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."
Elaine Kamil had just returned home after a few days of business meetings in 2013 when she started having chest pains. At first Kamil, then 66, wasn't worried—she had had some chest pain before and recently went to a cardiologist to do a stress test, which was normal.
"I can't be having a heart attack because I just got checked," she thought, attributing the discomfort to stress and high demands of her job. A pediatric nephrologist at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles, she takes care of critically ill children who are on dialysis or are kidney transplant patients. Supporting families through difficult times and answering calls at odd hours is part of her daily routine, and often leaves her exhausted.
She figured the pain would go away. But instead, it intensified that night. Kamil's husband drove her to the Cedars-Sinai hospital, where she was admitted to the coronary care unit. It turned out she wasn't having a heart attack after all. Instead, she was diagnosed with a much less common but nonetheless dangerous heart condition called takotsubo syndrome, or broken heart syndrome.
A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is obstructed—such as when an artery is blocked—causing heart muscle tissue to die. In takotsubo syndrome, the blood flow isn't blocked, but the heart doesn't pump it properly. The heart changes its shape and starts to resemble a Japanese fishing device called tako-tsubo, a clay pot with a wider body and narrower mouth, used to catch octopus.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks," explains Noel Bairey Merz, the cardiologist at Cedar Sinai who Kamil went to see after she was discharged.
"The heart muscle is stunned and doesn't function properly anywhere from three days to three weeks."
But even though the heart isn't permanently damaged, mortality rates due to takotsubo syndrome are comparable to those of a heart attack, Merz notes—about 4-5% of patients die from the attack, and 20% within the next five years. "It's as bad as a heart attack," Merz says—only it's much less known, even to doctors. The condition affects only about 1% of people, and there are around 15,000 new cases annually. It's diagnosed using a cardiac ventriculogram, an imaging test that allows doctors to see how the heart pumps blood.
Scientists don't fully understand what causes Takotsubo syndrome, but it usually occurs after extreme emotional or physical stress. Doctors think it's triggered by a so-called catecholamine storm, a phenomenon in which the body releases too much catecholamines—hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response. Evolutionarily, when early humans lived in savannas or forests and had to either fight off predators or flee from them, these hormones gave our ancestors the needed strength and stamina to take either action. Released by nerve endings and by the adrenal glands that sit on top of the kidneys, these hormones still flood our bodies in moments of stress, but an overabundance of them could sometimes be damaging.
A recent study by scientists at Harvard Medical School linked increased risk of takotsubo to higher activity in the amygdala, a brain region responsible for emotions that's involved in responses to stress. The scientists believe that chronic stress makes people more susceptible to the syndrome. Notably, one small study suggested that the number of Takotsubo cases increased during the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are no specific drugs to treat takotsubo, so doctors rely on supportive therapies, which include medications typically used for high blood pressure and heart failure. In most cases, the heart returns to its normal shape within a few weeks. "It's a spontaneous recovery—the catecholamine storm is resolved, the injury trigger is removed and the heart heals itself because our bodies have an amazing healing capacity," Merz says. It also helps that tissues remain intact. 'The heart cells don't die, they just aren't functioning properly for some time."
That's the good news. The bad news is that takotsubo is likely to strike again—in 5-20% of patients the condition comes back, sometimes more severe than before.
That's exactly what happened to Kamil. After getting her diagnosis in 2013, she realized that she actually had a previous takotsubo episode. In 2010, she experienced similar symptoms after her son died. "The night after he died, I was having severe chest pain at night, but I was too overwhelmed with grief to do anything about it," she recalls. After a while, the pain subsided and didn't return until three years later.
For weeks after her second attack, she felt exhausted, listless and anxious. "You lose confidence in your body," she says. "You have these little twinges on your chest, or if you start having arrhythmia, and you wonder if this is another episode coming up. It's really unnerving because you don't know how to read these cues." And that's very typical, Merz says. Even when the heart muscle appears to recover, patients don't return to normal right away. They have shortens of breath, they can't exercise, and they stay anxious and worried for a while.
Women over the age of 50 are diagnosed with takotsubo more often than other demographics. However, it happens in men too, although it typically strikes after physical stress, such as a triathlon or an exhausting day of cycling. Young people can also get takotsubo. Older patients are hospitalized more often, but younger people tend to have more severe complications. It could be because an older person may go for a jog while younger one may run a marathon, which would take a stronger toll on the body of a person who's predisposed to the condition.
Notably, the emotional stressors don't always have to be negative—the heart muscle can get out of shape from good emotions, too. "There have been case reports of takotsubo at weddings," Merz says. Moreover, one out of three or four takotsubo patients experience no apparent stress, she adds. "So it could be that it's not so much the catecholamine storm itself, but the body's reaction to it—the physiological reaction deeply embedded into out physiology," she explains.
Merz and her team are working to understand what makes people predisposed to takotsubo. They think a person's genetics play a role, but they haven't yet pinpointed genes that seem to be responsible. Genes code for proteins, which affect how the body metabolizes various compounds, which, in turn, affect the body's response to stress. Pinning down the protein involved in takotsubo susceptibility would allow doctors to develop screening tests and identify those prone to severe repeating attacks. It will also help develop medications that can either prevent it or treat it better than just waiting for the body to heal itself.
Researchers at the Imperial College London recently found that elevated levels of certain types of microRNAs—molecules involved in protein production—increase the chances of developing takotsubo.
In one study, researchers tried treating takotsubo in mice with a drug called suberanilohydroxamic acid, or SAHA, typically used for cancer treatment. The drug improved cardiac health and reversed the broken heart in rodents. It remains to be seen if the drug would have a similar effect on humans. But identifying a drug that shows promise is progress, Merz says. "I'm glad that there's research in this area."
A highly contagious form of the coronavirus known as the Delta variant is spreading rapidly and becoming increasingly prevalent around the world. First identified in India in December, Delta has now been identified in 111 countries.
In the United States, the variant now accounts for 83% of sequenced COVID-19 cases, said Rochelle Walensky, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at a July 20 Senate hearing. In May, Delta was responsible for just 3% of U.S. cases. The World Health Organization projects that Delta will become the dominant variant globally over the coming months.
So, how worried should you be about the Delta variant? We asked experts some common questions about Delta.
What is a variant?
To understand Delta, it's helpful to first understand what a variant is. When a virus infects a person, it gets into your cells and makes a copy of its genome so it can replicate and spread throughout your body.
In the process of making new copies of itself, the virus can make a mistake in its genetic code. Because viruses are replicating all the time, these mistakes — also called mutations — happen pretty often. A new variant emerges when a virus acquires one or more new mutations and starts spreading within a population.
There are thousands of SARS-CoV-2 variants, but most of them don't substantially change the way the virus behaves. The variants that scientists are most interested in are known as variants of concern. These are versions of the virus with mutations that allow the virus to spread more easily, evade vaccines, or cause more severe disease.
"The vast majority of the mutations that have accumulated in SARS-CoV-2 don't change the biology as far as we're concerned," said Jennifer Surtees, a biochemist at the University of Buffalo who's studying the coronavirus. "But there have been a handful of key mutations and combinations of mutations that have led to what we're now calling variants of concern."
One of those variants of concern is Delta, which is now driving many new COVID-19 infections.
Why is the Delta variant so concerning?
"The reason why the Delta variant is concerning is because it's causing an increase in transmission," said Alba Grifoni, an infectious disease researcher at the La Jolla Institute for Immunology. "The virus is spreading faster and people — particularly those who are not vaccinated yet — are more prone to exposure."
The Delta variant has a few key mutations that make it better at attaching to our cells and evading the neutralizing antibodies in our immune system. These mutations have changed the virus enough to make it more than twice as contagious as the original SARS-CoV-2 virus that emerged in Wuhan and about 50% more contagious than the Alpha variant, previously known as B.1.1.7, or the U.K. variant.
These mutations were previously seen in other variants on their own, but it's their combination that makes Delta so much more infectious.
Do vaccines work against the Delta variant?
The good news is, the COVID-19 vaccines made by AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, Moderna, and Pfizer still work against the Delta variant. They remain more than 90% effective at preventing hospitalizations and death due to Delta. While they're slightly less protective against disease symptoms, they're still very effective at preventing severe illness caused by the Delta variant.
"They're not as good as they were against the prior strains, but they're holding up pretty well," said Eric Topol, a physician and director of the Scripps Translational Research Institute, during a July 19 briefing for journalists.
Because Delta is better at evading our immune systems, it's likely causing more breakthrough infections — COVID-19 cases in people who are vaccinated. However, breakthrough infections were expected before the Delta variant became widespread. No vaccine is 100% effective, so breakthrough infections can happen with other vaccines as well. Experts say the COVID-19 vaccines are still working as expected, even if breakthrough infections occur. The majority of these infections are asymptomatic or cause only mild symptoms.
Should vaccinated people worry about the Delta variant?
Vaccines train our immune systems to protect us against infection. They do this by spurring the production of antibodies, which stick around in our bodies to help fight off a particular pathogen in case we ever come into contact with it.
But even if the new Delta variant slips past our neutralizing antibodies, there's another component of our immune system that can help overtake the virus: T cells. Studies are showing that the COVID-19 vaccines also galvanize T cells, which help limit disease severity in people who have been vaccinated.
"While antibodies block the virus and prevent the virus from infecting cells, T cells are able to attack cells that have already been infected," Grifoni said. In other words, T cells can prevent the infection from spreading to more places in the body. A study published July 1 by Grifoni and her colleagues found that T cells were still able to recognize mutated forms of the virus — further evidence that our current vaccines are effective against Delta.
Can fully vaccinated people spread the Delta variant?
Scientists think it's unlikely that fully vaccinated individuals who have an asymptomatic infection are transmitting the Delta variant. That's because vaccinated people are thought to have relatively low levels of the virus in their respiratory tracts and therefore, they don't transmit as much virus.
Still, breakthrough infections can occur. If you have COVID-19 symptoms, even if you're fully vaccinated, you should get tested and isolate from friends and family because you could spread the virus.
What risk does Delta pose to unvaccinated people?
The Delta variant is behind a surge in cases in communities with low vaccination rates, and unvaccinated Americans currently account for 97% of hospitalizations due to COVID-19, according to Walensky. The best thing you can do right now to prevent yourself from getting sick is to get vaccinated.
Gigi Gronvall, an immunologist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said in this week's "Making Sense of Science" podcast that it's especially important to get all required doses of the vaccine in order to have the best protection against the Delta variant. "Even if it's been more than the allotted time that you were told to come back and get the second, there's no time like the present," she said.
With more than 3.6 billion COVID-19 doses administered globally, the vaccines have been shown to be incredibly safe. Serious adverse effects are rare, although scientists continue to monitor for them.
Being vaccinated also helps prevent the emergence of new and potentially more dangerous variants. Viruses need to infect people in order to replicate, and variants emerge because the virus continues to infect more people. More infections create more opportunities for the virus to acquire new mutations.
Surtees and others worry about a scenario in which a new variant emerges that's even more transmissible or resistant to vaccines. "This is our window of opportunity to try to get as many people vaccinated as possible and get people protected so that so that the virus doesn't evolve to be even better at infecting people," she said.
Does Delta cause more severe disease?
While hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 are increasing again, it's not yet clear whether Delta causes more severe illness than previous strains.
How can we protect unvaccinated children from the Delta variant?
With children 12 and under not yet eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, kids are especially vulnerable to the Delta variant. One way to protect unvaccinated children is for parents and other close family members to get vaccinated.
It's also a good idea to keep masks handy when going out in public places. Due to risk Delta poses, the American Academy of Pediatrics issued new guidelines July 19 recommending that all staff and students over age 2 wear face masks in school this fall, even if they have been vaccinated.
Parents should also avoid taking their unvaccinated children to crowded, indoor locations and make sure their kids are practicing good hand-washing hygiene. For children younger than 2, limit visits with friends and family members who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown and keep up social distancing practices while in public.
While there's no evidence yet that Delta increases disease severity in children, parents should be mindful that in some rare cases, kids can get a severe form of the disease.
"We're seeing more children getting sick and we're seeing some of them get very sick," Surtees said. "Those children can then pass on the virus to other individuals, including people who are immunocompromised or unvaccinated."