The unsettling story of a (literal) thought experimentby Philip Ball / March 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
We’re used to thinking of ourselves as a finished product. The finish might not always be quite what we’d like, but it’s what we’re stuck with. From a single fertilised egg, we unfold in a progressive elaboration of cells and tissues until we come mewling and puking into the world. From there it’s a linear story that ends sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
But Shakespeare’s age-old narrative of decay, decrepitude and ultimately oblivion no longer works. We have the means to rebuild and replace failing tissues. I speak from personal experience. Over the past several months I have seen a piece of my flesh that was cut from my arm develop into a structure called an “organoid,” a miniature organ. In my case it has become a structure that some call a mini-brain: the size of a frozen pea, it displays many of the distinct features of a real brain that grows in a foetus. I’ve seen evidence that the neurons in such tissue can fire, signalling one another. It would be too poetic to call these signals thoughts, but they are the stuff of thought.
My flesh could have become something else, had the scientists so chosen. It could have become a kidney organoid, or one resembling a piece of heart or pancreas. It could have developed into light-sensitive tissue like that of the retina. And here’s the ultimate fact: it could have become an egg, or sperm, or something like an actual embryo, the beginnings of a being. It could have become any part of “me,” or every part. Here, then, is technology to stir tempting thoughts of cheating death, by replenishing the ailing body or even making a new, lab-grown self to “replace” the old.
In the bicentenary year of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein it would be easy to wax Gothic, if not apocalyptic, about all this: to imagine, say, people grown to order in vats like the Central Hatchery of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. But my mini-brains—there are several of them—were grown in a good cause. They are part of a project called Created Out of Mind, funded by the Wellcome Trust and aimed at improving our understanding of dementia and how we care for those living with it. The researchers who made the organoids are examining the genetic underpinnings of the neurodegenerative conditions that cause dementia. My mini-brains will be used in that research and so may, perhaps, help one day to defer the moment where other brains begin to close down.