Have you ever pondered the possibility of your brain existing on its own, completely separate from or independent of your body? Recently scientists have been searching for an answer to that very question.
Previously only a Philosophical Question!
Philosophers have pondered “brain-in-a-vat” scenarios for years, asking whether isolated brains would maintain consciousness if separated from the senses our bodies provide.
A person’s experiences are characterized by interactions between the human brain, body and environment. However, recent developments in neuroscience mean this conversation has moved from science fiction, to isolated examples where consciousness could be sealed off from the rest of the world.
The BrainEx Study
In one possible situation, a brain that has been removed from its host is able to sustain consciousness using the oxygen and nutrients necessary for function delivered via some kind of apparatus. This is called the ex cranio brain.
In a study that sounds like something out of a horror movie, researchers were able to successfully restore blood flow to brain cells, cellular functions of neurons, and spontaneous synaptic activity in pigs’ brains that were removed after death and connected to a system called BrainEx.
The system, which is designed to slow the degeneration of brain tissue after death, can be connected to the base of a postmortem brain, delivering warm artificial oxygenated blood.
Lab Based Mini-Brains
Scientists have created lab-based mini-brains, 3D structures developed from stem cells that display various features of the developing human brain. Some of these brains-in-a-dish have brainwaves similar to those seen in preterm babies. They’ve even developed their own set of eyes.
do any of these “brains” actually possess consciousness?
There isn’t a way for scientists to ask these brains if they are experiencing consciousness. This conundrum has led neuroscientists to come up with a potential “objective” measure of consciousness.
Scientists would electrically stimulate a part of the brain and then measure the resulting patterns of neural activity to gauge the complexity of brain-cell interactions. If the resulting measurement of these interactions carries lots of information, then the system can be said to be more conscious.
It’s kind of like tossing a rock into a pond and measuring the resulting ripples. If the ripples interact with other objects in the pond, setting off more ripples, then the more conscious the system. In states where people have not been fully conscious, this technique has been a reliable indicator of their level of consciousness. For instance, being in a coma, or sleeping, would be considered a “lower” level of consciousness or awareness.
The Big Question
While these techniques might not be able to definitively answer the question of whether consciousness is present, they will provide answers to some fundamental questions, such as whether islands of awareness have the same levels of neural complexity as the brains of conscious subjects.
Or, once our brains are disconnected from the external world, do they slowly go offline and shut down as if powering off a computer?
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