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Faster Than the Speed of Thought

by Craig Klugman, Ph.D.

In the 1983 comedic film, The Man with Two Brains,”  Steve Martin’s character falls in love with a female brain preserved in a jar. The brain can communicate with Martin and they fall in love. Similarly, in the world of the soon-to-be-retired cartoon “Futurama,” most celebrities and politicians are kept as heads in a jar after death, where they can speak, eat, and even run the country.

On July 1, President Obama requested that the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues “identify a set of core ethical standards—both to guide neuroscience research and to address some of the ethical dilemmas that may be raised by the application of neuroscience research findings.” This request is part of his BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) that was announced April 2. The $100 million program seeks to understand how the human brain works to provide new treatments and cures for such diseases as Alzheimer’s, stroke, and autism spectrum disorders.

The latest request is similar to the Ethical, Legal and Social Implications (ELSI) program that paralleled the Human Genome Project by providing funding for researchers to examine those issues. This time around, the Bioethics Commission has the responsibility to examine the implications of this new science.  On August 20, the Presidential Commission began discussions, talking about developing a framework for the conversation, the need for education, as well as the necessity of contributing to policy and engaging the public.

At the recent meeting, Nita Farahany, a member of the Commission stated “I do worry a lot about neurohype.” The Chronicle of Higher Education reported that many scholars think that most breakthroughs are far in the future. However, the Chronicle caution us with a quote from David Chalmers who says the science “may well sneak up on us.”

Flash forward one week and it appears that science has snuck up on us.

An August 28 article in Nature reported that neurobiologists at UCLA used synthetic gel, stem cells derived from human skin, and some nutrients in a spinning bath to create complex tissues that “resemble the brains of fetuses in the ninth week of development.” It is now possible to grow brain-like tissue in a laboratory.

The researchers studied their mini-brain to model stunted brain growth (microcephaly). Animal models have been used in the past to study the brain, but the human brain is exceptionally complex, limiting what can be learned from other models.

Although growing a disembodied whole human brain in a vat is not currently possible, this research points to that as a possibility which may sneak up on us. Growing human brains raises a host of ethical and philosophical issues beyond those of research ethics. For example, if the brain, similar to The Man With Two Brains and Futurama, could think and communicate would it be human? Would we even recognize its thoughts and communication? Could a human brain born in a vat be conscious? Would merely having human anatomy without human experience lead to intelligence? Could a human mind be transferred into that brain? How would that change our notions of being human? Should a researcher be permitted to undertake such an experiment? Is destroying even a mini-brain the equivalent of an abortion if further development might be possible?

Dr. Chalmers comment was eerily prescient. The Bioethics Commission needs to step up its timeline because overnight science just leapfrogged over science fiction and made Futurama seem not all that far away.

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