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Scientists have implanted human brain tissue into fetal mice, and the result is mice with brains that are more like the human brain.  

How do we define humanity?   Or mouse-ity, for that matter?   When we create chimeras, when we blend the essence of humans, human tissue or human DNA, with the essence of another creature, then how do we determine the rights to which the resulting creature is entitled?

Please follow me down the orange rabbit hole.  I'd love to hear your thoughts.

It is our brain which makes is who we are, that gives us our understanding of our world, gives us our sense of right and wrong, gives us a personality with emphasis on “person”.    And, so, I was given pause when I read the news today.    Researchers have transplanted brain cells into the brain of mice, and found it made them more intelligent, more like a human.  

researchers … implanted human cells called glial progenitor cells into the brains of newborn mice.

…By the time the mice were 6 months old, the human cells had pushed out the mouse progenitor cells and replaced many of the mouse astrocytes with human astrocytes

…It took normal mice and mice with mouse cell transplants several tries to pick up on the association between the sound and the shock. Mice with human astrocytes “pretty much picked up the association immediately and got more fearful,” Goldman says.

So, we have a creature that is a mix of animal tissue and human tissue, whose brain contains human tissue and whose brain operates less like the animal and more like the human.   We can transplant pig heart valves into a human, and we still call the result a human.   Now, when we have transplanted human brain cells into a mouse, we are still calling it a mouse.  

It raises troubling questions.    How much human brain tissue must be in a creature, how much like a person’s brain must a creature’s brain be, in order for the creature to gain “person” status, and be granted the inalienable rights with which all persons are endowed?   Is it the form of a human that qualifies a creature for personhood?   Is it the possession of a brain which is composed all or in part from  human brain tissue?   If so, then how much brain tissue or brain function is required to qualify for personhood?  Or, is it the extent to which the creature can think and feel in the manner that is associated with humans?    Is it "all of the above"?  

These mice, with functional human brain tissue, brains which perform better than mice and more like humans, are experimental animals with relatively no legal protection.   According to the research, they "...pretty much picked up the association immediately and got more fearful...”.     I'd get more fearful, too, if realized I was being shocked on cue.

Theoretically, one could use a similar process to implant human brain tissue in a different type of animal, a larger animal which has dexterous hands like a raccoon or a chimpanzee, thus improving their intelligence and creating a race of slaves, with near or total human understanding and experience, and animal bodies which have no human rights.  It is an extreme vision of a possible future, not likely in the near term (the changes were not germ level and would not be passed down through reproduction) but seemingly becoming more of a possibility every day.

I am particularly interested in brain research.  I have hopes that research into how the brain functions might someday provide an answer for my own disabled child.  I understand the need for research involving animals, or fetal stem cells, etc, and how much human suffering can be alleviated by the products of such research.  

Still, when, as a result of our research, we blend so much of the human and the animal, I wonder about the suffering of the creature, and whether it can, at some point, be termed "human" suffering.   At what point, does the extent of the human portion of that creature becomes sufficient to claim human rights?

What do you think?  

Originally posted to DFWmom on Fri Mar 08, 2013 at 09:37 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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Comment Preferences

  •  Silence is golden (5+ / 0-)

    As long as we don’t give animals the anatomical capacity for speech, everything will be fine.  In other words, no matter what their brains are like, as long as they cannot express themselves, we can continue to eat them, warehouse them, hunt them, and experiment on them, while leisurely debating the ethics of doing so.

    But if they ever acquire the ability to speak, that will be the end of it.  Once they can say, “Please don’t hurt me,” we’ll all be eating tofu.

  •  human glial progenitor cells (7+ / 0-)

    were engrafted into neonatal mice. Mouse brain development continues for a relatively short period after the birth of the animals. When the mice reached adulthood, they were killed and examined. Their brains contained human glial cells derived from the infused precursors. Before the mice were killed, they demonstrated an enhanced ability to acquire a behavior in an experimental model of learning.

    It's important to note that the "human brain cells" were glia (that is supporting cells) and not neurons (the brain cells that communicate with each other). The structure of the mouse brains was not fundamentally changed. The human glia just made those mouse brains work a little better. The mice did not  become capable of learning anything that a normal mouse could not learn; the altered mice just did it faster.

    These seem like small distinctions, but are important. These sorts of experiments, where human genes or cells are transferred to animals, are not uncommon. This is an exciting experimental result. Not a step towards planet of the apes, though. Making an animal with a human brain, or even a humanized brain, would be a serious breach of scientific ethics.

    Not that breaches have never occurred...

    •  Chimeras and the differentiation of the human (0+ / 0-)

      species is a key to survival for the human consciousness.  If humanity differentiates preserving intelligence while adapting to different niches of existence, we could live in concert with the cycles of the planet.
      Human consciousness could return to the sea with a tremendous opportunity to live in a vast and resource rich habitat.  The human minds of the sea would have jurisdiction of their vast habitat and resources coupled with a vested interest in protecting and sustaining it.  For example, human intelligence could be spliced with octopii affording wonderful articulation of tentacles and incredibly nuanced communication via color spectrum and scent.
      There would be a human intelligence infused into birds for a flying species having articulate and complicated bird calls beyond what Ravens and Parrots do now.
      We could cultivate non-sentient species for food and trade in respective habitats.

  •  As every Monsanto apologist will tell you, (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    cyncynical, Chi

    this is no different from selective breeding of cattle and cotton.

    That, in its essence, is fascism--ownership of government by an individual, by a group, or by any other controlling private power. -- Franklin D. Roosevelt --

    by enhydra lutris on Fri Mar 08, 2013 at 11:15:59 AM PST

  •  I think I've heard this somwhere before... (5+ / 0-)

    "What do you want to do tonight, Brain?"

    "Same thing we do every night Pinky: Try to take over the world!"

    •  I read the title (4+ / 0-)

      and intro to the diary and all I could hear was the theme music..

      On a more serious note, this diary dances around the problem that this stuff is going on, and we haven't really figured out what we should (and shouldn't) be doing.

      Smart mice may be the least of our worries (or a complete environmental game-changer, but hey, what the hell). Consider the possibility that an extant virus which rodents are adapted to and which has no relation to humans, is now encouraged to mutate in ways that allow it to bridge that species gap. But that could never happen, because we're soooo careful, right?

      I have a friend (not very PC) who used to say "you know how to say F*CK YOU in Yiddish? 'Trust Me'."

      Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good. ~ Romans 12:21

      by Mickquinas on Fri Mar 08, 2013 at 03:32:26 PM PST

      [ Parent ]

  •  NO, NO, NO, NO, NO!!!! (4+ / 0-)

    I don't want smart mice that can learn.  I don't care if the researchers killed them all as adults.  Accidents happen.  These smart mice could get out and WE'D NEVER CATCH THEM!

    Mice are tolerable on this earth because, although they are small, they are really, really stupid.  This means they're pretty easy to catch, making them an excellent food source for many creatures.

  •  However....swimming around my human brain (3+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    qofdisks, radical simplicity, Chi

    is the concept of organ harvesting.

    Imagine containers of organs being grown completely divorced from any body.  These would be available for transplantation, if needed.

    The brain would be tough because we'd have to find a way to do the knowledge transfer.  But imagine hearts, livers, skin (we're already doing skin), blood, etc...

    Or meat!  You like a nice juicy steak just like the next guy.  But who wants the muss and fuss of killing a bull?  Not me, that's for sure.  What if we could just grow bull muscle cells into nice, lab-created filet mignons?

    OK, PETA.  You're move.

  •  Ewww! (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    Somehow the first thing that came to my mind when reading about this was that old horror movie called "The Fly," where basically a human's mind became trapped in a fly's body. OK, it may not be anywhere near that point, but down the road, how far are they going to go with this, and might it eventually result in a brain that thinks like a human being stuck inside some other creature? This might be great fodder for a more up-to-date sci-fi horror novel.

  •  I have an creepy image of the future... (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    nuclear winter solstice

    ... where a junior high nerd uses his 3D bio-printer to create freaky living Chimeras in order to scare his little sister.

    The technology will be there for everyone someday. Imagine if there was open source knowledge of genetic engineering, and widespread availability of the equipment.

    •  there's already a story somewhat like that... (0+ / 0-)

      The Glunk that got Thunk is one of the stories in I can lick 30 Tigers Today. Contrary to the web-reviewer, even as a child I always thought it had turned into a "real" problem, and not just a "product of her imagination."

      Scared me to pieces when I was little. Got me started thinking about mind-melding and sharing of memories & thoughts, etc. but I come from before the electronic generation. I just thought Seuss was science fiction.

      But the thing is, you've hit it. Just plug in that 3-D printer, and tune that Thinker-Upper up.

  •  Another SF story this reminded me of (0+ / 0-)

    Was "Volpla" by Wyman Guin. It's been at least 40 years since I read it but I thought it was a great story. A researcher creates a group of intelligent animals (sort of flying lemurs), and they decide to reject him as their god and go set up a society and culture on their own, if I recall. I don't remember exactly how he went about it but I think it was more breeding than surgery. The story focused on the issue of ethics and the responsibilities he should have felt toward the creatures but failed to consider.

  •  If it can ask for rights, it should get them (0+ / 0-)

    As a rough first draft approximation of fairness, I would say, if it can in any way indicate its desire for rights to us, it should receive them. Applies to artificial intelligence, too. If we don't want them to have rights, we shouldn't make them smart enough to ask.

  •  Those Human-Animal hybrids (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    get pretty good mileage I hear.

    "...on the (catch a) human network. Cisco."

    by hoplite9 on Sun Mar 10, 2013 at 03:59:44 AM PDT

  •  Someone remind me: (0+ / 0-)

    Why laughed when the wing-nuts wanted to pass laws forbidding this practice?

    "...on the (catch a) human network. Cisco."

    by hoplite9 on Sun Mar 10, 2013 at 04:02:14 AM PDT

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