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Three dead pigs

By Timothy Cocks Science and the world 18 Apr 2019

Well, actually it’s 32 dead pigs, and they’re causing a rather large stir, a fuss, a commotion, a disturbance… even perhaps if I may, a brouhaha in a bacon house with herd of ham-fisted hacks carrying on like pork chops trying to hog all the limelight.

Say what now??


The reason for this collective flurry of excitement is front cover news on the latest edition of Nature with the headlines proclaiming

“Pig brains kept alive outside body for hours after death”

In a challenge to the idea that brain death is final, researchers have revived the disembodied brains of pigs four hours after the animals were slaughtered. Although the experiments stopped short of restoring consciousness, they raise questions about the ethics of the approach — and, more fundamentally, about the nature of death itself. The current legal and medical definitions of death guide protocols for resuscitating people and for transplanting organs…

The system, which the researchers call BrainEx, mimics blood flow by delivering nutrients and oxygen to brain cells. The preservative solution the team used also contained chemicals that stop neurons from firing, to protect them from damage and to prevent electrical brain activity from restarting. Despite this, the scientists monitored the brains’ electrical activity throughout the experiment and were prepared to administer anaesthetics if they saw signs that the organ might be regaining consciousness…

Mark the day

I’m not sure that my contract said anything about bringing my brain back to life

The media has been all over this, with the usual careful, considered reporting…

Researchers ‘reboot’ pig brains hours after animals died

How pig brains were ‘brought back to life’

Back from the dead: Scientists resurrect pig brains boosting immortality hopes

Is death still the end? Scientists spark life in brains of dead pigs

It was inevitable, but by this time I’m getting grumpy…

Frankenswine: scientists bring a pig brain back from dead

Scientists have just announced something long thought impossible: they had brought a brain back from the dead.

By placing a pig’s brain in a chamber connected to a machine that pumped oxygen and nutrients through it, they were able to bring the brain back to something resembling life – four hours after it had been removed from the pig’s skull. (emphasis added)

Points for the pun, BUT, no they DID NOT and NO IT’S NOT, you BANANA…

But wait there is more

Other experiments have shown that consciousness might be able to restart if the brain is kept in the chamber for long enough.

Or it could be the brain needs an electrical shock to restart thought patterns.

Regardless, a conscious brain could well be possible.

WHAT? What “other experiments”. Now you’re just making shit up you peanut.

And of course, zombies… (although for the philosophically inclined, this does give a whole new slant on p-zombies!)

The dawn of the zombie pigs

“In effect, Vrselja and colleagues have created the world’s first zombie pigs.”


I’m ok. It’s just this kind of public display of stupidity makes me ranty.

It’s also unclear…

Do zombie pigs crave bacon?

Ed Yong (an excellent science writer) has a piece in the Atlantic that starts out on a more sober note, with no Franenswines or pig zombies…

Scientists Partly Restore Activity in Dead-Pig Brains

The team sourced 32 pig brains from a slaughterhouse, placed them in spherical chambers, and infused them with nutrients and protective chemicals, using pumps that mimicked the beats of a heart. This system, dubbed BrainEx, preserved the overall architecture of the brains, preventing them from degrading. It restored flow in their blood vessels, which once again became sensitive to dilating drugs. It stopped many neurons and other cells from dying, and reinstated their ability to consume sugar and oxygen. Some of these rescued neurons even started to fire. “Everything was surprising,” says Zvonimir Vrselja, who performed most of the experiments along with Stefano Daniele.

But even in just reporting the facts of the research, the story does get a bit weird…

Disembodied brains in jars are a familiar and disquieting science-fiction staple, but in those stories, the brains are alive, conscious, and self-aware. Those in Sestan’s experiments were zero for three. Though individual neurons could fire, there were no signs of the coordinated, brain wide electrical activity that indicates perception, sentience, consciousness, or even life. The team had anesthetics on standby in case any such flickers materialized—and none did…

Did you catch that, it’s the second time it has been raised – the researchers “had anesthetics on standby”…

Just. Think. About. That. For a moment.

The researchers had anaesthetics on standby in case the brain, what, started to hurt? Did the researchers really believe that there was a chance that their pig-brain-in-a-vat was possibly going to regain perception, sentience, consciousness or life?

Et tu Ed?

I trusted you Ed…

And although it starts with promise, there is this remarkable passage later on in Yong’s piece:

It’s also unclear why the pig brains never regained coordinated activity. Is it because team members waited for four hours? Is it because they only treated the brains for six hours? Was it something about the way the pigs were killed? Or is it because they added chemicals that dampen neural activity to the fluid that they pumped through the brains? (They did this because excessive firing helps to kill neurons in oxygen-starved brains.) And if that’s the case, could isolated brains gain consciousness if the blockers were removed? (emphasis added)

Oh Ed, not you too… Is it really unclear why a pig’s brain, removed from the body 4 hours earlier never regained coordinated activity?

I could hazard a guess…

A collective mereological insanity

Which cut is the real pig – The porcineological fallacy?

The mereological fallacy is committed when one attributes to the parts of an animal functions that make sense only when applied to the whole animal – such as suggesting that your stomach ate lunch, or that brains on their own can think, learn, imagine, calculate, know, perceive…

Given the ridiculous reporting on the pig brain experiment the mereological fallacy would appear to be the locus communis – the conventional wisdom – of the public, ‘science’ writers and more than a few neuroscientists.

And it’s a problem.  You all know where I’m going with this.

-Tim Cocks


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  1. John Barbis

    Excellent. I think I will stick with pickled pigs feet.

  2. Bridget

    I think it’s a given that any kind of conventional, as opposed to scientific, reporting on such an experiment will be fraught with fault, misunderstanding and ignorance, but what was the actual purpose of the experiment? I recall scientists “successfully” transplanting the head of a monkey once, which apparently “lived” for an hour. The reporting, scientist said: “I never want to see a facial expression like that again – the creature was terrified.”

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