Into the Grey: The Blurring Lines of Humanity

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Fluorescent imaging of the mini-brain. Credit: Copyright IMBA/ Madeline A. Lancaster

Scientists have recently grown brain-like organs from stem cells. This is exciting stuff, but raises a few fundamental questions about what makes us human.

The human brain is a beautiful, unimaginably complex, and poorly understood thing. I will say that again because it’s important. We do not understand very much about what is going on in there.

Oh, sure, we can scan it with fancy machines, see our own alpha waves, and even do a little bit of brain-to-brain interfacing. But what is all that, really? Poking about on the surface. What do we know about the nature of the mind, of memories, of the soul? Nothing to speak of. So when I hear that scientists have grown and maintained a living mini-brain, I get a little worried.

I don’t want to focus too much on the science, but I’ll give it a paragraph, for those who don’t want to read the article. Scientists gave stem cells the space and nutrients to grow and develop, while mimicking conditions that induce the development of brain tissues. And over a period of two months, these mini-brains developed, much like they would in a developing foetus. They could also maintain these organ-like structures for up to 10 months, with no apparent loss of function.

I will be the first to tell you that this is a seriously impressive achievement, and a complete win for science. With the recent announcement that Chinese researchers had 3D-printed fully functional kidneys, we are well on our way to artificial organs. That is awesome, and completely unheard of even 10 years ago. On top of that exciting prospect, there is the almost limitless scope for discovery that stems from the fact that we can experiment with a living, functioning brain. And this is where things get weird.

As I alluded to earlier, we really are absolutely clueless about the inner workings of the mind and ‘soul’. I put soul in inverted commas to avoid stepping on any toes – what I am referring to here is the intangible bits and pieces that make us who we are. Science Fiction author Greg Bear refers to this as our ‘Mystery’ in his ‘The Way’ trilogy, and I think it is, perhaps, a better term. And do not doubt for a moment that this remains a mystery to us, even now.

If we consider the developing brain in an actual foetus, we know a few things. There is plenty of brain activity from as early as 6 weeks, as this is when spontaneous movement begins to occur. There are suggestions that the foetus can feel pain from around 12 weeks, and by 23 weeks, scans of brain activity suggest that the foetus is dreaming. That is some pretty advanced functioning, and one could argue a strong case for dreams being associated with intelligence and awareness.

Now, before you freak out, this is not going to be about abortion in the end. I swear. That ship has sailed, as far as I’m concerned. No, what I’m getting at is that we really have no clue about what is going on inside this shiny new artificial brain. What if there is a nascent personality developing in here, even some kind of self-awareness? It would be hard to tell. This is a complex concept, and I would venture that self-awareness would not be possible without external stimuli. But lets think about that: stimuli are produced by nerves. Which are attached to the central nervous system. Which is what these brains are. I have to say, this is slightly dodgy ground. It worries me that there is no mention of ethical concerns or even an attempt to check whether these brains are active.

It must be made clear that this isn’t too much of a concern in this particular case, as was pointed out to me by Not Exactly Rocket Science blogger Ed Yong. The parts of these ‘brains’ are jumbled up, and have not formed the neuronal networks required for any sort of higher function. But this research certainly raises intriguing questions, to which we have few answers.

I think it is extremely exciting that we are at this point with our technology, but perhaps a bit of consideration and debate over the issue is important before we blithely start poking at these proto-brains to see what happens.

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