Thanks to some pigs sacrificed and resurrected in the cause of science, a death sentence hangs over traditional thinking about life, consciousness, and whether shuffling off the mortal coil is a one-way process. Published on April 17 in the journal Nature by the researchers Zvonimir Vrselja, Stefano G Daniele et al, the fateful sentence reads: “The isolated, intact large mammalian brain possesses an under-appreciated capacity for restoration of micro circulation and molecular and cellular activity after a prolonged post-mortem interval.” This is a learned way of saying that the scientists were wrong, pulp writers were right and a return from death is possible. At least in the brain cells of slaughtered pigs.
According to received medical wisdom, the brain is the first organ to go after the heart stops beating, and that it suffers irreversible damage from oxygen starvation. But this group of researchers found pig brains removed from the cranium and supplied with an artificial circulatory fluid still going four hours after death. Cells remained healthy and metabolism proceeded. At the tissue level, this was clearly not brain death. Even a few neurons were perceived to fire.
While cranks the world over will take this as evidence that they were right about resurrection and zombies, the usual electrical activity of the brain, signalling awareness, was not recorded.
The implication is for ethics, which draws a clear line between the living and the dead. Now, sundry pigs have raised the bogey of partly dead, and therefore partly recoverable beings. The question had last arisen when a snail which went into suspended animation in Egypt in the time of the pharaohs stirred when put in water. But that was a simple gastropod, not a complex mammal, whereas pigs with brains neither dead nor alive pose a problem which almost rivals Schrödinger’s cat.
This article first appeared in print under the headline: Schrödinger’s pig