Disembodied Brains Are Scary Or How Sci-Fi Influences Science
UC San Diego neuroscientist talks about his influences and creating brains in a dish
Friday, November 22, 2019
"Fiend Without A Face" (1958)
"The Brain That Wouldn't Die" (1962)
"Star Trek: The Original Series" (1966-69)
I wanted to visit a scientist in his lab in order to explore how science and science fiction inspire each other, and where scientists get their ideas from. The person I visited was UC San Diego professor and neuroscientist Alysson Muotri who uses stem cells to study the brain.
In films such as "Fiend Without a Face" and "The Brain That Wouldn't Die," science fiction tells us brains are scary and science can’t tell us otherwise because…
"We don't know nothing about the human brain," proclaims Alysson Muotri, and he should know, he’s a neuroscientist. "We don't fully understand how the brain works and I think that's part of the reason why they're so scary … but for the brain, we see that massive, mushy tissue and is that it? How come it creates everything that we know? How come it creates who we are? So I think that's the scary part."
To alleviate those fears and to uncover some of the mysteries of the human brain Muotri was inspired to create mini-brains in the lab.
"We don't like to call them mini-brains," Muotri said. "We prefer the terms of brain organoid because we don't want to give the impression that what we have is a fully mature organized brain dish."
OK. I stand corrected: organoids. But it’s experiments like these that inspire sci-fi scenarios like the one in "The Brain That Wouldn't Die" where a woman's disembodied head and brain are, as the trailer proclaims: "kept alive by experimental science!"
But then science fiction can prompt a scientist like Muotri to philosophize about his own work.
"I mean, how do we know that we are the way we are and we are not brain organoids in a brain farm just receiving some artificial stimulus like in 'The Matrix,' right? I love that movie because it makes you questioning what is real, what's not," Muotri said. "And what I think it's so funny is that there is no way for us to know that."
Funny in a way that gnaws at your brain and makes you ask more questions. One of the questions Muotri had as a child was about how the human brain compared to that of our primitive ancestor the Neanderthal.
"I remember reading about them and get fascinated about the Neanderthals and thinking to myself, ‘Wow, I mean one day would I be able to talk to them? Can we bring them back from the past?' So this was a perhaps naive thought for a child but as the technology evolve you could use some of these tools to get at least partially to those answers?"
Wanting to get answers inspired Muotri to become a neuroscientist and now he has state of the art tools and technology at his disposal that have allowed him to create these brain organoids. But where does one get the idea to create a brain in a dish?
"It's funny that you ask that," Muotri said. "I was thinking about that and to be honest some of the work that I'm doing now I remember thinking about doing those experiments when I was a kid. There is a little bit of inspiration from science fiction as well because the more you read the more science fiction gets to you and incorporates into your thinking, right? And so it's no surprise that some of the experiments that we have here was inspired by an episode of 'Star Trek' or things like that."
You can see how '"Star Trek" could inspire him to attach an organoid to a robot.
"The robot is using the brain organoid to coordinate the four legs," Muotri said as he demonstrated in his office. "So by having the robot exploring the environment we are continuously stimulating these organoids and our hope is that as we do that more often the organoids we will mature because now they are receiving some kind of input information."
That seems like the stuff of science fiction, which raises a familiar sci-fi moral dilemma: Can you take an experiment too far?
"How far is too far for these organoids? Will they ever reach a level of acquiring consciousness or self-aware or can they suffer or feel pain?" Muotri asked. "So these are good questions and right now we have no evidence that is the case but it is a possibility that in the future as we mature and we improve the model that they may acquire those things and if they do we have to agree on what is the level of consciousness that they have and probably we need to give them what we call moral status and what is the moral status of these organoids?"
Those are big questions to wrestle with. As I leave Muotri’s office he shows me one last item, a photo revealing ancient viruses in brain cells, which prompts the question…
"What are these ancient viruses doing in my brain?" Muotri wondered.
That’s a question both science and science fiction can have fun tackling as each stimulates the other in an endless cycle of creativity. Meanwhile, let that virus infect your brain and see what the results are.
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