We’ve long been fascinated by the human brain but could we soon be growing them to order?
Austrian scientists have grown a miniature human brain from stem cells, according to a report in the prestigious journal Nature.
The scientists are referring to the creation as an “organoid” and Nature describes it as a 4mm pea-sized structure with about the same level of development as a nine-week foetus.
The mini-brain has survived for nearly a year at the Austrian Academy of Science. But without a blood supply nutrients and oxygen couldn’t penetrate into the middle of the brain-like structure, so it hasn’t grown any larger than its current pea size. It is hoped that the research will open up new avenues to study complex brain disorders, like autism and schizophrenia, but it raises some ethical alarm bells.
The pea-sized ‘organoid’ is a brain with the same development as a nine-week foetus
A bright idea?
The Austrian scientists describe it as a “human pluripotent stem cell-derived three-dimensional organoid culture system” that is “shown to recapitulate features of human cortical development”. BBC Science’s James Gallagherexplains: “They used either embryonic stem cells or adult skin cells to produce the part of an embryo that develops into the brain.” The organoid is then “placed into a spinning bioreactor, a nutrient bath that supplies nutrients and oxygen”.
Growing brains in a lab might sound like the stuff of cheap horror movies, but it is a remarkable scientific breakthrough. “I think it’s just mind boggling,” said Professor Paul Matthews, from Imperial College London. “The idea that we can take a cell from a skin and turn it into, even though it’s only the size of a pea, [something that] is starting to look like a brain and starting to show some of the behaviours of a tiny brain, I think is just extraordinary.”
The brain is housed within a spinning bioreactor system that acts as a nutrient bath
The human brain is one of the most complicated structures known to man. Being able to grow a working brain opens up tremendous research possibilities. Dr Jurgen Knoblich, one of the organoids researchers said: “What our organoids are good for is to model development of the brain and to study anything that causes a defect in development. Ultimately we would like to move towards more common disorders like schizophrenia or autism.”
Building intelligence: is it ethically right?
Not wishing to be outdone by the biologists, the tech community is also working hard – at recreating the human brain from silicon. The DARPA-funded IBM project SyNAPSE attempts to build a computer that functions in a similar manner to a mammalian brain, with an intelligence that could match that of mice or cats. IBM’s so-called Brain Wall displays 262,144 neurons simultaneously on an array of monitors: each neuron is a single pixel so researchers can observe what the machine is ‘thinking’.
IBM’s Brain Wall recreates over 262,144 neural paths and is capable of rewiring itself over time
DARPA (the US defence research agency) is interested in looking at mimicking a portion of the brain known as the neocortex, which is utilised in higher brain functions such as sensory perception, motor commands, spatial reasoning, conscious thought and language, and is appealing for help from the scientific community.
Michael Cooney of Networkworld says: “The military’s advanced research group recently [August 2013] put out a call, or request for information, on how it could develop systems that go beyond machine learning, Bayesian techniques, and graphical technology to solve ‘extraordinarily difficult recognition problems in real-time’.”
IBM recently announced that the DARPA-funded project had led to prototype chips that mimicked brain-like actions. Dharmendra Modha, project leader for IBM Research, says that we “have the seeds of a new architecture that can allow us to mine the boundary between the physical and the digital world in an ever more efficient way.”
And it’s not just the scientific and military industries that are making strides in creating artificial intelligence. Andrew Ng, director of the Stanford Artificial Intelligence Lab, recently built a $1m computerised brain for Google that worked as a cat detector. His neural network contained 16,000 computer cores to create a network with over one billion connections. It was tasked with learning to recognise higher-level concepts, such as cats, in YouTube videos without ever having been told what a ‘cat’ is.
A scan reveals how similar the organoid (on the right) is to a mouse brain (left)
The thought process
Ng published a paper that showed other people how to build the same type of system for around $20,000 using cheap but powerful graphics card systems (computer scientists long ago realised that graphics cards were also really good for doing certain mathematical calculations).
All of this raises serious ethical questions about the point where these creations can be considered valid sentient beings. Dr Zameel Cader, a consultant neurologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, told the BBC that he did not see ethical issues arising from the creation of the organoid. “It’s a long way from conscience or awareness or responding to the outside world. There’s always the spectre of what the future might hold, but this is primitive territory.”
Up close the organoid culture system has complex human tissue that can be used to study disorders like schizophrenia or autism
It’s all in the mind
Roman Yampolskiy, director of the Cyber Security Laboratory at the University of Louisville, says: “I argue that Artificial General Intelligence (AGI) research should be considered unethical…a truly AGI system may possess a type of consciousness comparable to the human type making robot suffering a real possibility and any experiments with AGI unethical for that reason as well.
“The last decade has seen a boom of new subfields of computer science concerned with development of ethics in machines. Machine ethics, computer ethics, robot ethics, machine morals, cyborg ethics, computational ethics, roboethics, robot rights and artificial morals are just some of the proposals meant to address society’s concerns with safety of ever more advanced machines. Unfortunately the perceived abundance of research in intelligent machine safety is misleading. The great majority of published papers are purely philosophical in nature.”
The bioreactor system supplies nutrients and oxygen to the brain that keep it alive but prevent it from growing
But recent advances show how quickly we’re moving from a philosophical debate about artificially created intelligence and the real thing. Is an organically grown brain fundamentally of more concern than a digitally built one? Or is that just because we relate more to one made of squishy grey matter? At what point does a lab-grown brain or computer start having independent thoughts?
And what about the ‘off’ switch? At what point does it become immoral to switch off the spinning bioreactor that supplies nutrients and oxygen to a lab-grown brain; at what point does it become unethical to choose File > Format on a computer hard drive?
We’re not there yet, but in recent months we took a big step towards that point.
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