Sunday, July 26, 2009

Ethics of brainless humans

As a thought experiment, if it were possible, would it be ethical to make humans without brains for research purposes?

The idea arises since a more accurate model of humans for drug testing would be quite helpful. Drugs may work in mice, rats and monkeys but not in humans or in some humans but not others. Human biology is more complex and the detailed pathways and mechanisms are not yet understood.

Of course by definition, a brainless human is not really a human; a human form without a brain would be more equivalent to a test culture of liver cells than a cognitive agent.

Tissue culturing, regenerative medicine and 3D organ printing
The less contentious versions of the idea of growing brainless humans is currently under initial exploration in taking tissue from a human, growing it up in culture and testing drugs or other therapies on it. A further step up is regenerative medicine, producing artificial organs from a person’s cells such as the Wake Forest bladder and Gabor Forgacs 3D organ printing work.

Brain as executive agent may be required
The next steps for testing would be creating systems of interoperating tissue and organs (e.g.; how would this person’s heart and liver respond to this heart drug?) and possibly a complete collection of human biological systems sans brain. One obvious issue is that this might not even work since the brain is obviously a critical component of a human and that a brainless human could not be built, that some sort of executive organizing system like the brain would be needed. Also medical testing would need to include the impact on the brain and the brain’s role and interaction with the other biological systems and the drug.

Ethical but impractical
Where it is quite clear that generating a full living human for research purposes would be unethical, it is hard to argue that generating a brainless human, a complex collection of human biological systems without a brain, which is not really human and does not have consciousness or personhood, would be unethical. Certainly some arguments could be made to the contrary regarding the lack of specific knowledge about consciousness and concepts of personhood, but would seem to be outweighed.

Unlikely to arise
It is extremely unlikely that the situation of manufacturing brainless humans for research purposes would ever arise, first since a lot of testing and therapy may be possible with personalized tissue cultures and regenerative medicine, and informed by genomic and proteomic sequencing. Also, in an eventual era where it might be possible to construct a brainless human or a collection of live interacting tissues and organ systems, it would probably be more expedient to model the whole biological system digitally.

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