Samuel Alarco
Aug 31 · 6 min read

There has been a lot of buzz going around in the news about the possibility that lab-grown brain organoids, such as those used in the research of Alysson Muotri from the University of California, might one day achieve some level of consciousness. While this poses serious ethical questions about the morality of conducting such research, I believe that there are several circumstances that would inhibit such brainlets from achieving any stage of consciousness.

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Brainlets: Mini-brains

Brain organoids, or brainlets, are miniature versions of organs developed in lab conditions, and are commonly used to study brain development problems, such as how brain diseases can appear in the early stages of brain formation. They are an extremely valuable tool to investigate how the brain takes shape and organizes itself during these processes.

Brain organoids are grown from human pluripotent stem cells, which are cells that can become any type of cell. Muotri’s team in particular coaxed these stem cells into becoming cells that make up the cerebral cortex, or cerebral mantle. This is the outer layer of the brain in humans and many mammals, and is responsible for key cerebral functions, such as memory, thought, perception and awareness.

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Muotri’s team grew hundreds of these organoids, while monitoring EEG signals on the surface of the cortex. Upon analyzing these signals, they were extremely surprised to discover patterns very similar to those observed in premature infants. These are not like the synchronized and rhythmic patterns found in adult brains. Rather, they are made up of chaotic bursts of electrical signals. However, patterns of synchronization do emerge, and the resemblance between the recorded EEG signals of the brainlets and those exhibited by preterm babies was extremely surprising.

Consciousness — An Eluding Concept

It is this striking similarity between the signals recorded from the lab-grown brainlets and those generated by premature babies that has people worried about the possibility of these brainlets developing consciousness. If this were to be verified, the ethical consequences would most probably signify the shutting down of such research — even though I admit it would be extremely fascinating.

Consciousness is an eluding concept that remains a mystery to neurologists, psychologists and philosophers alike. What does it mean to be conscious? Where does consciousness originate from? Can it be artificially reproduced or generated? If these brainlets were to ever become conscious, how would we even know?

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The Oxford Dictionary defines consciousness as the “the state of being aware of and responsive to one’s surroundings” or “the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.” Therefore, consciousness is a state of awareness, be it of oneself or/and of the outside world. Many authors, such as R.D.V. Glasgow in his book The Minimal Selfhood and the Origins of Consciousness, consider as a sign of primordial consciousness the reactions even unicellular organisms have towards changes in their environment with the aim of self-preservation. These can include locomotion towards sources of food and energy, or away from environmental conditions harmful for the organism.

Consciousness is “the fact of awareness by the mind of itself and the world.”

Further degrees of consciousness include the formation of spatial memories, such as remembering where food was hidden previously, or even a concept of future, exhibited by certain animals when in experiments they have shown to chose a bigger reward in the future instead of a smaller immediate reward. The development of a more sophisticated awareness of the self and of its interactions with the outside world, as that which humans have, is arguably the highest form of consciousness that has been reached in the natural kingdom, and one we have not found strong conclusive evidence of in any other form of life.

Is it Possible?

If the brain is the biological epicenter from which consciousness originates, is it possible that brainlets grown in a lab ever develop consciousness in any degree?

This is the question that has worried scientist and ethic boards as experiments growing brain organoids proliferate and advance. Given the fact that the origin consciousness, at least at the level reached by humans, seems difficult to pin-point and dissect, it is immensely difficult to give an answer to this question.

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However, with the above discussion, I find it difficult for mere brain organoids to ever achieve an awareness of themselves and the outside. This is for a very simple reason: they have no sensory input. In human beings, the brain depends on the wide array of sensory organs to receive information of the outside world, which it then processes and transforms into what results in our overall conscious perception of our environment and of ourselves, our body. Apart from the fact that the brain organoids being grown in labs do not even possess the full structure of a human brain, they lack this key element.

The brain cannot perceive itself. It does not even have pain receptors. Without any means to perceive the outside environment, nor any means to react to it in any meaningful way, it is difficult to conceive how a brain organoid will ever achieve consciousness. Maybe the question should be: consciousness of what? Of its own existence? We become aware of our own existence as we begin to feel the outside world. Other abstract forms of thought, philosophizing on this experience, arrive much later and are all built on this primordial perception of ourselves in our environment. While we can imagine how in a hypothetical case a developed mind may continue to remain aware of itself through its train of thoughts, even while isolated from all external input, it is challenging if not impossible to conceive a way in which a totally isolated brainlet would ever achieve this.

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Some may theorize that the “machinery” for consciousness is hardwired into our brain, a gift of evolution for humans, and that therefore a brain organoid might naturally develop it if given enough time. While the study of how the brain develops and auto-organizes itself is fascinating as a subject, the brain does not fulfill its function for itself. It functions in conjunction with a body. Without a body, the brain is like a CPU lying on a table. It might be ingeniously hardwired to achieve certain functionalities, but left alone it will never be able to fulfill them.

Awaiting Answers

The subject of consciousness has mesmerized philosophers, psychologists, neurologists and men of science throughout countless generations. Moreover, the further we advance in the study of the brain, the more we are bewildered by its beautiful complexity and intricacy. I believe that many surprises lay ahead on this path, and the more we investigate into the development of our brains, the more we will learn about the origin of consciousness, our minds, and ourselves.

Photo by Emily Morter on Unsplash

As research on this topics progresses, I await answers to the questions put forward on this article.

Thank you very much for reading and sharing.

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Samuel Alarco

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