This definitely sounds like it came out of a sci-fi novel or movie, but tiny brain “organoids” or clusters of neurons grown from human stem cells have been planted into rats. Creepy, isn’t it? Not only that, but it’s sparking an ethical debate among scientists worried that it might give the rats (and other rodents) some type of human consciousness. Think about that for a moment before you continue reading.
From an ethics perspective, the experiments might reach a point where the lab rats will be “entitled to some kind of respect”. Is this for real? Is this an actual thing? From a medical/scientific perspective, I can see how this could happen. But isn’t it a bit of a leap to suggest that the rats now are entitled to respect? In fact, there are a lot of humans that I don’t have respect for. Does the fact that they have a human brain mean that I should? What is this respect qualifier even based on?
Let’s back up for a moment. This isn’t a highly practiced thing, but two groups of researchers are almost ready to present their work regarding the implantation of human brains into rodents. The two papers reveal that human brain tissue survived for extended periods of time. But what might be the creepiest part of this is that the human brain actually began to integrate with the hosts in what they’re calling unexpected and incredible ways.
Normally, I wouldn’t encourage people to stop reading my posts, but in this case, I think it’s understandable. Be cautious when continuing. Once the researchers implanted the “organoids”, the brain tissue melded with the rodent’s circulatory system. Which then allowed it to remain alive for an extended period of time. Then, the human brain tissue connected itself to its host’s nervous system and would then send tiny transmissions to multiple regions of the rodent’s own brain.
Researchers are not making a clear connection about whether or not the test subjects behaved differently. Or if there was any change at all. On one hand, it’s likely too soon to make those conclusions, but on the other hand, maybe they don’t want to reveal that kind of information?
A bioethicist with The Hastings Center had this to say:
It brings up some pretty interesting questions about what allows us, ethically, to do research on mice in the first place — namely, that they’re not human. If we give them human cerebral organoids, what does that do to their intelligence, their level of consciousness, even their species identity?
She’s not wrong, but I don’t know that they should make that leap. If you’re giving a rodent a human brain, does it become a human? In some ways, I think that’s more of a philosophical question than a scientific one. Obviously, science is involved with this, but does a brain make you a human? You could make the argument that it does as it provides all functionality for your existence. But is there a bigger question about what a human is? I am neither a scientist nor a philosopher so I will leave those questions to the professionals. It does seem like ethics is taking a back seat for this particular research project.