Can we create laboratory brains with consciousness?
Is it possible to develop brains with consciousness practically from scratch?
Science is advancing so fast that we can already imagine scenarios that used to belong only to fiction.
One of them is that of creating a brain in the laboratory and making it conscious.. But is this possible, what would be the repercussions, and could we consider it a living entity? With the following paragraphs we will try to reflect on the answers to these interesting questions.
Can we create brains with consciousness in a laboratory context?
The great science fiction authors, such as Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke or Philip K. Dick, have been fantasizing about different ways of creating artificial life for many decades. Today, these scenarios that seemed so far-fetched are coming closer and closer to the possibilities of modern science. These approaches lead us to ask ourselves one of the most disturbing questions: can we create laboratory brains with consciousness?
In order to resolve this question we must first know the exact state of research in the fields of knowledge involved in the question. To begin with, biologically, is it possible to create a brain in a laboratory? The answer is yes and no. This ambiguity is due to the fact that what has been created (and is in fact routinely created) are not human-sized brains as we imagine them, but small brain organoids.
These organoids are generated using stem cells and are smaller than the size of a grain of rice.. Researcher Alysson Muotri grows them in his laboratory at the University of California and performs all kinds of experiments with them to study the capabilities of these small clusters of nerve cells. This scientist has been able to attach the organoids to small robots, has combined them with Neanderthal DNA and has even made observations in microgravity, taking samples up to the International Space Station.
His experiments do not stop there. On the way to find out if we can create laboratory brains with consciousness, Muotri has studied the possibilities of bringing these organoids closer to artificial intelligence prototypes. Even in times of pandemic, he has sought ways to experiment with them and test various drugs to find an effective treatment for COVID-19.
Other research on organoids, in this case carried out by a team from Cambridge University led by Dr. Madeleine Lancaster, revealed the ability of these elements to attach to other organs to emulate brain functions.. The experiments were carried out on rats, which had organoids implanted between their brains and various muscle groups.
The researchers found that, as they predicted, the organoids were able to contract the muscles, transmitting electrical activity for the function in which they were involved. Their theory, therefore, was that the organoids did not necessarily have to act as the cerebral cortex, but could be adapted to other types of brain structures.
Once we know what organoids are, we can again ask the question of whether we can create conscious laboratory brains. Alysson Muotri asked herself this very question following another experiment in which her team detected a series of waves in these organoids. Their resemblance to those observed in the brains of premature babies was disturbing to say the least.
These were not random electrical impulses, but there were indications that such activity was patterned and somehow controlled.. This was the beginning of a series of reflections on the part of the researchers, since the perspective of the experiments changed substantially. It was not the same to manipulate and discard at will a group of practically inert cells as a small nervous conglomerate that could be the beginning of a human brain.
Muotri and his team wondered whether it was ethical to continue developing organoids to that level of complexity if there was a possibility that they could harbor a form of primitive consciousness. If this were so, should they automatically be granted a set of rights that the other study elements did not have? Should they be treated as human beings in some form?
The philosophical and ethical issues raised by the question were so overwhelming that the decision made by the laboratory was to halt the experimentThe implications of the mere possibility of having created a conscious brain far exceeded the limits that the researchers were unwilling to cross with such work.
Therefore, answering the question of whether we can create laboratory brains with consciousness, we might have indications that the answer is yes, although the repercussions that this would have, at many levels, are so complex that the determination has not yet been made to continue this line of research to verify it.
- You may be interested in "What is Stream of Consciousness (in Psychology)?"
Brains without bodies
Beyond the creation of brains in the laboratory, there are precedents in which the viability of keeping alive an animal brain separated from the rest of the organism has been proven.using in this case pigs to test it. It was the experiment carried out at Yale University, directed by Nenad Sestan.
The procedure was to collect the brains of several pigs that had been slaughtered in a slaughterhouse and immerse these organs in a cocktail of Blood and chemicals and other elements that simulated the functioning of a living body. The results were really disturbing, since although it could not be demonstrated that there was consciousness, neuronal activity was recorded.
This other experiment opens the door to research and scenarios just as amazing as the previous one, since we would be talking about the possibility of keeping a brain alive outside a body and who knows if perhaps in the future we could have the ability to connect it to a synthetic body. Concepts such as resuscitation or even eternal life would seem less distant.
Obviously are approaches that border on science fiction and all these hypotheses must be handled with great care, without losing touch with reality.Without losing touch with reality and taking into account the limitations that exist at the scientific and technological level, which could well be insurmountable to deal with concepts as complex as those we have mentioned.
On the other hand, and returning to the conflicts that arose in the case of organoids and the question of whether we can create laboratory brains with consciousness, the fact of "resuscitating" a brain entails a series of debates at the moral and philosophical level that could delay or even prohibit any experiment aimed at testing whether such an action is possible. Therefore, we may never have an answer as to its feasibility.
The great dilemma
Returning to the question at hand, whether we can create laboratory brains with consciousness, there is a major dilemma that we anticipated when we talked about organoids. The question is to elucidate which should weigh more heavily in deciding whether to go further in this type of research and try to achieve something closer to a conscious brain.
On the one hand, we could be determined to try to achieve this, arguing, for example, that they could be used to test treatments for a whole series of diseases that affect human beings and that would otherwise involve a more costly or riskier procedure, as they would be done directly on people.
But on the other hand, one might wonder whether these laboratory-created brains should not be subject to a series of rules and protections that would prevent them from suffering any harm or damage, as if they were animals or even human beings. It would be necessary to define what are the lines that separate one more element of study and an entity with consciousness that must be preserved at all costs.
In any case, the very fact of verifying the consciousness of this hypothetical advanced organoid would also be a difficult question to solve, since so far, beyond the mere electrical activity detected, there is no methodology that guarantees the detection of this consciousness. In fact, it is such a complex concept that it is complicated to establish the requirements to affirm that a being is conscious..
The University of California at San Diego itself held a symposium in 2019 with the aim that experts in philosophy and neuroscience would try to put their knowledge together in order to reach a consensus on what consciousness is and what implications we have to consider to establish that an entity is conscious. Of course, the debate is so complex that it is still under study and will be for a long time to come.
- Farahany, N.A., Greely, H.T., Hyman, S., Koch, C., Grady, C. Pașca, S.P., Sestan, N., Arlotta, P., Bernat, J.L., Ting, J., Lunshof, J.E., Iyer, E.P.R., Hyun, I., Capestany, B.H., Church, G.M., Huang, H., Song, H. (2018). The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue. Nature.
- Reardon, S. (2020). Can lab-grown brains become conscious? Nature.
- Regalado, A. (2018). Researchers are keeping pig brains alive outside the body. MIT Technology Review.
(Updated at Mar 28 / 2023)