There was a line in the Bonzo Dog Doh Dah Band’s cover of the song “The Monster Mash” in which the question is asked of Igor.. “Have you watered the brains?” While a mock schlock rock song about werewolves, vampires and mummies having a great party rave up together may not seem predictive, the reference to nurturing brains now might seem prescient. That’s because “mini-brains” have been grown in a laboratory, and they may hold the key to diseases such as schizophrenia and autism.The 4mm-wide biological structures have made using human stem cells. Can they be used instead of computer CPU’s? Can they be used as add-on memory to our own brains? Could they be grown so large that they could be used a substitute superior brains? Are they alive and can they think?Sorry, that’s still science fiction. The mini brains are incapable of thought and no use for transplants. So what on earth use are they? Because they share the design of functioning brains, they may be useful for research into the brain and its workings and in the testing of drugs.Rather bizarrely, we have been asked to think..
“about the brain as a car, [and] what we have created is a car which has its engine on the roof and the gear box in the trunk. You can study the car parts but you can’t drive it.”
These are the wprds of Professor Juergen Knoblich of the Institute of Molecular Biotechnology in Vienna and head of a British and Austrian team. The research was published in journal Nature recently.
In one experiment, the researchers grew a mini-brain using cells taken from a patient with microcephaly. That disease (meaning “small head”) is when the size of the skull limits the size of the brain and therefore results in impaired brain function and limited longevity. They found that the brain grown from microcephaly-affected stem cells resulted in a stunted mini brain – mimicking the effects of the disease.
Neuroscientist Professor Paul Matthews, from Imperial College London, said the study offered the promise of a ‘major new tool’ for understanding major developmental disorders.
But not everyone is bubbling with enthusiasm for this breakthrough: Dr Dean Burnett, lecturer in psychiatry at the University of Cardiff, said;
“Saying you can replicate the workings of the brain with tissue in a dish is like inventing the abacus and saying you can use it to run the latest version of Microsoft Windows.”
So the bottom line is that while this is progress, we’ll be assembling no Franklenstein monsters, or finding a cure for brain diseases just yet.