“How tiny lab-grown HUMAN BRAINS are giving big insights into autism”—Singularity Hub

We’ve been hearing a lot recently about how tissues and organs from aborted human fetuses are valued for medical experiments. (More on that another time here.)

Those “harvested” tissues are useful, but come from aborted fetuses . . . an issue which raises a host of legal and ethical issues, and offends many people. 

What if there were a way to generate human brain tissue, not from a fetus, but from stem cells generated from healthy adults?

In other words, suppose you could let a lab technician take a small sample of the flesh on your hand, and, hey presto! you might soon have small globules of brain tissue for researchers to work with.

But then the question, Why would you want a brain in a jar? One reason, among many: if you or your children were suffering from neurological disorders or brain abnormalities, such as autism. Then there might be no need to take actual brain samples . . .  or to wait while those abnormalities are studied in experimental animals (which may or may not provide results transferable to humans).

It’s not happening full-out just yet, but the work is underway at Cambridge University by Dr. Madeline Lancaster and team. Here’s the link to the article at Singularity Hub

Another question that may come to mind: How does the possibility of growing replica human brains tie in with my medical bio-technothriller, A REMEDY FOR DEATH: Playing God with body, soul and biotech?  

Excelloent question! You'll find the answer at the top of this blog, or you can can check it out on Amazon.  I hope you will.

Need a new brain? Why not grow your own?

Well, maybe not quite yet. But work is underway.

In Austria, researchers took both embryonic stem cells (i.e. from human embryos) and adult skin cells, then did some "lab magic" and in about a month the cells grew and self-orgaized into what the researchers termed "brain-like organoids" 3-4mm in size that showed "neural activity".  

Think of it!  A few flakes of skin can become the startings of a human brain. Now that's not to say that these litle bits had consciousness, that's many more steps ahead.

They have survived a year (as of when the article went to publication in the journal Nature,) but have not grown any larger, apparently because at this point there is no blood supply in. (But other research in other labs is focusing on generating bio-artificial  blood vessels.)

This work was reported on in  Britain's New Scientist , BBC News , Washington Post via Reuters , Siongularity Hub  and others .

What about the ethical issues of growing even a tiny  human brain?  The researchers are aware of the issue, and the Austrian team does not want to see larger human brain specimens grown now, as that would be "undesirable."

Gary Marcus, in a New Yorker article, looks at this same research, though taking a much longer look at the implications  of where this kind of work may lead decades or a half-century from now.

 "But we’ll also need to confront immense ethical quandaries. What rights does synthetic brain tissue have? Should a 3-D-printed brain have the right to vote? To an education? To terminate its own life? (Or to not be terminated?) For now, these questions are still just another round of thought experiments. But it’s more likely than ever that such thoughts might some day be held by just another brain in a jar."

Beyond all that, there's still one other big issue: even if we can "grow"  a complete human brain, where is the mind?   That is the biggie we tackle in  my technothriller, A REMEDY FOR DEATH --Playing God with Body, Soul, and Biotech,  . . . though suggesting an approach other than bio-science.

Can brain implants help restore memory?

Restoring memory plays a key role in my scientific technothriller, A REMEDY FOR DEATH: Playing God with Body, Soul and Biotech, Though REMEDY is finished and out in the world, I still have Google search and other similar on the lookout for new developments.  (Who knows? Maybe there will be a sequel sometime. But what would I title it? SON OF REMEDY FOR DEATH?  Nah, guess I'll have to keep looking.)

Anyway, Bloomberg published the article referenced here, "Brain implants hold promise in restoring combat memory loss," which ties in (sort of) with what happens at the fictional Hauenfelder Clinic. There they use a different kind of brain implants for memory restoration.  But who knows? If there's a sequel they may adapt the approach profiled in the Bloomberg article.

Here's the link to that Bloomberg article, by Kathleen Miller:

Bloomberg: Brain implants promise restoring combat memory loss

 The research, mostly funded by DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) initially focuses on helping wounded soldiers with brain injuries, but is expected to be useful to others with memory disorders, such as Alzheimer's, dementia, injury or certain diseases.

A large part involves the surgical mplantation of electric probes in the brain to stimulate memories, particularly "task-based" skills-- like how to drive, how to dress and the like. This rather than --in this study-- recall of abstract memories such as names.  (But I expect work on that kind of memory restoratio isn't far behind.) 

Note, this group of studies does not involve implanting brain cells, but as I've recorded elswhere in this blog, that is being done. Link to other blog posts here on human brain cells implanted into mice, and other related

For much more, check out the   Categories / archives section on the sidebar of this blog, linking you to my past posts on memory, brain implants, tissue engineering, and more

Still more on brain cells implanted in mice.

My technothriller, A REMEDY FOR DEATH: Playing God with body, soul and bio-tech begins with a neuroscientist implanting human fetal brain cells in a chimp, Chimp Donnie.  (This is not really much of a plot spoiler, as it's only a springboard into the real --ethically scary! -- stuff in A Remedy for Death.)

Back then, when I first drafted it, the idea of implanting human fetal cells in an animal seemed very far out -- both technically and ethically. And I was advised by early readers -- including some in the New York publishing establishment -- that that idea was "impossible," "out-of-the range of believable, at least for decades."  And so on.

Well, it's happening here and now, as I posted last week in "Scientists enhance intelligence of mice with human brain cells" -- follow-up  and the week before in another post: "Mice given human brain cells become smarter"  (I was commenting on pieces in, respectively, Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and Discover Magazine.)

Now Slate has come out with its own take:  Researchers put human brain cells in mice. Why aren't conservatives freaking out?   The Slate article, by Jonathan Moreno, adds a couple of intriguing twists:

(1)  "Lost in the kerfuffle was the fact that many lab mice are already “chimerized” with a small number of brain cells from human sources, generally far less than 1 percent. These animals could provide important clues to the treatment of serious human diseases and to answer the basic question why human cognitive capacity is so much greater than that of other animals."

A "chimera" (like my fictional Chimp Donnie) is formed by implanting human cells in animals. (For a more detailed definition, and how chimeras are different from hybrids, you may want to check the short piece, "About hybrids and chimeras" ) (Blog of the  Center for Genetics and Society)

That piece also touches on some of the ethical concerns:  "Would a human-animal chimera have human rights? Could it be patented and owned? What if it were 99.9% human and 0.1% chimpanzee? What of the reverse situation?"

 (2)   Again from the Slate article:  "The purpose of the study was not to make  [the] mouse perform better in IQ tests but to learn something about the evolution of human cognition."  In other words, the aim wasn't to help mice outwit felines, but rather to help science understand how we 2-legged folk think, and learn to think.  

"Scientists enhance intelligence of mice with human brain cells" -- follow-up

 A post here last week --"Mice given human brain cells become smarter"  linked to a piece in Discover Magazine.

Here's a more extended account of what seems to be the same research.  (I say probably, as it is not clear from the Discover item where the work took place.)

In the work reported in the IEET (Institute for Ethtics and Emerging Technologies), written by George Dworsky    Dworsky IEET report, he writes,

"To conduct the experiment, the scientists created human chimeric mice — mice that were endowed with human glial cells.

("Chimera" --there's that word again, one we're going to be hearing much more of as science moves on.   A chimera, in this context, is a blend of  human with animals of some kind or another, to date mostly chimps and mice.)

"We did this by using a narrow glass micropipette to inject 100,000 human glial progenitor cells into each hemisphere of the developing mouse forebrain," said Goldman. This resulted in the widespread integration of human glia into their brain. Once the mice reached adulthood, a large proportion of their forebrain glia were essentially human.

May I intervene here to (modestly) point out that much the same was done by the fictional neurosurgeon/researcher in my technothriller A REMEDY FOR DEATH in his work with Chimp Donnie?

Back to IEET:

"To mitigate any ethical concerns, Goldman told io9 that the grafts were delivered into postnatal animals, they were of cells that could not be transmitted to offspring, and they did not involve neuronal replacement."

In other words, they made sure that (a) these "ensmartened" mice weren't going to pass on to their babies, and (b) the implanted human cells were not from an aborted fetus, but rather "from human skin cells reprogrammed into induced pluripotential cells." 

Which implies that human skin cells can be reprogrammed into brain cells.  Hmm, does that mean that when you, as the saying goes, "put your foot in your mouth" you are ultimately adding foot cells to augment the brain-power you just failed to demonstrate by what you said? I wonder.