Can we consciously create laboratory brains?

Science is advancing so quickly that we can already imagine scenarios that previously belonged only to fiction.

One of them is that of be able to create a brain in the laboratory and that it be conscious. But is it possible? What repercussions would that have? Can we think of him as a living being? With the following paragraphs, we will try to reflect on the answers to these interesting questions.

    Can we create conscious brains in a laboratory setting?

    Great science fiction writers, such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or Philip K. Dick, have fantasized about different forms of artificial life creation for many decades. Today, these scenarios, which seemed so improbable, come closer and closer to the possibilities of modern science. These approaches lead us to ask ourselves one of the most disturbing questions: can we consciously create laboratory brains?

    In order to be able to resolve this question, it is first necessary to know the exact situation in which the investigations of the fields of knowledge involved in the question find themselves. For starters, is it biologically possible to create a brain in a lab? The answer is yes and no. This ambiguity is due to the fact that what has been created (and in fact is done in the usual way) are not human-sized brains like the ones we imagine, but small brain organoids.

    These organoids are generated using stem cells and are smaller than a grain of rice.. Researcher Alysson Muotri grows them in his laboratory at the University of California and conducts all kinds of experiments with them to study the abilities of these small clusters of nerve cells. This scientist was able to bind organoids to small robots, combine them with Neanderthal DNA, and even obtain microgravity observations, by uploading samples to the International Space Station.

    His experiences don’t end there. To find out if we can consciously create lab brains, Muotri investigated the possibilities of bringing these organoids closer to artificial intelligence prototypes. Even during a pandemic, he has looked for ways to experiment with them and try various drugs to find an effective treatment for COVID-19.

    Further research on organoids, in this case by a team from Cambridge University led by Dr Madeleine Lancaster, revealed the ability of these elements to attach to other organs to mimic brain functions. The experiments were conducted over time, to which organoids were implanted between his brain and various muscle groups.

    The researchers found that, as expected, the organoids were able to contract muscles, transmitting electrical activity for the function they were involved in. His theory, therefore, was that organoids did not necessarily have to act like a cerebral cortex, but could adapt to other types of brain structures.

    Conscious organoids?

    Once we know what organoids are, we can ask ourselves whether we can consciously create laboratory brains. Precisely Alysson Muotri asked himself this same question following another experiment in which his team detected a series of waves in these organoids. Their resemblance to those seen in the brains of premature babies was at least disturbing.

    They were not random electrical impulses, but there were indications that this activity followed patterns and was somehow controlled.. This marked the start of a series of reflections on the part of the researchers, as the perspective of the experiments changed dramatically. It was not the same to manipulate and reject at will a group of practically inert cells like a small nerve conglomerate that could be the start of a human brain.

    Muotri and his team examined whether it was ethical to continue to develop organoids to this level of complexity if there was a possibility that they could harbor some form of primitive consciousness. If so, should they automatically be granted a number of rights that the other elements of the study did not have? Should they have the treatment of human beings in any of their forms?

    The philosophical and ethical issues raised by the question were so overwhelming that the decision made by the lab was to paralyze the experiment.Because the implications of the mere possibility of having created a conscious brain far exceeded the limits that researchers were unwilling to cross with this work.

    Therefore, by answering the question of whether we can consciously create laboratory brains, we might have indications that the answer is yes, although the repercussions that this would have, on many levels, have not been so complex than the determination to pursue this line of research to verify it.

      Bodies without a body

      Beyond the creation of brains in the laboratory, there are precedents in which the feasibility of separating the brain of an animal from the rest of the body has been tested., In this case using pigs to check it. This was the experiment conducted at Yale University, led by Nenad Sestan.

      The procedure involved taking the brains of several pigs that had been slaughtered at a slaughterhouse and dipping those organs into a cocktail of blood and chemicals and other objects that simulated the workings of a living body. The results were truly disturbing, because although it could not be shown that there was consciousness, neural activity was recorded.

      This other experiment opens the doors to research and scenarios just as amazing as the previous one, as we would be talking about the possibility of keeping a brain alive outside of a body and who knows if maybe in the future we will have the ability to connect. to a synthetic body. Concepts such as the resurrection or even eternal life would seem less distant.

      obviously these are approaches bordering on science fiction and all of these assumptions must be treated with great care, Without losing contact with reality and taking into account the limits that exist at the scientific and technological level, which could well be insurmountable to deal with concepts as complex as those we have mentioned.

      On the other hand, and revisiting the conflicts that arose in the case of organoids and the question of whether we can consciously create laboratory brains, “resuscitating” a brain leads to a series of moral and philosophical debates which could delay or even prohibit any experiment aimed at verifying whether such an action is possible. Therefore, we may never get an answer on its viability.

      The great dilemma

      Returning to the question posed to us of whether we can consciously create laboratory brains presents an important dilemma that we had already anticipated when we were talking about organoids. The question is to clarify what should weigh the most when deciding to go further in this type of research. and try to get a little closer to a conscious brain.

      On the one hand, we could take the determination to try to achieve this, arguing, for example, that they could be used to try treatments for a whole range of diseases which affect humans and which would otherwise involve a more expensive or more risky procedure, being done directly in people.

      But on the other hand, one might wonder if these lab-created brains shouldn’t have a set of rules and protections that prevent them from sustaining harm or damage, as if they were from an animal or even of a human being. It would be necessary to define what are the lines which still separate an element of study and a conscious being which must be preserved from all.

      In any case, the very fact of verifying the consciousness of this hypothetical advanced organoid would also be a difficult question to answer. solve, because until now, beyond the simple electrical activity detected, there is no methodology guaranteeing the detection of this consciousness. In reality, it is such a complex concept that it is difficult to establish the requirements that declare that a being is conscious.

      The University of California itself at San Diego organized a symposium in 2019 with the aim of experts in philosophy and neuroscience to try their common knowledge in order to reach a consensus on what consciousness is and what implications. we have to consider to establish that we are conscious. Of course, the debate is so complex that it remains under study and will remain so for a long time to come.

      Bibliographical references:

      • Farahany, NA, Greely, HT, Hyman, S., Koch, C., Grady, C. Pașca, SP, Sestan, N., Arlotta, P., Bernat, JL, Ting, J., Lunshof, JE, Iyer , EPR, Hyun, I., Capestany, BH, Church, GM, Huang, H., Song, H. (2018). The ethics of human brain tissue experimentation. Nature.
      • Reardon, S. (2020). Can Lab-Grown Brains Be Conscious? Nature.
      • Regalado, A. (2018). Researchers keep the pig’s brain alive outside the body. Review of MIT technology.

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