In a recent article, NPR discussed the implications of growing minibrains in a lab. These minibrains are scientifically called cerebral organoids and are smaller than a pea. No matter their size, these tiny clusters of living brain cells are making scientists question the nature of consciousness.
These minibrains are basically simple versions of an actual human brain and are mainly used to study brain development and disorders like autism. However, minibrain research has been quickly developing, forcing scientists to take a step back and think about the potential implications, said Nita Farahany, a professor of law and philosophy at Duke University and the director of Duke Science and Society. She asked,
Is it possible that an organoid far off in the future could develop something that looks like consciousness or any kind of sentience, the ability to feel something like pain?
The human brain is thousands of times larger than the minibrain with 85 billion cells as opposed to the minibrain’s few million. However, their stem cells can grow into a range of structures like those of a human brain and may even form networks of cells that communicate.
The minibrain is helping scientists to remarkable research, such as those which led to figuring out how the Zika virus interferes with normal brain development. Just this month, a team at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California published evidence that a human transplanted into a mouse brain could develop functioning blood vessels. In theory, then, scientists may be able to grow much larger minibrains.
The potential of the minibrain research is huge, but so are the ethical questions that come with it. According to Farahany, we need to know “How comfortable are we with certain kinds of hybrids we’re creating and does that change the way we regard those animals or the kinds of protections that should be afforded to them.”
In this week’s issue of the journal Nature, Dr. Farahaney and 16 other prominent scientists, ethicists, and philosophers posed their questions. Their commentary didn’t provide potential answers to their questions or any specific guidelines for research, but was rather intended to serve as a guide for future discussions about the topic and related studies.