Oct 25, 2019 I Sequoyah Kennedy

Lab-Grown Brains Could Be Aware of Their Horrible Existence, Scientists Warn

Look, I'm not happy to be the one to tell you this. And it is only the warning of a couple of scientists, so they could be wrong. That's what science is all about, right? Or maybe this is just a good, terrifying story for Halloween. Sure, that sounds alright. Oh boy though, this is a rough one. You know all those miniature brains that we grow in labs? They're called organoids—I wrote about another terrifying organoid story a while back—and they're tiny little clumps of Petri-dish-grown human brain cells. We use them for a lot of necessary neuroscience and all of that. Well, according to The Guardian, a group of scientists delivered a stark warning to the Society for Neuroscience meeting in Chicago on Monday stating that some scientists are "perilously close to crossing ethical boundaries" in their studies of organoids because, well, there's a pretty good chance the organoids might be aware.

It's hard to study live human brains (surprising, right?). Yet there's a whole host of diseases and disorders that affect the brain that we still don't have a great grasp on—Alzheimer's, schizophrenia, autism, and Parkinson's to name a few. That's where organoids come in. They're considered a revolutionary development in neuroscience because they allow scientists to poke at living brain tissue with no ethical quandaries. Or that was the idea anyway.  But there are cases of organoids spontaneously creating connections with living tissue and developing new neural pathways. Elan Ohayon, the director of the Green Neuroscience Laboratory in San Diego, California says:

“We’re already seeing activity in organoids that is reminiscent of biological activity in developing animals.”

Yikes. Ohayon and colleagues say that if there's even the slightest chance that the tiny little brains we've created are sentient then it's imperative that we put the brakes on working with them. He says:

“If there’s even a possibility of the organoid being sentient, we could be crossing that line. We don’t want people doing research where there is potential for something to suffer.”

It's good to know that there are some scientists that aren't completely mad. Ohayon wants to freeze all research into areas where sentience is likely to develop, such as putting organoids in other animals (yeah, let's please stop that).

But how aware could organoids actually be? That depends on your definition of sentience, says Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University in California. Last year he was part of a debate around the ethical use of organoids that concluded that while the technology was not sophisticated enough to be cause for ethical concern, we should be making the ethical decisions now before it happens. Greely says:

“I’m confident they don’t think we’ve reached a Gregor Samsa state, where a person wakes up and finds he is an organoid."

He's referring to the protagonist of Franz Kafka's The Metamorphosis if you want even more nightmare fuel. Greely continues:

“If they mean the potential to perceive or to react to things, that seems to me likely.

That becomes still more important if we have reason to believe the organoid has an aversive reaction to that stimuli, that it ‘feels pain’. I strongly doubt that anyone has reached that point or come close to it.”

Hopefully not, but maybe that's just wishful thinking. Either way, if we can try really hard not to turn the real world into a Franz Kafka novel, that would be a pretty good thing in my opinion.

Sequoyah Kennedy

Sequoyah is a writer, music producer, and poor man's renaissance man based in Providence, Rhode Island. He spends his time researching weird history and thinking about the place where cosmic horror overlaps with disco. You can follow him on Twitter: @shkennedy33.

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