Live brains in vats’, ‘revived human brains’, ‘brain transplants’ and even a ‘Zombie apocalypse’ are all imagined situations if we are able to revive a dead brain. The scientists performing the experiment also had these apprehensions. Therefore, the research had a plan B to stop immediately if the experiment induced consciousness in the dead brains. That didn’t happen but is increasingly likely with further research in the field.
Then came the ethical conundrum after the study was published. Brain revival will surely blur the line between life and death. Consequently, controversy erupted in the US, other scientists spoke out, and animal rights activists protested. However, the experiment is a stunning reminder of how rapid innovation in science and medicine has both pros and cons. On one hand, it can help treat grave diseases but also raises complex ethical and legal issues.
Possibilities: If and when the inevitable happens
In the experiment, the brains remained dead by the traditional definition of death. However, it does tell us that the brain isn’t that fragile an organ after all. From time immemorial we have thought of brain death as a point of no return. But cell revival after four hours of decapitation proves that raising the dead is not a far-fetched idea after all.
The experiment brings up the possibility that science can cheat death i.e. brain transplants. While the impossible surgical procedure remains the stuff of imagination and storylines for wild sci-fi thrillers and fantasies for now, we can’t deny possibilities in the future.
With the scientific breakthrough, we can’t deny the possibility of brain transplants in the future.
Scientifically, death is a gradual process where organs and cells die in steps. So, while the experiment may not have reversed cell death and restored the brains in a stable, living state, it is possible. As one of the scientists said, “We’re just postponing the inevitable.”