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Zombie pigs and ethics

  • 24 April 2019


In a scientific article released last week, it was revealed that scientists had 'brought to life' the brain cells of recently slaughtered pigs. Their innovation was to restore circulation and cellular activity in the brain cells of severed pigs' heads, using an artificial circulatory system that pumped blood and drugs to the brain for six hours. The dead brain cells consequently showed signs of activity, although apparently no signs of consciousness: they are said to be 'cellularly active' but not 'a living brain'.

The groundbreaking research is said to have potential application in resolving acquired brain injury and as a cure for brain disorders and diseases, although scientists have been quick to point out that this will be some way off. Scientists have also been careful to stress that the experiment complied with ethics protocols. They used animals that had already been slaughtered and, faced with the possibility that they would bring them back to 'life', the experiment included nerve blockers that would prevent the return of sensation.

While there need be no doubt that the experiment was carried out in accordance with the relevant ethical research protocols, this rather misses the point. There are other, more profound, ethical questions arising not from the experiment's method but rather from its necessary implications.

Despite the excitement about the potential to alleviate future human suffering, these advances to our understanding of the working of the brain come at a huge cost to the very meaning of life. Most media reports have mentioned medical and legal implications of potentially 'reversing' death. Some have focused on the example of organ transplantation, suggesting that the brain recovery technique may need to be used on potential organ donors to be sure that their death is confirmed absolutely as irreversible. But this, too, misses the point.

There have of course been myriad medical advances that have extended life, and even restored life where it once would have seemed impossible. CPR, for example, 'restarts' the heart, thus giving a patient a second chance at life.

Death of the brain however has been seen as the final determinant of death, following the point at which the brain no longer controls breathing and circulation and then itself commences deterioration. This experiment, however, might result in treatment to restore the brain, restarting other vital processes and thus restoring life, as we understand it, to a person who would otherwise be deemed dead.

With advances in robotics and