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Brazilian scientists produce mini-brains with eyes

Using a new process, a mini-brain develops retinal cells.

  • Mini-brains, or "neural organoids," are at the cutting edge of medical research.
  • This is the first one that's started developing eyes.
  • Stem cells are key to the growing of organoids of various body parts.

Organoids are tiny, self-organized tissue cultures. They're comprised of stem cells that can be programmed to replicate naturally occurring tissue. Using them, scientists can grow mini organs of various types for research purposes, and, not surprisingly, there's a lot of interest in mini-brains. Researchers from the D'Or Institute for Research and Education (IDOR) have announced the creation of one that includes retinal cells — primitive eyes.

Mini-brains

Neural, or cerebral, organoids begin with cells extracted from skin or urine cells of volunteers. These cells are converted into undifferentiated stem cells first, and then into neurons and other nervous system cells. Immersed in nutrient-rich fluid suspensions and carefully agitated, mini-brains emerge through a self-regulated process of agglomeration.

The resulting organoids "partly reproduce fetal brain development in vitro," says earlier research from IDOR's team, led by Stevens K. Rehen. Incomplete as organoids are, they nonetheless constitute "a demonstration that it is possible to repeat, in the laboratory, increasingly advanced gradients of human brain development," he says. They provide a platform for studying normal brain development and brain disorders, and can serve as models for understanding pathologies — as they did for identifying the manner in which the Zika virus affects fetal brain development — no computer model or animal testing can address.

Shaken, not spun

The IDOR team's announcement is just a detail in a paper whose primary purposes was presenting an alternative methodology for growing these complex 3D structures, using an orbital shaker — a device that gently stirs liquid suspensions to promote cell-cluster aggregation — instead of the more expensive SpinΩ bioreactor. IDOR asserts that their shaker produces a similar reduction in shear as the lowest spinning velocities for the SpinΩ, while still effectively promoting the growth of complex organoids.

The mini-brains grown with IDOR's process actually exhibited the presence of precursor cells for key architectures such as the forebrain, dorsal telencephalon, retinal cells and midbrain, and hindbrain in about 30 days. By 45 days, the organoids had "pigmented regions, which were previously described to reproduce the formation of retinal pigmented epithelium." These regions tested positive for glycogen synthetase, an enzyme linked to vision. These regions are the mini-brains' primitive eyes.

A: Image of an organoid with pigmented regions (bar = 1 mm). B: Box shows pigmented regions of organoid after 45 days (bar = 1 mm). C: Pigmented regions (bar = 500 μm)

(Rehen, et al)

Just the beginning

Neural organoids are, so far, very simple, with no sensory inputs or outputs. It would be highly surprising if there was anything like consciousness present at this point. Obviously, though, as more complex neural organoids are developed — and the possibility of bodiless sentient individuals arises — ethical questions will abound including, first of all, whether or not the creation of consciousness is a boundary we should ever cross, assuming we one day know where that boundary might be. And if we do proceed, what rights would a mini-brain possess?

Live tomorrow! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

Videos
  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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Improving Olympic performance with asthma drugs?

A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.

Image source: sumroeng chinnapan/Shutterstock
Culture & Religion
  • One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
  • A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
  • The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.

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