Scientists make all kinds of weird stuff in petri dishes and grow things like synthetic meat in their lab — after all, that’s one of the big perks of being a scientist. But this one takes the cake. Or, as the case may be, the brain.
Scientists at the Institute of Molecular Biological in Vienna have used petri dishes to grow a human brain — or rather, something very much like a human brain — out of stem cells.
The 3-4 millimeter brain isn’t full grown. It’s a preemie brain, comparable to that of a 9-week-old fetus, which means it’s mostly sections of tissue. However, the lab-grown brain has identifiable regions such as the ventral forebrain, dorsal cortex, and the beginnings of retinal tissue. Study coordinator Juergen Knoblich compares the brain to “a car where you have an engine, you have the wheels — but the engine is on the roof… that car would never drive, but you could still take that car and analyze how an engine works.” In other words, the parts are there, but not fully assembled.
Because the human brain is so complex, and because, y’know, it’s in our heads, it’s difficult for scientists to study it and to identify causes for brain disorders. So they needed a model of a human brain that would allow for such experimentation, and unlike Victor Frankenstein, they apparently didn’t feel robbing graveyards was appropriate.
Instead, they made stem cells from skin cells and created 3D cerebral organoids, which accurately demonstrate human cortical development. Using RNA interference and stem calls, they were able to create a model of a microcephalic brain — one that suffers from a neurological development disorder characterized by an unusually small head and abnormal brain growth. The condition has been difficult to induce in mice, so scientists have been at a bit of a loss when it comes to determining its causes. In this case, they were able to identify differences in the organoids’ neurons and the mutation of a particular gene that causes the brain’s problematic development. Eventually, they may be able to prevent microcephaly and, if they can further develop one of their lab-made brains, they maybe be able to identify causes for other diseases such as autism and schizophrenia.
The scientists say they’re not trying to rebuild a brain, but rather to study it and the diseases that affect it. Still, while they’re studying these lab-made brains, I’m imagining all kinds of weird brain-interface experiments they can try. I’m also wondering how long it will be before they clone an existing human’s brain to see if they can induce, study, or cure abnormalities specific to that person. Or make another Einstein. Or maybe this is the first step in the popularization of brain transplants. Which, depending on the patient, might not be such a bad thing.