Can you keep a brain alive in a jar?

I n Roald Dahl’s 1966 short story, “William and Mary,” before the main character William dies of cancer, he writes his wife Mary a letter to be opened seven days after his death. When the time comes, Mary is hesitant to read it. William wasn’t a very affectionate husband and she figures the letter might be filled with a list of instructions on how she should live her life without him: “Don’t smoke, be thrifty with your money, don’t drink cocktails.” But the length of the letter, some 15 pages, intrigues her – a list of instructions would surely be much shorter. And so she decides to read it.

While he was lying in his death bed one day, wrote William, a neurosurgeon named Landy came to visit him with a proposal: when William dies, Landy wants to remove his brain from his body and, by attaching the appropriate veins and arteries to an artificial heart, keep it “alive,” floating in a white basin of saline solution. At first, William thinks the idea is crazy – why would he want his brain kept alive if he cannot talk, hear, see, or feel? “We’ll leave one eyeball attached,” retorts Landy, emphasizing that, as simply a brain and an eyeball, William will have few sensory distractions and thus great clarity of thought.

William is eventually convinced, and at the end of the letter he leaves instructions for Mary to come visit him in Landy’s laboratory. Without spoiling the rest of the story, I’ll simply say that Mary does go to visit her husband in his basin and, in classic Dahl fashion, the ending has a disturbing twist. After reading the story this past weekend, the idea of keeping a dissected brain alive had piqued my interest and so I decided to research the topic. As it turns out, the experiment has been done – not with humans, but with monkeys.

In 1963, Dr. Robert J. White, a neurosurgeon at the Cleveland Metropolitan Hospital, removed the brains of several monkeys and attached them to artificial circulatory systems. In the experiment, used blood dripped from the isolated monkey brain into an oxygenator; from the oxygenator it ran through a pump that pushed it back into the brain via tubes connected to the monkey’s carotid arteries – the main arteries that supply the brain with blood. With the oxygenator and pump humming along, the exposed brain – remarkably – appeared to show signs of life. That is, electrodes placed on the brain’s surface recorded signs of neural activity.

Of course, since brains on their own have no way to communicate with the outside world, White couldn’t tell whether they were actually conscious. To test this, in 1970, he removed the entire head of one monkey and attached it to the body of another monkey. “It woke up and almost bit me,” White said in an interview. “It moved the muscles in its face. It blinked its eyes. It chewed on pencils.” Or, in the words of Mary Shelley, “It was alive!”

In 2001, White repeated the experiment and showed that the transplanted head was not only conscious, but that it could see, hear, taste, and smell. “This is medical technology run completely mad,” an enraged scientist reported to the BBC in 2001 when asked about White’s experiment.

These days, White, now 84 and retired, spends his time drinking Diet Coke in a Cleveland McDonald’s, sharing his stories of transplanting monkey brains with anyone who is willing to listen. A surprise ending to an illustrious scientific career – an ending that not even Roald Dahl would’ve have guessed.

Daniel’s column will appear every other week. Send your final death-bed instructions to Don’t worry, he’ll leave one eyeball attached.