One of the ways scientists study the growth and aging of the human body is by creating artificial organs in the laboratory. The most popular of these organs is currently the organoid, a miniaturized organ made from stem cells. Organoids have been used to model a variety of organs, but brain organoids are the most clouded in controversy.
Current brain organoids are different in size and maturity from normal brains. More importantly, they produce no behavioral output, demonstrating that they are still a primitive model of an actual brain. However, as research generates brain organoids of greater complexity, they will eventually have the ability to feel and think. In response to this anticipation, Associate Professor Takuya Niikawa of Kobe University and Assistant Professor Tsutomu Sawai of the Institute for Advanced Study of Human Biology (WPI-ASHBi) at Kyoto University, in collaboration with other philosophers in Japan and Canada, wrote a paper on the ethics of research using conscious brain organoids. The article can be read in the academic journal Neuroethics.
Regularly working with bioethicists and neuroscientists who have created brain organoids, the team has written extensively about the need to develop ethical research guidelines. In the new paper, Niikawa, Sawai and their coauthors present an ethical framework that assumes brain organoids already have consciousness rather than waiting for the day when we can fully confirm that they do.
“We believe a precautionary principle should be applied,” Sawai said. “Neither science nor philosophy can agree that something has consciousness. Instead of discussing whether brain organoids have consciousness, we decided they did so as a precaution and to consider the moral implications.
To justify this hypothesis, the article explains what brain organoids are and examines what different theories of consciousness suggest about brain organoids, deducing that some of the popular theories of consciousness allow them to possess consciousness.
Ultimately, the framework proposed by the study recommends that research on human brain organoids should follow similar ethical principles as animal experiments. Recommendations therefore include using the minimum number of organoids possible and doing the maximum to prevent pain and suffering while taking into account the interests of the public and patients.
“Our framework was designed to be simple and is based on valence experiments and the sophistication of those experiments,” Niikawa said.
This, the paper explains, provides guidance on the stringency of experimental conditions. These conditions must be decided based on several criteria, including the physiological state of the organoid, the stimuli to which it responds, the neural structures it possesses, and its cognitive functions.
Moreover, the article argues that this framework is not exclusive to brain organoids. It can be applied to anything perceived to have consciousness, such as fetuses, animals, and even robots.
“Our framework is based on the precautionary principle. Something that we think has no consciousness today may, through the development of consciousness studies, turn out to have consciousness in the future. We can consider how we should treat these entities based on our ethical framework,” conclude Niikawa and Sawai.