Bioquark, a U.S. biotech company, was just granted ethical approval for a clinical trial (in an Indian hospital) in which attempts will be made to reawaken portions of the central nervous systems on 20 people who were declared clinically dead from traumatic brain injury.
No, I’m not quoting a sci-fi novel—the ReAnima project uses a combination of injected stem cells and mix of peptides administered to the patients (who will be on life support) bi-weekly over six weeks, in tandem with the types of lasers and neurostimulation techniques typically used to bring patients out of a coma. They will then be monitored with MRI to monitor signs of regeneration in the upper spinal cord.
I’m sure you’re wondering, as I was—what on Earth is the scientific basis for reanimating a dead nervous system?
According to the researchers, it might be possible for brain stem cells to “reboot”—that is, erase history and begin anew—based on the health of surrounding tissue. This sort of thing is usually observed in animals like salamanders that are able to regenerate limbs. And although humans (unfortunately) don’t possess that regenerative capacity, studies have recently suggested that a portion of electrical activity and blood flow does continue after brain cell death. The researchers are hoping the treatment will facilitate the type of regeneration seen in amphibians and some fish.
It’s definitely a long shot. Even if certain parts of the nervous system follow the model of our fishy friends and wake up as a result of the treatment, about all it would accomplish is restart the functions of the lower brain stem—independent breathing and heartbeat.
Not to understate that accomplishment should it occur, but it’s not quite reawakening the working brain. “While there have been numerous demonstrations in recent years that the human brain and nervous system may not be as fixed and irreparable as is typically assumed, the idea that brain death could be easily reversed seems very far-fetched, given our current abilities and understanding of neuroscience,” commented Dr. Dean Burnett, a neuroscientist for Cardiff University’s Centre for Medical Education in an article in The Telegraph.
It seems that the researchers are grounded in reality for the time being. “It is a long term vision of ours that a full recovery in such patients is a possibility, although that is not the focus of this first study – but it is a bridge to that eventuality,” commented Dr. Ira Pastor, Bioquark’s CEO.
A more short-term, useful result of the research seems to be be insight into brain death, eventually developed into therapies for coma, vegetative and minimally conscious, and degenerative central nervous system (i.e. Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s) patients. According to Dr. Sergei Paylin, Bioquark’s founder, president, and chief science officer, this is one of the study’s goals.
Hopefully there will be more to announce as this project progresses—I’ll be sure to let you know if someone wakes up.