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Cerebral organoids and consciousness: how far are we willing to go?
  1. Andrea Lavazza1,
  2. Marcello Massimini2
  1. 1Neuroethics, Centro Universitario Internazionale, Arezzo, Italy
  2. 2Department of Biomedical and Clinical Sciences, Universita degli Studi di Milano, Milano, Italy
  1. Correspondence to Dr Andrea Lavazza, Centro Universitario Internazionale, via Garbasso 42, Arezzo 52100, Italy; lavazza67{at}gmail.com

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In his interesting commentary, Joshua Shepherd raises two points—one related to epistemology, the other to ethics—about our article on human cerebral organoids.1 2 From the epistemological standpoint, he calls into question the need for a theory of consciousness. A theory of consciousness, for him, is not necessary because of the lack of consensus about the very nature of consciousness. Shepherd suggests that ‘given widespread disagreement, applying a theory of consciousness may not be helpful when attempting to diagnose the presence of consciousness in cerebral organoids’. In Shepherd’s view, it would be better to transfer ‘concepts already under development in work on the presence and structure of consciousness in difficult marginal cases involving traumatic brain injury’.2

We could not agree more on this last point; detecting a minimal capacity for consciousness in the brain of comatose patients is a very similar challenge to inferring the presence of consciousness in cerebral organoids. Every day, as a by-product of saving many lives, intensive care medicine artificially produces thousands of brains that may remain isolated, split or fragmented; in the worst case, cortical islands, or an archipelago of islands, may survive while being disconnected from the outside world. Can these islands host some form of consciousness? That is, does it feel like anything to be a large piece of human cortex? Addressing this difficult question requires the development of general, objective brain-based indices of consciousness that are independent of sensory processing, executive functions and motor outputs.3

Consider, for example, a patient showing reflexive spontaneous behaviour, no response to command and no ability to communicate. In her brain, afferent pathways are damaged, thereby impairing the recruitment of cortical areas in response to sensory stimulation; basal ganglia, as well as other frontal structures supporting executive functions, are impaired. However, resting metabolism and significant electroencephalography …

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