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Researchers are keeping pig brains alive outside the body (technologyreview.com)
52 points by petethomas 9 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments

Perhaps, based on the article, a better title could be "researchers keep large fraction of brain cells alive in pig brain..."

I hope they did some fMRI studies of the brains. Wonder if they just got some random noise (i.e., brain cells firing asynchronously) or if there was some discernable pattern.

And if there is a pattern, then.. wow! But also, little creepy..

As an aside, I respect that the authors on the paper refused to comment on it till the paper gets reviewed / published.

I would be very surprised if there was any kind of pattern. Once you cut off patterned sensory input, there is no reason to believe any pattern would persist beyond that. Even meager attempts at sensory deprivation often result in quite quite dissolution of consciousness, with it only be restored upon resumption of sensory input. That combined with the fact that significant changes to our bodies and perceptive apparatus lead to significant changes in our subjective experience makes it fairly clear, to me at least, that you can't have a mind without a body perceiving and creating a feedback loop between the world and your 'self.'

I mean it would seem to be comparable to turning a computer on with no mouse, keyboard or screen attached (or any peripheral).

The idea of a disembodied brain doesn't really make sense as the brain is only one piece of the conscious experience, you need the rest of the nervous and perception systems (or robotic proxies) for it to actually be capable of anything or respond in a way that would be illuminating to a researcher.

The Soviets did similar experiments, the end result was the invention of heart-lung and dialysis machines [0]. Makes one wonder what this will lead to down the road? But it will probably be a while before we get there due to ethical concerns of doing something like this with a human brain.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experiments_in_the_Revival_of_...

> Makes one wonder what this will lead to down the road?

Brain as a Service?


Uplifted swine? Pigsmatrix?

Even though he says the EEG was flat: I'm mostly horrified at the idea that the pig might still be conscious.

Pigs are self aware.

Maybe someday we as a species will evolve to a point that we recognize the immorality of experimenting on beings which are sentient but do not have the capability to consent.

It boggles my mind that the learned individuals performing such experiments (and especially, the ethics boards that green-light them) fail to recognize as false the dichotomy between human and non-human sentience; but, humans have a history of performing experiments on other humans against their consent, so I shouldn't be surprised.

What is the alternative? Let thousands of cancer victims die each year because we don’t want to test experimental cancer treatments on pigs?

If your loved one was dying from cancer, and the only way to speed up the development of a cure would be testing it on animals, what would you do?

Test on human volunteers.

And your hypothetical makes no sense. Discovering "a cure for cancer" takes much longer than the life expectancy of someone who is "dying from cancer".

Beside, my loved ones agree with me. My selfishness for companionship doesn't outweigh their moral stance.

And your hypothetical makes no sense. Discovering "a cure for cancer" takes much longer than the life expectancy of someone who is "dying from cancer".

The breakthrough can happen at any point in the future, tomorrow, or in 2 years, or 20 years. We don't know. What we know is that by allowing animal testing we most likely speed up that discovery process.

We re talking about killing ~15 million people every year in the USA alone. That's one hell of a way to eradicate cancer, of course.

Experimentation does not necessarily mean killing. (Though lab animals are usually euthanized once they are no longer "useful".)

But we're not talking about experimenting on 15 million volunteer humans. We're talking about experimenting on 15 million animals incapable of consent. That figure should be equally morally repugnant to you.

it is problematic. but 1) we 're mostly talking about mice - higher animals are a lot more regulated and 2) the best we can do is to improve experiment registration and reporting in order to avoid all the redundant work and improve progress , saving those animals. The discussion about replicability, study size and chasing p-values is relevant.

What if there are no human volunteers? Or no human volunteers with this specific condition?

"What if there were no animals? Or no animals with the specific condition?"

Two can play at the hypothetical game. It's stupid. The same reasoning leads to moral acceptance of human organ harvesting. ("There's no willing donors, and those prisoners don't need an extra kidney anyway, and I do!")

(Though the concern that so-called animal "models" don't reliably predict the effect of treatments on human is very real.)

This is not a "hypothetical game". There are plenty of animals that we can use for testing, and we can create any necessary conditions in them to test our experimental treatments. Yes, this is cruel and sad, but if the alternative is to let humans die, I'll choose animals any day.

This is not the same as human organ harvesting, because that would result in death of humans, and we are trying to prevent that.

The concern that animal test results don't necessarily apply to humans is real, but it's much better than no tests at all.

Um, you don't have to kill someone to remove an organ. Many people donate them voluntarily while alive. But if there's no match or no-one willing to donate, we don't extract them from, say, prisoners against their will. (Though some countries do.)

It seems like the fundamental difference in our worldviews is that you give equal significance to humans and animals, and I don't. That's why for me human organ harvesting is not the same as pig organ harvesting, and that's why experimentation on pigs is acceptable for me if it results in fewer human deaths.

Yes, that's my original point. I don't see the difference between humans and animals, especially intelligent social beings such as pigs, as so great as to justify actions which would be considered grossly immoral against a human, and I don't understand how others can.

A human and a fly? Sure, I see how one can apply vastly different moral judgements (I certainly do). A human and a pig? No, it's a matter of degrees.

You should read the "Never Let Me Go" book.

Can you define sentient? In this case I agree that pigs are obviously sentient, but do you think you could write a non-ambiguous easily-applied rule that prohibits experimenting on sentient life?

Wikipedia has a good overview: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sentience Practically questions like these are decided by case law. (This is not very different than the current arguments over abortion in the US.)

Pig brains are just (dog) food. Morality shouldn't be concerned with food no matter how sentient it is.

Why are pig brains dog food? Because they're below the arbitrary threshold of intelligence we have drawn in the sand to determine sentience?

What if there was extra-terrestrial life of greater intelligence still that encountered our own species, and subjected us to identical treatment according to the exact same basis of morality?

I honestly can't tell if you're trolling, since your wording sounds like it's meant to provoke, but I'll answer you earnestly.

Why should edibility take precedence over sentience? Humans are edible, after all.

What a strange argument.

Could you not also argue that dog brains are pig food?

Huh. I guess in our lifetime we'll see a human brain sustained outside the body and then put back in so we can ask the person what it was like.

It must be weird having thoughts without any sensory input whatsoever...it’s like a prison of sorts.

> It must be weird having thoughts without any sensory input whatsoever...it’s like a prison of sorts

I don't know. For an uninstantiated mind, perhaps. But if you know it's temporary and know it's safe, perhaps it would be therapeutic. Or beneficial in some other way. Maybe a detached brain sleeps better. Or maybe it instantly and irreversibly goes mad.

At minimum it quickly gets pretty trippy. The closest human experiments I know of are dissociative hallucinogens and sensory deprivation.

Thoughts without sensory input is basically what people are going for when they pay money and schedule time in a float tank.


I guess it would be maddening. At least in the tank you can still move, speak, blink, touch, breathe, etc. Much more importantly, in a vat you'd have your entire central nervous system exposed, that could be painful.

Robot nixon

Rather than trying to building practical pattern recognition systems using computers we can use animal brains, i.e. not models for brains, like the bee brain model http://greenbrain.group.shef.ac.uk/, but actual brains hooked up to circuitry. Or, if the whole brain is impractical, just relevant parts, e.g. the visual cortex for visual analysis. Using higher-level animals like a pig may be gross, ethically speaking but how about others, e.g. mice. Think about a visual processing unit using 1,000 mice brains harvested from embryos.

I think the bottleneck here is to keep brains/tissues alive, so this research is interesting.

I hope there was no possibility that the brains regained consciousness in any sense, otherwise it seems like incredibly unethical experimentation.

This is a key development in my personal plan for Futurama-style immortality. Glass jar futures, anyone?

With a realistic enough VR and feedback environment I would take it if they could keep the essence that is me alive and able to interact with reality.

Maybe this already happened to me and I didn't realize it.

Apparently in my VR simulation, most major Linux distributions have adopted systemd and the UK is leaving the EU.

Apparently in my VR simulation, most major Linux distributions have adopted systemd and the UK is leaving the EU.

So trippy! You’ll never believe mine though, Donald Trump is president of America and Dick Cheney outlived Robin Williams. I think I got a bad vat.

I don't understand how people think their there is some "essence" that is somehow disconnected from their body. Everything about your experience, selfawarenes, emotions, etc. is connected to your body. A simple physical interaction can change your mood and behavior instantly. Like getting hit or sexualy aroused, your personality can be permanently changed by hormonal changes, your mental performance is influenced by your physical fitness. Your selfimage and behavior is based heavily on your appearance (eg. one thing known to increase long term happiness is improving your attractiveness).

Even if you could run your brain without your body the result would nothing like the person you are now - some traits would be preserved for sure - but imo calling that essence ignores how much subconscious/physical are a part of your personality.

The way you re-used essence in quotes makes me think maybe you interpreted my post as meaning a metaphysical soul or something along those lines. That was not at all what I was going for.

Simply taking a brain out of a body and then "keeping it on life support" would be horrendous. Think of it, your brain is very much alive with zero stimulation for a theoretical eternity. That would likely drive people insane.

My point was if the technology became sufficiently advanced that we could say wire the brain into an artificial body where we could still see, communicate, maybe even feel pain and pleasure.

Think of the numerous people with severe physical handicaps who might actually find something like this to be an improvement over their current living situation.

Not necessarily metaphysical - I get a feeling a lot of these discussions treat brain and body as separate entities and the reasoning reduces to the same as metaphysical ghost in the machine - brain in the machine.

If we ever get to that point you're almost a completely different entity from the person you were in your body, you could share some of the memories and logic but even your perception on them would change drastically along with your self image changes.

Since it is "my brain", I would think that I would have all of my memories which is largely what makes up me.

I really don't see how then I would be a completely different entity. It would just be me, but in a better body in my case. As someone who suffers from a degenerative disease that causes chronic pain which only continues to get worse over time I would welcome transplanting my brain into an android-like body where I could continue to live, albeit without the suffering.

If this is the bridge that gets my brain to last until brain emulation happens, I'm sooooo down.

I don't remember the author off hand (maybe John Varley?) but there is a science fiction novel where people are kept as heads with all of their nerves hooked up in such a way that ANY sensation could be perfectly created.

Needless to say, it was possible to go to some pretty dark places with this. Imagine, for example, feeling like you had to urinate but never being able to relieve yourself for all eternity. And that was one of the "lighter" abuses.


It's also one of the technologies pictured in the human depository[1], though.

1. http://www.earthexplodes.com/comics/200/

Rather die.

Futurama even covered that! “Interesting side note: as a head without a body, I envy the dead.”

I vaguely recall a reboot Twilight Zone or reboot Outer Limits where a rich woman paid a doctor to keep her alive by any means necessary, and ended up being just a head on a pedestal with one robot arm, that was limited in its range of motions such that it could not aim a gun at the head.

And also In Fallout 4: Nuka World, where the Walt Disney expy character was just an immortal head in a tiny Vault-Tec bunker.

Glad someone else made a futurama comment first. My first thought upon reading the title:

Good news everyone!

since when do pigs have better technology than primates ?

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