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What Can You Do With Brain Tissue From Dead Humans?

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There are far fewer restrictions on human research subjects after death.

On Wednesday, a group of scientists announced they had partially revived the brains of dead pigs, which they’d retrieved from a slaughterhouse four hours earlier. By injecting a solution into the brains, they restored some of their cellular function, creating something not quite dead and not quite alive.

Like its subject, the groundbreaking experiment is also in a gray area. The researchers’ success has sweeping implications for brain research in humans, but it’s also raised serious questions: Could we do this with human brain tissue? Should we?

While bioethicists will be debating the latter for quite some time, it’s clear that researchers have a lot of leeway on what they can do with tissue from dead people, brains or otherwise. The United States has an elaborate system of protections for living human research subjects, but tissue from the deceased gets less oversight—aside from guidance on how you obtain, store, and identify it. “Once a human dies and their tissue is in a laboratory, there are many fewer restrictions on what can be done,” Christine Grady, chief of the department of bioethics at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, told NPR.

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