Few images are more uncanny than that of a brain without a body, fully sentient but afloat in sterile isolation. Such specters have spooked the speculatively-minded since the seventeenth century, when René Descartes declared, "I think, therefore I am."
Since August 29, 2019, the prospect of a bodiless but functional brain has begun to seem far less fantastical.
In Meditations on First Philosophy (1641), the French penseur spins a chilling thought experiment: he imagines "having no hands or eyes, or flesh, or blood or senses," but being tricked by a demon into believing he has all these things, and a world to go with them. A disembodied brain itself becomes a demon in the classic young-adult novel A Wrinkle in Time (1962), using mind control to subjugate a planet called Camazotz. In the sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix (1999), most of humanity endures something like Descartes' nightmare—kept in womblike pods by their computer overlords, who fill the captives' brains with a synthetized reality while tapping their metabolic energy as a power source.
Since August 29, 2019, however, the prospect of a bodiless but functional brain has begun to seem far less fantastical. On that date, researchers at the University of California, San Diego published a study in the journal Cell Stem Cell, reporting the detection of brainwaves in cerebral organoids—pea-size "mini-brains" grown in the lab. Such organoids had emitted random electrical impulses in the past, but not these complex, synchronized oscillations. "There are some of my colleagues who say, 'No, these things will never be conscious,'" lead researcher Alysson Muotri, a Brazilian-born biologist, told The New York Times. "Now I'm not so sure."
Alysson Muotri has no qualms about his creations attaining consciousness as a side effect of advancing medical breakthroughs.
(Credit: ZELMAN STUDIOS)
Muotri's findings—and his avowed ambition to push them further—brought new urgency to simmering concerns over the implications of brain organoid research. "The closer we come to his goal," said Christof Koch, chief scientist and president of the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle, "the more likely we will get a brain that is capable of sentience and feeling pain, agony, and distress." At the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience, researchers from the Green Neuroscience Laboratory in San Diego called for a partial moratorium, warning that the field was "perilously close to crossing this ethical Rubicon and may have already done so."
Yet experts are far from a consensus on whether brain organoids can become conscious, whether that development would necessarily be dreadful—or even how to tell if it has occurred.
So how worried do we need to be?
An organoid is a miniaturized, simplified version of an organ, cultured from various types of stem cells. Scientists first learned to make them in the 1980s, and have since turned out mini-hearts, lungs, kidneys, intestines, thyroids, and retinas, among other wonders. These creations can be used for everything from observation of basic biological processes to testing the effects of gene variants, pathogens, or medications. They enable researchers to run experiments that might be less accurate using animal models and unethical or impractical using actual humans. And because organoids are three-dimensional, they can yield insights into structural, developmental, and other matters that an ordinary cell culture could never provide.
In 2006, Japanese biologist Shinya Yamanaka developed a mix of proteins that turned skin cells into "pluripotent" stem cells, which could subsequently be transformed into neurons, muscle cells, or blood cells. (He later won a Nobel Prize for his efforts.) Developmental biologist Madeline Lancaster, then a post-doctoral student at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna, adapted that technique to grow the first brain organoids in 2013. Other researchers soon followed suit, cultivating specialized mini-brains to study disorders ranging from microcephaly to schizophrenia.
Muotri, now a youthful 45-year-old, was among the boldest of these pioneers. His team revealed the process by which Zika virus causes brain damage, and showed that sofosbuvir, a drug previously approved for hepatitis C, protected organoids from infection. He persuaded NASA to fly his organoids to the International Space Station, where they're being used to trace the impact of microgravity on neurodevelopment. He grew brain organoids using cells implanted with Neanderthal genes, and found that their wiring differed from organoids with modern DNA.
Like the latter experiment, Muotri's brainwave breakthrough emerged from a longtime obsession with neuroarchaeology. "I wanted to figure out how the human brain became unique," he told me in a phone interview. "Compared to other species, we are very social. So I looked for conditions where the social brain doesn't function well, and that led me to autism." He began investigating how gene variants associated with severe forms of the disorder affected neural networks in brain organoids.
Tinkering with chemical cocktails, Muotri and his colleagues were able to keep their organoids alive far longer than earlier versions, and to culture more diverse types of brain cells. One team member, Priscilla Negraes, devised a way to measure the mini-brains' electrical activity, by planting them in a tray lined with electrodes. By four months, the researchers found to their astonishment, normal organoids (but not those with an autism gene) emitted bursts of synchronized firing, separated by 20-second silences. At nine months, the organoids were producing up to 300,000 spikes per minute, across a range of frequencies.
He shared his vision for "brain farms," which would grow organoids en masse for drug development or tissue transplants.
When the team used an artificial intelligence system to compare these patterns with EEGs of gestating fetuses, the program found them to be nearly identical at each stage of development. As many scientists noted when the news broke, that didn't mean the organoids were conscious. (Their chaotic bursts bore little resemblance to the orderly rhythms of waking adult brains.) But to some observers, it suggested that they might be approaching the borderline.
Shortly after Muotri's team published their findings, I attended a conference at UCSD on the ethical questions they raised. The scientist, in jeans and a sky-blue shirt, spoke rhapsodically of brain organoids' potential to solve scientific mysteries and lead to new medical treatments. He showed video of a spider-like robot connected to an organoid through a computer interface. The machine responded to different brainwave patterns by walking or stopping—the first stage, Muotri hoped, in teaching organoids to communicate with the outside world. He described his plans to develop organoids with multiple brain regions, and to hook them up to retinal organoids so they could "see." He shared his vision for "brain farms," which would grow organoids en masse for drug development or tissue transplants.
Muotri holds a spider-like robot that can connect to an organoid through a computer interface.
(Credit: ROLAND LIZARONDO/KPBS)
Yet Muotri also stressed the current limitations of the technology. His organoids contain approximately 2 million neurons, compared to about 200 million in a rat's brain and 86 billion in an adult human's. They consist only of a cerebral cortex, and lack many of a real brain's cell types. Because researchers haven't yet found a way to give organoids blood vessels, moreover, nutrients can't penetrate their inner recesses—a severe constraint on their growth.
Another panelist strongly downplayed the imminence of any Rubicon. Patricia Churchland, an eminent philosopher of neuroscience, cited research suggesting that in mammals, networked connections between the cortex and the thalamus are a minimum requirement for consciousness. "It may be a blessing that you don't have the enabling conditions," she said, "because then you don't have the ethical issues."
Christof Koch, for his part, sounded much less apprehensive than the Times had made him seem. He noted that science lacks a definition of consciousness, beyond an organism's sense of its own existence—"the fact that it feels like something to be you or me." As to the competing notions of how the phenomenon arises, he explained, he prefers one known as Integrated Information Theory, developed by neuroscientist Giulio Tononi. IIT considers consciousness to be a quality intrinsic to systems that reach a certain level of complexity, integration, and causal power (the ability for present actions to determine future states). By that standard, Koch doubted that brain organoids had stepped over the threshold.
One way to tell, he said, might be to use the "zap and zip" test invented by Tononi and his colleague Marcello Massimini in the early 2000s to determine whether patients are conscious in the medical sense. This technique zaps the brain with a pulse of magnetic energy, using a coil held to the scalp. As loops of neural impulses cascade through the cerebral circuitry, an EEG records the firing patterns. In a waking brain, the feedback is highly complex—neither totally predictable nor totally random. In other states, such as sleep, coma, or anesthesia, the rhythms are simpler. Applying an algorithm commonly used for computer "zip" files, the researchers devised a scale that allowed them to correctly diagnose most patients who were minimally conscious or in a vegetative state.
If scientists could find a way to apply "zap and zip" to brain organoids, Koch ventured, it should be possible to rank their degree of awareness on a similar scale. And if it turned out that an organoid was conscious, he added, our ethical calculations should strive to minimize suffering, and avoid it where possible—just as we now do, or ought to, with animal subjects. (Muotri, I later learned, was already contemplating sensors that would signal when organoids were likely in distress.)
During the question-and-answer period, an audience member pressed Churchland about how her views might change if the "enabling conditions" for consciousness in brain organoids were to arise. "My feeling is, we'll answer that when we get there," she said. "That's an unsatisfying answer, but it's because I don't know. Maybe they're totally happy hanging out in a dish! Maybe that's the way to be."
Muotri himself admits to no qualms about his creations attaining consciousness, whether sooner or later. "I think we should try to replicate the model as close as possible to the human brain," he told me after the conference. "And if that involves having a human consciousness, we should go in that direction." Still, he said, if strong evidence of sentience does arise, "we should pause and discuss among ourselves what to do."
"The field is moving so rapidly, you blink your eyes and another advance has occurred."
Churchland figures it will be at least a decade before anyone reaches the crossroads. "That's partly because the thalamus has a very complex architecture," she said. It might be possible to mimic that architecture in the lab, she added, "but I tend to think it's not going to be a piece of cake."
If anything worries Churchland about brain organoids, in fact, it's that Muotri's visionary claims for their potential could set off a backlash among those who find them unacceptably spooky. "Alysson has done brilliant work, and he's wonderfully charismatic and charming," she said. "But then there's that guy back there who doesn't think it's exciting; he thinks you're the Devil incarnate. You're playing into the hands of people who are going to shut you down."
Koch, however, is more willing to indulge Muotri's dreams. "Ten years ago," he said, "nobody would have believed you can take a stem cell and get an entire retina out of it. It's absolutely frigging amazing. So who am I to say the same thing can't be true for the thalamus or the cortex? The field is moving so rapidly, you blink your eyes and another advance has occurred."
The point, he went on, is not to build a Cartesian thought experiment—or a Matrix-style dystopia—but to vanquish some of humankind's most terrifying foes. "You know, my dad passed away of Parkinson's. I had a twin daughter; she passed away of sudden death syndrome. One of my best friends killed herself; she was schizophrenic. We want to eliminate all these terrible things, and that requires experimentation. We just have to go into it with open eyes."
A natural material that looks and feels like real leather is taking the fashion world by storm. Scientists view mycelium—the vegetative part of a mushroom-producing fungus—as a planet-friendly alternative to animal hides and plastics.
Products crafted from this vegan leather are emerging, with others poised to hit the market soon. Among them are the Hermès Victoria bag, Lululemon's yoga accessories, Adidas' Stan Smith Mylo sneaker, and a Stella McCartney apparel collection.
The Adidas Stan Smith Mylo shoe, made with an alternative leather grown from mycelium, to be released in 2022.
Hermès has held presales on the new bag, says Philip Ross, co-founder and chief technology officer of MycoWorks, a San Francisco Bay area firm whose materials constituted the design. By year-end, Ross expects several more clients to debut mycelium-based merchandise. With "comparable qualities to luxury leather," mycelium can be molded to engineer "all the different verticals within fashion," he says, particularly footwear and accessories.
More than a half-dozen trailblazers are fine-tuning mycelium to create next-generation leather materials, according to the Material Innovation Initiative, a nonprofit advocating for animal-free materials in the fashion, automotive, and home-goods industries. These high-performance products can supersede items derived from leather, silk, down, fur, wool, and exotic skins, says A. Sydney Gladman, the institute's chief scientific officer.
That's only the beginning of mycelium's untapped prowess. "We expect to see an uptick in commercial leather alternative applications for mycelium-based materials as companies refine their R&D [research and development] and scale up," Gladman says, adding that "technological innovation and untapped natural materials have the potential to transform the materials industry and solve the enormous environmental challenges it faces."
In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long. We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal."
Reducing our carbon footprint becomes possible because mycelium can flourish in indoor farms, using agricultural waste as feedstock and emitting inherently low greenhouse gas emissions. Carbon dioxide is the primary greenhouse gas. "We often think that when plant tissues like wood rot, that they go from something to nothing," says Jonathan Schilling, professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of Minnesota and a member of MycoWorks' Scientific Advisory Board.
But that assumption doesn't hold true for all carbon in plant tissues. When the fungi dominating the decomposition of plants fulfill their function, they transform a large portion of carbon into fungal biomass, Schilling says. That, in turn, ends up in the soil, with mycelium forming a network underneath that traps the carbon.
Unlike the large amounts of fossil fuels needed to produce styrofoam, leather and plastic, less fuel-intensive processing is involved in creating similar materials with a fungal organism. While some fungi consist of a single cell, others are multicellular and develop as very fine threadlike structures. A mass of them collectively forms a "mycelium" that can be either loose and low density or tightly packed and high density. "When these fungi grow at extremely high density," Schilling explains, "they can take on the feel of a solid material such as styrofoam, leather or even plastic."
Tunable and supple in the cultivation process, mycelium is also reliably sturdy in composition. "We believe that mycelium has some unique attributes that differentiate it from plastic-based and animal-derived products," says Gavin McIntyre, who co-founded Ecovative Design, an upstate New York-based biomaterials company, in 2007 with the goal of displacing some environmentally burdensome materials and making "a meaningful impact on our planet."
After inventing a type of mushroom-based packaging for all sorts of goods, in 2013 the firm ventured into manufacturing mycelium that can be adapted for textiles, he says, because mushrooms are "nature's recycling system."
The company aims for its material—which is "so tough and tenacious" that it doesn't require any plastic add-on as reinforcement—to be generally accessible from a pricing standpoint and not confined to a luxury space. The cost, McIntyre says, would approach that of bovine leather, not the more upscale varieties of lamb and goat skins.
Already, production has taken off by leaps and bounds. In fewer than 10 days in indoor agricultural farms, "we grow large slabs of mycelium that are many feet wide and long," he says. "We are not confined to the shape or geometry of an animal," so there's a much lower scrap rate.
Decreasing the scrap rate is a major selling point. "Our customers can order the pieces to the way that they want them, and there is almost no waste in the processing," explains Ross of MycoWorks. "We can make ours thinner or thicker," depending on a client's specific needs. Growing materials locally also results in a reduction in transportation, shipping and other supply chain costs, he says.
Yet another advantage to making things out of mycelium is its biodegradability at the end of an item's lifecycle. When a pair of old sneakers lands in a compost pile or landfill, it decomposes thanks to microbial processes that, once again, involve fungi. "It is cool to think that the same organism used to create a product can also be what recycles it, perhaps building something else useful in the same act," says biologist Schilling. That amounts to "more than a nice business model—it is a window into how sustainability works in nature."
A product can be called "sustainable" if it's biodegradable, leaves a minimal carbon footprint during production, and is also profitable, says Preeti Arya, an assistant professor at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City and faculty adviser to a student club of the American Association of Textile Chemists and Colorists.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, products composed of petroleum-based polymers don't biodegrade—they break down into smaller pieces or even particles. These remnants pollute landfills, oceans and rivers, contaminating edible fish and eventually contributing to the growth of benign and cancerous tumors in humans, Arya says.
Commending the steps a few designers have taken toward bringing more environmentally conscious merchandise to consumers, she says, "I'm glad that they took the initiative because others also will try to be part of this competition toward sustainability." And consumers will take notice. "The more people become aware, the more these brands will start acting on it."
A further shift toward mycelium-based products has the capability to reap tremendous environmental dividends, says Drew Endy, associate chair of bioengineering at Stanford University and president of the BioBricks Foundation, which focuses on biotechnology in the public interest.
The continued development of "leather surrogates on a scaled and sustainable basis will provide the greatest benefit to the greatest number of people, in perpetuity," Endy says. "Transitioning the production of leather goods from a process that involves the industrial-scale slaughter of vertebrate mammals to a process that instead uses renewable fungal-based manufacturing will be more just."
Amy Bitterman, who teaches at Rutgers Law School in Newark, gets enormous pleasure from her three mixed-breed rescue cats, Spike, Dee, and Lucy. To manage her chronically stuffy nose, three times a week she takes Allegra D, which combines the antihistamine fexofenadine with the decongestant pseudoephedrine. Amy's dog allergy is rougher--so severe that when her sister launched a business, Pet Care By Susan, from their home in Edison, New Jersey, they knew Susan would have to move elsewhere before she could board dogs. Amy has tried to visit their brother, who owns a Labrador Retriever, taking Allegra D beforehand. But she began sneezing, and then developed watery eyes and phlegm in her chest.
"It gets harder and harder to breathe," she says.
Animal lovers have long dreamed of "hypo-allergenic" cats and dogs. Although to date, there is no such thing, biotechnology is beginning to provide solutions for cat-lovers. Cats are a simpler challenge than dogs. Dog allergies involve as many as seven proteins. But up to 95 percent of people who have cat allergies--estimated at 10 to 30 percent of the population in North America and Europe--react to one protein, Fel d1. Interestingly, cats don't seem to need Fel d1. There are cats who don't produce much Fel d1 and have no known health problems.
The current technologies fight Fel d1 in ingenious ways. Nestle Purina reached the market first with a cat food, Pro Plan LiveClear, launched in the U.S. a year and a half ago. It contains Fel d1 antibodies from eggs that in effect neutralize the protein. HypoCat, a vaccine for cats, induces them to create neutralizing antibodies to their own Fel d1. It may be available in the United States by 2024, says Gary Jennings, chief executive officer of Saiba Animal Health, a University of Zurich spin-off. Another approach, using the gene-editing tool CRISPR to create a medication that would splice out Fel d1 genes in particular tissues, is the furthest from fruition.
"Our goal was to ensure that whatever we do has no negative impact on the cat."
Customer demand is high. "We already have a steady stream of allergic cat owners contacting us desperate to have access to the vaccine or participate in the testing program," Jennings said. "There is a major unmet medical need."
More than a third of Americans own a cat (while half own a dog), and pet ownership is rising. With more Americans living alone, pets may be just the right amount of company. But the number of Americans with asthma increases every year. Of that group, some 20 to 30 percent have pet allergies that could trigger a possibly deadly attack. It is not clear how many pets end up in shelters because their owners could no longer manage allergies. Instead, allergists commonly report that their patients won't give up a beloved companion.
No one can completely avoid Fel d1, which clings to clothing and lands everywhere cat-owners go, even in schools and new homes never occupied by cats. Myths among cat-lovers may lead them to underestimate their own level of risk. Short hair doesn't help: the length of cat hair doesn't affect the production of Fel d1. Bathing your cat will likely upset it and accomplish little. Washing cuts the amount on its skin and fur only for two days. In one study, researchers measured the Fel d1 in the ambient air in a small chamber occupied by a cat—and then washed the cat. Three hours later, with the cat in the chamber again, the measurable Fel d1 in the air was lower. But this benefit was gone after 24 hours.
For years, the best option has been shots for people that prompt protective antibodies. Bitterman received dog and cat allergy injections twice a week as a child. However, these treatments require up to 100 injections over three to five years, and, as in her case, the effect may be partial or wear off. Even if you do opt for shots, treating the cat also makes sense, since you could protect more than one allergic member of your household and any allergic visitors as well.
An Allergy-Neutralizing Diet
Cats produce much of their Fel d1 in their saliva, which then spreads it to their fur when they groom, observed Nestle Purina immunologist Ebenezer Satyaraj. He realized that this made saliva—and therefore a cat's mouth--an unusually effective site for change. Hens exposed to Fel d1 produce their own antibodies, which survive in their eggs. The team coated LiveClear food with a powder form of these eggs; once in a cat's mouth, the chicken antibody binds to the Fel d1 in the cat's saliva, neutralizing it.
The results are partial: In a study with 105 cats, the level of active Fel d1 in their fur had dropped on average by 47 percent after ten weeks eating LiveClear. Cats that produced more Fel d1 at baseline had a more robust response, with a drop of up to 71 percent. A safety study found no effects on cats after six months on the diet. "Our goal was to ensure that whatever we do has no negative impact on the cat," Satyaraj said. Might a dogfood that minimizes dog allergens be on the way? "There is some early work," he said.
This is a year when vaccines changed the lives of billions. Saiba's vaccine, HypoCat, delivers recombinant Fel d1 and the coat from a plant virus (the Cucumber mosaic virus) without any vital genetic information. The viral coat serves as a carrier. A cat would need shots once or twice a year to produce antibodies that neutralize Fel d1.
HypoCat works much like any vaccine, with the twist that the enemy is the cat's own protein. Is that safe? Saiba's team has followed 70 cats treated with the vaccine over two years and they remain healthy. Again the active Fel d1 doesn't disappear but diminishes. The team asked 10 people with cat allergies to report on their symptoms when they pet their vaccinated cats. Eight of them could pet their cat for nearly a half hour before their symptoms began, compared with an average of 17 minutes before the vaccine.
Jennings hopes to develop a HypoDog shot with a similar approach. However, the goal would be to target four or five proteins in one vaccine, and that increases the risk of hurting the dog. In the meantime, allergic dog-lovers considering an expensive breeder dog might think again: Independent research does not support the idea that any breed of dog produces less dander in the home. In fact, one well-designed study found that Spanish water dogs, Airedales, poodles and Labradoodles--breeds touted as hypo-allergenic--had significantly more of the most common allergen on their coat than an ordinary Lab and the control group.
One day you might be able to bring your cat to the vet once a year for an injection that would modify specific tissues so they wouldn't produce Fel d1.
Nicole Brackett, a postdoctoral scientist at Viriginia-based Indoor Biotechnologies, which specializes in manufacturing biologics for allergy and asthma, most recently has used CRISPR to identify Fel d1 genetic sequences in cells from 50 domestic cats and 24 exotic ones. She learned that the sequences vary substantially from one cat to the next. This discovery, she says, backs up the observations that Fel d1 doesn't have a vital purpose.
The next step will be a CRISPR knockout of the relevant genes in cells from feline salivary glands, a prime source of Fel d1. Although the company is considering using CRISPR to edit the genes in a cat embryo and possibly produce a Fel d1-free cat, designer cats won't be its ultimate product. Instead, the company aims to produce injections that could treat any cat.
Reducing pet allergens at home could have a compound benefit, Indoor Biotechnologies founder Martin Chapman, an immunologist, notes: "When you dampen down the response to one allergen, you could also dampen it down to multiple allergens." As allergies become more common around the world, that's especially good news.