Bioscientists have been grown organoids – little sections of organs, including human brains – in lab dishes for years. But at the University of California at San Diego, they may have done something more.
A research team nudged human stem cells to form brain tissue that made a section of the cortex, the part of the brain that controls awareness and perception. After six months, the cells registered electrical activity at a higher rate than previous brain organoids did. Even more surprising, the electrical patterns matched those of prematurely born infants.
The team is continuing to monitor the tissue to see if the electrical patterns mature like those of normal babies. They also plan to connect the cortex to other organoids to see how it responds.
These brainlets will be useful in studying how the brain, and abnormalities such as autism and epilepsy, develop. But it also raises ethical issues: if the tissues continue to mature as normal cortical tissue does, could the cells become self-aware?
The researchers are quick to downplay the possibility; they point out that the cortex they’ve grown is only partial and lacks the other parts of a brain. But they stated that they’ll shut down the experiment if they have any inkling that the brain slice is becoming aware of itself.
Scientists’ ability to grow parts of organs is growing faster than our ability to comprehend the implications. Ethicists need to lead a visible public discussion about how we’ll handle the inevitable time during this century when scientists can create self-aware life forms in the lab.