It’s Alive! Sort Of.

7:32 minutes

This week, researchers announced in the journal Nature that they have partially restored circulation and some cellular function to whole pig brains hours after the pig’s death—but the rejuvenated brains show no signs of the organized electrical activity associated with functioning neural processes. The researchers cautioned that restoration of brain function was never intended, and that any work done towards restoring a brain’s electrical functions would need to be done under strict ethical controls. They hope that their research will allow brain researchers to better test ideas that previously could only be conducted on cultured brain cells in a dish.

Sarah Kaplan, science reporter at the Washington Post, joins Ira to talk about the brain advance and other stories from the week in science, including an unusually warm spring in Alaska, a contest to name some Jovian moons, and researchers from the USDA being ordered to add disclaimers to their published studies in this week’s News Roundup.

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Segment Guests

Sarah Kaplan

Sarah Kaplan is a science reporter at the Washington Post in Washington D.C..

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, the fifth generation of wireless is on its way. But how soon will your phone actually be using 5G? Plus, why some people, including several lawmakers, are opposing the rollout over potential health concerns. 

But first this week, a story that sounds like something out of science fiction. Scientists report in the journal Nature that they have been able to restore some of the cellular and circulatory function in pig brains hours after death. Here to talk about and other selected short subjects in science is Washington Post science reporter Sarah Kaplan. Happily to see you in our studio– 

SARAH KAPLAN: Great to be here 

IRA FLATOW: –this week. All right. Let’s talk about this. It almost sounds like– some of the headlines are making it sound like a Franken brain. At least that’s what they’ve claimed. But it’s not what they have done, right? 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah. We’re not quite at the zombie apocalypse yet. Basically, researchers from the Yale School of Medicine were able to take some brains from pigs that had been previously killed at a slaughterhouse hours before, take them out of the heads, and then infuse them with a sort of cocktail of synthetic fluids that prevent the cells from degenerating and actually help restore some of the functions, like the metabolic activity consuming sugar and oxygen in order to function, and even some of the electrical activity. If they stimulated the cells, they were able to fire some synapses. But it was really, really far from actually getting the brain to work. 

IRA FLATOW: So it wasn’t really functioning. It was functioning on a very basic level. But it was not brain waves or any of that stuff going on. 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah, it’s individual cells but no signs of consciousness or global mental activity. But it does raise these questions about what is death? What is cell death? Because we think of death as this on or off switch. But really, as this study demonstrates, it’s a step-by-step process. 

First, the function of the cell stops working. And then, the cell stops consuming sugar. And then, eventually, the physical structure of the cell degenerates. And you can actually reverse some of those processes, these scientists have revealed. And so that, potentially, raises questions about if people have brain damage what kind of treatments might be available to them. 

IRA FLATOW: So they could study these pig brains and learn what kinds of treatments might work that they hadn’t thought about. 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah, those are the potential medical applications. But those are still a long way off. This is pretty basic research, even though it’s really interesting to start with. 

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, but they’re not trying to restore the thinking part of the brain? That’s not what they’re interested in? 

SARAH KAPLAN: No. And they actually had an anesthetic ready, just in case they saw any signs of consciousness, which they didn’t expect to. But the goal was never to actually get the brain functioning again. It was just to see, what can we do if we restore individual cells? 

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. So that won’t continue. It’s interesting. Let’s move on to you just got back from Alaska, you were telling me, where there’s very much spring in the air, right? 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah, yeah. I was in Utqiagvik, which is the northernmost city in the US. It’s right up there at the top. 

IRA FLATOW: Could you see Russia from there? 

SARAH KAPLAN: Not quite. I saw a lot of ice. But actually, I saw a lot less ice than people are expecting. Alaska has had this extraordinarily warm spring. Where I was, temperatures in March were 18.5 degrees above normal. 


SARAH KAPLAN: And it was pretty cold. But by their standards, it was a heat wave. At the grocery store, people were talking, and they were saying how nice the weather was. And the checkout person was like, yeah, nice for May, not nice for March. 

And the repercussions are being felt all over the state. Snow is melting a lot sooner than it usually does. And ice roads that people use on frozen rivers to get around are also melting. And several people have fallen through the ice and died as a consequence. 

IRA FLATOW: Mm-hmm. And of course, there’s ice. You can’t use ice to cut it up and store it, right? The ice is not there. 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah. Sea ice in the Bering and Chukchi Seas is a lot lower this winter than it has been. And that’s actually partly responsible for why the weather has been so warm in the state. And Alaska is the fastest warming state in the US. So they’re really feeling the consequences of climate change firsthand. 

IRA FLATOW: So you have the frozen tundra that’s not frozen. 


IRA FLATOW: You have methane escaping when you didn’t think it’s going to be escaping– all kinds of stuff like that. You have a new story just out today about the USDA and science journals. 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah. So scientists at the USDA, which has a bunch of research services that look at agriculture and soil and all kinds of things were instructed last year that when their papers get published in a journal, that’s not the end of the process. They need to append a note to the publication saying that the research is preliminary and have not been formally disseminated by the USDA. 

And that is pretty surprising for scientists. Because traditionally, getting your paper published in a peer-reviewed journal that’s been vetted by your colleagues and experts in the field, that’s not preliminary. That’s science. 

IRA FLATOW: It’s the gold standard. 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah. It’s the gold standard for how research is traditionally done. And so lots of folks, including people who ran research services at the USDA under previous presidents, have said that this raises questions about the scientific integrity policies that the USDA has. Scientists traditionally don’t have to get something reviewed by a politician in order to have their results be presented as valid. 

IRA FLATOW: So the idea here is you can publish it, but we’ll call it preliminary because our political officer hasn’t reviewed it yet. 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah. The idea is this is a way of making the results get out before research has undergone internal review. But for scientists, calling it preliminary when the research is objectively thorough raises some questions. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Let’s hope that doesn’t spread to other divisions in the government. Yeah. Finally, a naming contest for some new moons of Jupiter. 

SARAH KAPLAN: Yeah. So last year, a bunch of new moons of Jupiter were discovered by researchers at the Carnegie Institution for Science. And this past few months, they have been holding a contest to come up with names for these new moons. But there are a lot of rules because the International Astronomical Union, which oversees the naming of things in the solar system and beyond it, has these really strict guidelines in place. 

So if you want to name a moon of Jupiter, it has to be a character from Greek or Roman mythology. It has to be a descendant or lover of the god known as Zeus, or Jupiter. It has to be 16 characters or fewer. It can’t be offensive or commercial or political. 

And it even has rules about what letters there can be. So if the moon circles Jupiter in the same direction that Jupiter rotates, the name has to end in an A. And if it’s the opposite, the name has to end in an E. 

But the reason they have all these rules is because prior to IAU forming– which, actually, it’s celebrating its 100th birthday this year– the solar system was just like a huge mess. People would name things whatever they wanted. 


SARAH KAPLAN: And there were international fights, actually, between different countries. So this is a way of keeping everything in order. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, Vulcan doesn’t make it again. Thank you very much for taking time to be with us today. Sarah Kaplan, science reporter with The Washington Post. And happy holiday to you. 


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