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Mini-Brains Grown In the Lab 170

fustakrakich sends news that researchers from the Austrian Academy of Sciences have used embryonic stem cells to grow a tiny human brain in a laboratory. The miniature brain, roughly the size of a pea, is at the same level of development as that of a 9-week-old fetus. From the BBC: "They used either embryonic stem cells or adult skin cells to produce the part of an embryo that develops into the brain and spinal cord - the neuroectoderm. This was placed in tiny droplets of gel to give a scaffold for the tissue to grow and was placed into a spinning bioreactor, a nutrient bath that supplies nutrients and oxygen. The cells were able to grow and organise themselves into separate regions of the brain, such as the cerebral cortex, the retina, and, rarely, an early hippocampus, which would be heavily involved in memory in a fully developed adult brain. The tissues reached their maximum size, about 4mm (0.1in), after two months. The 'mini-brains' have survived for nearly a year, but did not grow any larger. There is no blood supply, just brain tissue, so nutrients and oxygen cannot penetrate into the middle of the brain-like structure."
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Mini-Brains Grown In the Lab

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  • Applications (Score:4, Informative)

    by barlevg ( 2111272 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @04:54PM (#44700297)
    From arstechnica []:

    Most people have ended up viewing stem cells as a promising way of repairing damaged tissues. But, for many scientists, they're now providing a way of studying mutations and processes that are too difficult to examine any other way. Techniques like organoid formation provide additional tools to make these studies as relevant to human biology as they possibly can be.

    • by Immerman ( 2627577 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @05:34PM (#44700795)

      To my mind this is where this kind of research starts treading into murky ethical waters. Harvest stem cells from aborted fetuses? Fine, as long as you avoid creating any perverse incentives that might encourage abortions then I don't see the problem, you're just salvaging as much as possible from a difficult decision.

      But growing brains in a lab? What would they have done if the brains ended up growing the necessary infrastructure as well as the neural tissue? At some point we're going to have something approaching a "real" human brain, and given that we credit the brain with containing the essence of a person that brain-in-a-jar will should probably be granted human rights. Not that such rights are likely to be terribly relevant to a mind trapped without sensory input. In fact I imagine there's a fair chance that it would be driven completely mad before it even reached full-term development.

      • You understand, I trust, that these are "mini-brains" and almost certainly not capable of consciousness of any kind.

        • And proof of consciousness is what again?

      • Not that such rights are likely to be terribly relevant to a mind trapped without sensory input. In fact I imagine there's a fair chance that it would be driven completely mad before it even reached full-term development.

        And if it had sensory input, it would be driven completely mad by humanity after it reached full-term development, like all the rest of us. Sounds like a no-win proposition!

      • Does this apply to the aborted stem cell running for re-election in Kentucky?
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by dublin ( 31215 )

        This is a good reason *why* embryonic stem cell research is rightfully vilified. This isn't treading into ethically murky waters, it's heading out to sea in a supercharged Cigarette.

        This is simply monstrous - in the most literal possible meaning of the word. I'm a tough enough guy, but I've only felt physically ill or repulsed as I did when reading TFAs a few other times, one of those was reading summaries of the Kermit Gosling trial. This is in some ways even worse, because there isn't even a grisly pr

        • Science by _definition_ is amoral.

          Only scienctists have the obligation to not only ask "_Can_ we do this?" but also "_Should_ we do this?"

          • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

            by fahrbot-bot ( 874524 )

            Only scientists have the obligation to not only ask "_Can_ we do this?" but also "_Should_ we do this?"

            Perhaps the world would be a better place if *everyone* (felt like they) had this obligation.

        • by gregor-e ( 136142 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @07:36PM (#44701795) Homepage
          Suppose someone you love has Parkinson's. Now imagine these scientists have extracted cells from your loved one, and, through genetic engineering, repaired the genetic flaw that caused your loved one to lose their substantia nigra. Now suppose these scientists cultivate a tiny little brain from these transformed cells and harvest substantia nigra cells from it, which they transplant into your loved one's brain, thus curing their Parkinson's. Would you feel any better about it then?
          • Now suppose these scientists cultivate a tiny little brain from these transformed cells and harvest substantia nigra cells from it

            On the anniversary of Dr. King's "I have a dream" speech, could you please watch your language []?
            :p []

          • Not in the slightest. In fact it makes it hilights exactly why this is such an ethical quandary. Let me slightly rephrase your scenario:
            Suppose scientists create a (genetically repaired) delayed identical twin (aka clone) of your ill loved one, then kill the clone to harvest some portions/cells from its brain in order to repair your loved one's brain.

            Does it really change anything substantially if for convenience they only clone the brain? For other organs sure, kinda hard to talk about a cloned heart o

          • Whether there is a potential for this research to achieve a positive end for someone is not in dispute. The question is whether we are willing to purposely harm others in order for that someone to reap the benefits. We could just as well be harvesting organs from prisoners, or designating a certain minority group as human test subjects, or any other number of things. Are these all fine if they somehow contribute to curing your loved one's Parkinson's? I'm concerned because the worst atrocities are always

        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by Anonymous Coward

          No offense but I think this might be outside your area of expertise? I've been reading and following various forms of AI and neuron development for a few years now and this didn't cause much of an eye blink. There's no reason to suggest, and plenty of science to raise doubt, there is any form of consciousness appearing or reacting in this circumstance.

          There's growing evidence to suggest consciousness emerges through the complex neuronal communication over many years of life, such that most 4 years o

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by Derec01 ( 1668942 )

            If anything that makes the issue far *more* problematic. If a one year old has "no consciousness to speak of", we have two options. Grant only subhuman rights to infants, or accept that human rights and right to life is not contingent only on consciousness .

            Now, we've damaged the argument that these mini-brains are morally safe because they have no consciousness.

            This made me feel very uneasy. These brains are probably equivalent to miscarriaged fetuses, but what if we grew them a little large? Started feed

            • We do grant subhuman rights to all minors, with a gradual approach to full rights as they grow up. That isn't a hypothetical.

        • I have the same gut reaction... This research as described in the article summary seems to twist together aspects of horror, torture, and slavery.

          But then again, I feel somewhat the same way about the development of AI... And we all may be simulated humans already:

          But somehow that it is not quite the same visceral feeling as thinking about small human brains being created to do arbitrary experiments on...

          By the way, on the person who brought up the Parkinson's question:
          htt []

        • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

          This is a good reason *why* embryonic stem cell research is rightfully vilified. This isn't treading into ethically murky waters, it's heading out to sea in a supercharged Cigarette.

          These weren't grown from embryonic stem cells, they were grown from adult skin cells.

          it's just a flatly staggering disregard for humanity and ethical norms in the name of "science"

          There are no blood vessels and various other reasons why these "brains" will never think. I didn't read the linked FA but I read several others, and I

      • by Ardyvee ( 2447206 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @06:20PM (#44701167)

        I doubt it would be driven mad. For all intents and porposes, since it would not be exposed to the five senses, nor human culture, it'd be as close as to a raw brain and effectively mad to begin with. To better illustrate my point, imagine a realistic and more extremist version of Disney's Tarzan.

        Now, you do touch a very interesting point. So far it is believed by a subset of the global population that we are our brains (another subset believes that we are something beyond our brains, but that's another debate). Assuming such brain developed to the size/complexity of that of a child and had the structures and what not, we would have to assume we are in fact dealing with a... bodyless? human. Chances are whatever research was on-going would have to be stopped under current rules (since it would go from cells to full grown human). Any wishes to proceed with research would also require that we ask the brain if they want to participate (and we would have to teach the brain to speak, understand what we are asking and tell the brain that it is only brain grown for the sole porpouse of advancing science and that it does not have a body). Then if it denies the request, somebody would have to take care of the brain because of the ethical implications of letting it die.

        On the other hand, humanity (those with bodies and part of our societies[probably need a better criteria]) could choose to treat such brains differently. But then we'll hear that we are de-humanizing humans. On the other hand this could be the catalyst to a lot of breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience (and related fields). Being capable of studying, stripping, adding, modifying a human brain, even if it is the equivalent of a 9-week-old fetus' brain, will allow to reach further than what we can right now with any other method. Of course, we do have mice brains, and they also have proved to be very valuable, but... say, instead of going from theories to animals to people, we could go to theories to animals to human brain to people.

        One thing is for certain in all this: whoever has to make the decision will have it hard, either on making the decision, or with the many sides this issue will have. I would not want to be that person.

        As an aside, one thing that would be very interesting to try, although perhaps cruel, would be to have a conscious, intelligent, communication capable and socially integrated brain (that is, think of a person that's lived in our society, studied... lived outside of a lab) and try to plug different things into the brain, try separating some regions, try adding them together, try adding more cells and see the effects it has on the very capabilities of the brain, and what it experiences. Does it/the brain feel something different when you do it, or does it simply loose the capabilities and only notices when compared to previous experiences? What about adding things? I think it would be a very interesting experiment to do. Go beyond what we can learn from people who suffered accidents.

        • imagine a realistic and more extremist version of Disney's Tarzan.

          I was imagining a Saturday Night Live unfrozen caveman lawyer. Potato/potahto.

        • Honestly I see little link between Tarzan (or real children who have been raised by animals) and a brain in a jar - Tarzan was supposed to be a feral human - devoid of cultural indoctrination and probably intellectually stunted, but otherwise basically human, with all the senses, emotions and impulses that entails. A brain in a jar on the other hand would be more like putting a newborn in a sensory deprivation tank from the moment of conception, and depriving it of all the sensory experience and feedback t

          • Indeed, your analogy is better than mine.

            I know it would be a very [insert your favorite, negative adjective here] thing to do to anyone/anything, regardless it's a brain in a jar or not. I wouldn't wish anybody to be subject to it, unless they explicitly agreed to it. It's just that a brain in a jar is more convenient than a normal person because you don't have a bunch of things like the skull to get in the way, and it's one of the things I'd like one day to see done. It won't happen, I'm sure, since a) th

            • Actually I don't see too much to be learned by putting human brains in non-human bodies they could likely survive in - there's just not that much variation in mammalian capabilities. A little better hearing here, a little better vision there, occasionally a prehensile tail or thumbs or something, but mostly all variations on a theme. The cetaceans are the only human-plus sized mammals I can think of that have added anything significant to the mix, and they apparently evolved a whole third brain lobe to de

          • by bkr1_2k ( 237627 )

            I think you miss the part where it's unethical to have Slaves, no matter what race/species they are. Or maybe you didn't and you just think it doesn't matter.

            • >I think you miss the part where it's unethical to have Slaves, no matter what race/species they are

              Obviously not, or are you advocating for the immediate release of all dogs, horses, etc. that we impress to labor? They don't call it breaking a horse for nothing. Not to mention cows, chickens, pigs, and other slaves we keep for no reason other than to consume their flesh.

              As a society we've already deemed that non-human slavery is completely acceptable. The question is only what, if any, effect the exi

        • by bkr1_2k ( 237627 )

          Parents do this with medical care of their children every day, all over the world. If a person "creates" a body-less brain, why wouldn't they have the same rights/responsibilities to treat it as a parent does a child? I make life and death decisions for my children in all medical circumstances. If I chose to have my (hypothetically) ill child to undergo experimental treatment, the child has no choice until they turn 18 years old (in most places). Now, obviously I can't just say "kill the child" after a

          • While I think this could be the way it's treated, there is one big difference between a brain in a jar and children: body.

            A child can defend itself from abuse or unwanted behavior. A brain would not be able. It does not have the means to do so. This is the one big difference that will probably require special legislation to deal with brains vs children. However, the current parent-child model could work very well as a template.

    • Re:Applications (Score:5, Interesting)

      by toppavak ( 943659 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @05:43PM (#44700883)
      Exactly, in my lab we work primarily on bone and colon tissue (although generated from adult stem or induced pluripotent stem cells). It would not be exaggerating to call these technologies the next generation of medical research. There are tons of genetic and developmental disorders that are either too rare to study readily in vivo or just impossible to study in-vitro. We're nearing the point where we can start with IPSC's either engineered to carry mutations of interest or derived directly from patients carrying these mutations and turn them into all sorts of tissues: liver, colon, neural, vascular, muscular, etc. In many cases it's not even necessary to get to the stage of organoids, simply having true human tissue with the right pathophysiology will be a tremendous boon to in-vitro drug screening and discovery and far more relevant than animal models.
    • Or, growing control brains for cyborg death drones. Just sayin'...

      (See earlier discussion on scientific moralism.)

      • I'll admit, that was my first thought too.

        My second thought, however, was that cybernetic people like Motoko Kusinagi who have had their reproductive organs removed - along with all the other organs below the brain stem - will be turning to this kind of technology to have children who will be the cyborg issei, the first generation who never had to cope with the frailties of flesh. This could go terribly wrong, but I expect that on average the result will be happy families who don't ever get sick.

        • I hope you're right, because it does seem like sooner or later the "full cyborg" will be attempted.

          The problem I see is that humans are basically animals - almost all human behavior can be readily understood as animal drives amplified and distorted by our apparently unique capacity for intensive storytelling, especially with ourselves as the main character (when the reality is that probably 90+% of behavior directed at us has little to nothing to do with us, but instead with the internal self-centered story

    • by FatdogHaiku ( 978357 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @07:24PM (#44701705)
      See, I was thinking instead of having to fight through a zombie apocalypse we would just train them to line up every morning for a bag of "Zombie Chow"... and then they're off to work for major TV networks, telephone fund raising efforts, political campaigns, etc..
      It's a no brainer!
      OK, it's a small brainer...
  • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @04:56PM (#44700321)
    ...we can now artificially add one to the $POLITICAL_PARTISAN that needs one!
  • by bmo ( 77928 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @04:57PM (#44700335)

    And some day, they will replicate HITLER'S BRAIN IN A JAR! []


  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @04:59PM (#44700373)

    Finally, scientists thinking ahead. When the zombie apocalypse is upon us (Thanks to the effort next door to these guys) we will have a stable food source to keep them appeased.

    • by TWX ( 665546 )
      And given their size, combined with the noises that Zombies make, the Mars company can market them under an existing brand!
    • by Ken_g6 ( 775014 )

      Finally, scientists thinking ahead. When the zombie apocalypse is upon us (Thanks to the effort next door to these guys) we will have a stable food source to keep them appeased.

      At least as long as it's kept in good working order. [] (SFW if you're wondering.)

    • by gmuslera ( 3436 )
      And with style too, snack instead of jumbo sized. Still, not sure if zombies will accept synthesized food, will lack that adrenaline aftertaste
    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      You can feed your zombies that farm raised stuff if you want. Nothing but the best free range brains for my zombies.

  • Welcome! (Score:3, Funny)

    by krautcanman ( 609042 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @05:01PM (#44700407)
    I, for one, welcome our new pea-brained overlords!
  • From what president did they get a brain tissue sample?

  • Who'd a thunk it.

  • by Daetrin ( 576516 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @05:22PM (#44700671)
    "The miniature brain, roughly the size of a pea, is at the same level of development as that of a 9-week-old fetus."

    Well that's not creepy at all! So how developed would they have to get before we start getting into serious ethical issues?
    • You'll see protesters outside the lab with poorly worded signs by next Tuesday.

      • Probably not. Surprisingly, this doesn't trigger any of the usual protest buttons. No animal testing, and no embryonic research.

        You might think the pro-life side would object, but I know how those people think. They don't actually pay any attention to the brain at all - notice they get very determined to protect embryos from the moment of conception, long before there is anything you could call a brain. Even if they do ever object to this, it'll take at least a couple of weeks for them to achieve the mental

    • by geekoid ( 135745 )

      252 months.

  • We could put a bunch into a Beowulf Cluster

  • Slashdot broken (Score:4, Informative)

    by Animats ( 122034 ) on Wednesday August 28, 2013 @05:24PM (#44700691) Homepage

    It looks like Slashdot is having server problems:

    ---- MISSING MISCELLANEOUS DATA SEGMENT --- [byline] block not found.

  • Soon we will need some sort of artificial construct; a place where the brains can mingle so they dont collectively commit suicide, yah?
  • There have been experiments with using a network of rat neurons in a substrate where the neurons were taught to recognize signal patterns and such.

    While a pea-sized brain might not be able to "think", it *could* conceivably be far, far better at pattern recognition and learning than the rat experiments to date.

    Of course there is the ethical issue of whether sufficiently advanced pattern recognition and learning capabilities constitute thought and therefore an individual, but somehow I don't think that'

    • by PPH ( 736903 )

      Or the NSA.

      Edward Snowden in a fish tank. No risk of that hopping on plane to Hong Kong.

      Or software coders. Link them right into the build environment. Developers, developers, developers in a jar.

  • First, you must understand a principal of cybernetics: The intelligence of a system is proportionate to its complexity. Physical size plays no part in determination of degrees of intelligence. However, the adult human brain has 100,000,000,000 neurons... This tiny brain structure has a very small number of brain cells comparatively.

    Next, you must understand that the species of the system makes no difference in terms of measuring complexity. This small brain is far less complex, and thus less intellig

  • Congress is a lab?

God made the integers; all else is the work of Man. -- Kronecker