Mounting brain organoid research reignites ethical debate

Penn neuroscientists call for an ethical framework grounded in scientific principles for transplanting human “mini-brains” into animals as the field evolves.

outline of human brain

As research involving the transplantation of human “mini-brains”—known as brain organoids—into animals to study disease continues to expand, so do the ethical debates around the practice. One concern is the possibility, however minute, that the grafted organoids may one day induce a level of consciousness in host animals, as models evolve to resemble the human brain more closely.

A new paper published in Cell Stem Cell by researchers from Penn Medicine and the Department of Veterans Affairs sought to address this dilemma by clarifying the abilities of brain organoids, and suggesting an ethical framework that better defines and contextualizes these organoids and establishes thresholds for their use. Their paper accompanies another study in the same journal that reported the presence of brain wave patterns, known as oscillatory activity, in brain organoids, which brought fresh attention to the overall research and ethical discussion.

“Due to their ability to mimic certain brain structures and activity, human brain organoids—in animal models—allow us to study neurological diseases and other disorders in previously unimaginable ways,” says the study’s first author H. Isaac Chen, an assistant professor of neurosurgery at the Perelman School of Medicine and the Corporal Michael J. Crescenz VA Medical Center. “However, the field is developing quickly, and as we continue down this path, researchers need to contribute to the creation of ethical guidelines grounded in scientific principles that define how to approach their use before and after transplantation in animals. Such guidelines can help avoid confusion for scientists, especially when communicating with the public, and clearly lay out the benefits of this research, against which any ethical or moral risks can be weighed.”

Read more at Penn Medicine News