While the body was being cut up and transformed into steaks, the head was on its way to the neurosciences laboratory of Yale in New Haven in Connecticut to be connected to a machine pumping artificial blood. With the purpose of keeping the neurons alive.
This is the experiment carried out on pigs, with the aim of “studying the boundary between life and death, mind and body”. With a flat electroencephalogram, the neurons of the pigs remained active for up to 10 hours after death instead of being destroyed in a few minutes as normally happens on death.
The experiment, published on the scientific review Nature, saw the brain preserved in a large tank about a metre long, connected at one end to the two carotids and by the other to the computer which managed the spraying of artificial blood, containing haemoglobin and nutritional substances for the cells.
The study lasted ten hours but in theory, if it had continued to spray the brains of the pigs, the neurons may have stayed alive for longer.
In order for there to be consciousness, there must be an activity of synchronised neurons that communicate and create waves, however during the experiment only single isolated neurons were activated, furthermore after electrical stimulation.
During the ten hours of activity, the cells consumed sugar, oxygen and released neurotransmitters, indicating that their synapses were operational. But here ends any similarities with what we call life.
The researchers, led by Nenad Sestan, left no space for misinterpretation about this: in their words published on Nature “Restoring some cell processes does not mean recovery of normal brain functions. On the contrary, we have never observed that kind of global electrical activity that we associate the concept of conscience, perception or other superior cerebral functions“.
“One of the objectives of these studies is to use active neurons to test drugs against Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and many other brain diseases. The presence of perception or conscience would open enormous ethical questions, which are not easy to solve“.
Understanding what the capacities of survival of the neurons are in the absence of nutrition – as happens during infarct and ictus – would help doctors to better tackle the sequelae of these diseases.
To study the brain, anatomical techniques are necessary in many cases, this is why, by maintaining some functions and areas of the brain active after death, it would help to study the connections between neurons and draw functional maps. And who knows, maybe even to see consciousness with our own eyes.