Nature article on the ethics of research using brain surrogates authored by neuroethics experts, INS leadership

April 26, 2018


International Neuroethics Society (INS) Board members Nita Farahany, Hank Greely and Steven Hyman, along with 14 colleagues including other INS members, authored a commentary article titled "The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue," published April 25 in Nature. The article discusses the difficult questions that will be raised as models of the human brain get closer to replicating its functions.

cover page of article in Nature

The ethics of experimenting with human brain tissue. Nature 556, 429-432 (2018).

The article begins by asking: "If researchers could create brain tissue in the laboratory that might appear to have conscious experiences or subjective phenomenal states, would that tissue deserve any of the protections routinely given to human or animal research subjects?"

"This question might seem outlandish," the authors continue. "Certainly, today’s experimental models are far from having such capabilities. But various models are now being developed to better understand the human brain, including miniaturized, simplified versions of brain tissue grown in a dish from stem cells — brain organoids. And advances keep being made."

The authors recommended several essential concepts researchers, funders, review boards, and the public should consider as part of initial efforts to guide research on brain surrogates. The considerations they outline include:

  • The use of surrogates to safely and ethically study how the living human brain works—specifically the use of organoids, ex vivo brain tissue, and chimaeras
  • Key issues that should be addressed as surrogate models become larger and more complex—including consent, stewardship, understanding of death, and others
  • The importance for ethical deliberation—informed by existing efforts and neuroethics experts—to pervade institutions, oversight, and future guidelines

The authors conclude by stating: "We do not think that these difficult questions should halt this research. Experimental models of the human brain could help us to unlock mysteries about psychiatric and neurological illnesses that have long remained elusive. But to ensure the success and social acceptance of this research long term, an ethical framework must be forged now, while brain surrogates remain in the early stages of development."

Coverage of the article spanned scientific and popular publications, including the following contributions:

Researchers and press interested in and eager to contribute to discussions related to the use of brain surrogates are encouraged to attend two upcoming events organized by the INS.

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The first event, June 1 at the Oxford Martin School, will feature a discussion on "Human Brain Organoids: the Science, the Ethics." Speakers Hank Greely, Stanford University (USA), Julian Savulescu, University of Oxford (UK), and Madeline Lancaster, University of Cambridge (UK), will discuss how human brain organoids are being used in research, now and in the future. This event is jointly organized by the INS and the Wellcome Centre for Ethics and Humanities at the University of Oxford. There is no cost, but attendees must register in advance. 

The 2018 INS Annual Meeting in San Diego will also include a session focused on "Brain Surrogates, Perceptions and Reality," led by Nita Farahany, Duke Law School (USA). Additional speakers for this session on November 2 will be announced soon and posted in the meeting program.

For updates about the annual meeting and other activities, subscribe to receive emails from the INS.