Bioethics Blogs

Crosspost: Bring back the dead

A version of this post was originally published at The Conversation.

A trial to see if it is possible to regenerate brains in patients that have been declared clinically dead has been approved. Reanima Advanced Biosciences aims at using stem cells, injections of peptides, and nerve stimulation to cause regeneration in brain dead patients. The primary outcome measure is “reversal of brain death as noted in clinical examination or EEG”, which at least scores high on ambition. The study accepts healthy volunteers, but they need to be brain dead due to traumatic brain injury, which might discourage most people.

Is there any problem with this?

Death of definitions

There is a trivial problem with the study, and that is the definition of brain death involves the irreversible cessation of function – if it is curable, the patients were never brain dead in the first place.

The way out of this is to recognize that being “irreversibly dead” is technology dependent. For a long time lack of breathing and pulse was regarded as hallmarks of death, until resuscitation methods improved. Today drowning victims suffering from extreme hypothermia, lack of oxygen, and lacking pulse and breathing for several hours can be revived (with luck and heavy medical interventions). Lacking a heart is not death if you are on the transplant surgeon’s table. Given historical precedent, we should hence not discount the possibility that some people currently regarded as irreversibly dead may be revivable by future medical technology.

If the Reanima project succeeds, we will have to revise brain death and possibly the status of some patients.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.