Mini-brains may already be sentient and suffering, scientists warn

To prevent torturous experiments on organoids, some are calling for clearer definitions of consciousness.

Credit: M. Lancaster/MRC-LMB
  • Mini-brains (also called organoids) are tiny lumps of tissue capable of generating rudimentary neural activity.
  • Neuroscientists use mini-brains to conduct research and experiments that help them learn about the brain.
  • As scientists generate increasingly complex mini-brains, however, some are concerned they might be experiencing pain.


Neuroscientists are "perilously close" to crossing serious ethical lines by experimenting with mini-brains that might be complex enough to feel pain. In fact, experiments with mini-brains (also called organoids) might have already crossed those lines.

"If there's even a possibility of the organoid being sentient, we could be crossing that line," Elan Ohayon, the director of the Green Neuroscience Laboratory in San Diego, California, told The Guardian. "We don't want people doing research where there is potential for something to suffer."

On Monday, Ohayon and his colleagues presented a computational study at Neuroscience 2019, the world's largest annual meeting of neuroscientists. The study aimed to establish guidelines for scientists to determine when exactly a mini-brain develops consciousness.

"Assessment informed by the models and associated dynamics suggests that current organoid research is perilously close to crossing this ethical Rubicon and may have already done so," the paper states. "Despite the field's perception that the complexity and diversity of cellular elements in vivo remains unmatched by today's organoids, current cultures are already isomorphic to sentient brain structure and activity in critical domains and so may be capable of supporting sentient activity and behavior."

Stand-ins for human brains

Mini-brains are tiny lumps of tissue made from stem cells that are capable of generating rudimentary neural activity, and researchers use them in neuroscience experiments. The main benefit of mini-brains is that scientists can conduct important research that sheds light on the human brain all without having to use actual human or animal brains.

As Big Think's Robby Berman noted in March, mini-brains are relatively rudimentary. The most advanced organoid possesses a couple million neurons — twice that of a cockroach, but far fewer than an adult zebrafish. The human brain, meanwhile, has some 100 billion neurons. But mini-brains are becoming more complex.

Smarter mini-brains

A 2018 study showed that organoids implanted in mouse brains are capable of attaching to the animal's blood supply and sprouting new connections. In another recent study, researchers created a mini-brain with retinal cells, which are the neurons that process visual information. In August, a paper published in Cell Stem Cell described how researchers developed an organoid that is capable of producing brain waves similar to those of premature human babies.

"We never had a brain organoid that can function like the human brain," biologist and researcher Alysson Muotri told Discover Magazine. "The electrical activity of these brain organoids are emitting something we see during normal human development. So, it's a strong indication that what we have should work and function like the human brain."

The need for clearer definitions of consciousness

Some scientists think that mini-brains are still too rudimentary to experience anything like what humans would call pain, and therefore the community doesn't need to worry about creating a nightmarish torture scenario for mini-brains. But others argue that scientists should establish clear guidelines for consciousness so can stop experiments before they effectively create new way for beings to suffer.

"We don't really know actually where this is all going," Patricia Churchland, a Salk Institute professor emerita who studies the linkage between philosophy and neuroscience, told the San Diego Union-Tribune. "It's very, very difficult to predict the future in science, as in baseball."

In the computational study presented on Monday, the researchers discussed five domains through which consciousness might be defined: [1] compositional (e.g., atomic, molecular), [2] causal (e.g., genetic, evolutionary), [3] anatomical (e.g., cellular, network geometry, brain regions), [4] physiological (e.g., cellular, network, whole brain activity), and [5] behavioral (e.g., embodied, virtual). But they also noted a strange and alarming possibility:

"It is important to note that the observations in this computational study point at minimal guidelines and undoubtedly would fail to identify alternate forms of sentience."

A still from the film "We Became Fragments" by Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller, part of the Global Oneness Project library.

Photo: Luisa Conlon , Lacy Roberts and Hanna Miller / Global Oneness Project
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It looks like a busy hurricane season ahead. Probably.

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  • Before the hurricane season even started in 2020, Arthur and Bertha had already blown through, and Cristobal may be brewing right now.
  • Weather forecasters see signs of a rough season ahead, with just a couple of reasons why maybe not.
  • Where's an El Niño when you need one?

Welcome to Hurricane Season 2020. 2020, of course, scoffs at this calendric event much as it has everything else that's normal — meteorologists have already used up the year's A and B storm names before we even got here. And while early storms don't necessarily mean a bruising season ahead, forecasters expect an active season this year. Maybe storms will blow away the murder hornets and 13-year locusts we had planned.

NOAA expects a busy season

According to NOAA's Climate Prediction Center, an agency of the National Weather Service, there's a 60 percent chance that we're embarking upon a season with more storms than normal. There does, however, remain a 30 percent it'll be normal. Better than usual? Unlikely: Just a 10 percent chance.

Where a normal hurricane season has an average of 12 named storms, 6 of which become hurricanes and 3 of which are major hurricanes, the Climate Prediction Center reckons we're on track for 13 to 29 storms, 6 to 10 of which will become hurricanes, and 3 to 6 of these will be category 3, 4, or 5, packing winds of 111 mph or higher.

What has forecasters concerned are two factors in particular.

This year's El Niño ("Little Boy") looks to be more of a La Niña ("Little Girl"). The two conditions are part of what's called the El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) cycle, which describes temperature fluctuations between the ocean and atmosphere in the east-central Equatorial Pacific. With an El Niño, waters in the Pacific are unusually warm, whereas a La Niña means unusually cool waters. NOAA says that an El Niño can suppress hurricane formation in the Atlantic, and this year that mitigating effect is unlikely to be present.

Second, current conditions in the Atlantic and Caribbean suggest a fertile hurricane environment:

  • The ocean there is warmer than usual.
  • There's reduced vertical wind shear.
  • Atlantic tropical trade winds are weak.
  • There have been strong West African monsoons this year.

Here's NOAA's video laying out their forecast:

But wait.

ArsTechnica spoke to hurricane scientist Phil Klotzbach, who agrees generally with NOAA, saying, "All in all, signs are certainly pointing towards an active season." Still, he notes a couple of signals that contradict that worrying outlook.

First off, Klotzbach notes that the surest sign of a rough hurricane season is when its earliest storms form in the deep tropics south of 25°N and east of the Lesser Antilles. "When you get storm formations here prior to June 1, it's typically a harbinger of an extremely active season." Fortunately, this year's hurricanes Arthur and Bertha, as well as the maybe-imminent Cristobal, formed outside this region. So there's that.

Second, Klotzbach notes that the correlation between early storm activity and a season's number of storms and intensities, is actually slightly negative. So while statistical connections aren't strongly predictive, there's at least some reason to think these early storms may augur an easy season ahead.

Image source: NOAA

Batten down the hatches early

If 2020's taught us anything, it's how to juggle multiple crises at once, and layering an active hurricane season on top of SARS-CoV-2 — not to mention everything else — poses a special challenge. Warns Treasury Secretary Wilbur Ross, "As Americans focus their attention on a safe and healthy reopening of our country, it remains critically important that we also remember to make the necessary preparations for the upcoming hurricane season." If, as many medical experts expect, we're forced back into quarantine by additional coronavirus waves, the oceanic waves slamming against our shores will best be met by storm preparations put in place in a less last-minute fashion than usual.

Ross adds, "Just as in years past, NOAA experts will stay ahead of developing hurricanes and tropical storms and provide the forecasts and warnings we depend on to stay safe."

Let's hope this, at least, can be counted on in this crazy year.

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