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Thursday, November 23, 2017

Tiny human brain organoids implanted into rodents, triggering ethical concerns

Sharon Begley
Originally posted November 6, 2017

Here is an excerpt:

He and his colleagues discussed the ethics of implanting human brain organoids into rats, including whether the animals might become too human. “Some of what people warn about is still science fiction,” he said. “Right now, the organoids are so crude we probably decrease” the rats’ brain function.

Ethicists argue that “not a problem now” doesn’t mean “never a problem.” One concern raised by the human brain organoid implants “is that functional integration [of the organoids] into the central nervous system of animals can in principle alter an animal’s behavior or needs,” said bioethicist Jonathan Kimmelman of McGill University in Montreal. “The task, then, is to carefully monitor if such alterations occur.” If the human implant gives an animal “increased sentience or mental capacities,” he added, it might suffer more.

Would it feel like a human trapped in a rodent’s body? Because both the Salk and Penn experiments used adult rodents, their brains were no longer developing, unlike the case if implants had been done with fetal rodent brains. “It’s hard to imagine how human-like cognitive capacities, like consciousness, could emerge under such circumstances,” Kimmelman said, referring to implants into an adult rodent brain. Chen agreed: He said his experiment “carries much less risk of creating animals with greater ‘brain power’ than normal” because the human organoid goes into “a specific region of already developed brain.”

The belief that consciousness is off the table is in fact the subject of debate. An organoid would need to be much more advanced than today’s to experience consciousness, said the Allen Institute’s Koch, including having dense neural connections, distinct layers, and other neuro-architecture. But if those and other advances occur, he said, “then the question is very germane: Does this piece of cortex feel something?” Asked whether brain organoids can achieve consciousness without sensory organs and other means of perceiving the world, Koch said it would experience something different than what people and other animals do: “It raises the question, what is it conscious of?”

The article is here.