Homegrown YVC philosopher leads research on lab-grown “mini-brains”

A faculty member in Yakima Valley College’s  philosophy department, Matthew Owen, is spearheading research on whether so-called “mini-brains” could be conscious.

Human cerebral organoids, often called mini-brains, are grown in neuroscience labs to serve as models of the human brain. A human brain consists of 86 billion neurons, whereas a cerebral organoid consists of up to tens of millions of neurons developed from pluripotent stem cells. Though exceedingly smaller in size, the neurons composing cerebral organoids self-organize into structures resembling brain regions in early development.

“Since our brains are safely encased in our skull, they are difficult to study,” says Owen. “So, many neuroscientists are excited about the potential of human cerebral organoids to provide 3D in vitro models of the human brain. To the degree these ‘mini-brains’ resemble the human brain, which is debated, they could help neuroscientists better understand brain development and maldevelopments.”

However, insofar as cerebral organoids resemble the brain — the organ which corresponds to our conscious mental lives — they raise the question of whether they could be conscious.

“This question,” says Owen, “is important to address for ethical reasons. As science progresses, it is important for the research community to demonstrate to the general public, which funds research institutions, that ethical questions are being responsibly addressed.”

Therefore Owen, who was born and raised in the Yakima Valley, assembled an international group of researchers to address this question. The team of researchers consists of neuroscientists at the University of Michigan’s Center for Consciousness Science (where Owen is affiliate faculty) and the University of Montreal, a philosopher at the University of Wisconsin and a bioethicist at the University of Pavia in Italy. The team’s first research article on theoretical neurobiology applied to cerebral organoids was published this week in the “Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics.” It is freely available to download and read at this link: https://doi.org/10.1017/S0963180123000543

Owen’s research focuses on philosophy of mind, philosophy of neuroscience and analytic theology. He is author of the book “Measuring the Immeasurable Mind: Where Contemporary Neuroscience Meets the Aristotelian Tradition,” published in 2021.

Press Release Contacts:
Dustin Wunderlich / 509.574.6870 / dwunderlich@yvcc.edu
Stefanie Menard / 509.574.4646 / smenard@yvcc.edu