Brains in a dish pose ethical problems

A recent feature in Nature opens with the following sentence: “In Alysson Muotri’s laboratory, hundreds of miniature human brains, the size of sesame seeds, float in Petri dishes, sparking with electrical activity.”

Dr Muotri, a Brazilian researcher working at the University of California, San Diego, is investigating what makes us uniquely human. The obvious answer is the brain, so he is studying it from an evolutionary and developmental perspective and differentiating stem cells to recreate "brain organoids" in his lab.

His research is quite innovative. For instance, he has compared the DNA of Neanderthals (taken from the fossil record and DNA samples from bones) with our DNA. This could give clues about why Neanderthal social, cultural and technological development was more limited and why they became extinct. This might lead to insights into mental health.

However, what his website blurb skates over is the difficult ethical questions arising from creating brain organoids. Nature points out that some scientists and ethicists argue that some experiments with organoids should not be allowed.

It appears that most researchers believe that it would be unethical to create organoids which have some degree of consciousness – disembodied brains floating in a petri dish. However, there’s very little agreement about what consciousness is. Philosophers have clashed over this for centuries; neuroscientists have been no more fortunate in reaching a conclusion. In the meantime, researchers like Muotri are forging ahead. He believes that he might need to create consciousness as part of his research.

In his view, brain organoid research offers no special difficulties. “We work with animal models that are conscious and there are no problems,” Muotri told Nature. “We need to move forward and if it turns out they become conscious, to be honest I don’t see it as a big deal.”

This horrified Wesley J. Smith, bioethics writer at National Review: “That crass attitude illustrates the huge peril biotech could pose to human decency. As the great moral philosopher Leon Kass once wrote, ‘shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.’”

Michael Cook is editor of BioEdge


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