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No Piggy Tale: Some Brain Functions Restored Even Hours After Death

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The conventional wisdom is that if the brain cells of humans and other mammals are deprived of oxygen for 4-5 min, they begin to die, and that the loss of brain functions after death is irreversible. But the findings of a study conducted by Yale University researchers challenge these long-held assumptions.

Here's what you need to know about this radical experiment...

Researchers collected brains of pigs from a pork-processing facility and placed them in a system called BrainEx - four hours after the animals were decapitated. The BrainEx system perfused the isolated brains' main arteries for 6 hours with a solution called BEx perfusate that acted as a substitute for blood.

After the processing time, it was found that the brains placed in the BrainEx system showed a decline in the amount of brain cell damage compared to brains perfused with a control solution, which rapidly decomposed. The anatomical and cell architecture was preserved, and the blood vessel structure and circulatory function were restored in the brains processed with BEx.

So, do the results indicate a resurgence of normal brain function in the disembodied pig brains?

"No, because at no point did we observe the kind of organized global electrical activity associated with awareness, perception or any other higher-order brain functions. Clinically defined, this is not a living brain, but it is a cellularly active brain", said co-first author Zvonimir Vrselja, an associate research scientist in neuroscience.

Nenad Sestan, senior author and professor of neuroscience, comparative medicine, genetics, and psychiatry, said, "The intact brain of a large mammal retains a previously underappreciated capacity for restoration of circulation and certain molecular and cellular activities multiple hours after circulatory arrest".

The researchers believe that the study findings may one day help develop therapies for stroke and for protecting the brain after injury due to oxygen deficiency as in the case of cardiac arrest.

Commenting on the findings, Andrea Beckel-Mitchener, chief of functional neurogenomics at the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health, which co-funded the research, said, "This line of research holds hope for advancing understanding and treatment of brain disorders and could lead to a whole new way of studying the postmortem human brain."

Can the BrainEx technology be applied to a recently deceased human brain?

At this point of time, it is unclear as the chemical solution used to perfuse the pig brain is devoid of many of the components natively found in human blood, according to the researchers.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

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