Like many, my first foray into bioethics was at school, with Mary Shelley's seminal horror classic Frankenstein, and its universal themes on human nature. Typically understood as a cautionary tale against interfering with nature, Dr Victor Frankenstein's act of 'playing God' in creating life was what led to his moral downfall. However, from my understanding, Frankenstein's pursuit of knowledge was not his most serious moral failing; instead, it was his failure to realise the unintended consequences, and the subsequent moral responsibilities, of his endeavours.
Unlike the story of Prometheus which inspired the novel, Frankenstein's monster was abandoned by his creator. He yearned for meaningful social connections and acceptance from others. However, despite possessing a human-like intelligence and consciousness, he was rejected by society and denied his personhood, setting forth the inevitable tale of death that follows Dr Frankenstein.
While creating organisms with human-like consciousness seems like science fiction, it was a hypothetical idea explored in the Big Question podcast posed by bioethicist Dr Insoo Hyun, the director of Life Sciences at the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts. Dr Hyun spoke with Professor Sergiu Pașca from Stanford University in Palo Alto, California, about the implications of Professor Pașca's latest research published in Nature on the successful transplantation and maturation of clusters of human brain cells, or an organoid, in the brains of rats.
The Big Question podcast, organised by the Museum of Science, Boston begins with Professor Pașca highlighting an interesting disconnect in how psychiatric disorders are diagnosed. Despite advances in molecular biology having linked many psychiatric disorders to specific genes, psychiatric disorders are still largely diagnosed behaviourally. He further notes how this behavioural approach may complicate how psychiatrists can accurately diagnose and understand the nuances within each psychiatric disorder before contextualising his research as a 'bridge' to reconcile the behavioural and biological basis in understanding psychiatric disorders.
While I understand the subjective nature of diagnosing psychiatric disorders behaviourally, I am concerned about the impacts of diagnosing psychiatric disorders more as biomedical conditions than as psychological conditions on patient outcomes. Specifically, I worry whether patients – in understanding, for instance, that their psychiatric condition has a strong genetic component – may lead them to possibly not seek treatment or manage their condition, because they mistakenly believe that their condition is inevitable or immutable. Unfortunately, this was a point that was not raised throughout the podcast.
Later in the podcast, Professor Pașca further explained the background and motivations behind his research. He described how the neurons of a brain organoid grown in vitro don't have the same features of neurons seen in the brain (ie, sophisticated, branching and mature) but, more importantly, and what I appreciated that he emphasised, is that it's difficult to tell how these changes may affect the behaviours, if any, in people.
Halfway through the podcast, Dr Hyun poses the question that many, including myself, are curious to know: 'Will animals that have human brain organoids from humans put into their brains ever develop human-like consciousness and thinking?' Given that this was the podcast's titular question, I had high hopes that the two would have an insightful discussion that explores the bioethical quandaries of the moral status of animals that develop human-like consciousness. Instead, the discussion largely focused on explaining the reasons why this possibility would be highly unlikely based on the current state of organoid research.
I was left disappointed that the bioethical conundrum that would arise if these animals develop human-like consciousness was not discussed at all throughout the entire podcast. Although I had anticipated that Professor Pașca's answer, I felt that – given the podcast's titular question – it was misleading that such a question was not explored to its fullest.
When Professor Pașca explained that the transplanted human brain organoids in rats' brains not only could successfully integrate with rats' brains but could even affect their behaviour in seeking water when exposed to blue light, I was astonished. However, as I dwelled on it more, my astonishment lessened. Arguably, the biggest reason why rodents are used in research is because of their anatomical, physiological, and genetic similarities to humans. Previous research has shown the potential of the brain's plasticity in creating new neurons among several animals. Subsequently, it might not be too surprising that human brain organoid transplants could successfully integrate with their host animal's brains.
Near the end of the podcast, Professor Pașca and Dr Hyun delved into an insightful discussion of how society's understanding of scientific research is shaped by mythology and science fiction when people fail to understand the science behind the research. I enjoyed how Dr Hyun weaves the tale of the Greek hero Bellerophon and the chimera to illustrate the importance of context in shaping how we understand and interpret scientific experiments, especially in the research area that Professor Pașca works in. I find it fitting that Professor Pașca noted how the words people use to describe these experiments can bring in assumptions and incorrect conclusions can further blur the line between myth and reality.
While the podcast is a highly informative primer in explaining organoid research, especially in the context of Professor Pașca's work, I was left more disappointed than pleased with the lack of a well-deserved bioethical discussion that the podcast's title 'The Big Question' had led me to believe. Maybe, as Professor Pașca pointed out, my disappointment stems from the assumptions and expectations that I brought in upon reading the podcast's titular question. As Shakespeare wrote in his play Hamlet, 'There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.' Perhaps, this line remains truer than ever.