Experiments on living brain tissue unearth ‘ethical quandaries’

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Credit: Allen Institute

Live bits of brain look like any other piece of meat —  pinkish, solid chunks of neural tissue. But unlike other kinds of tissue or organs donated for research, they hold the memories, thoughts and feelings of a person.

“It is identified with who we are,” Karen Rommelfanger, a neuroethicist at Emory University in Atlanta, said February 13 in a news conference at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That uniqueness raises a whole new set of ethical quandaries when it comes to experimenting with living brain tissue, she explained.

Such donations are crucial to emerging research aimed at teasing out answers to what makes us human.

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SN: How much is too much when it comes to working with patients’ living brain tissue?

Rommelfanger: This is a question of incrementalism: How much brain do you take before you freak out? We will have crossed the line if we have something that we are able to measure that has some sort of independent awareness on its own. That’s a really extreme scenario that I’m operating with. But I don’t think we should wait until we get really close to something like that to [consider the ethics].

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