A Crude Model Of A Brain, Grown In A Lab
You’re looking at a fluorescently-stained cross section of a cerebral organoid, a sort of crude “model brain” grown from stem cells. Austrian scientists were able to coax this complex structure from a relatively simple recipe. By embedding the stem cells in a 3D matrix and bathing them in nutrients and chemical signals, the proto-brain just sort of, well, formed all by itself.
Ed Yong notes in a finely detailed article for The Scientist that this is most definitely NOT a brain in a jar. Rather, the pea-sized mass is a model of the human brain in a very early stage of embryonic development.
These cerebral organoids aren’t “thinking machines”. They are structural models. But while it isn’t a full-blown Frankenbrain considering the existential challenges that come with life on a Petri dish, it is very cool.
The fluorescent cross-section above shows that this proto-brain has organization, man. Some of the same layers and compartments present in our own early brains can be seen there. But that organization wasn’t engineered by the scientists, it emerged from the cells themselves.
They were even able to create an organoid from stem cells out of a Scottish patient suffering from microencephaly, meaning that this could be used to recreate and study certain brain diseases.
Think about how awesome this is! The cells were only told “Hey, you should become a brain cell.” The neurons did the rest, outer and inner layers settling in, and various layers or cortex and subpopulations of cells arising where there was once chaos. It’s all just protein gradients a-mixing, feedback loops a-feedbacking. This is the idea of emergence, which is perhaps the hottest shit in biology right now, embodied in a lab-grown ball of brainy tissue.
When you stop and consider what goes into making an actual brain, that this happened is not so surprising. All the instructions needed to engineer the anatomical complexity of our internal computer (or any other organ, for that matter) reside within the genome. There is no master engineer consulting a wiring diagram. It’s all there, in each cell, neuron or not. Each individual cellular citizen activates genes as instructed by its internal chemistry, and each suggests to its neighbors how they should run their biochemical life, who in turn weigh that input and do with it what their own chemistry dictates. It’s rather democratic if you think about it.
Give a ball of neurons a push, like a snowball rolling down a hill, the part of gravity played by evolution, and you get something much more complex at the bottom of the hill, with no intervention in the meantime.
These proto-brains also lack inputs (ears, eyes, smells, etc.) that help our developing brains become what it is they journey through the stages of complexity. A brain certainly can’t be a brain in the absence of the greater system it is wired up to, right? I don’t think so.
At least I think I don’t think so.
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