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SYFY WIRE zombies

Scientists just zombified pig brains. Are we next?

By Elizabeth Rayne
American Horror Story: Roanoke

You haven’t watched too many episodes of The Walking Dead or seen too many things on the internet about undead animals. This actually happened, and it could start something that has only ever existed in science fiction (and obviously horror).

What even the most hardcore zombie movie fans might have thought was impossible became possible when Yale School of Medicine researchers were able to restore some brain activity in otherwise dead pig brains. Don’t worry, because these are the brains of pigs that were already doomed to end up at a food processing plant and must be bacon by now. The thing to be concerned about is whether this breakthrough is going to change our concept of death.

In an experiment that sounds like it was written for some B-horror movie, the scientists used their BrainEx system to pump a mysterious potion — more like a solution of compounds meant to revive cells — into the pig brains for six hours. BrainEx acted as a futuristic circulatory system by revitalizing brain tissue with solution while flushing out waste. It really did prevent tissue from decomposing and restored some function to cells.

If this goes mainstream, it could revolutionize our understanding of brain plasticity and advance drug testing. This could be huge for stroke victims who lose function in parts of the brain.

“These findings demonstrate that under appropriate conditions the isolated, intact large mammalian brain possesses an underappreciated capacity for restoration of microcirculation and molecular and cellular activity after a prolonged post-mortem interval,” says the study, which was recently published in the journal Nature.

American Horror Story: Roanoke

But wait. Does bringing cells back from the dead mean that these disembodied brains are suddenly conscious?

The research team insisted that in no way did they pull a Dr. Frankenstein. Just because individual cells started to come to life again, the brains were still very much dead because actual consciousness requires that there is widespread, coordinated activity going on. This experiment clearly didn’t create that monster.

“We wanted to investigate what happens in the brain following global injury … and whether we could restore certain cellular and molecular functions in the whole, intact brain four hours after death,” said Yale grad student Stefano Daniele, who co-authored the study. “We were successfully able to do so.” 

Now about the brain death thing. The pig brains had been experiencing hypoxia for four hours before they arrived at the lab. You’d think no oxygen for such an extended period would mean an official death sentence for all the cells involved, but after being pumped full of solution, some cells could respond to stimuli and individual neurons even became capable of electrical activity. This doesn't mean the brains were suddenly alive again, but that brain cells can survive much longer than we previously thought.

So no zombie swine are going to start thinking for themselves anytime soon, but it's horror movie fodder for days.

(via Yale University)