Consciousness in the Lab

A Brief Consideration of the Ethics of Human Brain Organoids


Dean Young, Columnist

For my last column, I addressed the ethics of data privacy, a problem outside of my usual field of study but with far-reaching implications and difficult solutions. This week, I intend to focus on an issue closer to my discipline—one perhaps less familiar, but no less important. While this may be well-removed from the types of questions many students outside neuroscience are wont to ask, I find it critical that other fields become aware of the intractable ethical issues in neuroscience. Those who intend to become legislators or attorneys, for example, may find themselves eventually saddled with these issues, and they provide a unique vantage point to address these growing concerns. As such, I welcome my colleagues across all academic fields to tackle these difficult ethical dilemmas.

Some neuroethic discussions focus on the protection of alterations to our brains (such as mind-altering implants) or the data generated by our brains (such as thought-reading from brain scans). However, what about the creation of the brains themselves?

This idea, which would certainly seem abstract and far removed, is now at hand. In October 2020, the prestigious science journal “Nature” published an article on “human brain organoids” being cultivated in labs. The fancy and futuristic title of these “brain organoids” refers to the attempts to grow a functioning brain from human stem cells. Cultivating a brain in a laboratory broaches many ethical considerations and fosters many moral quandaries, but the primary focus by “Nature” was the ethics of a created consciousness. To address this concern, two fundamental questions require clear answers: what is consciousness, and what restrictions need to be made around creating it? 

It turns out the first question is extremely difficult to answer, and the second may be even harder. Consciousness appears superficially easy to recognize—even a toddler is capable of such—yet remains stubborn against definition. Indeed, the philosophy of solipsism indicates that it may be impossible to determine consciousness outside of ourselves. Therefore, it becomes necessary to procure some concrete proxy for consciousness, even if it is incomplete or non-comprehensive. Scientists commonly use electroencephalography, or EEG, for an appropriate measure to detect electrical activity indicative of consciousness. You may recognize the EEG as an array of circular electrodes that are placed on a subject’s head with wires trailing off (we have one in GLC). EEGs measure the electrical activity of neural oscillations, or to use a more familiar term, “brain waves”.

Brain waves arise when neurons fire in synchrony; this not only alerts researchers that the neural cells appear to be working in concert (an apparently necessary requirement for consciousness), but the specific shapes of the waves can also tell us what the cell is up to. For example, researchers can determine from brain waves when an individual is concentrated, relaxed, asleep or alert. 

While an EEG may not be able to define consciousness in an absolute sense, it certainly provides a method to establish consciousness-related states. What if we try to measure organoids with an EEG? Sure enough, recording an organoid as it develops finds cells firing in sync as early as two months, which then transitions to stronger signals becoming distributed in space and time. This is representative of the development of the human brain, where different processes are seen distributed to various regions along the brain in networks. Keep in mind, this brain is approximately one-millionth the size of the average adult human brain; thus, it is not hard to imagine the possibilities of consciousness to increase as the organoids approach full size.

Not only do we see the cells begin to fire together, they also begin to turn into specialized neurons for specific jobs—in fact, just as the type we would expect to see in a developing brain. These cellular changes have caused alarm by those concerned with ethical repercussions. The costs are apparent: it is conceivable that one could eventually create a sentient human brain in the lab. If it became conscious, what would this brain experience? 

It’s hard to say. However, we must recognize that this is a speculative and currently unattainable position, and can be contrasted with the immediate benefits to be gained. Thanks to human brain organoids, researchers now have a clearer understanding of the brain’s function and are working to use that knowledge to treat a number of conditions, such as brain tumors commonly found in children. This is not to suggest an argument of lesser evil or warranted suffering, but to recognize the distant hypothetical dilemma juxtaposed against an immediate verifiable benefit.

Does this mean that such experiments should be left without safeguards? Such a view appears reckless. Rather, careful and thoughtful guidelines are critically needed surrounding the issue of human brain organoids. This task is undoubtedly necessary, but may not be easy. What considerations must be made in the creation of ethical guidelines surrounding such experiments? This will largely be determined by the gauge of consciousness; yet as mentioned above, consciousness remains obstinate against definition. Even if consciousness is neatly defined, one must ask, does consciousness alone demand rights? If so, what rights ought we then give to monkeys, birds or insects? Do we prescribe levels of rights based on degrees of consciousness? Would we let the level of human consciousness determine the threshold for rights? If so, which level of human consciousness (after all, multiple exist)? 

Asking what level of consciousness provides rights begs a more fundamental question: is consciousness required for rights? If so, does this not contradict the rights we offer to patients who are diagnosed as lacking consciousness? From this, we see that the hardest part surrounding lab-grown consciousness may not be in creating it, but protecting it. 

Thus, the main issue surrounding human brain organoids does not necessarily lie in the current advances; these small masses of cells allow us to better understand brain function. Much more significant is the responsibility to define the guidelines for tomorrow. It is apparent we need a clear definition of consciousness, a plan regarding organoids that are found to be conscious, and amendable limits surrounding the intentional creation of consciousness. Although it is easier to cease experiments than to seek answers to the above barrage of questions (and many more like it), it is incumbent on us to treat organoids as any advance and determine the necessary limits surrounding the technology. When—and only when—we create these guidelines, we can have security in our advancements of human brain organoids. In order to protect consciousness in the lab, we need to cultivate ethical consciousness surrounding the lab.