“Mini brains consisting of millions of brain cells are grown from stem cells. What happens if they react to stimuli, such as light, and have consciousness? Who, if anyone, should ‘own’ ex vivo brain tissue when the entire brain or partial tissues are extracted from patients for the purpose of treatment? If the brain is transplanted to other animals, is it human’s or animal’s?”
The above is from the statement released by 17 U.S. life scientists and legal scholars in Nature, an international scientific journal, in April 2018. The authors presented a future situation to be faced with saying, “difficult questions will be raised as models of the human brain get closer to replicating its functions.” One of the questions raised in the statement involved a possible change to the definition of death. “Is the concept of brain death, which practically has become the legal definition of death since the 1960s, still valid if damaged brain functions can be reversed?” the authors asked.
A series of then-hypothetical questions have now become reality. On April 17, a research team of Yale School of Medicine reported that they began pumping a specially designed blood substitute through the organs four hours after the death of 32 pigs and successfully kept the cells of the brain viable for six hours.
The brain had kept normal shape, immune cells had functioned, and neural signals in synapse connecting brain cells had been observed. However, researchers warned against putting too much meaning on the experiment saying that only brain cells were partially activated and they did not observe the kind of organized electrical activity associated with perception, awareness, or consciousness.
More cases in need of ethical judgment are emerging with growing studies on the brain. On Thursday, a U.S. research team succeeded in synthesizing speech (sound) by decoding relevant neural activity through monitoring equipment embedded in the brain. There are expectations that the study could help those with speech impairments, but some scientists are concerned that it could be misused as a way to read minds unknowingly to subjects.
Neuroethicists argue that issues surrounding brain research should be dealt with a broad and long-term perspective as they are closely linked with one another. “Issues from the emergence of artificial intelligence desiring to have a body, childbirth using an artificial uterus, human cloning, memory storage to body replacement are all complicatedly entangled,” said professor Ryu. “Ethical discussions in consideration of this should be followed along with technology development.”