Lab-Grown Brain Organoids Produce Brain Waves Like Pre-Term Babies

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A team of scientists primarily based out of the University of California-San Diego has grown brain organoids that developed brain waves resembling those of pre-term babies.

The team's work is described in the journal Cell Stem Cell.

Dr. Alysson R. Muotri of The Muotri Lab supervised the efforts. He and his colleagues grew hundreds of pea-sized organoids – miniature organs mimicking the brain – in petri dishes using induced pluripotent stem cells. Adopting methods distinct from those used in previous attempts to grow "mini-brains," they were able to develop their organoids much longer – more than ten months. Dozens matured to create human-like functional neural networks, a first. Some even differentiated into neurons and glial cells. Most intriguingly, many of the mini-brains produced brain waves similar to those of 28-week-old preterm babies, something never before seen in brain organoids.

This envelope-pushing advance raises the ethical specter once again: Are these mini-brains conscious in some fashion?

Muotri doesn't think so.

"The organoid is still a very rudimentary model--we don't have other brain parts and structures. So these brain waves might not have anything to do with activities in real brains," he said.

Muotri is an eminent expert on the topic, and is very likely correct, but the blunt truth is that our understanding of consciousness is paltry. Could some primitive mental activities be present in these organoids? We can't be completely certain one way or the other.

These researchers are treading on unexplored territory here, and plan to continue pushing boundaries. In the past, Muotri's lab has placed organoids into spider-like robots. They've also created mini-brains to emulate what neanderthal brains might have been like. They plan to make mini-brains to emulate autistic brains, too, in the hopes of discovering potential treatments. And of course, they plan to further increase the complexity of their organoids.

"This offers a promising, small-scale experimental model of the human neocortex to help address neurodevelopmental pathologies that affect millions of people but otherwise lack an existing animal model," the authors conclude.

Source: Cell Stem Cell, Trujillo, Gao, and Negraes et al.: "Complex oscillatory waves emerging from cortical organoids model early human brain network development" DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.stem.2019.08.002

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