Primal Numbers – The Brain That Wouldn’t Die

When You’re a little kid, It’s probably not the best idea to watch a horror movie called The Brain That Wouldn’t Die. But back in the ?60s That’s exactly what I did?and it scared the heck out of me. The film looks more than a little dated now, but the schlocky sci-fi premise was clearly ahead of its time: today’s scientists have successfully grown the first miniature human brains in a lab.

As the CBC reports, researchers in Austria took human stem cells, created cultures in the lab, and grew ?so-called ‘cerebral organoids’?or mini brains?that consisted of several distinct brain regions.?

That’s a truly amazing accomplishment when you consider that the human brain is one of the most complex and efficient organs on the planet. Sure, computers can do plenty of routine functions faster than the average human brain can, but Discovery’s Curiosity site notes that computers “can’t easily adapt to changing situations,” and “they are not able to function in multiple disciplines.” Indeed, it would take the computer power of one laptop to replicate the computing power of just one of the brain’s billions of neurons. Pretty impressive for a structure that hasn’t changed much over the past 10,000 years.

To be clear, we’re not talking about growing a complete, full-sized human brain. Science isn’t there quite yet. What researchers have done, though, is grow cerebral organoids that ?organised themselves into primitive structures that could be recognised as developing brain regions such as retina, choroid plexus and cerebral cortex,? complete with firing neurons.

The mini brains themselves might not look like much to the casual observer. The largest one only reached a size of four millimetres. But don’t let their looks fool you. These tiny organs represent an enormous step forward in understanding how our full-size grey matter works, and in understanding and possibly preventing common brain disorders like autism and depression.

But as with every new discovery, there are ethical issues to think about. For instance, if doctors can one day scan an embryo’s developing human brain, should they intervene if the signs of a potential brain disorder are spotted? And how definite should the signs be before parents should have the option of microsurgery to tinker with their unborn baby’s mind? For instance, if science can show us that our fetus has a 50% chance of developing major depression during his life, do we have the right to alter certain brain functions before that child’s independent personality has even had a chance to bloom?

For most of us, the natural instinct is probably to recoil from the thought. we’re not used to the idea of changing a person’s behaviour by physically altering their brains?especially if that person is a child or infant.

Yet It’s widely accepted that we can change behaviour by using chemicals to alter our brains. From antidepressants to Ritalin, we medicate millions of adults and children alike. That’s not a commentary on whether It’s right or wrong. Indeed, such medications make a measurable, positive difference in countless people’s lives.

The truth is, there might come a day when science can give us a choice to alter (or perhaps even replace) parts of our brains that cause many common disorders. Given that choice, how many of us would opt for surgery over a lifetime of prescriptions? It’s all speculation right now, but those are questions that we may need to ponder in the future, whether we’re starting a family or caring for someone with Alzheimer’s disease.

In the meantime, I think I’ll entertain my own grey matter with a little channel surfing. But you can bet it won’t be a rerun of The Brain That Wouldn’t Die.

S.D. Livingston is the author and creator of the Madeline M. Mystery Series for kids, as well as several books for older readers. Visit her website for information on her writing.