A research team, led by the neuroscientist Alysson Muotri from the University of California, San Diego, claims to have observed spontaneous human-like brain waves in mini-brains grown in the laboratory.
The team says the patterns of electrical activity observed in these lab-grown mini-brains resembled the patterns commonly seen in premature infants. The new findings, according to experts, can help improve the current understanding of brain development disorders, such as epilepsy or autism in infants, which are difficult to study in a fetus in utero.
In the study, scientists developed multiple mini-brains (called organoids) in petri dishes in the lab over a course of 10 months. To grow these brains, scientists used stem cells, which eventually formed cortical tissues. These tissues are found in the brain and play an important role in cognition and analysis of sensory data.
While these cortical organoids were growing in the lab, scientists continuously recorded the electroencephalogram (EEG) activity across their surface. After they had grown for about six months, the team noticed a higher rate of electrical activity compared to what was earlier reported in lab-grown organoids.
The new observation was a big surprise for the team. The EEG activity patterns were also unexpected as they didn't resemble the synchronised activity seen in fully developed human brains. Instead, they were irregular, as found in premature babies, born 25-39 weeks after conception.
Muotri reveals that the lab-grown cortical organoids don't contain all the cell types present in the cortex. They now want to grow organoids for a longer period of time to see if they can mature in the course of time. The team also plans to connect these structures to other organoids (which simulate other parts of the brain or body) and see if they are able to function like a normal cortex.
While the team is excited with their findings, some experts are also concerned about the ethical question surrounding the research, for example, whether these organoids can develop consciousness.
"The closer they get to the preterm infant, the more they should worry," said Christof Koch, a neuroscientist and president of the Allen Institute for Brain Science in Seattle, Washington.
However, Muotri asserts that any evidence suggesting development of self-awareness in organoids would most likely result in halting of the project.
"It's a very grey zone in this stage, and I don't think anyone has a clear view of the potential of this," Muotri said.
The findings of the study were presented at the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego earlier this month.
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