Neuronal News: Do brain organoids dream of electric sheep?

A drawing of a petri dish against a black background. Growing in the petri dish are small clumps of purplish matter.
(Lucia Marquez-Uppman • The Student Life)

In Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” Rick Deckard is a bounty hunter who retires androids that have escaped from human owners. Androids are robots who, despite internally having electric hardware, outwardly look like humans and seem to have many of the same cognitive processes. Deckard despairs after falling in love with one. The novel asks: where do we draw the line between human and non-human when the non-human has many or displays many human traits?

Maybe you’re thinking about the question abuzz lately of whether ChatGPT is conscious. 

But deserving more public attention is whether and when human brain organoids are conscious. 

In addition to modeling some of the human brain’s physical properties, these organoids can exhibit cognitive processes that neuroscientists widely deem essential to human consciousness. So, anyone who believes consciousness has a physical basis should be concerned that there is no legal framework governing just how far brain organoid research can go.   

Organoids are lab-grown tissue that are structurally and functionally similar to an organ. For example, there are liver organoids, heart organoids, etc. and ones modeled after other animals, like sheep organoids. Research from 2006 finally opened the door for growing human brain organoids, but two months ago saw the biggest breakthrough in terms of future versions potentially displaying cognitive processes widely thought by neuroscientists to entail consciousness. 

The study behind the breakthrough “demonstrate[s] that human brain organoids can integrate structurally and functionally with the injured adult mammalian brain.” Meaning, the study shows that organoids can exist with physical properties that allow them to be transplanted into a physically damaged human brain and restore cognitive processes. In this case, the process they studied here was sight.

Principal investigator Han-chiao Isaac Chen told the news distribution service of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that the study is “a very solid first step” toward understanding “how organoids could be used in other areas of the cortex.”  

Not all brain organoids have structures like cortical tissue that are associated with consciousness, nor are all of them intended to restore cognitive processes that require consciousness. For example, the phenomenon of blindsight proves that some humans’ brains can register external objects without those people ever being aware that they have seen the objects. Nevermind for now the never-ending philosophical debate over whether physical and mental things have any relation at all, or whether one or the other even exists.

“The general consensus is that organoids are not models of a brain but rather models for certain aspects of brain development,” Paola Arlotta, chair of Harvard Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology, told Psychiatry Online two years ago. 

Nor is there scientific consensus over which structures are associated with consciousness. 

Indeed, the most recent news article to explore this question entitled “Can lab-grown brains become conscious?” was published in late 2020 by the news service of Nature, a leading global scientific journal.  

“Because organoids don’t have a prefrontal cortex … they cannot become conscious,” said Madeline Lancaster, a developmental biologist at the University of Cambridge, to the reporter.

But Chen’s study shows us that we’re one step closer to what Lancaster said wasn’t possible. 

And as Sara Reardon, the author of the Nature news article, explains, what counts as consciousness depends upon the definitions used –– so according to more loose definitions, some brain organoids may already be conscious.

Nor would all neuroscientists care even if they were to be as conscious as, say,  you, reader. 

Alysson Muotri, a neuroscientist at UC San Diego, told Reardon that he hopes to eventually use these organoids to “create an artificial system that works like human consciousness.”  

“Studying human brain disorders without a fully functioning brain … is like studying a pancreas that doesn’t produce insulin,” he said. Although he added that he would “welcome some guidelines … [like] to use them only for research that cannot be done in any other way, to restrict the amount of pain that can be inflicted on them and to dispose of them humanely.”

“Dispose of them humanely.”

Much like how Deckard retires the androids, right?

Some bioethicists have already voiced concerns about studies like Chen’s that transplant human brain tissue into other species. But only one national science association has offered guidance so far about the ethics of brain organoid research, and that was in 2021

And the first “comprehensive [literature] review containing key ethical concerns for brain organoid research and proposed solutions” was only published three weeks ago.  

So it’s time for anyone not a scientist to consider advocating for more laws to govern brain organoid research as they become more structurally and functionally complex.

Hannah Frasure PO ’24 hopes her philosophy of mind professor accidentally stumbles upon this article and gives her extra credit for *trying* to put knowledge into practice.  

Facebook Comments