Researchers and scientists have long been stumped by the complexity of one of the most complicated structures in the universe, the human brain, and how it contributes to prevalent diseases such as Alzheimer's and schizophrenia. Now, with the first ever lab-grown human brain, scientists may have found just what they needed to further advance their efforts in finding a cure for diseases affecting millions of Americans. But this breakthrough doesn't come free of cost to society. The ethical ramifications of such a discovery have the potential to be just as harmful as it is helpful.
Scientists from the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences used human stem cells to produce a neuroectoderm, the part of an embryo that develops into the brain and spinal cord, which they placed into tiny droplets of gel before placing it into a spinning bioreactor, a nutrient bath that supplies nutrients and oxygen, to allow the tissue to grow.
Once the cells starting growing and organizing themselves into the separate regions of the brain, such as the cerebral cortex, the retina, and in rare cases even an early hippocampus, scientists observed that this growth closely resembled brain development in a fetus up to the nine month mark.
After about two months, the mini-tissues grew to about 4mm (0.1in), their maximum size, and after nearly a year are still surviving. However, because there is no blood supply connecting the brain tissue, nutrients and oxygen are unable to enter into the brain-like structure, so the brain merely functions like a human brain but cannot think like a human brain can.
The minibrain was initially used to model microcephaly, a human genetic disorder in which the brain's size is dramatically reduced. But scientists hope to use it in the future to study more common diseases such as Alzheimer's and schizophrenia.
While this breakthrough could save lives, scientific development in this direction can also pose a serious threat to society and basic human rights. Currently, the minibrains do not have the ability to think like human brains, but what if one day scientists develop a brain that can? Researchers have described this breakthrough as extraordinary and mindboggling, but one mindboggling and extraordinary breakthrough can just as easily lead to another, and developing a conscious human brain would certainly be mindboggling.
A clear, ethical line needs to be drawn before scientific experimentation becomes not only unethical but dangerous for society. Scientists didn't think it would be possible to grow a human brain in a laboratory ... and they grew a human brain in a laboratory. They don't believe it would possible to develop a conscious human brain, let alone one that is more powerful than an ordinary human brain. But if limitations are not quickly implemented through federal laws and health guidelines, this line could easily be crossed, and a powerful scientific breakthrough with the potential to save lives could turn into one with eerie ethical implications.