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Can Lab-Grown Brains Become Conscious?

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Can Lab-Grown Brains Become Conscious?

A handful of experiments are raising questions about whether clumps of cells and disembodied brains could be sentient, and how scientists would know if they were.


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When it comes to defining consciousness, reality and science fiction are difficult to distinguish.

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How do you feel about disembodied, possibly conscious mini-brains grown from human stem cells? Would they represent a thrilling scientific advance that could be used for the good of humanity, or a sin against God and nature? Should they be used in scientific experimentation, and if so, should there be strict policies guiding their use? If you’re not sure where you land on that issue, you’re not alone. In this article from Nature, journalist Sara Reardon explores the many moral quandaries plaguing neuroethicists who are tackling this issue. 


Scientists are growing human brain “organoids” in labs. 

Could you control a walking robot with a lab-grown brain? What would happen if you mixed some Neanderthal genes into the human genome? And how might you create artificial intelligence that’s a bit more like human intelligence? These are questions that scientists are keen to answer, and it’s going to be hard to answer them without experimenting on actual human brain tissue. That’s where lab-grown brain organoids come in.

Brain organoids are grown from human stem cells. Under the right conditions, like those in Alysson Muotri’s lab at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), they’re able to produce “coordinated waves of activity, resembling those seen in premature babies.” Muotri’s team allowed these waves to go on for months before they stopped the experiment. Their paper, which was published in Cell Stem Cell in August 2019, prompted discussion about whether such organoids could achieve consciousness.

Experts are unable to agree on a definition of consciousness...

About the Author

Sara Reardon is a freelance journalist from Bozeman, Montana.

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