Minibrains, morality, and mimicking the human conscience 

Clusters of brain cells began to emit brain waves after six to nine months of growth.  Photo by R6, State & Private Forestry, Forest Health Protection from Flickr Creative Commons

Clusters of brain cells began to emit brain waves after six to nine months of growth. Photo by R6, State & Private Forestry, Forest Health Protection from Flickr Creative Commons

The “brain in a vat” scenario has served as an intriguing thought experiment for decades, but thanks to scientists at the University of California, San Diego, this hypothetical scenario may eventually become reality. According to a study published in the scientific journal Cell Stem Cell, lab-grown clusters of human brain cells, popularly known as minibrains, have begun to emit brain waves after six to nine months of growth that are shockingly similar to brain waves of preterm infants.  

 Minibrains, or brain organoids, begin as clusters of stem cells that are grown in petri dishes. Researchers add substances to these cells that are meant to mimic the environment of a naturally developing human brain, and over time they can grow into spheres the size of a pea. Using electrodes to measure electrical activity in these minibrains, the researchers discovered that the cells were beginning to communicate with each other, emitting brain waves. When they used a computer to analyze the brain waves of organoids and babies born up to three months prematurely, they found that the signals were so similar that the computer could not distinguish between the babies’ brains and those of the organoids after the minibrains reached six months of age. 

According to Dr. Alysson Muotri, the director of the stem cell program at the University of California, San Diego, minibrains have the potential to shed insight on brain disorders “that have origins in these very early stages of brain development … these include bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and autism.”  

Of course, with nearly every scientific discovery comes ethical dilemmas. Critics note that if these minibrains begin to perceive pain and interact with the environment, they could become sentient beings deserving of protective rights. According to the classic “brain in a vat” philosophical thought experiment, one cannot dismiss the possibility that he/she is simply a brain in a jar that is hooked up to a complex computer simulation. Through this line of thinking, if minibrains developed sentient capacities similar to “real” brains, they could, in essence, hold the same consciousness of humans and thus potentially have human rights. 

However, the researchers point out that these organoids form neural networks at a very rudimentary level and, as of now, do not have any method of sensing and perceiving their environment. If they cannot feel pain or form any sort of consciousness, it does not make sense to directly compare them to human brains. Meanwhile, it is important to track the progress of organoids as the gap between minibrains and human brains, regardless of how large it is, closes. 

The National Institute of Health and other organizations are creating regulations so that scientists work within the constraints of ethical considerations. However, according to Dr. Nita Farahany, a professor of law of philosophy at Duke University, this work “needs to speed up … because the science is going very quickly.”  

While regulations should be up to speed with scientific progress, it is important not to delay advances that could improve the lives of many and shed light on cognitive processes that are currently poorly understood. Farahany notes that organoid research has the potential to drastically improve experimental accuracy as animal models have not been effective at replicating brain development and disorders in humans. Since these advances have the capacity to study disorders and diseases that impact millions of people, the research should be continued with the promise to stop if these organoids develop consciousness. However, humans, including scientists, have the capacity to break promises or stretch their boundaries. It is vital that these regulations allow for progress while also drawing a firm line between what could help people and what could, to a limited extent, create people, even if they hold just a shade of sentience. 


Katherine Lee is a contributor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached at katherine.lee@uconn.edu.