We will be able this year to grow human brains in a laboratory

Amanda Sierra is an Ikerbasque researcher professor at the Department of Neurosciences of UPV/EHU, and the Achucarro Basque Center for Neuroscience.

We will be able this year to grow human brains in a laboratory

Amanda Sierra is an Ikerbasque researcher professor at the Department of Neurosciences of UPV/EHU, and the Achucarro Basque Center for Neuroscience.

My excitement is real: This year, I believe we will be able grow human brains in our laboratory. Although the techniques are relatively new, they are difficult to use and are expensive. As Joe Cocker sang, it was possible to set up these experiments with a few friends. With a little help from friends, I hope we can get these experiments running. I believe they will shape the future neuroscience in the next ten years.

They are not brains in culture dishes. They could be called cerebroids instead, as they are composed of interconnected neurons and form folds similar to our cerebral cortex. They have certain brain-like properties. They can also be obtained from patients suffering from diseases like Parkinson's or Alzheimer's. The process is marvellous in molecular biology. Cells are taken from the skin of patients and all instructions are erased until they are able to obtain a stem cell. This is almost like a blank page. The next step is to write new instructions, this time to make brain cells. These cells then start to produce cerebroids on their own. It is fascinating to me.

Some people are not as enthusiastic as me, but they also have their reasons. These cerebroids are limited in that they do not have blood vessels, an immune system that circulates through them, or the resident immune system that is crucial for the development of neurodegenerative disorders. It also lacks intestinal flora which, as we know, regulates many brain functions. We know today that the brain and the spinal cord communicate with each other in two-way communication. This is something that we can't replicate in these cerebroids. They still have the potential to improve our understanding of the human brain, despite these limitations.

Last thought: How did we get here? I will tell you straight. With decades of basic research, primarily on fruit flies and mice. Our politicians, funding agencies and foundations have a dangerous tendency to finance projects that are immediately applicable. It was basic science that made it possible for us to find stem cells, cell reprogramming mechanisms, and signaling pathways that control the production of neurons. We wouldn't have access to the cerebroids without this knowledge, although it was not immediately practical. While applied science can provide answers, basic science is able to help us discover new questions.

Scientific progress is, as you can see, like a marmitako that cooks slowly.

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