What will you name your Brain-in-a-Jar(TM)?



Lab-Grown Model Brains

In an Austrian laboratory, a team of scientists has grown three-dimensional models of embryonic human brains. These “cerebral organoids” are made from stem cells, which are simply bathed in the right cocktail of nutrients and grown in a spinning chamber. Over a few weeks, they arrange themselves into pea-sized balls of white tissue, which recapitulate some of the complex features of a growing brain, including distinct layers and regions.

On the one hand, awesome! On the other hand, what if *coughsplutterahem* consciousness emerges from the brain once it reaches a certain degree physical maturity?

Babies Learn to Recognize Words in the Womb

[P]regnant mothers listened to a recording that included a nonsensical word several times a week. By the time the babies were born, they had heard the word over 25,000 times. After birth, brain activity of infants who had heard the made up word showed signs of recognition upon hearing it again, while the control group did not.

If researchers eventually grow a brain to sufficient maturity, would they be able to expose it via SCIENCE! (TBA) to language in such a way that they could test the brain for recognition? Could you teach such a brain enough language for it to understand when you tell it, “just btw, you’re a brain in a jar. You’ve never actually been a person.” For that matter, would you be ethically obligated to inform it of its peculiar circumstances?

Would you give it a name? “Specimen X23CQ42M” is just so awkward.

Could it develop a personality?

Would one need to go through IRB to conduct experiments on it?

Do you want this brain upset at you if you’re using it in brain-to-brain body control and/or brain-to-machine  control research?

I’m no Luddite, but I think one really does have to wonder about the ramifications here. We can hope and wish for all scientists to be pillars of virtue, but it hasn’t been that long since human vivisection was an issue. Dr. Mengele is within the living memory of a great many. Animal vivisection is still a thing.  It seems that nearly every day, there’s a new reason to believe that there’s more than a handful of scientists willing to generate whatever research results their corporate and/or governmental sponsors demand of them. At what point will we absolutely have to answer these apparently frivolous questions? To what degree do we need to be concerned about unethical research transgressing boundaries we can’t even imagine yet?


Image credit: Kazarelth @ flikr.com . Licensed under Creative Commons.