Cerebral organoids: Ethical issues and consciousness assessment

Andrea Lavazza, Marcello Massimini

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Organoids are three-dimensional biological structures grown in vitro from different kinds of stem cells that self-organise mimicking real organs with organ-specific cell types. Recently, researchers have managed to produce human organoids which have structural and functional properties very similar to those of different organs, such as the retina, the intestines, the kidneys, the pancreas, the liver and the inner ear. Organoids are considered a great resource for biomedical research, as they allow for a detailed study of the development and pathologies of human cells; they also make it possible to test new molecules on human tissue. Furthermore, organoids have helped research take a step forward in the field of personalised medicine and transplants. However, some ethical issues have arisen concerning the origin of the cells that are used to produce organoids (ie, human embryos) and their properties. In particular, there are new, relevant and so-far overlooked ethical questions concerning cerebral organoids. Scientists have created so-called mini-brains as developed as a few-months-old fetus, albeit smaller and with many structural and functional differences. However, cerebral organoids exhibit neural connections and electrical activity, raising the question whether they are or (which is more likely) will one day be somewhat sentient. In principle, this can be measured with some techniques that are already available (the Perturbational Complexity Index, a metric that is directly inspired by the main postulate of the Integrated Information Theory of consciousness), which are used for brain-injured non-communicating patients. If brain organoids were to show a glimpse of sensibility, an ethical discussion on their use in clinical research and practice would be necessary.

Original languageEnglish
JournalJournal of Medical Ethics
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - Feb 28 2018


  • cerebral organoids
  • integrated information theory
  • organoids
  • perturbational complexity index

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Health(social science)
  • Issues, ethics and legal aspects
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Health Policy


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