Brains and Ethics

Revived pig brains, memory backups and ethical questions have been in the news.

It sounds like a B movie scenario, but the research is quite real. So are the questions.

I’ll be talking about research, technology, and why I’m glad that folks at MIT decided that brain backups were a dubious goal.

Principles, Rules and Change

I occasionally run into Christians who shun science, see it an enemy of faith, or make up their own version. They’re almost certainly sincere, but I don’t share their views.

Refusing to learn about the wonders and beauties surrounding us seems like a poor way of showing admiration for God’s work.

Seeking truth, using our God-given brains, is a good idea. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159, 214217, 283, 294, 341)

So is remembering that ethics matter. (Catechism, 22922296)

The basics of what’s ethical are simple. I should God and my neighbor, and see everyone as my neighbor. (Matthew 5:4344, 22:3640; Mark 12:2831; Luke 10:2537; Catechism, 1706, 1776, 1789, 1825, 18491851, 1955)

Our rules work better if they follow those basic principles. The principles don’t change. Our rules must, as our tech and cultures change. (February 5, 2017)

Reanimated Pig Brains

(From Reuters, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“The scientists used pumps, heaters, and bags of artificial blood to restore circulation to the pig brains”
(BBC News))

Ethics debate as pig brains kept alive without a body
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (April 27, 2018)

Researchers at Yale University have restored circulation to the brains of decapitated pigs, and kept the organs alive for several hours.

“Their aim is to develop a way of studying intact human brains in the lab for medical research.

“Although there is no evidence that the animals were aware, there is concern that some degree of consciousness might have remained.

“Details of the study were presented at a brain science ethics meeting held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda in Maryland on 28 March….”

Yale University neuroscientist Nenad Sestan and other researches plugged over a hundred pig brains into a system that pumped blood through them.

They kept at least some alive for up to 36 hours. “Alive” in this case means that “billions of individual cells in the brains were found to be healthy and capable of normal activity.” (Antonio Regalado, MIT Technology Review (April 25, 2018))

That’s impressive, since the pigs had been decapitated about four hours before researchers plugged the brains into a fresh blood supply.

But it’s not the first time researchers have kept detached brains alive. Detached heads, at any rate. Experiments in the 19th century showed that heads could be removed, given another source of oxygenated blood, and show signs of life.

Keeping just the brain alive is easier with invertebrates, since they don’t use oxygen as fast as mammals or birds.1

Ethical Aspects of Flatlined Pigs

I’m uneasy about this research, but not because I think pigs are people. Or think the pigs were being mistreated.

The scientists looked for complex neural activity with a sort of porcine EEG.

The electrodes picked up signals, sparking “both alarm and excitement in the lab.” The signals were from nearby equipment, not the brains. The pig brains were ‘flatlined.’2

I’m reasonably sure the pigs weren’t feeling pain. That’s good news.

I think using animals and plants for research can be a good ideas, and that making animals suffer needlessly isn’t. (Catechism, 24152418)

The not-so-good news is that folks do, sometimes, mistreat critters. And people. Ethics matter, particularly while experimenting with humans. (November 11, 2016)


I think, and hope, we’ll pay attention to what these scientists said:

“If researchers could create brain tissue in the laboratory that might appear to have conscious experiences or subjective phenomenal states, would that tissue deserve any of the protections routinely given to human or animal research subjects?

This question might seem outlandish. Certainly, today’s experimental models are far from having such capabilities. But various models are now being developed…”
(“The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue,”3 Nature (April 25, 2018))

I think they’re right. Wondering about legal rights and protections for preserved brains seems “outlandish.” Nobody’s successfully kept a human brain alive and conscious outside the body. Yet.

But it’s not the B movie “mad scientist” scenario it was in my youth. I’ll get back to that.

Brain Backups

(From Getty Images, via BBC News, used w/o permission.)
(“Nectome aims to preserve biomolecules in the brain to let memories be saved after death”
(BBC News))

Brain back-up firm Nectome loses link to MIT
Pallab Ghosh, BBC News (April 27, 2018)

A company attempting to map people’s brains so their memories can be stored in computers has lost its link to one of the United States’ top universities.

“US start-up Nectome revealed its brain back-up plan last month, warning at the time that the process involved would be ‘100% fatal’.

“A number of neuroscientists subsequently poured scorn on the plan.

“The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has now announced that it is severing ties with the project….”

Recording someone’s memory isn’t as crazy an idea as it might seem.

Researchers at Berkeley used fMRI and software to detect what folks saw while watching movie trailers.

The technology isn’t even close to letting us record dreams for playback, or see what a coma patient is thinking.

The reconstructed videos are barely recognizable. And the process won’t work unless the person being scanned has seen the video at least once before.4

Results of that research was published in 2011. We’ve learned a bit more about how the brain works since then, but still don’t have ‘dreamcorders.’

I think folks at Nectome are right. We will be able to detect and record neural connections well enough to piece together someone’s memories. Eventually.

We’re not there yet. Not even close.

Netcome’s research uses mice, not people. That, I gather, isn’t what bothers MIT.

It’s what Netcome plans to do after working with mice. Their goal is preserving and recording exactly what’s stored in someone’s brain — at the moment of death.5

And Netcome’s process kills the brain that’s being recorded.


MIT’s concern is that someone’s going to see having their brain pickled and analyzed as a step to immortality.

That’s an issue by itself. And another topic.

Valuing life and health is a good idea. Putting it at the top of my priorities isn’t. Neither is having someone kill me. (Catechism, 2113, 22802283, 22882291)

I don’t see medical research as “tampering with things man was not supposed to know.” But I think MIT’s right. Netcome’s goal is a problem.

More exactly, what will probably happen during Netcome’s research is worrisome.

The problem, as MIT sees it, is that we’re not even close to understanding how memory works. The odds are very good that someone volunteering as a Netcome test subject would end up with a well-preserved, and quite dead, brain.

Experiments with human volunteers can be okay. But not if that means taking “disproportionate or avoidable risks.” (Catechism, 2295)

I think a 100% chance of death is “disproportionate.”

Life and Movies

Virginia Leith’s most memorable role may her portrayal of Jan Compton in “The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.”

Compton lost her head — literally — in an car accident.

Her distraught fiancé, Bill Cortner, revives her head and starts looking for a replacement body. With regrettable results.

The film was made in the late 1950s and released in 1962.

Nobody had technology that could keep someone’s head alive and conscious then. We still don’t.

I don’t see a problem with Bill Cornter’s decision to keep Compton alive, even though she was missing everything from the neck down.

Bill’s first impulse, saving her life, made sense to me. So did his wanting to get a new body for Compton. His decision to find a suitable donor, remove her head and attach Compton’s to the body, was also understandable. But unacceptable.

Medical treatments, including transplants, are okay. If the risks outweigh benefits, and helping one person doesn’t mean maiming or killing another. (Catechism, 2278, 2296)

I haven’t seen the movie in decades, but my memory tells me that Compton wasn’t happy about her post-accident condition. I don’t remember why she felt that way.

Brain in a Vat

Getting back to preserved pig brains and ethics, I think learning more about how brains work is a good idea.

That’s partly because I deal with an autism spectrum disorder, depression and other glitches. (January 7, 2018)

An amazing number of things can go wrong with our brains, and with the connections between our brains and bodies.

I’ll focus on locked-in syndrome. Whether someone would see it as nightmarish or frustrating probably depends on attitude. Either way, being unable to move wouldn’t be good. Even if the person ‘inside’ could still control the eyes.

Add being completely cut off from sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch — and we’ve got a “brain in a vat” situation.6

In principle, someone’s brain could be alive and conscious, completely alone: cut off from all sensation and unable to move. That would be unpleasant, putting it very mildly. But it might be someone’s best chance for recovery after an accident or illness.

Or the person might experience an illusionary body, with virtual reality software replacing sensory and motor connections. Living in a virtual world could be pleasant or not, depending on how well the equipment works.

And whether the folks running the system were trying to help or torment the subject.

We’re not there yet, and may not be for decades. But “brain in a vat” speculations aren’t as hypothetical as they were in the early 1960s.

I think it’s a near-certainty that the question is no longer whether legal rights for detached human brains becomes an issue. It’s when we will need rules for using the tech.

Reason for Concern: Not Fear

Fear, like any emotion, can be useful, a signal that something needs attention.

But I think it’s a very poor guide. (October 5, 2016)

Feelings, emotions, are real and part of being human. By themselves, they aren’t good or bad. What matters is what we decide. Reasoning is part of being human too. Thinking before deciding makes sense. (Catechism, 1730, 17621770, 1778, 1804, 2339)

As Yale’s ‘pig brain’ news spreads from academic papers to supermarket checkout periodicals, some folks may see preserved pig brains as a threat.

I’m no fan of regulations, particularly when they’re written by clueless bureaucrats and politicos. But I think we need rules that spell out what’s legitimate research, and what’s another Tuskegee or Willowbrook waiting to happen. (August 18, 2017August 18, 2017)

More of my views of fear, facts, and using our brains:

1 Keeping brains alive:

2 ‘Disembodied’ pigs:

3 Planning ahead:

  • The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue
    Nita A. Farahany, Henry T. Greely, Steven Hyman, Christof Koch, Christine Grady, Sergiu P. Pașca, Nenad Sestan, Paola Arlotta, James L. Bernat, Jonathan Ting, Jeantine E. Lunshof, Eswar P. R. Iyer, Insoo Hyun, Beatrice H. Capestany, George M. Church, Hao Huang, Hongjun Song; Nature (April 25, 2018)

4 Brain scanner prototype:

5 Concerns:

6 Perceptions and reality:

About Brian H. Gill

I'm a sixty-something married guy with six kids, four surviving, in a small central Minnesota town. I mostly write and make digital art. I'm only interested in three things: that which exists within the universe; that which exists beyond; and that which might exist.
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