Thursday, February 25, 2016


Scientists at Johns Hopkins University have grown miniature "brains," spherical clusters of cells about 350 micrometers in diameter, barely visible to the naked eye, for the purpose of studying human brain function and testing drugs:


According to the article, "While the versions aren't exact replicas of brains, they are made of the same neurons and cells found in human brains, feature the same structures and act in the same way." Generated from stem cells created by reprogramming human skin DNA, the clusters "contain circuitry that functions like an actual brain."

In 2013, scientists in Vienna grew "a small brain that was at the same developmental level as a 9-week-old fetus." Although the process sounds a bit Frankensteinian, the mini-brains don't have consciousness or any ability to think (whatever, exactly, that means). However, if enough of them were linked, could they form a biological "computer"? And, if large and complex enough, could such a network develop consciousness?

Also, how long before some pressure group decides that these tiny balls of neurons constitute human individuals entitled to personhood rights?

In other brain news, also at Johns Hopkins, researchers are working on "brain mapping technology to enable a patient to independently move individual fingers on a prosthetic arm just by thinking about it." With no cumbersome learning process involved, the patient can produce movements similar to those of a natural hand by simply willing the motion.

Mind-Controlled Prosthetic

The device used in this trial requires a separate computer pack to enable the patient to transmit commands to the artificial arm. The system costs about half a million dollars, so commercial application remains a long way off. At present, only an individual as valuable as the Six Million Dollar Man would qualify for a full set of these prostheses.

Speaking of individuality and identity, how much of his or her organic body could an individual have replaced and still remain that same person? The Tin Woodman in THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ has his entire body replaced by a metal one piece by piece, not all at once, and at the end of the process he still identifies himself as the man he was before the curse severed all his limbs. Of course, in his case magic must be involved, because he has a tin head, too, with no indication that his organic brain was transplanted into it. From Six Million Dollar Man to Darth Vader (mentioned in the prosthetic article) to Robocop to Tin Woodman—still the same person? Suppose the Good Witch of the North grew a brain for the Tin Woodman, using the Oz equivalent of the mini-brain technique, and magically transferred his consciousness into it? In Oz he would still be himself (as we know from the fact that both he and the Scarecrow have consciousness and personalities despite being made completely of inorganic materials), but what about in this world?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. Oops. I should have said "nonliving materials," since obviously the Scarecrow's straw stuffing is organic.