A Pig’s Brain Transcended Its Body, Surging to Life on Its Own. Humans May Be Next.

diagram of a pig carcass made of cardboard on a colored background close up
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  • Researchers in Texas crafted a device meant to help isolate the brain for scientific study.

  • By keeping the brain alive and functioning separate from the body for hours, experts believe that they can improve heart-lung bypass technology.

  • This sci-fi-like concept was first modeled in pigs, but humans could be next.

When a pig recently went under anesthesia at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, it was for anything but a routine procedure. Researchers were able to isolate blood flow to the brain, separate that brain from the rest of the body, and use a new device to keep the brain alive and functioning.

The pig brains were all on their own for five hours. And they did just fine, thanks to the new extracorporeal pulsatile circulatory control (EPCC) device.

“This novel method enables research that focuses on the brain independent of the body, allowing us to answer physiological questions in a way that has never been done,” Juan Pascual, professor at UT Southwestern, said in a statement.

The UTSW team—who published their findings in the journal Scientific Reports—said that this new way to study the brain not only allows research without influence from other bodily functions, but could also help researchers design improved machines for human cardiopulmonary bypass that better replicate natural blood flow to the brain.

Making sure this newfangled way of isolating the brain would work, though, wasn’t simple. To test it all out, the researchers first had to redirect the pig brain’s blood supply. The team physically detached—the official word is “redirected”—the key arteries running from the body to the brain, and connected the brain to the EPCC to ensure blood flow remained fluid.

“Our primary objective was to preserve brain function under EPCC to achieve circulatory isolation from the majority of the rest of the body in fully controllable fashion,” the authors wrote in the study.

What sets the new EPCC device apart from cardiopulmonary bypass devices already in use is its ability to use a pulsative flow akin to a human heart to keep blood flowing to the brain. The team says that this may help prevent brain-related side effects sometimes caused by the traditional bypass machines. The pump features algorithms that allow the team to maintain and adjust variables, including blood pressure, volume, temperature, oxygenation, and nutrients. They report—thanks to electrocorticography and brain-depth electrodes evaluating the brain activity—that there were “minimal to no changes” in brain activity over the five-hour procedure.

Once the organ was isolated, the team then researched sugar’s effect on the brain without any concerns about influence from the rest of the body’s organs muddying the findings. This is the first time, according to Pascual, that researchers have ever been able to fully study the brain’s function without worrying about the impact of the rest of the body.

“Our approach,” the authors wrote, “enables the study of neural activity and its circulatory manipulation in independence of most of the rest of the organism.”

Are humans next on the to-study list?

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