Brain organoids: essential ethical investigation

Posted: 6 March 2024 | | No comments yet

The potential for brain organoids to develop consciousness is a key issue in neuroscience, which has prompted new ethical considerations.

brain with top highlighted red indicating inflammation

Scientists from the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Biology (ASHBI) have provided important insights for the ethical landscape of brain organoid research, as advances in neuroscience have prompted new considerations. The possibility of these organoids developing consciousness is a key issue, which has important implications for research ethics and the requirement to obtain informed consent from cell donors.

The team of researchers conducted a comprehensive literature review and ethical analysis to investigate how the potential for consciousness in brain organoids complicates the process of obtaining informed consent from cell donors. Their findings showed uncertainties in two aspects: the scientific understanding of consciousness in brain organoids and the moral implications of brain organoid consciousness.

To overcome the challenges of obtaining consent from donors, the team proposed three methods. The first was advocating for project-specific consent procedures by explicitly informing cell donors that their cells will be used in brain organoid research. Also, they emphasised the importance of incorporating the uncertainties into consent procedures by providing donors with comprehensive information about the potential for brain organoid consciousness and measures implemented to address this. Thirdly, they suggested development of a risk framework for brain organoid research to guide ethical considerations and minimise potential harm.

Other scientists may believe that such concerns are unwarranted, at least at the current stage, but the study argues that research must gain public trust. Dr Tsutomu Sawai, assistant professor at ASHBI, explained: “Ignoring these aspects may lead to short-term success, but it’s unlikely to be sustainable in the long term. Our findings can be considered foundational research that solidifies the ethical groundwork essential for the progression of scientific and medical research.”

Prioritising ethics and tailoring informed consent procedures means that researchers can uphold the principles of autonomy while advancing our understanding of the brain. The study encourages researchers, ethicists, and policymakers to engage in decision-making regarding brain organoid research.

This study was published in Science and Engineering Ethics.