Researchers Grow “Pea-Sized Brains” in Laboratory That Produce Detectable Brain Waves

The project raises a lot of difficult ethical questions around consciousness.

Today in science fiction becoming science reality researchers grew a series of mini-brains in a laboratory. Yes, you read that correctly.  Perhaps you might not be shocked at all. Researchers have already gone on to 3D print organs like skin, a functioning heart, and a functioning pair of lungs. However, today’s event did not require the process of additive manufacturing, which begs the question “What will we do with the brains we grow?” So let’s jump in a little further. 

Growing a mini-brain

Now researchers did not only grow a brain in the laboratory, but the mini-brain was also able to generate human-like brain waves. Published in the August 29 issue of Cell Stem Cell, the aim of this project was to find new ways to study brain disorders. 

However, when you think about it, the project does raise some very difficult questions about when consciousness begins and where this research is going, questions that are sure to keep your Ethics 101 class going for the semester. 

Alysson Muotri, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Diego, grew over 100 mini-brains in Petri dishes in his lab. For the uninitiated, these brains can also be described as organoids. Muotri plans to use his organoids to study neurological disorders, like autism or epilepsy. Now, these brains are not fully functioning conscious beings like us, though philosophers might argue otherwise.  

Brain organoids have been already created but Muotri’s creation is special. As mentioned above, his brains are “active”, and have a functional human-like neural network, or a web of neurons that can transmit information across the brain.



Even though psychiatric conditions rarely make a physical appearance, you could even use these brains to study diseases like schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or depression as these diseases affect how the neurons connect and send electrical impulses throughout the brain. 

The process 

Now the brain organoids were about the size of a pea and were grown using human stem cells over a 10 month time period. The next step of Muotri’s brain experiment is using the mini-brains for autism research as well as launching a company to make the organoids for commercial use, such as testing new drugs.

“This work really shows that organoid has complex patterns of neural activity for future studies. They allow us to study whether (the brain waves) are altered in different diseases. We normally did not have access to study,” said Muotri.

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