Brain in a Box: a Promise of Hope [Video]

Neurons of the Human Brain

Scientists have begun the next series of Frankenstein-like experiments, to fabricate a human “brain in a box”. But, as with all of these scientific machinations, it has been done with the best of intentions. The hope is that this new approach could lead to new and promising discoveries of brain abnormalities, which might even lead on to the development of a cure.

The nascent organs are really miniaturized versions of their ultimate forms and possess a structure similar to that of a newly developing brain. One of the primary limitations with scientific research and testing these days is the superficiality of the studies. For example, if a scientist yearns to study the disease progression of Alzheimer’s, their options are somewhat limited. Typically, researchers have to rely upon use of experimental animal models, which complicates matters with ethical dilemmas, or perform non-invasive examinations and scans of human beings who already have the disease.

Suffice to say, a scientist is unable to crack the heads open of those unfortunate enough to have been afflicted with a neurological or mental disease, and simply route around to identify the problem. Try this approach and you’ll be asphyxiated in red tape, faster than you can say scalpel.

This is where a team of scientists, operating under the Austrian Academy of Sciences, are hoping to make a change for the better. They have recently harnessed a type of cell, called induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC), obtained from the connective tissue of a patient suffering from microencephaly. Many of the cells around our body are different, depending upon their function, from those of the nervous system to those within the heart. The great feature about iPSC stem cells, which are almost like a biological blank canvass, is that they can differentiate into any type of cell.

Using these iPSC cells, the scientists were then able to “grow” a brain under laboratory conditions and follow its development, using a matrix of nutrients that replicated the environment of a human enmbryo. They discovered the defects that occur during growth of brains derived from the microencephaly patient, something that would not have been possible using animal experiments; the main limitation being the difference in cerebral growth and development between human beings and other animals.

This study could have huge applications for future scientific research. Professor Juergen Knoblich, based at the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology, has already expressed an interest in applying the same promising “brain in a box” technique to investigate other neurological disorders, including schizophrenia and autism. The hope is that viable treatment strategies might be derived from these studies for neurological states that are currently poorly understood.

Animal Testing StatsIn addition to this, Knoblich claims it could enable scientists to examine the effects of drugs directly on the human brain, circumventing the need for harmful animal experimentation.

According to the Daily Mail, Neuropathologist Dr. Oliver Brustle, working at the Bonn University in Germany, gushed over the “remarkable” work after having made his own peer review:

“These structures are not just peculiar lab artefacts. As the authors show the organoids recreate early steps in the formation of the human brain’s cerebral cortex and so lend themselves to studies of brain development and neuro-developmental disorders.”

On the other hand, Dr. Martin Coath, from the University of Plymouth’s Cognition Institute, remained fixed on the ethics of the latest research. Coath maintains, despite the boxed brains being simpler than fully developed human brains, they still have the capacity for sentience and, if hooked up to artificial eyes, ears and hands, she maintains there will be little to differentiate between the two.

However, although promising, the research has a long way to go before a genuine, properly structured human brains can be fully realized. During this latest study, the brains obviously did not have a proper blood supply and, under these auspices, the work is somewhat limited.

What do you think to this “brain in a box” scheme? Ignorant or ingenious? Are we playing God, or could this signal a promise of hope to the many people who suffer from severe neurological disorders?

By: James Fenner

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