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Scientists grow first human brain in laboratory

By Stephen Morgan     Aug 19, 2015 in Science
Stunning but spooky – scientists have succeeded in growing the first human brain ever in a laboratory and the implications are mind-boggling.
It appears there are no limits to science's ability to create the key constituents of human life, making it seem just a matter of time before a full human being can be artificially grown in a laboratory.
The idea is not so far-fetched. Scientists have already created artificial hearts, lungs and kidneys, as well as windpipes and a voice box. In June this year they succeed in growing a rat's arm, complete with blood vessels, tendons, muscles and bones.
Now scientists say it's just a short step to being able to replace all human organs with laboratory grown ones, and creating fully functional, living limbs which could be transplanted onto amputees.
The new human brain is called an "organoid" and was formed by reprogramming skin cells, says the MailOnline.
At the moment, the organ is about the size of a pencil eraser, equivalent in size to that of a five-week-old fetus. The outline of a spinal cord is visible, as well as the formation of an eye. It also contains neurons, axons and dendrites, which send messages around the brain, together with immune cells.
Previously, only some basic parts of a brain have been created, but team leader, Rene Anand from Ohio State University boasted that “We have grown the entire brain from the get-go.”
It appears to be the most complete artificial brain ever created and contains 99 percent of the genes present in an unborn child. The Telegraph quotes team leader Anand as saying;
"If we let it go to 16 or 20 weeks that might complete it, filling in that 1 per cent of missing genes,"
It took them about four months to form the brain. The Guardian said;
"Anand claims to have created the brain by converting adult skin cells into pluripotent cells: stem cells that can be programmed to become any tissue in the body. These were then grown in a specialised environment that persuaded the stem cells to grow into all the different components of the brain and central nervous system.
"However," it adds, "to progress with the experiment and develop the brain further, the scientists would have to link it up to a network of blood vessels and an artificial heart.”
It should be noted that at this point the brain isn't thinking in the Petri dish. It has no level of consciousness.
"We don’t have any sensory stimuli entering the brain. This brain is not thinking in any way,” said Anand.
The researchers see the advance as playing a key role in the treatment of brain disorders, in particular Alzheimer's and Parkinson's disease, but that it could also help with more general diseases. The team is currently working with the military to see if the breakthrough could help with problems such as post traumatic stress disorder.
For the future, the implications are quite amazing.
“If you have an inherited disease, for example, you could give us a sample of skin cells, we could make a brain and then ask what’s going on,” said Anand.
"You could also test the effect of different environmental toxins on the growing brain," he added. "We can look at the expression of every gene in the human genome at every step of the development process and see how they change with different toxins. Maybe then we’ll be able to say ‘holy cow, this one isn’t good for you."
As is usual with such a breakthrough, peers in the scientific community are expressing both optimism and caution. The Guardian quotes Zameel Cader, a consultant neurologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, UK, who said that the results were very exciting, but that it was too early to estimate all of its potential. He pointed out that;
“When someone makes such an extraordinary claim as this, you have to be cautious until they are willing to reveal their data.”
Not all the results have been made public, partly for copyright reasons, and the Guardian reports that scientists are urging caution on disclosing any further details of the breakthrough.
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