Imagine neuroscientist Jay Gopalakrishnan’s surprise when his team of researchers at University Hospital Düsseldorf in Germany noticed a spontaneous, shocking change to a laboratory batch of mini-brains grown from adult stem cells.
Turns out, these little brain “organoids” are, in every sense, a mind of their own.
They’ve even developed working eye structures.
The creepy, unnerving yet peculiarly fascinating development shattered any layman’s expectations as to what stem cell tissue can do, and it invites us to consider: If these brain organoids can develop rudimentary eyes, what else can they do?
But there’s much more to ask going forward.
Is it ever wise to play God?
How far are scientists going to push this project?
Will these organoids maintain their lack of consciousness?
Can we handle the consequences that might arise from playing such a potentially dangerous game?
I ask these questions to invite the imaginative, hypothetical nature of science into the conversation. It’s also my way of playing devil’s advocate.
“Our work highlights the remarkable ability of brain organoids to generate primitive sensory structures that are light sensitive and harbour cell types similar to those found in the body,” Gopalakrishnan said, according to the UK’s Daily Star.
“These organoids can help to study brain-eye interactions during embryo development, model congenital retinal disorders, and generate patient-specific retinal cell types for personalised drug testing and transplantation therapies.”
Science Alert says the development could help researchers better understand “the process of eye differentiation and development, as well as eye diseases,” just as Gopalakrishnan enthused.
The outlet also specifies that brain organoids differ from brains as we think of them.
“(Brain organoids) are small, three-dimensional structures grown from induced pluripotent stem cells – cells harvested from adult humans and reverse engineered into stem cells, that have the potential to grow into many different types of tissue,” they wrote.
“In this case, these stem cells are coaxed to grow into blobs of brain tissue, without anything resembling thoughts, emotions, or consciousness.”
These “mini-brains” are used in place of actual brains in circumstances that actual brain usage might be considered “unethical.”
In this case, Gopalakrishnan and his team of fellow scientists intended to capture the potential for eye development among these creatures.
The team particularly sought to observe how the ocular developments grow — and communicate — with their corresponding brains.
It’s far from anything most of us would’ve thought possible.
It’s like living in a world shaped by science fiction. What happens when the line between science and science fiction becomes nonexistent instead of blurred?
It might be a good idea to keep that question in mind going forward. After all, we might be playing with something that’s eventually beyond our control.
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