Carolyn Y. Johnson
Originally posted September 3, 2018
Here is an excerpt:
Five years ago, an ethical debate about organoids seemed to many scientists to be premature. The organoids were exciting because they were similar to the developing brain, and yet they were incredibly rudimentary. They were constrained in how big they could get before cells in the core started dying, because they weren't suffused with blood vessels or supplied with nutrients and oxygen by a beating heart. They lacked key cell types.
Still, there was something different about brain organoids compared with routine biomedical research. Song recalled that one of the amazing but also unsettling things about the early organoids was that they weren't as targeted to develop into specific regions of the brain, so it was possible to accidentally get retinal cells.
"It's difficult to see the eye in a dish," Song said.
Now, researchers are succeeding at keeping organoids alive for longer periods of time. At a talk, Hyun recalled one researcher joking that the lab had sung "Happy Birthday" to an organoid when it was a year old. Some researchers are implanting organoids into rodent brains, where they can stay alive longer and grow more mature. Others are building multiple organoids representing different parts of the brain, such as the hippocampus, which is involved in memory, or the cerebral cortex - the seat of cognition - and fusing them together into larger "assembloids."
Even as scientists express scepticism that brain organoids will ever come close to sentience, they're the ones calling for a broad discussion, and perhaps more oversight. The questions range from the practical to the fantastical. Should researchers make sure that people who donate their cells for organoid research are informed that they could be used to make a tiny replica of parts of their brain? If organoids became sophisticated enough, should they be granted greater protections, like the rules that govern animal research? Without a consensus on what consciousness or pain would even look like in the brain, how will scientists know when they're nearing the limit?
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