Growing a Brain in a Dish

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Source.

That doughnut shape decorated with bright green spots, some connected by red pathways, amidst sky blue neighbors could be an artist’s creation, but is the result of a creative scientific attempt to grow an active brain in a dish, complete with memories. Really.

Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh published this stunning study in the journal Lab on a Chip {the full paper can be accessed here.} When I first learned how to grow cells in a lab, the technique of tissue culture, the idea of even growing brain cells was a far-fetched dream, much less brain cells capable of forming networks, complete with biological signals.

How did they do it?

To produce the models, the Pitt team stamped adhesive proteins onto silicon discs. Once the proteins were cultured and dried, cultured hippocampus cells from embryonic rats were fused to the proteins and then given time to grow and connect to form a natural network. The researchers disabled the cells’ inhibitory response and then excited the neurons with an electrical pulse.

Zeringue and his colleagues were able to sustain the resulting burst of network activity for up to what in neuronal time is 12 long seconds. Compared to the natural duration of .25 seconds at most, the model’s 12 seconds permitted an extensive observation of how the neurons transmitted and held the electrical charge, Zeringue said.

From the paper’s Abstract: {excerpted for clarity}

Persistent activity in the brain is involved in working memory and motor planning. The ability of the brain to hold information ‘online’ long after an initiating stimulus is a hallmark of brain areas such as the prefrontal cortex. Recurrent network loops such as the thalamocortical loop and reciprocal loops in the cortex are potential substrates that can support such activity. However, native brain circuitry makes it difficult to study mechanisms underlying such persistent activity. Here we propose a platform to study synaptic mechanisms of such persistent activity by constraining neuronal networks to a recurrent loop like geometry. Using a polymer stamping technique, adhesive proteins are transferred onto glass substrates in a precise ring shape. Primary rat hippocampal cultures were capable of forming ring-shaped networks containing 40-60 neurons. Calcium imaging of these networks show evoked persistent activity in an all-or-none manner. Blocking inhibition leads to an increase in the duration of persistent activity. These persistent phases were abolished by blockade of asynchronous neurotransmitter release by ethylene glycol tetraacetic acid.

This is amazing. I wonder what the “memory” could be – could be a good subject for a science fiction story.

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Comments

  1. #1 ophu
    May 25, 2011

    I’m very glad I’m not that brain.

  2. #2 supratall
    May 26, 2011

    OK, I’ll come clean: this reminds me of an embarrassingly recent conversation with my materials science-trained boyfriend.

  3. #3 Sourav Chakraborty
    May 26, 2011

    Will this fail the turing test?

  4. #4 Jeff
    May 26, 2011

    These selected (currently > 150!) comments, just in from slashdot.org: Enjoy.

    http://science.slashdot.org/story/11/05/26/1421256/Researchers-Grow-a-Brain-In-a-Dish

    • That *should* read, “Researchers Grow a Brain In a Dish, Gets Anamatronic Body, Orders Around Ninjas”
    • 1 hidden comment

    o
    • Zombies have alternative now (Score:2)
    by peter303 (12292)
    You never know what you’ll get in a run-of-the-mill brain. -Igor

    • Re: (Score:2)
    by aapold (753705)
    Coming this fall on HBO: TruBrains
    o
    • Re: (Score:2)
    by Tobenisstinky (853306)
    Their name was… “Abby Normal” – iGor
    o
    • Morality (Score:3)
    by i_ate_god (899684) on Thursday May 26, @11:43AM (#36251494)
    I look forward to reading the moral and philosophical debates that will erupt over the idea of creating a functional brain.
    Reply to This
    • 2 hidden comments
    • Re: (Score:2)
    by ohcrapitssteve (1185821)
    I agree, geez, I’m usually Captain Science and Progress before all things Religious, but I wonder if this “brain” was in any way “conscious” for that short period of time? Or am I misunderstanding what was achieved here?
    o
    o Re: (Score:2)
    by Dr. Eggman (932300)
    It’s hardly a brain and certainly not a complete one. It’s more like a (presumably basic) approximation of the neural networks cells in the brain form in order to preserve stimuli. It’s less a conscious memory being stored and more the raw sensory input.

    They’ve grown an organic pre-processing buffer.

    • Re: (Score:2)
    by roman_mir (125474)
    I look forward to reading the moral and philosophical debates that will erupt over the idea of creating a functional brain.
    – well, yes, all of those debates will be started by those, who are in possession of non-functional brains.
    o
    o Re: (Score:2)
    by smelch (1988698)
    Do tell us the moral and philosophical ramifications then if you have them figured out, you self-righteous ass. To assert that only an idiot would be concerned about morality and philosophy relating to how we treat man-made consciousness is beyond arrogant. There are philosophical quandries to making sufficiently advanced robots, at what point do things get human rights, what does this mean for animal rights and probing in to the essence of what consciousness is are all philosophical/moral debates, in addit

    • The “memory” is two words … (Score:1)
    by wbhauck (629723)
    The pain!!!

  5. #5 The Man
    May 26, 2011

    While this is an interesting advance in technique, it is merely hyperbole to claim that it is “growing a brain in a dish,” since brain tissue is not a brain. Similarly, while the existence of persistent activity is, by necessity, a component of what we call memory, the existence of persistent activity is not memory.

  6. #6 A Woman
    May 26, 2011

    I agree with The Man’s comment, above. These researchers refined plating cells in autaptic networks on a chip – the chip aspect is new, the networking is not. The experiments they chose show basic functionality that are (only part of) a minimum requirement to match current methods.

    Still, chips are cool and have promise for interesting applications. But the cell biology here is not novel. :)

    ps – I’m not sure that posting the entire slashdot comment gallery is a good choice. If I want to read it I will go to their site. Sorry Jeff.

  7. #7 Jeff
    May 26, 2011

    Good point. I cleaned it up with some representative examples.

    While I understand the reference to “hyperbole,” {“The Man”}, my intent was to emphasize the long term goals and implications of the researchers’ work: hence “the result of a creative scientific attempt to grow an active brain in a dish, complete with memories.”

  8. #8 Student
    May 26, 2011

    What line exists between Neural Networks and Brains?! What line exists between LTP/LTD and Memory? While it’s true that the the colloquial use of “memory” is rather vague and multifaceted, that doesn’t mean that less general application of the same mechanism aren’t memories.

    “The Man” and “A Woman” are right to be skeptical of the extra connotations of the word choice, but I would argue that technically the article is closer to the truth and not. Remember that there is nothing special about the way a brain naturally develops, other than the complex input/output patterns it gives rise to. Only growing a normal human brain and teaching it to speak could provoke real moral issues, but that does not mean that collections of brain-tissue do not constitute a brain.

  9. #9 Student
    May 26, 2011

    *Closer than the truth *than* not; apologies.

  10. #10 Frank MacGill
    May 26, 2011

    So, whatever it is, why not test it with more than one electrical input? Can it learn to distinguish differences in the set of input states?

  11. #11 Le Hobbit
    May 27, 2011

    This sounds right out of Roald Dahl’s William and Mary.

  12. #12 birkul
    May 27, 2011

    Thanks. I’m from Turkey. I will share my blogs.

  13. #13 Douglas Kennedy DC
    May 28, 2011

    Amazing!

  14. #14 dmabs
    May 29, 2011

    Sunday Sacrilege pz’s blaspheming head

    debunkingskeptics.com/forum/viewtopic.php?f=7&t=1756

  15. #15 Tenerife Property
    May 30, 2011

    Growing brains is something which could have significant benefits, keep up the good work I say!

  16. #16 Doc
    May 31, 2011

    Soooo … we trade 1’s and 0’s for ‘cheese’, ‘no cheese’ ?

  17. #17 Stuart Chester
    May 31, 2011

    An awesome move forward for medical research! This could be the begining of the future in intelligent research.

  18. #18 Oyekola Emmanuel
    May 31, 2011

    Love your laboratory works.Can you please link me up with your site,to update me with your discoveries

  19. #19 Nicole Smith
    June 1, 2011

    WOW! That is just so amazing. The donut looks yummy by the way (LOL) Kidding aside, if you have studied about it, I wonder if you could learn to know the memories of people. That would be tough but that can be a great challenge.

  20. #20 erceksiz
    June 1, 2011

    So, whatever it is, why not test it with more than one electrical input? Can it learn :!

  21. #21 Brian
    June 4, 2011

    Sounds more like they were seeing seizure-like activity than a reverberating memory trace.

  22. #22 Jeff
    June 4, 2011

    You may have a point!

  23. #23 Katrina Lees
    June 9, 2011

    These researchers refined plating cells in autaptic networks on a chip – the chip aspect is new, the networking is not. The experiments they chose show basic functionality that are (only part of) a minimum requirement to match current methods.

  24. #24 Douglas Kennedy
    December 28, 2011

    I wonder, will it have “mirror neurons”?
    If so, with the neighboring petri dish goo?

  25. #25 Free PDF viewer
    April 2, 2012

    I can’t believe what I’ve just read. I had no idea one could actually grow brain cells.
    I wonder will it be helpful in medicine in future, when, for example, one has a part of the brain cut out due to some injuries or some disease? Will it be able to get transplanted into a human scull?
    Anyway it’s really awesome humanity have already got this far!

  26. #26 TenerifeEstateAgents.net
    Tenerife
    August 28, 2012

    The line between science fiction and science fact continues to blur. How long before we can replace damaged parts of peoples brains? The conundrum being if one half of a person brain was replaced one year and the other half another year – is that person still “that person” ??!!

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