Some days we all feel like we need to have a brain transplant. This idea may not be so incredible from now on, as a recent study published in the journal ‘Nature’ explains.
Despite the fact that the human brain is one of the most sophisticated physiological structures known to man, Scientists at Institute of Molecular Biotechnology of the Austrian Academy of have managed to grow miniature ‘brains’ in laboratory tests. To achieve this astonishing outcome, adult skin cells or embryonic stem cells were placed on a gelatinous scaffold and supplied with nutrients and oxygen, where they then proceeded to grow much like the developing brain of a foetus, organizing themselves to form the separate regions resembling parts of the cortex, the retina, and structures that produce cerebrospinal fluid.
The tiny brains, which were the size of a pea, survived for up to ten months; lead author of the study, Juergen Knoblich, said that they resembled the brain of a nine-week-old foetus in size and development. Scientists have previously been able to achieve similar results using animal tissue, but this has generally been in a simpler, two-dimensional form; the new techniques have advanced the process to yield a more complex three-dimensional structure.
There will be various different uses for the 3D brain tissue samples; scientists intend to use them to advance treatment in various diseases and brain-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s Disease, the repair of injured neurons after brain injury, schizophrenia, autism and microcephaly as these are diseases and cognitive disorders that are thought to begin in early brain development. Knoblich’s team have already cultured brain tissues from a patient with microcephaly, and have been able to gain some valuable insights into the origins of the disease.
So, incredible potential for the world of medicine, but what are the wider implications of this? Does this mean that we may soon live in a world where brains can be grown to order? The Austrian team said that they do not foresee any ethical problems with the research as the tiny brains were not capable of conscious thought, but Dr Knoblich said that the development of larger brains would be "undesirable. The medical profession is clearly excited by the research possibilities that have been opened up by these latest developments, and Dr Zameel Cader, a consultant neurologist at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford, commented " "It’s a long way from conscience or awareness or responding to the outside world", but he added: "There’s always the spectre of what the future might hold…"
The Master of the Key spoke extensively about artificial intelligence. One of his most memorable lines was, "If I was an intelligent machine, I would deceive you."
Hopefully, science will heed his warning.
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