By Abdullah Iqbal
While we were watching television or pondering what to ask for a Christmas gift, a major breakthrough was reported in November.
Brain organoids or ‘mini brains’ were grown in a laboratory and have produced brain waves similar to that of a premature baby. They are deserving of the name ‘mini brains’ for they are only 4mm across. Prof Alysson Muotri and his team at the University of California used stem cells (which are fascinating because of their ability to turn into other cell types) and added a few special ingredients (like transcription factors) in order to grow these mini brains. But it took ten months for the mini brains to mature enough to produce these brainwave signals. That is a long time. Nevertheless, this advancement could help scientists understand early brain development, which has been near impossible due to the difficulty in getting foetal samples or examining foetuses in utero.
By replicating the early brain, scientists will be able to compare the differences in development, structure and function between normal brains and misfunctioning ones. Thereby leading to the study and hopeful cure of diseases such as epilepsy, autism and other diseases which are thought to occur due to abnormal electrical signalling within the brain.
However, there are some pitfalls. Firstly, just because the electrical activity is similar to that of a premature baby, it does not mean it is the same. Therefore, any results or hypothesis we generate may be instantly invalid. Secondly, to prove that the lab-grown mini brains are the same as a premature baby’s brain will also be a task because very little is known about utero baby brains and how they are wired. There could also be missing key components. So, we do not know for certain whether these brains match premature baby brains in terms of their genetic profile
Many scientists believe that consciousness begins between 24 – 28 weeks post fertilisation due to the fact that this is when the thalamo-cortical complex is developed enough to be able to supposedly generate consciousness. Furthermore, this is also when reflex reactions to harmful stimuli start occurring. This raises an ethical quandary – are the organoids conscious? We can’t really say for sure because we can’t just measure for consciousness. Muotri’s lab is planning on seeing if the organoids mature further and function as a normal cortex by connecting them to organoids of other body parts to see if it functions correctly. He would consider halting the project if there was evidence that the organoids had become self-aware, but right now they are very primitive. “It’s a very grey zone in this stage, and I don’t think anyone has a clear view of the potential of this”.
What are your opinions on this? Do you think we should be conducting this research? The future rewards may be great, but is there a hidden cost?
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Sara Reardon (2018) Lab-grown ‘mini brains’ produce electrical patterns that resemble those of premature babies, Available at: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-018-07402-0 (Accessed: 17th January 2018).
Mehregan Javanmard (2009) When Does Consciousness Arise in Human Babies? Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/when-does-consciousness-arise/ (Accessed: 17th January 2018).
About the Author
I am currently a 2nd year Biomedical Sciences student at the University of Sheffield. I organise and I’m involved in events to spread knowledge and to get people thinking, such as Ted Talks, Change Lab and I’m on the University’s Welfare Committee. I also have a passion for both scientific and fictional writing, so if you know of any opportunities or you want to read more of my pieces, don’t hesitate to contact me via email -email@example.com or my LinkedIn account – https://www.linkedin.com/in/abdullah-iqbal/