Playing God

At first I was intrigued. Then it seemed kinda creepy. Then it seemed downright alarming.

On the International Space Station, clusters of nerve cells called mini-brains are developing in ways that scientists didn’t previously think was possible.

The organoids were grown from stem cells at the University of California, San Diego lab of biologist Alysson Muotri, before being packed into a box and shipped to space, where Muotri told The New York Times they’re likely “replicating like crazy.” Now, his team has found that the organoids are giving off brain waves — complex patterns of neural activity — similar to those of premature babies. It’s a bizarre finding that could force scientists to revisit the limitations of lab-grown mini-organs and the ethical issues surrounding them.

Muotri hooked the mini-brains up to spider-shaped robots to read their neural activity, according to the NYT. The findings could be a sign that scientists are approaching the capability to generate at least partially-conscious life in the lab — a development that’s long been little more than a speculative horror story in the field.

“The closer we come to his goal, the more likely we will get a brain that is capable of sentience and of feeling pain, agony and distress,” Christof Koch, chief scientist and president of the Allen Brain Institute, told the NYT.

Greeeaaaat. Cause, y’know, there just isn’t nearly enough pain, agony, and distress going around these days already. Right, genius?

“There are some of my colleagues who say, ‘No, these things will never be conscious,’” Muotri told the NYT. “Now I’m not so sure.”

Oh, this is just BOUND to end well.

If these brain waves are a sign that organoids could be capable of consciousness, neuroscientists will need to grapple with a major ethical dilemma — as continued experimentation would potentially mean creating and destroying self-aware, human-like life. But we may not be there yet, cautioned University of Southern California biologist Giorgia Quadrato, who wasn’t involved in the new study.

“It’s pretty amazing. No one really knew if that was possible,” Quadrato told the NYT, before clarifying that it didn’t conclude that the mini-brains reached human levels of activity.

“People will say, ‘Ah, these are like the brains of preterm infants,’” she said. “No, they are not.”

Like you really, truly know that. Like you could EVER really know it for certain. Like you can predict where it will all lead in the end.

I’m by no means opposed to science and research, of course. And in research, a certain amount of risk is essential, a certain boldness a fundamental job qualification. But in this instance, I suspect these folks might be messing around with things that are probably best left alone.

8 thoughts on “Playing God

  1. I am guessing this is almost entirely hype, an article written by a journalist who has no clue what any of the garble fed to him by the researchers actually means. “Clusters of nerve cells” are a long, long, long ways from being functioning brains of any sort.

    1. A flatworm has a cluster of nerve cells which are a rudimentary brain and allow it to seek food and avoid hazards, and which gives off “brain waves” which can be detected. By the hype standards of that article hysterical essay, flatworms are only half a step from being human fetuses.

      1. A good example. This article reminds me of all the breathless hype over AI and machine learning. Some researcher makes a real (but modest) breakthrough on some minor aspect of the technology, and we end up with journalists making it sound like Skynet is about to wake up and destroy humanity. I am certain this nerve cell research is exciting to those in the field and represents a real advance, but it is just a very small incremental step. But that isn’t interesting enough for the journalist, so we get “OMG!!!! They’re growing human brains in jars on the space station!” Talk about making mountains out of mole hills….

        1. Oh, come on! You’re hiding the truth! They have some of Hiden Bidens replacement brain cells growing in those space jars. They’ll have them back and implanted before the first debate.

  2. Igor, which brain did you use instead of the one I asked you to get?

    Well, Abby.

    Abby? Abby who?

    Abby Normal.

    Oh. My. God. I’ve put an abnormal brain in a 7 foot tall monster!!

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