Should Cerebral Organoids Have Moral Status?

What it feels like is a phrase coined by Thomas Nagel to talk about consciousness, and I direct that question to the current scientific topic of cerebral organoids, and the ethical questions their advancements bring into the table. We don’t know yet if there ‘is something to be a cerebral organoid,’ and, ‘what would it feel like to be a cerebral organoid?’ Cerebral organoids are tiny blobs grown from human stem cells in a petri dish that self-organize into brain-like structures with electrically active neurons. In this essay, I will talk about cerebral organoids, what they are, their uses; I’ll argue that if they are capable of being conscious, they should have moral status. I will give an objection that claims the benefits of using brain organoids overweighs the ethical concerns and respond with an anti-anthropocentric argument. Even though organoid is the over-arching concept, I’ll refer to cerebral organoid as simply organoid in this paper to relieve redundancy.

Do cerebral organoids have moral status? I argue that to have moral status, a being must have the capacity to suffer. One evidence could be that if a system shows approach and avoidance, it indicates pleasure, pain, and selective attending. I argue that if a system has the capacity to suffer, it must be conscious, and if a system is conscious, it has moral status. To figure out whether organoids could be conscious, it is useful to explore what consciousness is. There are many theories of consciousness, and almost all theories accept that consciousness is fundamental and not arbitrary; therefore, it requires a non-arbitrary account to explain it. There is no agreed-upon one theory, and no agreed-upon way to measure consciousness. One way to define is, consciousness is the subjective experience from the point of view of the system, ‘what it feels like to be me.’ We have aspects we know about it, such as it is associated with complex, adaptive, perhaps biological networks; it does not require emotion, language, or long-term memory. Attention can occur without consciousness, it is sufficient to have one hemisphere for it to arise, and destruction of cortical regions interferes with the specific content of consciousness. By specific content, it’s meant that a lesion in the MT area causes the inability to see motion, a lesion in a part of the extrastriate cortex causes inability to see color. Lack of reporting or behavioral output does not follow that the system lacks phenomenal consciousness. Intelligence is also not necessary for consciousness, because now that we can create artificial systems: AI could be high-intelligence, zero-consciousness; cerebral organoids could be high-consciousness, zero-intelligence. We know that for every conscious state, there will be a neuronal correlate of consciousness; still, it doesn’t mean consciousness arises from those parts, as correlation doesn’t mean causation. Some physical parts are necessary to sustain consciousness even though it does not arise from those areas. Scientists believe a vital part of the brain for consciousness is the cortex, the outer layer. They find evidence for neural correlates through patients with damaged lesions, simulation studies, and neuroimaging. Most internalist accounts of consciousness that put the basis of consciousness in the brain would be willing to accept cerebral organoids could be conscious, excluding higher-order and global workspace theories which have a higher criterion of intelligence for consciousness. External accounts claim that the physical aspect of consciousness extends beyond the brain would be less likely to accept a conscious cerebral organoid.

It is also crucial to understand what cerebral organoids are, how and why they are made. A cerebral organoid is a stem-cell-derived lab-grown three-dimensional structure that self-organize and has network features similar to certain aspects of the developing brain. Organoids reveal how the brain is built, how it works, how neurodevelopment can go wrong, and how we can prevent or fix it. In very basic terms, the stem-cells taken from a donor are put into a protein gel and put in a spinning bioreactor that is in body temperature to mimic blood flow. When given the appropriate environment and nutrients, the organoid is able to self-organize and build itself in 9 months in the incubator as it develops glutamatergic and GABAergic neurons, glial, and intermediate progenitor cells. Its local field potential is comparable to trace discontinue (an activity followed by silence) of EEG of a preterm human infant. Organoids are very useful in understanding the development of the human brain and modeling neurological diseases such as autism, schizophrenia, and microcephaly caused by the Zika virus. It gives a much better model than the 2-dimensional cells, animals, or post-mortem brains that scientists typically use to study the brain and enables scientists to understand when first errors happen and find ways to treat the disorder. Because it is unethical to interfere with a healthy human brain, the best option was to build it themselves. Of course, there are limitations: organoid has immature neurons, is not vascularized, does not contain all cell types, and scientists are unsure how much the findings will translate. Still, many scientists are working to overcome these issues.

One scientist, O’Rourke, in UPenn, has put an organoid into a rodent’s brain to test treatment for a particular type of brain cancer, and human brain tissue became functionally integrated with rat’s brain region. A leading scientist working on organoids, Alysson Muotri at the UCSD, created a brain-controlled robot: pre-recorded neural signal data is inputted into the program to determine how fast the robot will move with the aim to understand how external stimulus affect development. Muotri also sent organoids to space with NASA to understand brain and disease development in microgravity. Another group led by Church at Harvard has grown vasculature with endothelial (blood-vessel-making) cells to provide more blood supply. Once they get fluids to flow, delivering O2 and nutrients, organoids can grow, and we could connect a thousand of them, which would be close to the number of cells in a mouse brain. Knoblich fused several organoids mimicking different areas of the brain together. Hongjun Song in UPenn found coordinating activity between groups of neurons and the production of oscillations, which shows that organoids’ neurons fires at frequencies indistinguishable from those of actual brains, including gamma, alpha, and delta waves. They detected synchronous activity with EEG from distant neurons in different regions talking to one another, and this activity becomes less random, more intense, complex, and synchronized as organoids age. As organoid is not connected to the outside world, neuronal activity is spontaneous and self-generated. Some organoids have an electrical activity similar to fetuses of 30 weeks. The ideal is to have organoids as close to the human brain as possible to have better results in researches, but this pushes us closer to a possibly conscious organoid and inevitably creates ethical questions.

With so much research being done both on understanding consciousness and improving cerebral organoids, it seems likely for us to detect consciousness in organoids. I will first talk about how it could be possible, and in the next paragraph, I will discuss its implications. If we knew why our brain and biological activities are accompanied by conscious experience, we could resolve this question more easily, but unfortunately, many questions on consciousness remains a mystery. What would it mean for an organoid to be conscious, and is it possible? Conscious systems that are neither shaped by sensory input nor are expressed by motor output are called islands of awareness. Partial functional disconnection happens in people under hallucinates like ketamine, and during dream states. A genuine island of awareness has no sensorimotor interaction with the body or the environment, such as in the case of cerebral organoids, but also in ex cranio brains and hemispherectomy. It seems as it is possible for an organoid to have experiences in itself as the aspects of consciousness discussed previously are all in line with cerebral organoids: they have or can have regions necessary for consciousness and have associated neural networks. As organoids become more differentiated, particularly in their synaptic structure, there is more space in between, which can give rise to an experience of spatial extendedness. Organoids have around 100,000 neurons, but we can eventually make them bigger by eliminating limiting factors. The number of neurons is inevitably important, as humans have thousands of times more than most other animals, but it is not the only thing necessary, as a pilot whale has twice the number of neurons than a human. The parts of the brain and their organization is relevant as well. Most likely, an organoid is not conscious in its current state, but with denser neural connections, more distinct layers and other neuro-architecture that some scientists and philosophers think is important for consciousness to arise, it’s a matter of time until we have conscious organoids, and we might develop ways to understand whether it is conscious.

Great science leads to great ethical and philosophical issues. I argue that if cerebral organoids turn out to be conscious, they deserve moral status. My motivation behind it is no being that has the capacity to suffer should be subjected to pain. Organoids give many advantages to science and could replace the use of animals in some instances. We know animals are conscious, but we’re still conducting research on them, so in the case that organoids are conscious, that wouldn’t mean that they won’t be used for research. It wouldn’t make sense since we’re creating them from scratch mostly for research purposes. Still, it would follow that if organoids are conscious, we should create laws and regulations like in the case of humans and animals. I don’t think organoids’ status would be the same as animals, but some regulations about causing suffering and how they are discarded should be considered. Perhaps, their status would be similar to an embryo, requiring a certain growth, as the EEG waves from organoids are similar to those of preterm babies. One paper (Hostiuc, 2019) compares organoids to embryos and concludes that because organoids are based on human genetic material, and advanced organoids reach a developmental threshold, research should be prohibited. I don’t hold such view, but I believe we should work to understand if an organoid is in pain, then we should do anything to minimize or eliminate that pain. If we compare them to Artificial Intelligence, I believe AI can have high intelligence but lacks consciousness, so cerebral organoids would have a higher moral status than AI. It should be interesting if we could connect an organoid and with an AI and a robot body, therefore creating some being like a cyborg. My assumption in this argument is that having an experience of pain does justify moral and legal rights, and we should respect this even though organoids won’t be able to stand up for their own rights. They certainly don’t have autonomy or authority over themselves, but we could recognize their being by giving some dignity to their existence. We are not sure about the scope of their possible level of consciousness, and in the future they might develop more complex brains, and we might be able to give them some possibility of behavioral output. Then, perhaps these rights can be extended, and organoids can be given more agency. However, even in the minimal case, solely based on the capacity to suffer, they should have moral rights. As Alysson Muotri said, there definitely will be a moment where we’re going to give moral status to these organoids, and that’s the time when we’re going to create laws and regulations similar to those of animals and humans. We need to decide their categorizations, try to understand their experience and their capacity to suffering, and discuss the scope of laws and regulations. I believe it’s important to start the discussions now.

One possible objection to the argument that if organoids have consciousness, they should have moral status is that the benefits of using organoids outweighs the suffering of the organoids. They would argue that cerebral organoids give us a unique opportunity to study brain development and diseases that we should try to make them as human as possible to get the best results. The benefits of finding a cure for a deadly disease and relieving so many people from suffering would compensate for the suffering of organoids, and us thinking about the ethical consequences and putting up regulations would slow down the process of the research. For example, Donald O’Rourke from UPenn said the ethics of organoids doesn’t trouble him at all, “I’m dealing with a deadly disease that kills people in 15 months… Here we’ve developed an advanced diagnostic tool to evaluate in real-time what therapies might be beneficial. In my mind, that solves ethical problems.”

I think it is a fair objection, considering the benefits of the research and comparing it with consciousness and suffering we do not understand. Even though the benefits are great, I do believe there is a right and wrong way to do things. Usually, the wrong way is the easy path, and I don’t think we should take the easy path just because it eliminates some of the difficulties. This objection also seems anthropocentric to me; most humans are quick to put the suffering of humans above that of animals and think a human point of view is how we should view the world. I disagree with this view, I believe all living beings are equal, especially from the point of view of the universe, no one living being is more significant than another, and all suffering is equal. I’m not saying that the research should be shut down, but I suggest no matter how huge the benefits are, as sapient and sentient beings, we should choose to do the right thing and be considerate of other beings that are capable of pain.

In this paper, we first discussed what we know about consciousness, aspects that are correlated with its existence, and islands of awareness. I claimed that if a being shows aversion, it means suffering, and if a being is suffering, it shows consciousness, and if a being is conscious, it should have moral status. Then, we talked about what cerebral organoids are, their uses, current status, and how they could possibly be conscious. I argued that if an organoid is conscious, then it should have moral status. The objection claimed the benefits of using organoids outweigh the ethical concerns about the organoid’s suffering. I responded with the view that all beings’ suffering is equal when we leave our anthropocentric point of view. So, I conclude that conscious cerebral organoids should have moral status.


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