December 3, 2021

Brain organoid research needs ethical oversight

Scientists are advancing without an ethical framework

Brain organoid research is advancing at a rapid pace. These artefacts are essentially miniature human brains grown in a laboratory from stem cells. Scientists have detected brain waves in some, which might indicate the presence of consciousness. There have also been attempts to attach brain organoids to robot machines, and to implant brain organoids in non-human animals.

Yet there is growing concern about the lack of scientific oversight of this research. In an article in The Conversation this week, Julian Koplin (Monash University) and Julian Savulescu (University of Oxford) argue that such research raises “serious ethical questions”. In particular, there is concern that brain organoids might one day develop a sophisticated form of consciousness, and resemble conscious human beings. Koplin and Savulescu do not argue for a break on research, but rather that we should “screen such beings for unexpected cognitive capacities, try to understand what constitutes a good life for these beings – and treat them accordingly”. In cases of uncertainty, it may be appropriate to “overestimate” their moral status.

Writing in Nature, 17 experts recently warned of the need to develop an ethical framework before brain organoid research advanced further. “To ensure the success and social acceptance of this research long term, an ethical framework must be forged now, while brain surrogates remain in the early stages of development”.

Yet it seems that even with a framework, ethical concerns would still remain about the very creation of conscious life in vitro.

The need for ethical oversight of brain organoid research
Xavier Symons
Creative commons
brain organoids