A rabbit brain that was once stored in a deep-frozen state has been thawed, without damage to the vital organ. But, can this new technique be used to successfully freeze and thaw the brains of larger animals, - even humans?
The Brain Preservation Foundation (BPF) set a challenge for biologists to thaw a brain without damage to the component neurons. This Small Mammal Prize, which began five years ago, was now been successfully completed.
This new study could be used to develop new techniques in treating brain diseases. The success of this project might also be a first step toward, one day, preserving human brains. Without damage to the neurons, even memories might be preserved.
"Every neuron and synapse looks beautifully preserved across the entire brain. Simply amazing given that I held in my hand this very same brain when it was vitrified glassy solid... This is not your father's cryonics," Kenneth Hayworth, BPF President, said.
The next step in research is epitomized by the Large Mammal Prize. In order to win the award, researchers would need to successfully freeze and thaw a pig brain using techniques that could be applied to human patients facing imminent death. One group of contestants, calling themselves 21st Century Medicine, has already submitted an entry that is being subjected to analysis.
Researchers who won the completed prize will be awarded a total of $26,735.
Significant damage is caused to the brain by ice crystals using traditional freezing methods. To get around this problem, researchers in this new study used a process called vitrification. This technique takes advantage of cryoprotectants to prevent damage to the neurons during the cooling and thawing processes. The brains were stored at -211 degrees Fahrenheit. One large question facing biologists is how well neurons will need to be preserved in order to properly store memories after death.
Study of how the brain reacts to freezing and defrosting could also assist researchers in developing new techniques to treat diseases and disorders of the organ, including Alzheimer's. One team of investigators is currently working to image the entire brain of a mouse using an electron microscope, in an effort to better understand how neurons in the organ connect together to process thoughts, senses, and memory. This study is expected to take several years to complete.
If memories can be preserved following freezing and thawing of brains, the technique could be used to provide a form of immortality for those who select to undergo the process.
For years, researchers, as well as much of the general public, has sought a way of preserving the human brain in stasis, awaiting a time when medical science will have advanced enough to cure whichever disease was responsible for the terminal condition.
Walt Disney, the famed animator, is popularly believed to be frozen in death, awaiting a future during which he will be thawed. However, this story is false. His funeral was carried out by his family with a great deal of privacy. This desire, combined with Disney's love of theatrics, likely sparked this urban legend.
Analysis of process of thawing a frozen rabbit brain was published in the journal Cryobiology.
Photo: Neil Conway | Flickr