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WTF?! The concept of keeping a brain alive and working while separated from the body it once inhabited is something often seen in sci-fi media. Now, scientists have developed a device that can isolate blood flow to the organ, keeping it functioning independently from the rest of the body for hours.
The device works by redirecting the brain’s blood supply through a pump that maintains or adjusts a series of variables, including blood pressure, volume, temperature, oxygenation, and nutrients.
A team of researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center tested the device on the brain of a pig that was anesthetized with ketamine and other chemicals. It kept the animal’s brain activity and health at normal levels over a five-hour period.
While this obviously isn’t going to enable a Futurama-like ability to keep human heads alive in jars, the researchers said it could lead to ways of studying the brain without it being influenced by other bodily functions.
“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 Dr. Juan Pascual, a professor of neurology, pediatrics, and physiology at UT Southwestern.
The extracorporeal pulsatile circulatory control (EPCC) system has already been used to study the effects of hypoglycemia, or low blood glucose, on the brain – something those with diabetes often experience. These studies normally involve restricting an animal’s food intake or dosing them with insulin, but a body compensates by altering its metabolism. The device can allow researchers to directly alter the blood glucose pumped into the brain.
Pascual said the first-of-its-kind system could also lead to improvements to the machines used during heart bypass operations that replicate blood flow to the brain. This may potentially avoid brain-related side effects by providing a natural pulsing blood flow similar to that of the human heart.
While EPCC has great potential in the field of medicine, the idea of keeping a brain alive independently from the body also brings to mind the controversial subject of head transplants. An Italian neurosurgeon named Sergio Canavero was set to attempt such an operation a few years ago, but Valery Spiridonov, who has the muscle-wasting condition Werdnig-Hoffmann disease, decided not to have his head fused onto another body after finding love and becoming a father.