Could lab-grown brains develop consciousness? (organoid functioning)


EXCERPT: . . . If you, like many scientists, subscribe to this theory, then a difficult question naturally follows: at what point does electro-chemical activity in dissected brain-like tissue become conscious? Yes, I’m talking about the classic sci-fi “brain in a vat” scenario; no, we are absolutely not there.

But this week, a Japan-led study in Stem Cell Reports is raising some serious red flags. For the first time, a team carefully characterized the electrical chattering of neurons grown from a brain organoid and found that they spontaneously formed long-distance connections that allowed them to fire in synchrony. “Fire together; wire together” is a fundamental testament of learning in neuroscience. Because neurons in lab-grown minibrains can sync up their activity, analogous to how neurons hook up in our brains, it’s possible that the brain nuggets have the capability to support higher cognitive functions when they’re more mature.

To be clear, this does not mean the organoids are conscious, or even that they’re “thinking.” Rather than measuring neural activity from whole mini-brains, the team chemically dissected them to further grow individual neurons in a dish before doing any assays. In other words, they took neurons from a mini-brain, “flattened” their organization onto a plate, and teased out their wirings and chattering in that setup.

How well the results translate to a full-grown mini-brain is anyone’s guess. But the sophistication of the flattened organoid threw the team off guard. Neurons not only formed long-distance connections, they also fired in synchrony while retaining their individual characteristic activity. What’s more, when treated with drugs that either amp up or tone down network strength, the culture responded in kind.

Again, this doesn’t mean that the culture was conscious. Instead, it shows that neurons from cultured mini-brains have the ability to spontaneously develop electrical patterns similar to those that support memory. To the authors, their largest contribution is a new system that will further allow scientists to study their own brain organoid cultures—perhaps those with mutations associated with autism or other complex developmental disorders.

“Because they can mimic cerebral development, cerebral organoids can be used as a substitute for the human brain to study complex developmental and neurological disorders,” said Dr. Jun Takahashi at Kyoto University in a press briefing. “Using our method, it will be possible to analyze cell activity patterns in brain functions to further explore these areas.” (MORE - details)
Synchrony might fire up the universal consciousness folks, especially if your universe is the size of a Petri dish.

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