Brains in Dishes

Is the development of human cyborgs right around the corner? Not so, said speakers of the International Neuroethics Society (INS) meeting’s final panel, “Brains in Dishes: Animats and Hybrots.” But panelists Sandro Mussa-Ivaldi, a physiologist from Northwestern University, and Steve Potter, a neuroscientist and neuroengineer from Georgia State University, have found ways to combine live neural tissue from animals with technology to create new animal models, called animats and hybrots.

Mussa-Ivaldi works with an animal-machine model that combines a living lamprey eel brain with a small robot. As explained by a San Francisco Chronicle article, “The robot is controlled by an immature lamprey eel brain that was removed, kept alive in a special solution and attached to the hockey-puck-sized robot by wires so it can receive signals from the device's electronic eyes and send commands to move the machine's wheels.”

Animats imageCredit: Professor Sandro Mussa-Ivaldi


This experiment is not indicative of a plan by scientists to use living brains to someday control robots, though. Neurorobotics are primarily used to investigate the brain, Mussa-Ivaldi explained, and to increase our understanding of mechanisms of motor learning to help people with disabilities.

Potter, who works with cultured neuronal networks taken from live rats, uses his animat model to study learning and memory in both virtual reality and in actual robots. He explains his research in the ten-minute video below.

Following the panel presentations, moderator Paul Root Wolpe, a Dana Alliance for Brain Initiatives member, raised what he believed to be the fundamental ethical problem in biomedical research: the issue of incrementalism. Where along the path do we stop? he asked.

For example, while we may not be disturbed by the use of neurons in research, do we become increasingly concerned when whole brains are used? “We think of neural tissue differently than other tissue,” he stated. The three panelists agreed that this is largely due to our ignorance about how the brain embodies consciousness. Therefore, neural tissue in experiments may need a deeper level of analysis, Wolpe cautioned.

One experiment that left Wolpe and many others feeling anxious was brain surgeon Robert White’s transplantation of a whole monkey head onto another monkey’s body in 2001 (with ambitions to eventually replicate this in humans). Wolpe felt that there were a number of fundamental ethical problems with this research, such as the use of resources, body integrity, and sense of selfhood. His arguments are described in an article by PBS’ NOVA.

In addition to incrementalism, other ethical questions and concerns were raised during the question-and-answer session:

INS President and Dana Foundation Board Member Steve Hyman asked if our ethical concerns change according to what species is tested (animal versus human). Quipped Mussa-Ivaldi: “I would eat a chicken, but I wouldn’t eat any of you.”

Potter raised the issue of the origin of human neuronal tissue. He explained that for research purposes, it comes from three places: the recently dead, someone undergoing brain surgery, or embryonic stem cells. While people may not have a problem with tissue taken from a consenting adult, there has been intense debate in this country over the use of embryonic stem cells in biomedical research.

Another concern that Potter voiced was that of responsible reporting and media hype. Mussa-Ivaldi explained that fierce competition for funding sometimes pushes scientists to exaggerate future implications of their research. “Our knowledge [of the brain] is very limited,” he said. “Ninety percent of this work is the work of failures.”

Potter spoke about his frustration with the media to, at times, sensationalize his research, insinuating that animat research will soon lead to the creation of human cyborgs. He told the audience that if he believes a media interview is going in that direction, he is quick to clarify, or in extreme circumstances, will halt the interview.

Responsible reporting was a running theme throughout the two-day INS meeting, drawing attention to the importance of clearly communicating research results. There was even a roundtable at the Society for Neuroscience conference dedicated to this topic, which my colleague will report on in the coming days.

The Dana Foundation is a supporter of the INS and has been since its inception.

–Ann L. Whitman

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