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Brain in a dish

False color image of a slice of human brain organoid from a patient with autism spectrum disorder. Image credit: Alysson Muotri, UC San Diego Health

In the last ten years researchers have managed to create replicas of human organs from stem cells. These organs are actually scaled down organs, they are called organoids to distinguish them from the real thing, having some of the characteristics, including structure, of the real organ. These similarities make the organoids very interesting since they provide a (3d) model of the real thing that can be used for studying both how that organ (with respect to a specific characteristics) works and to test the reaction of that organ to drugs.

So far organoids mimicking lungs, gut, liver and even neural cells have been developed. However, no brain organoid was available so far.

No longer so. Researches at the UC San Diego school of medicine have announced the development of a brain organoids mimicking human cortex.

They did something more. They have been able to find a more effective method to create organoids. The current process is cumbersome, requiring the re-programming of fibroblasts into induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSCs). In the case of brain organoids you need to re-program many of them (because you need many different kinds of cells) which makes the whole even more complex.

The new method support the simultaneous creation of hundreds of iPSCs.

The created brain organoids have been used to get the first experimental proof that the Zika virus can cause severe birth defects, to repurpose existing HIV drugs to fight a rare neurological disorder and to create a Neanderthalised mini-brain.

Organoids, brain organoids, are tools to increase our understanding and to create labs on a dish to experiment with them. They are not real replica of an organ. We cannot push the envelop of an organoid to build the real organ, a real brain and dream of transplanting it to fix a defective organ.

However, they can provide an experimental understanding of how we could (in a future) work on the real organ to fix it. It might take 100 more years (or we, as human kind might never get there) but these researches have the potential to augment our organs in the future, to get better brains. Whether this would be desirable or not is a completely different story.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.