Researchers at Yale University have caught the media’s attention in recent months by being able to keep a pig’s brain alive without its body. Achieved through using a series of tubes, pumps, heaters, and reservoirs, they were able to restore circulation back to the brain for up to 36 hours. However, consequently, this has raised a number of ethical and moral issues.

Not only was circulation restored for a number of hours in the brain, but individual cells were found to be healthy and normal. Named 'BrainEx', this experiment has received coverage from both the BBC and the MIT Technology Review. Steve Hyman, director of psychiatric research at the Broad Institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been quoted in the MIT review saying: "These brains may be damaged, but if the cells are alive, it’s a living organ.”

What has the research achieved?

The technique has also been understood, by neuroscientist Nenad Sestan from Yale University, to not be exclusive to pigs and to likely work on primates.

It is hoped that the breakthrough will aid research into neurological disorders and research purposes.

Whilst the breakthrough is welcomed by the Science community, certain ethical and moral issues have been raised alongside it.

Namely, the level of consciousness these brains have during the process as well as how the research might work towards extending life after death. Due to these questions, 16 of the foremost US neuroscientists have requested for clearer ethical guidelines in their research through a recent journal article.

What do the experts say?

Dr Ben Curtis, a leading philosopher who focuses on ethical and moral issues in academia, has provided an interview into the topic in order to shed light on the issues raised by the experiment.

"The first thing to say is that the pig brains that were kept alive in this case showed no signs of consciousness (they produced flat brain waves) and so the brains were kept alive only in a biological sense - in other words, they were alive in the same sense that a tree is," said Ben.

Here he notes this importance as he considers only a ‘conscious’ brain would raise serious ethical issues.

Drawing on ethical literature, Dr Curtis notes the notion of "moral status," in which he considers "The current dominant view is that a being's moral status depends upon its possession of psychological properties, e.g. the capacity to think and feel pain. And that is to say, if a being is entirely non-conscious, then it instantiates no psychological properties, and so it has no moral status and cannot be wronged".

Whilst he argues that currently, the research faces no serious ethical and moral issues, Ben considers the future of the research to be coming with far more ethical challenges. "There would be serious ethical issues raised if conscious brains were kept alive" he says.

If consciousness is created in the brain, Ben argues, that it would "certainly be a worry." It could "inflict deeply disturbing experiences upon the subject of consciousness, who would have no way of communicating their distress." He then notes that this will be particularly worse in the case of researching human brains, as humans have a "higher moral status" due to "higher psychological capacities." However, animals still have a moral status and "ought to be afforded protection from cruelty" in the case of the pigs.

What are the main ethical issues you feel have been raised? Do you think that pigs should be afforded the same protection as humans?