Reviving the dead using stem cells and electrical impulses sounds more like a plot for a Hollywood sci-fi movie than a process grounded in reality. And yet, that is exactly what a Philadelphia bio-tech company is suggesting with “ReAnima”, a proposed neuro-regenerative treatment where clinically declared brain-dead patients could be “brought back to life” by growing and stimulating new neurons. How are they suggesting this be done? The idea is to inject stem cells and protein building material into the spinal cord, followed by a period of median nerve stimulation and transcranial laser therapy which hopefully will cause the newly grown neurons to reform connections and eventually regain activity. This procedure has produced positive results when used on patients suffering from stroke, coma, brain injuries, ALS, and cerebral palsy, and could seemingly be interpreted as a natural expansion of the treatment.
The “ReAnima” study was originally launched in India in 2016 and hopes to reach a trial phase in the next few months, but has encountered skepticism in the medical community. Many researchers, bioethicists, and neurologists claim there is not enough scientific evidence behind the treatment. Patients with ALS or brain injuries, for example, are dramatically different than those with absolutely no remaining neural activity in critical brain regions, such as the brain stem. Stimulating any neuronal activity once a patient is brain-dead has never been shown in animals or humans.
Much of the skepticism surrounding this treatment can be largely attributed to the ambiguity surrounding brain death, which can not only vary cross-culturally but even within the same clinic. In Japan, for example, a person is considered legally dead only once they have taken their last breath, whereas in Western countries, this occurs at the cessation of brain activity. Unlike persistent vegetative states, comas, or brain traumas, “brain death” refers to a complete loss of neural activity in the brain and brainstem, and is fundamentally irreversible. This study therefore not only raises scientific questions, but ethical ones.
Bioquark, the company spearheading this treatment, is guided by the principle that while humans are limited in their ability to regrow parts of their central nervous system (CNS), other amphibians and fish are capable of doing so. Lizards, for example, may lose their tail while fleeing from predators; and yet, they are able to regrow segments of their spinal cord and can grow a tail back shortly thereafter. While impressive and imaginative, (think Curt Connors of Spiderman, who attempted to regrow his arm using reptilian stem cells), it can be futile to compare regeneration across species.
On the other hand, using electrical stimulation to “reanimate” a body is far from new; the idea first become popular in the late eighteenth century when physicians began running experiments involving muscle movement and electrical impulses. In 1791, Luigi Galvani ran an electric current through a frog’s severed leg causing its muscles to move as if it were alive. The experiment was considered cutting edge at the time and was emblematic of how many early scientists, the “vitalists,” believed the body’s nervous system – and human life – was caused by some kind of non-material spirit, or animal electricity.
The popularity of such theories culminated into one of today’s most famous novels, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which was written in the eighteenth century. Shelley depicts Frankenstein, (who contrary to many pop-culture portrayals is actually a medical student who created the “Monster,”) as a misguided scientist who uses vitalist theories to bend the laws of nature by using electricity in an effort to reanimate a body and bring it back to life. Sounds something like “ReAnima”, doesn’t it? In fact, the name “ReAnima” comes from “anima” or “animism”, which is Latin for “vital soul principle”, the essence of vitalist theories. Of course, by the early 20th Century, vitalism was completely debunked and soon regarded as a psuedoscientifc theory lacking any empirical evidence.
Sounds like “ReAnima” might be as fictional as Shelley’s Frankenstein.