(ANTIMEDIA) — This weekend, at an annual conference for neuroscientists in Washington, D.C., two papers will be presented detailing experiments where human brain organoids — small, lentil-sized blobs of human brain tissue created from stem cells — were implanted into the brains of lab rats and mice.
“They give birth to new neurons, much like full-blown brains. And they develop the six layers of the human cortex, the region responsible for thought, speech, judgment, and other advanced cognitive functions.”
The idea is that if brain organoids can mimic the electrical activity of an actual human brain, researchers might be able to study the behavior of disorders like autism and epilepsy. To do this, though, the organoids would need to be the size of a human brain. The only way to accomplish that is for the organoid to have a blood supply.
As it happens, another paper being presented this weekend at the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience will cover that very subject. That team of researchers, STAT reports, has successfully connected human brain organoids to blood vessels.
The notion that human brain organoids can not only function but, if allowed to, potentially grow — is raising all sorts of ethical questions. Bioethicist Josephine Johnston of The Hastings Center told STAT it comes down to consciousness:
“It brings up some pretty interesting questions about what allows us, ethically, to do research on mice in the first place — namely, that they’re not human. If we give them human cerebral organoids, what does that do to their intelligence, their level of consciousness, even their species identity?”
Legal scholar and bioethicist Hank Greely of Stanford University seems to agree, telling STAT that the rapid advancements are forcing scientists to ask themselves if they’re “creating something human-ish that you have to take seriously in terms of according it dignity and respect — and figuring out what that even means.”
Christof Koch, president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, told the outlet the world is “entering totally new ground here” and that “the science is advancing so rapidly, the ethics can’t keep up.”
Another part of the problem, as STAT explains, is that few people actually know such experiments are taking place:
“Although the National Institutes of Health has a moratorium on funding research that puts human stem cells into the early embryos of vertebrates, there is no such ban on implanting human organoids, and virtually no one outside the labs conducting organoid research has enough of an idea about what’s going on to, say, call for a commission to study what should and should not be allowed.”
If all this sounds vaguely familiar, you’re not alone. Greely, the Stanford bioethicist, noted to STAT that next year marks the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
“I think that story is relevant to what we’re talking about,” he said.