Several laboratories, including ones at Harvard University and from Cambridge, succeeded in creating miniature replicas of brains in the lab, otherwise known as organoids. Neuroscientists deemed the success as a major landmark moment in battling brain diseases, but others believe it crosses major ethical boundaries. The blobs of tissue are made from stem cells, and some have been noted to produce spontaneous brainwaves, something which can be seen in forming babies, and could be a sign that these blob-like brains are developing consciousness, or even self-awareness.
While there is a chance these organoids could lead to major medical advancements, as it allows experts to study the living brain in unprecedented detail, others wonder whether these lumps of tissue are sentient – which means it has the capacity to feel and experience – which poses a major ethical dilemma.
In a presentation on Monday, October 21, scientists from the Green Neuroscience Laboratory in San Diego, said there is an “urgent need” to develop a framework for the definition of ‘sentient’ and what is considered too far.
Elan Ohayon, said: “If there’s even a possibility of the organoid being sentient, we could be crossing that line.
“We’re already seeing activity in organoids that is reminiscent of biological activity in developing animals.”
In an accompanying research paper, the scientists stated: “The compositional and causal features in these cultures are – by design – often very similar to naturally occurring neural substrates.
“Recent developments in organoid research also entail that the anatomical substrates are now approaching local network organisation and larger structures found in sentient animals.
“Current organoid research is perilously close to crossing this ethical Rubicon and may have already done so.”
Neurosurgeon Isaac Chen, an assistant professor of Neurosurgery at Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine and the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center, said: “Due to their ability to mimic certain brain structures and activity, human brain organoids—in animal models—allow us to study neurological diseases and other disorders in previously unimaginable ways.
“However, the field is developing quickly, and as we continue down this path, researchers need to contribute to the creation of ethical guidelines grounded in scientific principles that define how to approach their use before and after transplantation in animals.
“Such guidelines can help avoid confusion for scientists, especially when communicating with the public, and clearly lay out the benefits of this research, against which any ethical or moral risks can be weighed.”