Building Brains from Scratch

Many studies on the brain today rely on mouse and rat models. Many of these studies through fail to translate to humans. This is presumably due to natural structural differences between rodents and humans. Though the human brain shares many similarities with the rodent brain, the human brain is still more complex.

            Juergen Knoblich, a senior scientist and deputy director of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna, proposes a solution to this problem. His group uses stem cells or cells reprogrammed to act like stem cells, from humans, to grow miniature brains in a dish. These mini-brains are called organoids. Organoids have already been used in Zika virus research. This technique will allow several applications such as comparing organoids of diseased or  mentally ill patients to healthy ones, test the effects of suspected gene mutations on the brain, test the effects of newly developed drugs on the brain, and more.

            Besides consent to use a patient’s cells another major concern, is the emergence of consciousness in these organoids. Although, it seems unlikely that these miniature brains are developed enough to produce consciousness it cannot be ruled out. Furthermore, Knoblich does state that currently, the organoids do not have blood vessels and cannot survive too long without the proper supply of nutrients and the organoids are not organized like a real human brain. They are more like lumps of randomly assembled brain parts. Knoblich and his lab are working to correct these issues and the concern of consciousness may become more pressing.

Knoblich, J. A. (2017). LAB-BUILT BRAINS. (cover story)Scientific American316(1), 26-31.

Photo: Nell Conway/Flickr

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