Biologists are Growing Mini-Brains. What If They Become Conscious?
Few images are more uncanny than that of a brain without a body, fully sentient but afloat in sterile isolation. Such specters have spooked the speculatively-minded since the seventeenth century, when René Descartes declared, "I think, therefore I am."
Since August 29, 2019, the prospect of a bodiless but functional brain has begun to seem far less fantastical.
In Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), the French penseur spins a chilling thought experiment: he imagines "having no hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses," but being tricked by a demon into believing he has all these things, and a world to go with them. A disembodied brain itself becomes a demon in the classic young-adult novel A Wrinkle in Time (1962), using mind control to subjugate a planet called Camazotz. In the sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix (1999), most of humanity endures something like Descartes' nightmare—kept in womblike pods by their computer overlords, who fill the captives' brains with a synthetized reality while tapping their metabolic energy as a power source.
Since August 29, 2019, however, the prospect of a bodiless but functional brain has begun to seem far less fantastical. On that date, researchers at the University of California, San Diego published a study in the journal Cell Stem Cell, reporting the detection of brainwaves in cerebral organoids—pea-size "mini-brains" grown in the lab. Such organoids had emitted random electrical impulses in the past, but not these complex, synchronized oscillations. "There are some of my colleagues who say, 'No, these things will never be conscious,'" lead researcher Alysson Muotri, a Brazilian-born biologist, told The New York Times. "Now I'm not so sure."
Alysson Muotri has no qualms about his creations attaining consciousness as a side effect of advancing medical breakthroughs.
(Credit: ZELMAN STUDIOS)
Muotri's findings—and his avowed ambition to push them further—brought new urgency to simmering concerns over the implications of brain organoid research. "The closer we come to his goal," said Christof Koch, chief scientist and president of the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle, "the more likely we will get a brain that is capable of sentience and feeling pain, agony, and distress." At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, researchers from the Green Neuroscience Laboratory in San Diego called for a partial moratorium, warning that the field was "perilously close to crossing this ethical Rubicon and may have already done so."
Yet experts are far from a consensus on whether brain organoids can become conscious, whether that development would necessarily be dreadful—or even how to tell if it has occurred.
So how worried do we need to be?
An organoid is a miniaturized, simplified version of an organ, cultured from various types of stem cells. Scientists first learned to make them in the 1980s, and have since turned out mini-hearts, lungs, kidneys, intestines, thyroids, and retinas, among other wonders. These creations can be used for everything from observation of basic biological processes to testing the effects of gene variants, pathogens, or medications. They enable researchers to run experiments that might be less accurate using animal models and unethical or impractical using actual humans. And because organoids are three-dimensional, they can yield insights into structural, developmental, and other matters that an ordinary cell culture could never provide.
In 2006, Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka developed a mix of proteins that turned skin cells into "pluripotent" stem cells, which could subsequently be transformed into neurons, muscle cells, or blood cells. (He later won a Nobel Prize for his efforts.) Developmental biologist Madeline Lancaster, then a post-doctoral student at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, adapted that technique to grow the first brain organoids in 2013. Other researchers soon followed suit, cultivating specialized mini-brains to study disorders ranging from microcephaly to schizophrenia.
Muotri, now a youthful 45-year-old, was among the boldest of these pioneers. His team revealed the process by which Zika virus causes brain damage, and showed that sofosbuvir, a drug previously approved for hepatitis C, protected organoids from infection. He persuaded NASA to fly his organoids to the International Space Station, where they're being used to trace the impact of microgravity on neurodevelopment. He grew brain organoids using cells implanted with Neanderthal genes, and found that their wiring differed from organoids with modern DNA.
Like the latter experiment, Muotri's brainwave breakthrough emerged from a longtime obsession with neuroarchaeology. "I wanted to figure out how the human brain became unique," he told me in a phone interview. "Compared to other species, we are very social. So I looked for conditions where the social brain doesn't function well, and that led me to autism." He began investigating how gene variants associated with severe forms of the disorder affected neural networks in brain organoids.
Tinkering with chemical cocktails, Muotri and his colleagues were able to keep their organoids alive far longer than earlier versions, and to culture more diverse types of brain cells. One team member, Priscilla Negraes, devised a way to measure the mini-brains' electrical activity, by planting them in a tray lined with electrodes. By four months, the researchers found to their astonishment, normal organoids (but not those with an autism gene) emitted bursts of synchronized firing, separated by 20-second silences. At nine months, the organoids were producing up to 300,000 spikes per minute, across a range of frequencies.
He shared his vision for "brain farms," which would grow organoids en masse for drug development or tissue transplants.
When the team used an artificial intelligence system to compare these patterns with EEGs of gestating fetuses, the program found them to be nearly identical at each stage of development. As many scientists noted when the news broke, that didn't mean the organoids were conscious. (Their chaotic bursts bore little resemblance to the orderly rhythms of waking adult brains.) But to some observers, it suggested that they might be approaching the borderline.
Shortly after Muotri's team published their findings, I attended a conference at UCSD on the ethical questions they raised. The scientist, in jeans and a sky-blue shirt, spoke rhapsodically of brain organoids' potential to solve scientific mysteries and lead to new medical treatments. He showed video of a spider-like robot connected to an organoid through a computer interface. The machine responded to different brainwave patterns by walking or stopping—the first stage, Muotri hoped, in teaching organoids to communicate with the outside world. He described his plans to develop organoids with multiple brain regions, and to hook them up to retinal organoids so they could "see." He shared his vision for "brain farms," which would grow organoids en masse for drug development or tissue transplants.
Muotri holds a spider-like robot that can connect to an organoid through a computer interface.
(Credit: ROLAND LIZARONDO/KPBS)
Yet Muotri also stressed the current limitations of the technology. His organoids contain approximately 2 million neurons, compared to about 200 million in a rat's brain and 86 billion in an adult human's. They consist only of a cerebral cortex, and lack many of a real brain's cell types. Because researchers haven't yet found a way to give organoids blood vessels, moreover, nutrients can't penetrate their inner recesses—a severe constraint on their growth.
Another panelist strongly downplayed the imminence of any Rubicon. Patricia Churchland, an eminent philosopher of neuroscience, cited research suggesting that in mammals, networked connections between the cortex and the thalamus are a minimum requirement for consciousness. "It may be a blessing that you don't have the enabling conditions," she said, "because then you don't have the ethical issues."
Christof Koch, for his part, sounded much less apprehensive than the Times had made him seem. He noted that science lacks a definition of consciousness, beyond an organism's sense of its own existence—"the fact that it feels like something to be you or me." As to the competing notions of how the phenomenon arises, he explained, he prefers one known as Integrated Information Theory, developed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi. IIT considers consciousness to be a quality intrinsic to systems that reach a certain level of complexity, integration, and causal power (the ability for present actions to determine future states). By that standard, Koch doubted that brain organoids had stepped over the threshold.
One way to tell, he said, might be to use the "zap and zip" test invented by Tononi and his colleague Marcello Massimini in the early 2000s to determine whether patients are conscious in the medical sense. This technique zaps the brain with a pulse of magnetic energy, using a coil held to the scalp. As loops of neural impulses cascade through the cerebral circuitry, an EEG records the firing patterns. In a waking brain, the feedback is highly complex—neither totally predictable nor totally random. In other states, such as sleep, coma, or anesthesia, the rhythms are simpler. Applying an algorithm commonly used for computer "zip" files, the researchers devised a scale that allowed them to correctly diagnose most patients who were minimally conscious or in a vegetative state.
If scientists could find a way to apply "zap and zip" to brain organoids, Koch ventured, it should be possible to rank their degree of awareness on a similar scale. And if it turned out that an organoid was conscious, he added, our ethical calculations should strive to minimize suffering, and avoid it where possible—just as we now do, or ought to, with animal subjects. (Muotri, I later learned, was already contemplating sensors that would signal when organoids were likely in distress.)
During the question-and-answer period, an audience member pressed Churchland about how her views might change if the "enabling conditions" for consciousness in brain organoids were to arise. "My feeling is, we'll answer that when we get there," she said. "That's an unsatisfying answer, but it's because I don't know. Maybe they're totally happy hanging out in a dish! Maybe that's the way to be."
Muotri himself admits to no qualms about his creations attaining consciousness, whether sooner or later. "I think we should try to replicate the model as close as possible to the human brain," he told me after the conference. "And if that involves having a human consciousness, we should go in that direction." Still, he said, if strong evidence of sentience does arise, "we should pause and discuss among ourselves what to do."
"The field is moving so rapidly, you blink your eyes and another advance has occurred."
Churchland figures it will be at least a decade before anyone reaches the crossroads. "That's partly because the thalamus has a very complex architecture," she said. It might be possible to mimic that architecture in the lab, she added, "but I tend to think it's not going to be a piece of cake."
If anything worries Churchland about brain organoids, in fact, it's that Muotri's visionary claims for their potential could set off a backlash among those who find them unacceptably spooky. "Alysson has done brilliant work, and he's wonderfully charismatic and charming," she said. "But then there's that guy back there who doesn't think it's exciting; he thinks you're the Devil incarnate. You're playing into the hands of people who are going to shut you down."
Koch, however, is more willing to indulge Muotri's dreams. "Ten years ago," he said, "nobody would have believed you can take a stem cell and get an entire retina out of it. It's absolutely frigging amazing. So who am I to say the same thing can't be true for the thalamus or the cortex? The field is moving so rapidly, you blink your eyes and another advance has occurred."
The point, he went on, is not to build a Cartesian thought experiment—or a Matrix-style dystopia—but to vanquish some of humankind's most terrifying foes. "You know, my dad passed away of Parkinson's. I had a twin daughter; she passed away of sudden death syndrome. One of my best friends killed herself; she was schizophrenic. We want to eliminate all these terrible things, and that requires experimentation. We just have to go into it with open eyes."
Today’s podcast guest is Rosalind Picard, a researcher, inventor named on over 100 patents, entrepreneur, author, professor and engineer. When it comes to the science related to endowing computer software with emotional intelligence, she wrote the book. It’s published by MIT Press and called Affective Computing.
Dr. Picard is founder and director of the MIT Media Lab’s Affective Computing Research Group. Her research and engineering contributions have been recognized internationally. For example, she received the 2022 International Lombardy Prize for Computer Science Research, considered by many to be the Nobel prize in computer science.
Through her research and companies, Dr. Picard has developed wearable sensors, algorithms and systems for sensing, recognizing and responding to information about human emotion. Her products are focused on using fitness trackers to advance clinical quality treatments for a range of conditions.
Meanwhile, in just the past few years, numerous fitness tracking companies have released products with their own stress sensors and systems. You may have heard about Fitbit’s Stress Management Score, or Whoop’s Stress Monitor – these features and apps measure things like your heart rhythm and a certain type of invisible sweat to identify stress. They’re designed to raise awareness about forms of stress such as anxieties and anger, and suggest strategies like meditation to relax in real time when stress occurs.
But how well do these off-the-shelf gadgets work? There’s no one more knowledgeable and experienced than Rosalind Picard to explain the science behind these stress features, what they do exactly, how they might be able to help us, and their current shortcomings.
Dr. Picard is a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors, and a popular speaker who’s given over a hundred invited keynote talks and a TED talk with over 2 million views. She holds a Bachelors in Electrical Engineering from Georgia Tech, and Masters and Doctorate degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from MIT. She lives in Newton, Massachusetts with her husband, where they’ve raised three sons.
In our conversation, we discuss stress scores on fitness trackers to improve well-being. She describes the difference between commercial products that might help people become more mindful of their health and products that are FDA approved and really capable of advancing the science. We also talk about several fascinating findings and concepts discovered in Dr. Picard’s lab including the multiple arousal theory, a phenomenon you’ll want to hear about. And we explore the complexity of stress, one reason it’s so tough to measure. For example, many forms of stress are actually good for us. Can fitness trackers tell the difference between stress that’s healthy and unhealthy?
- Dr. Picard’s book, Affective Computing
- Dr. Picard’s bio
- Dr. Picard on Twitter
- Dr. Picard’s company, Empatica - https://www.empatica.com/ - The FDA-cleared Empatica Health Monitoring Platform provides accurate, continuous health insights for researchers and clinicians, collected in the real world
- Empatica Twitter
- Dr. Picard and her team have published hundreds of peer-reviewed articles across AI, Machine Learning, Affective Computing, Digital Health, and Human-computer interaction.
- Dr. Picard’s TED talk
If you look back on the last century of scientific achievements, you might notice that most of the scientists we celebrate are overwhelmingly white, while scientists of color take a backseat. Since the Nobel Prize was introduced in 1901, for example, no black scientists have landed this prestigious award.
The work of black women scientists has gone unrecognized in particular. Their work uncredited and often stolen, black women have nevertheless contributed to some of the most important advancements of the last 100 years, from the polio vaccine to GPS.
Here are five black women who have changed science forever.
Dr. May Edward Chinn
Dr. May Edward Chinn practicing medicine in Harlem
George B. Davis, PhD.
Chinn was born to poor parents in New York City just before the start of the 20th century. Although she showed great promise as a pianist, playing with the legendary musician Paul Robeson throughout the 1920s, she decided to study medicine instead. Chinn, like other black doctors of the time, were barred from studying or practicing in New York hospitals. So Chinn formed a private practice and made house calls, sometimes operating in patients’ living rooms, using an ironing board as a makeshift operating table.
Chinn worked among the city’s poor, and in doing this, started to notice her patients had late-stage cancers that often had gone undetected or untreated for years. To learn more about cancer and its prevention, Chinn begged information off white doctors who were willing to share with her, and even accompanied her patients to other clinic appointments in the city, claiming to be the family physician. Chinn took this information and integrated it into her own practice, creating guidelines for early cancer detection that were revolutionary at the time—for instance, checking patient health histories, checking family histories, performing routine pap smears, and screening patients for cancer even before they showed symptoms. For years, Chinn was the only black female doctor working in Harlem, and she continued to work closely with the poor and advocate for early cancer screenings until she retired at age 81.
Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy
Alice Ball was a chemist best known for her groundbreaking work on the development of the “Ball Method,” the first successful treatment for those suffering from leprosy during the early 20th century.
In 1916, while she was an undergraduate student at the University of Hawaii, Ball studied the effects of Chaulmoogra oil in treating leprosy. This oil was a well-established therapy in Asian countries, but it had such a foul taste and led to such unpleasant side effects that many patients refused to take it.
So Ball developed a method to isolate and extract the active compounds from Chaulmoogra oil to create an injectable medicine. This marked a significant breakthrough in leprosy treatment and became the standard of care for several decades afterward.
Unfortunately, Ball died before she could publish her results, and credit for this discovery was given to another scientist. One of her colleagues, however, was able to properly credit her in a publication in 1922.
onathan Newton/The Washington Post/Getty
The person who arguably contributed the most to scientific research in the last century, surprisingly, wasn’t even a scientist. Henrietta Lacks was a tobacco farmer and mother of five children who lived in Maryland during the 1940s. In 1951, Lacks visited Johns Hopkins Hospital where doctors found a cancerous tumor on her cervix. Before treating the tumor, the doctor who examined Lacks clipped two small samples of tissue from Lacks’ cervix without her knowledge or consent—something unthinkable today thanks to informed consent practices, but commonplace back then.
As Lacks underwent treatment for her cancer, her tissue samples made their way to the desk of George Otto Gey, a cancer researcher at Johns Hopkins. He noticed that unlike the other cell cultures that came into his lab, Lacks’ cells grew and multiplied instead of dying out. Lacks’ cells were “immortal,” meaning that because of a genetic defect, they were able to reproduce indefinitely as long as certain conditions were kept stable inside the lab.
Gey started shipping Lacks’ cells to other researchers across the globe, and scientists were thrilled to have an unlimited amount of sturdy human cells with which to experiment. Long after Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, her cells continued to multiply and scientists continued to use them to develop cancer treatments, to learn more about HIV/AIDS, to pioneer fertility treatments like in vitro fertilization, and to develop the polio vaccine. To this day, Lacks’ cells have saved an estimated 10 million lives, and her family is beginning to get the compensation and recognition that Henrietta deserved.
Dr. Gladys West
Gladys West was a mathematician who helped invent something nearly everyone uses today. West started her career in the 1950s at the Naval Surface Warfare Center Dahlgren Division in Virginia, and took data from satellites to create a mathematical model of the Earth’s shape and gravitational field. This important work would lay the groundwork for the technology that would later become the Global Positioning System, or GPS. West’s work was not widely recognized until she was honored by the US Air Force in 2018.
Dr. Kizzmekia "Kizzy" Corbett
At just 35 years old, immunologist Kizzmekia “Kizzy” Corbett has already made history. A viral immunologist by training, Corbett studied coronaviruses at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and researched possible vaccines for coronaviruses such as SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome).At the start of the COVID pandemic, Corbett and her team at the NIH partnered with pharmaceutical giant Moderna to develop an mRNA-based vaccine against the virus. Corbett’s previous work with mRNA and coronaviruses was vital in developing the vaccine, which became one of the first to be authorized for emergency use in the United States. The vaccine, along with others, is responsible for saving an estimated 14 million lives.
Sarah Watts is a health and science writer based in Chicago.