Brains in a Dish

01/04/2016
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    A neuroscientist holds a sample of cortical spheroids at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California. (AP)
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    A UC San Francisco researcher shows a microscopic picture of a brain organoid.
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    A colored microscope image of a brain organoid with neural stem cells in red (AP)
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    Samples of cortical spheroids are checked by a scientist in Palo Alto, California. (AP)
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Thousands of pale orbs float in hundreds of petri dishes. Each is smaller than a pea. What’s swimming in those saucers? Human brain tissue. The brain blobs are part of groundbreaking scientific research. But some people wonder whether the research breaks ethical bounds.

Growing brain tissue is part of a recent effort to produce “organoids,” or mini versions of body organs. Scientists have made numerous organoids, including livers, kidneys, and retinas.

Dr. Sergiu Pasca is a neuroscientist. He turns ordinary skin cells into blank slates by exposing them to chemicals. These blank slate cells can be made into any type of cell because God created almost all human cells to contain the same DNA.

Only recently scientists have been able to change skin cells into 3-D clumps of brain tissue, sometimes called “minibrains.”

Studying minibrains has limits. The cell connections and “brain activity” aren’t completely normal. But even so, these minibrains could mean big changes in human brain research. First, the organoids allow experiments on living tissue. Second, human tissue—instead of animal—makes the research more accurate.

Scientist Madeline Lancaster compares a homegrown brain to an airplane with one wing on top, a propeller at the back, the cockpit on the bottom, and a wheel hanging off the side. "It can't actually fly," she says, but scientists “can study each of the components individually and learn a lot."

Pasca uses the minibrains to study brain disorders such as autism and schizophrenia. He hopes someday to figure out why certain brains get these diseases.

What about the ethics of growing brains? Are the brains real? If they keep growing, could they begin to understand what’s happening?

The answers are complicated. So far the lab-grown clusters are just lumps of brain cells. They can’t think. They lack a body or a blood supply and cannot develop.

"I don't see any philosophical problem yet," says one researcher. But he adds, "I don't know what the future holds."

God alone creates life. He graciously allows humans to experiment with His creation—even gives them the intellect to do so. Some scientific discovery is for the betterment of our fellow creatures, allowing us to love our neighbors as ourselves. As for knowing the future? Only God does that.

“I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning.” — Isaiah 46:9-10