Scientists Raise Ethical Concerns About The Development Of Brain Organoids

The brain organoids in this image are 10 months old and have about a million neurons in them. Muotri Lab-UCTV

In August, researchers announced the first detection of complex electrical impulses in lab-grown brain organoids. These are relatively small collections of brain cells used by scientists to study how human brains work and to assess how to treat complex neurodegenerative conditions. The discovery of electrical signals was unexpected and some researchers have raised ethical questions about this type of research.

Elan Ohayon is the director of the Green Neuroscience Laboratory in San Diego, an organization that focuses on sustainable neuroscience. This week, together with his colleagues Ann Lam and Paul Tsang, Ohayon will raise concerns about brain organoids at the Society of Neuroscience meeting, arguing that checks should be carried out on this kind of research to prevent it from crossing an ethical line. 

“We’re already seeing activity in organoids that is reminiscent of biological activity in developing animals. If there’s even a possibility of the organoid being sentient, we could be crossing that line,” Ohayon told The Guardian in an interview. “We don’t want people doing research where there is potential for something to suffer.”

Similar concerns were raised in April 2018 in the journal Nature. While the authors of the piece pointed out that anything produced in the lab is certainly not capable of feeling pain or suffering just yet (in fact, it's far from it), it is important to have the discussion. Would tissue capable of feeling pain require the same protections given to human or animal research subjects? 

Over the last few years, advancements in the field have shown that this is a discussion worth having. And the authors of a related study, published in August in the journal Cell Stem Cell, welcome this discussion.

“Our work should reframe the ethical discussions in this field. While we don’t have any evidence of 'cognition,' 'consciousness,' or 'self-aware' on these brain organoids, we should discuss how to measure it and what to do if positive," senior author Alysson Muotri told IFLScience when the research came out.

The study discussed how the electroencephalogram (EEG) signal was similar to that of a developing fetus’ brain but it is important to remember that this was a small collection of about a million neurons, which are the cells that make up the brain. A regular human brain has billions of these cells.

At the moment, brain organoids are just fleshy dots in a petri dish and nobody is planning (or has a way) to build a full-scale human brain in the lab.

[H/T: The Guardian]

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