Death is defined as the irreversible cessation of circulatory, respiratory or brain activity. Many peripheral human organs can be transplanted from deceased donors using protocols to optimize viability. However, tissues from the central nervous system rapidly lose viability after circulation ceases1,2, impeding their potential for transplantation. The time course and mechanisms causing neuronal death and the potential for revival remain poorly defined. Here, using the retina as a model of the central nervous system, we systemically examine the kinetics of death and neuronal revival. We demonstrate the swift decline of neuronal signalling and identify conditions for reviving synchronous in vivo-like trans-synaptic transmission in postmortem mouse and human retina. We measure light-evoked responses in human macular photoreceptors in eyes removed up to 5 h after death and identify modifiable factors that drive reversible and irreversible loss of light signalling after death. Finally, we quantify the rate-limiting deactivation reaction of phototransduction, a model G protein signalling cascade, in peripheral and macular human and macaque retina. Our approach will have broad applications and impact by enabling transformative studies in the human central nervous system, raising questions about the irreversibility of neuronal cell death, and providing new avenues for visual rehabilitation.
© 2022. The Author(s), under exclusive licence to Springer Nature Limited.