Scientists grow test tube human brains with potential to think and feel
A group of Cambridge scientists are attempting to grow human brains outside of the body in a lab. But they don’t look anything like what you might imagine. The “cerebral organoids” are made with stem cells derived from human skin and raised in giant incubators. Without any kind of blood supply, they receive nutrients by soaking in a special fluid. And these brains are tiny, small enough to fit in a petri dish – about four millimeters across and crammed with about two million neurons. For the sake of comparison, a fully developed mouse brain contains four million neurons. The average adult human brain, up to 1,000 trillion.
Just like a normal brain, these bundles of cells contain a mixture of gray matter and white matter. They even form specific regions like the cortex, hippocampus, cerebellum, and many more. In the end, they are equivalent to what might be seen in a nine-week-old fetus.
However, while the neurons in these tiny organoids do communicate and fire with electrical activity, they aren’t capable of thoughts or feelings in the way we would understand it. Dr. Madeline Lancaster compares their neural activity to the way heart cells can be made to beat in a petri dish. While they are alive, the lack of a body or any sensory input means they aren’t receiving any of the information that could lead to consciousness. If lab-grown brains were hooked up to an EEG, no brain waves would be observed.
However, consciousness is not the goal of this research. Instead, Lancaster is interested in uncovering some key differences between humans and other primates. Our DNA is only 1.2 percent different from chimpanzees, yet somehow we have completely different intellectual capabilities. Her team is replacing individual genes involved in brain development with genes from chimpanzees, and observing how the replacements influence the growth of the specimens.
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