Scientists grow human brains in lab which could think and feel

Posted Oct 10, 2016 by Stephen Morgan
Scientists are now growing brains outside the human body which could one day think and feel and even suffer from autism or schizophrenia.
Frankenstein science is taking a new leap forward with successful experiments to create "test tube" brains. The aim of the research is to use the artificial brains to study neurological disorders and find cures which could benefit millions of human beings.
Called cerebral organoids, or mini brains they have been developed from skin cells. The skin cells are cultivated into stem cells, which develop in different ways. These are then starved of nutrition and, for some reason, only the more sturdy, brain cells survive – though scientists are not sure why this is.
The brain cells are then surrounded by a jelly substance which protects them in a similar way to a skull. After three months being fed on oxygen and nutrients, the lab brains have as many as two million neurons – quite a substantial amount, considering an adult mouse brain only contains four million.
The stem-cell-derived organoid (right) compared to a developing mouse brain (left)
The stem-cell-derived organoid (right) compared to a developing mouse brain (left)
Dr Lancaster and Marko Repic
The laboratory brains don't actually look like ours. To the naked eye, they appear to be just blobs in a liquid and are only three to four millimetres in size. However, their internal structure is similar to a human brain in the early period of its development. Like an embryonic brain, they have two hemispheres made up of grey and white matter complete with firing neurons sending messages between one another.
Furthermore, the BBC explains that, "just like regular brains, each is composed of specific regions. There’s the wrinkled cortex (thought to be the seat of language and conscious thought) the hippocampus (the centre of emotion and memory), the ancient, muscle-coordinating cerebellum, and many, many others. In all, they are equivalent to the brains of nine-week-old foetuses."
Another fascinating feature is that these laboratory brains seem "to want" to grow themselves. Madeleine Lancaster, who is heading the research at the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, UK, told the BBC that they could be compared to heart cells which scientists were able to make beat in a petri dish three years ago. Heart cells, it seems, " want” to pump, and, similarly, neurons are programmed “to want” to fire. “Even if you have a neuron by itself in a dish with no other neurons, it wants to fire so badly that it will connect to itself in order to fire,” she said.
The scientists can't be sure or not if this means they are actually thinking. Nobody really understands how thoughts are created, but we do know that this is based on the activity of neurons. It is likely that thought develops initially from interaction with the outside world and the input of sensory experiences like taste, smell, noise, etc. However, complex thought processes remain a mystery.
The original reason scientists wanted to develop these human-like brains was to study neurological disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. Using animal brains wasn't viable because they aren't sufficiently complex. With these mini human brains, scientists hope to be able to recreate conditions in the brains of sufferers, in order to study exactly what happens and learn how they might be cured. Dr Lancaster now has 300 mini-brains developing in her laboratory.
The Daily Mail quotes from Dr Lancaster's project page. "Our current interests," she writes, "focus on other neurodevelopmental disorders like autism and intellectual disability, by introducing mutations seen in these disorders and examining their roles in pathogenesis in the context of organoid development."
Some scientists involved in this area of research hope to actually grow a complete human brain in the lab. However, other researchers think this is stretching things. Health Medicine Network quotes Dr Martin Coath, from the Cognition Institute at the University of Plymouth, who wonders why anyone would want to create such a brain in these conditions.
‘A mind that was ‘fully working,’ he said, "would be conscious, have hopes, dreams, feel pain and would ask questions about what we were doing to it.’
However, he did raise the prospect that a laboratory brain "might be hooked up to electronic eyes, ears, and hands and be taught to do something - maybe something that is as sophisticated as many simple living creatures."
'That doesn't seem so far off to me,' he added.