Determining the point of death used to be fairly straightforward—when your heart stopped beating, that was it. Then we learned how to resuscitate a stopped heart, and over the years we learned more and more ways to keep a person alive with technology when their own body can’t do it on its own. From that came the concept of brain death: when our best sensing technologies, like functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and electroencephalography (EEG) can no longer detect any brain activity, the person is declared dead. Because, after all, the brain runs everything. When too many brain cells (neurons) are badly damaged, coherent signals can no longer pass along the neural networks that are the body’s control system.
But what if you could stimulate the growth of fresh, undamaged neurons, and get them firing? Would that revive brain function? Could it bring the person back to life?
Reanimating the dead is a concept that’s been around a whole lot longer than the novel Frankenstein, possibly because people whose heartbeats have become too faint to easily detect by touch or sound sometimes do “come back to life”. So if it can happen spontaneously, there must be ways of doing it deliberately, right? (If you want to read about some of the utterly ghoulish attempts made over the past few centuries, have a look here.)
The challenge is not something that modern science can resist. So word has recently come that a US company called Bioquark will undertake human trials in an unnamed Latin American country to revive twenty patients who’ve been declared brain dead. It’s a three-step process involving stem cells, peptides, and laser stimulation. You’ve probably heard of stem cells—they’re the body’s “blank slates” which, at need, can become nearly any kind of specialized body cell. They’re used in everything from knee regeneration to cancer treatments these days, and it isn’t really a stretch to think they might be used to replace damaged neurons. In the Bioquark tests, the stem cells will be harvested from the patient’s own body. Then they’ll be re-injected into the patient’s spinal cord, along with proteins called peptides, in an effort to convince the cells to become neurons. That “convincing” will take the form of laser therapy and the stimulation of the brain’s median nerve for fifteen days.
In case you’re wondering if all of that treatment culminates in a bunch of electrodes and a lightning storm…well, I don’t think it will be that flashy—probably just a lot of scanning to see if anything’s happening. But the thing is, Bioquark hasn’t tested the procedure on animals first, and has no plans to. They’d originally intended to run their trials in India, but the Indian Council of Medical Research got wind of it and “invited” them to go elsewhere. So Latin America it is. Somewhere. We think.
Science fiction and fantasy are full of stories of the dead being brought back to life. One of the most common tropes has the unfortunate majority of humankind turned into zombies (perhaps named as such, but often not) as in Matheson’s I Am Legend. But Frank Herbert’s Dune series features an interesting take in the form of the gholas—technically clones of dead people, but potentially able to regain the full personality and memories of the original.
A Chinese science fiction writer named Du Hong recently paid more than $120,000 to have her brain frozen at a facility in Scottsdale, Arizona after her death from cancer, in hopes that future science will be able to reanimate it (or at the very least, experiment with it—she was OK with that too). The idea of being frozen and later returned to life is common in SF, from Buck Rogers to the Woody Allen movie Sleeper, and it’s only a short step to the deliberate cryonic suspension used for space travellers in stories like Lost In Space and 2001: A Space Odyssey (although those characters aren’t actually dead).
Alternate history buffs imagine the consequences of bringing notable figures from history back to life. Others propose returning the dead to consciousness in a robot body, or even just a computer system with no body at all. There are endless ways of using the subject in fiction, and readers are endlessly fascinated with it because we can’t escape the knowledge of our own inevitable death some day. So it’s easy to get excited about experiments like Bioquark’s.
I’ve often expressed my concerns about the ethics and hazards of certain biomedical procedures, but at least in most cases, even with the fairly bizarre stuff, the patients have consented to become guinea pigs. How can someone who’s clinically dead give their consent? Even with the support of next-of-kin, this is a very troublesome question. Especially since, when a person’s neurons have been too badly damaged to keep them alive, it isn’t likely that they could be revived without some serious loss of function. We can get a good idea of the potential results from seeing stroke victims and other people with brain injuries.
Is a life with significant impairments a life worth returning to? Maybe. It would depend on a lot of factors, and every individual might make a different choice. The point is, with Bioquark’s procedure the side-effects are impossible to know beforehand, and the person most affected can’t be consulted, so no choice is possible.
Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t given a choice, and that didn’t turn out too well.