• Mayuri Vaish

Neuroethics: conscious organoids

This is in response to a recent article by The Guardian (original research paper on Nature) discussing involuntary contractions of neural 3-D tissue ('brain organoids') when connected to muscle. Very theoretically speaking - are conscious organoids really unethical?

As of current knowledge, it is accepted and understood that brain organoids grown in labs cannot achieve consciousness, notably because it lacks a means of sensory input via receptors[1], but also, as the linked article has mentioned, its small size does not allow for sufficient neuronal activity to form a neural pathway containing any real message.


Another major - and largely unrecognized - issue is that there is, in fact, a disagreement as to what the word ‘consciousness’ really means. Is it being aware of your actions all the time? But in that case, humans are not always conscious. Is it being able to think at a more abstract level? Possibly, but certain humans (e.g. those with neurological diseases or amnesia) cannot. Does that, then, make them any less conscious? This makes it very difficult to answer any questions pertaining to consciousness in the first place.


Nonetheless, there is an interesting thought experiment. Hypothetically speaking, and using the currently more accepted definition of ‘consciousness’ - the state of being aware of one's surroundings[2]- I would argue that it’s complicated.


Firstly, is making organoids conscious unethical? Let’s first look at only the case of making conscious organoids - forget their treatment. To understand whether it’s ethical or not, I’d say we partly have to look at the creator’s awareness pre-creation. Do they know that they are providing consciousness to a life while doing it, or are they unaware that the life is not conscious? One can compare this to childbirth - if a mother knows she is creating a conscious child, is that unethical in any manner? No: it happens all the time. However, if the mum is creating something for her own benefit and it acquires consciousness, is that unethical too? I would say, that this depends upon how the organoid is ‘treated’ - i.e, whether it goes through suffering or not. Bringing the childbirth analogy again: if a mother accidentally becomes pregnant (let’s assume pre-abortion times here), but then she treats her child wonderfully and all is well. This is also a relatively common scenario, and is certainly not unethical. However, if she mistreats her child instead, that would most certainly be unethical - even if her child was an accident. [Of course the husband plays an equal role, too.]


So this comes to my second point. It appears rather clear that a majority of the ethics in conscious organoids therefore lies in the question: Are organoids mistreated? To my knowledge, I would say yes and no. From an omniscient standpoint, it can be argued that clumping conscious, thinking, organoids in a row of confined boxes inside a 37 degree incubator is rather reductionistic, devaluing, and objectifying. However, let’s take a closer look at the scene. Sure, they are held in tiny dishes or containers in incubators, but that’s their world - similar to how Earth (tiny as compared to the universe) is the world of humans; similar to how countries and races and gender categorize humans into different boxes; similar to how humans are confined within specific temperature ranges to sustain life. In that case, objectively, is placing organoids in a relatively large world (remember, these brains are tiny) and perfect temperature really unethical? I would argue the opposite, it’s rather ethical - creating organoids (which is an inevitable occurrence), but then handling them well. I’d like to add that organoids are perpetually placed in nutrient media containing growth factors or, at least, required nutrients for sustained life. In a way, that’s even more humane than humans today - as there are millions who lack basic access to enough food, water and sanitation.


At the same time, I do believe that it is near impossible to perpetually treat organoids well - eventually they are either sacrificed, discarded, toyed with or manipulated; or, a lab partner may possibly make a mistake and accidentally poison the cells - who knows. Thus, as long as the scientists wish to treat them well for pretty much their entire life, conscious organoids are ethical - but because this is so difficult to achieve, it could be unethical. It all depends upon the nature of how they are treated.


By contrast, however, I would say that the intent behind creating organoids would possibly become unethical if they became conscious. Scientists use organoids to model disease and test therapies. Often, this may involve gene knockouts (removing certain genes), knock-ins (adding genes), and other genetic or other manipulation to create the desired disease phenotype. This, in my opinion, would certainly become unethical if the lab brains obtain consciousness - but we’re talking human level consciousness here (again, there is debate over this idea of ‘human consciousness’ versus ‘animal consciousness’). Again, compare it to accidentally giving birth to a child with the intent of expressing a certain disease so he/she could be studied: Not so ethical. If the scientist ceased all studying upon realizing that the organoid is conscious, though, then there is no real ethical issue in my opinion.


However, if the consciousness is closer to animal levels (say mice, for example), it could be argued that studying them anyway is ethical as it benefits humanity (we humans are selfish creatures). So again, this would depend upon the degree of consciousness attributed to the organoid, and also the relative benefit to humanity they are offering.


A final word on conscious organoids: they do seem scary in thought. But, are children scary? The comparison is not necessarily the most effective, but it conveys my point: it’s the creation of consciousness. As children must be taken care of, then, so must organoids be. However, because it is so difficult to always manage them, in reality it would probably be unethical for most people. It all boils down to risk and inflicted harm.


Just a few notes on some global implications here. Firstly, who knows- could we detect a method for, then, reading minds, by studying the electrical activities and thoughts of organoids (and then trying to decipher such trends in humans)? Could they be, potentially, new friends to talk to, new pets to have? Would there be new law enforcements on ‘organoid-treatment’ - similar to animal treatment? New debate topics? Even new areas of study during college? Who knows? Just a curious afterthought.