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Neuroscientists have created ‘mini brains’ from human tissue that can FEEL and even suffer

An ethical line may have been crossed by neuroscientists who have created mini-brains from human tissue that can feel and may even suffer, experts have warned.

So-called organoids are blobs of lab-grown tissue cultivated from human stem cells to resemble tiny organs — in this case, the brain.

Although these mini-brains may only be the size of peanut, they have been observed to develop spontaneous brainwaves, not unlike those that seen in premature babies.

Organoids are considered a significant development in neuroscience, as they allow researchers to study brain tissue free of the usual constraints.

These simulacra are used to investigate such disorders as autism and schizophrenia, and the impact of Zika virus on the development of brains in the womb. 

They may also be helpful in the investigation of Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, Preterm Hypoxia and eye conditions like macular degeneration.

The line between research on organoids and human experimentation, however, is unclear and remains to be established.  

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An ethical line may have been crossed by neuroscientists who have created mini-brains from human tissue, pictured, that can feel and may even suffer, experts have warned

An ethical line may have been crossed by neuroscientists who have created mini-brains from human tissue, pictured, that can feel and may even suffer, experts have warned

WHAT ARE CEREBRAL ORGANOIDS?

Organoids are blobs of lab-grown tissue cultivated from human stem cells to resemble tiny organs.

Cerebral organoids are designed as simulacra of the brain and are used to study various disorders.

Although these mini-brains may only be the size of peanut, they have been observed to develop spontaneous brainwaves, not unlike those that seen in premature babies. 

Organoids are considered a significant development in neuroscience, as they allow researchers to study brain tissue free of the usual constraints. 

The line between research on organoids and human experimentation, however, is unclear. 

Elan Ohayon — director of the Green Neuroscience Laboratory in San Diego, California — and colleagues Ann Lam and Paul Tsang argue that checks need to be in place to stop organoids from enduring pain.

‘If there’s even a possibility of the organoid being sentient, we could be crossing [a] line,’ Dr Ohayon told the Guardian.

‘We don’t want people doing research where there is potential for something to suffer.’ 

‘We’re already seeing activity in organoids that is reminiscent of biological activity in developing animals,’ 

For example, in 2017, researchers from Harvard demonstrated that brain organoids can develop a wide variety of tissues — including cerebral cortex neurons to retinal cells.

Furthermore, the team found that organoids grown for eight months developed their own neural networks, which were found not only to be active but also capable of reacting when light was shone upon them.

Another study — this one conducted by geneticist Fred Gage and colleagues at San Diego’s Salk Institute — transplanted human brain organoids into mice, finding that they were able to connect to the animal’s blood supply and form fresh connections. 

‘I think it is never too soon to raise issues about ethics in science, so that a thoughtful dialogue can guide scientific research and decisions,’ Professor Gage told the Guardian. 

So-called organoids are blobs of lab-grown tissue cultivated from human stem cells to resemble tiny organs — in this case, the brain

So-called organoids are blobs of lab-grown tissue cultivated from human stem cells to resemble tiny organs — in this case, the brain

Dr Ohayon is campaigning for funding agencies to freeze both any similar studies intending to place human brain organoids into animals — along with any research that carries a reasonable risk of organoids developing sentience.

Laws already exist to govern research into human tissues.

Scientists in the UK, for example, are prohibited from working on donated embryos that are more than 14 days old — a restriction intended to protect developing humans from suffering.

Research is needed to determine the point at which sentience is likely to arise, Dr Ohayon said, adding that he has developed computer models that may help do this.

Experts last year writing in the journal Nature called for an ethical debate on human brain organoids.

According to Hank Greely, director of the Center for Law and the Biosciences at Stanford University in California and one of the authors of the report, organoids were not at a sophisticated enough stage of development to raise real concerns.

However, he added, guidelines did need to start being developed for the future. 

Greely said there was no single ethical line when it came to organoids. 

‘I’m confident they don’t think we’ve reached a Gregor Samsa state, where a person wakes up and finds he is an organoid,’ he said — making reference to the Franz Kafka novella, The Metamorphosis, in which the Samsa character awakes as a giant insect. 

‘If they mean the potential to perceive or to react to things, that seems to me likely,’ he added.

“That becomes still more important if we have reason to believe the organoid has an aversive reaction to that stimuli, that it “feels pain”.’ 

‘I strongly doubt that anyone has reached that point or come close to it,’ he said at the time. 

Dr Ohayon and colleagues presented the full findings of their study at the Neuroscience 2019 meeting which was held in Chicago from October 19–23.


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