The concept of death has intrigued mankind since our inception on this Earth, and its mysteries have long guided the minds of scientists wishing to understand its great conundrum in relation to our ever-prevalent mortality. The process of death itself is one that involves declining cognitive and motor function, usually exemplified by progressively deteriorating brain function and reduced musculoskeletal action that is associated with advanced aging, culminating in rigor mortis and eventual demise.
This past weekend, scientists were able to come closer to a clearer understanding of how that demise occurs in a time-wise fashion through a carefully conducted study involving pig brains that concluded that brain cell death could be stopped and that some connections to neurocognitive functioning could be restored, even after death.
In this experiment, US Scientists at Yale University collected 32 pig brains from an abattoir and (four hours later) connected them to a system that rhythmically pumped a specially designed fluid to mimic a pulse for six hours. The fluid was composed of synthetic blood that carried oxygen and drugs to slow down or reverse cell death in neurons.
The results of this study showed a significant reduction in brain cell death and a restoration of blood vessels, along with incomplete recovery of brain activity a mere 10 hours after death. These partially revived brains utilized a similar oxygen concentration as a normally functioning brain and also had similar responses to drug activity, but did not display electrical activity reminiscent of an EEG resembling awareness or perception — fundamentally, these were still dead brains.
This research revealed a great deal about how brain death in mammals occurs when it was previously thought to be a rapid process driven by a lack of oxygen. Professor Nenad Sestan, a Professor of Neuroscience at Yale University, stated that the study demonstrated how brain death was a gradual process that could be fundamentally reversed or halted at certain stages in a similar fashion to other metabolic processes that occur within the human body, such as cellular respiration.
An immediate benefit from this work is a clearer understanding of how it would be possible to combat diseases that cause a general degradation of brain cells, such as Alzheimer's. Scientists hope to utilize this research to eventually develop procedures to protect the brain from trauma that temporarily stops blood flow to the brain, or from conditions that would limit oxygen circulation within the brain, such as stroke. While these findings do not confirm whether or not neuro-cognitive function can entirely be recovered post-mortem, they do open the possibility up for further study into the process of death and how it could be decelerated.