Pushing the Scientific Envelope
In recent decades, scientists have made amazing advances in transplanting a wide range of organs, including: kidneys, hearts, lungs, and liver. And, scientific research has also pushed the envelope of what is possible in terms of creating new tissue in the laboratory. Yet, despite these strides one part of the body largely remains a mystery … and that is the brain. However, recent research results seem to indicate that it may be possible to create artificial brains in the near future.
What Are IPS?
It is important to remember that not all stem cells are created equally, even though people often use stem cells as a generic term. Each type of stem cells has unique properties, as well as certain limitations. IPS, or induced pluripotent stem cells, are one particular type of stem cell. These stem cells are found in human skin or blood cells and are capable of being artificially modified back into an embryonic state. In this induced embryonic state, the cells can then be nudged to produce a wide range of cells that could be used to successfully fight various diseases or conditions. Since IPS were originally uncovered, they have proven to be an important tool in treating various cancers and they have also been used in ongoing research into diabetes.
But, the question is: Can IPS help create artificial brains?
What Recent Research Tells Us
First of all, it is important to note that IPS have not been as revolutionary as people had hoped when they were first discovered in the lab. This is not to say that they have not been useful. They have; in many cases, they have served as an effective substitute for human tissue. This has been very important, because using human tissue in scientific research raises a wide variety of ethical dilemmas. However, these cells (at least to date) have not yet fundamentally changed the landscape of what is or is not possible. But, they have allowed researchers to investigate areas that were previously difficult to explore. This happens because the rudimentary IPS can be encouraged to develop into a wide range of potential cells, including human neural network cells.
Prior to the discovery of IPS, this was simply not possible.
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Does This Mean Scientists Can Grow an Artificial Human Brain?
The answer to this question is more complicated than it appears at first glance. On the one hand, a person’s immediate reaction is likely a strong no. Growing a brain sounds like something out of a science fiction horror story. On the other hand, someone else may be tempted to say, of course, yes. This answer would likely be predicated on the understanding that the human brain is simply a collection of a large number of neural networks. If IPS can be induced to produce a single neural network, then this same process should be replicable by scale, meaning that numerous neural networks could be built. And, by extension, it would seem that an artificial human brain could be created.
The real answer to this question appears to be somewhere in the middle.
The Creation of a 3D Brain
Researchers at Tufts University recently announced that they had created a 3D human brain that was entirely composed of IPS. One of the leading researchers in the Tufts’ project, Professor David Kaplan explained, “We found the right conditions to get the IPSCs to differentiate into a number of different neural subtypes, as well as astrocytes that support the growing neural network.” Kaplan went on to state, “The silk-collagen scaffolds provide the right environment to produce cells with the genetic signatures and electrical signaling found in native neuronal tissues”. In other words, the tissue in the artificial brain closely mirrors the tissue that is found in a real human brain.
The Implications of this Research
Clearly, there are a wide range of neurological conditions that affect millions of people in the United States and around the world. These conditions include: Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s. If scientists are able to create artificial 3D brains in the laboratory, then these brains can be used to more effectively study disease processes in the brain, as well as to look at the impact that different treatment methodologies have on the brain. These improved experimental conditions may stimulate new findings that can fundamentally change the outcome of these serious diseases. One could argue that the more closely an artificial brain can simulate an actual human brain, the more meaningful research findings will be; it will be easier to draw correct and careful analogies.
We Must Also Take Caution
However, even though many researchers see the promise in these new breakthroughs, they also recommend caution. The brain is a delicate object and there are countless ethical considerations that may emerge when scientists begin talking about exploring and investigating the brain. For example, this artificial laboratory brain is made up of neural networks. However, are these neural networks able to think? And, if they think, are they then sentient beings that would in turn be endowed with certain rights? This clearly seems to be an area in which science is moving at a faster rate than ethics and legal regulations; and this type of mismatch always spurs certain concerns.
Interestingly, even though science seems to be outstripping ethics and legal regulations here, it is not a topic that is new to philosophers or even pop culture. For example, in the 1970s, Gilbert Harman conducted what he referred to as brain in the vat experiments and many people have drawn parallels between what the Tufts University breakthrough discovered and issues that were explored in the Matrix movies.
Clearly, the ethics underlying this topic need to be explored in far greater detail.
The human brain still remains one of the body’s most mysterious organs. There are many brain and neurological processes that we do not understand; and there are also numerous medical conditions, such as Parkinson’ Disease and Alzheimer’s, that we still struggle to treat. Therefore, scientific breakthroughs in this area tend to be widely reported and embraced. One recent innovation in this sphere has been based on IPS, otherwise known as induced pluripotent stem cells. These stem cells are cells that are induced back into an early embryonic stage so that they can then be replicated into a wide range of cells, including neural cells. A team of researchers at Tufts University recently announced a breakthrough in which they were able to use these stem cells to build a detailed neural network. And, using the popular understanding that a brain is simply a complex of neural networks, many would argue that this means that the researchers created an artificial laboratory brain.
This brain may hold the key to breakthroughs in the treatment of various diseases, such as Parkinson’s Disease, as well as being critical in developing a more comprehensive understanding of how the brain functions or fails to function in certain situations. Yet, even though this research is promising, some researchers suggest approaching this topic with caution. There are definitely ethical issues that need to be taken into consideration when one considers creating a brain, with the potential capacity for thought, in a laboratory setting.