Scientists at the University of California, San Diego, have used stem cells to create miniature lab-grown brains that produce brain waves resembling those of preterm babies. The team created cerebral organoids i.e. a scaled-down model of the human brain, about the size of a pea. Furthermore, in July this year, NASA packed these organoids and sent them to International Space Station to test out how these mini-brains develop in zero gravity.

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These stem cells clusters, called brain organoids had been grown by the researchers for a few weeks in the biologist’s lab at the University of California after which they altered human skin cells into stem cells to help develop brain cells like the ones in an embryo, reports the New York Times. “The level of neural activity we are seeing is unprecedented in vitro. We are one step closer to having a model that can actually generate these early stages of a sophisticated neural network,” said lead author Alysson Muotri.

Alysson Muotri, a biologist at the University of California, San Diego. His lab grows and studies so-called organoids to understand how the human brain functions.

Muotri and his colleagues developed a method that includes improved growth procedure consisting of an optimized culture medium formula. This further led to making these organoids more mature as compared to previous models. Scientists grew about hundreds of organoids for 10 months with the help of multi-electrode arrays to keep track on the spontaneous electrical activity each week. As these organoids kept growing, a slew of brain waves were produced at different frequencies where the signals appeared more regularly.

According to NYT, Muotri hooked these mini-brains onto the spider-shaped robots to analyze their neural activity. “There are some of my colleagues who say, ‘No, these things will never be conscious. Now I’m not so sure,” added Muotri. Moreover, these findings could further spark debates over the ethical dilemma surrounding scientists’ capability to produce partially conscious life in the lab. This is because people will start to confuse these artificial replicas of brain cells with actual brains of preterm infants. “People will say, ‘Ah, these are like the brains of preterm infants,” said Muotri. “No, they are not.”

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