Bioethics Blogs

Reversing Brain Death: An Immodest Proposal

L. Syd M Johnson examines first of its kind research that aims to reverse brain death in humans.

__________________________________________

Last month, the US company Bioquark obtained regulatory approval for its Reanima Project, a research study that aims to resurrect the brain dead. The study will use stem cell therapy, transcranial laser therapy, and nerve stimulation in an attempt to reverse brain death in humans, by mimicking the nervous system regeneration seen in animals like salamanders and sea cucumbers. This month, researchers will begin recruiting 20 brain dead subjects in India.

India, like Canada and the United Kingdom, defines brain death as “brain stem death.” The brain stem standard defines legal death as “irreversible loss of the capacity for consciousness combined with the irreversible loss of the capacity to breathe.” Key components of consciousness and respiratory control are found in the brain stem, and their loss results in brain stem death. Preserved cortical electrical activity and intracranial blood flow are compatible with brain stem death.

The United States and much of Europe use the whole brain death standard for determining death. Whole brain death is the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.” Even with whole brain death, however, islands of functioning brain tissue, as well as electrical and hormonal brain activity can persist. By either definition brain death is irreversible.

The Reanima Project aims to change this. But, will the modest outcomes of the proposed study match the immodest claims of “curing” brain death and restoring consciousness? The primary outcome measure of the study is “reversal of brain death as noted in clinical examination or EEG.” However, electrical activity as recorded by EEG is compatible with brain death of either kind.

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.