Stem cell research ethics topics: organoid consciousness & embryo models

Someday could human brain organoids get to the point of having organized human-like thoughts? Even consciousness?

The more time passes, the less likely I think this is. It’s not impossible, but brain organoids have big limitations in that regard.

To be clear, I don’t mean brain organoids having some vaguely human brain-like electrical activity. Even monolayers of cultured neurons can do that. To have “thoughts” is much more than that.

Then even more complex than thoughts is consciousness. This dilemma highlights just one of the ethical topics in the stem cell field. Today we’ll touch on organoids and embryo models.

Brain organoids
Could future generations of brain organoids eventually develop electrical activity indicative of thought or consciousness? “Electric organoid: Neurons derived from people with 22q11.2 syndrome are hyperexcitable and show calcium-signaling deficits.
Image from Pasca lab.”

Stem cell research ethics

STAT News covered a recent stem cell research ethics panel discussion that in part touched on the brain organoid questions.

It also addressed human embryo models, which raise their own sometimes difficult questions. It sounds like it was a great panel.

Let’s start with the brain organoid part, which seems especially timely given the sometimes existential questions about AIs like ChatGPT, Bing’s chat-like feature, and Google’s Bard thing.

Hopefully none of these AI will be conscious in a human-like way any time soon. Too late?

Brain organoid consciousness someday?

Here is the STAT News coverage of the ethics meeting: ‘It is a balance’: Scientists grapple with ethics of cutting-edge stem cell research.

I was surprised to see UCSD professor Alysson Muotri‘s quote in this piece about the possibility of organoid consciousness (emphasis mine):

There is no evidence researchers are there yet, Muotri cautioned. But he said it’s probably just a matter of time before brain organoids become large and complex enough to develop some level of consciousness. “I personally think it’s inevitable to get there. But some people think this might be too early to discuss and we shouldn’t because the funding agencies might get scared, the public might get scared, and that might create an unnecessary roadblock for research,” he said. “It is a balance. And how to navigate that? I don’t have the right answer.”

I’d be curious if he literally means consciousness or more simply just somewhat organized neural electrical activity.

He’s right about how tough these questions are and the elusive nature of answers. There is no clear navigation map.

A technical sticking point here is that even if organoids developed consciousness, they mighj have no way to communicate that development. Could that change with technological advances?

Some organoids have developed primitive eye-like structures.

Could researchers give brain organoids additional means of sensing or communicating? Maybe. Interfacing with machines? Perhaps researchers could stimulate the organoid in some way and measure electrical activity reminiscent of consciousness.

Jacob Hanna on embryo models

Let’s shift gears to the embryo modeling space. Stem cell researcher Jacob Hanna was also part of the ethics panel.

The Hanna quote from the STAT piece that caught my eye related to his production of mouse embryo models:

“It’s an advance that paves the way for scientists to understand how early development happens — and how this process can go awry. The study also raises the distant possibility of one day using this approach to grow whole organisms in the lab, possibly even people. But that’s not the goal of Hanna’s research, and he cautioned that focusing on misuse of the work can do more harm than good.

“You don’t ban nuclear physics because somebody can make a nuclear bomb,” he said. “There’s a benefit that you regulate.”

It’s an interesting quote from him there that I highlighted.

Note that he recently started a company called Renewal Bio. Its goal is to generate human late embryo or early fetus-like models from which organs could potentially be harvested for clinical use in the future.

There’s definitely potential for both misuse and big ethical missteps there.  On the flip side, the possible big benefit would be a new source of organs or tissues for those needing transplants.

In my view, it’s important to talk more openly about embryo models along with their associated potential risks, including possible misuse. These can be discussed also in the context of possible benefits.

Historically we researchers collectively have discussed potential misuses and harms too little and even very hypothetical benefits too much. One role for this blog The Niche is to ask the tough but good questions, discuss risks vs. possible benefits, and shine some light on dilemmas.

1 thought on “Stem cell research ethics topics: organoid consciousness & embryo models”

  1. Grant Castillou

    It’s becoming clear that with all the brain and consciousness theories out there, the proof will be in the pudding. By this I mean, can any particular theory be used to create a human adult level conscious machine. My bet is on the late Gerald Edelman’s Extended Theory of Neuronal Group Selection. The lead group in robotics based on this theory is the Neurorobotics Lab at UC at Irvine. Dr. Edelman distinguished between primary consciousness, which came first in evolution, and that humans share with other conscious animals, and higher order consciousness, which came to only humans with the acquisition of language. A machine with primary consciousness will probably have to come first.

    What I find special about the TNGS is the Darwin series of automata created at the Neurosciences Institute by Dr. Edelman and his colleagues in the 1990’s and 2000’s. These machines perform in the real world, not in a restricted simulated world, and display convincing physical behavior indicative of higher psychological functions necessary for consciousness, such as perceptual categorization, memory, and learning. They are based on realistic models of the parts of the biological brain that the theory claims subserve these functions. The extended TNGS allows for the emergence of consciousness based only on further evolutionary development of the brain areas responsible for these functions, in a parsimonious way. No other research I’ve encountered is anywhere near as convincing.

    I post because on almost every video and article about the brain and consciousness that I encounter, the attitude seems to be that we still know next to nothing about how the brain and consciousness work; that there’s lots of data but no unifying theory. I believe the extended TNGS is that theory. My motivation is to keep that theory in front of the public. And obviously, I consider it the route to a truly conscious machine, primary and higher-order.

    My advice to people who want to create a conscious machine is to seriously ground themselves in the extended TNGS and the Darwin automata first, and proceed from there, by applying to Jeff Krichmar’s lab at UC Irvine, possibly. Dr. Edelman’s roadmap to a conscious machine is at

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