I came across the following neuroscience news item at The Guardian earlier today. Not only is the article fascinating breaking science news, it also raises quite intriguing philosophical, moral, metaphysical and spiritual questions that touch on the subjects of mind, consciousness, life, intelligence, and similar other areas of open controversy and debate.
First almost fully-formed human brain grown in lab, researchers claim
Research team say tiny brain could be used to test drugs
and study diseases, but scientific peers urge caution
as data on breakthrough kept under wraps
Though not conscious the miniature brain, which resembles that of a five-week-old foetus, could potentially be useful for scientists who want to study the progression of developmental diseases. It could also be used to test drugs for conditions such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, since the regions they affect are in place during an early stage of brain development.
The brain, which is about the size of a pencil eraser, is engineered from adult human skin cells and is the most complete human brain model yet developed, claimed Rene Anand of Ohio State University, Columbus, who presented the work today at the Military Health System Research Symposium in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
Previous attempts at growing whole brains have at best achieved mini-organs that resemble those of nine-week-old foetuses, although these “cerebral organoids” were not complete and only contained certain aspects of the brain. “We have grown the entire brain from the get-go,” said Anand.
Anand and his colleagues claim to have reproduced 99% of the brain’s diverse cell types and genes. They say their brain also contains a spinal cord, signalling circuitry and even a retina.
The ethical concerns were non-existent, said Anand. “We don’t have any sensory stimuli entering the brain. This brain is not thinking in any way.” [Continue reading → The Guardian, Tuesday 18 August 2015 20.00 BST.]
Now, a number of profound questions come to mind despite the scientists’ assertions, declared good intentions, and assurances. For example, how do they know with certainty that the brain they have made is not conscious or does not possess an unconscious state of awareness at the very least?
They say: “The ethical concerns were non-existent . . . We don’t have any sensory stimuli entering the brain. This brain is not thinking in any way.” How sure are they it is not aware or engaging in a thinking and/or feeling process?
Furthermore, it is theorized and said by scientists that mind is made up of the processes that operate within the brain. Assuming that were the case, would not that brain be engaging in processes which could be said to be its mind then? As a functioning mind, would it not have some measure of intelligence, even perhaps human intelligence itself as provided by the human genetic materials used in creating that brain?
And what if that brain is actually sentient — some form of sentient being with a soul? What then?
The whole conundrum seems to be the stuff of science fiction and fantasy, but this time it is for real, a real living, growing, developing human brain.
In the movie based on the Mary Shelley novel, Doctor Frankenstein can be heard screaming in demented triumph: “It’s alive! It’s alive! My creation is alive!” Let’s hope the creature is not a monster.