Scientists are growing human brains in a lab on the International Space Station

It has the ring of a science fiction novel or movie that you fear will go terribly awry by the time you’re finished.

Here’s the premise: Scientists decide it would be a good idea to grow miniature human brains in a lab located on the International Space Station as an experiment.
How does the story end? As it turns out, the story is still being written, according to a report from the New York Times:

“Two hundred and fifty miles over Alysson Muotri’s head, a thousand tiny spheres of brain cells were sailing through space.

“The clusters, called brain organoids, had been grown a few weeks earlier in the biologist’s lab here at the University of California, San Diego. He and his colleagues altered human skin cells into stem cells, then coaxed them to develop as brain cells do in an embryo.

“The organoids grew into balls about the size of a pinhead, each containing hundreds of thousands of cells in a variety of types, each type producing the same chemicals and electrical signals as those cells do in our own brains. In July, NASA packed the organoids aboard a rocket and sent them to the International Space Station to see how they develop in zero gravity.”

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Cerebral organoids begin as little more than liquid (Via YouTube)

Skin stem cells can become tiny brains? Yes. And that alone suggests a future that cannot yet be predicted or imagined, Futurism notes:

“If these brain waves are a sign that organoids could be capable of consciousness, neuroscientists will need to grapple with a major ethical dilemma — as continued experimentation would potentially mean creating and destroying self-aware, human-like life. But we may not be there yet, cautioned University of Southern California biologist Giorgia Quadrato, who wasn’t involved in the new study.

“’It’s pretty amazing. No one really knew if that was possible,” Quadrato told the NYT, before clarifying that it didn’t conclude that the mini-brains reached human levels of activity.”

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This is what cerebral organoids look like after a few weeks of growth (Via YouTube)

Six years ago, scientists created the very first brain organoid out of skin stem cells. and now they’re being grown by the batch in labs across the globe. And the goal is to one day grow a full-sized brain:

“Here at U.C.S.D., researchers are using them to recreate, in miniature, inherited brain disorders and brain infections. They are also trying to grow bigger, more complex brain organoids. In one recent experiment, scientists linked a brain organoid and a spider-shaped robot, so that the two could exchange signals.”

Connecting a brain organoid to a robot. That too sounds like a plot twist from a future “Terminator” film or other big-budget production from Hollywood where stem cells take over the world once they become conscious.

But something as tiny as a stem cell or cerebral organoid could never actually gain consciousness could it? Christof Koch, the chief scientist and president of the Allen Brain Institute in Seattle, believes that may indeed be waiting for us around the corner:

“The closer we come to his goal, the more likely we will get a brain that is capable of sentience and of feeling pain, agony and distress.”

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The eventual goal is to turn brain organoids into functional brains. (Via YouTube)

Much work remains to be done when it comes to brain organoids, and even greater debate will have to take place when it comes to the ethics and potential dangers of expanding the research to include the production of human brains that can think and feel. But what should give all of us pause is the thought that almost always when consciousness begins, so do the unexpected consequences of what has been accomplished. Growing brains in labs may sound like science fiction, but it’s now a reality and requires us to use our own brains to determine just how far we want to take this advance.


Want to know more about how cerebral organoids are grown in a lab? Watch this video:


Featured Image Via MaxPixel


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