Researchers in Texas have developed a method to keep a brain alive and functioning for several hours without being connected to the body — a truly weird scientific experiment that recalls the head in jars bit in the iconic cartoon "Futurama."
A team led by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas took two pigs and severed connections between their heads and bodies, instead hooking the brains up to a device they call the extracorporeal pulsatile circulatory control (EPCC), which they detailed in a paper published in the journal Scientific Reports. The machine keeps blood pumping through the brain, mimicking the natural flow when it's connected to the rest of the body.
The intent behind this nightmarish procedure was to study the brain independently from other bodily functions that may influence it, but the system may also lead to better-designed cardiopulmonary bypass, a process in which machines take over your heart and lung function during surgery.
"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," said UT Southwestern medical professor and the study's lead investigator Juan Pascual in a statement.
The procedure involved the research team putting the two pigs under anaesthesia while hooked up to monitors to keep track of vital signs. They then cut open the skulls to put electrode probes on their brains, severed important arteries connecting the brain to the rest of the body, and hooked them up to the EPCC, which takes the form of a complex system of tubes and a pump controlled by software designed to replicate natural blood flow in the brain.
Despite the severed link, they were able to keep the brains functioning normally for five hours — a grisly achievement, sure, but a medically impressive one as well.
Because of the experiment, the research team was able to study the impact of sugar on the brain, separate from other mechanisms in the body that may alter the process.
In terms of future applications, the research team is intrigued that the new process pumps blood like the human heart, in contrast with existing cardiopulmonary bypass devices which send blood through the body in a continuous flow. Having a cardiopulmonary bypass that operates more like the human heart would avoid complications from existing bypass devices, the research team speculated.
And heck, maybe someday after your body dies they'll be able to slap your brain into one of these bad boys — either a reprieve from death or a grim new afterlife, depending on your point of view.
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