By Yasmin Tayag
Resurrection will become a medical procedure if a new "death reversal" project greenlighted by the U.S. government last month is successful. The unprecedented study, spearheaded by two private biotech firms, will try to reverse brain death in legally dead subjects (brain death is death under U.S. law) using a range of existing medical techniques. The scientists behind the Reanima project are hoping to see brains repair and regenerate after being declared dead, and by doing so, they'll be providing greater insights into the seat of consciousness -- if there is one -- than ever before.
Brain death, by Harvard Medical School's official definition, is the "complete and irreversible" loss of brain function, including the involuntary activity needed to sustain life (that is, breathing independently). The scientists behind the project are contesting that irreversibility by subjecting 20 subjects -- brain-dead individuals gathered from a hospital ICU in India -- to a series of established medical techniques, like stem cell and peptide injections, lasers, and nerve stimulation, in hopes that they will induce some sort of physical response.
They aren't explicitly aiming to restore consciousness to the dead just yet, but that's the implicit end goal. "It is a long term vision of ours that a full recovery in such patients is a possibility, although that is not the focus of this first study - but it is a bridge to that eventuality," Bioquark's CEO, Dr. Ira Pastor, said in an interview with The Telegraph.
For now, they're simply planning to watch the lower region of the brainstem -- the part that controls independent breathing and the heartbeat for signs of regeneration as their "patients" are treated over two to three months. But, by monitoring the reanimating brain and its associated vital signs, they could also discover the parts of the brain that are crucial to reawakening consciousness after brain death -- if the patient ever truly "wakes up."
Whether that will happen -- and whether we'll be able to measure it -- remains, for now, purely hypothetical. The Reanima project is built on the theory that the conscious brain is merely the sum of its parts: If the death of some subset of brain cells means consciousness is extinguished, then why not just regrow the cells, the way salamanders regrow their tails, to get it back? The paradigm might seem overly simplistic, but it's too early to dismiss entirely: We've never really tried to reanimate a dead brain, so we really don't know what it will do.
Neuroscientists, carrying on a philosophical debate that's raged for millennia, haven't been able to figure out where -- if anywhere -- consciousness lives. Some neuroscience research suggests that consciousness is localized to specific areas of the brain; most recently, scientists pointed at the skinny strip of neurons called the claustrum as an "on-off" switch. Other research predicts that it arises from global connections between the brain's many regions.
In theory, Bioquark's research has the potential to help answer those questions, and it's clear that its representatives are betting that it will. "I personally think some of the topics related to memory recovery will be equally fascinating, and thus some potential answers to the age old question of where our mind really sits could be revealed," Pastor said in a recent interview with NextShark. Whether his work is all sordid hype or is truly advancing us into the age of the undead remains to be seen. All we can do is wait: The study has been given the go-ahead to begin in a hospital in India, where "participants" are actively being recruited.
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Photos via HBO