Updated: Oct 4, 2021
THE PRESENT... WAS THEN?
Once upon a time, back in the first decade of this young century, ambitious scientists began growing small blobs of cells in dishes of goop that began to exhibit structural and functional properties similar to actual organs. Among these were tiny blobs of human brains. Researchers brimming with anticipation rejoiced as their microscopic clumps of cells self organized into three-dimensional wads, christened the cerebral organoid! These little beauties would be used to study and understand all sorts of neurodevelopmental and neurodegenerative disorders ranging from autism and down syndrome to Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease. An honorable and important endeavor, for sure! Then, around 2017, the amount of operable neurons that scientists could grow in their cellular blobs jumped from the hundreds to the thousands. They got large enough to resemble embryonic human brains! There emerged a number of unanticipated occurrences, like an unexpectedly wide range of EEG oscillation patterns. What were the scientists seeing? What did this mean? Were they witnessing signs of a primitive consciousness...? “Naaaahhhhh... probably not! Hey, let's make bigger ones!”
THE FUTURE IS NOW!... OH, SHIT!
And, make bigger ones they did. The process of creating larger and more complex cerebral organoids has become much more refined. These incredible little... Wait... There was mention earlier about possible consciousness, right? Sorta bulldozed right past that, didn't I? Yeah, well, me and the entire stem cell research community, it seems.
Therein lies the conundrum part. Incredible innovations and noble causes aside, ethical debates surrounding consciousness is at the forefront of these experiments. What's disturbing is how the clinical stratification of consciousness allows for the convenient dismissal of ethics in all life labeled as "non-human". We know so little about the actual properties of sentience, yet we're tinkering with these mini-brains and pushing their capabilities and complexity. Currently, these cerebral organoids can spontaneously self-create different parts of the whole brain, including primitive eye regions that react to light. This is seen in the stem cell research world as the “development of the circuits to see”, as differentiated from “actual seeing”. What's the difference? One is a human experience, and the other is not. One compelling misunderstanding that certain, perhaps ethically questionable, experiments are exposing, is the misassociation between cerebral structure and function. One such experiment was conducted in China, where transgenic monkeys (monkeys treated with human DNA) demonstrated slower, human-like cerebral growth rates, and an improvement in some cognitive functions, despite demonstrating no change in brain size or structure.
As of yet, we have no clue as to what the actual nature of consciousness is, no less how to measure it. It's the place where cold, clinical materialism intersects with the intangible, and perhaps spiritual. Continuting to explore where this research is going gets into some very strange places, that sometimes seem like they can't be real. Things like human cerebral organoids being hooked up to mechanical spiders, or growing themselves onto the spinal structures of mice. What started as an endeavor to research and cure disorders and diseases in the brain, may turn out to be a study of the illusive nature of consciousness itself. Let's just hope that History doesn't look back and see it all as a study of Man's scientific hubris.