Mini-brains raise big hopes and fears

August 30, 2013 6:43 pm

Mini-brains raise big hopes and fears

Synthetic neuroscience will soon face serious ethical issues

The science-fiction prospect of a living, thinking “brain in a dish” took a small but significant step toward reality this week. Researchers have grown a mini-brainfrom human stem cells in a Vienna biotechnology lab. This pea-sized “cerebral organoid” has the characteristics of a nine-week-old embryo’s brain, with active neurons. While it is far from demonstrating anything like conscious thought or sentience, and its creators are interested in understanding neurological disease rather than artificial intelligence, the mini-brain is an unexpected achievement that could soon be taken further – raising profound ethical issues.The Austrian experiment shows that embryonic stem cells have an astonishing ability to grow in a bioreactor, assembling themselves into the most complex structure known to biology. The scientists provided a nourishing culture medium and flexible 3D support for the growing organoid but, once the cells were set on a path of neural development, special biochemical concoctions were not needed. The stem cells provided all the signals needed to guide their own development.

The scientific steps to make a larger and more powerful mini-brain seem feasible. A blood supply will be needed to deliver oxygen and nutrients for growth beyond the 4mm diameter achieved so far. And sensory connections are required to interact with the outside world.

With $1bn brain research programmes launched this year by the US and EU, scientists will not lack funding to build on the mini-brain experiment. Indeed, similar projects are already under way in other labs. Some are taking a biological approach, like the Vienna team, based on living cells. At the opposite end of the technological spectrum are initiatives such as Blue Brain in Switzerland that seek to simulate the brain in silicon through supercomputer modelling. In between are groups working with hybrid systems that combine electronics and living neurons.

Such research has several scientific justifications. Most immediate is the need for better ways to design and test potential treatments for brain disorders, for which lab animals are notoriously poor models. Computer scientists hope to learn from the human brain how to make machines more intelligent. Then there is the broader intellectual quest to understand mysteries such as memory, emotion and consciousness by studying synthetic brains.

Although few of today’s researchers would seriously expect within their own working lives to create a brain that matches the fully developed human original, the ethical questions will arise more quickly. At what point, for example, should we regard an artificial brain as alive? Should it receive the sort of protection from pain and abuse that we give to lab animals? Funding agencies will need ethics policies robust enough to safeguard scientific progress, while preventing irresponsible research into synthetic brains.

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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